Cars, homes, and the American way of life

Can comparative data about owning cars and homeownership in the United States help us think about how the two together help define a unique American way of life?

The data across countries suggest Americans are world leaders in owning vehicles and not so high on the list of homeownership. Few countries have more vehicles than us but over forty have higher percentages of homeownership. Yet, put these two features of life together – driving and owning a home – and they create something fairly unique in the United States.

To start, it is not just that Americans have a lot of vehicles: daily life and spaces are structured around these vehicles. For most Americans, getting to the places that are required for daily life – work, food, school, recreation – requires a vehicle. This is seen as normal and we have adapted in unique ways to this including developing fast food and big box stores (both could not exist in the same way unless people have their own vehicles, and often large ones at that, to operate). It does not have to be this way and indeed many other industrialized countries are not as dependent on vehicles for these daily activities.

As for homes, the availability of cars plus a desire to have a private single-family homes means that Americans are pretty spread out. This way of life reaches its apex in the American suburbs, which range from denser communities where driving involves shorter distances to places on the metropolitan edges where significant driving is needed for every major activity. This suburban form already existed to some degree before cars with the help of trains and streetcars. But, the availability of cars to the public in the 1920s really helped boost suburbanization as did subsequent decisions by different bodies of governments and others to promote an automobile-based society.

Critics of this way of life are plentiful even as we are nearing one hundred years of this arrangement. For more than a third of the existence of the United States, the goal of many is to own a vehicle and a home. To change this would require significant adjustments in a variety of areas. Imagine an America with smaller car companies (think of everything from the economic ripples to what commercials would replace auto ads on TV) or fewer fast food restaurants or no new sprawling suburban developments. We can see the resiliency of car and home narrative still: even as fewer than two-thirds of Americans own their dwelling (with more recent drops after the fallout of the housing bubble plus rising housing costs in certain places), it is still the goal of majority of residents (including younger Americans) and is said to be worth aspiring to. When the economy picks up, it seems Americans return to purchasing cars and homes.

Either cars or homeownership separately may not be enough to mark a unique American lifestyle. Put them together and they shape an entire society of over 300 million people.

American marriage increasingly related to social class

Continuing a trend of recent years, recent studies show that those getting married in the United States are more likely to be middle or upper class:

Currently, 26 percent of poor adults, 39 percent of working-class adults and 56 percent of middle- and upper-class adults are married, according to a research brief published today from two think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America. In 1970, about 82 percent of adults were married, and in 1990, about two-thirds were, with little difference based on class and education.

A big reason for the decline: Unemployed men are less likely to be seen as marriage material…

In reality, economics and culture both play a role, and influence each other, social scientists say. When well-paying jobs became scarce for less educated men, they became less likely to marry. As a result, the culture changed: Marriage was no longer the norm, and out-of-wedlock childbirth was accepted. Even if jobs returned, an increase in marriage wouldn’t necessarily immediately follow…

People with college degrees seem to operate with more of a long-term perspective, social scientists say. They are more likely to take on family responsibilities slowly, and they often benefit from parental resources to do so — like help paying for education, birth control or rent to live on their own. In turn, the young adults prioritize waiting to have children until they are more able to give their children similar opportunities.

I have had this thought when seeing middle and upper class couples that have dated or lived together for years: what is their purpose in getting married? Do they need the government (and occasionally religious) backing to their union or is this primarily about social status?

As I’ve written before, perhaps more and more Americans see living alone as the preferred way to live out their adults lives rather than marriage.

What is the best single marker of being a suburb?

Spurred by yesterday’s post on Alaska’s changing suburbs, I put together a list of the most important markers that indicate whether an American community is a suburb roughly in order from the most important to less important:

  1. Proximity to the big city. If you are within the social and economic orbit of the big city (and this can differ based on the city as well as on the size of the big city), the community is a suburb. This is more vague on the outer edges of the metropolitan region.
  2. A physical layout dominated by roads and relatively spaced out single-family homes. (This may describe some urban residential neighborhoods but I would suggest the homes there are typically closer together and there are often additional transportation options.)
  3. An exclusivity toward undesirable residents and businesses. Suburbs have different socioeconomic levels but there are typically groups that are not as welcome and there are a variety of techniques to keep them out.
  4. A moral order built around the autonomy of individual residents as long as this doesn’t hurt the property values of other residents and a lack of social conflict because neighbors generally leave each other alone (unless they choose to interact through common interests – such as kids in school).
  5. A community emphasis on middle-class family life. This may be more aspirational than reality (whether it involves wealthier residents who claim to be just middle-class or working-class or poorer suburbs who distinguish themselves from poor urban neighborhoods).
  6. Additional physical markers including roads lined with shopping malls, strip malls, fast food restaurants, and big box stores as well as a lack of walkability.
  7. Homogeneity across residents. There are plenty of suburbs today that are not this way but American suburbs are still often perceived as white and wealthy.
  8. An emphasis on local government as community members seek to control their own lives.

It is hard to separate out these factors as many can be found in other geographic settings or are traits of American culture at large. Yet, the combination of these factors leads a unique social setting that can be defined and measured.

The direct and indirect social pressure to buy the bigger house

One money manager explains the difficulty he experienced in not buying the largest house his financial resources allowed:

Our home is unimpressive. I love it, don’t get me wrong. We are very, very comfortable. It is way more than enough space for our family of four. Right now we’re even doing a full remodel of the basement. But I know that compared to many of my peers, our house isn’t the massive, brick-laden, towering McMansion that says “we’ve arrived.” We bought our home days before I quit my last job and launched this firm. We paid $265,000 and financed almost all of it as I was hoarding cash for us to live on since we had zero income.

I’ve had one client visit our home after our youngest daughter was born and I remember distinctly a feeling of anxiety that our modest home wouldn’t measure up to expectations. What I felt bordered on shame. Would people think I was “successful” if they saw our home? Does it present a picture of someone who is responsible, intelligent and capable? Does it represent someone who should be entrusted with managing client assets that now exceed $150 million?

I’ve come to terms with it, but these ideas still creep into my head. I like that we live well within our means. It brings me immeasurable happiness, quite frankly. But there is a lingering social pressure. A fear of a stigma that occasionally whispers from some deep recess in my mind. In general I’m not a person who is given to care much what other people think about me. (Seriously, ask my wife about this one)…

If I can feel these pressures, I imagine they could be stronger for many others. A house is a man’s castle, after all. A giant, expensive, cumbersome representation of your value to society. What would you think if your successful doctor or lawyer or local business owner lived in an average middle-class house? Is s/he in financial trouble? Recently bankrupted? Paying off bad debts? How many Americans would think “Wow, good for them. They have figured out what makes them happy and are spending/saving money in that way.” Can’t say I think it would be many.

There seem to be two kinds of social pressures hinted at here:

  1. Direct pressure where someone says or does something in response to the house.
  2. Indirect pressure where there are standards to uphold, whether within a neighborhood, business sector (the financial one here), or society.

At least in this piece, the money manager only suggests indirect pressure. No one negatively commented about his house or the client who visited did not withdraw their business because the house wasn’t as impressive as it could be. Yet, this indirect pressure – the feeling that there is a standard to conform to and violating that standard has negative consequences – can be consequential.

So where exactly does this indirect pressure to buy a large house come from? There are probably many sources including: conversations we have with family, friends, and acquaintances about what is the “proper” home (as well as observations of the actions of those same people); media depictions of homes (from TV shows to HGTV to commercials to news stories); financial, real estate, and governmental institutions that depict and enable the purchase of large homes; and a society that prizes and promotes consumerism as a primary mechanism of the economy as well as a key marker of our status.

How difficult it is to resist this pressure may depend on the individual as well as their social position. Of course, making a decision to consume something other than the large house – say, a tiny house instead – may also just be another decision made in the interest of conformity and status seeking.

When medical care didn’t contribute as much to improved health outcomes

An interesting piece on the efficacy of medicine and medical procedures (TLDR: they aren’t always effective but doctors and patients feel compelled to try something) ends with this suggestion about the power medicine has over the public:

Historians of public health know that most of the life-expectancy improvements in the last two centuries stem from innovations in sanitation, food storage, quarantines, and so on. The so-called “First Public Health Revolution”—from 1880 to 1920—saw the biggest lifespan increase, predating antibiotics or modern surgery.

In the 1990s, the American Cancer Society’s board of directors put out a national challenge to cut cancer rates from a peak in 1990. Encouragingly, deaths in the United States from all types of cancer since then have been falling. Still, American men have a ways to go to return to 1930s levels. Medical innovation has certainly helped; it’s just that public health has more often been the society-wide game changer. Most people just don’t believe it.

In 2014, two researchers at Brigham Young University surveyed Americans and found that typical adults attributed about 80 percent of the increase in life expectancy since the mid-1800s to modern medicine. “The public grossly overestimates how much of our increased life expectancy should be attributed to medical care,” they wrote, “and is largely unaware of the critical role played by public health and improved social conditions determinants.” This perception, they continued, might hinder funding for public health, and it “may also contribute to overfunding the medical sector of the economy and impede efforts to contain health care costs.”

It is a loaded claim. But consider the $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act, which recently passed Congress to widespread acclaim. Who can argue with a law created in part to bolster cancer research? Among others, the heads of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Public Health Association. They argue against the new law because it will take $3.5 billion away from public-health efforts in order to fund research on new medical technology and drugs, including former Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot.” The new law takes money from programs—like vaccination and smoking-cessation efforts—that are known to prevent disease and moves it to work that might, eventually, treat disease. The bill will also allow the FDA to approve new uses for drugs based on observational studies or even “summary-level reviews” of data submitted by pharmaceutical companies. Prasad has been a particularly trenchant and public critic, tweeting that “the only people who don’t like the bill are people who study drug approval, safety, and who aren’t paid by Pharma.”

We might attribute this overconfidence in medical care among Americans to two cultural traits: (1) a belief that science can and should solve problems and lead to better lives and (2) an interest in efficient solutions to complex problems. Yet, one takeaway from this is that a healthier lifestyle may be boring and be hard work to implement (on both an individual and community level) but could be more effective in the long-term than medical intervention.

Explaining why Americans desire larger homes

Here are several possible explanations for why Americans want bigger houses:

But there’s no real “normal’’ when it comes to desired home size — except the persistent perception that size equates to prestige, said Dak Kopec, director of Design for Human Health at Boston Architectural College. “Throughout all cultures, bigger is better and associated with wealth and power.’’…

“It’s clear that the American dream of living in a big house on a large lot has not gone away,’’ said Ralph McLaughlin, Trulia’s chief economist…

One reason American homes are so big, Powell argued, is that we have more disposable income. “You’re not just buying a 2,000-square-foot house, you’re also going to fill it with a whole bunch of stuff,’’ she said. The larger house and its contents soon become your new baseline, she said, as the furniture, paintings, and lamps you buy blend into the background to become part of your environment. “And then you can only upsize from there if you choose to keep your possessions.’’…

Dunn speculates that a larger home could boost happiness if it reduces conflict. “If you have a house that enables you to get along well with your spouse, if each person has a little of their own space, that might reduce conflict,’’ she said, “but I suspect there are seriously diminishing returns on that.’’

With these four factors – the status of a larger house, the American Dream, more disposable income and more stuff, and finding more happiness – perhaps we could argue that it requires some effort for Americans to live in a smaller place. It is not impossible to do so and certain factors, such as living in an expensive metropolitan area like New York City or San Francisco, can override the cultural conditioning to have a larger house. But, the American inertia may just be to have a larger dwelling.

We could also add some additional factors leading to larger homes in the United States:

  1. Suburban sprawl leads to more room for larger homes.
  2. Americans privilege private spaces over public spaces.
  3. Over the decades, the government and other actors helped make it easier for more people to own homes.
  4. Americans don’t necessarily need the space but they like the flexibility that more room provides such as having a hobby room or having children, parents, and/or relatives live with them.

Claim: Millennials can’t buy a house so they are serfs

Joel Kotkin makes a bold claim regarding the inability of millennials to purchase a home:

Like medieval serfs in pre-industrial Europe, America’s new generation, particularly in its alpha cities, seems increasingly destined to spend their lives paying off their overlords, and having little to show for it.

No wonder that rather than strike out on their own, many millennials are simply failing to launch, with record numbers hunkering down in their parents’ homes. Since 2000, the numbers of people aged 18 to 34 living at home has shot up by over 5 million…

It’s time for millennials to demand politicians abandon the policies that have enriched the wealthy and stolen their future. That means removing barriers to lots of new housing in cities and, crucially, embracing Frank Lloyd Wright’s notion of Broadacre Cities, with expansive development along the periphery.

These new suburbs, like the Levittowns of the past, could improve people’s lives, while using new technology and home-based work  to make them more environmentally sustainable. They could, as some suggest, develop the kind of urban amenities, notably town centers, that may be more important to millennials than earlier generations. One thing that hasn’t changed is the demand for affordable single-family homes and townhomes. But the supply is diminishing—those under $200,000 make up barely one out of five new homes.

This is a familiar argument for Kotkin: millennials really do want to own homes in the suburbs – like many other Americans since the early 1900s – and economic policies limit their opportunities.

But, this argument is still overstated in its claim that millennials are serfs. Kotkin gets at a deeper question: is homeownership essential to the American way of life? More specifically, a suburban home in a nice community? There is much in American history to suggest that owning land and a home is key, even if it isn’t a right. Yet, does it necessarily have to always be part of American life? Could Americans decide that they value other things (and not be forced away from homeownership by forces outside of their control)?