Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor No. 64, 1906


Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor No. 64, 1906

How much is Enough?  A Budget Exercise for the Consumer

The documents on this site present a range of views on the question "How Much is Enough?" They reveal that as Americans entered the consumer age, with all its conveniences, gadgets, and ways to pass leisure time, a greater emphasis was placed by all classes on enjoying life and pursuing past times outside work.

Consequently, the answer to the question "How Much is Enough?" has changed as new needs, both real and perceived, have emerged. This development was taking place at the same time that social reformers such as Father John A. Ryan and the workers at Hull House were beginning to apply emerging social scientific method to effectively examine the plight of the poor.

As you have read, Fr. Ryan set about calculating a living wage for workers as members of Hull House worked to document and improve the lives of immigrant workers. But for all, the rise of the consumer age posed a challenge. As Hunt's article and the Hull House survey demonstrate, the new age presented the poor with a mixed blessing. While it provided employment, it did so at minimal wages and in often dangerous conditions. It also, as Fr. Ryan repeatedly warned, created in them a desire for items they did not need and could not afford. Thus, he did not factor these new perceived needs into his calculations. This raises the central question, by whose standards was Fr. Ryan's living wage livable?

Fr. Ryan saw the new desires as indicative of a shift in attitudes away from Christian principles of living, as well as a weakening of the national moral character. Americans, from his point of view, were growing less interested in living a right and reasonable life and more interested in living a materially comfortable life that included nice clothes, tasty food, and various forms of entertainment (novels, plays, and movies) to fill their newfound leisure time. He believed that most people did not understand that their excessive material belongings hindered their ability to live a Christian life. Not only they, but their children as well would suffer from this turn to materialism. Consequently, within a few decades, the moral fiber of the country could be in a serious state of decay.


The Exercise:

In this section, using wage and expense data from the period, you will attempt to answer for yourself, "How Much was Enough?" by completing the following exercise. As you complete the exercise, think about the different perspectives Fr. Ryan and Lydia Commander have on the issue and how they would approach the issues of work and family.

From the Bulletin of the Bureau of Labor for May 1906, select either Family number 1 or number 3. These families are closest in size to the family for which Father Ryan calculated his sample budget.

  • Study the expenses recorded for the family you have selected. Note the categories that match up with Father Ryan's as listed in Document #4.
  • Calculate a year's expenditure for each of the categories that match up with Father Ryan's. This is done by averaging out the five weeks and multiplying that average by the number of weeks in a year, 52. Note that the rent for the family's is listed in the family descriptions on page 594. Here you will multiply the rent amount by 12 to arrive at your rent category figure because rent is paid monthly.
  • Add up your budget category figures. Keeping in mind that Father Ryan's budget was a sample and that your family may vary slightly in size and spending practices, compare your figure with his. How close are the budget totals? Would you advise making budget cuts? Does the family take in a living wage?