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What Postwar America Can Tell Us About Today’s Record Unemployment

Historians in the News
tags: economic history, Great Depression, World War 2, GI Bill



“The magnitude of what we’re doing now is similar to the magnitude of the transition we went through in World War II,” said Gary Richardson, former historian of the Federal Reserve System. 

Before we entered the war in 1941, the U.S. was coming out of the Great Depression and its lasting double-digit unemployment. But by 1943, the economy had mobilized around the war effort and put millions of people to work in war production. 

“Most of the men were needed in the war effort, and then a lot of women actually were pulled into the workforce,” said Caroline Fohlin, economic historian at Emory University.

From 1941 to 1945, the U.S. reconfigured nearly half the workforce throughout the war. When the conflict ended, the economy had to transition from a war economy into a place where millions of veterans and civilians could find jobs. 

The U.S. government invested heavily in this transition. Many businesses were given government-backed credit to help them reorganize for the postwar consumer economy. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the GI Bill, which allowed for a year’s worth of unemployment checks and helped 7 million returning soldiers get an education.

“The government realized that people were going to go back to some new jobs, not to their old jobs. But the government and most people didn’t realize what those jobs are,” Richardson said.

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