SMOKINCHOICES (and other musings)

September 3, 2012

Ways we’ve Changed

A M E R I C A N     E V O L U T I O N

Even since the 2008 election, much about our nation has changed

By Calvin Woodward and Christopher S. Rugaber |                                                                                                                                                                          ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — We’re heavier in pounds and hotter by degrees than Americans of old. We’re starting to spurn distant suburbs after generations of burbs in our blood. Our roads and bridges are kind of a mess. There are many more poor, and that’s almost sure to get worse.  *The oddly American obsession with picking up and moving on — “this spectacle of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance,” as Alexis de Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago — has given way to the un-American activity of going nowhere. But check back tomorrow.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       * Such swirling changes are not fodder for a State of the Union speech, but they are part of the state of the union nonetheless, between last week’s Republican National Convention and the Democratic convention that begins Monday. The country that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are vying to lead for the next four years is not quite the same as the one four years ago, not nearly the same as the one further back in time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   * Our taste for McMansions, for example, has slightly soured in recent years in favor of more affordable abodes.                                                                * We, like, speak differently than our forebears, new twists on the same tongue. LOL.                                                                                                                    * Soldiers are flowing home from the wars; this is almost what peace looks like.                                                                                                                                    * A snapshot:

Where we live

Like much else, where we live is shaped by how — or whether — we make a living. But larger forces seem to be at work in determining Americans’ chosen places.

U.S. cities and closely surrounding areas are experiencing more growth than farther-off suburbs for the first time in at least 20 years. The cost and bother of commuting are part of the reason. The average commuter spends more than 30 hours stuck in traffic per year, says the Texas Transportation Institute, up from 14 hours in 1982.

As well, city life is becoming the choice of more young and old people, as the attractions and convenience rival the long-held American dream of affordable home ownership, which usually means farther out.

Meantime, the historic migration of Southern blacks to the North has reversed, with black populations rising in Southern cities and suburbs, especially among the more affluent.     But the top recent development in where we live is that we aren’t moving much at all.

Mobility is the lowest it’s been in the 60 years it has been tracked by the Census Bureau, with only 11.6 percent of the nation’s population moving in the past year. That’s just more than half the level in 1951, the biggest year for Americans on the move, 21.2 percent. More adult children are living with parents because of economic hardship, fewer older people are able to retire to sunny climes and the housing bust further contributed to locking the restless in place.

Average home size dropped 5 percent from 2007 to 2010, to a little under 2,400 square feet. It’s still a far cry from the 750-squarefoot , one-story, two-bedroom Levittown prototypes that sparked the suburban boom and brought modest homes within reach of the masses after World War II.

Nearly one in four of the country’s 605,086 bridges is rated deficient.

How we communicate

Until World War II in residential areas and well beyond in rural America, telephone party lines were common. If you wanted to make a phone call, you had to wait for Velma down the road to finish gossiping on the same line, interrupt the chitchat to ask her to hang up — or just cover the speaker and eavesdrop on the juicy details.

These days, the dedicated landline that took over from the party line is itself fading, as Americans’ favorite gadget, the cellphone, spreads in numbers and smarts.    The number of people with wireless only and no traditional landline phone has grown fourfold since 2005, the government estimates.   In 2005, fewer than 8 percent of adults lived in households with only wireless telephones. Now it’s more than 32 percent.

The day the Democratic convention opened in 2008, Facebook announced its 100 millionth user. Facebook is closing in on its billionth user, sitting with Twitter as kings of the social-media mountain until something else knocks them off.

Who we are

• Fatter. The average woman has gained 18 pounds since 1990, to 160 pounds; the average man is up 16 pounds, to 196, Gallup found.
• Poorer as a whole, but richer than during the recession. The value of people’s homes, stocks and all other assets stood at $62.9 trillion in March, the latest count, down from $66 trillion before the economy tanked but up from $51.3 trillion at the downturn’s depths.
• Indebted, but perhaps not up to the eyeballs. Credit-card debt has declined about 14 percent since 2008. Americans also have less mortgage debt, but more student debt and auto loans. The savings rate, meantime, climbed to 4.2 percent last year, a big improvement from 1.5 percent in 2005. But then there is the government. It is indebted past the eyeballs.
• Hotter: The period from July 2011 to June 2012 was the warmest 12-month stretch on record. Altogether, the contiguous states posted an annual all-season average temperature of 56 degrees in that period, which is 3.3 degrees hotter than either of the years that Obama and Romney were born. The hottest calendar year on record for the U.S. is 1998, at 55.08 degrees, but that might not last this year’s swelter and lack of winter. Most of the past 15 years have been among the steamiest on the books, and all 15 were hotter than Romney’s birth year, 1947, and Obama’s, 1961.
• More numerous. The U.S. has 314 million people. The country surpassed 200 million in 1968 and 300 million in 2006.
• More diverse. For the first time, more than half the children born in the U.S. are racial or ethnic minorities, and by 2040 or several years after, non-Hispanic whites are expected to become a minority of the population. Along with this trend has come a historic jump in interracial marriages, which now make up an estimated 8.4 percent of marriages, up from 3.2 percent in 1980.

Addicted to texting.

Cellphone users sent an average of 13 text messages a day in December 2008, double the number from a year earlier, the government said. More recently, Pew researchers found the average teen sent more than 64 texts a day.
• Older. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of people aged 45 to 64 grew by close to one-third as the baby boom generation and those behind it grayed. That has helped to push the median age to 37.2.
A lot of young people are named Sophia, the top girl’s name for the first time, and Jacob, No. 1 choice for boys for the past 13 years. So long Mary and James, the dominant names for more than 100 years.

What we think

On the issues of the day, the economy has no near rival atop the list of concerns. Pocketbook matters often rule, but Americans were heavily focused on war in the early going of the last campaign. As the recession deepened, though, and now with troops coming home, it’s been the economy plain and simple — the issue ranked important by more than 9 in 10 respondents to a recent AP-GfK poll.
About half of us approve of the job Obama is doing, the poll found. About half disapprove. Voters are about evenly split on the race, and among those who lean to one man or the other, very few are open to changing their minds. Obama’s years-ago vision of a nation soaring above the divisions of red states and blue states seems a pipe dream.
The sharp lines and stagnant views are evident in public opinion on gun laws, abortion, health care, taxes and the federal budget deficit — on which polling has long shown wide divergence. The Pew Research Center reports that partisan polarization on basic policy questions is at its highest in 25 years.


    On Feb. 16, New Jersey Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman congratulated each other after passage of Gusciora’s bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it.

One exception has been support for gay marriage. In May of 2008 as Obama was wrapping up the Democratic nomination, just 40 percent of Americans told Gallup’s pollsters same-sex marriages should be recognized by the law as valid. This May, 50 percent said yes to the same question, the most striking shift in social attitudes during Obama’s presidency. Still, more than 30 states have passed measures against it and it’s frequently a losing issue at the ballot box. There are no united states on this question.
Polarization doesn’t stop at politics or policy, either. It appears to be embedded in personal relationships. A pre-convention Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found Democrats and Republicans tend to be surrounded by fellow partisans — two-thirds of their friends and family share their party leanings.
Many of us belong to tribes tinted red or blue.

What we earn

  • Few could have seen it coming back when Bill Clinton was scrambling to salvage his presidency from the Monica Lewinsky business, but his later years in office are starting to look like one of the economy’s golden ages. Unemployment was low, the government miraculously took in what it spent and the stock market marched steadily upward, at least until the bubble burst.

Household income peaked in 1999, at $53,252 in today’s dollars, and has declined since, to $49,445 in 2010. That puts households back to where they were in the mid-1990s.

  • But an even bigger rewind to an earlier time seems to be happening with the poor.
  • In July, The Associated Press found a broad consensus among economists and scholars that the official poverty rate is on track to reach its highest level in nearly half a century, erasing distinct — if modest — gains from the 1960s “war on poverty” that expanded the safety net with the introduction of Medicaid, Medicare and other social welfare programs.

The wealth gap between younger and older has grown into an unprecedented divide. Older people always have more net worth than younger adults on average, but now those 65 and over have 47 times as much as adults under 35. It used to be only 10 times as much, a quarter-century ago.

Overall, the value of goods and services produced in the country has returned to pre-recession levels, although with 5 million fewer people working. That makes the U.S. more productive and competitive. But when combined with meager income gains during that time, it also suggests we’re working harder for roughly the same pay.

What we pay

Housing prices have dropped by a striking 34 percent since late 2006. That’s good — if you’re buying.

Tuition is up 15 percent at four-year public universities and almost 10 percent at private four-year institutions from 2008 to 2010.

Gas? It’s a rollercoaster. The U.S. saw 91 cents a gallon only 13 years ago, during Clinton’s presidency. The average price hit $2 in May 2004, $4 in June 2008, then plunged before that year’s election, spiked and varied, sitting now at $3.80 a gallon.

In 2008, workers paid an average of $3,354 for a year’s worth of job-based health insurance, more than double their cost from nine years earlier, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported. In 2011, that average grew to $4,129. Not only did premiums rise, but many more workers were picking up the first $1,000 or more of health-care costs as deductibles grew and employers shifted more expenses to employees.




Scientists have found an alarming number of cases of the lung disease tuberculosis in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America that are resistant to up to four powerful antibiotic drugs. Tuberculosis is already a worldwide pandemic that infected 8.8 million people and killed 1.4 million in 2010. Drug-resistant TB is more difficult and costly than normal TB to treat and is more often fatal. The World Health Organization predicts that more than 2 million people will contract multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis by 2015.


Acts of piracy in the treacherous waters around the Horn of Africa have fallen sharply in 2012, according to statistics released by the U.S. Navy.   The Navy credits aggressive patrolling by international forces and increased vigilance by the commercial shipping industry for the decrease. Data released by the Navy show 46 pirate attacks in the area this year, compared with 222 in all of last year and 239 in 2010. Nine of the piracy attempts this year have been successful, compared with 34 successful attacks in all of 2011 and 68 in 2010.


For six years in a row, the Swiss government has run budget surpluses, and some investors  are complaining that the nation doesn’t have enough debt. Since 2005, Swiss federal debt has been paid down by $20.9 billion. In some recent cases, short-term Swiss debt has had                                                                                                               negative interest rates.




Occupy Wall Street, the movement against inequality that ignited in Manhattan last year, will mark its anniversary on Sept. 17 by trying to block traffic in the financial district and encircle the New York Stock Exchange. Protesters might try to make citizens’ arrests of bankers. But the movement has been handicapped by internal debate and flagging interest, organizers say.


A bionic eye has given back partial sight to an Australian woman who has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease causing severe vision loss. “All of a sudden I could see a little flash. . . . It was amazing,” the patient said. The 24-electrode device stimulates the retina and restores partial vision, so that patients can pick up major contrasts and edges such as light and dark objects. It was designed, built and tested by Bionic Vision Australia, a consortium of researchers who are seeking to develop it further.


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