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The Therapy Sessions
Saturday, December 31, 2005


With all the gloom and doom out there, you'd get the impression that everything is getting worse...

It's a good thing we have the census to set us straight:

New reports by the Census Bureau and the Federal Reserve Board on the economic well-being of the typical American family reveal that over the past three decades, the vast majority of families have experienced a rapid growth in their income and wealth. Now that nearly six out of 10 households own stock and two out of three own their own homes, the average family -- for the first time ever -- has net worth (assets minus liabilities) of more than $100,000. Median family income has climbed to more than $54,000 a year...

...But it's not just the rich that are getting richer. Virtually every income group has been lifted by the tide of growth in recent decades. The percentage of families with real incomes between $5,000 and $50,000 has been falling as more families move into higher income categories -- the figure has dropped by 19 percentage points since 1967. This huge move out of lower incomes and into middle- and higher-income categories shows that upward mobility is the rule, not the exception, in America today.

What we consider "poverty" in America is a relative thing. Relative to other nations, our "poor" aren't poor at all:

When I lived in Magburaka, Sierra Leone, I was invited to dine at the house of the richest family in the region. They were a Lebanese family that lived in a large house in the center of town. They owned a Mercedes. There were many African servants running around everywhere, but their living room was dingy and filled with old tacky furniture. Goats and chickens occasionally wandered in, and the floor was covered with their droppings. The had an old TV and VCR on which they watched videotapes of British TV shows. Their electricity came from a single generator, enough power - a proud daughter boasted to me - to power their prized possession: an electric refrigerator. Their water came from a well out back and had to be drawn one bucket at a time. The oldest daughter Sheba told me that the meal would be special that night - they would have MEAT - to celebrate dusk in the final days of Ramaddan.

We also need to keep in mind that the quality of the items we take for granted has been increasing. Twenty years ago, most American families did not have computers or CD's; no one had internet, DVD players, mp3's or digital cameras. The cable TV "universe" boasted all of FIFTEEN channels (when you counted C-Span), and most of those channels were owned by Ted Turner. In medicine, you did not have the statins (cholesterol reducing drugs) or many of the drugs we now take for granted; many surgeries that were rare then are commonplace now. Our supermarkets today are filled with food that Americans simply weren't even aware existed back then. Our houses and cars are - on average - much bigger, more filled with technology and safer than they were back then (but alas, they use more energy).

Poverty - real poverty by any international measurement - is extremely rare in the US. Indeed, the greatest health problem of American poor is obesity. This is why so many people try to get to America, where they can live in our version of poverty.

In Africa, my Lebanese family was considered very wealthy (easily in the top tenth of the top one percent in terms of wealth), and their neighbors, the native Africans, greatly resented their wealth. In America, they would be among worse off then the worst of our poor. Imagine, a family living with only a TV, a VCR and refrigerator, having meat once a week with an outhouse for a bathroom!

In a society where we live such insulated lives, we forget these things all too easily. In many cases, we never knew them to begin with.

Take a little time this new year to count your blessings.

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