America: Moving Toward the 21st Century

March 15, 1985

Report Outline
Post Election Protents
Social Changes
Economic Changes
Special Focus

Post Election Protents

Constrasting Portraits of the Nation

Americans seem to be feeling good about themselves and their country these days. In his 1985 State of the Union message, Ronald Reagan, the most active promoter of such feelings, proclaimed a “great and robust growth” of national confidence. Evidence abounds to support this assessment of the national mood. A recent Gallup Poll reported that 52 percent of Americans express satisfaction with “the way things are going in the nation,” three times the number who expressed the same view four years earlier. Experts point to a number of reasons for such optimism: a dramatic drop in inflation, decreasing unemployment, lower interest rates and a booming economy. Americans, especially affluent members of the baby-boom generation, are on a spending binge that includes everything from homes and autos to gourmet foods.

There is another picture of America at mid-decade that is not so upbeat. The new prosperity has left many behind. Thousands of jobless walk city streets by day. At night many of those same streets are filled with growing numbers of homeless. Thousands of farmers appear headed for financial disaster due to high interest rates, dropping land values and a strong dollar, which has shut farmers out of international markets. The dollar's strength has also generated a flood of relatively cheap imports—including autos, textiles and electronic goods—that are further eroding American manufacturing jobs. Five million workers lost their jobs over a five-year period beginning in January 1979 because of plant closings or slack work orders. One-quarter remained unemployed in January 1984. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities still lag far behind whites in income and education levels. Some observers contend that America's middle class is shrinking and that the country is moving closer to a stark division between the rich and the poor. More children are living in poverty than at any time in recent history.

The statistics that demographers use to paint these contrasting pictures come from a single government agency, the Census Bureau. The bureau has a constitutional mandate to call the national roll once every 10 years to determine how many seats each state gets in the House of Representatives. But the census is more than a head count. The basic form that went to every household in April 1980 contained 18 questions: six on age, race, sex and marital status and 12 on residential conditions. The “long form” that went to every sixth household contained 81 additional questions about personal and housing characteristics.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Immigration and Naturalization
Marriage and Divorce
Women in the Workplace