The United States of America in Brief
The vast and varied expanse of the United States of America stretches from the heavily industrialized, metropolitan Atlantic seaboard, across the rich flat farms of the central plains, over the majestic Rocky Mountains to the fertile, densely populated west coast, then halfway across the Pacific to the semitropical island-state of Hawaii. Without Hawaii and Alaska the continental United States measures 4,505 kilometres from its Atlantic to Pacific coasts, 2,574 kilometres from Canada to Mexico; it covers 9,372,614 square kilometres. In area, it is the fourth largest nation in the world (behind the former Soviet Union, Canada and China).
The sparsely settled far-northern state of Alaska is the largest of America’s 50 states with a land mass of 1,477,887 square kilometres. Alaska is nearly 400 times the size of Rhode Island, which is the smallest state; but Alaska, with 521,000 people, has half the population of Rhode Island.
Airlines service 817 cities throughout the country. A flight from New York to San Francisco takes five-and-a-half hours. Train service is also available. The most frequent service is between Washington, D.C., New York and Boston in the East; St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee in the Midwest; and San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West. A coast-to-coast trip by train takes three days. The major means of intercity transportation is by automobile. Motorists can travel over an interstate highway system of 88,641 kilometres, which feeds into another 6,365,590 kilometres of roads and highways connecting virtually every city and town in the United States. A trip by automobile from coast to coast takes five to six days.
America is a land of physical contrasts, including the weather. The southern parts of Florida, Texas, California, and the entire state of Hawaii, have warm temperatures year round; most of the United States is in the temperate zone, with four distinct seasons and varying numbers of hot and cold days each season, while the northern tier of states and Alaska have extremely cold winters. The land varies from heavy forests covering 2,104 million hectares, to barren deserts, from high-peaked mountains (McKinley in Alaska rises to 6193.5 metres), to deep canyons (Death Valley in California is 1,064 metres below sea level).
The United States is also a land of bountiful rivers and lakes. The northern state of Minnesota, for example, is known as the land of 10,000 lakes. The broad Mississippi River system, of great historic and economic importance to the United States, runs 5,969 kilometres from Canada into the Gulf of Mexico — the world’s third longest river after the Nile and the Amazon. A canal south of Chicago joins one of the tributaries of the Mississippi to the five Great Lakes — making it the world’s largest inland water transportation route and the biggest body of fresh water in the world. The St. Lawrence Seaway, which the United States shares with Canada, connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean, allowing seagoing vessels to travel 3,861 kilometres inland, as far as Duluth, Minnesota, during the spring, summer and fall shipping season.
America’s early settlers were attracted by the fertile land along the Atlantic coast in the south-east and inland beyond the eastern Appalachian mountains. As America expanded westward, so did its farmers and ranchers, cultivating the grasslands of the Great Plains, and finally the fertile valleys of the Pacific Coast. Today, with 1,214 million hectares under cultivation, American fanners plant spring wheat on the cold western plains; raise corn, wheat and fine beef cattle in the Midwest, and rice in the damp heat of Louisiana. Florida and California are famous for their vegetable and fruit production, and the cool, rainy north-western states are known for apples, pears, berries and vegetables.
Underground, a wealth of minerals provides a solid base for American industry. History has glamorized the gold rushes to California and Alaska and the silver finds in Nevada. Yet America’s yearly production of gold ($2,831,000,000) is far exceeded by the value of its petroleum, natural gas, clays, phosphates, lead and iron, even its output of sand, cement and stone for construction. Production value of crude oil alone is about 4.2 thousand million annually, pumped from petroleum reserves that range from the Gulf of Mexico to Alaska’s North Slope.
America has long been known as an ethnic «melting pot». Its current population is 252.5 million, made up of immigrants or their descendants from virtually every country in the world. It is believed that the first people to arrive — from Siberia, more than 10,000 years ago — were the Native Americans or the American Indians. Today, nearly 1.5 million American Indians and Eskimos live in the United States, many on tribal lands set aside for them in 31 states.
Europe, the major source of United States immigration, began sending colonists to America in the early 17th century, primarily from northern and western Europe. Immigration peaked in the period from 1880 to 1920, when tens of millions of immigrants entered the United States, with the largest percentage during that period coming from southern and eastern Europe.
Black Americans, who today number 30.79 million, constitute the largest single ethnic minority in the country. They were first brought to the New World as slaves in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. In the 20th century large numbers of blacks, who historically lived in the South, migrated to the large industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and a better way of life. Hispanics, who number 20.5 million and live primarily in the Southwest, are the next largest ethnic minority group in the United States. Sixty percent are Mexican- Americans with the remainder from Central and South America. The Hispanic community is extremely varied, and includes large Puerto Rican populations in many eastern cities as well as a growing Cuban- American presence in Miami, Florida. The United States’ population has also absorbed nearly 6.5 million Asians (from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia and Thailand). Many Asian Americans live in Hawaii, where more«than two-thirds of the population claim an Asian or Polynesian heritage.
Once a nation of farmers, the United States has become increasingly urban since the turn of the century. Today, 77 percent of the population lives in or near cities, and only 1.9 per cent of the population lives on farms. In 1988, the United States counted 10 metropolitan areas of over one million people, and 175 cities with 100,000 or more people.
Since 1930, suburbs have grown faster than the cities (as middle- class residents have left the crowded living conditions of most large cities). Suburbs are defined as residential areas within commuting distance to large cities. Most people who live in suburbs own their own homes and commute to work in the city, or they work in nearby offices and factories that have relocated to the suburbs.
Americans as a nation tend to be quite mobile. Over a five year period, one family in 10 moves to a new state. In general, the population currently is shifting south and westward. California has passed New York as the most populous state, although the metropolitan area of New York City (population: 18.1 million) remains the nation’s largest, with Los Angeles second (13.7 million), and Chicago third (8.181 million).
During the period from 1945 to 1964, the number of children born in the United States increased dramatically; a total of 76 million babies were born during this period. This sharp increase became known as the «baby boom». As this group, known as the baby boomers, has grown to adulthood, it has brought significant economic, cultural and social changes to the American population.
The nation’s capital, Washington, District of Columbia, has the 10th largest metropolitan population in the country, with a population of over 3.9 million. Laid out by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant in the late 18th century, it was the world’s first city especially planned as a centre of government.
The city of Washington, in the District of Columbia along the Potomac River, is the capital of a federal union of 50 states. When the United States declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776 (now celebrated as a national holiday), there were 13 original states — each one sovereign, each wanting to control its own affairs. The states tried to keep their sovereignty and independence within a loose confederation, but their attempt proved ineffectual. Therefore, in 1789, they adopted a new Constitution establishing a federal union under a strong central government.
The original 13 states were grouped along the Atlantic Coast. As the frontier moved westward, large areas of what is now the continental United States were added by purchase, treaty and annexation. As each state was settled, governments were first organized as territories and later entered the Union as states when their territorial legislatures petitioned the Congress for admission. There are now 50 states. Alaska and Hawaii, the last states to enter the Union, did so in 1959.
Under the Constitution, the states delegated many of their sovereign powers to this central government in Washington. But they kept many important powers for themselves. Each of the 50 states, for example, retains the right to run its own public school system, to decide on the qualifications of its voters, to license its doctors and other professionals, to provide police protection for its citizens and to maintain its roads.
In actual practice, and in line with the American tradition of keeping government as close to the people as possible, the states delegate many of these powers to their political subdivisions — counties, cities, towns and villages. Thus, at the lowest political level, residents of small American communities elect village trustees to run their police and fire departments, and elect a board of education to run their schools. On the county level, voters elect executives who are responsible for roads, parks, libraries, sewage and other services, and elect or appoint judges for the courts. The citizens of each state also elect a governor and members of the state legislature.
In addition to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, citizens of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa vote in federal elections. United States possessions include the Pacific Islands of Wake, Midway, Jarvis, Rowland, Baker, Johnston Atoll and Kingman Reef. The United States administers the Republic of Palau under United Nations auspices. Two entities, The Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, have become sovereign self-governing states in free association with the United States.
Under the Constitution, the federal government is divided into three branches, each chosen in a different manner, each able to check and balance the others.
The Executive Branch is headed by the President, who, together with the Vice President, is chosen in nation-wide elections every four years (in every year divisible by four). The elective process for a United States President is unique. Americans vote for slates of presidential electors equal to the number of Senators and Representatives each state has in Congress (a total of 535 persons). The candidate with the highest number of votes in each state wins all the electoral votes of that state. The presidential candidate needs 270 electoral votes to be elected; if no candidate has a majority, the House of Representatives makes the decision. (In all other state and local elections, voters cast their votes directly for the candidate or referendum on that particular ballot.) Any natural-born American who is 35 years old or older may be elected to this office. The President proposes bills to Congress, enforces federal laws, serves as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and, with the approval of the Senate makes treaties and appoints federal judges, ambassadors and other members of the Executive Departments (the Departments of State, Defense Commerce, Justice, etc.). Each Cabinet head holds the title of Secretary and together they form a council called the Cabinet.
The Vice President, elected from the same political party as the President, acts as chairman of the Senate, and in the event of the death or disability of the President, assumes the Presidency for the balance of his term.
The Legislative Branch is made up of two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The 435 seats in the House of Representatives are allocated on the basis of population, although every state has at least one representative. Each state elects two members of the 100-member Senate; a Senator’s term of office is six years.
Both houses must approve a bill for it to become law, but the President may veto or refuse to sign it. If so, Congress reconsiders the bill. If two-thirds of the members of both houses then approve it, the bill becomes law even without the President’s signature.
The Judicial Branch is made up of Federal District Courts (at least one in every state), 11 Federal Courts of Appeals and, at the top, the Supreme Court. Federal judges are appointed by the President with the approval of the Senate; to minimize political influences, their appointments are for life. Federal courts decide cases involving federal law, conflicts between states or between citizens of different states. An American who feels he has been convicted under an unjust law may appeal his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which may rule that the law is unconstitutional. The law then becomes void.
In order to amend the Constitution, Congress must pass the proposed amendment by a two-third majority vote in each house, and three-fourths of the states must concur. In more than 195 years, the Constitution has been amended 26 times. The first 10 Amendments — the Bill of Rights — guarantee individual liberties: freedom of speech, religion and assembly, the right to a fair trial, the security of one’s home. Later amendments chronicle America's struggle for equality and justice for all of its people. These amendments abolish slavery, prohibit any denial of rights because of race, grant the vote to women and to citizens of the District of Columbia and allow citizens to vote at age 18.
The American economy is a free enterprise system that has emerged from the labors of millions of American workers; from the wants that tens of millions of consumers have expressed in the marketplace; from the efforts of thousands of private business people; and from the activities of government officials at all levels who have undertaken the tasks that individual Americans can not do.
The nation’s income and productivity have risen enormously over the past 70 years. In this period, the money for personal consumption tripled in real purchasing power. The gross national product per capita quadrupled, reflecting growth in worker productivity.
Together, all sectors of the American economy produce almost $4,000 million dollars worth of goods and services annually, and each year they turn out almost $190,000 million more. The consumption of these goods and services is spread widely. Most Americans consider themselves members of the middle economic class, and relatively few are extremely wealthy or extremely poor. According to United States Census Bureau figures, 9.6 per cent of all American families make more than $50,000 a year, and 7.7 per cent of all American families have incomes less than $10,000; the median annual income for all American families is about $28,906.
Americans live in a variety of housing that includes single detached homes (62 per cent) with a median cost of $112,500. They also live in apartments, town-houses and mobile homes. Three-fourths of all married couples own their own homes. The size of all dwelling units has increased in living space. The median number of rooms occupied in each dwelling unit has increased from 4.9 rooms per unit in 1960 to 5.2 rooms today, despite the shrinking family size. About 3.6 per cent of all Americans live in public (government-supplied or subsidized) housing.
The government plays an important role in the economy, as is the case in all countries. From the founding of the Republic, the United States federal government has strongly supported the development of transportation. It financed the first major canal system and later subsidized the railroads and the airlines. It has developed river valleys and built dams and power stations. It has extended electricity and scientific advice to farmers, and assures them a minimum price for their basic crops. It checks the purity of food and drugs, insures bank deposits and guarantees loans.
America’s individual 50 states have been most active in building roads and in the field of education. Each year the states spend some $33,31 million on schools and provide a free public education fоr 29.1 million primary-school pupils and 11.4 million youth in secondary schools. (In addition, 8.3 million youths attend private primary and secondary schools.) Approximately 60 per cent of the students who graduate from secondary schools attend colleges and universities, 77.2 per cent of which are supported by public funds. The United States leads the world in the percentage of the population that receives a higher education. Total enrollment in schools of higher learning is 13.4 million.
Despite the fact the United States government supports many segments of the nation’s economy, economists estimate that the public sector accounts for only one-fifth of American economic activity, with the remainder in private hands. In agriculture, for example, farmers benefit from public education, roads, rural electrification and support prices, but their land is private property to work pretty much as they desire. More than 86.7 per cent of America’s farms are owned by the people who operate them; the rest are owned by business corporations. With incleasingly improved farm machinery, seed and fertilizers, more food is produced each year, although the number of farmers decrease annually. There were 15,669,000 people living on farms in 1960; by 1989 that total had decreased to 4,801,000. Farm output has increased dramatically: just 50 years ago a farmer fed 10 persons; today the average farmer feeds 75. America exports some 440,9 thousand million worth of farm products each year. The United States produces as much as half the world’s soybeans and com for grain, and from 10 to 25 percent of its cotton wheat, tobacco and vegetable oil.
The bulk of America’s wealth is produced by private industries and businesses — ranging from giants like General Motors, which sells $96,371 million worth of cars and trucks each year — to thousands of small, independent entrepreneurs. In 1987, nearly 233,710 small businesses were started in the United States. Yet by one count, some 75 percent of American products currently face foreign competition within markets in the United States. America has traditionally supported free trade. In 1989, the United States exported $360,465 thousand million in goods and imported $475,329 thousand million.
In 1990, 119.55 million Americans were in the labor force, representing 63.0 percent of the population over the age of 16. The labor force has grown especially rapidly since 1955 as a result of the increased number of working women. Women now constitute more than half of America’s total work force. The entry of the «baby boom» generation into the job market has also increased the work force. Parttime employment has increased as well — only about 55 percent of all workers have full-time, full-year jobs — the rest either work parttime, part-year or both. The average American work week was 41 hours in 1989.
American industries have become increasingly more service-oriented. Of 12.6 million new jobs created since 1982, almost 85 percent have been in service industries. Careers in technical, business and health-related fields have particularly experienced employee growth in recent years. Approximately 27 million Americans are employed in selling. Another 19.2 million work in manufacturing and 17.5 million work for federal, state and local governments.
Recently, unemployment in the United States was calculated at about seven percent. The government provides short-term unemployment compensation (from 20 to 39 weeks depending upon economic conditions) to replace wages lost between jobs. About 80 percent of all wage and salary earners are covered by unemployment insurance. In addition, both the government and private industry provide job training to help unemployed and disadvantaged Americans.
(from «The United States Information Agency, 1992")