Recently I was watching a lecture by historian Marcus Witcher which addressed the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow era. Witcher mentioned the “pig laws,” which were severe legal punishments given to Blacks in the South for what used to be petty crimes. Such as stealing a pig. He mentioned that the fines could be anywhere from $100 to $500, and then he asked me directly: how much is $100 adjusted for inflation today?
My initial, immediate answer was about $3,000. That turns out to be almost exactly correct for around 1880. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this wasn’t a satisfactory answer. We were trying to put $100 from a distant past year in context to understand how much of a burden this was for African Americans at the time. Does knowing that adjusted for inflation it’s about $3,000 give us much context?
I think not. All that number really says is that consumer prices have gone up, on average about 30 times since 1880. Even this isn’t strictly true, since the basket of goods and the quality have changed dramatically — but it’s probably about the best we can do to answer that narrow question.
What’s the best way to provide the context for $100 from 1880? I think the best way is to compare it to wages. We can do this in a few ways. First, we can use the average production worker wage from 1880, which was about 11 cents per hour. Using that number, it would take about 900 hours of work to make $100. And given the average workweek in 1880 was about 61 hours, it would take 15 weeks of work, or well over one-quarter of the year, to earn $100.
Of course, African Americans probably were not making the average production wage. So here’s a number that might work better: the average daily wage for cotton plantation laborers. In Arkansas in 1886, it was 75 cents per day. That means it would take 133 days of labor to earn $100. Assuming 6 days of work per week, that’s over 22 weeks (43% of the year) to earn $100.
I think those numbers — somewhere between 15 and 22 weeks of work — provide a much better context than “$3,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars.” Students (and really all of us) today still can’t really understand the full context of those numbers, such as how hard the work was to physically perform. Yet it still does give us some clearer context.
But I think we can probably say something for certain: it’s highly unlikely that the typical African-American male in the late nineteenth century had 15-22 weeks of earnings just sitting in his pocket or under his mattress. Most likely, it was impossible for him to pay the fine (that was the point of it), and thus he would have to serve prison time to pay off his debt to society. That’s where the real revenue for Southern states was at the time, not in fining poor Black men, but in leasing them out to private companies in exchange for a major form of state revenue at the time. For many Black men, the system probably also seemed almost indistinguishable from slavery.
Thanks for the context.
How can I get you/ACRE to provide an updated product/briefing on the “Citizens Guide…”?