Wages Throughout the Ages

It seems like a long time ago when a single breadwinner could support a household comfortably. The “Nuclear Family”, a familial structure with two parents and a number of children, was the definition of an ideal family through the 1950s to 1970s. It was the public perception that a single salary was enough to support a decently sized family in middle classed comfort. Television shows during these times such as “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver”, and “The Brady Bunch” all depicted nuclear families with usually a single earner supporting them.

“Father Knows Best.” 1955.

Nowadays, it seems impossible to raise a family on a single income, let alone two. But why is that? What changed in the seventy years between the age of “Father Knows Best” and today, where the idea of a single salary nuclear family no longer makes sense?

One way to find an explanation is to look at the difference in the pay between then and now.

According to data from The Economic Policy Institute State of Working America Data Library, the earliest median income data is recorded for the year 1973, in the amount of $18.31, adjusted to 2020 dollars. In 2021, median income was $21.35 from the same source. While median income has risen, it is not meteroic in any sense.

A more telling comparison would be the changes in the poverty wage and the minimum wage.

The poverty wage is the amount that a single worker would need to earn in order to sustain a family of four at the poverty level. In 1973, the poverty wage was $2.41, compared to 2021’s $12.59. Already, these numbers tell a bigger story. In 1973, the median income is miles above the poverty wage, about six to seven times larger. In 2021, the median income is less than twice as large as the poverty wage. The shrinking of the gap between the poverty wage and the median income shows that many Americans live at or below the poverty line.

The story only gets worse when minimum wage comes into account.

The federal minimum wage is the lowest amount set by the U.S. government that a worker can be legally paid. According to the United States Department of Labor, the minimum wage was $1.60 in 1973. In 2009, it was $7.25.

The Federal Minimum Wage has not been changed since 2009.

For more than a decade, while the cost of living has gone up, the federal government has not raised the minimum amount workers are paid.


History of federal minimum wage rates under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 1938–2009. United States Department of Labor. (n.d.). https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/minimum-wage/history/chart

Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America Data Library, “[Poverty-level wages],” 2021.

Economic Policy Institute, State of Working America Data Library, “[Median/average hourly wages],” 2021.



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