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The statement squares with a comparison of Thanksgiving dinner costs and wages. Since the American Farm Bureau Federation began calculating the typical price of a Thanksgiving dinner in 1986, only three other years have had Thanksgiving dinner costs represent a smaller percentage of median weekly income.
Jean-Pierre made a few errors in how she described the data, notably that the data goes back only to 1986.
On the same day Joe Biden held the annual presidential "turkey pardon," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre used Thanksgiving to make a point about slowing inflation.
"As we start preparing our Thanksgiving meals, grocery inflation is at its lowest level in over two years, with prices for eggs, milk, bacon and fresh veggies lower than last year," she said in her Nov. 20 press briefing. "In fact, according to the American Farm Bureau, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner fell this year. Prices are down for turkey, stuffing, peas, cranberries, pie crust and whipping cream. … Because wages are rising, this Thanksgiving dinner is the fourth-cheapest ever as a percentage of average earnings."
A skeptical reader asked us to check whether Jean-Pierre was correct that rising wages have made the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner particularly low this year.
We ran the math and found that, although Jean-Pierre erred in describing the calculation, on substance she has a point.
If this feels at odds with lived experience — you don’t need to show us your receipts! — it illustrates something economists have long known: People tend to think about the prices they pay regularly, such as gasoline and groceries, without doing the mental math to factor in their own incomes. Prices may be rising, but if your income is rising faster, those goods may be more affordable now than they were before.
That’s what seems to be happening with a specific Thanksgiving dinner tracked over recent decades.
Jean-Pierre cited the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual Thanksgiving dinner cost tracker.
Every year since 1986, the federation has tracked the typical cost of a basket of Thanksgiving staples, including a 16-pound turkey, pumpkin pie mix, milk, a carrots-and-celery tray, rolls, pie crusts, green peas, fresh cranberries, whipping cream, sweet potatoes and cubed stuffing.
Since 2018, the group has calculated costs for both this "classic" dinner and an updated version that adds a 4-pound boneless ham, russet potatoes and green beans.
In the long view — looking only at the nominal cost and not adjusting for inflation or income — prices have been rising. Although the basic basket cost $28.74 in 1986, it now costs $61.17.
As Jean-Pierre noted, that’s down from $64.05 for the classic meal in 2022.
The cost of the more expansive meal basket increased by $3.45 from 2022 to 2023; Jean-Pierre did not mention ham, potatoes or green beans in her briefing.
Economists always caution against looking just at nominal dollars when trying to gauge long-term trends. One method to hold nominal prices to a common standard is to consider affordability, rather than just price. You can do this by figuring out how much something costs compared with how much money someone has to buy it. If the price of something goes up, but your income goes up faster, the item is more affordable despite the price increase. We’ve used a similar method to track the impact of higher gasoline prices.
Asked for its methodology, the White House pointed us to a Nov. 15 blog post by Jeremy Horpedahl, an associate economics professor at the University of Central Arkansas.
In it, Horpedahl took the Farm Bureau’s annual dinner cost going back to 1986 and divided it by the median usual weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers, 16 years and older. To be consistent, he used nominal dollars for income — that is, the amount not adjusted for inflation — paralleling the dinner basket’s prices, which were also nominal only.
That calculation shows that, over the long term, Thanksgiving dinner is taking a smaller bite out of median wages today than it used to. That’s because wages have risen faster than Thanksgiving dinner prices have.
Thanksgiving dinner represented 7.9% of median weekly income in 1986 but fell as low as 4.8% in 2020. It rose again in 2021 (to 5.3%) and 2022 (to 5.9%) before easing again in 2023 to 5.5%.
That’s not only well below where the percentage was in 1986, but it’s also tied for fourth-lowest of any subsequent year.
Today’s percentage of median income is higher than it was during the last pre-pandemic Thanksgiving in 2019 — 5.5% rather than 5.2% — though the difference is small.
Jean-Pierre could have described the calculation more carefully.
Technically, 2023 is tied for the fourth-lowest cost, not fourth-lowest on its own.
Also, the calculation looked at median earnings (the middle of the data set) rather than average earnings (total earnings divided by the number of all earners); economists generally prefer median figures.
Perhaps most important, the data set goes back only to 1986, so we cannot say whether it’s in the running for cheapest Thanksgiving dinner "ever."
Jean-Pierre said, "Because wages are rising, this Thanksgiving dinner is the fourth-cheapest ever as a percentage of average earnings."
She made a few errors in describing the data, notably that the data goes back only to 1986. Nevertheless, her statement squares with a comparison of Thanksgiving dinner costs relative to wages.
Since 1986, when the American Farm Bureau Federation began calculating the typical price of a Thanksgiving dinner, only three other years have had Thanksgiving dinner costs represent a smaller percentage of median weekly income.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
White House, "Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre," Nov. 20, 2023
American Farm Bureau Federation, "Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner Down Slightly from Record High in 2022," Nov. 15, 2023
American Farm Bureau Federation, "American Farm Bureau Federation – Thanksgiving Dinner Cost Survey," accessed Nov. 21, 2023
Jeremy Horpedahl, "Thanksgiving 2023 is the Second Cheapest Ever (Relative to Earnings)," Nov. 15, 2023
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, "Employed full time: Median usual weekly nominal earnings (second quartile): Wage and salary workers: 16 years and over," accessed Nov. 21, 2023
PolitiFact, "How high are gasoline prices today, really?" March 11, 2022
White House, statement to PolitiFact, Nov. 21, 2023
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