Better living ... as measured by PCs, VCRs

In case there was any doubt, a study has confirmed that Americans have a lot of what economists know, technically, as stuff.

The computer has surpassed the dishwasher as a standard household appliance. The poorest Americans have posted a sharp rise in access to air conditioning. The richest Americans still own the most cars, but they are choosing to own slightly fewer of them than they used to.

These census findings, released earlier this month, were true even before gifts piled up under trees this past week.

These nuggets provide a glimpse of American lifestyles that isn't captured in the raw data of monthly economic reports. At a time of concern about the standard of living for future generations, the study offers hopeful signs of tangible progress, even as the pace of income growth has slowed in recent years.

It's only one piece of the overall picture of economic progress and doesn't resolve the question about future generations. But it confirms that what the Census Bureau calls "material well-being" abounds for regular folks today in ways that Louis XIV - for all his palaces, silk stockings, and ruffled finery - could barely have imagined.

True, most of us don't have an entourage of fawning servants, and while US homes have expanded in square footage they hardly rival Versailles. But modern appliances, in many ways, are robotic servants who sometimes break down but have yet to stage an organized revolt.

Wealth remains highly stratified. For example, the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans had 2.4 cars per "consumer unit" (essentially a household or an individual living on his or her own) in 2002, the most recent year in the Census study. That's down slightly from 1992, when they had 2.5 cars per household. The bottom 10 percent of the income ladder averaged just 0.6 cars per household in 2002, the same as 1992.

Still, by almost all measures, the data show rising well-being for all of society. And while the wealth gap may not be narrowing, the rich-poor gap in lifestyles has narrowed substantially since 1992 when measured in many of these tangible items.

"In terms of the items people have ... it amazes me the number of people who are at or near the poverty line that have color TVs, cable, washer, dryer, microwave," says Michael Cosgrove, an economist at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. That's not to ignore the hardships of poverty, he adds, "but the conveniences they have are in fact pretty good."

The study doesn't explore the happiness factor - whether the growing material prosperity is actually making people feel more satisfied with their lives. While economists tend to focus on things that can be measured in dollars and cents, the spiritual side of the economy has begun to garner more attention. That's partly because some research has found that once people gain a modest sufficiency in goods, further increases in income don't result in rising happiness.

Census researchers don't have a happiness index, but they are exploring aspects of well-being that go beyond physical goods. For example, nearly 13 percent of Americans have incomes that place them below the official poverty line. But what does that mean in terms of their daily lives? The fact that 95 percent of them may have a refrigerator tells only part of the story.

The Census report also compares, from 1992 through 1998, people's perceptions of whether basic needs were being met. More than 92 percent of Americans below the poverty line said they had enough food, as of 1998. Some 86 percent said they had no unmet need for a doctor, 89 percent had no roof leaks, and 87 percent said they had no unpaid rent or mortgage.

While some improvement was found in all those measures over that period, shortfalls obviously remain. But in many goods, the progress is significant for poor and rich alike.

Two-thirds of those in poverty had air conditioners in 1998, up from 50 percent in 1992. Personal computers have grown increasingly ubiquitous. Where fewer than 20 percent of homes had them in 1992, nearly 60 percent did in 2002 (more than own dishwashers).

That doesn't mean all have equal access to PC-enabled economic empowerment.

"What good is a computer without Internet access?" asks Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. In this networked age, he's only exaggerating a bit.

While high-speed Internet access is spreading, the potential rise of free wireless networks in cities could help many low-income Americans, he says.

Even with the rise interactive tools like computers and media players - alas, Apple iPods aren't included in the Census survey yet - the preferred appliance of couch potatoes is also spreading. There are now 2.1 TV sets per household, up from 1.6 in 1992.

The Census report doesn't measure environmental factors. The US routinely consumes more resources per capita than most other nations.

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