Friday, November 18th, 2011

How Much More Do Televisions Cost Today?

Sometime between July and September of this year, you may have heard that America’s poor are not really all that poor. Something like this bit of wisdom from Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector from July 27, 2011:

How poor are America’s poor? The typical poor family has at least two color TVs, a VCR and a DVD player. A third have a widescreen, plasma or LCD TV. And the typical poor family with children has a video game system such as Xbox or PlayStation.

My goodness, that almost makes you wish you were America’s poor, doesn’t it? (Or maybe you already are—congratulations!)

The implied redefinition of 'poverty' as 'abject poverty' is certainly a conversation starter, so let's continue the conversation by looking into how much television sets have cost as the decades (decades with differing percentages of poor people) roll past. As we’ve been looking into how much things cost and when they cost it, we’ve been seeing a general trend of inflation above and beyond the increases in the cost of living. Let’s see if this is also the case with television sets.


Though we take television for granted, entertainment was not always so seamlessly obtained. By the 1930s we had achieved moving pictures, but we were forced to watch them outside of our homes, with other people. But the research that would eventually reach ubiquity was already in progress, all across the globe. In the United States, a young inventor named Philo T. Farnsworth was at the forefront. In fact, the first public demonstration of his device, the first all-electronic television mechanism, shooting electrons back and forth onto a screen, creating the moving image viewed, in 1934.

It was only a few short years before televisions were manufactured commercially in the United States. Programming began at the same time, but sporadically and locally, so the earliest owners of TVs were like the earliest owners of compact disc players: sitting on a space-age gizmo that could play the only four CDs available. Eventually, production of TV sets was curtailed in 1942 by the War Production Board, to free up resources for the great effort which ultimately won World War Two (our half of it, at least). Before suspension of TV manufacturing, only 7,000 sets were made, insane luxury items that were more conversation pieces than portals into the world of broadcasting, so they were priced like crocodile handbags—the first RCA model debuted at $600 in 1939. Adjusted for inflation (i.e., converting the purchasing power of six hundred 1930 dollars into 2011 dollars), that would be $9,773.

Gathering data on this topic turned out to be not as difficult as I anticipated thanks largely to the exhaustive website, which is the work of a fellow named Tom Genova. The site breaks down everything about television—the technology, the networks, the marketing, ephemera—by era and by year. If you want to, grab a few dazzling bits of trivia so that you may win the next dinner party. (First TV remote control? Zenith Flash-Matic, 1955. Was there ever a pre-cable channel one? Yes, until 1946, when the FCC reassigned the frequency.) Mr. Genova’s site is the place to go. And hidden in there is even this page, which is a convenient chart listing how much television sets cost over time. Boom.

However, the problem with comparing the costs of television sets over time is that the thing that we think of as a “television set” has mutated over the generations. Even in the past decade, think of how the cathode ray tube sets have become extinct. Is it fair to compare the cost of 12” console television from 1948, with a Mahogany cabinet designed to centerpiece a room, able only to receive local programming during limited hours (like, say, a Stromberg-Carlson, retailing at $985 installed—or $9,524 adjusted), against a 25” console from 1986, which was designed less as furniture and more as appliance, able to access the hundred or so national cable networks in addition to the various local stations, round the clock (like, say, a Sylvania, retailing at $540—or $1,115 adjusted)?

Remember also that the true-life color TVs we are so accustomed to took some time to materialize. Arguably, the first compatible (i.e., could receive shows broadcast either in black-and-white or color) electronic color TV set was the RCA CT-100, a 12½” console, which sold for $1,000 in 1953 (or $8,480 adjusted)? And even into the '60s, when you could buy a ’68 Admiral 23” color console for $349 ($2,270 adjusted), the black-and-white television was not uncommon, maybe at Grandma’s house. It wasn’t until the late 70s (when you could get a ’77 Sylvania 25” color console for $530, or $1,840 adjusted) that production of B&W TVs was halted.

What about the introduction of complimentary technologies, such as VCRs, which enabled the viewer to not be present for broadcasts, and duplicate programming for re-viewing? Or of the DVD, which took the marketing appeal of the videocassette and introduced near-theater level quality (which happened, incidentally, in 1996, when a Samsung 10” tabletop would set you back $340, or $490 adjusted)? There are a dizzying array of factors that make it almost arbitrary to try to compare these TV sets to one another, starting with the technology and the available programming, including the fact that the variation of prices within a specific time, from the high-end to the low-end product, can be pretty wide, and ending with the evolving relationship that the American family developed with the “idiot box,” during which it went from luxury to novelty to babysitter to omnipresence. Remember how you didn’t have a TV back in the '90s because you spent your entire childhood soaking in the CRT goodness and wanted to have your own tiny rebellion? Well, you probably didn’t have a rotary phone, either, but you weren’t moved to explain that to people.

Is it fair to compare? Probably not. But we’re answering the call of the Heritage Foundation premise that TV sets are a negative signifier of poverty, so we soldier on. By the way, a TV right now, in the twilight of television’s dominance as a stand-alone industry, as content increasingly becomes platform neutral? J&R’s will sell me a Viewsonic 27” LCD HDTV flatscreen for $319. That’s a pretty good deal.


Let’s stop talking about television sets and talk about poverty for a second, as that is the issue underlying the Heritage Foundation premise. The U.S. Census Bureau is the organization that set the “threshold” for determining poverty—what is commonly referred to as the poverty line. We all know what it means. It’s a number, and if a person’s annual income falls below that number, then this person is officially impoverished for statistical purposes. These thresholds, however, have little to do with whether this person will receive assistance from the government. Those guidelines are put out by the Department of Health and Human Services. They use discretely different analytical techniques to arrive at their figures, which do vary from the USCB threshold, though not by an awful lot.

Basically how it works is this, a statistician in the 1960s working for the Social Security Administration, Mollie Orshansky, developed a sort of a formula to determine what poverty is. The cost of living is determined, pegged to the cost of a “nutritionally adequate diet," and then numbered up into a fixed proportion of income of a person/family. This figure is adjusted each successive year based on how the Consumer Price Index changes from the year previous.

The Merriam-Webster definition of the word is, “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.” Of course, dictionary definitions may vary, but the concept is relative to the standards set by the rest of society.

So is the standard by which poverty is measured open to question? Of course. As federally determined, it’s based on a 40-year-old theory, so assumedly it would be weighted to reflect concern relevant to the time. Perhaps some aspect of the cost of living is overemphasized, and some other aspect is not given enough credence. Perhaps television ownership should somehow be mixed in there, to keep the process of government assistance honest.

For the record, the current HHS Poverty Guidelines are $10,890 of annual income for a single person, and $14,710 for a couple.


So we have the prices of a lot of television sets since their inception, and we’ve converted them to current price levels. They are as follows:

1939: $9,773
1948: $9,524
1953: $8,480
1968: $2,270
1977: $1,840
1986: $1,115
1996: $490
2011: $319

As you can plainly see, if you were graphing that, it would make a line that you could ski down. From 1939 to now, there’s a decrease of a little more than 96%. The cost of acquiring a television has absolutely plummeted.

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece the bit of research from the Heritage Foundation that launched this discussion. It’s hard not to have noticed it, because since the original Backgrounder published on July 19, they’ve wasted no opportunity to restate their premise, including another Backgrounder released on September 13, 2011, practically identical to the July 19 Backgrounder, to respond to the annual Census Bureau poverty report (which stated that the poverty rate was up to 11.7%, or 9.2 million American families). Obviously the Heritage Foundation is a think tank that is committed to communicating their message, to give official-sounding ammunition to like-minded politicians and pundits, but why are they so dead-set on viewing American poverty through rose-colored glasses? They are attempting to set the stage for the argument that less discretionary spending should be spent on the poor (because they have TV sets).

From the initial July 19 Backgrounder:

In discussions about poverty, however, misunderstanding and exaggeration are commonplace. Over the long term, exaggeration has the potential to promote a substantial misallocation of limited resources for a government that is facing massive future deficits. In addition, exaggeration and misinformation obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem. Poverty is an issue of serious social concern, and accurate information about that problem is always essential in crafting public policy.

The Heritage Foundation, in an effort to tighten government spending so that less revenue (i.e., taxes) is needed, argues that the poor aren’t really all that poor, and as long as they have a TV set (or an air conditioner, or a PS3) should have no assistance.

Now, they do acknowledge the fact that buying a TV is not as prohibitive as it might have been once. From the September Backgrounder:

Liberals use the declining relative prices of many amenities to argue that it is no big deal that poor households have air conditioning, computers, cable TV, and wide-screen TV. They contend, polemically, that even though most poor families may have a house full of modern conveniences, the average poor family still suffers from substantial deprivation in basic needs, such as food and housing. In reality, this is just not true.

Sidestepping the polemics, while researching this it was heartening to discover an item that has declined in adjusted price for once. But to propose that families below the shockingly low poverty line should either be disqualified by reason of TV ownership, or I guess live a life without a television, or an air conditioner, etc., before the social safety net kicks in, is, for lack of a better word, mean. This is poverty that we’re talking about, a relative level of living standards, not destitution. Better for the Heritage Foundation to come out and say what it means, that it believes that the well-being of its citizens is not the obligation of the government, instead of trying to shame 9.2 million families because they watch “So You Think You Can Dance” once a week.

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35 Comments / Post A Comment

BadUncle (#153)

I've heard this gasbaggery from conservative relatives. The implication is that "our" poverty is relative, and that Americans below the poverty line are lucky they're not in Rwanda, eating meals of tree bark. It's not only profoundly callous, it also ignores the very real problem of American malnutrition and poor healthcare (particularly in the Gulf states).

The Heritage foundation can suck the bark off my tree.

deepomega (#1,720)

@BadUncle I think the implication is actually that it doesn't matter how much money you make, so much as it matters what you can get for that money? If my income went down 10% but the cost of everything I spent money on went down 50%, I'd still be better off. This is usually the response to income inequality arguments from the econ-right.

BadUncle (#153)

@deepomega I'll buy into your argument, if you'll put on this blouse.

OBloodyHell (#240,414)

@BadUncle YOU can suck bark off a tree.

The biggest HEALTH concern for "poor" Americans is OBESITY. If anyone is suffering from "malnutrition" it's because of bad food CHOICES not from inadequate OPTIONS.

It is **liberals** who have attempted to redefine poverty AS relative, not conservatives. They've redefined "poverty" as a percentage of median income in place of "missing essential things required just to merely survive".

This would be food, shelter, clothing, and if you wanted to push it, BASIC ESSENTIAL medical care (liposuction, nahhhh. Abortions, nahhhh).

Color TVs and US$150 Nikes — NOT needed to survive. Particularly when it's a matter of having "only" TWO color TVs against seven, or whatever the standard is for liberals for those who are "all too rich" (translated: It's ok to *steal* from them).

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Man, I hate to take the wind out of your sails here but you'll find that the real price of almost every consumer product has declined pretty dramatically, except for cars (which have increased hugely in quality), housing, health care, and college. And for a poor family in NYC, the difference in real housing cost from what they would have paid for an identical space in the 1960s is enough to buy many, many TVs.

@stuffisthings This is true, but it's also not inconsequential that two of those four items are life necessities. I'm really curious about the poverty line formula. Is cost of living really ONLY pegged to the cost of food? If the overall cost of food is dropping (I know it's not really, but for the sake of argument) but the cost of housing/healthcare is growing exponentially, is cost of living–and therefore, the poverty line–taking this into account?

NFK (#8,747)

@stuffisthings Enough TVs to build a small house? See, the poor are lazy after all, they should just put in some sweat equity and build their own housing out of cheap Chinese TVs.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@antarcticastartshere Nope. Our poverty line formulas are ridiculous. So ridiculous, in fact, that most actual social programs have qualifying levels that are up to double or even triple the "official" poverty line. Yet if you have kids, working full time for the minimum wage would still put you BELOW the poverty line.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@NFK They would also need a time machine, but really, if you're sitting around at home all day what excuse do you have for not inventing one?

@stuffisthings Yeah, public housing assistance in Boston has a sliding scale that's actually based on the median income for the area, rather than the poverty line (if you're at 80% of the median you can live here, 60% can live here, 40% can live here, etc.). Which also raises the point that it's absurd that this blanket number applies to every part of the country.

@stuffisthings, @antarcticastartshere : The answer is "yes, they're based on food prices" and "no, they're not". Allow a former political science major to explain!

So, the US government uses two poverty figures : the poverty threshold, and the poverty guidelines. Poverty threshold is used for statistical purposes like "how many people are living in poverty?" and the poverty guidelines are used for administrative purposes like "am I eligible for poverty assistance?"

The poverty threshold calculations originated in Mollie Orshansky's work in the early 60s, and were initially based on whether a family has enough money to purchase the "economy (ie, cheapest) food plan" — a nutritionally adequate basket of food — using no more than one-third of their after-tax income. After that initial calculation, the poverty threshold was adjusted yearly based on changes in the Consumer Price Index (which contains the economy food basket, in part), and is calculated with slight differences for family size, farming occupations, etc. The poverty guidelines are a bit more simplified, and are adjusted somewhat differently, but they're still based on the same poverty threshold figures.

Because it's adjusted every year based on the CPI, and because there are so many things other than food in the CPI, as the poverty thresholds have been recalculated every year, they've become increasingly reliant on expenditures other than that original "economy food plan." As things stand, the Census Bureau won't even say what shares of each income threshold go to food (or transportation, or housing) — it's no longer a dollar-to-dollar figure. So the answer to "is the blanket number still based on food" is "originally, and it still is a little bit, but to an increasingly irrelevant degree every year."

Anyway, everyone has basically known forever that the old Orshansky-stylee poverty measurements don't really reflect "poverty" in the modern world, so as of this month there's a whole new official method being used to calculate poverty rates! You'll want to Google "Supplemental Poverty Measure" but keep in mind that the old method is still being used to report numbers. Have fun!

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@antarcticastartshere – The cost of food has been dropping for the past century or so, although it's leveled off in the last few years. If I recall correctly, at the turn of the century about 25% of income was spent on food vs about 10% today. Which is another reason povery level tied to food prices is probably not a good measure.

deepomega (#1,720)

Nice breakdown. Although it does a good job of highlighting how goddamn impossible it is to compare poverty across decades. Especially when the consumer price index is such complete bullshit.

The elephant in the room is the likelihood that television is a major cause of poverty in and of itself. You have to ask yourself what the American Heritage Foundation has to gain from ignoring this crucial question.

The Heritage Foundation's argument has always seemed, to me, to be embedded with idea that people who are seriously impoverished by this country's standards, but who spent their money "foolishly" on a TV or a PS3 or whatever, do not deserve help no matter how hungry they are. People waste money. People buy things they don't really need, because they thought they needed it or they really wanted it or THEIR KIDS really wanted it, all the time and at ALL INCOME LEVELS. I find the implied suggestion that the government should be passing moral judgment on the purchasing choices of people before they can receive assistance to be deeply disturbing.

SeanP (#4,058)

@antarcticastartshere Also sort of ignores the (very large) subset of people who bought a TV back when they had a job, but now that they're been unemployed for 27 months, are struggling to cover rent and food. But I guess if they get real hungry they can just eat the TV.

NFK (#8,747)

@SeanP You just brought back the TV dinner!

NFK (#8,747)

@antarcticastartshere "The Heritage Foundation's argument has always…"
…been to kill the poor. Tonight.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@SeanP It kind of drove me nuts that that wasn't brought up in the story. I have never spent a penny on a TV. There are three in my house and we gave one away when we moved in. TVs are a one-time investment and a pretty durable good and therefore utterly shit if you're trying to consider someone's luxury budget, as the Heritage researchers know perfectly well.

jfruh (#713)

On the note of TV and poverty, I saw a great documentary a few months ago called The Pruitt-Igoe myth, about the history of those iconic Le Courbosier-inspired housing projects in St. Louis. Absolutely fascinating if you want to know how the "projects" as most Americans now conceive of them came into existence. (Quick version is that planners in the immediate post-war era set off to solve a problem from the '30s and '40s — overcrowded slum housing — and didn't notice that the cities were emptying out over the '50s and '60s. Most housing projects were never full, which made it impossible for the maintenance to be paid for by rents as envisioned.)

Anyway, one interesting aspect is that when Pruitt-Igoe opened, you weren't allowed to have a television, because that would be a sign that you weren't poor. TV's were deemed a luxury item then, but, say, record players weren't, so there were lots of stories from former residents who talked about gathering in one another's apartments and playing records. The point is that there's always been a streak of moralizing when it comes to public assistance, which seems to me to clash with the reality of downward social mobility. If you lose your job, should you really be expected to, say, hock your TV (what would a 30-inch TV get at the pawn shop these days? $100? $50?) before applying for SNAP?

BTW, in Pruitt-Igoe you also weren't allowed to have a non-disabled working age male in your household, because he could get a job and then you wouldn't need public housing. This led to social workers who were recruiting people from the soon-to-be-demolished slums telling couples that they needed to divorce or separate so that their children could have better lives in the shiny new housing projects, which you can imagine how many fucked up families THAT created.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Also, most European countries use a relative poverty measure, which explicitly links poverty (and poverty reduction) to inequality. Absolute poverty measures are really only appropriate only for developing countries, and then only in a rough sense.

I think we missed the real point the Heritage Foundation is trying to make: teevees are no longer made in the US of A, and are instead made by brown and foreign people in strange lands.

So what the Hell are poor people doing buying IMPORTED LUXURY GOODS?!?!?

Leon (#6,596)

The whole argument infuriates me. It's like when people say "well, people in 'the hood' buy fancy sneakers and then can't pay for college, it's their fault they're poor." Setting aside how insanely racist and not really even true that is, I'd like to look at it this way.

Let's look at the Adidas Superstar, because it is the illest shoe in the history of time. A pair costs about $60. Let's say you buy two pairs per year. So, $120/year, or $2,160 total for all years from birth to college time (and kids sneakers maybe cost less? I don't know and hope I never do.)

Tuition at CUNY Community (which is cheaper than 4-Year) college for NY Residents is $3,600 per year. So I'm guessing it's not the fucking sneakers.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Leon Saint-Jean This is an excellent point, and it's just as true if the family in question bought a $400 television set rather than $100 shoes.

jfruh (#713)

@Leon Saint-Jean Remember when someone at a homeless shelter was talking to Michelle Obama on a visit and he had a cell phone and conservatives went nuts about how a supposedly poor person could afford a luxury item like a cell phone? Never mind that a cell phone is probably the single most helpful thing you could give to someone who's homeless and looking for work (I'm sure it doesn't do any help to your job application when you don't have any way for them to contact you, or when the phone number you give them is at the fucking homeless shelter.)

automaticdoor (#11,521)

@jfruh I totally agree with you and have always ardently defended people who are poor having cell phones. I also had a completely duh moment when the organization I'm working for showed me this program… some of those people might not even have to pay for those phones! GASP. Also, it's a total safety issue, as well as a humanity issue. How well is your mental health going to hold up if you can't call your brother or mom or buddy or something every once in a while just to make sure everything's okay?

Clearly the solution is to revise the tax code so that your tax rate is based on the percentage of your income that is spent on "luxury purchases," no matter what your actual income is. Extra houses are a necessity, of course. Oh, and you're exempt if you make more than 500K a year, because you are creating jobs.

LondonLee (#922)

I thought poor people stole their TVs during riots.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)


Scum (#1,847)

Nowhere in the Heritage reports does it say anything about who is 'really' poor. The percentage of poor households who own various amenities are not given to establish whether they are poor by some luxury goods based definition of poverty cooked up by the heritage foundation. They are given so the reader can see that the picture painted of poverty in america as necessarily representing severe material deprivation, which is very often the picture painted by the advocates for various anti-poverty policies, does not resemble reality even slightly.

The linked backgrounder is actually agnostic on what the definition of poverty should be. All it essentially says is that if people are going to talk about poverty in absolute rather than relative terms then a) these statements should be accurate and b) the policies such talk is used to support should actually address the things you're suggesting they are. I don't find much to get upset about in that, but then again, I dont care much about income inequality, a nebulous non-concept which holds that the gradation of income should be made to conform to some arbitrarily asserted statistical figure (though which no-one will say. What is the just level of income inequality?), and as such enjoys such public apathy that the only way you can get through measures to address it is to pretend that they are addressing something else entirely.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I'm sure this will bounce right off, but:

Income inequality is not about "arbitrary statistical figures," it's about the very practical concept of balanced purchasing power. You don't want the poor to get too poor and the rich to get too rich and the middle to disappear because then only the rich can afford to buy stuff, and there just aren't that many rich people.

In a consumer economy, one rich person spending $1000 does not generate as much economic activity as a hundred middle-class people spending $10 each. Each of those $10 purchases requires customer service (JOBS) and is probably going to want to stop by the food court (JOBS) and of course they need gas to drive to the mall in the first place (JOBS) and with that many people in one place you'll want security (JOBS) and the store has to transport more stuff to sell (JOBS) and god I hope you get the idea by now.

In a healthy economy, you certainly want rich people around to support trade in luxury goods and services and invest in businesses and so on. But you also want relatively poor people to have enough purchasing power to support trade in cheap goods and services, because there are and always will be MORE POOR PEOPLE THAN RICH PEOPLE. More customers equals more jobs, more jobs equals a better economy.

You're missing one important qualifying word before "television" – "NEW." With E-Bay, with Craigslist, with the development of a market of "refurbished" TVs, and with early adopters churning from one model to another — how many tube TVs have been set out on the street or donated to charity in the last five years? — the cost of having a TV starts at ZERO.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Curtis Hagedorn@facebook – You can't even donate a CRT TV to charity any more. They won't take them.

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

J&R’s? J&R’s?

You ain't from around here, are you kid.

OBloodyHell (#240,414)

}}} "This is poverty that we’re talking about, a relative level of living standards"

No, that's NOT POVERTY.
Poverty, noun
1. the state or condition of having little or no money, goods, or means of support
1. Poverty, destitution, need, want imply a state of privation and lack of necessities. Poverty denotes serious lack of the means for proper existence

What you WANT that others **HAVE**, that's ENVY. It's GREED. It's got nothing to do with POVERTY. That people like you "redefine" poverty with an Orwellian twist of meanings to allow you to demand redistributionism because until there is actual "equality" of income (i.e., total socialism), then a LACK of poverty is not even POSSIBLE by this definition short of that.

Marxism is BOVINE EXCRETA. There's a reason it's FAILED everywhere it's been tried, and generally quickly devolves into INEQUITY and DESPOTISM.

}}} "The implied redefinition of 'poverty' as 'abject poverty' is certainly a conversation starter"

As I noted in another comment and demonstrate above — the "redefinition" is being done by the LEFT, not the RIGHT — because your "ABJECT poverty" IS the meaning of POVERTY. The left has been STEADILY misusing the term for several DECADES now and figure it's now time to steal the word for good.
The best historical example of this technique is well known:

And now
POVERTY is YOU not having everything anyone else has.

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