'The Great Gatsby': Are Workers Better Off Today Than They Were In The 1920s?

It's probably no coincidence that Hollywood has decided to turn F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 classic, The Great Gatsby, into a new movie (released Friday). The book famously depicts the lavish living and fancy galas of high-income earners in America's Roaring 1920s. Fast forward 90 years to another era of income inequality. But while comparing historical eras is automatically complex, it's tempting to ask: Is the gap between the top 1 percent and the rest of us as egregious in 2013 as it was during Gatsby's era? Is The American Dream -- the notion that with hard work, anyone can make it to the top -- as fragile today as it was back then?

The Richest Got Way Richer
The answer is pretty obviously yes, if you look at The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' chart (below). Since the 1970s, the income brought home by the wealthiest Americans has mostly risen; in the past few years, in the past few years, around 20 percent of the total money earned in the nation went to the top 1 percent of earners, much like it did in the 1920s. Back in the 1970s, that figure was closer to 10 percent.

The similarity "speaks for itself," says Chad Stone, the chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington D.C.-based think tank. "We've been in a world since the 1990s in which the data points, except for a few moments, point in one direction -- high concentration at the top." (The chart below was provided by the CBPP.)

And of course, the comparisons don't end there, as Stone points out. "Both eras were fueled by wild financial markets and fraud." And both eras had their financial crashes (1929 and 2008).

More: Are The Wealthy Abusing Government Aid?


But The Average Wage Rose A Little
By a few measures, however, the workers today have it slightly better. According to the Commerce Department's "Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times Through 1957," the average salary of a worker in the manufacturing sector in 1922, the year the Gatsby story took place, was .46 cents an hour. (Before World War II, the Bureau of Labor Statistics did not track wage data for all workers. So for that era, the BLS measures salaries through the manufacturing sector, which then dominated the economy.)

The modern-day equivalent of that hourly wage is $6.75, according to calculations by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet today's federal minimum wage stands at $7.25.

Also, the standard of living is far better today, according to Katherine Abraham, an economist at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland. "The average worker today is better off," she says. "If you look at the variety of foods that people are eating today, we know people are buying more. People live in houses that are a lot bigger today."

Still, for the America's wealthiest, life is unquestionably as awesome as it was when Gatsby strolled through his famous Long Island mansion.



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