In recent years, there has been an increase in focus on the U.S. And that is not without good reason: Pew Research calls the wealth divide between middle-income and upper-income families “sharp and rising.”
For instance, between 1983 and 2016, the share of aggregate wealth going to upper-income families increased from 60% to 79%. Meanwhile, for middle-income families, it decreased from 32% to just 17%.
This is just one of many stats that highlight the growing wealth disparity. While that is undoubtedly a problem, it’s easy to get caught up in these numbers. Despite the growing wealth gap in the U.S., the reality is that most of us are still a lot richer than we realize.
Don’t believe it? Let’s take a look at a few of the clear signs you are actually much richer than you thought.
You Can Flush Your Toilet Paper
If you have ever visited a public restroom, you have probably seen reminders posted of how you can only flush toilet paper. “Outside the United States, many countries do not have waste water treatment facilities that can properly deal with toilet paper,” said Wes Jacobs, founder at Apollo Medical Travel LLC. It’s true: globally, 56% of household wastewater flows were treated safely in 2020, according to UN-Water. That leaves billions without the ability to do something many of us take for granted.
“People who do flush toilet paper quickly learn an expensive lesson. For this reason, there are discrete trash cans for toilet paper next to toilets across much of the developing world.” As much as we appreciate the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, many countries with lower incomes don’t have that luxury.
Jacobs reminds us, “If you can flush toilet paper (and even wet wipes, you king!) you are probably richer than you think.”
You Can Drink Your Tap Water
The ways in which we take our water for granted don’t end with wastewater treatment. As of 2017, more than 800 million people lack access to clean water, according to WHO/UNICEF joint monitoring data. “Apart from a few highly publicized locations in the United States, you can probably drink the tap water,” Jacobs said. “It may seem simple, but much of the world is restricted to expensive bottled and treated water to drink, cook, and even brush their teeth.”
Indeed, you may be familiar with the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. But hundreds of millions around the world completely lack access to clean drinking water, highlighting the extent to which this basic necessity remains a luxury.
You Have Access to Broadband Internet
Those of us who have had access to broadband think almost nostalgically about the days when we had to listen to those funny dial-up sounds before getting online. But even in 2021, there are still Americans who don’t have access to broadband — or if they do, it isn’t up to threshold speeds. According to the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report, 19 million Americans either don’t have broadband access or don’t meet the 4 Mbps/1 Mbps benchmark.
The problem with not having adequate access to internet services is that as internet services have expanded, they have become more deeply embedded in our everyday lives. For instance, a recent article from NPR highlights the struggles a school in rural Nevada had when its internet went out. “Teachers scrambled to recreate their lesson plans and presentations, and could not log attendance. ‘We don’t have a way to ensure that students are in the right classes at the right moment,’ said Lynn Manning-John, vice principal at the K-12 school.”
The current situation is quite different from 25 years ago when everything was on paper and schools didn’t rely on this kind of infrastructure for basic daily activities. And with 19 million Americans having no or inadequate internet services, many people continue to be left behind. Hence, if you have no trouble accessing the internet on a daily basis, you may be more fortunate than you realize.
You Have a Life Full of Opportunity
No matter where you live, adult life won’t exactly be easy. Some of us have family obligations and our opportunities can be limited somewhat by lack of wealth. But having those opportunities at all may put you in a more favorable position than you realize. “I am a firm believer that wealth or being ‘rich’ is defined by the opportunities and choices available to you,” said Scott Nelson, founder at MoneyNerd. “For example, signs might include the ability to afford to go to college or the opportunity to leave an average day job and work on your own business.”
Of course, this sort of opportunity is one that varies both from country to country as well as from person to person. In other words, unlike access to clean water, there can be different levels of opportunity within populations.
Nevertheless, having the freedom to live your life without the fear that you won’t be able to “make it” is a luxury. “At a more basic level, it is a freedom to not spend all your time worrying about paying rent or being able to afford groceries and instead focusing your mental strength on bigger things,” Nelson said.
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