Book Review of
The New Deal and Beyond: Social Welfare in the South since 1930
Ed. Elna C. Green.
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003
by Bernard von Bothmer
Review published in Southern Historian (2005 Vol. 25, Spring)
The programs of the New Deal and Great Society have come under assault during the past few decades. When was the last time one heard of a politician openly praising the gains of the Great Society, or speaking of his admiration for the legislation enacted under the New Deal? At a time when Southern conservatives continue to amass growing political power in the United States, it is worthwhile to take a step back and analyze the impact upon the south of the reform measures of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
The New Deal and Beyond: Social Welfare in the South since 1930 is a collection of ten original essays edited by Elna C. Green, a professor of history at Florida State University and the editor of Before The New Deal: Social Welfare in the South, 1830-1930 (1999). The subject matter of these essays is diverse, but all share the common theme, stressed by Ms. Green in her introduction, of the importance of regional and local studies. This book aims to fill a gap in the scholarship on the history of social welfare, as the region of the south is for the most part still unexplored terrain. Half the essays in the book are on the New Deal, and half are on the Great Society.
In part one, Georgina Hickey’s analysis of the Works Progress Administration’s sewing rooms in Atlanta contends that, despite problems, the new federal social welfare policies of the 1930s greatly empowered women in the south, encouraging them to be more assertive in their struggle for rights. Brenda J. Taylor argues that the work of home supervisors in the Farm Security Administration program for rural rehabilitation, while far from perfect, had a positive impact not only the health of southern families but on the entire culture of the rural parts of the region as well. Jeffrey S. Cole’s study on the transient problem of the 1930s examines how the New Deal’s program’s success motivated southerners to support the New Deal, while changing their views on welfare. Though discontinued, Cole sees many constructive results from Roosevelt’s policies regarding the transient issue.
Ann Short Chirhart’s study of the impact of federal education reform measures in Georgia under Governor Eugene Talmadge, a firm opponent of New Deal programs, concludes that while education changes by themselves could not single-handedly change the circumstances of marginalized groups in the south, they nevertheless paved the change for future gains, especially among blacks and women. Ted Oleson’s essay on the Virginia and North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway, a 1930s public works project designed to increase tourism to previously inaccessible areas of the south, demonstrates that despite the small compensation they received for the construction of the road, in the long term the people who gave the land for which the road was built did not gain from the parkway; many even wished that it had never been built in the first place.
Part two deals with the impact of the Great Society upon localities in the south. Jill Quadagno and Steve McDonald essay on segregation and southern hospitals notes that medical facilities remained segregated 12 years after Brown, v. Board, and yet federal money continued to flow into them. Federal intervention, in the form of threats to withhold Medicare funds, was thus needed to attempt to end segregation in southern hospitals. Robert R. Korstad and James L. Leloudis’s study of volunteers of the North Carolina Fund, a program established in 1963 by Governor Terry Sanford, documents the struggles as well as the triumphs of a core of idealistic young people in the mid-1960s. This essay would be of great interest to current or potential volunteers interested in the history of volunteer efforts to combat poverty, as the authors contend that many of today’s problems in the south are similar in scope to those of four decades ago.
Kent B. Germany’s essay on the impact of a variety of Great Society programs on New Orleans concludes that, despite the many obstacles that such initiatives faced, they were enormously beneficial to local communities, especially by the creation of an infrastructure by which the poor would have increased autonomy over their social and economic conditions. Susan Youngblood Ashmore’s study of Mobile, Alabama, argues that the city’s Head Start program, while by no means a cure-all, nevertheless had broad reaching consequences that benefited those in need, especially in paving the way for the enactment of major civil rights laws in the near future. The final piece in the collection, by Marsh S. Rose, is an account of the efforts of Sallie Bingham, a member of the illustrious Louisville newspaper clan, to use private charity to further her goal of merging philanthropy with feminism in the 1980s and 1990s through the Kentucky Foundation for Women, a program she funded to benefit non-traditional arts-based programs.
These essays make for stimulating reading. For anyone seeking to understand how the south was directly impacted by both the New Deal and the Great Society, this collection is as good a place as any to start. If nothing else, these wide-ranging pieces force us to re-examine the recent political rhetoric that has been so highly critical of the rationale and many of the results of New Deal and Great Society legislation. These are important essays that deserve a wide audience.