We live in a materialistic society. Our lives are crammed with a profusion of objects, from oatmeal cookies to off-road vehicles. Acquiring material goods and services is the endgame of the economy's vast productive capacity, purchases that provide us with the basics -- nourishment, clothing, and shelter. But what we b
uy does more than satisfy our "creature needs," in Harvard sociologist Lee Rainwater's felicitous phrase. Rising living standards have afforded even ordinary Americans the budgetary leeway to purchase objects of desire, comfort, and even luxury. High on American shopping lists are goods and services that expand time and extend the range of life's experiences. We install ...view middle of the document...
In a market-centered society, they are bought from malls and catalogs.
But, rising incomes beget rising expectations, for fitting in means keeping up. Even with large increases in living standards, middle- and upper-middle-class families feel the pressure to keep pace with friends and neighbors. For the poorest families, the difficulties are much greater. Not only do they lack resources, but they live in a society organized around the convenience of those with the greatest buying power -- those in the mainstream.
THE BASICS AND BEYOND
The modern market economy, with its vast capacity to produce and move all manner of goods and services, has raised our consumption possibilities well beyond "creature needs" -- quite likely beyond our grandparents' and great-grandparents' wildest dreams. For material existence at the beginning of the century was rudimentary at best.
When our grandparents were starting out in life, most struggled just to cover the basics, according to University of California economist Clair Brown. In 1918, fully 40 percent of all spending by urban households was devoted to food, most of it prepared at home by the wife (only 9 percent of married women worked for pay). African-American families were even more constrained than other low-income families; almost half of their total spending went for food.
In spite of food's sizable budget share, the typical American consumed a monotonous diet of bread, hot cereal, potatoes, beans, and rice. Meat appeared only at dinner and vegetables tended toward the plain, typically cabbage, spinach, tomatoes, or string beans. Fresh fruit other than apples was a rare treat. Three-quarters of Americans labored on farms or at blue-collar jobs (only 12 percent of the labor force worked as professionals or managers), and simply obtaining sufficient calories was a prime objective. Yet not all households achieved even this consumption level.
Housing was our grandparents' second-largest budget item, accounting for an additional quarter of spending. The average white urban household consisted of five members, living in about as many rooms, often cramped and partly heated. Only half the homes had a bathroom, and not all bathrooms had hot water. Clothes took another 15 percent of the budget, leaving precious little for everything else -- transportation, education, medical care, leisure, gifts, and charity.
Over the past seventy years, increases in productivity and in physical and human capital have expanded the quantity and quality of goods, and have allowed most Americans to more easily acquire the basics. The relative prices of some goods have shifted. Medical care costs (and quality) have risen faster than average; clothing and electricity have climbed more slowly. Food prices have increased at the average rate. These prices changes have had an impact; but more significantly, rising incomes have let us satisfy our "creature needs."
Food, clothing, and shelter now account for about half of the typical...