Cataclysm in suburbia: The dark, twisted history of America's oil-addicted middle class

How the same things that contributed to the rise of the middle class are also now leading to its downfall

Published August 30, 2014 9:00PM (EDT)

Houses, cars, and children. For a century, they have defined the family economy, and they have driven the national economy. They organize our lives and shape our debts.

Their presence all around us seems so natural, and they are so tightly bound together in how we measure personal milestones and record family stories, we can forget just how recent and fragile their combination is, historically speaking. Developments in the last decade have served to remind us.

When the housing market and the automobile industry crashed between 2007 and 2008, signaling the onset of the Great Recession, two pillars of the national economy crumbled simultaneously. American households lost $16 trillion in net worth, and the federal government rescued major banks and automakers, to ward off an even greater collapse.

That shock came amidst the slow burn of the decades-long flatlining of blue-collar and pink-collar wages, and a mounting college affordability crisis. By 2013, working-class wages had not grown meaningfully against inflation for 40 years, while the average individual’s college debt had climbed to just below $30,000. Children, whether from the laboring or professional class, no longer imagine they’ll do better than their parents.

When President Obama promised to “build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class” in his 2014 State of the Union message, he as much as admitted that such ladders barely exist any longer.

We have reached the outer limits of the middle-class American household as it was imagined and socially invented in the 20th century. Those limits are political, economic and environmental. Understanding the unique historical characteristics that brought that household into being helps us understand its current foundational weaknesses.

The industrial revolution of the early 20th century created the conditions for the rise of a hydrocarbon middle-class family in the United States. By rendering carbon-based resources — especially coal, petroleum and natural gas — into everything from steel and plastics to electricity and fuel for the internal combustion engine, industrialization gave middle-class life in the West a new, world-historical footing.

If we plot energy consumption against economic growth from 1850 to 1970, two things stand out. First, per-capita energy consumption tripled while taking up proportionally less GNP each year — meaning energy was cheaper every year, even as use increased dramatically. Second, despite fluctuations over the last half century, including China’s surge, per capita energy consumption in the U.S. has remained roughly double that of other industrialized nations.

Intensified application of energy to production, the hallmark of industrialization, provided only the necessary conditions for the rise of a hydrocarbon middle-class family, however. Social and political choices gave it shape.

Consider our notion of childhood. Freed by industrialization from laboring in agriculture and household artisanal production, children could spend more years in school. In the first decades of the 20th century, child labor laws and the universalization of high school, alongside the relatively new field of psychology and entrepreneurs in the growing consumer market, created the “teenager” as a distinct stage of life, lengthening childhood and opening new opportunity for millions.

Over the course of the 20th century, Americans had fewer children, devoted greater resources — private and public — to each child, and came to view them as consumers on one hand and investments on the other. In 1956, white middle-class teenagers had an average weekly disposable income of $10 (or $85 today), close to the disposable weekly income of an entire family a generation earlier.

The houses into which those children clamored, too, were products of new forms of energy and epochal social and political choices. Electrified homes and their consumer gadgets pried ever more energy from the nation’s, and world’s, carbon. In the four decades between 1920 and 1960, alone, American consumers increased their use of electricity by 500 percent. Efficiencies in the conversion of coal into kilowatt-hours, and surging use of petroleum and natural gas to create electricity, kept costs reasonable even as utilities remained highly profitable.

Many Americans in the first half of the century, then as now, believed that middle-class life required homeownership. The nation’s homeownership advocate-in-chief was Herbert Hoover, who as Secretary of the Treasury in the 1920s led the Better Homes in America movement. The family home “is basic in our economic system,” Hoover wrote, the space where “men and women consume the final products of our farms and mines and factories.”

Not until the New Deal, however, did the nation boast the political foundation to dramatically increase homeownership. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created under President Franklin Roosevelt, reorganized the housing market, clearing the way for the revolutionary 30-year mortgage and 10-percent down payment. After World War II, the Veteran’s Administration financed one in five American homes — and educated 500,000 engineers, 200,000 doctors, dentists and nurses, and 150,000 scientists. Under the auspices of the FHA and VA, homeownership rose from 43 percent in 1940 to 66 percent by 2000.

Reorganization of the mortgage market under federal proctorship allowed William Levitt (of Levittown fame) and his many imitators to reinvent the American suburb as a factory-produced commodity. Each home became one more node on a massive electrical grid, filled with other products — from refrigerators to lawn mowers — powered by carbon. By 2000, 80 percent of Americans lived in metropolitan regions, up from 28 percent in 1910. Suburban governments invested heavily in public education in the decades after World War II, and suburban voters supported the expansion of public higher education, led by states like California, New York and Wisconsin.

Suturing the growing metropolitan regions together were, of course, cars, which made the postwar American suburb possible. The kind of mobility Americans wanted in turn made the automobile essential to daily suburban life. The National Interstate and Defense Highway Act, passed by Congress in 1956, provided 90 cents for every dime the states invested in interstate highways, effectively making sprawl as much a creature of government as of the market.

Detroit turned out so many new cars to feed this unquenchable thirst that in the 1950s, one in six American jobs was directly tied to the automobile industry. Inexpensive petroleum, increasingly sourced after World War II in autocratic nations that were U.S. allies, kept this system growing. So did the oil depletion allowance, a $4 billion annual subsidy to petroleum companies that dates to 1913, which allows some of the world richest corporations to avoid taxes. By 2009, 90 percent of Americans drove a car to work, and 80 percent of them did so alone.

Systematic racial discrimination, supported for many decades by the same government rules that made mortgages cheaper, rendered this vast spatial reorganization of middle-class life an essentially segregated and unequal one. As houses became assets of ever-increasing value in the second half of the 20th century, white wealth grew faster than non-white wealth, even as the middle class expanded overall. Among white Americans, houses, cars and children were not just the organizing elements of family life but increasingly the basis for selecting towns, neighborhoods and schools, further imprinting racial inequality — now spatial as much as anything — on the physical landscape.

A final, often overlooked, element was critical in the 20th century’s making of the hydrocarbon middle-class family: the political and economic power of carbon-based workers. Workers in many industries, from longshoring to the needle trades, fought the long battle to organize unions and improve wages and working conditions in the first half of the 20th century. But none were more powerful than those in coal, steel and auto making — what we might call the carbon-based working class.

During the heyday of organized labor’s influence, the 1950s, between 3 and 4 million union workers labored in those three industries, making up 20 percent of all trade unionists. Coal, steel and autoworker strikes, beginning with the famous “sit-down” strikes in Flint, Michigan in 1937, had unionized American basic industry by the late 1940s, raising wages not just in those influential sectors but across the whole of the industrial economy. Carbon-based unions forged the labor compact of the mid-20th century, erected a new wage floor under American workers, and expanded the ranks of the middle class beyond the white-collar clerks, professionals and small-town merchants.

Fortune magazine reported that in the 1950s, more than 1 million Americans were added to the middle class each year, which the magazine defined as families earning more than $5,000 after taxes (about $40,000 today).

By 2000, the average American hydrocarbon middle-class family had just under two children, owned two or more cars, and accounted for 48 tons of carbon a year. In the half century after World War II, the “stuff” Americans consumed was increasingly pried from the ever-more-complex processing of petroleum. The result was, of course, the “plastics” made famous in the film "The Graduate," but also everything from cosmetics and mayonnaise to soft drinks and the chemicalization of agriculture. Not surprisingly, with approximately five percent of the world’s population, the U.S accounted for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions at the turn of the millennium.

One way to think about this history is to emphasize its entrenched racial exclusiveness and the country’s neo-imperial Middle East foreign policy that underwrites cheap oil. The deleterious effects of generations of suburban racial segregation, for instance, cannot be emphasized enough. Neither can the past two decades of U.S. war-making in Iraq and the longer and wider legacies of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East generally. Yet another way to think about this history is to stress the role of patriarchy in shaping the gender and sexual dimensions of nuclear family life over a century. Such lines of inquiry into this history deserve thorough exploration and discussionwhich I and many others have undertaken elsewhere.

But here, I want to think about this history as a prelude to the long-term erosion of the foundations of the hydrocarbon American middle-class family. There are three primary lenses through which to view this erosion: political, economic and environmental.

It is by now clear that there is no longer political will in the United States for the kinds of public policies so crucial to middle-class growth in the 20th century. In virtually any register one selects — education, racial equality, unionization, or progressive taxation, for instance — public policy in the last two generations has undermined rather than supported middle-class sustainability. The kinds of public decisions and public policies, however imperfect and however cramped in their application, that once wrung a middle-class from carbon based-energy are fast disappearing from our political life.

The news on the economic front is just as bad. When homes became the family bank, and second mortgages bought everything from college education to new cars, American household borrowing climbed to historic levels, leaving trillions of dollars vulnerable in the 2007-08 housing crash. The housing market, now firmly anchored to Wall Street, has enriched some families with equity wealth, while closing off opportunity for others.

But the larger story remains a generational one. For younger Americans, the housing market is unlikely to function as a site of ever-increasing equity, in the way generations of postwar Americans experienced it. So too, with college. Equity wealth in housing and a low-cost college education were once central to a family’s economic strategy for their children. That strategy still works for many. But the numbers are shrinking and will likely continue to do so.

Meanwhile, median household income, a reasonable measure of middle-class health, has been flat since 1989. The recent bestseller by the French economist Thomas Piketty, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," warns that class inequality in Western Europe and the U.S. is likely to grow far worse in the coming decades, as asset wealth surges ahead of overall economic productivity and regressive taxation makes even minimal redistribution impossible. Without the structural floor underneath American wages once provided by trade unions, there is little counterweight — the energetic and well-intentioned minimum wage movements around the country notwithstanding — to the power of business to set the cost of labor.

Finally, in an age when both the ineluctable warming of the planet and the depletion of oil reserves are both viewable on the horizon, the environmental foundation of the middle-class American family is undeniably eroding. Given the potentially life-altering changes the planet is likely to undergo in the next two to three centuries, erosion of middle-class life may be the least of our worries. The challenge lies in how to unwind the century or so of political, economic and infrastructural commitments that have been made to middle-class hydrocarbon living. Can they, one wonders, be easily converted into the foundation of something different?

The middle-class hydrocarbon family in the United States had its unjust exclusions, its oppressive gender politics and its ruinous influence on U.S. foreign policy. Only willful blinders could keep us from seeing that. But if the middle class continues to shrink over the next century — reversing the growth of the last — what will remain? A well-resourced elite capable of buying their way out of the worst, most burdensome coming adjustments to global warming. And the rest of us.

Robert O. Self is Royce Family Professor of Teaching Excellence and Professor of History at Brown University.

By Robert O. Self

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