In 1941 as many as 40 percent of all American families lived below poverty level. Nearly eight million workers earned less than the legal minimum wage. Another eight million Americans were unemployed, and the median income was only $2,000 per year. While the economic picture improved during the 1940s, the sense of crisis created by the Depression permanently altered lifestyles and attitudes. The so-called depression mentality of fear and economic caution marked an entire generation, even as the economy boomed after World War II.
Political containment translated into expectations of strict behavioral conformity. During the war years Americans saved and delayed gratification. This postponement created pent-up desires to spend and create, and many feared that this stored energy might not be channeled properly. Security and behavioral conformity came to be valued above personal risk and experimentation. Parents were urged to rear their children properly, lest they be vulnerable to Communist subversion.
The economic hardships of the Depression created strain in marriages and family life and caused a decline in marriage and birthrates. Those who did marry in the 1930s postponed childbearing or had fewer children. The war accelerated the process of family formation. The marriage rate went up between 1940 and 1946, as many couples rushed into matrimony, often just before the husband's departure to the war overseas. During the same period the birthrate rose as well, from 19.4 to 24.1 births per thousand women. Absent husbands and fathers, wartime rations, and working mothers characterized family life in the early 1940s.
Two years after the United States entered the war, the unemployment rate had dropped from 14 percent to zero. Men were not the only ones to don military uniforms. Some women joined the WACS, the WAVES, or the SPARS—the women's branches of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. Wartime industrial mobilization required the labor of those men and women not in the military. Suddenly the government and the media affirmed the importance of workingwomen and welcomed them to the workforce, particularly to jobs in the defense industry.
Fear of atomic war also contributed to the rise of suburbia. Atomic scientists advised the depopulation of urban centers to avoid a concentration of industries and homes in potential target areas. New roads provided quick escape routes from cities to the suburbs. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower explained in 1956, "the road net must permit quick evacuation of target areas" in the event of a nuclear attack.
The success of women in the wartime workforce briefly challenged traditional gender roles. Women's economic gains in the wartime boom raised their expectations for sustained equality of opportunity after the war, but the shift in attitude toward the workingwoman was only temporary. After 1945, as returning veterans reclaimed jobs women had held in wartime, the image of the full-time wife and mother was reintroduced as "modern" and necessary to meet the new psychological stresses of life in the age of atomic insecurity.
after 1943. The war effort demanded stepped-up production at home to equip the military and maintain civilian needs. The Gross National Product and manufacturing output doubled in the war, as American industry limited or suspended production of consumer goods to devote its efforts to making weapons and war materiel. No civilian automobiles and trucks were manufactured from 1942 until after the war. Other steel, rubber, or electrical consumer goods were scarce or unavailable. Government entered people's daily lives, raising taxes, rationing scarce commodities, controlling prices, and allocating labor for military and civilian production, even restricting where individuals lived or worked.
The late 1940s marked the beginning of the Cold War. Fear of communism manifested itself in the Red-baiting that began in 1946 and in a policy of containment directed at the Soviet Union. Postwar politics generated serious concerns about global security. Once the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world entered the nuclear age. The United States and the Soviet Union stared at one another with fear and hostility. The Cold War began to chill the nation, creating profound insecurity about the future. As Dean Acheson said in 1947, "the nation must be on permanent alert."
When the war came to an end in 1945, many Americans wondered if the higher standard of living brought about by a wartime economy could be sustained in peacetime. Having experienced the Depression, they feared yet another crisis once millions of soldiers reentered the civilian workplace in an economy no longer stimulated by massive wartime production. Yet in spite of major dislocations caused by the reconversion to peacetime business and manufacturing, no new crisis occurred. Several factors cushioned the economy after the war. Demobilization occurred slowly, and military expenditures remained high. During the war Americans had saved billions of dollars, which they spent on new homes and newly available cars and appliances once the war ended. Wartime profits gave businesses money to invest in plants and equipment for civilian production. The United States was the only major industrial nation to emerge unscathed from World War II, and American loans to war-torn European nations gave these countries funds to purchase American-made goods. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 gave veterans one year of unemployment compensation, financial assistance for job training and education, and low-interest loans to buy homes, farms, and businesses. This aid to veterans and their families, known as the GI Bill of Rights, helped nearly one-quarter of the population and further stimulated the economy.
While many Americans benefited from the immediate prosperity of the postwar years, complete economic recovery proved elusive. By the end of the decade inflation became the new economic woe. With one-third of the population still below the poverty line in 1949, it was unclear if the United States had developed an economy capable of providing an adequate livelihood to all its citizens.