HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The headlines read, “These are the worst of times.”
That might be true today. But Styx sang that line in a song in 1980. And borrowed the line from Charles Dickens a century earlier. Turns out, people have often thought they were living in the worst of times.
They couldn’t all be right. But could these — right now — really be the worst of times?
After all, thirty-year mortgage interest rates have hit 8%. Food is significantly more expensive than it was a few years ago. Healthcare costs have bankrupted some families.
The answer? In a few areas of life, arguably less. In other areas, no.
The realms where pessimists have a point — according to Jay Shabat, author of “American Places: A Profile of Local Economies Across the U.S.” — are what Shabat calls “the three H’s” healthcare, higher education, and housing. Healthcare costs, especially, are bankrupting millions of families.
The reason? Because, he says, those are parts of the economy that haven’t benefited from forces that have driven down the cost of — for example — consumer goods like electronics, which can be manufactured in countries like China, where wages are far lower than in America.
That’s “just not true with housing, health care and higher education,” Shabat said. “You can’t get someone in Shanghai to do your surgery or to build your house. It’s just something that has to be local.”
It’s very much true of goods like TVs, which once required months of family savings to buy but can now be purchased with the money many people earn in just a day.
“Those kinds of products are areas where, if anything, there’s been deflation, not inflation,” Shabat said.
This popular depiction by Visual Capitalist shows which kinds of goods and services cost significantly more than in the past and which cost less. This calculator shows how much something costing a certain amount of money in the past should cost today, relative to average inflation. A $1,000 big-screen TV in the year 2000 should have cost more than $1,800 today; instead, far better TVs — now flat, smart, and with 4K images — can cost less than $300. But the costs of healthcare and higher education have risen far more rapidly than overall inflation.
Also high: Interest rates. The average 30-year mortgage rate was 7.76% last week, up from as little as 2.65% as recently as 2021. Rates haven’t been this high since before some of today’s first-time homebuyers were born.
But back in 1981, 30-year mortgages hit an average of 18.63%.
Bill Rothman, a founder of Lemoyne, Pa.-based RSR Realtors, was already selling homes then and remembers those days well.
“It was a time to be creative — very creative — if you wanted to sell real estate,” Rothman said. “We had things like, the owner would finance the sale.”
Sure enough, in this report from 1981, the reporter talks about a homebuilder so desperate to unload new homes that “he’ll offer all kinds of discounts. he’ll reduce the interest rate to a comfortable 12%.”
Hard to fathom now — sure — but 12% was comfortable back when prevailing rates were 18%.
Shabat noted even high interest rates have a silver lining for some people, such as those who want risk-free earnings on their savings. Two years ago, FDIC-insured savings accounts paid less than 1%; today, some pay close to 5%.
In one regard, though, he said today’s 8% mortgage rates (and corresponding credit card interest rates far higher than that) sting even more than 1981’s 18% rates. Back then, the rise was gradual, over the course of much of the previous decade. This time, he noted, “the rate of change has been unprecedentedly fast…. That by itself has caused some discomfort [and] some strains on people’s budgets.”
There too, though, Rothman said high-interest rates create an opportunity: They’ve put downward pressure on home prices, meaning the fewer people who are buying are likely paying somewhat lower purchasing prices than they would have paid two years ago. Right now, the better deal on purchase price is being eaten up by higher interest.
That was also true in the early 1980s, he said. But people who bought homes then refinanced their mortgages when interest rates dropped, meaning they got the best of both worlds: a cheaper house and — eventually — a lower mortgage rate too.
No one can say for sure if and when current mortgage rates will drop.
But if and when they do, what people did in the 1980s “is what everyone will do,” Rothman said. “People will not keep these higher-rate mortgages.”
Nuk Oden — visiting Harrisburg from Erie, where she has a good job teaching college but is struggling to get a mortgage to buy a home — might be tempted to think these are the worst of time. But then she thinks twice about that. Why?
“I’m originally from Thailand, and we’ve had two military coups that I’ve lived through,” Oden said. “So I guess some things [today in America] are bad. But then when we look at a greater context, there are always other people who have it worse off.”