NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

What Ails the Rich?

March 17, 2004

It may seem a bit unnatural, but more and more of our social problems and complaints stem from our affluence, not our poverty, says Robert Samuelson.

When we were poorer, obesity was not a big problem. Now obesity rivals smoking as the largest cause of preventable death:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reckons that obesity contributes to about 400,000 deaths annually, just behind tobacco (435,000) and ahead of alcohol (85,000), car accidents (43,000) and guns (29,000).
  • Obesity and its complications -- more diabetes and heart disease, for instance -- now account for an estimated 9 percent of U.S. health spending.
  • The average American consumes about 150 pounds of sugar and sweeteners annually, up 20 percent since 1980.

Getting wealthier spawns other complaints, says Samuelson. One is the "time squeeze" -- the sense that we're more harried than ever. We all know this is true; we're tugged by jobs, family, PTA and soccer. Actually, it's not true. People go to work later in life and retire earlier. Housework has declined:

  • One survey found that in 1999 only 14 percent of wives did more than four hours of daily housework; the figure was 43 percent in 1977 and 87 percent in 1924.
  • Even when jobs and housework are combined, total work hours for women and men have dropped.

None of this discredits the value of economic growth which has made life better for countless millions and continues to do so. These problems are less serious than those of poverty and unemployment, says Samuelson.

Source: Robert Samuelson, "The Afflictions of Affluence," Washington Post, March 17, 2004.


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