Living Standards in the United States: Water

There is much controversy over income distribution in the United States. Obviously, the incomes of the richest segments of the population far exceed the incomes of the poorest segments of the population.

There is almost endless analysis of the incomes of one group of the population as compared to another: whites versus blacks, women versus men, etc. All of these comparisons pit one group versus another and focus on the present time, or compare the groups over short periods of time.

Rarely are the long-term trends examined. Julian Simon does exactly that in his scholarly book “The State of Humanity.” Instead of focusing on short-term differences among groups, Simon focuses on the long-haul. And the truth is that over the long-term almost everything is getting better, and for all segments of the population.

This week we begin a series on the long-term trends in U.S. standards of living. The first element of living conditions we will examine is one of the most basic elements necessary to the human existence: water. The source material for this Historical Perspective is chapter 14, “Long Term Trends in the U.S. Standard of Living,” by Stanley Lebergott (from “The State of Humanity,” edited by Julian Simon).

The average American family spends two days’ worth of their yearly income on water, used for washing clothes and dishes, watering the lawn, washing the car, and so forth. This amount may seem expensive if compared to the past, when water was free. The only problem with this free water is that, in the year 1800 for example, women, with the help of their children, had to perform the back-breaking work of carrying an average of 9,000 gallons, per year, of water into the house from wells, brooks, or rivers.

Americans are also spending much more on water, and using much more of it, because it’s clean. The filtering of water massively decreased the death rate from typhoid. If water had not been cleaned up and the rate of typhoid had maintained its pace to the present day, 79,000 Americans would have died from typhoid in 1990, five times more than died from AIDS.

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