The 1950's were a period of economic
growth and general prosperity that's been rivaled by few other
times in America's history. Considered by most Americans to be a rare
utopia in many respects, the 1950's managed to repeatedly defy
expectations and confound experts who predicted a far different, less
hopeful picture of the immediate postwar future for mainstream
Indeed, the case certainly could have been made for a gloomy
forecast for the 1950's. Just five years earlier, millions of people
were returning from around the world, having been kept out of the
American economy by serving in the nation's military. Once the job of
defeating America's enemies was finished, that throng of young men and
women were abruptly cast into the workforce at once, many of them for
the very first time.
Such an influx clearly could have had a devastating effect on
the nation, with a glut of workers flooding the economy right as
industry would be massively downsizing at the completion of its
mission to equip America's war machine.
Fortunately, this impending crisis wasn't lost on then President
Franklin Roosevelt, who in 1944 signed into being the Serviceman's
Readjustment Act, which immediately became known as the GI Bill.
Intended as a means of thanking World War II servicemen for their
sacrifices as well as preventing a massive drain on the nation's
economy, the GI Bill included generous provisions to fund education
for returning servicemen, and offered them low-interest loans for
buying a house or starting a business.
Also offered in the GI Bill was a year's worth of unemployment
insurance. But with so many ex-servicemen taking advantage of the
education funding and business loans, the unemployment insurance found
relatively few takers; only about 20-percent of the provision's
funding was ever used.
The effect of the GI Bill in shaping American society in the
1950's can't be understated. For one thing, its benefits extended to
all military personnel who served during the war -- including women
and minorities. This served to unify American social and economic
classes to a degree that hadn't been seen throughout much of the U.S.
With the GI Bill's universally provided advantages, poor
Southern farm boys who had served in the war were now going to college
alongside upper-middle-class students in the North. Likewise, veterans
originating from the gamut of economic classes were buying homes and
becoming neighbors in the countless instant subdivisions that were
sprouting up throughout the nation.
In many cases, these new communities were largely paid for with
money from the GI Bill, with 11 million of 13 million new homes
financed with loans from the program. And with that, the postwar
housing shortage quickly turned into a construction boom.
What's more, the ongoing needs of those communities were
largely served by businesses financed by the GI Bill. The program made
business owners out of young men who just a few years earlier were
mere boys, crawling and fighting through jungle mud, or battling
attacks in frigid-cold bombers flying high over Europe. Without the GI
Bill, there's a very good chance they wouldn't have been able to make
the transition so smoothly.
Adding further luster to this tremendously successful program,
the GI Bill proved to be largely self-funding. Much of the cost of
providing the legislation's sweeping benefits were financed by income
tax pouring into federal coffers from the throng of newly educated
veterans joining the workforce.
So who says government programs never work? The proof remains all over
America even today, with the benefits of the GI Bill still
evident all around us.
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