During the Eisenhower era, Americans achieved stunning new levels of prosperity, while other parts of the world struggled to rebuild from the devastation of World War II. Eisenhower’s combination of low taxes, balanced budgets, and public spending allowed the economy to prosper.
The Decade of Prosperity
The economy overall grew by 37% during the 1950s and unemployment remained low, about 4.5%. At the end of the decade, the median American family had 30% more purchasing power than at the beginning. Inflation was minimal, in part because of Eisenhower's efforts to balance the federal budget.
The GI Bill gave veterans an affordable college education, providing a pool of highly educated employees to the work force. Cheap oil from U.S. wells fueled industry while advances in science and technology improved productivity.
Eisenhower's Middle Way
Eisenhower’s main economic goal was to achieve a balanced federal budget. He realized that many of the New Deal's social programs were both popular and effective. For example, he expanded Social Security to cover another ten million people. He invested federal money in the Interstate Highway System, one of the largest ever public spending projects.
As the nation went into a recession in 1958–59, Eisenhower allowed the federal deficit to grow to stimulate the economy. By 1960, he managed to return the budget to a surplus, fighting tax cuts when they threatened to increase government debt.
Democrats demanded increases in defense spending to counter the Soviet threat. As an experienced military leader, Eisenhower reassured the nation that the defense budget did not need to be increased.
The Rise of Consumerism
The prosperity of the '50s was fueled by an increase in consumer spending. The adults of the '50s had grown up in general poverty during the Great Depression and then rationing during World War II. By the 1950s, Americans were just 6% of the world's population, but they consumed 30% of all the world's goods and services.
America shifted from a production society, which focused on meeting basic needs, to a consumption society. Blessed with abundant resources, America could afford to turn part of its productive capacity to creating unnecessary goods and waste. The older generation had been careful to save and reuse, while Americans in the '50s used and threw away. This consumerism was driven by advertising, designed to make people want more, better, and newer things.
A Nation in Debt
The '50s gave rise to the "buy now, pay later" mentality. The Federal Housing Administration and the Veteran's Administration offered low-interest loans to allow families to buy new homes.
The first credit card was offered in 1950, touching off a dramatic growth in borrowing. People borrowed to buy houses, cars, appliances, and swimming pools.
Left Out of Prosperity
Even so, 25% of citizens lived in poverty. Much of this poverty was "invisible," affecting Blacks in urban neighborhoods and whites in depressed rural areas. Middle-class Americans never saw the misery in other sectors of American society.
Source: Economy in the 1950s
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