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

The Fair Deal was an extensive list of proposals for social reform legislation suggested by U.S. President Harry S. Truman in his State of the Union address to Congress on January 20, 1949. The term has since come to be used to describe the overall domestic policy agenda of Truman’s presidency, from 1945 to 1953.

Key Takeaways: The "Fair Deal"

  • The “Fair Deal” was an aggressive agenda for social reform legislation proposed by President Harry Truman in January 1949.
  • Truman had initially referred to this progressive domestic policy reform program as his “21-Points” plan after taking office in 1945.
  • While Congress rejected many of Truman’s Fair Deal proposals, those that were enacted would pave the way for important social reform legislation in the future.

In his State of the Union Address, President Truman told Congress that that, “Every segment of our population, and every individual, has a right to expect from his government a fair deal.” The “Fair Deal” set of social reforms Truman spoke of 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 Johnson proposed his Great Society program 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 of 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
  2. Increase the coverage and amount of the minimum wage
  3. Control the cost of living in a peacetime economy
  4. Eliminate federal agencies and regulations created during World War II
  5. Enact laws ensure full employment
  6. Enact a law making the Fair Employment Practice Committee permanent
  7. Ensure sound and fair industrial relations
  8. Require the U.S. Employment Service to provide jobs for former military personnel
  9. Increase federal assistance to farmers
  10. Ease restrictions on voluntary enlistment in the armed services
  11. Enact broad, comprehensive and non-discriminatory fair housing laws
  12. Establish a single federal agency dedicated to research
  13. Revise the income tax system
  14. Encourage the disposal through sale of surplus government property
  15. Increase federal assistance for small businesses
  16. Improve federal assistance to war veterans
  17. Emphasize conservation and protection of natural in federal public works programs
  18. Encourage foreign post-war reconstruction and settlements of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease Act
  19. Increase wages of all federal government employees
  20. Promote the sale of surplus wartime U.S. naval vessels
  21. Enact laws to grow and retain stockpiles of materials essential to the future defense of the nation

Expecting lawmakers to take the lead in drafting the bills necessary to implement his 21-Points, Truman did not send them to Congress.

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

Despite the delays and opposition from the conservative Republican majority in Congress, Truman persisted, continuing to send them an ever-increasing number of proposals for progressive legislation. By 1948, the program that had begun as the 21-Points had come to be known as the “Fair Deal.” 

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.”

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.

Philosophy Behind the Fair Deal

As a liberal populist Democrat, Truman hoped his Fair Deal would honor the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal while carving out his unique niche among post-World War II social policy reformers.

Though the two plans were similar in their demand for sweeping social legislation, Truman’s Fair Deal was different enough from the New Deal to have its own identity. Instead of having to deal with the economic suffering of the Great Depression that confronted Roosevelt, Truman’s Fair Deal had to contend with the often overly ambitious expectations brought about by the post-World War II prosperity. In his nature, advocates of the Fair Deal were planning for virtually limitless abundance rather than hopelessly crushing poverty. Economist Leon Keyserling, who drafted major parts of the Fair Deal, argued that the task of the post-War liberals was to grow the U.S. economy by spreading the benefits of that abundance equally throughout the society. 

The 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.

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Longley, Robert. "All About President Truman's Fair Deal of 1949." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Longley, Robert. (2023, April 5). All About President Truman's Fair Deal of 1949. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "All About President Truman's Fair Deal of 1949." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).