Clawing through the '80s

April 25, 1992

The Chinese call this the "Year of the Monkey." The U.S. Census could have dubbed the 1980s the "Years of the Claw."

We scratched harder to earn more to afford homes that were bigger and better than the ones in which we were raised. But the homes kept getting further from the job centers, to which we had to return to work. In a car. By ourselves most likely.

The state Office of Planning, in a press release about the recently released data, calls the '80s a time of prosperity for Maryland, but it was a prosperity seemingly born of desperation.

Housing costs ballooned. The number of homeowners who paid 25 percent of their earnings toward housing -- the traditional benchmark for the share people should spend on their residences -- grew by nearly a third, from 23 percent to 29 percent. Many took on even larger burdens; the number of people with mortgages that ate up more than a third of their incomes grew by 55 percent.

The homes we're buying are bigger: three-bedroom units grew by 27 percent; four-bedrooms by 43 percent, five-bedroom houses up 46 percent. Although figures on bathrooms per home weren't available, their rise likely paralleled the bedroom boom. "At least we used to have to communicate when we'd ask if we could get into the bathroom," quips state planner Mike Lettre.

That may be the underlying message in the numbers: We're less tolerant than we used to be. We don't want to wait to get into the bathroom. We need more living space. We don't want to hassle with car pools, whose use is greatly down. Save Mother Earth? Let her save herself, we've got our own troubles. Howard County, by the way, had the greatest share of commuters driving alone -- 80 percent. Howard also edged Montgomery as the county with the greatest median household income in the state -- $54,348.

With the possible exception of our willingness to recycle trash, societal inwardness traced by the census -- someone dubbed it "cocooning" -- is reflected in our current politics, too: No more taxes, particularly for services that benefit someone else! Redistrict sections of Baltimore County and the city as one? We refuse to be lumped together!

Demographers often mention the "pig in the python," the graphic analogy of the effect the aging baby boom bulge has on culture, commodities and costs. As we exit the 20th century, the cost of caring for an expanding elderly population will increase as a concern -- and as a competitor for public dollars now going to education.

As the census portends, we're making more money, living with more breathing space, owning more cars. How come we don't sense more pride in all this progress? Or, to re-phrase a question oft asked in the 1980s, are we having fun yet?

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