Chapter 2: What We Need: More Than You Ever Imagined


Chapter 2: What We Need: More Than You Ever Imagined

OVERVIEW

America is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. A typical middle-class, even lower-class, American cannot even imagine what life is like for the typical citizen of Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, or Indonesia. Our standard of living far exceeds any other developed nation. What we take for granted as an essential part of our way of life—unlimited electricity, clean running water, refrigeration, and television—is far beyond the means of a significant portion of the world's population. Worldwide, the average per capita gross national product is currently about $7,200. The United States per capita of $36,200 is five times as large, as shown in Figure 2.1. With U.S. median household income hovering around $40,000 and median net worth of $71,600, the average American's wealth is unimaginable for most of the world's inhabitants.

$36,200 and above

United States, Luxembourg

$25,000–$36,199

Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Hong Kong, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland

$20,000–$24,999

Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Qatar, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom

$15,000–$19,999

Argentina, Bahrain, Greece, Israel, Kuwait, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, South Korea, Taiwan

$10,000–$14,999

Chile, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Malaysia, Martinique, Slovenia

$7,200

Worldwide average

$5,000–$9,999

Algeria, Botswana, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Guadeloupe, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, Poland, Romania, Russia, Thailand, South Africa, Turkey, Uruguay

$1,000–$4,999

Albania, Angola, Bangladesh, Belize, Bolivia, Burma, Cambodia, Cameroon, Chad, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Jamaica, Jordan, Kenya, North Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mongolia, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Swaziland, Syria, Tajikistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Zimbabwe

Under $1,000

Afghanistan, Congo Republic, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, Zambia

Source: The World Factbook, CIA, 2001


Figure 2.1: Gross Domestic Product per Capita for Selected Countries, 2000



WHAT AMERICANS NEED TO LIVE

When talking about what we need, as opposed to what we want, it is important to account for our contemporary American standard of living. More than two-thirds of U.S. householders own their own home. They live in a median-sized home of about 1,700 square feet divided into five or six rooms. The typical home is on a one-third-acre lot, giving the typical American household some "breathing room." Almost every American home (99.4 percent) has some kind of heating source and almost every home (98.5 percent) has a complete bathroom, including toilet, sink, and bathtub. Moreover, not all of the 1.5 percent of households without a complete bathroom live this way out of necessity. Some religious groups, such as the Amish (who are my neighbors in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania), choose to live without indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences.

The simple fact is the contemporary American lives so far above subsistence, we have lost touch with basic needs of life.

As for the modern conveniences that grace the typical American home, a majority of American households owns a car; only 17 percent live without this symbol of American freedom. The majority also have air-conditioning in their homes. Most own a clothes washer and dryer, have an automatic dishwasher, ceiling fan, microwave oven, range and oven, frost-free refrigerator, water heater, stereo equipment, color television, VCR, cordless phone, and answering machine. See Figure 2.2 for a breakdown of the American way of life.

Wealth:

Median net worth

$71,600

Median household income

$38,885

Home ownership rate

66.8% (1999)

Housing (1997):

Median number of rooms:

5.3

If owner occupied

6.1

Median square footage

1,685

Heating equipment

99.4%

Complete Bathrooms:

None

1.5%

1 only

46%

2 or more

52%

Single units or mobile homes

74%

Median lot size

0.33 acres

Amenities (Owner Occupied):

Porch, deck, balcony, or patio

85%

Usable fireplace

42%

Separate dining room

48%

2 or more living/recreation rooms

48%

Garage/carport

73%

Cars:

None

17%

1 car

48%

2 or more cars

35%

Household Appliances:

Air conditioner:

 
  • Central

46.8%

  • Room

24.8%

Clothes washer

77.4%

Clothes dryer

71.2%

Dishwasher

50.2%

Ceiling fan

60.1%

Freezer

33.2%

Microwave oven

83.0%

Oven

98.8%

Self-cleaning oven

44.1%

Range

99.2%

Refrigerator

99.8%

Frost-free refrigerator

86.8%

Water heater

100.0%

Stereo equipment

68.8%

Color TV

98.7%

  • 1 only

31.8%

  • 2 or more

66.9%

VCR

88.0%

Personal computers

35.1%

Cordless phone

61.4%

Answering machine

58.4%

Source: U.S. Statistical Abstract, Appliances and office equipment used by households, 1997; Housing units and lot, 1999


Figure 2.2: American Way of Life

The simple fact is the contemporary American lives so far above subsistence, we have lost touch with basic needs of life: food for nutrition, basic clothing, and shelter for warmth and protection. Many people in other countries of the world live dangerously close to subsistence and know the pangs of hunger and the chill of weather without the benefit of adequate clothing and shelter. While most Americans today enjoy a higher standard of living, it has not always been so. During the colonial period and the Civil War, among other times, Americans were also deprived, but they valued their freedom more than material goods. Americans have also faced deprivation in war and during the Depression. Generations born before World War II share cultural memories of living "without" and "in need." The generations that went before were the keepers of family traditions and passed down practical knowledge about living frugally.

However, today's baby boomers and their children are rapidly losing touch with this shared cultural memory of hardship. Boomers and younger generations know nothing about getting along before cars, indoor plumbing, and antibiotics. The generations that were born and came of age after the last World War know little about doing without, struggling to put food on the table, stretching a dollar, and delayed gratification. Spoiled the younger generations may be, but they are the consumers who express their wants, desires, and dreams in terms of needs and necessities because they have never done without.