Soapbox alert: This post has a deceivingly fair and balanced beginning.
Sorry for yet another post of socio-political musings, but at least I came up with a somewhat interesting title. The thought has crossed, and continues to cross my mind that the richer America has become, the more its citizens expect as a fundamental standard of living.
Perceptions about a “basic” standard of living (is this term redundant?) are affected both by time and space. Air-conditioners, weekly (or daily) fast food, cable television, cellular phones…these are all things that fifty years ago would have been considered amazingly luxurious (if they were even around), but are all things that now, I suspect, can easily be had with a typical welfare check. Even moving from Texas to New York City where the cost of living is much higher, I notice people doing without (no car, no air conditioner, no spacious apartment, no dishwasher, no in-apartment washer and dryer) and not complaining about it. Granted, unless you happen to live on Central Park West, these concessions are out of necessity. But the point remains that just as in this time period, geography factors into basic standard of living, so too within a set geographical domain (the United States), the time period affect the expectations of standard of living.
As a side note, looking historically just a generation or two will show our grandparents doing with less sugar and fewer pairs of pantyhose during World War II in order to focus our nation’s resources and attention to where they were needed most. The idea of going without, however, is entirely unknown to Generation X’ers like me. Like it or not, we’ve been fighting a war for the last four years in Iraq, but our standard of living has changed not one bit. True, this probably reflects a richer country, but it also means that societal economic sacrifice is about as foreign to me as sacrificing a goat at city hall.
But should time and geography affect our perception of whether we are barely getting by or whether we have an abundance? The poor in Africa are just as poor today as they were in 1950. The rich here are far richer. So should the poverty level be an absolute (food, clothing, shelter) or a relative index? I think I could argue effecively either way, but perhaps it should be both. Or one tempered by the other, if that makes sense.
In other words, the thought that a family can afford an SUV, cable television, a couple cellular phones on a family plan, year-round home temperature regulation, monthly movie tickets, and weekly (daily?) restaurant visits, but cannot afford basic health insurance is absurd, especially when viewed from the historical and geographical perspectives I mentioned above. Anyone who can afford all of the above is incredibly wealthy both historically and compared to all people living today. Hence, this situation is not one of wealth versus poverty, but one of wise versus misplaced priorities.
I want you to remember this the next time the discussion of universial health insurance comes up, or the next time you’re tempted to complain about the $20 co-pay for your visit to the doctor.