The New Deal and Civil Rights Helped Make the Dream More Attainable

The New York Times
January 1, 2015
By Stephanie Coontz

For most of America’s history, people typically aspired to acquire “a competency” rather than great riches. A competency meant the ability to comfortably sustain a household without depending on others.

“Competence” also meant being capable and reliable. The American Dream was that people who worked hard and capably could support their families.

In reality, until well into the 20th century, most production and service workers lived hand-to-mouth, despite working long hours at dangerous jobs. But from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, an unprecedented number of such men became able to support their families comfortably, even without the advantage of a college education, second income or parental subsidy.

Although women, blacks and Hispanics were often left out, hard work increasingly did pay off in that era. As workers’ productivity increased, their wages rose in tandem. The average male worker doubled his real earnings between age 25 and 35. Historian Steven Ruggles notes that by 1970 median real wages were almost three times higher than they had been 25 years earlier.

Since the 1970s, by contrast, although worker productivity has climbed steadily, real earnings of production workers have stagnated or fallen, as has the minimum wage. Since 1980, the average man aged 25 to 35 has earned less than his counterpart 25 years earlier.

In 1970 more than three-quarters of men aged 25 to 29 could support a family of four at or above the poverty line. By 2012 less than half of men that age could do so. And in the first three years of recovery from the Great Recession, 95 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent of earners.

Americans are right to believe the American Dream is fading. But that dream only became a possibility for white men as a result of the labor struggles and reforms of the New Deal, and it began to extend to minorities and women only after the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

If we want to revive and achieve the American Dream, we need to change a situation in which the people whose hard work makes this country run cannot earn a living wage, while bankers, speculators and corporate elites—the real “takers” in today’s society—skim off far more than their fair share.


Stephanie Coontz teaches family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (BasicBooks).

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