Imagine if your kids had to spend six months out of the year barefoot because you couldn’t afford for them to wear their shoes year-round. Now, I love being barefoot, and I longed to spend more time that way as a child. But it’s a little different when it’s an option. I walked a mile barefoot on a cold fall day — once. It’s fine for the first few minutes, and then it hurts like hell. Sure, your feet toughen up. But when it’s cold and wet, your feet crack and bleed. As they do if the icy rain soaks through your shoes, and your feet have to stay that way all day because you don’t own anything else to change into. I’m not talking about making sure your kids have a decent pair of shoes to wear to school; I’m talking about not being able to afford to put anything at all on their feet.
Or take the matter of food. There is nothing so romanticized as old-fashioned cookery, lovingly hand-prepared with fresh, 100 percent organic ingredients. If you were a reader of the Little House books, or any number of other series about 19th-century children, then you probably remember the descriptions of luscious meals. When you reread these books, you realize that they were so lovingly described because they were so vanishingly rare. Most of the time, people were eating the same spare food three meals a day: beans, bread or some sort of grain porridge, and a little bit of meat for flavor, heavily preserved in salt. This doesn’t sound romantic and old-fashioned; it sounds tedious and unappetizing. But it was all they could afford, and much of the time, there wasn’t quite enough of that.
These were not the nation’s dispossessed; they were the folks who had capital for seed and farm equipment. There were lots of people in America much poorer than the Ingalls were. Your average middle-class person was, by the standards of today, dead broke and living in abject misery. And don’t tell me that things used to be cheaper back then, because I’m not talking about their cash income or how much money they had stuffed under the mattress. I’m talking about how much they could consume. And the answer is “a lot less of everything”: food, clothes, entertainment. That’s even before we talk about the things that hadn’t yet been invented, such as antibiotics and central heating.