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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Time Unhad but Not Unspent 

Who has time for a wife and kids when there’s no money for them?

Daily Life In Tel Aviv
(Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The feast of St. Valentine has come and gone again. Another year, and time still marches on. The minor holiday has been made as commercial and gaudy as any other, but it still holds some vestiges of its origins and wears the vestments of a sacred thing that we call love. My own observance largely passed over the ancient martyrdom, I admit, proceeding to the trappings of traditional romance—a dinner date, Valentine's card and all. Traditional, but not exactly common anymore. Some two thirds of my cohort of American men are single, according to a recent Pew survey. Even factoring in women's propensity for dating older men, that means a lot of ladies stayed home last night, too. The sexes rise and fall together, no matter how much either one might hate that.

That is one big reason for all this singleness—a culture of resentment, and sterility, and androgyny—but of course material conditions underlie all this, too. Marriage, even if vastly reduced by years of legal and cultural undermining, remains the genius social technology by which the fortunes of men and women are bound together, harnessed and directed for the good of future generations. The family remains, as Aristotle said in his Politics, “the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” And though the polis is prior to any particular family, and participation in a truly political life gives the family and individuals an earthly end, the family is the building block of civil society. But what happens when the goods of marriage and family life are too expensive to expect? People don’t get married, and we have fewer, weaker, informal families, and civil society comes apart.

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The good people over at American Compass have come out with their annual Cost of Thriving Index (COTI), their own Valentine’s Day bouquet for their American sweetheart. It makes for grim if informative reading, demonstrating that despite whatever the GDP in primis crowd would have you believe about cheap TVs and cell phones, the middle class American dream, sadly, is dead. As Compass summarizes, “The Index measures the number of weeks a typical worker would need to work in a given year to earn enough income to cover the major costs for a family of four in the American middle class in that year: Food, Housing, Health Care, Transportation, and Higher Education.” In the era of Family Ties, specifically 1985, when costs totaled $17,586, that meant a father (older than 25) making the median weekly wage of $443 only needed to work 39.7 weeks, leaving plenty of time for savings and family vacations, of the National Lampoon variety or otherwise.

Not so today. In 2022, a father earning the median income of $63,388 would need to find 62.1 weeks in the year to give his family a normative middle class American life. The mathematical impossibility would be funny if it didn’t represent so much misery for the average person. No bonus, no pool, no house for Clark Griswold—why should Ellen marry him in the first place? Compass arrives at that calculation from a cost estimate of $75,732. To get that, COTI used averages from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Official Food Plans” ($13,667), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “Fair Market Rent” ($18,204), the Kaiser Family Foundation’s average premium for a family health insurance plan through a large employer ($22,463), the U.S. Department of Transportation’s estimated total ownership cost of a vehicle driven 15,000 miles per year ($10,729), and the estimated annual savings required to eventually put two kids through in-state college based on U.S. Department of Education figures ($10,669). We should note that if, as Compass has, you break this down further, for men with only a high school degree the COTI rose from 43.2 in 1985 to 80.1 in 2022.

These are national numbers. The 2023 COTI report includes regional breakdowns based on 2021 numbers, too. As I live in Virginia at the moment, and it is a large state of socioeconomic and partisan variety, and it is famously “for lovers,” let’s look at her COTI figures. (An interesting, semi-surprising juxtaposition Compass highlights: at 73, California has the second highest COTI, but the highest COTI is West Virginia’s 79. Lowest COTI are in Alaska and Wisconsin.) In Virginia, it takes the median working father 65.9 weeks to provide a middle class life to his family. That is based on a total expense of $76,383 compared to a median weekly income of $1,159. Virginia has above-average housing costs, especially here up north. Healthcare costs are almost perfectly average, which makes sense, with many large employers and large hospital and university systems. But those universities aren’t cheap, and Compass estimates that saving for college even with in-state tuition here looks like $12,880 a year. Add in private high schools or very expensive public school districts up here in NoVA and it’s little wonder so many in the Beltway turn to banditry.

The greatest insight of the Cost of Thriving Index is not that political economists should be counting relative costs of basic necessities like food and shelter rather than fixating on declining prices of technological luxuries. Or even that what it means to be middle class changes from year to year, and while fruit can be compared it is better to compare oranges to oranges. Rather, it is that time is the constant and currency we all share, more fungible than money. By deriving a time quotient from monetary quantities, Oren Cass and his team make literal value judgments into something immediate to anyone. A year’s expenses take a median breadwinner more than a year to work for. He is not going to earn that bread, and so he is not going to have a wife and kids to feed with it. There just isn’t time, under current economic conditions (which, of course, were shaped by culture, too). As it is the day after St. Valentine’s, I leave you with a sonnet:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 60