A Prosperous Nation?
For many Americans, the 1950s was a decade of economic prosperity. Unemployment and inflation remained low, usually below five percent. By the middle of the decade, more than sixty percent of Americans earned a middle-class income, which at that time was a salary between $3,000 and $ 10,000 a year. The number of homeowners increased by more than twenty-one million during this decade, and people enjoyed material comforts and the benefits of household inventions and improvements. Government programs benefited many Americans. Social security and unemployment benefits also expanded in the mid-1950s, and the minimum wage increased. President Dwight D. Eisenhower also supported the largest increase in educational spending up to that time.
Nearly forty million Americans, however, lived near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for a family of four, as determined by a 1957 study. Poor Americans were more often earning a lesser portion of the nation’s wealth. Almost one half lived in rural areas and suffered from inadequate health care and a lack of education. City dwellers also saw their conditions worsen as urban slums deteriorated. In response, the federal government began a program of urban renewal to replace run-down inner-city buildings with new ones. When older urban neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for low-income public housing projects, however, many residents felt this transformation ruined the fabric of their community.
A Changing American Population
During the 1950s, increasing numbers of Americans relocated. Millions of prosperous whites moved to the suburbs, while many poor rural citizens traveled to the cities to look for a better life. The construction of interstate highways contributed to the relocation of Americans, particularly to the Western states. Additionally, many Mexican immigrants settled in Western cities. Overall as well, the American population grew, particularly because many Americans had waited until after the end of World War II to marry or start families. Throughout the decade, the American population saw an increase of nearly 30 million, from 150 million to 179 million.
Many women in the 1950s stayed at home and took care of their families and households, though a larger percentage worked outside of the home, often part-time. In general, women often faced discrimination and exploitation both at home and at work. Minorities also experienced prejudice, and many were denied the same educational and employment opportunities as whites enjoyed.
The Beginning of the Civil Rights Movement
Protest movements took place in the 1950s to try and change these discriminatory practices. In 1955, African-American citizens in Montgomery, Alabama, began a bus boycott in an attempt to end segregation on public transportation. For almost a year, thousands of African Americans stopped riding the buses. In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional. This struggle not only integrated the bus system, but it also brought a new civil rights leader to the forefront: Martin Luther King, Jr. Two years earlier, in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in the monumental decision known as Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka that the segregation of school by race was unconstitutional. As a result of this decision, states throughout the South moved to desegregate their schools—most unwillingly, however. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was the first school to comply with Brown. Although angry whites and Arkansas’ National Guard, sent by the governor, tried to keep nine African-American teenagers out of Central High, in 1957, AfricanAmerican students began to attend what had been an all-white school.
A Society of Conformity
Despite these racial struggles, society of the 1950s was generally dominated by the idea of conformity. For instance, in the suburbs, houses looked the same and had the same floorplans. Some teenagers challenged this conformity through literature that mocked the hypocritical adult world, as well as through rock ‘n’ roll, which many parents disliked. Adults also challenged the conformity of American life. John Kenneth Galbraith argued in his 1958 book An Affluent Society that Americans were ignoring pressing social issues in their pursuit of material possessions and comfort. A group of writers and poets known as the Beats challenged literary and lifestyle conventions of the middle class. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, one of the best known Beat works, celebrated the search for individual identity. Other novelists such as Ralph Ellison discussed the experiences of those Americans who faced poverty and discrimination.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2001.