Ed. Note: This post is part of a series following the release of the 1940 Census highlighting various Commerce agencies and their hard work on behalf of the American people during the 1940s through today.
As the U.S. population has changed dramatically since 1940, so too has the U.S. economy. Just a few years prior to the 1940 Census, in 1935, employees of the Department of Commerce and the National Bureau of Economic Research created what we call the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA), a comprehensive set of economic accounts for the nation that provides unparalleled insight into the workings of our economy.
Let’s take a quick glance at the NIPAs and see how things have changed over the last 72 years. One commonly used measure of standards of living is GDP per capita—the total output of the nation divided by the population. Looking to national accounts table 7.1, we see that in 1940 U.S. GDP per capita was $8,824 in inflation-adjusted dollars. By 2011, it had increased nearly fivefold to $42,671. Over that period, the structure of the economy changed with services accounting for an ever increasing for spending. In 1940, consumer spending on services (everything from haircuts to heart surgery), according to NIPA table 1.1.10 accounted for 30 percent of GDP. By 2011, it was 47 percent—nearly half of economic activity.