The Real Reason the American Economy Boomed After World War II

How expanding opportunity for women, immigrants and nonwhite workers helped everyone — and why we need to do so again.

Credit…AJ Dungo

By 

Mr. Tankersley covers economic policy in the Washington bureau of The Times.

The United States long reserved its most lucrative occupations for an elite class of white men. Those men held power by selling everyone else a myth: The biggest threat to workers like you are workers who do not look like you. Again and again, they told working-class white men that they were losing out on good jobs to women, nonwhite men and immigrants.

It was, and remains, a politically potent lie. It is undercut by the real story of how America engineered its Golden Era of shared prosperity — the great middle-class expansion in the decades after World War II.

Americans deserve to know the truth about that Golden Era, which was not the whitewashed, “Leave It to Beaver” tale that so many people have been led to believe. They deserve to know who built the middle class and can actually rebuild it, for all workers, no matter their race or gender or hometown.

We need to hear it now, as our nation is immersed in a pandemic recession and a summer of protests demanding equality, and as American workers struggle to shake off decades of sluggish wage growth. We need to hear it because it is a beacon of hope in a bleak time for our economy, but more important because the lies that elite white men peddle about workers in conflict have made the economy worse for everyone, for far too long.

The hopeful truth is that when Americans band together to force open the gates of opportunity for women, for Black men, for the groups that have long been oppressed in our economy, everyone gets ahead.

I have spent my career as an economics reporter consumed by the questions of how America might revive the Golden Era of the middle class that boomed after World War II. I have searched for the secret to restoring prosperity for the sons of lumber-mill workers in my home county, where the timber industry crashed in the 1980s, or the burned-out factories along the Ohio River, where I chased politicians in the early 2000s who were promising — and failing — to bring the good jobs back.

The old jobs are not coming back. What I have learned over time is that our best hope to create a new wave of good ones is to invest in the groups of Americans who were responsible for the success of our economy at the time it worked best for working people.

The economy thrived after World War II in large part because America made it easier for people who had been previously shut out of economic opportunity — women, minority groups, immigrants — to enter the work force and climb the economic ladder, to make better use of their talents and potential. In 1960, cutting-edge research from economists at the University of Chicago and Stanford University has documented, more than half of Black men in America worked as janitors, freight handlers or something similar. Only 2 percent of women and Black men worked in what economists call “high-skill” jobs that pay high wages, like engineering or law. Ninety-four percent of doctors in the United States were white men.

That disparity was by design. It protected white male elites. Everyone else was barred entry to top professions by overt discrimination, inequality of schooling, social convention and, often, the law itself. They were devalued as humans and as workers. (Slavery was the greatest devaluation, but the gates of opportunity remained closed to most enslaved Americans and their descendants through Emancipation and its aftermath.)

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