Our high, high standard of living
In the 1950s and 1960s, a working man could support a family at a middle-class standard of living with just one income. It might surprise you to learn that one person working full-time, even at minimum wage, can still support a family of four at that standard of living. Nowadays we call that "living in poverty."
According to John E Schwarz in Illusions of Opportunity:
In the early 1950s, fully two fifths of American households had no automobile, about a third did not have a private telephone or a television, and the homes of about a third of all Americans were dilapidated or were without running water or a private toilet and bath. Only a small minority of families enjoyed such basics as a mixer or had a hot-water heater.
Those dilapidated shacks without hot water improved over the years, but as late as 1970 the median single-family home was still less than 1400 square feet (versus over 2200 now).
I have a personal recollection of the 1960s and 1970s (I graduated from high school in 1977). My dad was a college professor and probably made a pretty good income, but we never had a standard of living as high as lots of "poor" folks seem to have now: We never had air conditioning. We didn't get a second car until I was in high school. We didn't get a color TV until I'd gone away to college. We never took vacations overseas. Eating out was for special occasions.
The key fact about the period was not the high standard of living, but that it was a rising standard of living, which made the period one of considerable optimism. I'm not advocating that anyone live at a 1950s (or even 1960s) standard of living, but I'd be pleased if people would quit romanticizing those days as a golden age of prosperity.
Real household income rose last year. At the same time, the earnings of both men and women fell. How can household incomes go up when the earnings of both and women go down? Easy: The number of workers per household go up.
The arithmetic of this strategy for making ends meet doesn't work well, though. Additional expenses are needed to support a second income--a second car, child care, additional commuting, higher rent (due to optimizing the living situation for two jobs instead of just one). The income from the second job is often smaller (else it would be considered the first job) and more heavily burdened by taxes.
In fact, most people understand that the second income doesn't contribute much to increasing the standard of living. It's at least as much a ploy for some stability in income (a hedge against the income of the first job being lost) and a way to maintain the employability of the second wage-earner.
A little frugality goes a long way. In fact, I take back what I said about wishing that people would quit romanticizing those days as a gold age of prosperity. If romanticizing those days motivates people to live a little more frugally, then they should do just that.
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