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A World of Plenty, Other Americans

poor city dwellers, Operation Wetback, Bracero Program, Braceros, Indian Reorganization Act

The widespread prosperity of postwar America failed to reach everyone. In The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), political activist Michael Harrington revealed an economic underworld of 40 million to 50 million Americans, who were excluded from affluence and were socially invisible. At the end of the 1950s, nearly one-fifth of the population lived below the poverty line. The poor included many groups: the uninsured elderly, migrant farm workers, families in the Appalachian hills, and residents of inner-city slums.

When many middle-class Americans left the city for the suburbs, they left behind urban areas with antiquated schools and deteriorating public facilities. They also left behind high concentrations of poor people, which meant a dwindling tax base. Federal aid, which provided the middle class with mortgages and highways, had less influence on the poor. Federal housing programs, urban renewal efforts, and slum clearance projects often did little more than move poor city dwellers from one ghetto to another. What Harrington called the culture of poverty—that is, living without adequate housing, food, education, medical care, job opportunities, or hope—remained.

Poverty affected minority groups in the 1950s. In the 1940s, when labor was scarce, the United States established the Emergency Labor Program, popularly known as the Bracero Program. Braceros, whose name derived from the Spanish word brazo (arm), were Mexican manual laborers allowed to enter the United States to replace American workers who joined the armed forces. Many Mexicans who entered the United States under the Bracero Program remained in the country illegally. To curb illegal immigration from Mexico, the United States in 1954 began Operation Wetback, a program to find illegal immigrants and return them to Mexico. During the 1950s, several million Mexicans were deported. But illegal entrants continued to arrive, often to become low-paid laborers. Most of the postwar Mexican American population settled in cities, such as Los Angeles, Denver, El Paso, Phoenix, and San Antonio. One-third of Mexican Americans in the 1950s lived below the poverty line.

Federal policy toward Native Americans underwent several reversals in the 20th century. In 1934 Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, which granted Native Americans the right to elect tribal councils to govern reservations. In 1953 the federal government changed its position and adopted a “termination” policy. Congress passed a resolution to end its responsibility for Native American tribes. The resolution terminated Native American status as wards of the United States, granted Native Americans citizenship, eliminated financial subsidies, discontinued the reservation system, and distributed tribal lands among individual Native Americans. This redistribution made thousands of acres of reservation land available to non-Indians, such as real estate dealers. From 1954 to 1960, the federal government initiated a voluntary relocation program to settle Native Americans in urban areas. The new policies failed, and in 1963 the government abandoned termination.

African Americans of the postwar era continued their exodus from the South. Waves of black migrants, mainly young, left the rural South for Northern cities. The introduction of new machinery, such as the mechanical cotton-picker, reduced the need for field labor and eliminated sharecropping as a way of life. From the end of World War II to 1960, nearly 5 million blacks moved from the rural South to cities in the North. By 1950 one-third of blacks lived outside the South.

Simultaneously, the black population moved within the South. By 1960 almost three out of five Southern blacks lived in towns and cities, concentrated in large metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Large-scale migration to cities spurred rising aspirations, soon evident in the postwar civil rights movement.

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