WASHINGTON — They call it the State of the Union address. But presidents spend more time laying out their to-do lists and beseeching Congress, mostly unsuccessfully, to approve a wish list of legislative proposals. The actual condition of the country gets short shrift.
So what is the state of the nation? Some trend lines give a sense of how the United States is doing and where its people are headed. As things change, some stay surprisingly the same.
THE ECONOMY AND ITS MOJO
JOBS: The economic recovery took hold in 2014 as unemployment continued to drop from a high of 10 percent in October 2009. The December unemployment rate stood at 5.6 percent. A year ago it was 6.7 percent. Employers hired 2.95 million workers in 2014 compared with 2.33 million in 2013. Wages, however, remain stagnant, and the labor participation rate — the percentage of the population that is either working or looking for work — has been stuck at about 62.7 percent for a year, significantly lower than the high of 67.3 percent in April 2000.
OTHER INDICATORS: Gas prices have dropped dramatically, providing consumers with additional spending money. The average price of regular gas at the pump is now $2.09 compared with $3.31 a year ago. (More on this later) The number of home foreclosures fell by 29 percent in 2014, the lowest level since 2006, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac Inc. Mortgage rates are lower: The nationwide average 30-year mortgage was 3.66 percent this past week compared with 4.41 percent a year ago.
WHAT WE ARE BUYING
CARS: Light-vehicle sales in 2014 were the highest since 2006. Car sales for the year were up 1.4 percent from 2013 and light-truck sales were up 10.1 percent from last year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association
FOOD AND DRINK: Restaurants fared well in 2014, posting sales of $49.6 million last month compared with $45.8 million a year ago. At better restaurants, local meats and produce are in and, the National Restaurant Association reports, chefs are dropping insects as a protein base, and foam garnish and chilled soups are out.
STREAMING VIDEO: Movie downloads are up and disc purchases are down. Packaged media sales, DVDs and such, dropped by almost 11 percent last year, but streaming and downloaded video purchases were up by 30 percent, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, which tracks the industry.
WHAT WE ARE NOT BUYING
MOVIE TICKETS: According to preliminary figures reported by The Hollywood Reporter, about 1.26 billion tickets were sold in 2014, the lowest in 20 years. When people did go to see a flick, the top grossing movies had similar themes as in 2013 — super heroes (“Guardians of the Galaxy” in 2014 and “Iron Man 3″ in 2013); Katniss Everdeen (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay_Part 1″ in 2014 and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” in 2013); and animation (“The Lego Movie” and “Frozen,” respectively)
STATE OF PLAY
A year ago, the Super Bowl game was played between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. This time the Seahawks are in the hunt again. Instead of the Broncos, they will face the New England Patriots.
The nation had its first college football playoff in 2014 — and Ohio State emerged the victor.
Reflecting a mix of demography and popularity, Major League Soccer drew record crowds in 2014, continuing to draw more than the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
The top fiction book in the New York Times bestseller list in December 2013 was John Grisham’s “Sycamore Row.” Grisham is back in the list, at No. 2, with “Gray Mountain.”
WHAT THINGS COST (as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Agriculture Department):
U.S. consumer prices fell in December by the largest amount in six years. The drop reflected continuing declines in gas prices. That doesn’t mean prices have not gone up since last year.
Gallon of milk: Now, $3.82. January 2014, $3.55
Pound of ground chuck: Now, $4.22. January 2014, $3.59
Dozen Grade A eggs: Now, $2.21. January 2014, $2.01
JIM KUHNHENN, Associated Press