LOCATION: United States
POPULATION: 300 million (2006)
LANGUAGE: English; Spanish, and other minority languages
RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholic, Protestant [Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian]); Judaism; Islam
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 2: African Americans; American Immigrants; Native North Americans
The United States of America, with a population of more than 300 million, is a nation of immigrants. The very first Americans are thought to be prehistoric Asian peoples who first arrived on the North American continent sometime before 10,000 bc. From these first settlers evolved the cultures of the North American Indian tribes. When the European explorers first came to North America in the 1500s, an estimated two million people were living in the land that was to become the United States. The Europeans had advanced industrial, military, communications, transportation, and construction technologies that enabled them to dominate the native peoples. Successive waves of European immigrants ultimately led to a policy of forcibly resettling the tribes to make way for the new settlers. In the process, thousands of native people were killed or died when driven from their homes. By 1890, according to the official census count, there were only 248,253 native peoples remaining in the United States. Still, many tribal societies survived warfare with white settlers and retained their cultures. Their survival, however, has been on the fringes of North American society. Today, less than 1% of the population of the United States consists of these first Americans.
Another people subjected to the domination of the early European Americans were the African slaves who were forcibly brought by businessmen to America to work the plantations in the South during the 18th and 19th centuries. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the slave population of the United States had reached a figure of 4,000,000 persons. Although slavery was abolished in the 1860s, discrimination against blacks remained institutionalized until the major social legislation of the 1960s. Even in the 21st century, racism is one of America's enduring social problems. As of 2008, approximately 13% of the population of the United States could trace its ancestors back to these African peoples.
Ultimately, the Native Americans, African Americans, the European settlers, and the successive waves of immigrants that followed worked together to build one of the most powerful nations on Earth. Americans excel or lead in almost all areas of human endeavor.
European immigration to the United States peaked between 1880 and 1920 when over 20 million Europeans came to America. In 1900, 96% of all immigrants to the United States came from Europe, especially from Germany, Ireland, and Italy. In many cases these immigrants were fleeing starvation, poverty, and war. America offered hope and opportunity. For them, America was a great "melting pot" where people from many different lands came together and melted into a new American society. People from throughout Europe left the languages and customs of their native lands behind and began the process of being assimilated into American society. After three or four generations in the new land, their descendants felt as American as the descendants of the original colonists. Unfortunately, the Europeans were reluctant to welcome non-Europeans into this "melting pot." Still, Americans held a deep belief in the principles of equal rights and equal opportunities. These principles, embedded in the nation's constitution and enforced by law, ultimately opened the door to full participation in American society to all Americans. Some would argue, however, that the door has not been opened very wide. Consequently, minority groups in America continue to struggle to assert their rights as American citizens. Estimates of the foreign-born population in 2000 ranged between 10.5 and 11 percent—higher than it had been since 1930, but still well below the peak of nearly 15 percent between 1870 and 1910.
As of the 2000 census, the American immigrant was more likely to be Asian (25.5% of all immigrants) or Hispanic (51.1%) rather than European (15.3%). Demographers predict this immigration pattern will continue. They estimate that by the year 2050 over 29% of the population will claim Hispanic origin (up from 10% in 1990), 13% will be blacks, while another 9% will be Asian (3% in 1990). By then, only 47% of the population will be of European origin, as opposed to 85% in 1960. Census categories, however, can be confusing and sometimes misleading. Whereas the terms Asian and Black are terms that define a race of peoples, the term Hispanic defines a geographic location (people from the Caribbean,Mexico, and Central and South America). Consequently, a person of Hispanic origin can be of any race. Many Hispanics are black while others trace their ancestors to the European countries of Portugal and Spain. There are even small percentages of Hispanics with Japanese, Chinese, or Filipino ancestry.
Now that the non-European groups are becoming a stronger force in American culture, the "melting pot" paradigm is fading. Today, most academics term America a multicultural society that is more like a "salad bowl" than a "meltingpot," with each ethnic group maintaining its identity in the mix. The well-known political scientist Samuel Huntington observed that former President William Clinton was the first American president to stress diversity instead of unity as a national goal.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The land Americans came to call their own is located in the Western Hemisphere on the continent of North America. The United States is the third-largest country in the world with a total area of 9,826,630 sq km (3,794,083 sq mi, land and water area combined). The northeastern coast, known as New England, is rocky, but along the rest of the eastern seaboard, the Atlantic Coastal Plain rises gradually from the shoreline and merges with the Gulf Coastal Plain in Georgia. To the west is a plateau, bounded by the Appalachian Mountains. This plateau extends from southeast Maine into central Alabama. Between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains, more than 1,600 km (1,000 mi) to the west, lies the vast interior plain of the United States. The Rockies and the ranges to the west—the Sierra Nevada, the Coast, and Cascade ranges—are parts of a larger mountain system that extends through the western part of Central and South America. Between the Rockies and the Pacific Ranges lies a group of vast plateaus containing most of the nation's desert areas, known as the Great Basin. The coastal plains along the Pacific Ocean arenarrow, and in many places, the mountains plunge directly into the sea. Separated from the continental United States by Canada, the state of Alaska occupies the extreme northwestportion of North America. The state of Hawaii consists of a group of Pacific islands formed by volcanoes rising sharply from the ocean floor.
The primary language of the United States is English, enriched by words borrowed from the languages of Indians and immigrants, predominantly European. Some 82% of all Americans speak only English while at home. Over 10% of the population speaks Spanish at home. The majority of Spanish speakers live in the Southwest, Florida, and eastern urban centers. Other languages spoken at home include French, German, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Italian. Of the 20 non-English languages spoken most widely at home, the largest proportional increase in the 1990s was Russian. Speakers of this language nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000, from 242,000 to 706,000. The second largest increase was among French Creole speakers (including Haitian Creoles), whose numbers more than doubled, from 188,000 to 453,000.
Characters associated with the taming of the American wilderness, especially cowboys and Indians, are featured prominently in American folklore. Among the best known of these mythical figures are John Henry, Paul Bunyon, and Pecos Bill. John Henry was a "steel-driving man" (someone who used a sledgehammer to drive spikes into railroad ties) who challenged a steam-driven hammer to a spike-driving contest. As the story goes, John Henry won the race but immediately died thereafter. Paul Bunyon was a woodsman who could fell a tree with a single swing of his ax. He rode a giant blue ox named Babe. Pecos Bill was a cowboy in the so-called "wild west." He could lasso a tornado and ride a mountain lion.
Americans are fascinated with outlaws. Among America's most famous outlaws are Billy the Kid and Al Capone. Born in 1859, Billy the Kid had a career of cattle rustling and murder. He was shot and killed in New Mexico by Sheriff Pat Garrett on 15 July 1881. In the 1920s, "Big Al" Capone was a gangster who dominated the Chicago crime scene. He engaged in gang warfare and bootlegging during America's Prohibition period when the sale of alcohol was prohibited. Although a ruthless killer, Al Capone was never convicted for any of his violent crimes; he went to jail for income tax evasion.
Since baseball is known as the national pastime, it is fitting that the story of baseball hero Babe Ruth has reached mythic proportions. The "Babe" is considered by many as the best player ever to have played the game. Some people have said that with the World Series, baseball's championship, on the line and his team, the New York Yankees, behind on the scoreboard, Babe pointed with his bat to the outfield bleachers and then promptly hit a home run right to the designated spot.
Americans have a deep belief that anyone can achieve wealth and success if he or she works hard enough and is smart enough. Consequently, many Americans know a "rags to riches" story of someone who has beaten the odds and gone from poverty to immense wealth.
Although all of the world's major religions have adherents in the United States, the U.S. is primarily a Christian nation. Over 23% of the population is Roman Catholic, while another 51% are Protestant or non-denominational Christian. The largest Protestant denominations are the Baptists with more than 16% of the population, followed by the Methodists (6.8%), Lutherans (4.6%), Presbyterians (2.7%), and Pentecostal/Charismatics (2.1%). Approximately 1.7% of the population is Jewish and 0.6% is Muslim. Atheists or agnostics account for 4% of the total population. Trends show that mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining, and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing.
Although Americans observe the holidays and traditions of their respective faiths, no religious holiday has become as institutionalized as Christmas, the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. However, for many Americans, the Christmas holiday has become as much a secular holiday as a religious one. The custom of buying Christmas presents for family and friends has made Christmas an important season for many of America's retailers. Consequently, the profits generated during the Christmas shopping period are watched closely by stock market investors on Wall Street and economic analysts in the government in Washington, D.C.
Although the U.S. constitution mandates a strict separation between church and state, the relationship between these two spheres of society is often blurred. For example, American currency is inscribed with the words "In God we Trust" and many public offices, including most public schools, close for the important Christian holidays. In areas with a heavy Jewish population, the public schools close for the Jewish holidays as well. On the other hand, officially sanctioned prayers in public school are forbidden.
The most important non-religious holidays celebrated by Americans are Independence Day(the fourth of July) and Thanksgiving Day (the fourth Thursday in November). Independenceday celebrates the signing of the United States' Declaration of Independence from England on 4 July 1776. On the fourth of July, many Americans have an outdoor picnic or barbecue. Many communities sponsor parades with high school marching bands, local dignitaries in antique cars, and fire trucks with their sirens blaring. At the end of the day, people gather at a local park to watch a display of fireworks.
Thanksgiving Day celebrates the Pilgrims' first harvest in the new world. When the Pilgrims arrived from England, they had little knowledge of how to survive in their new land. They were helped by the local native Americans who taught them how to plant corn. The harvest was successful, and the Pilgrims celebrated by inviting the local inhabitants to share in a meal of thanksgiving. Since then, Americans have set aside Thanksgiving Day as a day to give thanks for their good fortune. For children and adults, a traditional activity is watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City on television. The parade features giant helium-filled balloons made in the shapes of famous cartoon characters. These balloons, some nine or ten stories tall, float high among the New York skyscrapers and are dragged through the streets by teams of people holding long ropes. Thanksgiving day is one of the busiest travel days of the year with many Americans visiting family and friends. Another prominent feature of the day is the football games that are televised nationally. The highlight of the day is the Thanksgiving Day meal (see Food ).
RITES OF PASSAGE
Apart from religious rituals and family occurrences like births, deaths, and marriages, rites of passage for all Americans include their first day at school and the day they graduate from high school. High school graduating classes have reunions every 5 or 10 years. Of particular importance are the 10-year and 20-year reunions. Of somewhat lesser significance, but heavily anticipated nonetheless, is the day a teenager receives his or her driver's license. Many teens take the written and skill tests required to earn a license to drive shortly after their sixteenth birthday. Sixteen is the minimum driving age in most states. Perhaps the most bittersweet rite of passage is a person's retirement from the workforce. This day is often marked by some celebration involving one's coworkers and close family members. A prominent individual with a long career at one company may be given a party at a local banquet hall. A lesser employee or one with few years at the same company may celebrate the event with a special lunch at a local restaurant. The traditional gift for someone retiring from the workforce is a gold watch.
Americans are generally regarded as friendly and outgoing. In formal business communications, men are referred to as Mr. and women as Ms. (Ms. came into popular use during the1970s when women argued for equal treatment in the work-place.) In social correspondence,some women prefer Mrs. or Miss. This may be the case with older American women. Social etiquette is changing as the society struggles to become less racist and less sexist. In business settings, shaking hands with people upon first meeting them is appropriate. This is true when meeting either men or women. However, when a man is introduced to a woman, the man may prefer to wait for the woman to offer her hand first. Kissing another person on the cheek in a business setting is not appropriate unless you know the person very well. Often in a social setting, men and women who have met previously kiss each other on thecheek upon greeting. In business and social settings, addressing the newly met person by his or her first name is typical. Exceptions to this include: if Mr., Ms., or Mrs. was used in the introduction; if the new acquaintance is significantly older or has significantly greater stature; if the situation is formal in atmosphere. In these cases, Mr., Mrs., or Ms. should be used to avoid offending anyone. When meeting or talking with someone, Americans feel that looking the other person directly in the eyes is important. This is a sign of openness and trustworthiness, as is a firm handshake.
Young people begin dating in groups or under loose adult supervision at the ages of twelve or thirteen. However, dating begins in earnest when teenagers begin receiving their drivers' licenses at the age of 16. At this age, parents rarely chaperone their children. Using the family car for a first date is an extremely important occasion for any teenager. Traditionally, the boy was the one to ask the girl out on a date; customarily, the boy would pay for the date. These social norms, however, are fading. Dates are frequently scheduled for Friday or Saturday nights. A typical date might consist of a casual meal and a movie or concert. School dances and sporting events are also popular. Most parents set curfews for their children to be home by midnight.
American society values equality, so language should not be used in a derogatory, sexist, or racist manner. A sexist or racist remark made to a coworker is not only rude but also illegal. Although there is a wide disparity in income levels among Americans, Americans generally think of America as a classless society. Some people have said that the American president Abraham Lincoln treated his butler with the same respect he treated visiting heads of state. In a country where most Americans referred to the former American President William Jefferson Clinton as "Bill," the average citizen feels his or her voice in political affairs is as important as that of the very wealthiest and most powerful of Americans.
Americans have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. The average American household has income of over $46,000 per year. Approximately 70% of American homes are single-unit structures. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average home size in the United States was 2,330 sq ft in 2004, up from 1,400 sq ft in 1970. The remaining homes are multiple dwelling units such as two- and four-family houses and large apartment buildings with more than 50 units. Sixty-nine percent of American families own their own homes. Almost every American household has hot and cold running water, electricity, indoor plumbing, a refrigerator, a telephone, and a television. American homes usually have toasters, automatic coffee makers, microwave ovens, and clothes washers. One significant 21st century development in American living conditions is the prevalence of the Internet in Americans' lives. As of December 2007, there were 215,935,529 Internet users out of a population of some 300 million, amounting to 71.7% of the population.
Not all Americans, however, share in this wealth. Although they represent only 1% of the total population, a significant number of Americans are homeless. The homeless population in the United States is estimated at some 3,500,000 in any given year. Children account for some 25% of the homeless population.
As of 2008, the country was experiencing a recession that was related to a housing crisis. Referred to as the subprime mortgage crisis, the economic problem had to do with liquidity issues in the banking system. The crisis began in 2006 with the collapse of a nationwide housing bubble, and high default rates on "subprime" and other adjustable rate mortgages (ARM) made to higher-risk borrowers with lower income or lesser credit history than "prime" borrowers. Loan incentives and a long-term trend of rising housing prices encouraged borrowers to assume mortgages, believing they would be able to refinance at more favorable terms later. However, once housing prices started to decline in 2006–2007 in many parts of the country, refinancing became more difficult. Defaults and foreclosure activity increased dramatically. During 2007, close to 1.3 million American housing properties were subject to foreclosure, up 79% versus 2006. As of 2008 it was estimated subprime defaults would reach a level between $200 and $300billion. Also dismal was the news that for the first time in at least 40 years, and possibly since the Great Depression, the median price declined for an existing single-family home across the country in 2007. It was the first such annual drop since the National Association of Realtors began collecting data in 1968. Academics agreed the previous such decline was in the Great Depression. Families nationwide saw the median home price fall 1.4% in 2007 to $218,900, from $221,900 in 2006.
Automobiles are a very important part of American life. In many suburban communities pedestrians are an uncommon sight. Consequently, public transportation is not a primary form of transportation, and many housing developments no longer include sidewalks. Most Americans would find it hard to survive without an automobile for transportation. Every- where in America are well-paved roads (including a multi-lane, high speed, interstate highway system that links every major and secondary city in the nation). Driving from east coast to west coast and from north to south is possible using these high-speed interstate highways.
America has been termed a consumer society. In fact, for many people, shopping is as much a pastime as a chore. In most American communities, shoppers are drawn to the local mall. The mall became a fixture in American society in the 1970s when developers began to gather hundreds of independent stores under one roof. These giant buildings, decorated inside with trees and fountains, are flanked by acres of parking lots. Inside, shoppers can go from store to store and be sheltered from the weather. The local mall took the place of the town square and quickly became a favorite meeting place for teenagers. The mall also changed the nature of the community by forcing the stores in the downtown area of the city out of business, thereby hastening the decay of America's urban centers. In their place, a new type of suburban outdoor mall began to emerge, with stores arranged as if in a city or town, mimicking the urban centers they replaced. Another trend in American consumerism is the mail order catalog. Pioneered in the 1920s by Sears and Montgomery Ward, the mail order catalog made a comeback in the 1980s and now offers Americans at-home shopping for everything from fruit to sweaters to sofas. Internet shopping also became very popular in the early 21st century, and such auction sites as Ebay allow Americans to buy and sell goods to and from one another on the Web.
Most Americans get married for the first time when they are in their twenties. However, some 40% of first-time marriages end in divorce. In 2003, there were 7.5 marriages per 1,000 people and 3.8 divorces. American families consist of an average two children. For every 1,000 live births, there are 291.5 abortions; the abortion rate has been decreasing in recent years. The issue of abortion is one of the most divisive ones in American politics. Even though legal since 1973, many Americans still see abortion as a morally tinged decision. In 2004, 35.8% of all births in the United States were to single mothers as opposed to 5% in 1950. In 2005, the adolescent birth rate dropped to a record low, to 21 per 1,000 young women ages 15–17, down from 39 per 1,000 in 1991. This decline followed an increase of one-fourth between 1986 and 1991.
In the 1950s and 60s, the husband in the family typically went to work and the wife usually stayed home and managed the house and children. Women's roles in society were more strictly defined then, and opportunities outside of the home were limited. In the 1970s and 80s, however, economic pressures and the increasing desire of more women to pursue careers in the workforce resulted in both husband and wife working full-time jobs. However, the school day does not conform to the work day, and many children spend the hours before and after school in day care centers or alone at home until their parents return from work sometime after 5:00 pm, the typical end of the work day.
Increasing public tolerance of single-sex unions as well as the high divorce rate and incidence of birth to unwed mothers is changing the definition of family in American society. The traditional notion that family members are primarily related by blood is being expanded to include bonds based more on emotionalor economic factors. Extended and blended families, comprised of a husband and wife and their children and relatives from previous marriages, are altering the way Americans view the household family unit.
Mobility of Americans increasingly means that family members find themselves living many hundreds of miles away from their parents and siblings. When older adults are no longer able to live on their own, they typically move into a nursing home or assisted living facility rather than into the homes of their children.
Conservative dress for a businessman typically consists of a western-style suit and a tie. Conservative dress for a business-woman is a suit or dress in a subdued style—in muted colors and with modest tailoring. Less traditional businesswomen may prefer more fashionable styles, stronger colors, and more dramatic tailoring. Increasingly common among American businesses is the "dress-down" day. On this day, typically Fridays, all employees are encouraged to wear casual clothes. Men's and women's suits give way to casual slacks or skirts and sweaters. Formal footwear is replaced byrunning shoes or loafers. Many Americans who work in service industries or factories wearuniforms that are supplied by their employers.
When not at work, Americans prefer casual clothes, such as denim blue jeans, T-shirts,and sweatshirts. Increasingly, a baseball cap with team or other logo has become an important addition to the casual wardrobe. Casual clothing is often decorated with the logo ofa sports team or the designer who designed the clothes. T-shirts often carry some advertisement or message. Casual footwear for Americans typically means some type of sports shoe: Tennis, basketball, walking, etc. These sports shoes can be very expensive and some, especially those endorsed by professional sports figures, are highly prized by some teenagers and young adults.
Children who attend private schools typically wear school uniforms. Children who attend public schools are free, within reason, to wear what they like to school. For many public school students, school clothes are the same as their play clothes. However, the increasingly outrageous fashions of school children sometimes disrupt the educational process.
Young adults in their late teens and early twenties may have their bodies tattooed or pierced. Until the early 1990s, tattoos were socially taboo. Women did not usually have tattoos. Consequently, the decision to get a tattoo was an act of social defiance and independence. By the late 1990s, some young men and women, following the lead of fashion models and rock stars, found tattooing a socially acceptable practice. Accordingly, the decision to get a tattoo no longer had quite the same significance it did when fewer people engaged in the practice. Subsequently, as those young tattooed people began to age and look for professional employment, there emerged a growing market for tattoo removal. Young adults in the 21st century also found they had to go farther if they wanted to make a social (as well as fashion) statement with their bodies. This may explain the phenomenon of body piercing. Body piercing first gained widespread social acceptance in the 1960s and 70s when women began piercing their ear lobes and wearing pierced earrings. In the 1980s, having more than one hole pierced in each ear became fashionable for young women. At that time, young men took up the practice as well. However, unlike women, men have one ear pierced and wear a small earring. A minority of young Americans also pierce other parts of their bodies including their noses, eyebrows, navels, tongues, lips, and nipples. Whereas pierced ears are as common as the suit and tie, pierced noses and eyebrows still gain attention as unique fashion statements.
The foods Americans eat are as diverse as the population. Regional specialties include clam chowder in the northeast seaboard, Tex-Mex with jalapeno peppers and tortillas along the border with Mexico, and spicy Cajun dishes in Louisiana. To say that all Americans favor a typical selection of food would be a gross oversimplification. However, certain foods are common throughout the United States and are familiar to almost all Americans.
For American children, a typical morning breakfast may consist of a bowl of cereal and cold milk and a glass of juice. Children's breakfast cereals, made out of wheat, rice, or corn, have brand names like "Fruit Loops," "Cheerios," and "Frosted Flakes." The more popular ones are heavily coated with sugar. Cereal boxes (some as large as 13 inches high, 8 inches wide, and 3 inches deep) are creatively decorated with games, contests, and advertisements. Oftentimes, children read the box as they eat their morning bowl of cereal. Older Americans may have a glass of orange or grapefruit juice, a cup of coffee, and toast and butter. Bagels and cream cheese, always a favorite of New Yorkers, have become popular throughout the country. A more hearty breakfast for children and adults alike may consist of eggs, hash brown potatoes, and either ham, bacon, or sausage. Also popular are pancakes or waffles covered with butter and maple syrup.
At the mid-day meal, young American children rarely refuse peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Adults and older children prefer sandwiches made with sliced meats (bologna sandwiches are popular with children), cheese, and lettuce. Soups are also widely consumed.
Dinner is the main meal of the day for most Americans. The conventional dinner meal consists of a portion of meat (chicken and pork are affordable and popular), a vegetable like broccoli, corn, peas, or green beans, and a salad made from fresh lettuce.
Increasingly, however, the busy schedules of Americans make it difficult for families to find the time not only to prepare the meal but also to sit down together to eat it. An alternative to the traditional home-made family meal may be a pre-prepared frozen dinner purchased at a grocery store. These meals can be quickly defrosted, warmed in a conventional or microwave oven, and ready for serving within ten minutes. Also popular are pizzas that are ordered from local pizza restaurants and delivered to the home hot and ready for serving.
The frantic pace of American life has led more and more Americans from the kitchen and into restaurants for many of their daily meals. Among the most popular restaurants are those that offer "fast foods," especially hamburgers and French fries. In a fast food restaurant, the customer orders his or her meal from a fairly restricted menu at a counter. The food is delivered wrapped in paper or cardboard and served on a tray. The food is then taken by the customer to tables provided for the customers' convenience. Upon finishing the meal, customers clean up after themselves. Most fast-food restaurants are equipped with a drive-through window. The customer drives his or her car up to a microphone and places the order. He then drives his car to a window in the side of the building where an attendant takes his money and gives him his food in a bag. Among the most popular of these fast food restaurants are Mc-Donald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, and Burger King.
In addition to fast-food restaurants, Americans increasingly are eating out at more traditional restaurants, typically on the weekend but also during the work week. This can add up to a considerable expense for a family's food budget. Single people as well as couples are often found congregating at bars and restaurants after work or on the weekend.
Perhaps the most enduring traditional American meal is the annual Thanksgiving dinner. The traditional version of this meal consists of a whole roasted turkey stuffed with seasoned bread cubes and served with gravy. Children often ask for the legs of the bird, referred to as "drumsticks." Side dishes include mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, cranberries, a salad, and rolls. The meal is topped off with apple or pumpkin pie for dessert. In many parts of the country, a traditional feature of the Thanksgiving meal is the ceremonial breaking of the wish-bone. Two people each hold an end of the wishbone and make a wish. They pull the wishbone apart, and whoever holds the larger end will have their wish granted.
Most American children start their formal education at the age of 5, although many attend preschool or day care from an earlier age. The school year begins sometime near the beginning of September and ends in mid-June. Children do not attend school during the summer months of June, July, and August. This poses a dilemma for families where both parentswork. Five-year-olds go to kindergarten where they learn socialization skills and receive instruction in arithmetic, reading, and writing. Although attended by most five-year-olds, kindergarten is not mandatory in all states; it is only a half-day program. After kindergarten, children attend elementary school (also referred to as primary or grade school) for grades one through six. In some school districts, primary schools end at grade four or five, after which the children attend what is known as middle school. Middle schools include grades six and seven, after which time the students attend junior high school. Junior high school goes until grade eight or nine. High school starts at grade 9 or 10 and goes to grade 12. The configuration of elementary, middle, junior, and high school is often a function of the number of students in a district and other nonacademic factors. Some districts have only elementary schools (1 through 8) and a high school (9 through 12). In most school districts, the school day lasts about six hours for elementary students and up to eight hours for high school students. Children attend school Monday through Friday.
A feature of many school districts is busing to achieve racial integration. Until the 1960s, many students were segregated by race for education. Some school districts directed resources to white schools and away from black schools. To correct the situation, the federal courts required offending districts to bus children to schools outside of their neighborhoods to achieve racial balance in the classrooms. When first instituted, busing resulted in "white flight" as whites moved out of cites affected by busing and into adjacent suburban neighborhoods insulated from the court orders. Some argue that this demographic trend resulted in even greater segregation and a general impoverishment of America's urban centers as the more wealthy white citizens moved away. Others argue that the remedy offered superior educational opportunities to black children and a more equal educational environment. Since the first court order in 1954, the issue of racial integration in American schools has torn at the fabric of American society. In the 2000s, the racial makeup of schools and neighborhoods is still an underlying motivation in where many people choose to live.
Children are required by law to attend school until age 16, usually having completed 11 years of education. As of 2004, 13.5% of the U.S. population age 25 and over did not have a high school diploma. Approximately 28% of Americans that year had attained at least a bachelor's college degree. Some Americans pursue a degree from a technical college, which offers a two-year program designed to prepare the student for a specific job. Approximately 9.4% of Americans go on to graduate from a professional or graduate school (another three to eight years depending on the discipline). As would be expected, the more highly educated Americans make the highest earnings in the workforce.
It can be argued that Americans do not have a common cultural heritage. For many Americans, their cultural heritage is that of the homeland of their immigrant ancestors. However, some cultural forms, which are viewed by the rest of the world as typically American, have evolved. Among them are the numerous popular musical forms including the blues, gospel, jazz, rock and roll, and country and western. In the world's symphony halls, America is represented by many important composers including Virgil Thomson, Charles Ives, Aaron Copeland, and John Cage.
American poets of significance include Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T. S. Elliott, John Ashbery, and James Merrill. Novelists also feature prominently in American culture. Colonial American life (1700s) has been captured in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and life before the Civil War (1861–65) was chronicled in the works of Mark Twain, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The excesses of the 1920s inspired The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, while the Great Depression (1929–40) that followed inspired The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Contemporary American authors who explore the human experience include Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, Paul Auster, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, and Annie Dillard.
Perhaps America's most conspicuous contribution to world culture is the motion pictures that are synonymous with the city of Hollywood, California. Feature films like Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, and the Wizard of Oz are both embedded in the American psyche and distributed worldwide. Of similar significance are television programs. Throughout the world, people see America through the reflection of such popular programs as Bonanza, Dallas, and Baywatch. In 21st century "reality" television became popular, where television series chronicle the lives and escapades of everyday Americans doing either everyday or extraordinary things. Such programs include American Idol and Survivor.
The United States has an advanced industrialized economy offering almost any job conceivable. The typical American work-week lasts 40 hours. Although the workday could begin and end at any hour, most Americans work between the hours of 8 am and 5 pm. The lunch break typically starts between 11:30 am and 12:30 pm and lasts between 30 minutes and an hour. Businesses, however, do not close during the lunch break. By law, as of 2007, the minimum wage employers must pay employees was $5.85 per hour. The 2007 Fair Minimum Wage Act will raise the federal minimum wage twice more: to $6.55 per hour on 24 July 2008 and to $7.25 per hour on 24 July 2009. After 40 hours, an employee is entitled to overtime pay. Though some workers are paid by the hour, many Americans receive a weekly salary. Instead of an hourly wage, these employees are paid a fixed sum and are not paid extra when their work week extends past 40 hours. Many companies offer their employees one or two weeksof paid vacation after one year on the job. The number of vacation days given to an employee typically increases with the number of years he or she has been on the job, but rarely exceeds four weeks. Americans begin to retire from the workforce at age 65, although many work well into their 70s.
In the 1950s, the American workplace was dominated by white men. Since then, federal laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex and race have opened the workplace to women and ethnic minorities. Consequently, the workplace is becoming more diverse. However, the leadership of many American companies is still composed predominantly of white males.
In the late 1990s, a phenomenon of immediate urgency in the American workplace was thepractice of "downsizing." In order to stay competitive in the world economy, companies of all sizes were reducing the size of their workforces by laying off large numbers of employees. This was the case even with companies that were performing well and generating generous profits for their owners. Many of the employees who were downsized out of their jobs were the more highly-paid white-collar workers in their 40s and 50s. Through the decades of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, workers felt that there was an unwritten understanding that if a worker was loyal to his or her employer and did a good job, he or shecould expect to work at that company until retirement—at least as long as the company was profitable. In the 1990s, workers lost their jobs not because they were performing poorly, nor because the company was losing money, but because the company had changed its organizational structure and eliminated the workers' positions altogether. This"change in the rules" changed employees' attitudes toward employers and forced them to be more self-reliant and self-centered. Savvy employees no longer saw their employers ina paternal light, and company loyalty was to a lesser extent part of the employer/employee relationship.
Another challenge for the American economy is the scarcity of good paying jobs for lower-skilled workers. The manufacturing jobs of the 1950s and 60s paid good wages and offered good benefits to low-skilled workers, most of whom were supported by a powerful laborunion. However, these jobs have increasingly been automated or shipped offshore to countries where nonunionized workers earn a fraction of their American counterparts. The jobs available to low-skilled workers offer much less.
These structural changes in the economy are increasing the income disparity between the rich and the poor in American society.
About 40% of all Americans play sports. Americans enjoy and participate in all sports. The primary sports played by school children include baseball, basketball, football (American style), ice hockey, and soccer. Although these more rigorous sports are abandoned by most Americans as they reach their mid-40s, interest in them remains strong and, except for soccer, they are the most popular spectator sports enjoyed by Americans. Older Americans who participate in competitive sports prefer golf, tennis, and bowling.
The most popular noncompetitive sport is walking for exercise, followed by swimming, bicycle riding, fishing, and camping. With a growing emphasis upon the need to become healthier, Americans in greater numbers are joining gyms, hiring personal trainers, and participating in other forms of working out to reduce health risks and live longer and happierlives.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Entertainment opportunities abound in the United States. Many Americans go to motion pictures, sporting events, and amusement parks. Perhaps the best known amusement park in the United States is Disney World in Orlando, Florida. This mammoth installation is a city unto itself. Americans also entertain themselves by going to a restaurant for dinner orby reading. Sporting events including games staged by the National Football League (NFL),major league baseball, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are watched by millions both on TV and in giant stadiums and arenas, many holding 50,000 persons or more. The annual football championship game, the "Super Bowl," is always the most watched televised event of the year. In fact, "Super Bowl Sunday" is approaching the status of an American holiday.
Many Americans have hobbies like gardening, coin collecting, and model building. However, no entertainment medium is as widely experienced as television. The average American spends more than four hours a day watching television. This number is certainly higher for children. The most popular shows on television are half-hour-long situational comedies, referred to as "sit-coms." These shows are shown during "prime time," the most popular viewing period of the day, between 8 pm and 10 pm. Most popular shows during the daytime are soap operas where ongoing dramatic interpersonal situations are presented with story lines running for months or years. In many American households, the television is on whenever someone is in the house, even if no one is watching. Ninety-nine percent of households possess at least one television set, but the number of TV sets in the average U.S. household is 2.24. Sixty-six percent of American homes have three or more television sets. On average, the television is on in the home for 8 hours and 14 minutes per day. Sixty-six percent of Americans regularly watch television while eating dinner. Americans also pay for cable television or direct satellite broadcasts, and rent DVDs (previously videos). The U.S. is now moving to digital television. Legislation passed in 2006 requires over-the-air stations to cease analog broadcasting by February 2009. But led by female teenage viewing, in the 21st century average American television viewing continues to increase in spite of growing competition from new media platforms and devices, such as video iPods, cell phones, and streaming video.
America is becoming a nation of gamblers. Gambling, long considered a morally objectionable activity, has become a wildly popular form of entertainment. Until the late 1970s, most forms of gambling were either illegal or highly restricted. Gambling's transition to respectability was aided by the institution of state-sponsored lotteries that are now used in 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands as a means to generate revenues. In the early 21st century, more Americans gambled than went to movies, theater, opera, and concerts combined.
Popular children's toys include video games and bicycles. Action figures like GI Joe are popular with boys, while crafts and dolls are preferred by girls. Perhaps the most famous doll in America is "Barbie." Most American girls have at least one Barbie doll.
FOLK ARTS, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Typical American crafts include basketweaving, knitting, needlepoint, woodworking, pottery, glass blowing, and weaving. If a visitor from another country set out to purchase a craft item essentially American, he or she may wish to shop for a patchwork quilt.
American society struggles with many social problems chief of which are crime, alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, racism, sexism, and violence. The prevalence of sex and violence in American movies, television shows, and even popular songs on the radio has led the government to encourage the entertainment industry to establish a ratings system designed to help parents shelter their children from objectionable content. According to estimates, U.S. citizens spend as much as $220 billion a year on illicit drugs, 44% of the world retail illicit drug market total. In 2001 it was estimated that 41.7% of the U.S. population 12 years old or over had used illicit drugs at some time in their lives.
In recent years sexual activity among teenagers has declined in the United States, and contraceptive use has improved, but teenage sex is still a significant social issue for Americans. As of 2003, 47% of all teenagers in grades 9–12 reported having had intercourse. Although American teen sexual activity is similar to that in other developed countries, American girls are much more likely to become pregnant: 34% of women in the United States become pregnant at least once before they are 20 years old.
In 2006, over 7.2 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole—3.2% of all U.S. adult residents or 1 in every 31 adults. At the beginning of 2008, 2,319,258 Americans were in jail or prison—one in 99.1 adults. The U.S. prison population is disproportionately African American. The United States has imprisoned more people than any other country: 500,000 more than China, which has a population five times greater than the United States. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world's prison population, but only 5% of the world's people. The 50 U.S. states spent more than $49 billion on corrections in 2007, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending. The average annual cost per prisoner was $23,876, with Rhode Island spending the most ($44,860) and Louisiana the least ($13,009).
Homosexuality has gained increasing acceptance in the United States, although gay people often face discrimination, prejudice, and violence. Same-sex marriage is a divisive political issue in the United States. Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage in 2004, although this only affects state law. The federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages in Massachusetts as being marriages under federal law. Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, California, and New Hampshire created legal unions that, while not called marriages, are explicitly defined as offering all the rights and responsibilities of marriage under state (though not federal) law to same-sex couples. Maine, Hawaii, the District of Columbia, Oregon, and Washington created legal unions for same-sex couples that offer varying degrees of rights and responsibilities of marriage. However, 26 states have constitutional amendments explicitly barring the recognition of same-sex marriage, confining civil marriage to a legal union between a man and a woman. In 2006, the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages, was debated in the U.S. Senate, but was ultimately defeated in both houses of Congress.
There are more women in the United States than men (149.1 million versus 144.5 millionin 2004), and women live longer than men. While women in America have made great strides in approaching equality with men, women still have not gained parity with men in earnings: in 2004 women aged 15 and older who worked full time, year-round, earned 77 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts. More women hold high school diplomas and bachelor's degrees than men, and women vote more regularly than men. There were 25.4 million women age 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or more education in 2004, more than double the number 20 years earlier. However, there are fewer women in theworkforce than men, and more women work in the educational services and health care and social assistance industries than in any other. There were 6.5 million women-owned business in the United States in 2002, up 20% from 1997. Women in 2004 had an average 1.9 children during their lives, down from 3.1 in 1976. The total number of active duty women in the military in 2004 was 212,000. Of that total, 35,100 women were officers and 177,000 were enlisted.
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