A brief history of U.S. unemployment

The United States has experienced 11 recessions since the end of the postwar period in 1948. The federal government has tried various methods over the years to turn around recessions and push back unemployment, including stimulus spending and tax cuts.

David B. Sicilia, associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, is an expert on American business and economic history. Here he looks back at the unemployment rate since the federal government began tracking unemployment more than 60 years ago and what the government did, if anything, to ease it.


Roll over each dot on the charts to see that year's average unemployment
and click on the era-labels to see an in-depth view of that time period.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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5%: Traditional "full employment"

Unemployment Rate

Recession →

Post-World War II

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The postwar economy was characterized by robust consumer spending, low energy prices and heavy military and social spending. “This was before we confronted any serious foreign competitors,” Sicilia said. After the war, President Harry S. Truman put forth a plan to ease the country into a postwar economy, but the measure Congress passed in 1946 was weak. During the recession of 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took no action. But he acted more aggressively to combat the recession of 1957 by signing the Federal Aid Highway Act, which authorized the construction of the interstate system. In response to a brief recession, President John F. Kennedy expanded Social Security and unemployment benefits and cut taxes.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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Stagflation

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The Arab oil embargos of the early 1970s triggered an economic slump that lasted until the mid-1980s. Inflation rose and the economy’s growth began to slow, a trend known as stagflation. The country entered a time when the economy was in “serious trouble,” Sicilia said. President Richard M. Nixon sought to ease inflation by implementing price and wage controls. When Jimmy Carter became president in 1976, he began deregulating the oil and gas industries. Unemployment, inflation and interest rates crept up during Carter’s last year in office. Those factors paved the way for Ronald Reagan to win the presidency in 1980.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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Reagan/Bush

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The economy endured a recession in the early 1980s, and unemployment hit double digits. The main reason, Sicilia said, was because the Federal Reserve chairman at the time was trying to squeeze inflation out of the economy. “They were concerned about unemployment, but they were more concerned about inflation,” Sicilia said. Unemployment fell from a high of 10.8 percent to 5.3 percent under Reagan. With unemployment low, George H.W. Bush became the first sitting vice president elected president in the modern age.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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Clinton

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In 1990, the country went through another recession. Congress came up with a plan to ease unemployment, Sicilia said, but President George H.W. Bush vetoed it. With the country in an economic malaise, Bill Clinton became president. The Clinton economy benefited from low energy prices and the information technology revolution. Clinton also tackled deficit reduction and free trade, which encouraged Wall Street. Unemployment dropped. There was a lot of corporate, government and consumer borrowing, Sicilia said, because people felt good about the economy.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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21st Century

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The collapse of the Internet bubble and the Sept. 11 attacks pushed the country into recession shortly after George W. Bush took office. In an effort to spur growth, Bush and Congress passed an economic act that cut taxes and gave everyone who filed a tax return in 2000 a rebate check. The economy hummed along, with the housing market enjoying record prices. But then housing prices began to decline and the current financial crisis took hold — triggered by the fall of the investment company Lehman Brothers. Shortly after Barack Obama took office, Congress passed a nearly $800 billion stimulus designed to jump-start the economy and lower unemployment. But high energy prices and the overhang of the housing market have brought economic growth to a virtual halt.

Post-World War II
Stagflation
Reagan/Bush
Clinton
21st Century
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SOURCES: David B. Sicilia, associate professor of history - University of Maryland; Bureau of Labor Statistics.

GRAPHIC: Kenneth W. Smith Jr. and Dwuan June - The Washington Post.