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A changing nation
Scripps Howard News Service


March 02, 2006

WASHINGTON - We're not the same nation we were just a decade ago.

While a lot of what the federal government does drives a lot of people bananas, the statistics it compiles about demographic trends are insightful.

We know that Latinos, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, are now the largest minority group. By mid-century, one out of every four people in America will be Hispanic. But a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that coming to America has a downside for many. In the past decade, the rates of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes have risen significantly for Latinos. The longer they are here, the higher the rates of all those diseases are among them. Not a good trend in a country with 47 million uninsured people.

(It is not surprising that the Americanized version of increasingly popular Mexican food has as much as five times more calories than the traditional version in Mexico.)

We all know that more mothers work outside the home for pay than ever before in U.S. history. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that in the past 10 years the growth in the percent of women working has stalled. As reported by The New York Times, the number of married women trying to balance children and jobs has slipped as more women in their 30s deal with children under age 6.

Basically, women are marrying later and having babies later and finding that having it all is hard. On the other hand, changes in welfare rules have forced more single mothers to struggle to do it all. Their participation in the labor force has increased significantly since the 1996 welfare law changes.

For a while, family incomes were rising as more couples had two-earner incomes. That is slowing.

And young people entering the work force are not doing as well as their parents did or are doing. Workers under age 35 are earning much less, adjusted for inflation, than their counterparts did in 1970. The median income for men under 44 is less than it was in 1997. The Census Bureau found that those between the ages 14 and 25 account for 40 percent of the U.S. homeless population.

Some adults used to bemoan what they took to be a weak work ethic among young workers; that is no longer true. Nearly every study shows that the trend is for young, educated people with jobs to work longer, harder, under more stress and to move from job to job more frequently.

With only 8 percent of private workers covered by union contracts, far fewer Americans now stay in jobs where they started, accruing income, stature, seniority and increasing responsibility. Former President Bill Clinton warns young Americans that they need to develop job-hunting skills because they will change jobs at least eight times during their working years.

That means workers increasingly need a cash cushion, yet economists all fret about the savings rate, which is zilch. Americans simply choose not to save. Personal consumption takes up an amazing 70 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

American homeowners have been counting themselves wealthy because of the appreciation in the value of their houses. That is changing, according to White House economists. The economists who compiled the annual White House report on the economy last month say that while homes have increased on average 9 percent a year for the last five years, that rate is slowing.

That's bad news for many homeowners, but the White House insists it's good news in the long run because it will permit the incomes of non-homeowners to "catch up with the home price appreciation so that affordability of homes comes back closer to historical levels."

Incidentally, the Census Bureau says there are more Americans choosing to live in gated or exclusive communities that restrict outsiders. Some think that gated developments now make up 10 percent of the new-home market.

But the middle class may be slipping away, because of skyrocketing health-care costs and disappearing middle-income jobs. From 1980 to 2003, the government says, there was a 7 percent decline in the percentage of households with middle-class incomes. By 2004, there were 1.1 million more people living below the poverty line. This means retailers that target the middle class are in trouble.

But there is some good news for the "sandwich generation," the baby-boom generation with young children and aging parents to support. The National Center for Health Statistics is reporting the first decline in the actual number of cancer deaths in more than 70 years.

This is just a peak at the iceberg of data showing how we have subtly changed in just a few years. Slogging along, trying to survive, we don't see trends. And then, one day, we wake up, and our world is no longer the same, for good and ill.


Scripps Howard News Service columnist Ann McFeatters has covered
the White House and national politics since 1986.


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