After World War II had drawn to a close, the United States experienced unprecedented population growth that to this day has shaped the social and political landscape of the country, and changed how and where many Americans live. Known as the "baby boom," this population expansion took place between the years 1946 and 1964, with the peak occurring in 1957. The elevated birthrate, unparalleled in American history, added more than 50 million babies by the end of the 1950s.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the population growth dropped to a meager nine million. Economic pressures dissuaded many Americans from having children, since they would have added to the financial stress experienced by many households. The postwar economy proved to be more robust, which encouraged families to have more children. During the 1940s, particularly in the time after the end of World War II, the population saw an increase of 19 million.
The dramatic increase in the U.S. population after the war can be attributed to several factors. Though many feared a postwar depression, earlier legislation helped to smooth the transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime economy. In 1944, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act, known as the GI Bill of Rights, was signed into law. The act allocated $13 billion to help soldiers returning home pay for higher education, vocational training, medical treatment, unemployment insurance, and loans for building new houses. Social Security benefits also helped Veterans transition into the commercial sector. Pent up demand for consumer goods, caused by years of wartime self-deprivation, also fueled the economy.
As the baby boomers aged, their presence was, and still is, felt by virtually all aspects of American institutions and businesses. In the 1950s, manufacturers of baby products reaped huge profits due to the exceptionally high demand. Baby food, furniture, and toys were flying off store shelves at a record pace. Home construction saw unprecedented growth, as new and growing families sought better living conditions. New schools were required to accommodate swelling enrollments, which in turn led to a record number of new teaching positions.
During the 1960s, the baby boomer's economic influence continued. As teenagers, the boomers dumped approximately $20 billion into the U.S. economy every year. Clothing, food, and recorded music were popular items, and businesses were more than happy to meet consumer demands. In the 1970s, industries began to change to accommodate the aging taste of the baby boomers. Blue jeans makers, for example, began to market larger, more flexible pants for the "growing" population.
The postwar baby boom also spurred suburban expansion, as families tried to escape crowded cities and urban areas. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration offered guaranteed home loans, making home ownership more economically advantageous than renting an inner-city apartment. Tax deductions also made the move from urban areas to the suburbs easier. To meet the overwhelming demand for new homes, the construction industry grew rapidly during the 1950s and 60s. By 1960, one out of every four Americans lived in the suburbs, and by 2000, nearly one-half did.
Most of those moving from the inner-city areas to suburban communities were white families, leading the relocation to be called the "white flight." Filling the newly available space within the cities, especially in the northwest, were minorities from southern states. Many of those who did move into the cities to fill the void left by those leaving for the suburbs found the same poverty that was all too common in rural southern states.
Businesses, seeking to maintain their customers, left the city to establish suburban shopping malls. Suburban families began to buy second automobiles to help manage suburban living. Work, school, and shopping malls spread out over greater distances than in the inner-city communities, and this "urban sprawl" was a favorable situation for the auto industry. Car companies began to market the advantages of families owning more than one automobile, and the suburbanites were quick to agree.
After the war ended, the Defense Plant Corporation sold properties that were no longer needed to produce war materials. Businesses began to invest exceptional amounts of capital to procure plants and equipment now prime for commercial use. By 1948, the gross national product began to steadily increase.
Beginning in the 1950s, America's economy experienced an unprecedented level of growth that lasted until the early 1970s. In the 1950s, the national income came close to doubling and nearly doubled again in the 1960s. The surge peaked in 1973, with American households collectively earning more than a trillion dollars. Though the United States' population was only six percent of the world's population, Americans controlled more than 40 percent of the world's wealth.
Women particularly benefited from this period of economic growth. Since the majority of job growth was in the service sector, women found employment in urban offices and shops. Women, who composed only 25 percent of the workforce during World War II, accounted for more than 50 percent of the labor pool by the 1990s. As women took on additional responsibility in the workplace, they struggled to balance their careers with their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Conflict over the changing role of women in American society gave rise to a new feminist movement, which began in the 1960s.
The mobilization of industry in response to the war fueled the early economic boom in the United States. While other countries experienced the hardships of war, the United States reopened factories and repaired industries that suffered under the Great Depression. The war decimated the infrastructure, and the economies of many countries in Europe and Asia, and Americans capitalized by exporting products to the countries.
Massive military budgets further contributed to American economic growth. A significant increase in defense spending due to World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War buoyed the economy; the production of war goods comprised more than 10 percent of the gross national product. Economic growth also benefited from a plentiful supply of cheap energy thanks to American and European companies that controlled the petroleum reserves in the Middle East.
Americans had experienced economic growth before the post-World War II era, but what differentiated this era of economic prosperity was its far-reaching effects. More than ever before, Americans were affluent. The number of Americans earning between $3,000 and $10,000 per year, defined as the country's middle class, had doubled since the late 1920s and included about 60 percent of the American population.
The standard of living in America increased tremendously, sustained by strong home and automobile sales. Consumerism exploded as Americans spent their disposable income. Consumer demand encouraged companies to develop new, innovative products. For the first time most Americans could afford refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and electric mixers, and all products were sold on the promise that they could make Americans' lives easier.
By far the most popular product was the television set. In 1946, only 7,000 Americans owned black and white TV sets. By 1960, there were more than 50 million sets in households across the country. Americans embraced this new technology, and watching their favorite shows on TV became a daily activity. The mass production of television programming shifted social patterns and redefined American lifestyles. No longer were individuals reading, visiting, playing games, listening to the radio, or going to the movies with the frequency they had before television; now, Americans were fascinated with widely popular TV shows, including I Love Lucy and Ozzie and Harriet.
Americans had always been on the move, exploring new territories and settling new lands. The economic boom in postwar America, however, brought a new demographic transformation. The financial security shared by many had far-reaching effects, including wider wealth distribution and population shifts toward warmer climates across the nation. The "Sunbelt," as it came to be known, was the most popular destination for Americans seeking to relocate their families. The Sunbelt is the belt of states stretching from Virginia south through Florida, west to Texas and northwest through California.
From approximately 1945 through 1975, an average of 30 million individuals every year decided to change their residences, usually moving to one of the Sunbelt states. During this time, the Sunbelt states nearly doubled their population in contrast to the industrial northeast, which was shrinking in population. The state of California saw the most striking population increase, accounting for almost 20 percent of the nation's population growth. By 1963, California surpassed New York as the most populous state in the union, and by the turn of the century, the state's residents accounted for one out of every eight Americans.
The reasons the Sunbelt states were so popular went beyond just warmer climate conditions. The Sunbelt states offered lower taxes and more and better job opportunities. California had a booming electronics industry, and Texas and Florida benefited from large aerospace firms and military facilities. Changes in the Social Security laws enabled more Americans to retire, and the result was a stream of retirees moving to the Sunbelt states—most notably to newly built retirement communities in Florida and Arizona. The mass production of air-conditioning units helped alleviate the sweltering summertime heat, while milder winters allowed families to save on reduced heating costs.
One of the most significant reasons the Sunbelt experienced such prosperity was the massive support provided by the federal government. Federal defense spending for weapon systems and military installations was appropriated mostly to the Sunbelt states, partially due to powerful western and southern legislators. Funds appropriated for infrastructure, such as new roads and highway construction, seemed to disproportionately favor the Sunbelt states. This trend to financially favor southern and western states continued, and by 1990 these states were receiving almost $125 billion more in federal funds than northern and midwestern states.
The redistribution of people and wealth had a negative impact on the northeastern states, especially those in the industrial Ohio Valley. Dubbed the "Rustbelt" or "Frostbelt" states, these older manufacturing regions became increasingly displeased with the government's allocation of funds to the Sunbelt states. Starting in the early 1970s, the Rustbelt states were hit especially hard as foreign steel became more affordable and economically attractive to American companies. Many of the jobs in the Midwest began to move to either Sunbelt states or overseas, further increasing the affliction being felt throughout the region. America's shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy hurt industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania deeply, and even midwestern states suffered drastic vocational change as giant agribusinesses replaced the small family farm.
Along with the demographic shift in the national population came a political shift. Congressional power began to move from the northern states to the Sunbelt region. Since 1964, every president elected has claimed a Sunbelt state as home, and burgeoning populations has meant increased representation in the House of Representatives. Slowly, the demographics of politicians and their constituents changed as well. Following the Immigration Act of 1965, a flood of Latin Americans migrated to the U.S., most of them from Mexico. By 1990, Latinos represented around 25 percent of the total population in the Sunbelt states of Texas, Arizona, and California.