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Dickens’ character Bob Cratchit, making 15 shillings a week, was not among the lowest-paid workers in the Victorian era.
Comparing the worth of a salary in 1840s England to today is an imperfect science.
Working conditions today are quite different with the advent of the 40-hour work week.
In Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge’s poor, put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit certainly didn’t have the best working conditions.
He labored long hours for a classic micromanager, who paid him a salary that made raising a family of six children difficult, especially with a tiny child with big medical problems.
One person on social media used the Cratchit character to try to make a point about the plight of Americans working for minimum wage today.
"Time for your annual reminder that, according to A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit makes 15 shillings a week. Adjusted for inflation, that's $530.27/wk, $27,574/yr, or $13.50/hr.
"Most Americans on minimum wage earn less than a Dickensian allegory for destitution."
This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The Facebook post by The Other 98% now includes a label that it is "missing context" and the caption notes that the post has been fact-checked by Lead Stories, which wrote that there was no evidence to support the claim. The author of the original tweet later admitted his claim was "based on super-sloppy googling."
The federal minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25 an hour and has not been raised since 2009. However, 30 states, plus three territories, have minimum wages higher than the federal level, the highest being $15.20 in the District of Columbia.
Many cities or counties also have minimum wages higher than the federal or state levels, including a high of $17.13 in Emeryville, Calif., and many employers are surpassing the required minimum as they face difficulty filling jobs during the pandemic, CNBC reported.
We spoke with several experts about the poster’s claim, and the consensus is there is really no perfect way to make such a comparison.
"There are various ways to calculate what 15 shillings in 1840 would be in English pounds today, and they don’t give the same answer," said George Boyer, the senior associate dean for academic affairs and professor of economics, and international and comparative labor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations
"Moreover, you then need to convert to U.S. currency, and the value of the dollar in terms of British pounds is far different from what it was in 1840. So 10 different people doing the calculation would get 10 different answers," he said.
Vincent Geloso, an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University who specializes in the measurement of living standards now and in the past, said the post appears wrong on a "great many levels," first of which is the "numbers are just off."
But are the numbers even relevant? Cratchit is not exactly the "allegory for destitution" the post claims. He was a skilled worker that would have made much more than many workers in the Victorian era, they said.
Geloso said the comparison is "meaningless," arguing that Cratchit was paid well above the median Briton and that his annual income of 39 pounds was only a bit less than the U.K. average of 57 pounds in 1846.
He said that a "well-known measure called welfare ratios, which estimate earnings divided by the cost of a basket of subsistence goods," show that Cratchit could buy more than six times that basket, far more than the poorest workers.
"Cratchit was thus well above the poverty line," Geloso wrote.
Boyer also said the comparison in the post is off base.
"The key thing for Thompson and others to remember is that Cratchit’s occupation was clerk. He was NOT one of the working poor. Saying that Cratchit’s wage was above today’s minimum wage is not a relevant calculation. He could have been a badly paid clerk and still made more than a member of the lower working class," Boyer said, adding that comparing the wages of day laborers in that era may have made a better choice.
Gregory Clark, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis, argued that Cratchit would be worse off than today’s minimum wage worker, saying, "The tweet overestimates the hourly wage in 1843 in terms of purchasing power by about 8-fold."
Clark said Cratchit, as a relatively skilled worker in a time when 40% of men were illiterate, would have been well paid for that time, though he lived in a high-cost city. But, he said, his wages, based on a 60-hour work week, amount to a meager purchasing power of only $1.70 per hour in today’s U.S. dollars.
Samuel Williamson, co-founder and president of the economic data site MeasuringWorth and professor emeritus of economics at Miami University in Ohio, pointed us to two blog posts he wrote about Cratchit’s salary and what it would be worth today.
In one, he writes that Cratchit was poorly paid for the job he had, but would have had a salary with a relative earnings value of $43,000 in U.S. dollars in 2020, or $21.44 per hour, based on a 40-hour work week, far more than the $13.50 cited in the tweet.
In the other, he also calculated the same figure as Clark on the real wage value of 15 shillings, but said that value is "computed using a retail consumer price index of a basket of goods and services" and is "unrealistic" because "the market baskets purchased by representative consumers have changed so much."
He said that the relative earnings value is a better comparison and wrote in another essay that most measures of worth are better than using the CPI.
Experts we spoke with agree that the average work week in the Victorian era would be more than 40 hours, probably at least 60. Dividing Williamson’s $43,000 figure by 60 hours gets you to the original poster’s $13.50 figure.
But the post seems to ignore the gains made by workers, said James Kincaid, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Southern California and editor of "The Daily Charles Dickens: A Year in Quotes."
"It seems to suggest that all the efforts of organized labor have done nothing more than maintain the status quo, and that's nonsense," said Kincaid, who said the average worker in that era worked 66 to 75 hours per week.
Kincaid said there is no good way to determine what 15 shillings then would amount to in U.S. wages today. He added that "Dickens knew what a barely-above-starvation wage would be for a worker like Cratchit with his family would be, as did his readers."
A Facebook post based on a tweet said that a Charles Dickens "allegory for destitution" made more than most American workers today do on a minimum wage salary.
Cratchit’s earnings outperformed U.S. minimum-wage earners, but his experience was not a portrayal of a low-wage worker. Cratchit was making far more than the average worker in London during the Victorian era, experts say. The comparison between 1840s shillings and today’s dollars is problematic. One expert said Cratchit would be making $21.44 per hour in today’s dollars, assuming a 40-hour week.
We rate this claim Half True.
CORRECTION: We updated this fact-check on Jan. 4 to correct the name of Cornell professor George Boyer.
PolitiFact email interview with James Kincaid, a professor emeritus of English and Aerol Arnold professor emeritus of English at the University of Southern California, Dec. 23, 2021
PolitiFact email interview with George Boyer, the senior associate dean for academic affairs and ILR professor of economics and international & comparative labor at Cornell University, Dec. 29, 2021
PolitiFact email interview with Vincent Geloso, an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University, Dec. 27, 2021
PolitiFact email interview with Gregory Clark, distinguished professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis
PolitiFact email interview with Samuel Williamson, co-founder and president of Measuring Worth and professor of economics, emeritus at Miami University
Lead Stories, "Fact Check: NO Evidence That 'A Christmas Carol' Character Made More Than Today's U.S. Minimum Wage Worker," Dec. 22, 2021
U.S. Department of Labor, "Minimum Wage"
U.S. Department of Labor, "State Minimum Wage Laws"
Emeryville, Calif., "Minimum Wage Ordinance"
Measuring Worth, "Bob Cratchit was NOT making less than the minimum wage," Dec. 28, 2021
Measuring Worth, "What is the relative value of Bob Cratchit’s 15 shillings a week in 1843?," Dec. 24, 2021
Measuring Worth, "Defining Measures of Worth: Most are better than the CPI"
Economic Policy Institute, "Minimum Wage Tracker"
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