Elna C. Green, ed. The New Deal and Beyond: Social Welfare in the South since 1930. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003. xix + 275 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8203-2481-4; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-2482-1.
Reviewed by Steven P. Miller (Department of History, Vanderbilt University)
Published on H-South (April, 2005)
Social Welfare and the Creation of the New South
In The New Deal and Beyond, historian Elna C. Green continues her valuable effort to integrate the South into the larger history of American social welfare. For Green, as for the volume's twelve additional contributors, this project is a two-way street. Southernists can learn much from scholars of social welfare, while a complete portrait of American social welfare requires greater inclusion of the South. As with Before the New Deal, the predecessor volume, Green (to quote a reviewer of that book) presents an overall "persuasive case for paying attention to regional variations in American social welfare history." Certain essays in the successor volume make this case better than others. Overall, the essays succeed in raising significant questions about southern distinctiveness and, moreover, the limits and occasionally unintended goods of social welfare policy. During the years covered in this volume, the South joined the nation, while the federal welfare state joined the South, both altering the region and adapting to it. As the essays to varying degrees make clear, the South remained a unique, at times influential, environment for the development of the modern welfare state.
As the title indicates, the book is appropriately divided into two chronological sections. The five essays on the New Deal are reminders that--as Green argues in a thoughtful, concise introduction--"the welfare state, much like the state itself, is fundamentally amoral.... For the purposes of southern history, this suggests that the amorphous welfare state can be used to reinforce regional distinctions or to challenge them" (pp. xv-xvi). Georgina Hickey and Brenda J. Taylor each explore the gendered nature of New Deal programs. Hickey considers the Georgia Woman's Democratic Club--"a partisan version of the League of Women Voters"--which worked for more effective implementation of Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief programs in Atlanta. The Club focused on WPA-supported sewing rooms, "the major form of work relief for women under the New Deal" (p. 3). Hickey explains how the Club's indefatigable leader, Estelle Stevenson, evolved from a Progressive-style reformer, who favored relief over jobs programs for women, into an increasingly radical critic of the New Deal, who gradually embraced an alliance with woman workers. This essay insightfully places sewing rooms within the contesting ideologies and reform traditions that informed the origins of the welfare state (in this case, the novel creation of jobs programs for women). However, Hickey does not specifically frame her topic as a southern problem. The South serves more as a location than a nexus for the particular questions she raises.
The same (admittedly modest) limitation is evident in Taylor's essay, which considers the policy of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) toward southern farm families, especially farm women. FSA home supervisors--almost all of whom were women--comprised the domestic counterpart of the organization's male farm supervisors. These "de facto rural social workers" educated southern women in the growing field of home economics, while their counterparts in nursing addressed important matters of nutrition and prenatal care. Quite reasonably, Taylor is hesitant to label the legacy of the FHA, noting that its work paralleled the New Deal's broader rural-rehabilitation projects in "bring[ing] the South's rural families closer to the mainstream of American middle-class culture" (p. 43).
A third essay, by Ann Short Chirhart, offers a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the potential of the New Deal for changing educational, gender, and even racial norms--if only because Chirhart contrasts the modernizing efforts of the New Deal with the localistic sentiments of one of its most incorrigible opponents, Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge. The educational programs of the National Youth Administration, for example, "intentionally boosted" the school equalization campaign of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (p. 86). Georgia did develop a modern school system by 1946, although advocates for New Deal-style programs remained largely dependent on the federal government.
In keeping with the spirit of the volume, the New Deal essays are generally sensitive to the good intentions of government welfare programs, at the same time that they recognize the profound limits of those intentions. Jeffrey S. Cole's essay on transient policies in the urban South is representative of an overall theme: the mixed motivations behind welfare polices. Many officials in the urban South, who had initially criticized the impositions of the federal government's short-lived Transient Division, actually opposed its liquidation in 1935. Their reasoning was fiscal, rather than humanitarian, in nature, and did not represent a shift in policy consciousness. A distinct exception to the overall favorable take on the New Deal (and modernization itself) is Ted Olson's engaging essay exploring the human costs of the New Deal's Blue Ridge Parkway, which extends from the Shenandoah Valley area into western North Carolina. Backers of the Parkway project blended environmental with developmental concerns. In creating a "scenic highway" and a purportedly pristine environment for tourists, the Parkway disrupted the inconveniently-located yeomen farmers of the Blue Ridge, introducing them to the market economy over a half-century after the Civil War had exerted similar effects on impoverished farmers throughout the rest of the South. The Parkway thus represented a sad irony--a case where a New Deal project actually brought Blue Ridge residents into the depression.
The above essays toy with, yet do not ultimately answer, the implicit question of whether the New Deal represented a watershed moment in southern history. Was the New Deal a lost revolution (to paraphrase Pete Daniel's description of the 1950s South)--or was it sign of changes to come? Green suggests, in her introduction, that southerners felt the effects of the New Deal more acutely than residents of regions familiar with such benefits as unemployment insurance. At the same time, Green notes, the New Deal "permitted the South's regional aberrations to remain mostly unchecked" (p. xvi). Perhaps the seeming ambivalence regarding this question derives from an understandable tendency to interpret the New Deal in the South through the lens of what succeeded it, namely the civil rights movement and new rounds of liberal reform.
Perhaps also for this reason, the essays concerning the Great Society are more willing to speculate about the long-term implications of their subjects. At the same time, they raise questions of relevance to a number of historiographical communities. Combined, these four essays argue that the social welfare programs of the federal government did significantly alter the southern status quo, whether the issue was segregated hospitals or black political activism. In considering the former topic, sociologists Jill Quadagno and Steve McDonald make an original contribution to civil rights history. The Hill-Burton Hospital Survey and Construction Act of 1946 actually strengthened the hand of hospital segregation, because the law defined hospitals as private organizations whose operations were exempt from federal regulation. Following the 1954 Brown decision, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) resisted investigating the separate-but-equal provisions of Hill-Burton. Civil rights activists increasingly focused on the health-care industry. Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 overruled Hill-Burton and turned HEW into, "next to the courts, ... the foremost government agent for changing the nation's racial patterns" (p. 127). However, it was the 1965 passage of Medicare, the authors argue (quoting HEW Undersecretary Wilbur Cohen), which "broke the back of segregated health services," by requiring eligible hospital to prove they did not discriminate against their clients (p. 132).
In the above essay, the South functions as an analytically discrete location for considering the history of social welfare. The same is true of the following essay, by Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis. The authors successfully link their subject--"the foot soldiers of the North Carolina Fund, a pacesetting antipoverty program of the 1960s"--with the larger Great Society, while also raising important questions about the relationship between community service and political change (p. 138). A private corporation, chartered in 1963 by the progressive governor Terry Sanford, the Fund represented a rare example of a southern program which set a standard for national welfare policy. Focusing on the short-lived Volunteers program, Korstad and Leloudis document the shifts in consciousness among the modestly biracial group of volunteers, who often resided in black communities and who increasingly embraced empowerment (rather than rehabilitation) of economically disfranchised persons. Paradoxically, their logic spelled the doom of the Volunteers program, as Fund monies shifted instead toward community organization.
The Community Action Program of the Organization of Economic Opportunity comprises a major subject of Kent B. Germany's intriguing treatment of the early Great Society (1964-67) in New Orleans. His very thorough and wide-ranging (almost too much so) study presents another ultimately favorable take on the Great Society's influence on the South. As legalized segregation came to an end, city officials embraced Lyndon B. Johnson's programs for practical reasons: "to accommodate African American inclusion, to limit the perceived dangers of poverty, and to enrich the city" (p. 163). Still, Germany argues that the early Great Society "helped build an organizational foundation that later grew into a primary institutional base for racial integration, and it encouraged the articulation of an inclusion rationale that underlay the rise of biracial liberalism" (p. 164). This is a striking, sweeping argument. One wonders about existing, pre-Great Society traditions of black leadership. Germany dedicates more space to interpreting the War on Poverty's therapeutic language (e.g., the discourse of "damage"), which would hold less sanguine policy implications during a subsequent, more conservative political era. Germany calls the early Great Society "a truly remarkable moment in southern history" (p. 185). His essay, as with the piece by Quadagno and McDonald, suggests the need for greater work on the role of the Great Society (not just the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Right Act) in ushering in the post-civil rights era.
If Germany identifies a possible larger pattern in southern cities, Susan Youngblood Ashmore's well-researched essay on the War of Poverty in Mobile, Alabama, identifies an apparently exceptional situation. In the heavily Catholic city of Mobile, Catholic Charities sponsored the city's Project Head Start, overcoming the resistance of Governor George Wallace to federal antipoverty programs. Youngblood Ashmore's perspective is largely affirming, as well. Eradication of poverty, she argues, should not be the sole criteria by which historians evaluate the War on Poverty. In Mobile, which had hitherto lacked the degree of black political mobilization present in other Alabama cities, the antipoverty work of the federal government and the Catholic Church "gave assistance" to the struggle to overcome Jim Crow in this self-styled moderate city (p. 199). As with Germany, however, Youngblood Ashmore might have dedicated more descriptive space to the phenomenon of black political mobilization.
Sociologist Marsha S. Rose's closing essay is the lone piece which explicitly treats private philanthropy as an agent of social welfare. Rose considers the Kentucky Foundation for Women, an influential "women's fund" established in 1985 by Sallie Bingham, a writer and heiress to the Bingham Enterprises media empire (former owners of the Louisville Courier-Journal). This remarkable foundation supports feminist artists and writers throughout the Bluegrass State. While Rose's interpretation of the complex character of Bingham tends toward contributionism and even hagiography, her essay pushes conceptions of social welfare away from the realm of government policy and supplies a necessary reminder that "social-welfare reform occurs at different levels" (p. 250). In an increasingly post-Great Society age, studies of philanthropy in the South--whether from the marquee northern foundations or from local efforts such as the Kentucky Foundation for Women--would seem more relevant than ever.
While most of the essays are written from a policy angle, they fulfill Green's promise that regional studies can offer a valuable lens into the grassroots implementation of federal welfare policies. That said, one also suspects that such studies could take a further step in offering alternatives to top-down approaches. In moving beyond reproducing analytical hierarchies on a local level, for example, somewhat more attention might have been dedicated to African-American agency. To their immense credit, though, the authors' nuanced understandings of the relationship between federal programs and southern localities suggest that they also appreciate approaches that transcend the categories of white reformer and black client.
These comments, to be sure, indicate opportunities for additional work more than they reveal critical lacunae in the impressive range of essays Green has assembled. Green herself is aware of the remaining gaps in the scholarship on social welfare in the South. Indeed, she suggests black self-help organizations as a possible topic. While Green is probably correct to argue that the field is not yet ready for a grand synthesis, she would seem an ideal candidate for the task. Meanwhile, historians of both the South and social welfare can consult this significant volume.
. Elna C. Green, ed., Before the New Deal: Social Welfare in the South, 1830-1930 (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1999). Peter Bardaglio, Review of Before the New Deal, H-Childhood, August 15, 2000: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=25710966373941.
. Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
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