A decade of changing prices for 11 basic goods and services

  • Unlike a generation ago, it's not always easy at first glance to tell Americans who are struggling financially from those who are thriving.

    Consumer goods that in 2006 were within reach of only middle-class and wealthy Americans are now cheap enough for lower-income families to afford. Computers, flat-screen TVs and other devices and appliances have plummeted in price over the last decade, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    At the same time, services that are increasingly essential to securing a middle- or upper-class foothold, such as a college education, have surged at a much faster pace than inflation.

    The result is an American society where the poor may not look impoverished, given an abundance of cheaper consumer goods. Yet many have little hope of achieving economic mobility in the face of sharply higher costs for education and health care.

    "It seems like a cruel irony at best that most of the stuff that isn't dropping in price is the important stuff," said Josh Bivens, research and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning economic think tank. "In this overall discussion, you do worry that people will put too much moral freight that if someone has a flat screen TV, that they can't be really poor."

    On the other hand, Bivens noted that lower costs for things like refrigerators and TVs free up more cash for households to spend on other parts of their budgets. The sharp decrease in the price of consumer goods is "one of the few good news stories of our economy," he added.

    Yet even with drastically lower prices for some household goods, many Americans face headwinds. Median household income may have jumped 5.2 percent last year, but it's still below the 1999 peak for many.

    Younger workers are at risk of a lower standard of living than their parents, the consulting firm McKinsey said in a report earlier this year. It estimated that as many as 70 percent of households in 25 developed countries had seen flat or falling wages during the past decade, compared with fewer than 2 percent of households between 1993 to 2005.

    Read on to learn more about how basic costs have changed since 2006 relative to an 18 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index.