STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE
Four Decades Strong | 1975, What A Year!
By Julie Lays
In celebration of NCSL’s 40th year, we’re focusing on America in 1975. That’s the year three legislative institutions merged to create NCSL. State legislatures around the country were growing in strength and adding staff members in that post-Vietnam/Watergate era when we were redefining what America stood for and what Americans valued.
The worst recession since World War II gripped America, the result of the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo. Gas was rationed, and the national speed limit was lowered to 55 mph. Total state tax collections were a 10th of what they are today. The median household income was $11,800, and the national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent. A letter cost 10 cents to mail, and a year at a public college cost $3,332. The average car got 13 miles per gallon and cost $4,250 to buy new.
How do the hottest issues of 1975 compare with today’s? NCSL policy specialists took a look back and produced the following snapshots.
Crime Rate Was Criminal
Crime was big in 1975. Newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped. Mobster Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. And Ted Bundy, who admitted to killing 50 women, but is believed to have murdered at least 100, was arrested and later executed.
President Gerald Ford sent a special message to Congress declaring anticrime efforts “far from successful.” Time magazine ran a cover story on the nation’s “pervasive, chronic crime problem.” And TV crime shows reflected this reality. Remember “CHIPS,” “Kojak,” “Starsky and Hutch,” and “Barney Miller”?
Since then, violent crimes have dropped 21 percent, from 487.8 per 100,000 residents to 386.9, and property crime rates show a similar pattern. Incarceration rates, however, have more than quadrupled for adults. But not so for juveniles, as the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, aimed at keeping more minors out of prison, was launched in 1974 and remains in force.
OPEC Oil, Epic Waste
The oil embargo drove up gas prices to a whopping 57 cents a gallon ($2.52 adjusted for inflation), and brought about the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975. It was designed to wean Americans off foreign oil and increase energy efficiency. Four decades later, the average refrigerator consumes a quarter of the electricity the average model did in 1975.
Also in 1975, EPA issued the first national water quality standards. Daily water consumption has dropped from 420 billion gallons to 410 billion gallons, even with a growing population.
Americans still produce millions of tons of municipal waste a year, but we now recycle about one-third of it, up from a little more than 7 percent 40 years ago. That’s also when the first catalytic converters were built, paving the way for unleaded gasoline and laying the groundwork for significant reductions in air pollution and high lead levels in children’s blood.
Traffic Safety Was New on the Radar
In 1975, drivers were more concerned with style than safety. No state required you to buckle up, and children weren’t required to ride in safety seats, whether they faced back, front or upside down. More people died in car crashes, however: 44,525 in 1975 compared to 33,561 in 2012, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s edict that 1974 cars be equipped with a device that would require buckling up in order to start the car caused such a public outcry that Congress reversed it in 1975. Today, laws requiring child safety and booster seats are practically universal, and adults must buckle up now in every state but New Hampshire, the “Live Free or Die State.”
The Economy, Education and Everything Else
In 1975, the federal minimum wage was $2.10 ($9.29 adjusted) an hour, and 40 states set their own minimum wage. Alaska had the highest, at $2.80. About 22 percent of workers were union members, and 39 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home. Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, and 45 states set their own minimum wages. Washington state now offers the highest, at $9.32.
The federal poverty level was $5,050 ($22,330.76 in adjusted dollars) for a family of four; 17 percent of children lived in families that made less than that. The poverty level now is $23,850, and 23 percent of children fall under it. In addition, the portion of low-income students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch program in public schools has increased from about 40 percent to 70 percent today.
In 1975 the first child protective service agencies were created in response to the 1974 Child Abuse and Prevention Act. The Child Support Program was also enacted in 1975 and has since collected and distributed nearly a half a trillion dollars.
In the world of education, teacher pay, college tuition and the portion of students going to college have all increased while SAT scores have remained about the same. Americans with bachelor’s degrees has increased from 21.9 percent in 1975 to 33.5 percent today. The average teacher salary has climbed to $56,383 from $41,045 (adjusted). And a year of public higher education has climbed from $14,733.88 (adjusted) in 1975 to $19,339 in 2012.
In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act that required all public schools accepting federal funds to provide as equal an educational experience as possible, along with a free meal a day, to children with disabilities. Congress also passed The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 granting federally recognized Indian tribes more authority over how they use federal funds.
Are We Healthier Yet?
Americans are living about six years longer today than four decades ago. But heart disease remains America’s No. 1 killer, causing 34 percent of all American deaths. Cancer is in second place, and has gained some ground since 1975.
Four decades ago there was no national minimum drinking age and no comprehensive smoke-free laws for indoor public places. More Americans smoked—33 percent compared to 18 percent today.
Teen birth rates were 55 percent higher, but Cesarean deliveries were lower—10.5 percent of all deliveries compared to 32.8 percent today. And, of course, we were thinner. The percentage of men and women who were overweight or obese was only 47.7 percent; today it’s 68.5 percent.
Meanwhile, health expenditures, as a percentage of the national GDP, have increased from 7.5 percent in 1975 to more than 18 percent today.
The Future is Here
Our computers have been shrinking while our waistlines have been expanding. In 1975, the microchip was beginning to revolutionize personal computing. The Altair 8800 was featured in Popular Mechanics as the “World’s First Minicomputer Kit to Rival Commercial Models.” It was sold as a kit, and Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who had just formed Microsoft, had licensed the software it used, called BASIC.
The world of email and the Internet was on the horizon. The Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense conducted online discussion groups with corporate and academic researchers and connected them through email using ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet.
What will the nation look like in another 40 years? We can only imagine, just as these scientists did in 1975. When asked, “What will the world look like around 2015?” here’s what a few had to say.
- “In the 21st century, miniature television sets the size of cigarette packets will be used as everyday videophones.” —Vladimir Aleksandrovich Kotelenikov
- “Space satellites 200 or more miles above the surface of the earth will analyze weather, differences in soil, crops and forests. Plants will be genetically redesigned so their leaves are exposed to more sunlight and they can live on much less water.” —Orville Freeman
- “Information technology will make possible indices of everything, e.g., public happiness according to race, sex and age; reports of levels of public knowledge; statistics on traffic delays. Such computerized data systems will raise the issue of invasion of privacy.” —Ithiel De Sola Pool
1975 Was a Big Year
What else was going on? America’s involvement in the Vietnam War ended. The Apollo spacecraft successfully linked up with the Soviet’s spacecraft in orbit. The USSR’s Tupolev Tu-144, the world’s first supersonic transport, starting flying mail and freight for Aeroflot. And Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, resulting in millions dying in their slave labor “killing fields.”
On a lighter note, “Saturday Night Live” premiered on NBC. The No. 1 song was “Love Will Keep Us Together,” Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl, Cincinnati won the World Series, Foolish Pleasure won the Kentucky Derby, and Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon.
Notable births included Angelina Jolie, Tiger Woods, David Beckham and Bradley Cooper and, of course, NCSL.
Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures magazine.