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So much to be thankful for

While we cannot afford complacency in battling against privation and injustice, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity to express our gratitude for all that has been achieved in those struggles. And despite the pervasive problems besetting us at home and abroad, there has been tremendous progress for which we should be grateful.

At the most basic level, we are living longer. When my grandparents were born, average life expectancy in the United States was just 49 years. When my parents were born it was 59. By the time I was born, life expectancy had jumped to 69, and at my children’s birth it was 77. 

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That means we have made real progress in conquering some dread diseases. In 1960, 559 deaths per 100,000 Americans resulted from heart disease. Though it is still the nation’s No. 1 killer, by 2008 the death rate from heart disease had declined to 187 per 100,000. Diseases that felled millions in the past — polio, measles, malaria, typhoid — have been all but eradicated in this country. 

Neonatal death rates have been cut in half since my brother and sister-in-law lost a premature infant after a valiant struggle nearly two decades ago. When a dear friend lost two siblings to cystic fibrosis in her teens, that disease was an early death sentence with no possibility of appeal. Today, there are 40- and 50-year-old patients — and thanks to discoveries announced in the past month, about 5 percent of patients will be essentially cured by taking a single pill each day. 

In the mid-1300s, a third of Europe’s population was wiped out by the Plague. Shortly after Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 40 million American Indians perished from diseases imported by sailors and settlers, missionaries and merchants. AIDS arrived on the scene like a modern-day Plague. One of my closest childhood friends succumbed to the disease within a few days of my second son’s birth. Ricky was hardly alone. Since then the death rate from AIDS has been cut by nearly two-thirds.

We are not only living longer, but also better. In the early 1900s, expenditures for food consumed half of families’ incomes. Today they take just 10 percent. In 1920, the average American had to work two hours to afford a chicken, compared with 15 minutes today. 

The homes in which we eat those meals have also become vastly more comfortable. A ratio of more than one occupant per room in a home is generally evidence of overcrowded conditions. In 1940, 1 in 5 American households experienced such overcrowding; now it’s less than 2 percent. 

The amenities in our homes have also enhanced our physical quality of life. I admit it — I hate the summer heat and suffered miserably from heat rashes until my family got its first air conditioner, which was then a luxury enjoyed by just 12 percent of American homes. By 1970, more than a third of homes had that precious piece of equipment. Today it’s almost 90 percent.

As Steven Pinker recently documented, we are also somewhat better human beings. Murder rates and violence of all kinds have declined. During World War II, the “good guys” firebombed Dresden, killing 25,000 civilians, and dropped atomic bombs, killing 225,000 civilians in Japan. Today, only a very few, very bad guys would even contemplate violence on such a scale. 

As a toddler, my mother read to me from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” One of my favorites, “The world is so full of a number of things I’m sure we should all be as happy as Kings,” is perhaps naive for anyone past 4, but there is little doubt that while poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, disease and simple evil remain ever-present enemies, we all have much to be thankful for during this season.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.