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Urban Poverty in the U.S. in the 1950s

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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

The economic prosperity that followed World War II in the U.S. was not shared by all citizens. Gain insight into the conditions impacting ethnic groups prior to the war, understand the factors that led to the 'white flight' away from urban centers to the suburbs, and consider how the failure of federal programs helped create urban poverty. Updated: 11/08/2021

The Great Migration

In order to understand the roots of urban poverty in the 1950s, we have to go back before World War II to the first half of the twentieth century. By this time, most African Americans had lived almost exclusively in the South, and the South was a very hostile environment for them. Threatened with violence from the Ku Klux Klan and second-class treatment from Jim Crow, it's really not all that surprising that millions of people left the South for the urban centers of the North and West from 1910 until 1950 in what is known as the great migration. There, this minority was met with other minorities, from Irish and Eastern Europeans in the northern states to Hispanics in the West. These minorities found work in the new factories, clinging to a life only slightly better than the one they had known before.

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  • 0:01 The Great Migration
  • 0:50 The Other Side of the GI Bill
  • 1:40 White Flight
  • 2:55 Failure of Federal Programs
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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The Other Side of the GI Bill

That changed after World War II, however. Millions of minorities of all groups had served with the United States military, and done so with considerable valor. However, upon their return, they found that they were treated very differently than their white comrades. Whereas many white veterans were able to take advantage of the GI Bill and other veterans' programs, opportunities were limited for other groups. As a result, many found themselves back in the same jobs they held before, largely ignored by the government that they had risked their lives in order to protect. Moreover, the new wave of consumerism largely treated city dwellers, and especially racial minorities, as if they didn't exist. Cities were no longer desirable places to live, at least according to the growing influence of advertising and popular thought.

White Flight

As you might expect, those who could move to the suburbs and enjoy the American dream jumped at the opportunity to do so. However, that opportunity was widely limited only to white individuals. In the South, blatant racism kept the races separate, but far from equal. In other parts of the country, less visible but no less systematic forms of separation existed. Racial minorities were encouraged by developers to live in neighborhoods where they may be more comfortable - namely, where they would be surrounded by other minorities. These neighborhoods tended to be in the same cities that they had lived in before, but the cities themselves were different, and not for the better. With so many white middle class families leaving the cities for the suburbs, the tax base shrank dramatically. This so-called white flight to the suburbs meant that cities were unable to pay their bills, much less provide the sort of infrastructure that the smaller, more affluent suburban communities could provide. As services suffered, everyone who was able to leave urban areas did, creating a spiral effect that most municipalities were unable to escape.

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