published Sunday, August 26th, 2012

Portrait of a changing nation

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.

Here's 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.

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).

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.

The day Obama's Democratic convention opened in 2008, Facebook announced its 100 millionth user, a benchmark it actually took longer to reach than its now-overshadowed rival, Myspace. Facebook is closing in on its billionth user, sitting with Twitter as kings of the social-media mountain.

Cellphone users sent an average of 13 text messages a day in December 2008, double the number from a year earlier, the government said. More recently, Pew researchers found the average teen sent more than 64 texts a day.

WHO WE ARE

Fatter. The average woman has gained 18 pounds since 1990, to 160 pounds; the average man is up 16 pounds, to 196, Gallup found.

Poorer as a whole, but richer than during the recession. The value of people's homes, stocks and all other assets stood at $62.9 trillion in March, the latest count, down from $66 trillion before the economy tanked but up from $51.3 trillion at the downturn's depths.

Indebted, but perhaps not up to the eyeballs. Credit card debt has declined about 14 percent since 2008. Americans also have less mortgage debt, but more student debt and auto loans. The savings rate, meantime, climbed to 4.2 percent last year, a big improvement from 1.5 percent in 2005. But then there is the government. It is indebted past the eyeballs.

More numerous. The U.S. has 314 million people. The country surpassed 200 million in 1968 and 300 million in 2006.

More diverse. For the first time, more than half the children born in the U.S. are racial or ethnic minorities, and by 2040 or several years after, non-Hispanic whites are expected to become a minority of the population. Along with this trend has come a historic jump in interracial marriages, which now make up an estimated 8.4 percent of marriages, up from 3.2 percent in 1980.

Older. Between 2000 and 2010, the population of people aged 45 to 64 grew by close to one-third as the baby boom generation and those behind it grayed. That has helped to push the median age to 37.2 -- half the population younger than that, half over.

A lot of those young people are named Sophia, the top girl's name for the first time, and Jacob, No. 1 choice for boys for the past 13 years. So long Mary and James, the dominant names over 100 years.

WHAT WE THINK

On the issues of the day, the economy has no near rival atop the list of concerns. Pocketbook matters often rule but Americans were heavily focused on war in the early going of the last campaign. As the recession deepened, though, and now with troops coming home, it's been the economy plain and simple -- the issue ranked important by more than 9 in 10 respondents to an AP-GfK poll out this past week.

About half of us approve of the job Obama is doing, the poll found. About half disapprove. Voters are about evenly split on the race, and among those who lean to one man or the other, very few are open to changing their minds. Obama's years-ago vision of a nation of united states soaring above the divisions of red states and blue states seems a pipe dream in a fractious time.

The sharp lines and stagnant views are evident in public opinion on gun laws, abortion, health care, taxes and the federal budget deficit -- on which polling has long shown wide divergence. The Pew Research Center reports that partisan polarization on basic policy questions is at its highest point in 25 years.

One exception has been support for gay marriage. In May of 2008 as Obama was wrapping up the Democratic nomination, just 40 percent of Americans told Gallup's pollsters same-sex marriages should be recognized by the law as valid. This May, 50 percent said yes to the same question, the most striking shift in social attitudes during Obama's presidency. Still, more than 30 states have passed measures against it and it's frequently a losing issue at the ballot box. There are no united states on this question.

Polarization doesn't stop at politics or policy, either. It appears to be embedded in personal relationships. A pre-convention Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found Democrats and Republicans tend to be surrounded by fellow partisans -- two-thirds of their friends and family share their party leanings.

WHAT WE EARN

Few could have seen it coming back when Bill Clinton was scrambling to salvage his presidency from the Monica Lewinsky business, but his later years in office are starting to look like one of the economy's golden ages. Unemployment was low, the government miraculously took in what it spent and the stock market marched steadily upward, at least until the bubble burst.

Household income peaked in 1999, at $53,252 in today's dollars, and has declined since, to $49,445 in 2010. That puts households back to where they were in the mid-1990s.

But an even bigger rewind to an earlier time seems to be happening with the poor.

In July, The Associated Press found a broad consensus among economists and scholars that the official poverty rate is on track to reach its highest level in nearly half a century, erasing distinct -- if modest -- gains from the 1960s "war on poverty" that expanded the safety net with the introduction of Medicaid, Medicare and other social welfare programs.

The wealth gap between younger and older has grown into an unprecedented divide. Older people always have more net worth than younger adults on average, but now those 65 and over have 47 times more than adults under 35. It used to be only 10 times more, a quarter-century ago.

Overall, the value of goods and services produced in the country has returned to pre-recession levels, though with 5 million fewer people working. That makes the U.S. more productive and competitive. But when combined with meager income gains during that time, it also suggests we're working harder for roughly the same pay.

WHAT WE PAY

Housing prices have dropped by a striking 34 percent since late 2006. That's good if -- only if -- you're buying.

Tuition is up 15 percent at four-year public universities and almost 10 percent at private four-year institutions from 2008 to 2010.

Gas? It's a rollercoaster. The U.S. saw 91 cents a gallon only 13 years ago, during Clinton's presidency. The average price hit $2 in May 2004, $4 in June 2008, then plunged before that year's election, spiked and rollercoastered along, sitting now at $3.74 a gallon.

In 2008, workers paid an average of $3,354 for a year's worth of job-based health insurance, more than double their cost from nine years earlier, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported. In 2011, that average grew to $4,129. Not only did premiums rise, but many more workers were picking up the first $1,000 or more of health care costs as deductibles grew and employers shifted more health costs to employees.

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