27 January 2010

Standard of Living

It's a phrase that is often used in debates and arguments, to support or decry changes in laws, or proposed legislation. Sometimes people believe our standard of living will go up, while others believe it will drop. Problem is, no one really agrees on what 'standard of living' means. It's pretty subjective, and varies according to personal values and beliefs. Yes, there some factors that are pretty much universal. Food and water supply, a roof over your head, and maybe conveniences like electricity and private bathrooms.

Supposedly the US has one of the highest standards of living anywhere in the world! GO US! But how do we measure that? What's the baseline? What criteria do we use?

We could start with healthcare. Medical technology and medicine in the US is arguably very advanced and continues to be researched and developed. Score a point for standard of living. But that's pretty one-dimensional isn't it? How about coverage? Woops. Not so good. A lot of citizens don't have ANY insurance, and a lot more are underinsured. Even the ones who DO have insurance often get denied, and end up paying expenses out of pocket. And healthcare prices are skyrocketing, far faster than the inflation rate. Thus while we have very advanced healthcare, the cost is beyond most peoples means, making the availability pretty bad. We could say that in terms of healthcare, our standard of living is great... but only for some people.

Another classic factor is food. It seems the US would rank pretty high here too. We have plenty of food. Too much even. And it's cheap. So cheap that one third of our country is overweight, and one third is obese. No lack of food here! But again, that's pretty one-dimensional. Quantity isn't the only consideration. Quality matters, and we're not doing so great there. Most school lunch programs serve extremely high calorie foods with low nutritional density. Prepackaged meals heavy with sodium, fat, and cholesterol. Often the cheapest foods in grocery stores are also the least nutritious. The availability of organic foods, although increasing, is still very low. Additionally because of economies of scale, organics are typically significantly more expensive. Add to this the fact that most inner-city neighborhoods don't even HAVE a grocery store, and residents buy most of their food from so-called "convenience" stores at much higher prices. Looks like our standard of living when it comes to food is also a mixed bag. Great for some, terrible for others. You could argue that lack of starvation is a big plus, and I'd agree. But killing yourself slowly through bad nutrition and obesity isn't exactly an improvement, and actually ends up costing our country far more than if we'd simply dropped dead right away.

Well, that's two major factors with a severely mixed outcome. What about housing? Another oops. This one doesn't even require explanation does it? Homelessness, gentrification, relegation of lower income households to run-down neighborhoods, astronomical prices for city housing, suburban sprawl, and best of all the mortgage meltdown. The upside? Gated communities, expensive high-rise apartments close to urban centers, vacation homes, rural developments for the rich, and McMansions. Yet another mixed bag. So far our 'standard of living' is kinda shaky isn't it?

Education is often cited as the cornerstone of industrialized societies. Without it, we'd be a bunch of sheep-herders (or something). The US has a LOT of advanced education. Universities, colleges, vocational schools, you name it. Sounds pretty spiffy. But wait! K12 doesn't sound quite so grand. Schools aren't created equal. Many of them are so poor they might as well be teaching in a cave and drawing on the walls. The poorer the community, the poorer the school. Sure, YOU may have gone to a decent one, but there's also ones in such disrepair they're about to fall down, with leaking roofs, drafty windows, no modern technology, and twenty year old textbooks. If we think those kids will grow up to have the same opportunities as everyone else, we're idiots. Quality of education is definitely NOT universally high in the US. That brings us to so-called "higher education." This stuff is even MORE inaccessible. Prices are skyrocketing here too, far faster than the inflation rate. Most students these days HAVE to take out loans to get a degree, and that assumes that they qualify for one! There's a lot of factors that go into getting a school loan, not the least of which is credit history. Say what? Whether or not we can be educated depends on if we paid off our credit card on time? And for some students, especially those just out of high school, their credit history is non-existent. Couple that with the fact that until the age of 25 or so, your finances and those of your parents are inexplicably linked when it comes to figuring out how much you qualify for, and we have a system that is dysfunctional in the extreme. You want a four year degree? Prepare to be saddled with enormous debt for the following 20-30 years. Kiss the 'American Dream' goodbye. You wont be able to afford a mortgage any time soon.

To recap, the factors listed above are healthcare, food, housing, and education. Pretty solid indicators of standards of living. Arguably, we're still ahead of many third-world countries, but making a blanket statement that "the standard of living in the US is pretty good" is a crock. It varies enormously from person to person. It's time to stop tooting our own horn, and take a good hard look at what we've fooled ourselves into thinking is the greatest country on earth.

No comments: