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Promised Land

How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929-1968



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About The Book

A timely work of groundbreaking history explains how the American middle class ballooned at mid-century until it dominated the nation, showing who benefited and what brought the expansion to an end.

In Promised Land, David Stebenne examines the extraordinary revival of the middle class in mid-twentieth century America and how it drastically changed the country. The story begins with the pervasive income and wealth inequality of the pre-New Deal period. What followed—Roosevelt’s reforms, the regulation of business and finance, higher taxation of the truly affluent, and greater government spending—began a great leveling. World War II brought the military draft and the GI Bill, similarly transformative elements that also helped expand the middle class. For decades, economic policies and cultural practices strengthened the trend, and by the 1960s the middle class dictated American tastes from books to TV shows to housing to food, creating a powerful political constituency with shared interests and ideals.

The disruptive events of 1968, however, signaled the end of this headlong expansion. The cultural clashes and political protests of that era turned a spotlight on how the policies and practices of the middle-class era had privileged white men over women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, as well as economic growth over environmental protection. These conflicts, along with shifts in policy and economic stagnation, started shrinking that vast middle class and challenging its values, trends that continue to the present day. Now, as the so-called “end of the middle class” dominates the news cycle and politicians talk endlessly about how to revive it, Stebenne’s vivid history of a social revolution that produced a new and influential way of life reveals the fascinating story of how it was achieved and the considerable costs incurred along the way. In the form of a revealing history, Promised Land shines more than a little light on our possible future.


Chapter 1: A Dream Deferred CHAPTER 1 A Dream Deferred
In March 1929, fifty-four-year-old Herbert Hoover became president, having campaigned on the promise of a future in which most Americans would be truly middle class. Despite increasing economic inequality, some indications of economic progress gave Hoover confidence. “We in America today,” he told his supporters on August 11, 1928, “are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of the land.” In his stump speeches, Hoover had spelled out his expectations. He talked about home ownership for city and town dwellers, and farm ownership for the almost half of the population still living in rural areas. He envisioned a kind of middle-class standard, with two cars per household, and even more schooling as the norm. Hoover’s vision—breathtaking for a country in which so many people were poor or almost so—also encompassed a more stable kind of life for an expanded middle-class majority, in which employment was steady and savings assured, and ever more people were protected by privately provided insurance against death, accidents, and other major income disruptions and able to sustain themselves in old age. Twenty years later, as he looked back on his most important goals for Americans in 1929, Hoover wrote simply, “We want[ed] them all secure.”1

Hoover promised—and tried to deliver—that dream, but things went terribly wrong for his presidency, the United States, and for the world after 1929 when the stock market crashed. While much of that dream would eventually come true, it wouldn’t be for another quarter of a century, during which time the country would endure an economic depression and a major military conflict. The great big middle class was forged largely in the crucible of those two calamities.

Many and probably most people believe the cataclysmic stock market crash of October 29, 1929, was the primary cause of the Great Depression, but large-scale economic disasters rarely stem from one single factor. The crash revealed multiple weak points in the economy. The first was the fragility of the international economic system of which America had become such an important player. After World War I, Germany assumed heavy debt to the European victors. Responding to the anger of their citizen populations, who had suffered terrible losses in life, property, and money as a result of German aggression, the leaders of England, France, and Italy insisted that Germany make what came to be known as reparations. The American government insisted that their wartime allies, such as the British, French, and Italians, repay the money borrowed to make war. The German government had signed a treaty obliging it to financially compensate damage done to civilians, as well as to pay the full cost of the pensions of the Allied soldiers. The British, French, and Italian governments intended to use some of that income to repay the money they had borrowed from the United States to finance their war efforts.2

The plan made sense politically, but less so economically. John Maynard Keynes, the renowned academic economist and British civil servant, argued that the plan would ultimately be self-defeating, but the optimists believed that in time, the anger in England, France, and Italy that led their governments to insist on an unworkable reparations approach would fade, and that Americans would come to see the wisdom of moving away from their insistence on repayment. The softening of attitudes would enable a comprehensive renegotiation of war debts such that the taxpayers of all the nations involved would share the conflict’s heavy costs more equally. In this vision, Germany, the main loser, would be required to pay less, and the USA, the big financial winner, would pay more by forgiving debts owed to it by Britain, France, and Italy. That step would facilitate the restoration of long-term international economic stability and head off the kind of economic disaster that began in 1929.3 British politicians and treasury officials, with visions of returning their country to its prewar position of dominance in the global economy, favored war debts forgiveness, but they aimed too high, and not just with respect to their hopes for how quickly public resistance to forgiveness might fade. Seeking in vain to make the British pound the world’s benchmark currency once again, the British government had gone back to the gold standard in 1925. But with its wealth depleted after the war, England was unable to fully back the pound with gold, so the move backfired. With an overvalued currency that interfered with world trade, the country was unable to contribute much to an international economic solution.4

Other miscalculations also helped doom hopes for long-term international economic restabilization. Public demands in France, England, and Italy to “make Germany pay” did not fade quickly in the 1920s, nor did the American insistence on repayment from wartime allies. The eventual economic disaster was papered over for a while, thanks to the willingness of the United States, the only major country actually enriched by the war, to lend money to Germany for its reparations payments to the victorious European nations, which they used to make payments on what they owed to the Americans. The basic problem with that approach was that if America’s lending to Germany stopped before war debt forgiveness became politically possible, the global economy would collapse. By the fall of 1929, with so much invested in European economic recovery, America was as much at risk as Europe. When the New York Stock Exchange crashed in October, many banks, facing declining assets, stopped lending to Germany. Its government could no longer make payments to Britain, France, and Italy, which meant they could no longer pay back America.5

The weakened demand in Europe for US exports also contributed to the slump. Before World War I, a generally prosperous Europe had enriched America by buying significant quantities of what we had to sell. Even with American loans, Europe had much less money to spend on those products after the war and was able to purchase even less as the US loan money began to dry up. Making things even worse, the United States continued to stick to an outmoded protectionist trade policy, even after the transformation in our economic relationship with Europe brought on by the war.6

The changes in the US-Europe economic relationship, in which the United States went from being a debtor nation to being a creditor nation, came on rather suddenly, in just a few years. America’s leaders were not prepared for such a dramatic transformation, and the ensuing confusion led to misguided decision-making, such as the stand on war debt repayment and the failure to modernize trade policy to fit the new world order. The ruinous war in Europe had pushed the United States into an international leadership position for which it was not prepared, and which it played badly.7

Several aspects of the American economy having nothing to do with the upheaval of the war in Europe also helped produce the Great Depression. The boom of the 1920s relied too heavily on too few industries, most notably cars and construction. The economy simply lacked sufficient diversification to compensate when those industries declined near the end of the decade.8

At the same time, income and wealth inequality was growing, which was creating a practical problem. The ideas of Henry Ford had propelled American prosperity during this decade. He envisioned expanding the market for one’s product by making it more cheaply, and by paying workers so well that more of them could afford to buy it, thereby expanding the market further. He only needed to make a modest profit on each car sold because he could sell them in such great numbers that his overall profit would be huge. However, an economy based on mass production and mass consumption—what Europeans called Fordism—was a new concept, and few people understood the long-term ramifications for overall income and wealth distribution. Excessive inequality would eventually mean that ordinary people would no longer be able to buy what American farms, factories, and offices were churning out in ever-greater amounts. That’s exactly what had begun to happen, especially with respect to cars, consumer appliances, and houses. For a while, the reality of the situation was disguised by the practice of making these goods available on credit, via new “installment plans,” and the availability of ambitious, balloon-type mortgages to buy homes. That lasted only as long as employment and incomes remained steady, but both fell due to the 1929 crash and the other underlying weaknesses in the American economy.9An even more serious consequence, in some ways, of growing income and wealth inequality was that the upper class—so prominent in the media and the advertising of the day—acquired an outsize influence on the buying habits of the rest of the population. The ones with the most money to spend and invest acquired a lot of consumer goods and bid up the prices of stocks and real estate far beyond what they were worth. Less affluent Americans, taking their cues about what was normal in consumption from magazines, movies, and radio shows aimed at the upscale market, took on more and more debt in the effort to keep up. Perhaps if interest rates had been higher, more money would have found its way into savings accounts rather than needless consumption and unwise investments, but rates had been kept low to encourage that kind of borrowing and spending, and to make repayment of debts easier. Those low interest rates encouraged Americans, whether of the investor class or of more modest means, to buy more and make riskier investments. By the time the Federal Reserve took action to correct that problem, by raising interest rates charged to member banks, the investment bubble had become too big to puncture gently. When it burst instead, it helped bring on the stock market crash.10

As the 1920s drew to a close, the previously booming American economy had clearly started to slow down. With corporate profits on the decline, executives began to reduce their investments in new plants and equipment, which further weakened the dragging economy. They also started laying off workers, which made sense from the perspective of individual firms, but which made the economy that much more fragile. With less investment by major corporations and less consumption by an increasing number of idled workers, all that remained to power the economy in any meaningful way was government, but it, too, was doing less and less to promote prosperity.11

One of the most striking things about the years immediately preceding the crash of 1929 was how little the federal government was doing to keep the economy moving forward. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon had committed himself to reducing substantially the large federal debt amassed to fight World War I, and to bringing down the high wartime-era taxes on America’s investor class. Mellon needed to free up money for private investment in new industries, and to breathe new life into older ones. For a while, these policies brought about the desired result, as the federal government ran surpluses while paying down the national debt. This was accomplished with lower taxes that were producing more total revenue than before as the overall economy expanded. Mellon’s tax cuts helped stimulate the economy, but his quest to run budget surpluses led him to de-emphasize direct economic stimulus by government spending on goods and services for public purposes. In 1929, almost the entire federal budget went toward national security in some form, and even that wasn’t much; total federal spending amounted to just 3 percent of the gross national product. (For comparison, federal spending hovered around 20 percent of GNP in the early 2000s.) At the state and local levels, governments were spending more than ever on roads and schools and other public necessities, using taxes collected from the general working population. Should the income of that population decline, so, too, would the spending by these other, smaller governmental bodies, which is exactly what happened after the crash.12

All these problems combined to put intense pressure on the American banking system by the end of 1930. Increasingly, Europeans couldn’t afford to repay what they owed each other or the United States. Strapped American farmers and urban consumers struggled to pay their debts, or even the interest on them. Over the next three years, more than five thousand banks, whose deposits were uninsured, succumbed to the pressures exerted by stock-market losses, foreign-government loan defaults, capital flight from America, insolvent farmers, and savings-account withdrawals by urban workers. When the Federal Reserve once again raised the interest rate it charged member banks, this time to stem the flow of capital out of the country, the banks were again forced to raise the rates charged to borrowers and paid to depositors.

Those moves depressed the economy even further, in a variety of ways. Higher interest rates made money more expensive to borrow, which discouraged consumption and investment. Higher rates also forced banks to sell more of their assets at depressed prices to raise cash to pay interest on remaining deposits, making the banks even more insolvent. The tighter monetary policy of the early 1930s turned up the heat on a banking system already in hot water.

One by one, America’s banks closed their doors, some of them at least hoping to reopen in the future. Not just the number of bank closings scared people, but also the size of the banks. As ever-bigger banking dominoes fell, the economic catastrophe gained momentum. The Great Depression, a disaster of much greater magnitude than seen before in American or world history, had arrived.13

The unprecedented nature of the unfolding human tragedy was revealed by official unemployment figures. The ranks of the jobless expanded from 5 million at the end of 1930 to 9 million just one year later, and 13 million a year after that. Even those grim numbers understated the problem, since only people actively seeking jobs were officially categorized as unemployed. When the United States enjoyed high employment, as it usually had up until then, this measure was fairly accurate, but it became increasingly misleading as the economic crisis deepened and frustrated job seekers gave up looking for work. Thus, as the Depression grew worse, the official government statistics that documented it grew more inaccurate. The official unemployment rate peaked at around 25 percent in 1932, but the real number was probably closer to a third of Americans wanting and needing jobs.14

This kind of disconnect was not uncommon in the America of the early 1930s. For most ordinary citizens things were getting harder, but they lacked a coherent and realistic overall picture of the extent of the nation’s woes. The public normally looked to the popular press for that wider perspective, but in the hard times of the 1930s, newspaper editors and publishers avoided printing stories that weakened the public confidence on which a market system partly depended. Important reporting of the reality of the economic decline was thus inhibited.

Making matters worse were the Republican leanings of most major newspaper owners, who did not want to make the Hoover administration or congressional Republicans look any worse than they already did. The leadership class—the power elite of the day—likely remained disconnected from everyday reality, insulated as they were by wealth or privilege, and basing their understanding on misleading government statistics and inaccurate reporting in the press. Despite memorable public displays of hardship—the apple sellers on downtown city streets and the long lines at soup kitchens—the majority of jobless Americans, embarrassed by their plight, were still more likely to hide out in their homes. People of the upper-middle class spent less of their money on nonessential shopping and entertainment and so spent less of their time in downtown business districts, where they would have been exposed to the consequences of mass unemployment.15

The increasing concentration of the population in cities as America industrialized also helped magnify the harshness of the Depression. For most of the nation’s history, most Americans lived in rural areas, where they established and sustained their households by accessing the bounty of the natural world around them. The ability to hunt, fish, grow produce, raise animals for dairy and meat, or find wood for fuel and shelter enabled them to fend for themselves, especially during hard times. Such had been the case during the country’s last prolonged economic downturn forty years earlier, when a much greater percentage of people lived on farms. The much higher fraction of Americans living in cities by the 1930s contributed to the unprecedented misery of the Great Depression. At first, a number of city dwellers with family ties to farming areas did return, but simultaneously, the growing number of farm foreclosures drove dispossessed rural migrants toward the urban areas, where they hoped at least to find soup kitchens, breadlines, and other forms of public assistance, however inadequate. As the urban population grew, the opportunities to turn to traditional methods of sustaining oneself off the land declined, an aspect of the overall picture that people still living in rural areas couldn’t quite grasp. They had become the exception, and no longer the rule.16

The lack of reliable information also played into the fear of dependency that already existed among more affluent Americans. The well-off tended to underestimate the magnitude of the social problems created by mass unemployment. They focused instead on the potential harm to the legendary American work ethic done by a more generous welfare system—“relief,” as it was called then. Inaccurate reporting and misleading federal statistics reinforced their reluctance to support such governmental action.

But among the constantly expanding ranks of the unemployed, the social problems kept mounting. More people were experiencing hunger, and mental and physical health declined as a result. Rates of violent crime and suicide rose to all-time highs by 1932. It was not a great time for family stability. Although the divorce rate actually declined, that was perhaps only because a divorce cost money in legal fees and so became harder for many to even consider. Informal and unregistered marital breakups increased, but didn’t turn up in any official statistics. At the same time, as more and more Americans found themselves without work, people crowded into the homes of their relatives, driving up the tension and conflict.

As these harmful effects worsened, the funds in state, local, and private relief coffers dwindled. But with a national leadership drawn largely from more affluent Americans and the pain of the Depression felt most strongly by working people and those already vulnerable, no federal relief program surfaced during the four years of Herbert Hoover’s presidency.17

What emerged instead was a grimly Darwinian struggle for survival, often expressed in conflicts over who should get those few jobs still available. The prevailing sentiment was that no family could be allowed to hold more than one well-paying job, so a kind of job-rationing system evolved. That hardening of social attitude was a double-edged sword for some people. For instance, married women who held fairly secure public-sector jobs such as librarian or schoolteacher faced resentment if their husbands also had work. But if a husband had been laid off and hadn’t found other work, his wife’s efforts to make ends meet for the family would be accepted and even applauded.

At the lower end of the economic scale, the struggle for jobs had racial and ethnic implications. African Americans in more menial jobs, such as street sweepers and garbage haulers, almost all of them male, found themselves displaced by white men, especially in border states and in the South. In the Southwest in the early 1930s, Latino field workers saw their jobs getting handed over to dispossessed rural white people. These trends accelerated as the Depression worsened.18

The Depression reached deep into people’s personal lives, coming to bear on decisions such as whether and when to marry, or even to have intimate relations, whether to have children, or how best to raise them. Marriage and birth rates fell to historic lows, in an era when birth-control devices were not always available or morally acceptable, suggesting that sexual activity underwent some kind of significant change.19 Families that chose to have children saw those children spending more years in school than previous generations had.

In the 1930s, the propensity to stay in school tended to rise, especially outside the mostly rural and impoverished southern states. In the more heavily populated North—its cities and towns especially—the majority of kids began staying through high school because there were few jobs for adults, never mind adolescents, as an alternative. Many Americans still believed that holding a job in the real world was a critical part of a young person’s education, but that approach was hardly viable during the early years of the Depression.

In the ensuing boom in public education, a growing fraction of society came to depend on it because it was free (unlike private schools) and because it gave the young something constructive to do. As demand for public education increased, the public budgets that supported it grew tighter, as the Depression hollowed out state and local tax bases. Still, even many hard-pressed upper-middle-class families gravitated away from private institutions and toward public schools, intensifying the elite’s support for better public education. This began a major shift with major social consequences.20

With incomes declining, and home and farm foreclosures mounting, government at all levels needed to find new sources of tax revenue, which led to another major change in the social landscape of the early 1930s: the end of Prohibition. As the decade began, the public still seemed to mostly favor Prohibition, but the liquor lobby convincingly made the case that ending it could help solve the problem of vanishing revenue from income and property taxes. Legalized drinking could also provide an escape from the trials of unemployment, especially among men. As an added benefit, ending the “noble experiment,” as Hoover called it, could deal a major blow to organized crime, which had jumped on the opportunity to rake in massive profits off illegal booze. Strong arguments could also be made for keeping Prohibition in place. Alcohol became a terrible addiction for some or triggered mayhem and had a depressant effect, the last thing people needed when so many already suffered from depression. In addition, the ready availability of liquor could drain already tight family incomes. Worse yet, drinking now posed a whole new threat in a society recently transformed by mass automobility. Recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, Congress opted to require the states to establish ratifying conventions to approve what became the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution, rather than go the usual route through the state legislatures, where rural areas, generally hostile to repeal, were overrepresented.21

The repeal campaign had far-reaching implications for partisan politics on a national level. In the preceding decade, Prohibition, more than any other issue, had divided the Democratic Party, between its big-city “wets” and its southern “dries.” When the tide of public opinion turned against Prohibition after 1930, that “wedge issue” faded in importance. Albert Ritchie, the governor of Maryland and chief elected Democratic cheerleader for repeal, neatly epitomized that shift. Maryland was a unique border state, with a major city—Baltimore—that felt somewhat northern, but also smaller towns and rural areas with a distinctly southern character. Ritchie sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1932—and while he didn’t win, his advocacy of repeal brought him positive national attention. He was at home with big-city politicians, as well as with the Dixiecrats, as the southern Democrats were known, which made him a unifying force in the party. Ritchie argued persuasively that by enacting repeal, the Democrats could put the divisive issue behind them and thus become more competitive as a party on the national level.22

The desire for escape that helped drive the repeal movement also sustained the extraordinary spread of radio that had begun in the 1920s. With more expensive forms of entertainment, such as restaurants, movies, and theater, out of reach for so many, people could always turn to radio to get them through the idle hours. By 1934, almost exactly two-thirds of American households had a radio, with ownership practically universal in cities and larger towns. Only rural areas, many of which still lacked electricity, lagged behind. As with the expansion of public education, the ubiquity of radio contributed to the commonality of social and cultural experience. With the great majority of Americans listening to the same kinds of programs each day and each night, a more uniform national culture began to emerge.23

The prevailing social conditions of the day reshaped the content that filled the radio airwaves. Programmers served the need for escape among adult listeners, while making sure to provide important social messages for younger audience members. On the radio, romantic love flourished, families found happiness together, and crime never paid. Happy endings were the order of the day, along with bright, cheerful music and upbeat advertising. The consumer companies that sponsored the programs worked hand in hand with producers to shape shows and ads that together met the needs of the public. Even Herbert Hoover, so isolated in important ways from the experience of ordinary Americans, knew the value of more optimism on the radio. He told Rudy Vallee, the enormously popular singer whose voice reached millions over the radio, “If you can write a song that makes people forget about their troubles, I’ll give you a medal.”24

Depression-era radio inaugurated a profound shift toward the middlebrow in American popular culture, and away from the upper-class orientation of twenties programming. Radio’s new middlebrow messages resonated with people who had some social standing, but were not so well-off as to find the themes and morally traditional messages trivial or Pollyannaish, nor so poor as to find them false or unrealistic.

The motion-picture industry had to find ways to keep up with the runaway popularity of radio, lest it—and the decline in incomes brought by the Depression—shrink movie attendance. More optimistic movies were one obvious answer, but Hollywood could also offer an alternative, a more disturbing entertainment that the more tightly regulated radio programmers could not. Filmmakers began adding more sex and violence to their movies in the early 1930s, which did not sit well with urban American parents, whose children had more ready access to movie theaters after school and on weekends, out of sight of the adults, who could at least control the radio at home.

The film industry had earlier recognized the need to regulate itself, but as hard times continued across the country, filmmakers slipped back into making films that featured violent gangsters and salacious love scenes. The demand arose among urban Americans for federal censorship that would minimize the exposure of their precious youngsters, especially boys, to the base values and dysfunctional behavior playing out on the silver screen. The Hoover administration’s resistance to federal intervention, in this area as in others, angered much of the public, especially within the heavily Catholic neighborhoods of America’s big cities.25

Herbert Hoover saw his star fade in the early 1930s. His governing philosophy was totally out of step with the needs of the day, his conception of the federal government’s role inadequate to meet the crises facing America both at home and abroad. On the domestic side, Hoover envisioned a system in which the levers of government were operated primarily at the state and local level, mostly in service to private organized groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and the American Red Cross. The role of government was to provide useful information and suggestions to nongovernmental groups, which could take the lead in solving social problems.

In foreign policy, Hoover favored diplomacy over force and believed in the need for international cooperation, the stabilizing effects of international trade, and the effectiveness of economic sanctions against aggressor nations. These ideas did the country little good in the face of the Great Depression, but Hoover could not break free of them. He allowed the federal government to take some small steps to alleviate the economic crisis, but when he saw that they would lead to a permanently big and interventionist national government, he quickly pulled back. For instance, he supported the creation of a kind of federal lender to big business, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), but couldn’t bring himself to let it operate at a level that would have made a difference. He stubbornly blocked such popular proposals as a temporary federal relief program and a system of federal insurance for bank deposits.26

Hoover had been pushed to the GOP nomination in 1928 by the party’s business wing. Republican Party chieftains had never been enthusiastic about a Hoover presidency and soured on him even further once the Depression began. Essentially shy and thin-skinned, and prone to making long speeches on dull subjects, Hoover proved a thoroughly uninspiring leader during a national catastrophe. More an administrator by temperament than a skilled political operator, he disliked professional politicians regardless of party affiliation and, once in office, compounded his troubles through his inept dealings with Congress.27

That dysfunctional relationship led to a public-policy fiasco in 1930 when Hoover was unable to engage forcefully enough with members of Congress to block passage of a bill raising taxes on imports. The measure, touted as a way of protecting American industry from cheap foreign competition, was blasted by most academic economists as utterly self-defeating. They correctly predicted that other nations would respond in kind, further reducing the already depressed volume of international trade.

When Congress passed the bill anyway, Hoover meekly signed it into law. Raising American trade barriers that were already high undermined the country’s influence abroad and fueled nationalism and militarism in such nations as Germany, Italy, and Japan. Hoover made that problem worse by supporting a reduction in US military spending as a way to eliminate waste and help bring the faltering federal budget into balance. That decision undermined the credibility of the military force that backstopped US diplomacy. Why would aggressor nations around the world take American diplomatic initiatives seriously if they could see the American army getting smaller and weaker?28

As the presidential election of 1932 loomed on the horizon, Hoover presented the sorry spectacle of a highly intelligent and previously successful man unable to adapt to the demands of a changing world. He became as unpopular a president as anyone could remember, drawing unprecedented jeers along the campaign trail. The Secret Service was concerned enough about his safety that he discontinued the presidential custom of greeting tourists visiting the White House. Knowing that he had no chance of winning reelection, Hoover focused his campaign on defending himself and his ideas, rather than trying to convince voters to stick with him.

Perhaps most sadly, America had not moved any closer to the middle-class millennium he had promised in 1928. If anything, the country had moved in the opposite direction. Ironically, the massive loss of wealth among the investor class had indeed narrowed the gap between them and the rest of the population, but the record-breaking joblessness and shattering poverty of the early Depression years made a mockery of Hoover’s optimistic predictions of a bright future. Instead, as Democratic National Committee publicist Charles Michelson kept pointing out, America had become a nation of “Hoover blankets” (yesterday’s newspaper), “Hoovervilles” (shantytowns), and “Hoover flags” (empty pockets turned inside out).29 Herbert Hoover’s inability to adapt to change reflected a wider social phenomenon across the United States. Most Americans met the arrival of the Depression, and the continued worsening of conditions, with striking passivity. Instinctively reluctant to surrender their optimism about the future, and having no way of knowing that the situation would drag on for years, they mostly clung to traditional values and beliefs and behaviors that were ill-suited to their new circumstances. If they suffered financial reverses, they tended to blame themselves rather than the American economic system or misguided public policies. If they needed help of any kind, they turned to family, friends, and neighbors, and not to the government. If they couldn’t find work, they simply knuckled down and tried harder, at least for a while. Even the rise in crime grimly reflected Americans’ preference for personal initiative.30

The upheavals of the early 1930s played out in microcosm in the lives of countless individuals, ordinary Americans whose stories illustrated the unfolding history of the day. One of those citizens, Beatrice Bauch of Maquoketa, Iowa, had been studying at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York before the crash. Her parents were hit so hard financially by the Great Depression that Beatrice soon found herself back in Maquoketa, taking in other people’s laundry to help make ends meet for her family.

Or, there was George Perkins, married and the father of two children. In 1929, George was comfortably employed managing a service station in the tony suburb of West Hartford, Connecticut (where a young Katharine Hepburn once brought her car in for repair), but he lost that job in 1932. Perkins retreated with his family to his mother’s house in Providence, Rhode Island, while looking for steady work. The traumas of these experiences colored the rest of Beatrice’s and George’s lives, much the same as with countless other Americans.31

Despite the passive acceptance and slow response of most Americans to the onset of the Depression, suspicion did start to simmer below the surface that someone somewhere was to blame, at least partly, for what had gone wrong. That discontentment burst into the open during the presidential election of 1932, which even Herbert Hoover knew would usher in a new leader. Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy appealed most to people such as Beatrice and George, who had fallen so suddenly from the middle of the social scale.32

FDR’s single most important role model was his distant cousin Teddy Roosevelt, who rose to prominence near the end of America’s Gilded Age. In that era, the very public opulence of the nation’s rich masked the widespread hardship of a working class transitioning from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Teddy had charted a course that Franklin would almost slavishly follow. Although the two men aligned themselves with different parties, Teddy left a large footprint that marked the way for Franklin. It even influenced FDR’s choice of a bride; Teddy had acted as a surrogate father figure for his orphaned niece Eleanor, which made him Franklin’s de facto father-in-law when Franklin married Eleanor. Teddy had just begun his second term in the White House when he gave Eleanor away at the wedding, effectively cementing young Franklin’s family connection to a sitting and popular president.33

Five years later, in 1910, FDR began climbing virtually the same career ladder in politics that Teddy had, beginning with his election to the New York State legislature. From there, he went on to serve as assistant secretary of the navy, as his party’s candidate for vice president, and as governor of New York, as Teddy had done earlier. FDR’s association with a beloved Progressive Republican widened his bipartisan appeal. Once FDR was elected governor of New York in 1928, his views on the business-government relationship followed the lead of his cousin Teddy, even though by then they seemed utterly out of step with the prevailing mood of the country. Thus, in FDR’s first year as governor, he pushed to expand the production of electricity by building water-powered generating stations along the St. Lawrence River in northern New York State. Roosevelt had noted the low utility rates charged by public power plants built by the Canadian government on its side of the river and believed that public plants built on the American side could serve rural areas not yet electrified. His proposal didn’t sit well with private utility companies, which naturally opposed what they derided as “public power.” When Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan Jr. indicated his support for a private monopoly to build and operate such plants, which was favored by Republicans in the state legislature and their allies in the press, FDR took to the radio airwaves to argue that this approach would cost consumers more.

He continued to press his case in a speech at Tammany Hall, the Democrats’ New York City headquarters, on July 4, 1929. There, he sounded the alarm about “a new feudal control” by big business, which put the fight against Morgan and the private utility companies in a larger context of a crusade against excessive corporate power. That attitude endeared him to the fifteen hundred Democratic partisans cheering him on that day in New York and drew national attention. Soon his ideas were gaining traction outside his home state, especially once the economy began its spectacular collapse that fall.34

The Democratic presidential hopeful knew that Teddy Roosevelt’s popularity had been rooted in the belief that he favored the interests of regular Americans over those of the corporate titans. FDR highlighted that same perspective in a widely heard radio speech in the spring of 1932: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that… build from the bottom up and not the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”35 He made another bold public statement reminiscent of TR when he flew from New York to the Democratic convention in Chicago to accept the party’s presidential nomination in person, something no major-party candidate had done before.36

Voters felt the desperation of the era and longed for decisive and reassuring leadership after the frustrating passivity of Herbert Hoover. In accepting the Democratic nomination, FDR clearly articulated his priorities: “The people of America want, more than anything else, two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it, and with work, a reasonable measure of security—security for themselves and for their wives and children.”37 Implicit in FDR’s words was the assumption that the only breadwinners in American life were men. To be sure, the proportion of women in the paid labor force was vastly smaller than it is now, and the job rationing that had taken hold after the 1929 crash ensured that virtually all decent jobs went to the husbands and fathers who needed them. The male-breadwinner model that FDR took for granted tended to fit the majority of Americans who occupied the middle of the economic spectrum. It meant less to those at the high end, where women tended to be more educated and had help with their domestic responsibilities. At the bottom end of the spectrum, the model was essentially irrelevant, since the men, even if employed, earned too little money to support their families, which meant that many women worked out of necessity. For these reasons, Franklin Roosevelt especially captured the attention and affection of that vast economic middle.38

With his sincerity and eloquence and popular ideas reaching into homes via the radio, FDR had helped turn the nation’s bitter disappointment in Herbert Hoover into a landslide victory for the Democrats. Hoover, unable to overcome his disastrous resistance to federal relief and aid to failing banks, won only six of the forty-eight states. What the broad middle of the electorate wanted was more action from Washington. That’s exactly what FDR would give them.39

About The Author

Photograph by Clara Hirsch

David Stebenne, the author of Promised Land, is a specialist in modern American political and legal history. He has published political commentary in The Conversation, HuffPost, The New Republic, The Observer, and Salon and has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered to discuss politics, the economy, and labor issues. A native of Rhode Island and Maryland, he teaches history and law at Ohio State University.  

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 14, 2020)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982102708

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Raves and Reviews

“David Stebenne’s Promised Land 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.’”
Wall Street Journal

"Looks at how the economic turmoil of the 1930s, the GI Bill of Rights, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s helped the middle class rise and fall, and how we can learn from the successes and failures."
Columbus Monthly Magazine

"Stebenne’s account is well-researched, evenhanded, and illustrated with sketches of the life stories of representative middle-class couples. This concise, lucid account offers a solid overview of mid-20th-century social history.”
Publisher's Weekly

“Stebenne has written a provocative account of [middle-class Americans’] rise and fall … A thoughtful look at a long-ago era when America seemed egalitarian and prosperous.”
Kirkus Reviews

"Considering its central role in modern American history, the middle class has received remarkably little attention from historians, compared with labor or the rich. But now David Stebenne gives us an insightful account of the rise of the middle class -- as an economic and social entity and a state of mind — from the New Deal to the1960s. Uniting political, economic, and cultural history, and paying necessary attention to those excluded from the benefits of middle class life because of race, gender, and geography, Promised Land challenges us to think creatively about how to combat today's inequality and declining economic opportunity."
—Eric Foner, author of Battles for Freedom and The Second Founding

"David Stebenne's sparkling new study of the rise of America's middle class since 1929 provides readers with an exciting blend of political, economic, and cultural history. You need to read this book if you want to understand the astonishing changes in America between the Great Depression and the failed leadership of President Lyndon Johnson. You also should read it if you want to grasp how much your life and prospects have changed since 1968."
—Louis Galambos, editor of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower and author of Eisenhower: Becoming the Leader of the Free World

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