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The Middle Class and the American Dream

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
March 6, 2021

The aftermath of World War 2 was a time of great optimism and euphoria when, “Most Americans came to consider themselves middle-class,” as stated by H.W. Brand in his book, The American Dream; the United States since 1945. Although the concept of the middle class had long predated this period, it marks a time of renewed interest for public administration.

Visionaries predicted the emergence of this group as a vanguard of significant social proportions. Writing in 1949, Peter Drucker emphatically stated; “It is the emergence of the new middle class which may turn out to be the decisive social development of mass-production society. This group has been growing the most rapidly and will continue to grow rapidly,” predicting that, “It is likely to number almost one-third of the 1950 census.”

This massive level of growth, fueled by an expanding birth rate, required more places for people to live, raise their families and call their home. The newness and open spaces of the suburbs beckoned. As David Rusk described, “Washington, Wall Street, Detroit, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue made middle-class families an offer they could not refuse; a redefined American Dream.” Within this group, the concepts of the American Dream and the middle class somehow combined to create heightened expectations of a comfortable lifestyle safely planted within suburbia. Jon C. Teaford noted this in his classic, The Twentieth Century American City. He stated, “The postwar era was a boomtime for suburbia. American’s birth rate rose, and millions of young families with children abandoned the crowded central cities and invested in suburban homes with yards large enough to accommodate a sandbox and swingset.”

All seemed so idyllic. But underneath the perceptual veneer lay a history of social separation that had long predated the 1950s, bringing us to address one of the defining questions presented in the previous edition to this series of articles; does the term carry implicit racial connotations, an unspoken “white” prefix always hovering before “middle class”?

 As Teaford reminds us on page 10 of his City and Suburb: The political fragmentation of metropolitan America, 1850-1970:

“The political fragmentation of the metropolis was, in fact, partially a reflection of the social and economic particularism emerging in industrializing America. By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the American metropolis included a hodgepodge of people of widely divergent economic, social, and cultural interests. Metropolitan areas were fragmenting into zones of industry, zones of truck farming, middle class neighborhoods, lower-class neighborhoods, black ghettos, Italian districts, German sections, and Polish enclaves…Divergent groups demanded divergent ordinances and programs, and the simplest way for each to achieve its ends was to separate and form independent municipalities.”

One of the best known examples of post-war suburbia was started in 1947 by Abraham Levitt and his sons, who created Levittown on farmland in Nassau County, Long Island. It set the example for others to follow, assuring the homeowner of a secured place within the coveted middle class. As Brand notes, “The great significance of Levittown and its imitators was that it put millions of Americans on the road to full membership in the middle class.” Whether based on status, occupation, education or otherwise, the middle class presented an irresistible beacon of hope, prosperity and sense of belonging. Here, demand and ideals embraced to create what Tom Daniels described as a “largely a middle-class invention that embodied the ideal of the house in the garden.”

Although offering a new beginning for everyone, Levittown was actually a continuation of the historical practice that linked and defined the middle class with separateness. It was not open to all. From the outset, it was a place defined by exclusion and race, as noted in untappedcities.com:

“At the time, the community seemed utopian, as people who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their country could live peacefully without financial burden. Yet, Levittown had a number of caveats that prevented certain demographics from even buying homes in the area. A clause in the original Levittown covenant prevented tenants from allowing non-Caucasians to use or occupy Levitt houses…Black veterans were unable to purchase homes, and the Levitts justified the clause by stating that it maintained the value of properties, since most whites at the time preferred not to live in mixed communities.”

Eventually, these restrictions were removed as Civil Rights legislation began to erode barriers based on race, but still the practice remained. According to untappedcities.com, the 2017 census records only 1.4% of the total population of 52,000 as black or African-American, a pattern of systematic racism repeated in thousands of similar suburban subdivisions across America. If middle class meant a belief in upward social mobility, what were the consequences when it was blocked in a country predicated in, “Liberty and justice for all?” From the perspective of public administration, what was the impact on schools, public transportation, land use regulations and other services when divergent groups demanded divergent ordinances and programs within separate and independent municipalities as described by Teaford? This is the subject of next month’s article.

Author: David Hamilton is a change leader that heads a consulting firm guiding local governments with visioning, planning and organizational alignment. As a public administrator, he led county and city governments to adapt and change. His doctoral studies at Hamline University were based on the impacts of rapid growth and development on Edge Counties. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a baccalaureate from Lakehead University. Hamilton is a member of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA where he served as Treasure and President. Email: [email protected]

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