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A World of Plenty, The Middle Class Expands

Benjamin Spock, Federal Highway Act, National Defense Education Act, GI Bill of Rights, age Americans

Many factors converged to provide unparalleled social mobility in postwar America. Most important, income rose. Between 1945 and 1960, the median family income, adjusted for inflation, almost doubled. Rising income doubled the size of the middle class. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s only one-third of Americans qualified as middle class, but in postwar America two-thirds did.

The growth of the middle class reflected full employment, new opportunities, and federal spending, which contributed mightily to widespread prosperity. During the war, for example, the U.S. government built many new factories, which provided jobs. The federal government also directly aided ambitious Americans. In 1944 Congress passed the Servicemenís Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill of Rights. Under the law, the government paid part of tuition for veterans and gave them unemployment benefits while they sought jobs. It also provided low-interest loans to veterans buying homes or farms, or starting businesses. The GI Bill and other federal programs offered mortgages for home buyers.

New middle-class families of postwar America became suburban families. Of 13 million new homes built in the 1950s, 85 percent were in the suburbs. By the early 1960s, suburbs surrounded every city.

New families of the postwar era created a baby boom. The birth rate soared from 1946 to 1964, and peaked in 1957, when a baby was born every 7 seconds. Overall, more than 76 million Americans were part of the baby boom generation. The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946), by Dr. Benjamin Spock, sold a million copies a year in the 1950s, and popular culture glorified suburban homemakers.

However, more and more women entered the job market. New women workers were increasingly likely to be middle-aged and middle class. By 1960 almost two out of five women with school-age children held jobs. Some women workers supported households alone; many were wives whose second incomes helped their families attain middle-class lifestyles.

As suburbs, generally without public transportation, grew, cars became necessary and auto sales increased. Easy credit facilitated the purchase of cars. The number of cars on the road leaped from 40 million in 1950 to 60 million in 1960. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 created the Interstate Highway System, a 68,400-km (42,500-mi) network of limited-access highways. This system spurred further suburban growth.

Middle-class families bought not only homes and cars, but educational opportunities. Between 1940 and 1960, the percentage of college-age Americans who attended college almost doubled. Again, the federal government played a role. In 1958 Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, which provided loans to college students and funds for teacher training and instructional materials. Cold War enthusiasm for technological advances also affected research. By 1960 one-third of scientists and engineers in universities worked on government research, mainly defense projects.

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