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many exceptions, the average earnings of the laboring classes have not kept pace with this increase. If between sixty and seventy per cent of “working-class” families were living in 1906 on less than a fair "living wage,” it is probable that more than seventy per cent were so situated in 1920.
Many figures could be cited in support of this conclusion, drawn from such reliable sources as the documents compiled by the Treasury Department from income tax returns, and Poor and Moody's Manual. In his testimony before the United States Railroad Labor Board, since summarized in a pamphlet entitled Relation between Wages and the Increased Cost of Living (1920), Mr. W. Jett Lauck gave clear proof of his conclusion that, in general, "wage increases have lagged behind price increases; and usually they are far behind.” Behind not only in amount, but in time; that is, increases in prices were followed, not preceded, by increases in wages. The situation is well known to workers among the poor. For example, the Charity Organization Society of New York, in 1919, had a Committee on Home Economics, which reported that, “in spite of the common belief that wages generally had advanced, only two-fifths of the families interviewed reported an increase in the family income. In most cases the wage increases were slight in amount and far less than the proportionate increase in living costs."
It is probable, however, that we are now to see a long period of falling prices. If wages are not too generally and drastically cut, the workers may presently be better off than they were before prices and wages went up. Certain classes of workers, now relatively overpaid, should receive less than they now receive. The whole matter of remuneration for labor
is in chaos. He takes who can get; while those who are not in a position to demand much, are fain to be content with little. Evening-up to some extent there should be. But we must not be content with a return to the status quo ante. We must be satisfied with nothing short of the abolition of undeserved poverty —the securing to every willing worker an adequate livelihood.
We are very far from securing that now. To realize that this is so, one has only to go and see how “the other half lives.” The housing conditions of a large section of the city and town population in the United States are a national disgrace that can hardly be exaggerated. Lack of air and sunshine, lack of sanitary arrangements, above all, lack of room, are the conditions under which millions of children are growing up in this country today. Out of thirty-eight compositions written by New York school-children from the East Side, describing their homes, seen by the writer some years ago, twenty-one spoke of the bad smell. If the others did not mention it, it was
. merely because of their habituation thereto. There are many thousands of occupied rooms in tenements throughout the cities of this country with no windows at all, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of rooms with windows opening only on to narrow air shafts where no adequate ventilation is possible. In one of the compositions above referred to, a little girl said of her room, “It is so dark it seems as if there was no sky.”
It may be doubted if there is any more significant aspect of a nation's life than the conditions under which its children are growing up. The overcrowded, noisy, dark, unsanitary homes which at present are the lot of a large percentage of them today are a men. ace to the nation's future, both from the point of view of health and of morals. Much can be done by enlightened housing legislation. But unless the incomes of the poorer people are considerably increased, conditions are bound to remain very bad. What with the wretched home-conditions and the undernourishment referred to in an earlier chapter, the physique and the morale of a large section of our people are in a fair way to be seriously impaired.
It is not that the country is poor. On the contrary, the national wealth is increasing by leaps and bounds. But it is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the wealthy classes. During the past decade there has been a far greater percentage of increase in the larger incomes than in the smaller. One obvious reason for this lies in the fact that whereas practically the whole income of the poor is spent upon the necessities of life, which doubled in cost within a few years, the greater part of the income of the rich has been invested in securities, which have been purchasable at far lower prices than usual, and has been accumulating at a very high rate of interest. If the tendencies of the past decade continue unchecked, most of the surplus wealth of the country will be in the hands of a small class of rich people, within a generation.
If this surplus wealth were to accrue to the "capitalist” class only after the poorer classes had all received a living wage, and were to be used by them for reinvestment in industry, we might be content. Even then, the great power concentrated in so few hands would have dangerous potentialities; and it is a question whether the control of industry by a comparatively small set of people, implied by such a situation, is consonant with our American ideal of Democracy. But the actual situation is much more obviously wrong. For on the one hand we have hundreds of thousands of families with less than enough to live on in comfort, and on the other hand a class of rich people who spend extravagantly for the satisfaction of luxurious personal wants.
The indulgence in luxury, and extravagant spending, are comparatively new traits in American life. But they have been growing rapidly, so that recent estimates assert that a quarter of the national income goes today for luxuries. The rich set the pace, and a great many who are not rich catch the infection and spend more than they can afford. The result is that instead of being, as we once were, a thrifty folk, we have become the most spendthrift nation on earth.
Most of this expenditure is innocent in itself, much of it is intrinsically desirable. Man does not live by bread alone; and the billions of dollars spent every year by Americans on automobiles, pretty clothes, jewelry, candy, soft drinks, tobacco, theatres and movies, and the other enjoyments classified as “luxuries,” are by no means wholly wasted. But the production of these luxuries limits correspondingly the production of necessities; and it is a question how far any one has moral right to indulgence while others are suffering. Every dollar spent on personal enjoyment of any sort means so much labor withdrawn from the production of other goods. Ought we, as patriotic Americans, to look tolerantly upon extravagant expenditures of any sort, while our poor are wretchedly housed and underfed? Should we not consider seriously the motto adopted by the British Labor Party at a recent election, “No cake for any till all have bread?
It is not enough to say, as we said at the beginning
of this chapter, that the poor in our country today are, on the whole, better off than the poor have ever been before. It has always been a bad world for the poor, and it is still a pretty bad world for them. Their status, though it has improved in some respects, has not improved in proportion to the increasing prosperity of the country. In the Old World the "common people” were not considered of importance, anyway; they swarmed and were swept away by famine and pestilence, with little pity from the ruling class. But the American ideal was that every human being has intrinsic worth, and a right to his share of the good things of life. So deeply rooted has this ideal become in our soil that we can never hope henceforth to have a stable social order until it again approaches some approximate realization. If class conflicts are ever to cease, if the “unrest” that we hear so much of today is ever to be cured, it can only be by the setting in of a vigorous tide in the direction of a greater equalization of the benefits of our national prosperity. Many observers would put the case even more decidedly; Professor Edward Ross, for example, in Changing America, warns us that “unless democracy mends the distribution of wealth, the mal-distribution of wealth will end democracy."
It is not, perhaps, in terms of regard for an abstract ideal, or in terms of a concrete pity for the sufferings of their less fortunate fellow-countryman, that we can most surely arouse the attention of Americans today. It is in terms of national efficiency and preparedness. We are wasting our man-power, lessening our productive efficiency, by permitting poverty, inadequate housing, underfeeding, anxiety over subsistence, the destruction of health, premature death. A division of the national wealth which allows a small