World War II engendered a shared middle-class culture that permeated America and reduced the distance between rich and poor.
David Stebenne’s “Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929-1968” invites us to remember those decades in which both the middle class and the Democratic Party were ascendant. Mr. Stebenne, a professor of history at the Ohio State University, offers more warning than nostalgia, for his lesson is that “the rise of the middle class, and the growth of the mechanisms that powered it, eventually undermined the stability of that achievement.” Nemesis stalked the suburban tract homes of 1958.
The author defines the middle class as “the middle three-fifths of the income distribution” in mid-20th century America, which he argues “cannot fairly be described as either rich or poor.” In 1950, 60% of American families enjoyed incomes between $2,000 and $6,000, which translates into about $22,000 and $66,000 today. Middle class meant not just “a secure job and retirement,” he writes, but also “knowing that your children would eat well, get an education, and likely do better than their parents.” Middle-class Americans in 1950 were practically all white, with traditional families. Sixty-five percent of households earning between $3,000 and $4,000 had only one breadwinner.
The first four chapters of Mr. Stebenne’s book treat the years from 1929 to V-J Day, when ordinary Americans triumphed not only over the Depression but also on the field of battle. The author’s claim that “the combined effect of the New Deal’s changes in government and public policy was to cement the primacy of the middle class in America” seems to vastly overstate the importance of FDR’s alphabet soup of relief agencies: The 1940s, not the 1930s, were the decade of middle-class triumph. But Mr. Stebenne makes his assertion more plausible because he includes the entire 1938 to 1945 period, including all of World War II, as “the third, final, and most transformative phase of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” I will never think of D-Day as a New Deal initiative, nor of Gen. George Marshall as a New Deal administrator, but the author correctly points out that the war represented the high point of FDR’s power over American society.
And, as Walter Scheidel emphasized in a recent book, war is “The Great Leveler,” its economic upheavals tending to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Between 1940 and 1950, the share of American earnings going to the richest 10th fell from 45% to one-third. In 1940, the 90th-percentile American worker earned 4.3 times what the 10th-percentile worker earned. That ratio fell to 2.9 just 10 years later. Economists Claudia Goldin and Robert A. Margo have noted that “World War II and the National War Labor Board share some credit for the Great Compression, but much was due to an increased demand for unskilled labor when educated labor was greatly expanding.” That expansion in the number of educated workers was itself partly the result of the GI Bill.
The war also engendered a shared middle-class culture that permeated America through the Eisenhower years. Common policies, like food rationing, affect everyone. Even President Roosevelt himself gave up after-dinner coffee and ate “salt fish for lunch four days in a row.” The war reduced the social distance between rich and poor.
Middle-class lives meant middlebrow tastes. A national media market, a shared wartime experience and the Great Compression of incomes came together to induce private and public entrepreneurs to cater to the desires of middle-class Americans. Mr. Stebenne describes how “performers and artists from well outside the mainstream,” such as the former communist Lucille Ball and Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, “transformed into avatars of middle-class normality.”
On the public-sector side, America and the world benefited from Eisenhower’s “penchant for avoiding extreme or polarizing positions, in favor of a commonsense middle ground,” which resonated with middle-class Americans. Eisenhower’s most remarkable feat was to simultaneously “deter Communist aggression and keep the peace,” but the Interstate Highway System and the National Defense Education Act were laudable Ike-era initiatives that helped middle-class Americans.
Mr. Stebenne also notes public choices that ignored injustices faced by minorities, including African-Americans, who served in segregated units in World War II and lived under Jim Crow until the 1960s. Other pro-middle-class decisions ignored the costs of opening the floodgates of federal spending. In its quest for middle-class votes, the Democratic platform of 1960 demanded health insurance for all of the elderly and rejected “any proposal which would require such citizens to submit to the indignity of a means test—a ‘pauper’s oath.’ ”
Mr. Stebenne’s emphasis is not on whether these policies were bad or good, but on the role they played in dooming the middle-class world they were trying to expand. Public support for unions, such as the 1935 Wagner Act, “helped raise wages and benefits and improve working conditions, but also helped make entire sectors of the economy, most notably manufacturing, more vulnerable to growing competition from places where labor costs were a lot lower.” Subsidized home lending and interstate highways enabled “the advent of mass suburbia,” but those highways also allowed businesses to flee the unionized northern cities that produced millions of middle-class jobs and relocate in lower-wage, right-to-work states.
The middle class survived the 1960s, but America’s middle-class consensus did not. The homogeneous earnestness of middle-class entertainment was followed by the counterculture revolution of the 1960s. The political marginalization of anyone other than white males gave the claims of the civil and women’s rights movements legitimacy. The success of those movements led to countermovements that produced culture wars that remain today. We are no longer a country with widely shared values or cultural norms.
The Covid-19 pandemic shares attributes with World War II. It poses a threat that requires coordination and the best science. In 1941, Roosevelt brought the country together to face a war that forged a national middle class that supported a strong defense, highways and education. Mr. Stebenne’s book reminds us of that process, and also of how far we have traveled since.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Edward L. Glaeser is the Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and contributing editor at City Journal.
Photo by George Marks/iStock