October 26, 2006
Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked a simple question: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" In those days of "stagflation" many weren't, and Reagan won a mandate for change.
These days the answer would -- or should -- be different. Most of us enjoy a higher standard of living than we did just a few years ago. Today's unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, lower than it was for most of the "go-go" 1990s. And total compensation -- wages plus benefits (which now make up almost a third of workers' pay) -- is higher today than it was at the top of the tech bubble.
The signs are especially positive when we compare today's economy with the one Reagan inherited. Family income is higher, and most Americans routinely enjoy luxuries that, in living memory, only a select few could have purchased. And it's not just "the rich" who are doing well. Lower- and middle-income families also share in the prosperity.
There are many ways to measure our success.
For one, look around your neighborhood. Chances are, almost every home has air conditioning. In 2001, the Census Bureau said 57 percent of homes had central air, while an additional 25 percent had window units.
In 1979, only 40 percent of new homes had central AC. Even for new homes, it was a luxury item. A generation later, it's almost impossible to imagine building a new home without air conditioning.
Today's homes are bigger, too. The median size of new homes has increased roughly 50 percent since the 1970s. They also have more bedrooms -- more than a third of new homes feature four or more bedrooms today, while in the Carter years only one in five had that much space.
Not only do Americans have larger, more comfortable homes, we also have more time to enjoy them, because we're living longer.
In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 73.7 years. When the 300-millionth American was born recently, that child's life expectancy was 77.9 years. Where did those extra years come from? Mainly medical advances. Yes, Americans pay more for health care, but we're getting what we pay for.
People at all income levels enjoy access to prescription drugs that make life better and longer. Medicine helps us control cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and lower high blood pressure. Most of these drugs would have been considered "miracle drugs" just a few generations ago. Now they're so common that Wal-Mart recently unveiled a plan to make a month's supply of 291 generic medicines available for just $4 each, well within the poorest person's budget.
Speaking of budgets, remember your mother warning you to "hang up the phone -- you're on my nickel"? Years ago even a simple long-distance call was a luxury. Today, more than half of us (159 million in 2003) have cell phones, and the idea of being charged extra for long distance seems quaint.
Compare that with 1984, when only 340,000 Americans (the very wealthiest, of course) had mobile phones. And those were large, clunky and unreliable compared with today's versions, which are so inexpensive we readily give them to young children.
Other technologies have made similar leaps forward. From 1997 to 2003, the proportion of households with computers jumped from 37 to 62 percent. And while only one-fifth of households were connected to the Internet in the mid-1990s, these days more than half are hooked up.
It's also worth noting that common devices such as iPods and BlackBerrys have made life easier and more entertaining in recent years. Plus, these inventions were made possible only because our growing technology industries developed the hardware while our growing economy created a demand for them. Such devices are readily affordable to most Americans.
Overall, it's hard to justify a climate of pessimism. Especially when, by so many objective measures, we're "better off."
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times