Shutterstock

It's time to recognize the importance of computers and the Internet.

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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Equity

    This Startup Helps You Buy a House (If You Hand Over Your Airbnb Income)

    For buyers in hot real-estate markets, a new kind of mortgage offered by a company called Loftium might offer a way to purchase a home.

  2. Design

    Octopuses Are Urbanists, Too

    Scientists were surprised to find that this smart and solitary species had built a cephalopod city. Why?

  3. Transportation

    Portland Prepares for the Freeway Fight of the Century

    A grass-capped highway expansion in a gentrifying neighborhood? Sounds familiar.

  4. Rescue crews and observers on top of the rubble from a collapsed building that fell in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
    Environment

    A Brigade of Architects and Engineers Rushed to Assess Earthquake Damage in Mexico City

    La Casa del Arquitecto became the headquarters for highly skilled urbanists looking to help and determine why some buildings suffered more spectacularly than others.

  5. A rescue worker talks with others below as he stands inside an apartment building whose first four floors collapsed, in the Lindavista neighborhood of Mexico City on Wednesday, September 20, 2017.
    Environment

    The Booming Mexico City Neighborhoods Shaken by the Earthquake

    The sought-after enclaves of Condesa and La Roma were among the parts of the city that sustained significant wreckage.