The cost of basic subsistence goods – food and shelter – has a profound effect on the choices people are able to make in their lives: where and how much they are required to work, how much leisure time they are able to enjoy, whether to live alone or with others, whether or not to consider raising children. As I suggested in a previous post, the arts are particularly vulnerable in this sense. The work artists of all kinds are able to do will be profoundly shaped – for better or for worse – by the cost of keeping a roof over one’s head and groceries in the cupboard.
When considering that basic fact, it is important to remember that the cost of subsistence is not unchanging, nor does it move in lockstep with wages. The 1968 movie Bullitt (starring Steve McQueen and featuring outstanding cinematography by William Fraker) was shot in San Francisco. In a scene filmed near the Embarcadero, we can see in the background a motel advertising its room rate as $1.75 per night. That sounds cheap – and it is. Adjusting for inflation, that cheap motel room would cost $11.81 per night in 2014 dollars. By contrast, a room in a San Francisco Motel 6 (not exactly posh digs) is currently running $89.99 per night.
In most parts of the United States – particularly in urban areas – the cost of housing has skyrocketed. In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.15 per hour. Even at minimum wage, in other words, an eight hour workday would be more than sufficient to pay for a room and food. Today’s $7.25 minimum wage is close to the 1968 wage adjusted for inflation (it would be $7.76), but wouldn’t even cover a night at the Motel 6.