As the nation moved from its agricultural roots, the yeoman class interest in property would find a new main expression in the form of homeownership. This would represent an opportunity both to escape the crowded city or, for the migrant from rural areas, live in a less dense urban environment. This drive was supported by both conservatives and New Dealers, who promulgated legislation that expanded homeownership to record levels. “A nation of homeowners,” Franklin Roosevelt believed, “of people who own a real share in their land, is unconquerable.”
The great social uplift that occurred then, coming to full flower after the Second World War, saw a working class—not only in America but in Europe and parts of east Asia—now enjoying benefits before available only to the affluent classes. In 1966, author and New Yorker reporter John Brooks observed in his The Great Leap: The Past Twenty-Five Years in America, that, “The middle class was enlarging itself and ever encroaching on the two extremes—the very rich and the very poor.” Indeed, in the middle decades of the 20th Century, the share of income held by the middle class expanded while that of the wealthiest actually fell.
New Deal legislation—the Housing Act of 1934, creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Federal National Mortgage Association, or Fannie Mae—set the stage for the great housing boom of the 1950s. This was further augmented by the GI bill, which also provided low-interest loans to returning veterans. The success of the private financial and construction interests who benefited from this boom, suggests author Eric John Abrahamson, was largely fostered by what he describes as a “planned” economy that consciously sought to expand ownership both during the New Deal and particularly in ensuing decades. Almost half of suburban housing, notes historian Alan Wolfe, depended on some form of federal financing. This egalitarian impulse was in part driven by people returning from WW II and Korea, many of whom benefited from the GI Bill.
This resulted in an unprecedented dispersion of property ownership. This process was aided by a strong economy and the expansion of automobile ownership, which greatly expanded the yeomanry’s mobility. Increasing numbers of the middle class and even working class people become homeowners, sparking an enormous surge in home building. By 1953, the number of Americans owning their own homes climbed to twenty-five million, up from eighteen million in 1948. A country of renters was transformed into a nation of owners. Between 1940 and 1960 non-farm homeownership rose from 43 percent to over 58 percent. It was an accomplishment of historic proportions, notes historian Abrahamson, of “a transformed Jeffersonian vision.”