When Was America Great Before? It Depends on What You Compare It To

November 25th 2016

Mike Rothschild

Since the beginning of his campaign, Donald Trump ran on the promise that he would "make America great again." The natural reaction to this was to ask when was America last great, and why is it no longer great?


Trump himself told the New York Times in March that he thought the turn of the 20th century and the immediate years after World War II, up until the early 1950s, were the last times America had both an entrepreneurial spirit and powerful military machine. Of course, this is entirely Trump's opinion, fueled by his own experiences and biases.

A new series of interactive charts released on shows that economically, different years were better for different people in different income brackets. What was once a great time economically for someone was a terrible time for someone else.

For example, Trump pointed at the late '40s and early '50s as a time of economic prosperity — and the unemployment rates for those years are generally much lower than most other years on the timeline other than the late '60s.

Unemployment in 1951

By contrast, unemployment rates were never higher than they were in 2008 through 2010: the worst of the Great Recession.

Unemployment in 2010

Years when people have higher median incomes are going to be considered "great" by those earners, compared to years where median incomes are lower across the board.

Unfortunately, incomes for the two lowest earning brackets have barely moved. A low income family now makes about the same wages as they would have in 1973 — but the high income family makes far more money now than they did in 1973.

Median Househld Income 1973

American has never been "greater" than right now for the top five percent of earners — a trend likely to continue under Trump's proposed economic policies.

Median Household Income 2015

But to minimum wage workers, America was "great" at a different time — the late 1960s and mid-1970s. These years saw the federal minimum wage have more value than almost every other year, due to a number of regular increases and plentiful employment. This means a low-wage worker had more control over their economic destiny in those times, and has less now.

Minimum Wage in 1968

For education attainment, America's greatest time is now, as every year has more people attaining at least some college than the previous year.

Educational Attainment

Obviously, these charts leave out non-economic societal movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement or feminism, which can't be measured in raw numbers. But from the data they do provide, it's clear that "making America great again" will mean vastly different things to different people — and that for many in the highest income brackets, America is great right this very moment.