The chain email claimed that it was great to be born between 1925 and 1955. I was a little surprised at that starting date. Surely for many Americans it was not great to be ten years old during the Great Depression. Life then was hardly a succession of picnics on the grass. Instead, there was a Dust Bowl, widespread malnutrition, no running water and outhouses for many, houses lost to foreclosures, work at an early age, and unsafe working conditions if work could be found. I for one am happy to have been born a generation after 1925.

I also knew that death felled infants in those golden decades more than it does now. CDC statistics report that deaths in the first year of life were 29.2 per 1,000 live births in 1950. In 2015 that rate was 5.9. Similarly, the rate of deaths under the age of nineteen have dropped precipitously since the email’s “golden years.” Some things were certainly better if you were born after 1955.

Childhood diseases have also dropped. Those who just remember a carefree childhood during that lauded period must have forgotten about polio, which struck about 58,000 people in the U.S. in 1952. I remember that public swimming and wading pools were closed because these childhood favorites were thought to spread the disease. Fear of polio only subsided with an effective polio vaccine that became available in 1955. By 1961 only 161 new polio cases were recorded in the U.S., with the disease soon eradicated. And, of course, vaccines have largely eliminated other childhood diseases. The number of measles cases in the 1940s and 1950s averaged above 500,000 per year. After the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, the number rapidly dropped to the hundreds. Being born in 1965 had some advantages from birth a decade earlier.

Morbidity from other causes has also declined. In 1950, when the U.S. population was 152 million, there were 33,186 deaths in car accidents, for a rate of 21.794 per 100,000. Per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, the rate was 7.24 deaths. In 2017, we had 37,133 vehicle deaths with a population of 326 million for a rate of 11.40 per 100,000, and the rate was 1.16 per 100 million vehicle miles.

Of course, a point to this email was to be amusing and nostalgic, but it was also a vehicle to complain about government and regulations as it did when it referred to those “who had the luck to grow up as kids before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good.” Perhaps that is why the writer ignored the many ways things are better now than in the distant decades. The writer would not have wanted to acknowledge that the reasons for the good news that the rates of childhood deaths and diseases are lower now than when I was born include government regulation that has brought us safer cars and hospitals and vaccination requirements. Another has been government funding that has aided medical and other safety research.

The government has done much to make life better since I was a kid, but these actions seldom produce warm memories even among those of us who do realize that the government has had a hand in making lives better. I remember standing in a long line to get polio inoculations. I am not nostalgic about those shots, but I also remember the pleased look on my mother’s face that her children would no longer face polio. (I am also not nostalgic for the part of a family trip that took us past paper mills. The Fox River where the plants dumped their waste was covered with unbroken mounds of yellowish, scummy foam that emitted a nauseous smell for miles. That stream is now cleaner. I wonder why that is? Do you really think that unfettered capitalism has given us a better environment?)

I certainly don’t believe that all that government does is good, but apparently even the composer of the email may, perhaps inadvertently, sometimes think good of government. The email thanks God “for all . . . the wars won,” but surely government has a hand in the winning, and losing, of wars.

On the other hand, I don’t know what victories the Almighty (and the government) was being thanked for. If you were born in 1945, the United States has been in a war for more than a third of your life—Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq—with many lesser military actions such as in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. The writer can’t be referring to any of these for we “won” none of those wars. On the other hand, many who were born in that golden time died in those military actions. Of course, the email was only addressed to those who survived the golden era.

(concluded June 21)

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