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Economic Heresies: An Argument Against Dogmatic Interpretations of 1950s Affluence

Posted on Jun 23, 2012 by in Abstracts | 0 comments

Kip Joseph Kay
University of Utah
Member ΦΑΘ–ΑP
Read at the 59th Annual Utah State History Conference
Published in Historia: the Alpha Rho Papers, Vol II.

“The economic prosperity of the 1950s was a tide that lifted all boats” is a phrase repeated ad nauseam in texts referring to the economic history of the United States — words repeated so often that questioning their validity seems foolish.  As one junior high textbook on American History states, this, “economic boom” possessed sufficient power to raise the “people’s overall wealth and quality of life.”  Further the text states the average income for Americans increased from $1,223 to $2,219 and “by the end of the 1950s, Americans had the highest standard of living in the world.”[1]  With those words, or others similar, Americans learn about their economic expectations, past, present and future.  What if; however, this popular story about growing affluence in the 1950s has more to do with what Americans want to believe than it has to do with the realities which were lived by Americans at the time?

While GDP and Average Income figures from the 1950s paint a picture of unprecedented economic growth, a closer look at those statistics shows a very different story than that rendered by the rote creation myth of American middle class which we are taught to accept as gospel.  This paper goes against popular wisdom, which is content to take these “statistics” at face value, and explains what the facts do and do not tell us about the economy.
[1] Appleby, et al. The American Journey. pp 821-822.

Kip Joseph Kay is a graduating senior at the University of Utah. This paper was produced as part of his Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) project and was presented at the annual Utah State History Conference. Kip serves as president of the Alpha Rho chapter of Phi Alpha Theta.

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