Washington » We’re heavier in pounds and hotter by degrees than Americans of old. We’re starting to snub our noses at 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, on the eve of the Republican National Convention opening Monday and the Democratic convention that follows it a week later. 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 paint-by-the-numbers portrait:
Where we live » Like much else, where we live is shaped by how — or whether — we make a living. But larger forces than that 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 over 30 hours stuck in traffic per year, says the Texas Transportation Institute, up from 14 hours in 1982. That’s the time spent going nowhere or at a crawl.
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 overarching 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 over 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-square-foot, one-story, 2-bedroom Levittown prototypes that sparked the suburban boom and brought modest homes within reach of the masses after World War II.
Though they paved paradise and put up housing lots, the U.S. remains heavily treed. One-third of its land area is forested, a proportion that has been stable since the beginning of the past century. But after the devastation of American chestnuts that grew by the billions in Eastern forests and of the elms that gave so many towns an Elm Street, today’s forests and urban greenery are not the same as in the past.
Meantime asphalt and iron have fallen into disrepair: 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. (Velma was a popular name from the 1890s through the 1930s, then no more). In party-line days, a major technological advance came when Ma Bell developed distinct rings for different homes on the line, so everyone didn’t pick up each time the phone jangled.
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, less 8 percent of adults lived in households with only wireless telephones. Now it’s more than 32 percent. Nearly nine in 10 adults own a cell.Next Page >
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