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'It's about as good as it gets'

New president will inherit different U.S. from one 8 years ago

Posted: Monday, November 06, 2000

 

Then and Now Graphic

WASHINGTON -- We are safer, richer and more satisfied with the way things are going. We are also fatter, less likely to save money and less inclined to be married. We're still glued to the TV, even as we find more time to go online.

In the eight years since Americans last installed a new president in the White House, life has changed in ways large and small.

There's unprecedented prosperity, crime has dropped dramatically and the Internet offers an explosion of information. But other changes are less encouraging: Obesity is soaring, teen drug use has nearly doubled, ''road rage'' has become part of the everyday lexicon, violence is proliferating on TV and in movies.

''In our day-to-day lives, we sense well-being,'' says Jeffrey Goldfarb, a sociology professor at the New School University in New York. ''The things that are not so good are things that are less clearly visible. ... We look at our children and we have a vague sense that there's a problem with their exposure to culturally questionable messages and ... things outside our immediate world.''

Here is the nation that the new president will inherit:

ECONOMY:

We're richer. America is at its most prosperous time in history, with a record-high budget surplus, poverty at a 21-year low, unemployment at a 30-year-low. On Election Day 1992, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 3,252; now it is over 10,000. More Americans own their own homes. More are venturing into the stock market -- half of all Americans now own stocks or mutual funds.

''It's about as good as it gets,'' says David Wyss, chief financial economist for Standard and Poor's DRI. ''Everybody's got jobs. Their brothers-in-law have jobs. Their wives have jobs.''

Still, there are worries: Oil and energy prices are rising; unrest in the Middle East is adding to nervousness in financial markets; the trade deficit is soaring; Americans are saving less. The personal savings rate -- savings as a percentage of after-tax income -- hit an all-time low this summer.

''We are on the downside of the economic boom,'' says Allen Sinai, chief global economist at Primark Decision Economics in New York. ''Whoever walks in on Election Day 2000 in no way should expect to get the kind of performance that Clinton-Gore had on their watch.''

HEALTH:

We're healthier. Life expectancy is edging up -- 77.1 years for someone born in 2000, up from 75.8 for someone born in 1992. Firearms deaths among children are down dramatically; so is the AIDS death rate. The top three killers in America remain heart disease, cancer and stroke, but death rates for all three are declining. New ''quality of life'' drugs help Americans cope with everything from allergies to impotence, and genetic research promises new medical advances.

On the other side of the health ledger, teen smoking is higher and so is teen-age drug use -- nearly double what it was in 1992. Obesity is a huge worry to health experts. In 1992, 12.7 percent of Americans were obese, or about 30 pounds or more overweight. By 1999, the figure was 18.9 percent. The long-debated problem of Americans who lack health insurance remains just that: much debated and unsolved. About 15.5 percent of Americans were uninsured in 1999, up slightly from 15 percent in 1992.

DEMOGRAPHICS:

We're more diverse. The Hispanic population has soared by a third since 1992, from 24 million to 32 million. The black population is up by 10 percent, whites by 3 percent. The estimated racial mix on July 1, 2000: 72 percent white, 12 percent black, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian and Pacific Islander.

Other demographic trends: Rapid population shifts to the mountain states and resurgent growth in suburbs and the countryside have heightened concerns about sprawl infecting undeveloped areas. More than 70 percent of all rural counties gained population between 1990 and 1998.

The percentage of Americans who are married continues to slip -- from 58.1 percent of those aged 15 and over in 1992 to 56.4 percent in 1998.

POPULAR CULTURE/MEDIA:

We're wired. Over the past eight years, the Internet has gone from obscurity to ubiquity. Half of all households are online, up from about 5 percent in 1994. Cell phones are burrowing into pockets and purses -- 86 million subscribers in 1999, up from 11 million in 1992.

Not that Americans have given up their TVs: daily household use averages seven hours, 11 minutes a day -- 32 minutes more than in 1992. And movie ticket sales keep growing. At the same time, the share of movies rated R is approaching 70 percent, and Americans are worrying more about what they -- and their children -- are absorbing.

As one questioner at the last presidential debate told the candidates, ''I'm very concerned about the morality of our country now -- TV, the movies, the music that our children are barraged with every day. ... It's just bringing the country down.''

Jane Healy, an educational psychologist and author of the book, ''Failure to Connect,'' adds, ''Children are wandering alone and unguided in these really bad neighborhoods online and on the television.''

PUBLIC ATTITUDES:

We're happier, more tolerant, more satisfied. A Gallup Poll this month found 94 percent of Americans describe themselves as very or fairly happy, compared with 90 percent early in 1992. Researchers at the University of Chicago see growing tolerance of different racial and ethnic groups and of greater equality for women. Among the most pronounced shifts: In 1991, 77 percent of Americans said homosexuality was always wrong; the comparable figure this year is 58 percent.

Overall, more Americans look around now and like what they see. In 1992, 22 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Now, 51 percent see it that way.



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