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Aid to Sharecroppers: How Agrarian Class Structure and Tenant-Farmer Politics Influenced Federal Relief in the South, 1933-1935
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Social Science History 26.1 (2002) 33-70


When social scientists enumerate the reasons behind the vast expansion of the U.S. welfare state during the New Deal, they commonly cite pressure from unemployed workers, the Keynesian ideology of Roosevelt's policy advisors, and the political compromise between southern congressional Dixiecrats and northern Democrats which enabled the programs that extended relief to the needy (Schlesinger 1958; Conkin 1967: chap. 3; Alston and Ferrie 1985; Goldfield 1989; Kimeldorf and Stepan-Norris 1992; Alston and Ferrie 1993; Quadagno 1994: 20–22; Fleck 1999a). While it is uncontroversial that the working class played some part in the formation of New Deal policy, it would seem that American farmers, particularly the mostly black southern tenantry, had little or no direct role in the distribution of federal relief.

This essay presents evidence that the demands, organization, and class power of southern tenant farmers influenced the pattern of federal welfare payments. I examine the size of the welfare rolls and total relief expenditures of the largest welfare program of the early New Deal era, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and find that the Communist and Socialist Parties, with their campaigns for tenants' rights, successfully influenced relief distribution in the South. Even though advocates for tenants were not victorious in the struggle for government protection and relief from the Great Depression, their actions affected the shape of government relief programs, particularly where left-wing organizing took place.

This analysis extends the synthesis of institutional, political, and class factors in explaining the implementation of social policy (Domhoff 1996; Amenta and Poulsen 1996). Other studies have shown that although state- and national-level administrators of New Deal agencies acted with some autonomy from the interests of southern planters, their ability to distribute aid to the needy was shaped by the self-conscious actions of the agrarian ruling class (Domhoff 1996: 55–72) and by the interaction of the "administrative powers" of government agencies and democratic struggles around patronage and third-party politics (Amenta and Poulsen 1996: 49–53). This study adds to those findings by showing that the class- and race-based interests of tenant farmers influenced the distribution of aid. The contention is consistent with Domhoff's argument that "New Deal agricultural policy involved both class conflict and a struggle for departmental autonomy on the part of some leaders" (1996: 55) and inconsistent with those claims of the "state autonomy theory" that New Deal funds were distributed on the basis of "state capacity" (Amenta et al. 1994; Amenta and Carruthers 1988).

The central empirical questions of this study are as follows: What was the relationship between the size of the tenant-sharecropper population and the distribution of aid in the South? Did FERA fulfill its stated mission to distribute aid to the poor and unemployed? Does the map of federal aid resemble the map of poverty that swept the South during the Great Depression, or, on the contrary, is it a map of the power of southern planters opposed to federal spending that might have undermined paternalistic labor relations? Moreover, did the relative political power of southern tenants and the campaigns of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the Alabama Sharecroppers Union (partly expressed through votes for Socialist and Communist presidential candidates) influence the pattern of FERA spending?

My thesis is that, in the South, FERA developed an infrastructure for the allotment of social welfare, which worked through existing political actors and institutions, defined by their class positions. This meant that aid was distributed in such a way as to reinforce the interests of the dominant southern planter class. Yet where leftist political parties were organized and supported by the tenant class, and where they put candidates on the presidential ballot, the influence of the planter class was diminished. Rather than the state being a servant of a particular class, there was a struggle over implementation of state policy. During the New Deal the state was dominated by a ruling class, yet it was not free from the influence of nondominant classes. A class with no institutional power or lasting impact on electoral politics—the tenantry—had an influence on the implementation of FERA...