How Air Conditioning Is a Hidden and Major Class Divide in America
Before air conditioning, even presidents had to suffer.
In the summer months, Abraham Lincoln used to ride a horse every evening from the White House to a cottage at a higher elevation four miles away. There he’d join his family in an attempt to escape the muggiest depths of the nation’s capital.
In July 1881, White House aides took to blowing air through sheets dunked in ice water in an effort to cool a severely wounded James Garfield. He wound up dying from an assassin’s bullet.
In 1909, William Howard Taft took the desperate step of sleeping on the White House roof to escape the furnace that is a Washington summer.
Back then, you could say, extreme heat was a social leveler. When air conditioning first entered American homes, it created a deep divide. Only the extremely wealthy — the ones least likely to have a job that required working up a sweat — could afford these newfangled contraptions.
Minneapolis railroad tycoon Charles Gates is believed to be the first to purchase a home cooling unit in 1914. At 7 feet high and 20 feet long, the device required a mansion-size home.
Smaller window units hit the market in the 1930s, but at a cost of more than $120,000 in today’s dollars, they were beyond the reach of the vast majority of Americans. As late as 1965, just 10 percent of U.S. homes had air conditioning.
Today, the economic divide created by home air conditioning is virtually gone. The Department of Energy estimates that nearly 90 percent of U.S. families have either central air or window units.
The modern divide is in the workplace.
In my Washington, D.C. office, colleagues routinely wrap themselves in blankets for long meetings in our refrigerator-like conference room. And throughout the city, you can see men in dark suits and ties even when temperatures soar near 100 degrees. They may complain (and they do), but they spend so little time exposed to the elements that their hot uniforms aren’t much of a health risk.
The people who have to work outside are the ones who really suffer. And outdoor workers, the people who harvest our food, build our homes and bridges, and care for our greenery, tend to also be among the lowest-paid.
In Las Vegas, where luxury hotels blast cool air out onto the sidewalk, construction workers in the desert heat have sometimes had to fight for the right to water breaks. In the landscaping industry, which employs more than 900,000 workers nationally, average pay is just $28,560 per year, one of the lowest of any occupation tracked by the U.S. Labor Department.
And those are official statistics based on full-time employment. Outdoor workers’ actual earnings are likely much lower.
The Economic Policy Institute recently pointed out that most California farmworkers have unpredictable, seasonal work hours. In 2015, that state’s agricultural workers earned an average of just $17,500 per year, EPI estimates.
The health risks of outdoor work will only worsen, of course, with climate change. And one contributor to that change, ironically, is the air-conditioning boom in the developing world.
The rapid increase in air conditioner sales is narrowing the gaps between cool air haves and have-nots in countries like China, India, and Brazil — just as it did in the United States. But this boom will also generate massive greenhouse gas emissions that will make the planet even hotter.
Today’s air conditioning gaps are a symptom of much bigger problems with complex solutions.
On the labor side, we need to ensure living wages and safe working conditions for all workers. At the same time, we need to get serious about addressing climate change in a way that puts the greatest responsibility on those who have contributed the most to this global challenge.