A grocer searches for customers in Levittown, on Long Island in 1953.

Unfortunately, he didn't find many, because they were at the new supermarket.

Economic Health Versus Growth

by Juan Wilson

© 1993 The Gobbler

Over the last several years, I have participated in several conversations about the need for jobs, the sorry state of the local economy and the problems associated with poverty. Participants in these conversations blamed everything from television to Japanese trade practices as the source of our economic woes.

Underlying all these conversations was the idea that a healthy economy is one that must grow. The more widespread and quicker that growth, the sooner we'd find answers to our problems. All we had to do was find the means to make things grow bigger and faster. This is an assumption that I have held my whole life because it was an idea everyone, whether rich or poor, seemed to endorse.

I am now beginning to question that assumption. I'm 48 years old and have lived through three periods of conspicuous growth. The first was during the explosion of suburban development in the early nineteen fifties following World War II. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and America fell asleep every night watching gunfights acted out in TV westerns and John Wayne war films. The second growth period were the Go-Go years of the late sixties during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. We had a national policy of Guns & Butter. A War on Poverty and a War in Vietnam. Americans ate dinner every night watching young Americans die in Southeast Asia and urban riots in city after city across America. These were real gunfights.

Like many of you, I also remember the last economic boom, during the yuppie 1980's, when Ronald R. Reagan was President and two-bedroom bungalows in gentrified suburbs sold for $350,000. A time when junk bonds, bank failures and debt made a few rich and everybody else poorer.

In my recollection of these times it does not seem that life overall was any better for Americans than it is now. On the contrary, had the accelerated growth of those times continued unabated until today, we might be worse off today than we are. Pollution, depletion of natural resources, overpopulation, debt and other serious problems might have engulfed us.

I was not distant or disconnected from the places of growth in those economic "good times". In the 1980's I lived in suburban Connecticut and in the late forties and early fifties my family lived in a series of mass produced tract homes, as suburban growth swallowed up and paved over the potato, duck, and horse farms of central and eastern Long Island.

When I was a boy I rode a bike along Old Country Road near our tract home. At that time, it was an old road with mature trees on either side, that joined branches overhead. There were farm stores and other small owner-operated businesses sprinkled along its path.

Believe me, you wouldn't want to ride a bike along Old Country Road today. Old Country Road is now a six lane commercial strip with windowless national franchises butted parking lot to parking lot. It dwarfs what we see today on nearby Fairmount Avenue. Just imagine looking out your picture window one morning when the chain saws begin cutting down the big trees across the street, which edge the flowered meadow that will shortly become a blacktopped parking lot for heaven knows what operation.

Stone Lane, Levittown, Long Island in 1950. the motto: "One house, one car!"

This suburban growth on Long Island has in no way relieved the problems of New York City. In fact, things got worse. New York's population wasn't reduced much, but the population of Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island increased by tenfold. Activity in the suburbs sapped the economic strength of the city. Paradoxically, many of the voices raised loudest for more economic growth in New York State are in the very places where the fastest and most intense growth has done the greatest damage.

If you are a politician running for office in America it is safe to call for more growth in front of almost any audience. This is true for Republicans or Democrats. The Democrat will tell you that growth is good for the "little guy". More jobs for the unemployed, less poverty, etc. The Republicans, on the other hand, will tell you growth is good for corporate America and business in general. More opportunities to get rich, less poverty, etc.

Both political parties advocate economic growth as a fix for our problems. There was a long period of time when we in America could turn in the direction of the west for a growth fix. For a while we had a few thousand miles of resources in front of our growing population to rely on in a pinch: there were plenty of virgin forests, minerals, oil and gas reserves with no end in sight. I think the time for a simple solution that employs expansion and growth to achieve economic good times has passed us by.


Instead of talking about economic growth, I feel we should be talking about economic health, economic harmony and economic improvement. These aspects of the economy would be measured in sustainability, fairness, and the quality of life. We ought to be pointing to the quality of the work we do and the quality of the products we produce and not just the "bottom-line". As long as we cannot be turned from using growth and its profits as the primary measure of our overall well-being, we will be doomed to disappointment in what will be perceived as a smaller and smaller world.