The OSU professor's new book details a bygone era in a time of deja vu.

David Stebenne didn’t plan to release his new book during a pandemic. But the unsettling landscape of 2020 made his account of the middle class’ formation and fall more relevant than he could have predicted. “It just so happens that my book came out in the year in which Depression-era unemployment returns,” Stebenne says.

The stock market crash at the end of the Roaring ’20s is the starting point for “Promised Land: How the Rise of the Middle Class Transformed America, 1929–1968,” the fourth book from Stebenne, an Ohio State history and law professor. He points out some of the parallels from that period: a businessman-turned-president, with Herbert Hoover then and Donald Trump today; income and wealth inequality; double-digit unemployment; and bipartisan support in Congress for financial relief.

The book, released in July, looks at how the economic turmoil of the 1930s, the GI Bill of Rights and the civil rights movement of the 1960s helped the middle class rise and fall, and how we can learn from the successes and failures.

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Stebenne ends his book in 1968, which is generally viewed by historians as when the postwar boom “finally produced so many problems as to inspire a rebellion that brought the process of middle class expansion to a stop,” he says. There are echoes of that era’s movements for equality in the protests of the last few years, and Stebenne says the interest in dealing with current social and economic problems could push the whole system toward another expansion.

In fact, the book was meant to be more than just a history of the middle class, he says. “It’s intended to give people a sense of what a new and improved version might look like.” 

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