Felix Salmon

Chart of the day: Necessities

By Felix Salmon
April 28, 2009

The Pew Research Center asked 1,003 Americans what they considered to be a necessity, as opposed to a luxury they could live without, and got these results:


My own personal answers, of course, would be very different to these: for one thing, I’ve never owned a car.

I’m quite surprised that the landline phone is still considered more of a necessity than a cellphone — I can’t imagine that’s going to continue to be the case for long. I am interested in the huge drop in the perceived necessity of the microwave, however. Yes, there’s something about microwaves which just feels old-fashioned and unnecessary — but the microwave hasn’t really been replaced by anything. Which I guess just goes to show how much of these determinations is made up of little more than trendiness.

I’m also surprised that 52% of people consider a TV set to be a necessity, while only 23% of people consider cable or satellite TV to be a necessity: subtract the second number from the first, and you get a good indication of the sheer power of network TV. I’m sure that, too, will erode quickly.

The huge drop in the perceived necessity of clothes dryers, home air conditioning, and dishwashers is I think partly a response to the economic crisis, but more a response to the bursting of the housing bubble: people don’t define themselves by their appliances in the way that they did during the housing boom.

What went up in perceived necessity? Nothing, really — nothing more than the margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, anyway. Although it would have been interesting to see the results if intangibles had been included in the survey: friends, family, God, that sort of thing. And I’d also love to have seen them ask about financial services: what’s happened to the perceived necessity of a checking account, or a credit card?


18 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I think the cable vs. TV thing may be more of a sign of how much TVs now get used for things other than watching TV: Most of the people I know who own big TVs use them for movie watching and video-game playing probably more than they use them for actually tuning in Network shows.

It also matters how the cable question was phrased — ask most people if they can do without digital cable, and they’ll say sure, but explain that they’d have to go without basic CNN and ESPN, I bet that answer changes.


I’m an American by citizenship rather than location, but it’s still striking that I don’t have a car, a landline, a(functioning) clothes dryer, or air conditioning. Nor do I particularly want any of them. A dryer would be nice, I suppose.

Posted by Ginger Yellow | Report as abusive

A car is not a necessity to someone who lives in NYC, where instead it’s a burden. For most of the country, though, it’s necessary for work, either to get there, or possibly to visit clients. Similarly, I expect the percentage of residents of, say, Houston who consider air conditioning “necessary” is rather higher than 54%.

The clothes dryer is the answer that most surprised me. I suppose a lot of people — again, not people in NYC — don’t live near laundromats.

It’s interesting the things you take for granted where you live that are very different in other places.


You don’t need a laundromat if you don’t have a dryer. You just hang things up.

Posted by Ginger Yellow | Report as abusive

You’ve never owned a car??? Where do you get off pontificating about a ‘needed’ gas tax! I know poor rural families with 5 cars: one for each member of the family so that they can go to their jobs at McDonald’s and similar. I can think of no other action that can separate the classes and lead to a class war than taxing gas so that you all will have a rosy future.

WOW! such self-sacrifice the chattering classes are willing suffer!

Posted by Eli Baker | Report as abusive

There are plenty of McDonalds that are hiring in cities with public transit.

Sure the rents are higher for that poor rural family, but think of all the money they save by not owning 5 cars.

If we want to end our endless wars in the Middle East, a gas tax is the only answer.

Posted by Andy | Report as abusive

“I’m also surprised that 52% of people consider a TV set to be a necessity, while only 23% of people consider cable or satellite TV to be a necessity: subtract the second number from the first, and you get a good indication of the sheer power of network TV. I’m sure that, too, will erode quickly.”

Actually, that says more about DVD/etc players and console games than network TV. What with Netflix and the game industry making more money than film, people don’t much need cable. Their favorite shows come out on DVD anyway.

Posted by chloe | Report as abusive

“Yes, there’s something about microwaves which just feels old-fashioned and unnecessary — but the microwave hasn’t really been replaced by anything. ”
Old fashioned?
Get off my lawn!

Posted by datacine | Report as abusive

Speaking as someone who has to have his computer, but doesn’t pay for internet. Who uses a TV all the time, but neither watches Cable or Antenna in real time (download it then, watch it later). Who doesn’t have a dryer because of energy waste and who sees the microwave as an unhealthy trap of junk food… I actually see my lifestyle mirrored in many of my friends. Young 20-somethings with college degrees and grew up on the internet. I wonder how much of the live-local, eat less processed foods, pirate internet/TV, and go green energy savers contributed to some of these trends.


The landline and cell phone questions really should be combined. I would think an overwhelming majority would agree that having some sort of phone is a necessity.

Posted by Frank Dean | Report as abusive

Of the 13, I count 5 that we do own in our household (not counting TV set, since we have decided not to digitize because we never watch it): car, landline, computer, microwave, and high-speed internet.

Of these, the computer and internet connection (and the landline that allows the internet connection) are far more important to our lives than the car! since my spouse rides his bike 90% of the time and I walk most of the time. (We live in a small-town neighborhood that isn’t mapped as “walkable” but find it quite walkable because there are sidewalks, shade trees, and nearby services (within a mile).

As for dishes, we wash them by hand and reuse the water outside; and as for the clothes dryer, it’s the sun. Heavy shade eliminates the need for air conditioning, and who needs cable without a TV? (We may keep the — tiny black and white — TV, but only because it is also a radio, and we do listen to public radio.

Offered as just a sample of a satisfying way to live…

Posted by HarrietJ | Report as abusive

My microwave broke a couple of years ago. I haven’t missed it yet. The stove and oven work just fine and reduce the clutter.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

I suspect the drops in the clothes-dryer, A/C, and dishwasher responses come from increased environmental consciousness. People are sheepish about treating these things as near-necessities, because they know they shouldn’t. It’s conspicuous anti-consumption.

Posted by Christopher | Report as abusive

datacine wins the thread so far.

Old-fashioned, indeed…

Posted by John | Report as abusive

The high percentage of landlines is not a surprise to me. I have lived in many rural areas where there is little to no cell service, or VERY limited cell service that it would be almost negligent to NOT have a landline. Also, emergency calls like 911 are more difficult to make and many rural people would prefer to have that service available especially when cell service is not reliable everywhere. (I lived in a small mountain community where the cell service was out of whack if you stepped off the main road by a foot, and that was the strongest carrier.)

Posted by RK Wright | Report as abusive

Necessity has everything to do with where you live. I live in a place with horrible public transit and hellacious hot weather, so a car and AC are needed. Age also plays a factor. Old people know how to prepare meals w/o a microwave and young people mostly eat carry out, so who needs a waver? Also- I need A phone and don’t care which type- that should have been an either/ or question.

Would love to see some demographic breakdown on this data…

Posted by Sheila | Report as abusive

Computer w/ internet access is my #1. My motorcycle is #2.

Posted by Marcos El Malo | Report as abusive

Actually, none of these items are “necessities.” In fact, my great grandparents lived quite happy lives not even being aware of many or most of these things until well into their adulthoods. They all fit into the “nice to have” category. A fairer test would have ranked these “nice to have” things against each other, e.g., given the choice, would you rather be without a car or a telephone?

Posted by Allen | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/