All About President Truman's Fair Deal of 1949

President Harry Truman holding up a newspaper with headline proclaiming, ‘Dewey Defeats Truman.’
President Harry S. Truman and Famous Newspaper Error. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

In his State of the Union Address on January 20, 1949, U.S. President Harry S. Truman told Congress that the federal government owed all Americans a “fair deal.” What did he mean?

President Truman’s “Fair Deal” formed the primary focus of his administration’s domestic policy from 1945 to 1953. The ambitious set of legislative proposals of the Fair Deal continued and built on the New Deal progressivism of President Franklin Roosevelt and would represent the last major attempt by the Executive Branch to create new federal social programs until President Lyndon B.

Johnson proposed his Great Society in 1964.

Opposed by the “conservative coalition” that controlled Congress from 1939 to 1963, only a handful of Truman’s Fair Deal initiatives actually became law. A few of the major proposals that were debated, but voted down, included federal aid to education, the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission, repeal of the Taft–Hartley Act limiting the power of labor unions, and the provision of universal health insurance.

The conservative coalition was a group of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who generally opposed increasing the size and power of the federal bureaucracy. They also denounced labor unions and argued against most new social welfare programs.

Despite the opposition of the conservatives, liberal lawmakers managed to win approval of some the less controversial measures of the Fair Deal.

History of the Fair Deal

President Truman first gave notice that he would pursue a liberal domestic program as early as September 1945.

In his first postwar address to Congress as president, Truman laid out his ambitious “21-Points” legislative program for economic development and expansion of social welfare.

Truman’s 21-Points, several of which still resonate today, included:

  1. Increases to the coverage and amount of the unemployment compensation system
  1. Increase the coverage and amount of the minimum wage
  2. Control the cost of living in a peacetime economy
  3. Eliminate federal agencies and regulations created during World War II
  4. Enact laws ensure full employment
  5. Enact a law making the Fair Employment Practice Committee permanent
  6. Ensure sound and fair industrial relations
  7. Require the U.S. Employment Service to provide jobs for former military personnel
  8. Increase federal assistance to farmers
  9. Ease restrictions on voluntary enlistment in the armed services
  10. Enact broad, comprehensive and non-discriminatory fair housing laws
  11. Establish a single federal agency dedicated to research
  12. Revise the income tax system
  13. Encourage the disposal through sale of surplus government property
  14. Increase federal assistance for small businesses
  15. Improve federal assistance to war veterans
  16. Emphasize conservation and protection of natural in federal public works programs
  17. Encourage foreign post-war reconstruction and settlements of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act
  18. Increase wages of all federal government employees
  19. Promote the sale of surplus wartime U.S. naval vessels
  20. Enact laws to grow and retain stockpiles of materials essential to the future defense of the nation

Focused at the time on dealing with rampant inflation, the transition to a peacetime economy, and the growing threat of Communism, Congress found​ too little time for Truman’s initial social reform initiatives.

In 1946, however, Congress did pass the Employment Act making it the federal government’s responsibility to prevent unemployment and ensure the health of the economy.

After his historically unexpected victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey in the 1948 election, President Truman repeated his social reform proposals to Congress referring to them as the “Fair Deal.”

“Every segment of our population and every individual has a right to expect from his government a fair deal,” Truman said in his 1949 State of the Union Address.

Highlights of Truman’s Fair Deal

Some of the major social reform initiatives of President Truman’s Fair Deal included:

  • A national health insurance plan
  • Federal aid to education
  • Abolition of poll taxes and other practices intended to prevent racial minorities from voting
  • A major tax cut for low-income workers
  • Expanded Social Security coverage
  • A farm assistance program
  • Expansion of public housing programs
  • A substantial increase in the minimum wage
  • Repeal of the labor union-weakening Taft-Hartley Act
  • A new TVA-style program to create public works projects
  • Creation of a federal Department of Welfare

To pay for his Fair Deal programs while reducing the national debt, Truman also proposed a $4 billion tax increase.

Legacy of the Fair Deal

Congress rejected most of Truman’s Fair Deal initiatives for two main reasons:

  • Opposition from members of the majority-holding conservative coalition in Congress who viewed the plan as advancing President Roosevelt’s New Deal’s effort to achieve what they considered to be a “democratic socialist society.”
  • In 1950, barely a year after Truman proposed the Fair Deal, the Korean War shifted the government’s priorities from domestic to military spending.

Despite these roadblocks, Congress did approve a few or Truman’s Fair Deal initiatives. For example, the National Housing Act of 1949 funded a program removing crumbling slums in poverty-stricken areas and replacing them with 810,000 new federally rent-assisted public housing units. And in 1950, Congress nearly doubled the minimum wage, raising it from 40 cents per hour to 75 cents per hour, an all-time record 87.5% increase.

While it enjoyed little legislative success, Truman’s Fair Deal was significant for many reasons, perhaps most notably its establishment of a demand for universal health insurance as a permanent part of the Democratic Party’s platform. President Lyndon Johnson credited the Fair Deal as being essential to the passage of his Great Society health care measures such as Medicare.