The next section in Chapter 4 of The Way We Never Were shows how U.S. Americans tend to overestimate what we have accomplished on our own. From the very beginnings as a nation, we've bought into the myth that the colonists built a society out of nothing. This myth ignores the fact that Native Americans were already living here and had established their use of the land. Coontz notes that early white families in the U.S. depended on a "large network of neighbors, church institutions, courts, government officials, and legislative bodies for their sustenance" (p. 70). Colonial life was more corporate than individualistic.
The transition to a wage-earning economy in the nineteenth century simply changed the way we depended on others: "a gift of money to a fellow worker who was ill or simply down on his luck was 'accepted... very simply, almost as a matter of course'" (p. 71). "Some workers' cultures revolved around religious institutions, some around cooperative societies or militant unionism-but all extended beyond the family" (p. 71). It seems the "rugged individualism" often romanticized in our current age didn't exist, even when the nation moved toward a market-based society.
Coontz next examines two kinds of U.S. families that are now held up as archetypes of the traditional, independent family. Coontz posits that these two family types are "the most heavily subsidized in American history, as well as for the privilege of having had more of their advantages paid for by minorities and the lower classes" (p. 73).
The first type, the frontier family, is defined by self-reliance in its settlement of the West. However,
prairie farmers and other pioneer families owed their existence to massive federal land grants, government-funded military mobilizations that dispossessed hundreds of Native American societies and confiscated half of Mexico, and state-sponsored economic investment in the new lands. Even "volunteers" expected federal pay: Much of the West's historic "antigovernment" sentiment originated in discontent when settlers did not get such pay or were refused government aid for unauthorized raids on Native American territory. It would be hard to find a Western family today or at any time in the past whose land rights, transportation options, economic existence, and even access to water were not dependent on federal funds. "Territorial experience got Westerners in the habit of federal subsidies," remarks Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, "and the habit persisted long after other elements of the Old West had vanished."
Even after such generous government funding, frontier families still did not become self-sufficient. Their success depended on mutuality and community involvement, sharing pasture, tools, and labor.
The availability of "cheap" land (i.e. heavily government-subsidized territories from which native populations were forcibly removed) was not the only benefit that pioneers received. White families also greatly benefited from the federally-funded development of this land. Were it not for public assistance for dams and other forms of irrigation, Westerners may not have been able to live where they wished.
The next type, the suburban family, is also traditionally viewed as self-reliant. The common belief is that homeownership rates shot up because families saved down payments, timely made their mortgage payments, and otherwise pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, thus moving themselves into the middle class. But, similar to their pioneering forbears, (white) suburban families relied heavily on government assistance. Federal GI benefits were available to 40% of the male population between the ages of 20 and 24 (p. 76). "More than $50 billion of government-funded wartime inventions and production processes were turned over to private companies after the war, creating whole new fields of employment" (p. 76).
Homeownership itself depended on an increase in federal regulation and funding, beginning in the Great Depression. The government started underwriting the real estate industry by insuring private lenders, loaning directly to long-term buyers, and subsidizing electricity to new residential areas. The greatest transformation to single-family, suburban living came from Federal Housing Authority and Veterans' Administration loans. These programs decreased the amount of the requisite down payment, increased the life of loans, and lowered interest rates. Even the research behind the construction materials for suburban homes was government funded, along with the construction of highways in order to travel from suburb to city.
Coontz highlights the ugly, racist side of this subsidized expansion into the suburbs, which I plan to share in my next installment...