The Claim: Bob Cratchit Was Destitute But Still Earned More Than U.S. Minimum Wage
The work of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens went viral over the holidays, when a tweet used his 1843 short story “A Christmas Carol” take a look at the minimum wage.
Posted on December 19 and retweeted by more than 14,000 users, it centered on Bob Cratchit. The character works as a clerk and bookkeeper for the wealthy Ebenezer Scrooge, but struggles to provide enough food and clothing for his wife and six children.
According to the post – which was captured and shared by many Facebook users – Cratchit symbolizes ‘misery’ in the news but would have made an inflation-adjusted salary of around $13.50 an hour – nearly twice the federal minimum wage.
“It’s time to remind you annually that according to A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit earns 15 shillings a week. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $530.27/week, $27,574/year or $13.50 /h,” the tweet read.
“Most minimum wage Americans earn less than a Dickensian allegory for misery.”
Following:Minimum wage set to increase in 21 states and 35 localities as others adopt $15 an hour
If he were alive today, would Cratchit actually earn more than minimum wage?
The salary figure is about right. But as independent fact-checking organizations have reported, the claim is more complicated than the message suggests.
Chris Thompson, who posted the original tweet, told USA TODAY in a LinkedIn post that the claim came from an article posted by the EverythingWhat site, which he said he found after “a very cursory Google search.”
The tweet attracted thousands of comments and shares on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Over 30,000 users shared a screenshot of the tweet posted by liberal Facebook page The Other 98% – although he later updated his post to state that “this post has been verified and found to be false”.
Cratchit’s salary is roughly equivalent to $14.20 an hour
Inflation is usually measured using the consumer price index, which examines annual increases in the average price of a standard set of consumer goods and services.
But that kind of metric can’t accurately estimate Cratchit’s salary, said Samuel H. Williamson, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Miami in Ohio.
“The term ‘inflation-adjusted wage’ is very misleading because it implies that…those ‘adjusted’ wages can buy a similar set of goods and services,” Williamson said. “But over time, the lot becomes so different that the comparison is ridiculous. Mobile phones with quill pens, etc.”
Although no measure is perfect, what was the relative value of Bob Cratchit’s 15 shillings a week in 1843? of the modern equivalent of a salary of 15 shillings in 1843, said Williamson. This indicator adjusts a salary according to the inflation of the worker’s average salary each year.
Using this method, Cratchit’s 15 shillings a week would translate to a relative value of earnings from work of £611.30 a week, according to MeasuringWorth, an inflation-calculating resource co-founded by Williamson. At the current conversion rate, that’s about $850 per week and $43,000 per year.
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Keep in mind that in Victorian England in the 1840s, laborers had to work 10 hours a day, six days a week. Assuming Scrooge didn’t make Cratchit work longer, that means Cratchit was earning the equivalent of $14.20 an hour, adjusting for wage inflation.
That would almost double his federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, although 30 US states have set higher pay floors.
However, that salary would put the Cratchits under the federal poverty level of $44,660 for a family of eight.
Cratchit was not “destitute” for his time
By calling Cratchit “a Dickensian allegory for misery”, the tweet implies that he was paid a relatively low salary for someone in Victorian times. But that’s not the whole story.
Joel J. Brattin, an English professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute who has researched Dickens’ work, told USA TODAY that although Cratchit received a relatively low salary for his skills and time period, he didn’t he was not the poorest person in Victorian London. For example, manual laborers were paid about 8 shillings a week, he said, and there was no minimum wage.
“It’s important to note that Bob Cratchit was not helpless,” Brattin said in an email. “On the contrary, he was poorly paid and had a large family – six children and a wife – to feed and clothe.”
Fact check:Viral claim exaggerates rise in house prices since 1970
Peter Gurney, a history professor at the University of Essex who has studied consumption and consumer goods in the Victorian era, said Cratchit’s wage fixation takes away the message of “A Christmas Carol”.
“The point is that the Cratchit family nearly starves all year round, and Dickens shows how Christmas makes matters worse, exposing the extremes of poverty and wealth and the erosion of Christian charity by the individualism of the laissez-faire,” Gurney said in an email.
Our opinion: Partially false
Based on our research, we rate the claim that Cratchit was destitute but still earned more than the US minimum wage as PARTLY FALSE. Based on wage inflation, his salary of 15 shillings a week translates to about $43,000 a year, or $14.20 per hour with the standard 60-hour work week of his time. So it’s true that he would have earned more than the federal minimum wage.
However, he was not “poor” for his time, experts told USA TODAY. Cratchit’s salary as an educated clerk, though meager for a family of eight, was higher than that of many other workers. There was no minimum wage in Victorian London. Moreover, the standard and cost of living today are so different that direct comparison of wages is misleading.
Our fact-checking sources:
- Encyclopedia Britannica, updated June 5, Charles Dickens
- Samuel H. Williamson, December 22, telephone interview with USA TODAY
- Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, accessed 2022, Explanation of measures of value
- Peter Gurney, December 21, email correspondence with USA TODAY
- Joel J. Brattin, December 22, email correspondence with USA TODAY
- Charles Dickens, December 1843, “A Christmas Carol”
- MeasuringWorth, accessed 21 December, Purchasing power of pounds sterling from 1270 to present
- Bloomberg, accessed February 8, GBP-USD exchange rate – Bloomberg Markets
- Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, February 1, US Federal Poverty Guidelines Used to Determine Financial Eligibility for Certain Federal Programs
- Gregory Clark, 30 October 2011, Average incomes and retail prices, United Kingdom, 1209-2010
- Chris Thompson, December 19, Tweet
- Chris Thompson, December 21 Tweeter
- Chris Thompson, December 21, LinkedIn exchange with USA TODAY
- The Other 98%, December 19, Facebook post
- USA TODAY, December 21, minimum wage set to increase in 21 states and 35 localities as others accept $15 an hour
- USA TODAY, September 21, Fact Check: Viral Claim Exaggerates Home Price Rise Since 1970
- Brookings Institution, June 28, 2021, How does the government measure inflation?
- PolitiFact, January 3, ‘Christmas Carol’ character’s salary not the best comparison to today’s minimum wage
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