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Although the U.S. began to initiate social welfare programs after many European countries had already done so, the nation has been steadily developing services for its people for over 100 years. Public education grew rapidly after the Civil War to set an example for the whole world. At the end of that conflict, the U.S. had fewer than 100 high schools in the whole country, by 1920, basic education was available to almost everybody.

By the end of World War I, most towns in the U.S. had schools, and almost all children had at least some high-school education. College was for only a small minority of the elite (about 3 percent) before World War I. After that time, the GI Bill and the growth of state colleges and universities meant that by the 2000s, most U.S. citizens had the opportunity to get at least some college education.

The watershed for social programs was the Great Depression of the 1930s. As the Depression got worse and people stood in line for bread to feed their children, Republican President Hoover actually said that although the people helped the government, the government shouldn't help the people. The people soon voted him out of office, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) took over for the longest presidency in U.S. history .

FDR started a lot of social programs that are still active today, including Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Housing Authority.

President Lyndon Johnson added Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, and President Nixon supported disability insurance in the 1970s. President Clinton expanded aid to education in the 1990s and President George W. Bush added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare in the 2000s. President Obama got a national health bill passed, something all other developed nations have had for years.

With its history of rugged individualism and free enterprise, the U.S. was slower to adopt social programs than many other countries, but eventually the nation began to recognize that services like police, education, and fire protection were more efficient if they were bought "in bulk" by the whole community.

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