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Chasing the dream: A history of the American middle class

At the turn of the 20th Century, the journey to the middle class was predominantly fought for in the factories and urban hustle

Faisal Al-Shammeri

Published: Updated:

At the turn of the 20th Century, the United States was certainly a global presence and a power in its own right. It had come a very long way from its beginnings as relatively rural, agrarian and somewhat poor country in its infancy following its revolutionary war with Great Britain. The US grew considerably throughout the 19th Century, fought a brutal Civil War, which to date is still the costliest war the country has ever been involved in, and following the conclusion of the Civil War continued its westward settlement push to the Pacific.

By 1900, the US was modern, both urban and rural, an economic powerhouse in its own right. Although on the global stage it was not considered in many ways the equal of the British or German empires. Nevertheless, it had something that neither Great Britain or Germany could quite offer, which was the prospect for upward mobility and at a much quicker pace into the middle and upper classes. It was this dream that in the 19th Century attracted the Germans (the largest ethic group of immigrants in the 19th Century) and then the Irish along with other peoples of Great Britain to immigrate to the New World from the old. This prospect soon attracted Poles, Italians, Greeks, the Peoples of Scandinavia and the Baltics. Even as far as Russia people were attracted to this shining light of hope and prosperity. It was the American Dream. The New World was one of opportunity with the absence of a rigid class-based society, where hard work and good habits would lead to a more comfortable and prosperous existence than what the Old World could offer which in 1900 was pregnant with war. The American Dream, in essence, was for them an opportunity for any and all who show hard work and ability to do so on a consistent basis the ability to rise into the middle class and beyond. That tomorrow would certainly be better than today.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the journey to the middle class was predominantly fought for in the factories and urban hustle of rapidly growing cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Work was hard, but certainly available in many different industries and the prospects for having an entry level position for many as a stepping stone to something else, and something bigger, was certainly real. The economic ascent continued throughout World War I and beyond throughout the “Roaring 20’s” when The United States emerged from World War I rich, relatively untouched regarding casualties, and unlike many parts of Europe had an infrastructure intact and undamaged. The Great Depression hit the United States hard. Food lines, severe and sustained unemployment and economic despair were the hallmarks of the 1930s. Farmers in The Midwest were ravaged by The Dust Bowl and the collapse of the fertile lands of The Great Plains. Like many other places in the world at the time, economic activity ceased to exist for all intents and purposes. There was nothing to import and no one to export to.

World War II changed everything for the United States and especially for the middle class. The urban unemployed now found work in abundance with the factory jobs emerging to provide for the massive production needs of the United States Military. The rural poor began to leave the country for the big cities looking for factory jobs as well. Those farmers who had stayed behind in the Great Plains emerged wealthy through the ability to have their agricultural output going to sustain the Allied Powers in their titanic fight with National Socialist Germany. For those people of the Great Plains and Deep South who left in despair and poverty, they now became the first generation of the middle class in California. When it was all said and done and World War II was finished in Europe and the Pacific, the transformation from the Great Depression was hardly recognizable or believable. The United States was now the richest country the world had ever seen, it had more clothes than it could wear, more food than it could eat, 2/3 of the world’s gold, 90 percent of the world’s manufacturing capacity, the dollar as the global reserve currency, and had inherited all of the former military outposts of the British Empire. Its middle class was not only rapidly growing in size, but it’s prospects never seemed brighter.

The American Dream and its middle class began to have defining characteristics. It began to become suburban, normally with a sole income provider, a car and multiple children. In the 1950s and 1960s, these blue collar, the majority not college educated, members of the middle class could afford a suburban lifestyle, even a family vacation as well, aspired that their children would be able to use these circumstances to propel themselves to college and subsequently surpass their own parents and grandparents into the upper classes. In essence not only was the American Dream the idea of rising to the middle class but it went alongside the belief that the following generations would always have it better than their predecessors. Right up until the 1980s it was commonplace for suburban residents to be blue collar, high-school educated, sole income provider households, multiple children, with multiple cars and the reasonable prospects for a family vacation during the year. This reality, which was once a defining hallmark of American Society, is now clouded with uncertainty. The prospect of making it to the middle class is clouded with uncertainty and the children of today would be certainly better off than their predecessors is questionable by some. When an animal species becomes endangered it normally comes under attack from above and below. African lions sadly have uncertainty over avoiding permanent extinction because their young cubs are often victims to other predators and the adult population is under attack from human encroachment and hunters. The American middle class too has pressures from above and below. Below lies the hallmarks of spiraling costs of healthcare, education, unaffordable quality housing and tax increases. Pressures from above are the stagnant economy and its failure to produce a quality jobs. The absolute removal of the American manufacturing sector overseas is something that tens of millions of Americans have never recovered from. Looming ominously over all of this is the national debt approaching 20 trillion dollars. In order for the United States to be truly healthy, its middle class needs to be dynamic, growing and prosperous. When former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to visit US, President Ronal Reagan, Reagan purposely gave Gorbachev a window seat as the helicopter went from Andrews Air Force Base to The White House. Reagan pointed out the window to show to Gorbachev the suburban, middle class homes they flew over and the abundance of pools they had. What Raegan conspicuously displayed was that the United States was a country with a system that could produce a prosperity for the middle class that the Soviet Union could never match even though Moscow was a society supposedly based on justice and opportunity for workers. What Raegan was showing was that the American middle class was one of the paramount strengths of the country. For the United States to be “The Shining City on a Hill” as President Reagan famously said, the middle class needs to be healthy, growing and filled with belief in the future.