A look in capsule form of what the nation looks like on the eve of the political conventions.
WASHINGTON — We’re starting to snub our noses at distant suburbs after generations of living in the ‘burbs. Our roads and bridges are kind of a mess. There are many more poor people.
Such changes are part of the state of the union on the eve of this week’s Republican National Convention and the Democratic convention that follows it a week later. The country that President Obama and Mitt Romney are vying to lead for the next four years is not quite the same as the one four years ago.
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.
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And the oddly American obsession with picking up and moving on — “this of so many lucky men restless in the midst of abundance,” as French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville noted nearly 200 years ago during his travels in our young country — has given way to the un-American activity of going nowhere.
A by-the-numbers look at where we stand now:
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 more than 30 hours stuck in traffic a year, says the Texas Transportation Institute, up from 14 hours in 1982. That’s the time spent going nowhere or at a crawl.
City life also is becoming the choice of more younger and older people, as the attractions and convenience rival the long-held American dream of affordable homeownership, which usually means farther out.
The historic migration of Southern African Americans to the North also 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 slightly less than 2,400 square feet. It’s still a far cry from the 750-square-foot, one-story, two-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 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. (Velma was a popular name from the 1890s through the 1930s.) 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 land line that took over from the party line is 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 than 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 the Democratic National Convention opened in 2008, Facebook announced its 100 millionth user, a benchmark it took longer to reach than its now-overshadowed rival, Myspace. In 2012, Facebook is closing in on its billionth user, sitting with Twitter as kings of the social-media mountain — until something else knocks them off.
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 and with troops coming home, it has 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, 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 2008 as Obama was wrapping up the Democratic nomination, 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.
What we earn
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.
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 50 years, 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 older have 47 times more than adults younger than 35. It used to be 10 times more 25 years ago.
Some other key facts:
HEATING UP: The coldest yearly national average temperature, in records going back to 1895, was 50.82 degrees in 1917. Hottest year on record was 1998, at 55.08 degrees. The July 2011-June 2012 period was the hottest 12-month stretch on record: 56 degrees, 3.2 degrees above the long-term average.
POPULATION: The U.S. population has more than doubled since Romney was born in 1947. Population then: 144.1 million. In 1961, when Obama was born: 183.7 million. This year: 314 million. The U.S. grows by one person every 12 seconds.
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 make up an estimated 8.4 percent of marriages, up from 3.2 percent in 1980.
ADDICTED TO TEXTING: 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.
LIFE SPAN: Life expectancy has reached 78.5 years, up from 66.8 when Romney was born and 70.2 when Obama was born. The average person lives six years longer in Japan, one of 49 countries with longer life expectancies.
CHARITY: Fewer Americans are sharing their time and talents as volunteers, but they’re opening their wallets a little more. The number of adults volunteering peaked at 65 million in 2005. It then dropped to just below 63 million five years later. Charitable giving rose slightly, with people, businesses and foundations giving almost $291 billion in 2010. That’s up after declines in the two previous years, the biggest drops in giving in more than 40 years as a result of the recession.
LINGO: “Occupy” was voted 2011 word of the year by the American Dialect Society, thanks to Occupy Wall Street and related protests. The sign-of-the-times winners of past years: “app” in 2010, “tweet” in 2009 and the no-fun “bailout” in 2008. Word of the past decade: “Google” as a verb. A 2011 finalist for most creative word: “kardash,” a unit of measurement consisting of 72 days, inspired by the brief marriage that year of Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries.
The way we were
Norman Rockwell’s America may have come and gone, if it ever existed, but the much younger nation de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, saw in his 1830s travels is recognizable in its older age. For all the new colors, bold strokes of the past still show.
Want some age-old perspective on why Republicans fought Obama’s health-care law up to the Supreme Court this year? De Tocqueville wrote: “There is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one.”
A scold and an admirer, he found Americans obsessed with money, tending to “move forward by sudden impulses and short-lived efforts,” quick to form agitating associations, reveling in an “always moving scene,” loving change because it “seems to give birth only to miracles,” and apt to rise from their stitched-from-many-nations roots to light up the world.
You’ll hear lots about change if you tune into the conventions. To be seen: Whether we still believe in miracles.
Associated Press writers
Jennifer C. Kerr, Seth Borenstein and Hope Yen, and Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.