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What Every U.S. Family Really Needs for a Minimum Living Standard

What Every U.S. Family Really Needs for a Minimum Living Standard
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Census data released this week show that living conditions in the U.S. have deteriorated since the eve of the recession in ways that are less visible than a mere measure of our checking accounts. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of American households that couldn't meet their basic expenses jumped by 16 percent (to 19.1 million households). These families have had trouble making a rent or utility payment, they've had a phone or utility service cut off, they have sometimes lacked enough to eat, or they haven't been able to see a doctor or dentist when they really needed to.

In that same time, the number of households unable to pay their rent or mortgage jumped by 39 percent. Younger households, unsurprisingly, have had the biggest problems, according to this snapshot from 2011 data:

Census also reports, as part of this periodic assessment of living conditions in U.S. homes, that only 64 percent of all households had what the government considers a "full set of appliances": a washer and dryer, a refrigerator, stove, dishwasher, and a landline or cell phone.

You may disagree about whether some of these items constitute a luxury or a necessity (I definitely don't have a full set). But some of the historical data Census released along with this latest report illustrate an interesting story about how the meaning of what's needed for "wellbeing" changes with time – and sometimes remarkably quickly.

Here is a set of appliances and electronic goods that Census has been measuring in U.S. homes since 1992 (the government started measuring cell phone penetration in 1998): Computers have become nearly ubiquitous, as cell phones have replaced what was once a reliable indicator of minimum living conditions in the U.S.: the landline. Very soon we'll need to start measuring minimum living conditions in a new way. What if it's your broadband bill you can't afford? Or the computer or smart phone you actually need way more than a dishwasher?

Top image (left) Stokkete/Shutterstock.com, (right) Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock.com

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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