Thursday, August 15, 2013

The 50s - never had it so good?

There is no doubt that many Americans have been suffering from the effects of high unemployment and stagnant wages in recent years but time tends to cloud the mind about the past. Some reminiscence‎ about capitalism’s good ol’ years of the 1950s.

For African-American students in the 1950s the vast majority attended inferior segregated schools and could look forward to menial jobs traditionally reserved for blacks if they could find jobs at all. Only about one in five would even graduate from high school and less than one in twenty would graduate from college. And in the southern states, where the large majority of African-Americans lived, segregation backed by intimidation and, when necessary, violence, was still horrifyingly omnipresent. Very few black people could vote, eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels as white people.

1959 was certainly not producing a decent standard of living for all Americans. Unemployment had come down from its recession peak of 7.5 percent in the summer of 1958, but the percentage of Americans living in poverty, about 22 percent, was about a third higher than at any point during or since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In the 50s, unlike today, it was seniors who experienced the highest rate of poverty of any age group. In 1959, over a third of America’s seniors lived in poverty, many because many had to face high medical bills without any health insurance coverage. Medicare would not come into existence for several years, meaning that many of them had to turn to their grown children for financial support.

For white women half of them were as likely as white men to graduate from college. If they managed to matriculate, the careers open to women were generally limited to traditional female occupations such as nursing and teaching, which paid far less than those reserved for men. Female doctors, lawyers, college professors and business executives were almost unheard of.Teen birth rates reached record levels in the fifties, peaking at 96.3 per thousand women in 1957 and falling only slightly to 90.4 in 1959  (teen birth rate was 34.3 per thousand in 2010, the lowest on record.)

 It goes without saying that gays and lesbians in the fifties faced almost incomprehensible hostility. Not only were homosexual relationships illegal then, but LGBT Americans who came out of the closet, or were forced out, risked of losing their jobs and being blacklisted for future employment.

Some jobs were extremely dangerous, as evidenced by high rates of accidents and serious health complications. Lax or nonexistent government regulations certainly contributed to those high rates of death, disease and injury. Coal mining alone was responsible for an average of 451 fatalities per year during the 1950s although even that number was down sharply from earlier decades. Thanks in part to much stricter federal regulations, fatalities from coal mining fell to an average of 35 per year between 2006 and 2010. Comparable reductions were seen in other types of mining as well.

Even when those factories and mines weren’t killing or injuring their workers during the fifties, they were frequently spewing pollution into the country’s air and waterways. Before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of major environmental laws in the 1970s, America’s rivers and lakes along with the air Americans breathed were far more polluted than they are now. Port Clinton is located on Lake Erie, which had nearly become a toxic waste dump by the 1960s due to a massive influx of raw sewage and factory effluents from polluted rivers.

Tobacco companies in those days were still vigorously denying any health risks from their products. Cigarette labels carried no health warnings. Doctors and well-known athletes could be seen promoting smoking on television, in newspapers and on billboards. Over half of adult men and about a third of adult women were smokers in the 1950s and the rate of smoking among women was going up rapidly. Today, with tobacco advertising sharply restricted and health warnings prominently displayed by law tobacco products, barely a fifth of men and less than a fifth of women are smokers.

 1950s automobiles were poorly designed in terms of ensuring passengers survived crashes and, of course, almost none of them came equipped with seat belts of any kind.

Let’s not forget the omnipresent risk of global nuclear annihilation. Families were encouraged to build fallout shelters to protect themselves in the event of a Soviet attack and millions of schoolchildren  regularly participated in air raid drills that bizarrely involved hiding under their desks.

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