The American economy is a free enterprise system that has emerged from the labors of millions of American workers; from the wants that tens of millions of consumers have expressed in the marketplace; from the efforts of thousands of private business people; and from the activities of government officials at all levels who have undertaken the tasks that individual Americans cannot do.
The nation's income and productivity have risen enormously over the past 70 years. In this period, the money for personal consumption tripled in real purchasing power. The gross national product per capita quadrupled, reflecting growth in worker productivity.
Together, all sectors of the American economy produce almost $4,000 million dollars worth of goods and services annually, and each year they turn out almost $190,000 million more. The consumption of these goods and services is spread widely. Most Americans consider themselves members of the middle economic class, and relatively few are extremely wealthy or extremely poor. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, 9.6 percent of all American families make more than $50,000 a year, and 7.7 percent of all American families have incomes less than $10,000; the median annual income for all American families is about $28,906.
Americans live in a variety of housing that includes single detached homes (62 percent) with a median cost of $112,500. They also live in apartments, town-houses and mobile homes. Three-fourths of all married couples own their own homes. The size of all dwelling
units has increased in living space. The median number of rooms occupied in each dwelling unit has increased from 4.9 rooms per unit in 1960 to 5.2 rooms today, despite the shrinking family size. About 3.6 percent of all Americans live in public (government- supplied or subsidized) housing.
The government plays an important role in the economy, as is the case in all countries. From the founding of the Republic, the U.S. federal government has strongly supported the development of transportation. It financed the first major canal system and later subsidized the railroads and the airlines. It has developed river valleys and built dams and power stations. It has extended electricity and scientific advice to farmers, and assures them a minimum price for their basic crops. It checks the purity of food and drugs, insures bank deposits and guarantees loans.
America's individual 50 states have been most active in building roads and in the field of education. Each year the states spend some $33.31 million on schools and provide a free public education for 29.1 million primary- school pupils and 11.4 million youth in secondary schools. (In addition, 8.3 million youths attend private primary and secondary schools.) Approximately 60 percent of the students who graduate from secondary schools attend colleges and universities, 77.2 percent of which are supported by public funds. The U.S. leads the world in the percentage of the population that receives a higher education. Total enrollment in schools of higher learning is 13.4 million.
Despite the fact that the United States government supports many segments of the nation's economy, economists estimate that the public sector accounts for only one-fifth of American economic activity, with the remainder in private hands. In agriculture, for example, farmers benefit from public education, roads, rural electrification and support prices, but their land is private property to work pretty much as they desire. More than 86.7 percent of America's 208.8 million farms are owned by the people who operate them; the rest are owned by business corporations. With increasingly improved farm machinery, seed and fertilizers, more food is produced each year, although the number of farmers decrease annually. There were 15,669,000 people living on farms in 1960; by 1989 that total had decreased to 4,801,000. Farm output has increased dramatically: just 50 years ago a farmer fed 10 persons; today the average farmer feeds 75. America exports some 440.9 thousand million worth of farm products each year. The United States produces as much as half the world's soybeans and corn for grain, and from 10 to 25 percent of its cotton wheat, tobacco and vegetable oil.
The bulk of America's wealth is produced by private industries and businesses—ranging from giants like General Motors, which sells $96,371 million worth of cars and trucks each year—to thousands of small, independent entrepreneurs. In 1987, nearly 233,710 small businesses were started in the U.S. Yet by one count, some 75 percent of American products currently face foreign competition within markets in the United States. America has traditionally supported free trade. In 1989, the U.S. exported $360,465 thousand million in goods and imported $475,329 thousand million
GEOGRAPHY AND ENVIROMENT
By Michael Cusack
(Senior Editor, Scholastic Magazine)
Lonely and isolated, early settlements of northern Europeans in the New World huddled near the Atlantic coastline. The Spanish missions on the Pacific coast of the continent and in the area of what is now Mexico, 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) distant, were unknown to them. To the east, 3,000 miles of angry ocean separated the settlers from their former homelands. Inland, they faced a vast, frightening, unknown and mostly forested wilderness.
LURE OF THE WILDERNESS
Settlers viewed the wilderness both as a source of danger and a source of wealth. Dangerous beasts posed a serious threat anywhere outside the settlements. The native peoples were numerous, and their reaction to the sudden appearance of new settlers unpredictable. On occasion, scouts and explorers vanished into the immensity of the forests.
Though the wilderness awed the early settlers, it also attracted them. It provided a wealth of timber for building and use as fuel. In many areas, game animals were plentiful. Beavers, foxes and other small animals provided valuable furs for sale to Europe.
Historic first photograph of the geyser known as "Old Faithful,"
located in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a one million
-hectare wilderness area in the state of Wyoming that was establishe
d as the nation's first national park in 1871.
Explorers who did return from the continent's interior told stories of high mountains, great fertile valleys, grassy plains, mighty rivers and lakes as big as inland seas. To the people who told the stories and to the people who heard them, the wealth and resources of the New World appeared limitless. All that seemed necessary was courage and hard work to create a paradise on Earth.
People made the difficult and dangerous voyage to America for many different reasons. Some sought adventure. Others wanted gold and silver. Many made the voyage to escape oppression or to be free to practice their religion. Beyond these reasons was the additional drive for living space. Very few of the settlers could have hoped to own land in Europe. But in America, the land seemed to be there for the taking.
Waves of land-hungry settlers established farms and homesteads in the primeval forest. The forest was so vast and overpowering that each clearing was viewed as a victory in "taming the wilderness."
In some places, however, after settlers cut away the trees and removed the brush, they found the soil to be rocky or poor in nutrients. Many areas of New England—the region now made up of Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont—have shallow, coarse soil. The winters are harsh and the growing seasons are short.
Under these conditions, pioneer farming in much of New England and parts of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania proved to be difficult and disappointing. After years of struggle, some people sold or abandoned their farms and moved westward in search of more fertile land.
Farther south, in what are now the states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, the soil was generally richer. Except for some swampy coastal areas, the soil is mostly red-yellow clay. And in early colonial times, that soil was very fertile. The long growing season, abundant rainfall, warm climate and relatively flat land made the southern coastal region ideal for certain cash crops. At various times, these included tobacco, rice, sugarcane, corn and cotton. By the mid-1600s, it was clear that these crops could be grown most economically on large landholdings—plantations— worked by slaves.
Many small farms in the South were sold to help make up the large plantations, and their former owners moved west in search of fertile land. They were joined by new settlers from Europe, who bypassed the settled plantation areas near the coast.
Most soil in the South was originally very fertile, but the continuous growing of demanding crops such as tobacco and cotton took nutrients from the soil. In addition, the frequent heavy rains of the region tended to erode—wear away— exposed topsoil. In many areas, this led to a decline in the yield of crops per hectare. Plantation owners often dealt with this problem of worn-out soil by expanding—by buying and using more land for their cash crops. Plantations spread to the west
SPIRIT OF THE FRONTIER
The European population of what is now the United States was scattered over a large area. The population density was very low. Farms, towns and villages were spaced far apart. Also, farms tended to be much larger than farms in Europe, partially because the yield per hectare was lower in America.
Except in the area near the seacoast, communication links between early American settlements were very poor. Roads were few and far between; those that existed were usually in terrible shape. To an extent, rivers served as communication links, but waterfalls and rapids often limited their usefulness.
As one traveled inland, the isolation of settlements increased. In search of fertile land, groups of settlers often bypassed large areas that they considered to be wilderness. As a result, a small settlement might be hundreds of miles from other settlements. A family might be a day's journey from another family. This pattern of settlement created frontier communities that had to rely completely on their own resources. Almost everything they used they had to make themselves. They developed their own music, entertainment, folklore, art and forms of religious worship.
In this setting, a frontier spirit developed. It was marked by toughness, independence, self-reliance, caring for others, but a suspicion of outsiders. There was also a restlessness and a sense of curiosity in the frontier spirit.
At any given time during the long westward flow of American settlement (from the early 1600s to the late 1800s), the number of people on the frontier was tiny compared to the number of people "back East" in the settled areas. Yet, the frontier spirit has always had an enormous influence on the entire nation. Politicians have praised the frontier life. Songs and stories have described it in glowing terms. Such frontier heroes as Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie have been admired by generations of Americans.
Writing in the 1890s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the frontier experience shaped the American character for all time. In his opinion, the geography and environment of America— particularly the westward expansion and the availability of free land—shaped American attitudes and institutions.
Turner wrote: "This perennial (enduring) rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character." Not every modern historian agrees with all of Turner's ideas, but most historians agree that the westward expansion of the frontier has had great significance in American history.
Many values and attitudes—good and bad—of present-day America can be traced to the frontier experience. The westward expansion stressed values of ruggedness, resourcefulness, self-reliance and comradeship. There was always a greater sense of equality on the frontier than in long-settled areas. After the American Civil War (1861-1865), many black Americans who had been recently freed from slavery moved west in search of equal opportunities. Many of these black frontiersmen gained some fame and fortune as cowboys, miners and prairie settlers.
In 1869, the western territory (later the state) of Wyoming became the first place in the world where women could vote and hold elected office.
Because the resources of the West seemed limitless, people developed wasteful attitudes and practices. Herds of buffalo (American bison) were slaughtered. Dry, flat grasslands (prairies) were badly farmed, and in years of drought much of the exposed soil blew away as dust. Open mines were used and abandoned. The western frontier was so large, and people there were so few, that it seemed that the natural resources could never be used up or destroyed. In more recent years, Americans have tried to conserve their resources better.