NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Great Expectations

January 18, 1996

Since World War II, Americans have made extraordinary gains in nearly every area of human endeavor. But this unparalleled progress has fueled even greater expectations which have been forced onto government, according to author Robert Samuelson's new book, "The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995."

Among Samuelson's observations:

  • In 1930 in America, average life expectancy at birth was 58 years for men, 61 for women --
    rising to 71 and 79 respectively by 1990.
  • Until the 1930s, the average manufacturing worker toiled nearly 50 hours a week with few
    rights or benefits.
  • Now, 80 percent of workers have employer-paid health insurance. Creature comforts once
    considered luxuries are now common place.

In 1940, most Americans were renters and most households had neither a refrigerator nor central heating. Thirty percent lacked inside running water, coal fueled most furnaces and stoves, and wood was the second-most-used fuel. Elsewhere:

  • In 1940, more than a fifth of Americans lived on farms, less than a third of which had electric
    lights, and only one-tenth had flush toilets.
  • Then, one in 20 Americans had a college degree, compared to one in five, 50 years later.
  • Over the past 45 years, industrial production has increased 350 percent.
  • In 1976, the average supermarket offered just 9,000 products; 15 years later it offered

Samuelson observes that post-War prosperity bred an entitlement mentality which led to disappointment that the nation was not living up to unattainable promises, accompanied also by a decline in the sense of responsibility. A distinction between government and private responsibility became blurred. The illusion that government is the source of economic growth and is responsible for the "fair" allocation of wealth took hold. Samuelson recommends that "we need to curb our casual use of government" and "either we reconstitute our expectations, or we condemn ourselves to permanent disappointment."

Source: George F. Will, "Richer, Freer, Healthier -- and Entitled," Washington Post, January 18, 1996.


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