Almost 300 years ago, my family was among the pioneers who settled the Pennsylvania wilderness near the present city of Reading. Sixty years ago, my generation moved into Levittown with the suburban pioneers — the modern American middle class.
Most living Americans think of the middle class as a fact of life: always been there, always will. But as Levittown hits 60, it is worth noting how short lived it has been.
Before the 1950s, the vast majority of Americans lived in crowded big cities or on farms, with a far smaller number in small-city mill and market towns, or grimy mining towns. The suburbs then were the leafy enclaves of the few and well-to-do: places like Scarsdale, N.Y., and the Philadelphia “Main Line.” The Second World War, GI Bill and William Levitt changed all that.
The war pumped billions of dollars into the American economy for which there were few things to buy. Production went to the war. Money was saved. The war literally blasted apart the productive capacity of all the major industrial nations of the world — except the U.S.
After the world war and Korean War, U.S. manufacturers had a field day, selling to the war weary but cash rich American market and exporting globally. Then the GI Bill sent veterans to college and gave them access to inexpensive credit to buy homes. Enter William Levitt.
Levitt and others like him changed the face of America, and during the 1950s the modern American suburbs and the middle class exploded in the most broadly shared prosperity the world has ever known. Through the 50s, 60s and into the 70s that prosperity kept growing and expanding, until like some great battleship plowing through the ocean, the United States was the world super power drawing lesser nations in its wake. A democratic tide was running and seemed to lift all boats — although not all equally.
“Restricted” and “exclusive” communities began to admit Jews, but blacks and other minorities lagged far behind. Women were routinely excluded from the ballot and the board room. Gays were closeted, often fearful and always careful. The suburbs were prosperous but overwhelmingly white, and the exodus of whites from the cities left many urban centers to decay. But the incompleteness of the egalitarian American promise realized in the suburbs cannot mask the scale of the advance for many millions of ordinary Americans.
The Levittown in which I grew up — the one in which this newspaper has circulated almost from the beginning — was very much the emblem of an era. Its various “sections” of relentlessly similar homes, with sections and streets named by some unknown marketer of genius to suggest a common pastoral life never in fact shared previously by most “Levittowners,” effectively homogenized the residents into a new, stronger and above all, hopeful whole.
That changed. Beginning in the mid 1970s, “free trade” began to export the good paying jobs. Manufacturing began a slow decline, now almost to the point of collapse. Unchecked immigration assured a supply of labor above demand. Wages stayed flat while costs of living climbed, despite the promise of inexpensive goods produced abroad. Unions were systematically reduced, broken outright when possible and weakened by the declining membership brought about by the export of American manufacturing. Most union members now are public employees, who have lost public support as the economy worsens.
It’s not hard to understand why. When steelworkers went on strike there was considerable sympathy in the community. What the men in the mill wanted was a piece of corporate profit. Now, when teachers strike, what they want is a greater share of taxes from a public already struggling to make ends meet.
The reality and effects of low wages and high costs of living to support corporate profit were masked by the introduction of massive amounts of consumer credit. Families began to eat up the equity in their homes, just to stay even or “keep up with the Jones’” — whose swell and enviable lives were endlessly advertised in the media. Debt service became an ever bigger line item in the family and national budgets, and the stress mounted. Divorce rates skyrocketed and drug use became widespread. And I don’t mean marijuana. That’s the least of our problems. Adult Americans and their children now pop more legal pills to control their anxiety and behavior than an army of junkies. The middle class is an anxious place these days.
Levittown has not been spared. Unemployment was a crisis in 2008. But it has lasted four years, no end in sight and is a catastrophe. Home foreclosures roll on. Levittown has been especially hard hit. Vital pubic services are battered; most especially the public schools. Levittown and the middle class are clearly changed and changing.
Meanwhile, Wall Street wallows in the former wealth of the middle class; war goes on without end, piling debt on their future; and the federal government has been completely over-run by Wall Street and the corporate elite. If the American middle class is to survive and regain its prosperity, someone has to take a stand. As Levittown hits 60, it occurs to me: Why not here, where the story all began?