HICKS: Reflecting on a half century of economic growth

August 4, 2012

This summer marks the 50th year of Walmart, America’s manned space exploration and—youthful appearances notwithstanding—your columnist. So I thought I’d ruminate a bit upon what has happened to our economy over the past half century.

The rapid demise of totalitarians had the most impact. Ending the Cold War and its proxy conflicts didn’t bring peace, but it did deliver us from the imminent threat of unspeakable carnage. That allowed us to reduce military budgets, even now while we are at war, to a much smaller share of our economy.

A half century ago, we had no Clean Air or Clean Water Act, little mining regulation and nothing to protect endangered species. Today, the country is so much cleaner that it bewilders the senses. Along the banks of the Potomac, where as a boy I watched trash clog the waterways, bald eagles now feast on bass and sunfish.

The past 50 years also have seen dramatic growth in some freedoms from which we all benefit. We could use more.

A half century ago, Vietnam and the outline of a war on poverty began. Neither of these turned out well, despite the best intentions. Both were quagmires that destroyed countless lives, challenged the entire culture of our nation, and nearly bankrupted us.

Fifty years ago, most Americans had not gone to college, and it was not uncommon to encounter an older adult, with a good job and decent home, who did not possess a high school diploma. Today, a working-age adult without a diploma—roughly one in five—is invariably a ward of the state, as is that person’s children.

In 1962, fewer than 5 percent of children lived in homes without fathers. Today, more than 40 percent of kids are born into father-less families. The modern definition of poverty (which had not yet been invented) would capture perhaps a quarter of Americans on farms and in towns alike.

Today, almost everyone who meets the poverty definition (about half the 1962 share) has chosen poorly on education and parenting. It is no longer the economy that breeds poverty.

Fifty years ago, more than a third of Americans worked to make things that were sold a long way from the factory. Today, only about one in seven do.

For local and state leaders who care about economic development, this is perhaps the most frequently misunderstood fact of the modern economy. The location of factories no longer determines where people live, rather the quality of communities do. Almost none of our economic development policies fully grasp that.

We are stunningly better off than we were 50 years ago. The U.S. standard of living has tripled and life spans have grown by more than a decade. How we continue to grow and how we use this newfound wealth and time are the important questions for the next half century.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.


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