About one in five people in the United States in 1995, or about 49 million, lived in a household that was unable to satisfy at least one basic need, such as paying the rent or utility bills, seeing a doctor or getting sufficient food, according to a report to be released today by the Census Bureau.
"Obviously, there is a large part of the population in the U.S. having trouble making ends meet," said Kurt Bauman, author of the report and a demographer with the bureau.
The report, based on a survey conducted between October 1995 and January 1996, found that children aged 17 or younger were more likely than adults to live in households that had such problems.
For example, 8.8 percent of children in this country lived in a household where someone needed to see the dentist but didn't go, and 7 percent lived in a household where someone needed to see the doctor but didn't go. "A lot of people take this position that ours is an extraordinarily affluent society and all our needs have been met. But the fact is we live in an inefficient society," says Jerome M. Segal, research scholar at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland and author of the book "Graceful Simplicity: Toward a Philosophy and Politics of Simple Living," which focuses on the issues of basic needs.
By contrast, older Americans lived better, although on average they had lower incomes. Only 3 percent of people aged 60 and over lived in households with such problems, the report found.
"A very high proportion of older people have low income but high assets. They have Medicare and typically have finished paying their mortgage," said Linda K. Waite, professor of sociology and co-director of the Sloan Family Center on Parents, Children and Work at the University of Chicago.
Besides age, other factors affecting a household's chances of having difficulty meeting basic needs were income, race and ethnicity.
The poorest, of course, had the most such problems, but even a small number of people living at the highest income levels had trouble keeping up with such expenses. Experts note that many middle-class families do not have enough saved for emergencies, particularly if they have large mortgages or personal debts. That makes them vulnerable to unexpected financial hits -- such as losing a job or facing a large medical bill.
And at the top of the income ladder, the size of a mortgage payment or utility bill may be vastly different than that faced by a family struggling at the bottom. "The rich have a threshold level of comfort, so the definition of basic needs is relative," said Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution.
Blacks and Hispanics, who can be of any race, were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to face difficulty meeting basic needs. This finding does not surprise economists such as Burtless, who said, "That's a natural consequence of racial minorities earning below national average wages."
The most common problem reported was fully paying utility bills. Nearly 10 percent of U.S. households did not pay their entire gas, electric or oil bills. The next most common difficulties were among households in which someone needed to see a dentist but didn't go, and those that didn't pay their full rent or mortgage.
About one person in 20, or 4.8 percent of the population, lived in a household reporting that its members sometimes did not get enough to eat.
The good news amid all this? For one, the survey was conducted in late 1995 and early 1996, when the national unemployment rate was higher and U.S. economic growth was slower. Currently, the jobless rate is hovering near a three-decade low and the economy is booming into its ninth year of expansion.
Economists such as Burtless believe that since 1995, there has been a broader and more even distribution of prosperity. "The official rate of poverty is 13 percent, and you don't have anybody in the U.S. dying of exposure or hunger," Burtless said.
Here are some of the basic needs that people had trouble meeting, according to a Census Bureau report.
Percent of U.S. population who:
Didn't pay full gas, electric, oil
Didn't pay full rent or mortgage
Needed to see a dentist but didn't go
Needed to see a doctor but didn't go
Had phone disconnected
Had gas, electric, oil disconnected
Evicted for non-payment
NOTE: Figures are for 1995
SOURCE: Census Bureau