The federal minimum wage was first set in 1938, at 25 cents an hour. Here’s a decade-by-decade look, starting in 1950, at the buying power of minimum wage.
Often looked to as a model era, the 1950s may have been nearly as picture-perfect as “Leave it to Beaver” seemed to suggest — minimum wage workers could pay rent for a month for less than a week and a half of full-time work — or catch Disney’s “Cinderella” for just over a half-hour of labor.
- Minimum wage: $0.75 per hour
- Gas: $0.27 or 22 minutes
- Movie ticket: $0.48 or 38 minutes
- Rent: $42 or 56 hours
By 1960, the minimum wage of $1 an hour had not quite kept up with inflation, making rent a bit less affordable — though still not quite two weeks of minimum-wage work. On the other hand, filling up the Corvette was actually relatively cheaper — it took just under 20 minutes of work to get a gallon of gas.
- Minimum wage: $1 per hour
- Gas: $0.31 or 19 minutes
- Movie ticket: $0.69 or 41 minutes
- Rent: $71 or 71 hours
In 1970, the outlook for minimum-wage workers was about as bright as a spinning disco ball. Compared with 10 years before, the cost of rent and gas had actually decreased. Getting in to the movies was the one exception. With films gaining in both popularity and breadth (31 movies were released in 1970, compared with just 19 in 1960 and 11 in 1950), the cost of a ticket saw a big jump to the equivalent of nearly an hour of work.
- Minimum wage: $1.60 per hour
- Gas: $0.36 or 14 minutes
- Movie ticket: $1.55 or 58 minutes
- Rent: $108 or 67.5 hours
The beginning of the Reagan era marked the end of even the semi-feasibility of paying the median rent on a single minimum-wage income. A minimum-wage worker could still pay rent with just under two weeks of work (double the recommended ratio). Of course, if you lived in a more-affordable area, you’d be in better shape. In Mississippi, for example, you’d have to put in only 58 hours of work to pay the median rent.
- Minimum wage: $3.10 per hour
- Gas: $1.25 or 24 minutes
- Movie ticket: $2.60 or 50 minutes
- Rent: $243 or 78 hours
By 1990, renting an average place on minimum-wage pay became nearly impossible. Employees would need to work 118 hours (that’s nearly 70% of gross monthly pay) to get shelter. And entertainment was no easier. You’d have to work more than an hour to see “Home Alone” or “Pretty Woman.” The one bright spot was gas — prices were actually down from 10 years prior, meaning earners had to put in less than 20 minutes of work to afford a gallon.
- Minimum wage: $3.80 per hour
- Gas: $1.13 or 18 minutes
- Movie ticket: $4.23 or 1 hour, 7 minutes
- Rent: $447 or 118 hours
By the time George W. Bush got to office, things were no better — though arguably, no worse than a decade earlier. With a minimum wage of only $5.15 (it hadn’t risen since 1995, and wouldn’t again until 2008) workers still hadto work nearly 120 hours to afford median rent and more than an hour for a trip to the cinema.
- Minimum wage: $5.15 per hour
- Gas: $1.49 or 17 minutes
- Movie ticket: $5.39 or 1 hour, 3 minutes
- Rent: $602 or 117 hours
Though the housing crash actually made rent more affordable, minimum-wage workers still had to put in 109 hours of work (or more than 60% of monthly income) in 2010. Of course, in cities like New York, the numbers are much higher. In 2010, the New York City-Northern New Jersey-Long Island area had a median gross rent of $1,125, which equals 155 hours of work. Basically, if you worked full-time, didn’t eat, commute or pay utilities, and you gave nearly every penny to your landlord, you could just make it in the Big Apple.
- Minimum wage: $7.25 per hour
- Gas: $2.78 or 23 minutes
- Movie ticket: $7.95 or 1 hour, 6 minutes
- Rent: $789 or 109 hours