American Standards of Living:1918-1988
A Final Evaluation
The question that engendered this inquiry remains:
Why are Americans driven to seek an ever-higher material standard
of living, instead of a more leisurely life style and a higher quality
of life? Although the complete answer should also include the political,
cultural, and social forces at work, the analysis presented here
allows us to discuss the economic basis for this behavior. Several
economic dimensions appear to be important.
- Fulfillment of basics by the great majority of
the US population has generated and justified public competition
for consumption of variety and status. Rather than reducing the
drive to use goods and services to create economic distance, affluence
has intensified the desire to distinguish oneself by status and
to buy an ever more varied set of consumption bundles.
- Economic growth has added to basic consumption
in two ways: First, consumption that supports complex economic
and social transactions has increased, for example, the need for
car transportation , for telephone services, for banking services,
and for cable television. With the development of computer and
interactive multimedia for information dissemination and for financial
and knowledge transactions, the basic requirement for taking part
in such transactions will change dramatically and will necessitate
purchase of the requisitecommodities.
- Innovation has become increasingly important
in the latter part of the twentieth century as introduction of
new goods and services has speeded up. Family incomes have not
grown sufficiently to allow both innovation and emulation of traditional
consumption norms. Consumers have opted for innovation at the
expense of traditional emulation, and this disruption of consumption
norms seems to cause families to undervalue the improvements made
in their standard of living.
- The American perception that the period 1950-73
should serve as a benchmark for judging the future has resulted
in unrealistic expectations. This period was extraordinary in
the improvements achieved in living standards across classes.
Unrealistic,unmet expectations have supported the quest to improve
material standards of living ever since.
- Social welfare programs set up for those at the
bottom of the income distribution dramatically diminished the
economic distance between the lower working classand those receiving
welfare. The shorter distance increased class conflict and undermined
public support for welfare programs, as the lower working class
feltthreatened by a closing of the economic distance between themselves
and the poor.
The strength of these economic forces in the United
States should not be underestimated. In the past two decades, wages
have stagnated, but American families have maintained or improved
living standards by increasing total paid work hours and by reducing
savings.Neither of these techniques is without a hidden cost to
the family and neither can be sustained as a method to improve living
standards. Continued wage stagnation will eventually translate into
stagnation of living standards.
In the absence of a major transformation of social values, our class
conflicts over income and what it buys can be expected to intensify.
Instead of a diminished materialistic drive, we might experience
an even more dedicated quest for an ever higher standard of living.
Americans will no doubt remain focused on acquiring private goods
to impart status, rather than directing our nations resources
to resolve social problems - even as these problems undermine our
own quality of life.
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