Death from tuberculosis, the disease that took Joanne's mother, was already in decline by the '20s. Death from TB and other acute diseases fell more than 98 percent in the first 80 years of the last century as public health improved, vaccines were developed, and antibiotics were introduced. Joanne was part of the last generation of Americans whose lives would be threatened by acute diseases. More people died of tuberculosis in 1920 than died of cancer. Typhoid fever, Malaria, Measles, Scarlet fever, Whopping Cough, and Diptheria loomed large. Alexander Flemming didn't discover Penicillin, the first anti-biotic, until 1928.
Joanne didn't know it, but she was part of the first generation of Americans who could influence their health destiny as much by personal decisions as by the conditions of daily life.
For a white woman born in 1920 life expectancy was only 58.5 years, about 2 years greater than the life expectancy for white males and nearly 12 years greater than the life expectancy of women of all other races. While a significant gap still exists, it has been much reduced. Indeed, the expansion of life expectancy in the last century may be the single largest difference between the generations. Consider these figures. By 1940 Bobby was born with a life expectancy of 62.8 years, an improvement of 6.5 years since 1920. Steve, born in 1963, came into the world with an expectancy of 67.5 years. And Shelby, born in 1997, was born with an expectancy of 79.9 years.
The increase in life expectancy created the possibility of retirement, the world of Sun Cities, whole areas catering to retirees and the dark horizon of nursing homes as those who once died young now outlive their minds, their bodies, or both.
Joanne's America was young and under populated. According to historian David Kyvig, 51 percent of the population of 106 million was 24 or younger, the median age was 25, and only 4.5 percent of the population was 65 or older. By 2000 the Census showed the median age had risen to 35 and 12.4 percent of the population was over 65.
People also had different living arrangements in 1920. Then, sixty percent of the population at least 15 years old lived as married households. Only one percent said they were divorced. Questions about cohabitation simply weren't asked. A recent Census bureau report now shows that living alone is the most common living arrangement in America, accounting for 25.6 percent of all households. Some see this positively, saying that modern affluence opens more choices. Others, like Robert Putnam and his book "Bowling Alone," see a breakdown in community and increasing isolation.
The Census of 1920 identified 89.7 percent of the population as white, only 9.9 percent as black, and a trace element of 0.17 percent as Asian. (Hispanics were included in the white population.) In spite of waves of immigration, more than 83 percent of the population had been born and raised in the United States. Restrictions on immigration put in place in the '20s made that a high water mark. By 2000, whatever the worry about our borders, particularly our border with Mexico, 88.9 percent of our population was born and raised in the United States.
In spite of the borrowing undertaken to finance World War I and the employment upheaval that followed the end of the war, total government debt in 1920 was a mere $26 billion. Over $22 billion of that debt had been added in 1918 and 1919 to fund the war. By 1920 the government was running a surplus of $291 million, a surplus that continued and grew until the Great Depression hit in earnest in 1931.
Joanne was also born into a world of relatively simple pay-as-you-go government. Social Security and Medicare did not yet exist so no one had to consider future liabilities. Without Social Security there was no employment tax. The income tax itself, passed in 1913, affected only a small number of Americans and provided only about one fifth of federal revenue.
You can understand how few paid the tax and how little those who paid it were affected by considering a few figures. Tax rates ranged from 1 percent of the first $20,000 of taxable income to 7 percent of taxable income over $500,000. To have $20,000 of 1920 purchasing power today you would need a taxable income of $189,000. Skilled male workers in manufacturing industries earned an average of $29 a week, unskilled males earned $22 a week, and female production workers earned $15 a week. (Yes, you read those figures right, $29, $22, and $15 a week.) With Henry Ford having brought the cost of the original Model T down to $300 by 1920, someone with $20,000 of taxable income could have bought about 66 cars.
Some might say that the year Joanne was born also saw the birth of modern consumer credit. In 1919 General Motors and DuPont created General Motors Acceptance Corporation for financing automobile purchases. By 1920 DuPont had purchased 28 percent of GM stock and forced out the man who created it, William Durant. From then on, consumer financing ballooned. By 1926 three fourths of all GM auto purchases were done on credit. Instead of being a big, unmanageable purchase that few could afford, owning a car became a matter of monthly payments. The same monthly payment opened up the world of trade-ins and annual model changes, creating a world of fashion rather than the single lifetime purchase of a durable vehicle that Henry Ford had envisioned.
With 9 million cars on a rapidly expanding network of roads by 1920, cars were still a rarity. And so were many other things we take for granted. Today when we measure the scope of a natural disaster one of the first numbers used is the number of homes without electricity. In 1920, although electricity had been around for 40 years, only 65 percent of all homes still lacked electricity. That means two-thirds of the population used candles or kerosene for light, ice boxes for food, and could not have used (even had they been invented) most of the appliances we take for granted today. Sixty-five percent of households did not have telephone service.
It was a different world---except for one possible parallel.
The Volstead Act ushered in 13 years of prohibition. It also created a new criminal industry, the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages--- and unexpected opportunity. "Young, ambitious men," historian Kyvig writes, "who because of their immigrant background found it difficult to obtain jobs or advancement in legal occupations, saw opportunity, profit, and no disgrace in bootlegging."
Only ten years later one-third of all federal prison inmates would be prohibition violators.
In the year 2000, according to Human Rights Watch, 22 percent of those in federal or state prisons were imprisoned for drug convictions. Federal, state, and local spending on the "War on Drugs" is now estimated to exceed $50 billion a year, with most of it spent on prisons rather than rehabilitation or treatment. In spite of that, drugs are available on playgrounds throughout America and your average pizza delivery driver has a better idea of where the crack and crystal-meth houses are than the DEA.
Some things don't change.
On the web:
Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2000-2004
Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1999 Century figures
Manufacturing Wages in the Twenties
U.S. Life Expectancy History
U.S. Government Debt
Infoplease U.S. History Timeline, 1900-1949
Infoplease U.S. History Timeline, 1950-1999
Infoplease U.S. History Timeline, 2000-
Animated Atlas U.S. Timeline
History Channel Timeline
Smithsonian Institute American History Timeline
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