It was about halfway through her lecture on the downside of nostalgia that social historian Stephanie Coontz committed heresy.
Coontz, author of “The Way We Never Were” and “Marriage: A History,” spoke last week to a packed hall at Muhlenberg College about how nostalgia for the Good Old Days can skew debates over important issues like the role of government. In doing so she took on the vaunted pioneer times and the 1950s – both eras often cited by presidential candidates as the epitome of what was once good about this country.
“Pioneer families and 1950s families are in a neck-and-neck tie … for the honor of having received more government help than any families in history,” Coontz said. “Only they received it in the beginning when [they could build upon it], rather than too late when they were already falling off the cliff.”
American pioneers got massive federal land grants, and benefited from government-funded military mobilizations that dispossessed Native Americans and confiscated half of Mexico, she said. Most of the new lands “were sold to settlers at prices way lower than it cost the government to get them,” she said.
The federal government financed the telegraph and the railroad systems needed to open the West, constructed the dams and irrigation projects on which the farm families depended, and later developed the electrification projects of the New Deal – which brought electricity to the sparsely populated rural areas.
“As for the 1950s, most of the economic growth and the social stability of that decade were due to the incredibly generous government investment in the social mobility of young veterans,” she said. “General GI benefits were available to 40 percent of the male population between the ages of 20 and 24. It picked up not only full tuition [for college] but living expenses. VA programs directly financed 20 percent of the houses.”
The government also paid to build the highways that opened up suburbia to development, providing jobs, she said.
My late father, a veteran of World War II, went to college on the GI Bill and was quick to give it credit for vaulting him from the ranks of the working poor to the middle class.
But some older people tend to forget “how many old people lived in abject deprivation in those good old days when everyone relied on community instead of those – gasp – awful government programs like Social Security,” she said.
Coontz wasn’t saying the pioneers or families in the '50s were sissies, mind you, just that the popular portrait of them as individualists who never accepted a dime of government help is flawed.
In a future column, I’ll talk more about her insights about memory, nostalgia and the Civil Rights and Women’s movements.