Articles

Would You Live Better In the U.S.?

Maclean’s made a detailed test to see if our lower prices make up for lower wages. Not quite — by 10%. But we’re catching up

SIDNEY MARGOLIUS August 1 1949
Articles

Would You Live Better In the U.S.?

Maclean’s made a detailed test to see if our lower prices make up for lower wages. Not quite — by 10%. But we’re catching up

SIDNEY MARGOLIUS August 1 1949

American Family

$23.50

9.25 13.00

2.25

4.00

2.00 2.00 1.50

6.25 .50 .60

$64.85

Food, cleaning supplies Rent, heat, utilities Clothes Insurance Medical, dental Laundry, dry cleaning House furnishings Church, charity, gifts Recreation, periodicals Barber, beauty Tobacco

Carfare, telephone

Canadian Family $20.00 8.00 10.00 1.90 3.50

3.00

1.10

5.95

.80

1.25

1.55

$57.05

Would You Live Better In the U.S.?

Maclean’s made a detailed test to see if our lower prices make up for lower wages. Not quite — by 10%. But we’re catching up

SIDNEY MARGOLIUS

CANADIANS who hop over to Buffalo or Seattle and find a good shirt for $3 and a cup of coffee for a nickel are sure the Americans are living much better than we do.

U. S. tourists return from Canada with two stories: the beer is warm but the food is cheap. Those Canadians sure have it good.

Who is right? Can they both be right?

For a month, early this summer, Maclean’s shuttled me back and forth between the two countries making an exact and highly detailed comparison of living costs. I shopped the stores d digested the price and wage statistics. In Hamilton, Ont., and Trenton, N.J., two mediumsized industrial cities, I took two typical families and counted their expenses right down to the last penny for a bottle of milk or a haircut.

Here’s what I found:

(1) For the same amount of cash the Canadian family can still buy more than the American. Food is less costly here and this big item more than makes up for the $100 extra Canadians pay for a refrigerator or the twice as much they pay for cigarettes. Eating costs about 13% less in Hamilton than in Trenton. Clothing for the whole family is only slightly more expensive in Canada, despite some dramatic differences, like the $3 shirt that costs $4. The total bill for the goods and services a family needs is 8% less in Hamilton than in Trenton. Even if you include a car, which is cheaper to run in the United States, Hamilton still comes out 6% to the good.

(2) But while the Canadian’s dollars take him farther he gets fewer of them. The American industrial worker’s wartime and postwar raises boosted his average weekly pay to $52.60. The Canadian’s average is $44.35. So the American still has the better standard of living—about 10% better, in fact.

(3) That’s not the whole story, for right now the Canadian is gaining ground. In the U. S., with growing unemployment causing shorter work weeks, wages have been falling almost twice as fast as the cost of living. In Canada living costs held steady for the first half of the year while pay continued to rise.

Meet the Biebers and Bigamis

WHAT do these facts and figures mean to people? Let’s look into the pay envelopes, the pantries and the clothes cupboards of a Canadian and an American. They are Oscar Bieber, 39, a lean, keen-minded Hamilton steelworker, and AI Bigami, 35, a husky, friendly steelworker who lives in Trenton.

Both are married. AÍ, the American, has a fouryear-old boy, Ronald; Oscar’s boy, Gerald, is eight. Both earn just about the average for steelworkers, and a little more than most other industrial workers in their respective towns.

Until last May AÍ was doing very well with a wage of $70 for operating a cable-coiling machine at the Roebling steel plant in Trenton. Then orders dropped and AÍ was dropped too—to the shipping room where he now earns $60 for 40 hours, which means he takes home about $55 after taxes and social-security deductions.

Oscar, the Canadian, gets $52 for a 44-hour week operating a wiremaking machine at the Frost Steel and Wire Co. plant in Hamilton. He takes home $47.50.

Right now, if you walked into Al’s three-room, second-floor fiat in Trenton, talked to his wife and even looked in his closets as I did, you’d consider he has a better living than the Canadian, Oscar. In Trenton, Lucy Bigami has an electric sewing machine, washer, refrigerator, vacuum cleaner, pressure cooker, pop-up toaster and steam iron. Muriel Bieber, in Hamilton, has the washing machine, a treadle sewing machine she bought for $4 at an auction eight years ago—and that’s all. Mrs. Bigami has wool rugs or inlaid linoleum. Mrs. Bieber, the Canadian, has the cheaper floor oilcloth on all her floors.

Mrs. Bigami doesn’t consider her six-cubic-foot refrigerator big enough; she’s after AÍ to buy one of the nine-foot boxes now on sale in the U. S. for under $250. The Biebers of Hamilton will string along with the iceman. They can’t see going into debt for over $300 for a refrigerator the size the Bigamis want to discard. Mrs. Bieber’s big ambition right now is to save up $50 so she can get her old sewing machine electrified this fall.

If you sat down and ate with the two families you’d find little difference. Both eat well. Last year they both sold off the secondhand cars each had bought during the war; they were getting too costly to operate. And the Trenton family is cutting down on the amount of clothes it had been buying. But you’ll still find meat on the table every night, and the better cuts at that: steaks, chops, roasts, chicken once a week, occasionally hamburg, but rarely fish or low-cost stews. You’ll find eggs and bacon at breakfast in both homes, although both the men eat just cereal. Both women insist you can tell the difference between margarine and butter, and refuse to use the lower-cost, spread. If anything, the Canadian family is inclined to use more of the expensive items of butter and meat even on its lower pay. Mrs. Bieber uses two pounds of butter a week at 58 cents. Dollar butter two years ago taught Mrs. Bigami to get along on a half pound a week, even though now it’s down to 70 cents.

Also, Mrs. Bieber of Hamilton will more often buy a full pound of meat for her family’s dinner, while Mrs. Bigami of Trenton tries to get along on three quartei's.

The Bigamis do enjoy a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. They have grapefruit or orange juice at every breakfast, and with dinners such items as corn on the cob, string beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and salads. If any of these are not in season then they’ll buy them frozen. Rarely does Mrs. Bigami buy the cheaper vegetables like carrots, cabbage, beets and turnips. But these, with canned vegetables, provide the staples of the Bieber menus.

At that Mrs. Bieber can get a can of green beans for a nickel less than Mrs. Bigami. The Canadian family also gets a break on milk and bread. Mrs. Bigami pays 26 cents a 32-oz. quart delivered, although she could buy it at the store for 21. For a 40-oz. quart Mrs. Bieber pays only 19 cents, delivered or at the store. Mrs. Bigami pays 16 cents for a 16-oz. loaf of bread, Mrs. Bieber can buy the Canadian 24-oz. loaf for 12.

Result: for much the same diet the Bigamis spend about $23.50 a week, and the Canadian Biebers

about $20. In clothes the U. S. family has the edge. Al has always had two good suits. This year, for the first time, Oscar owns two fairly well-made worsteds. Both men paid exactly $45 for their last suite. Both bought overcoats over eight years ago, and neither expects to get a new one for some time. AÍ estimates he had been spending $225 a year for clothes in the States, Oscar’s bill is about $150.

Continued on pape 38

DURING June Mr. Margolius shopped the groceterias and department stores of two middle-sized cities, Hamilton, Ont. (pop. 180,000), and Trenton, N.J. (pop. 125,000), to compare prices of staple articles of equal quality in Canada and the United States. Here are typical samples of his findings.

FOOD

Trenton Hamilton

Orange juice, 20-oz. .14

Peas, 20-oz. .15

Potatoes .06

Milk .21

Margarine .24

Butter .71

Eggs, large .71

Pork chops, shoulder .49

Rib roast .65

Pink salmon, 16-oz. .59

Bread .15

( 1 6-oz. )

Flour, lb. .09Vi

Coffee .49

Tea 1.15

CLOTHING, MEN’S AND BOYS’

.07

.58

.95

Shirts 3.13

Pyjamas 3.58

Boys’ suit, wool and

rayon gabardine 19.58 Shoes, boys’ 5.68

Shoes, oxford 9.02

Suits, worsted 43.52

Overcoat, all wool 43.61

CLOTHING, WOMEN’S Girdles 5.71

Nylons, 30-51 gauge 1.24 Women’s shoes, calf 8.83 Dress, wool 15.98

HOUSE FURNISHINGS Living-room chair 60.03 Spring, 99-coil 18.30 Sheets, 81x99, muslin 2.60 Blankets, wool,

72x84 11.42

Electric refrigerator,

7cu. ft. 218.68

MISCELLANEOUS Doctor: office visit 2.50 Dentist: upper plate 70.00 Aspirin, 5 grain (100) .49

.30 .85 .75 4.00

Soap powder Haircut (man) Finger wave Telephone, monthly Rent, four heated rooms

Gasoline (Imp’l gal. Tires, 600x16

45.60 ) .30 16.00

3.75 4.50

16.95

4.95

9.75 43.83

44.50

5.21

1.65

8.95

14.00

63.00

17.50

4.00

11.95 338.00

2.00

50.00 .58 .35 .65 .50

2.95

40.00 .40

18.45

Would You Live Better In the U. S.?

Continued from page 13

AÍ, the American, still owns more wardrobe accessories than Oscar. He has about a dozen and a half dress and sports shirts. Oscar showed me his eight dress shirts and two sports shirts. They are not as well-made as Al’s.

Lucy Bigami, too, owns a larger and better wardrobe than Canadian Muriel Bieber. Both haunt the stores at the end of the season looking for $10 hats being sold off for $2, and both do much of their own sewing. But Mrs. Bigami pays only $1.10 for nylon hose—a big item in both women’s expenses—as against the $1.65 Mrs. Bieber has been yielding. Except food, and clothing for their children, both will cut down on anything else but the nylons. It’s hard to believe, but Mrs. Bigami insists she buys 48 pairs a year; Mrs. Bieber, 26.

Mrs. Bigami owns two suits. The one she got last Easter, just before Al’s pay was cut, is particularly fine, and cost $50. She has two coats—a gabardine with a removable liner and a muskrat that cost $300 three years ago. She generally buys about two pairs of shoes a year at $14 a pair.

A change in fashion is a major problem to Mrs. Bigami, but she manages to keep up moderately well. “The new look killed me,” she confided. “All those clothes hanging in the closet and I can’t wear them. I had to buy extra clothes.” t

Mrs. Bieber of Hamilton seems less conscious of the new look, and she owns just one suit: a little wool number she picked up for $10 at a clearance. Nor does she have a fur coat for winter. Hers is cloth with a bit of fur trim she bought for $68 two years ago. She pays almost as much for shoes—from $10 to $14.75—but they aren’t quite as well made as Mrs. Bigami’s, and she seems to have to buy six pairs a year.

As with workingmen’s wives everywhere, skirts and blouses are the backbone of both women’s wardrobes. But Mrs. Bigami has a good dozen and a half blouses in her closet; 12 of them she picked up for a dollar a piece when one of the Trenton stores went out of business last spring. Mrs. Bieber has just three blouses.

Mrs. Bigami’s clothes for the past year cost her altogether $310. Mrs. Bieber spent $278 for noticeably fewer clothes.

Only on boys’ clothing does the Canadian family have some advantage. Our comparisons of retail prices and of expenditures of the two families indicate children’s clothing prices have not zoomed as much here as in the States. “I pay a quarter for my own socks but I have to pay 39 cents for the kid’s,” AÍ says in amazement.

Now Mrs. Bigami has taken to making more of Ronald’s clothes herself to stem the inroads on her budget. She found she could make him two pairs of boxer shorts out of a yard of twill for 69 cents, instead of paying 85 cents a pair for them.

Shoes are the biggest jolt. The Bigamis of Trenton bought Ronald eight pairs last year at five bucks a trip. Of course Gerald isn’t outgrowing his as fast, and he isn’t quite as wellshod as the other boy, but the Biebers had to buy him only three pairs at $3.50, plus four pairs of sneakers at $2.25.

For the year the Bigamis spent $100 for their lad’s clothes, as against the $75 it cost the Biebers.

When it comes to rent both families are noticeably helped by the controls still extant in both countries. In Trenton average rental is $45.60 for a heated four-room flat, according to William Pitt, official N. J. living-cost statistician. Al pays just $40, including light and gas.

A Canadian wage earner does pay a little less for shelter, although he’ll argue that statement at the drop of a rent bill. In Hamilton, Oscar pays $20 a month for five rooms. He admits that’s half the rent some of the other steelworkers he knows are paying. After he’s through heating the place, paying light, gas and water bills, and redecorating it himself, his rent is still only $34.30. Officially the average Hamilton family pays about $33.50 a month unheated, according to the Dominion Bureau of Statistics. Fuel would raise that average shelter cost to about $42.50, still under Trenton’s rate.

The big bogey for both families is medical and dental bills. The jolt came last year for both. First Al was hit by a dentist bill of $300 for his wife. Then he himself began to suffer pains in his legs and back from working on the cement floor of the shipping room. There was a series of X-rays that set him back $60, and the doctor ordered him to lose weight. He was supposed to visit the doctor every week for a checkup but he soon quit that. “All he did was weigh me for three bucks,” AÍ grumbles. In six months AÍ saw $400 worth of wartime bonds vanish.

Their Savings Shrink

Doctor bills hit Oscar, the Canadian, much the same way. First the boy had his appendix removed, then he broke his arm, then there was $40 for his wife’s dentist bill, and finally he himself had to have treatments for a bad leg. There went exactly $380. It’s little consolation to Oscar that he pays only $2 for a visit to the doctor, while Al pays $3.

Actually, the cost-of-living problem of the two families on the opposite sides of the border is strikingly similar, except, of course, that when AI Bigami of the U. S. paces the floor worrying he walks on a rug.

As the result of high living costs neither this year will take a vacation. Last year the Bigamis went to a small seaside resort nearby. This year they can’t afford the $9 a day for the hotel room. Last year the Biebers had the car and took a trip. This year they’ll visit Oscar’s brother in Windsor for a couple of days, and the rest of the time Oscar will redecorate the flat.

What insurance protection the two families have is pretty much dispersed among the several members, with little on the wage earner himself. Both have exactly the same setup: $1,000 on Pop, $500 on Mom, and $1,000 for the boy, although both men have additional insurance policies on the job, cost of which is shared with employers. Insurance cost is less for the Biebers, because their boy’s policy, an endowment type, is paid by the Government’s family allowance of $6 a month.

Recreation for both consists pretty much of the movies once a week. The Biebers take the bus to Toronto with Jerry about once a year to have dinner out and see a special show. Last time it was Barbara Ann Scott at the Maple Leaf Gardens, and Mrs. Bieber proudly displays the souvenir program. Their movies are 60 cents for adults and 20 for Gerald. Then Saturday night they stop off at the Pacific Restaurant and all three have banana splits at 25 cents per. In Trenton, alter the show, which costs them 74 cents apiece, the Bigamis pay 35 cents for the same feast.

Otherwise the social life of both families centres around the labor union and church. Both are regular church goers: Mrs. Bigami’s contribution to the Church of St. Joachim in Trenton comes to 50 cents a week; the Bieber’s donation to the United Church they attend is 35 cents, including Gerald’s Sunday school.

Al has no debts and still has more money saved up than Oscar, but it’s melting rapidly. By last year the American had $1,600 tucked away; now he has $800 left. The most Oscar managed to squirrel away, including compulsory savings, was $400. He did manage to get a new gas stove for $90, and new suits for himself and the boy out of the compulsory savings. But he still owes $72 on the bedroom set he bought last year from an installment store.

How Costs Compare

If you’ll refer back to the table on page 12 for a moment, you’ll see how the weekly outgo of the two families compares—$64.85 for the American Bigamis, $57.05 for the Biebers of Hamilton. I haven’t included the unusual medical bills the two families incurred last year, just their more normal expenses.

Note the Biebers’ phone. They had it just a month when I visited them, and it’s a little symbol of Oscar’s recent gains.

But, most significantly, have you observed that both families are actually spending more than the wages of their men? To keep up their standard, at present costs, both pick up extra jobs. AÍ gets a few dollars a week as caretaker for a neighborhood club he belongs to. Oscar makes $2.50 collecting tickets when his union local gives a dance, and Mrs. Bieber does occasional baby-sitting and sewing for neighbors. Any of the rest of the deficit came out of those disappearing savings.

More than anything else both want to retrieve their backlogs.

“If I had $500 in the bank I’d feel like a millionaire,” Oscar, the Canadian, told me.

AÍ, the American, still has more than $500, but I never saw such a worried millionaire. “I’d be all right if I had that $70 a week back,” he said. “We could go on as we are and save on it.”

I went a great deal further than these two families to compare Canadian living costs with those of the States. I took a long list of the goods and services a family buys, and priced the same qualities in Trenton and Hamilton. (You’ll find some of the comparative prices reproduced on page 13.) I then weighted these for their importance in a family’s living cost. For example, an average small family buys 520 quarts of milk a year, but a new bedroom set only once in 14 years.

Here’s a tabulation of the result, for a family of three in Trenton and Hamilton.

Trenton Hamilton

Food............ $938.08 $814.32

Men’s, Boys’

Clothing...... 148.91

Women’s Clothing 116.77

Home Furnishings 131.09

Miscellaneous. . . . 271.58

Shelter.......... 547.20

158.56

120.66

147.66

260.64

480.00

Auto Operation

2,153.63 1,981.84

169.82 205.75

$2,323.45 $2,187.59

If you divide by 52 you’ll find that a nondriving Trenton family of three spends $41.41 a week aqd the same family in Hamilton spends $38.11. These don’t agree with the figures for the Bigamis and the Bieberts, because they live somewhat above the bare minimum. Besides, the American Bigami has a higher wage than Oscar Bieber of Hamilton, and so their standards are even farther apart than pure statistics would show.

There’s a good chance that if you visited the Bigamis and Biebers a year from now you’d find their expenditures a little closer. That’s because American wages have already turned downward while Canadians are holding their own.

Last December the average U. S. factory worker’s real weekly wage, in terms of 1939 dollars, was between $28 and $31, according to the number of his dependents. The corresponding Canadian figures were $25.35 and $27. By May, though, the American’s pay had fallen to $27 and $30.45. The Canadian’s was still going up; it was $25.80 and $27.70.

How much does a family need for a moderate standard of living? Our price comparisons, plus some recent research by the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, gives us a clue.

In the States at this time a worker’s family of three in a town like Trenton needs about $3,110 a year. So a family of three in a town like Hamilton would need $2,925; a family of two would need $2,265; four, $3,485, and five, $4,010. These sums include personal taxes and insurance but make no allowance for savings.

Don’t be angry with this article if you find you can’t support your family on such sums. For one thing they’re based on controlled rents, and uncontrolled rates are much higher. Or if you had to buy a whole house recently to get a roof, certainly your shelter expense will throw these budgets out of joint.

For another, the living these sums allow is admittedly modest. They do permit a secondhand car, refrigerator, washing machine and other common appliances. But Papa can buy just one wool suit every other year, and a lightweight suit once every three years. Mama is allotted three dresses a year, plus one house dress. It allows each member of the family a movie only once every three weeks. It’s a budget that the experts call “a necessary minimum.”

Now just how does you?' cost of living compare with folks in the States and with your fellow Canadians? ★