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Reviewed by:
  • Communities Left Behind: The Area Redevelopment Administration, 1945–1965
  • Paul Salstrom
Communities Left Behind: The Area Redevelopment Administration, 1945–1965. By Gregory S. Wilson. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. Pp. xxii, 197.)

Gregory S. Wilson is an associate professor of history at the University of Akron and his study of the Area Redevelopment Administration (ARA) is well-written and very timely. More than merely an institutional narrative, Wilson’s book tells the story behind the story, starting with the ARA’s roots in New Deal employment policies. Ten years after World War II, early hints of what became the Rust Belt, especially in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, motivated the liberal economist Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois to introduce a major Depressed Areas Bill that plausibly could have prevented the Rust Belt from growing as bad as it has. After six years of political in-fighting and two vetoes by President Eisenhower, Senator Douglas finally managed in 1961 to squeeze through Congress an act creating the ADA. But its provisions probably hurt the Rust Belt more than they helped it – because southern Congressmen insisted that most of the new ADA’s grant money be channeled not to northern communities but southern ones (including [End Page 112] some in Appalachia). Soon new plants were proliferating across Dixie with ARA subsidies added on to the local and state subsidies that southern plant start-ups were already enjoying – and many of those new southern operations were “runaways” from the unionized North (runaways which after a decade or two in the South often departed again, for Mexico, and later left Mexico for China and other Asian destinations).

Besides subsidizing plant start-ups in localities where unemployment was high, the ADA emphasized retraining workers. But what with funding delays and oodles of red tape, not much retraining had been achieved by 1963 when Congress partially defunded the ARA, followed by its total defunding in 1965. Meanwhile, European success with “growth center” programs had caught the attention of U.S. economists, and the ARA’s main successor, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), adopted a growth-center strategy of subsidizing metropolitan areas in and near Appalachia that were already displaying a degree of success. The ARC also funded the freeways that now bisect Appalachia and thereby cut the cost of strip-mined coal reaching its markets. Besides the ARC, the ARA’s other main successor was the Economic Development Administration (EDA) which became a modest-scale funding conduit for constructing public works nationwide. Such is the big picture, to which Gregory Wilson adds the specifics of who, where, when, why, and how.

Perhaps serendipitously, the timing of Wilson’s book is perfect. Here we are early in 2010 with an economy that we’re semi-officially told has “recovered” despite 10 percent unemployment. U.S. investors have recovered, but how? By sending their investments elsewhere, offshore. Rather than investing in their own country with its relatively decent labor and environmental standards, investors have been allowed to send their money (including their bailout money) offshore to the more-desperate-than-ever “Souths” of the world.

If U.S. economic policy ever needed rethinking, it’s now, and Wilson’s book is just what the doctor ordered, frequently comparing the treatment U.S. workers have received since World War II with Western Europe’s treatment of its workers (see especially pages 75–81). Western Europe has been making unprecedented investments in its “human resources” since World War II. There, the motive behind governmental policies has been to maximize citizens’ well-being, not to maximize investors’ financial profits (and thereby maximize campaign contributions to elected officials). The EU’s high labor standards, along with its high health-care and environmental standards, account for the EU’s current economic success compared to the [End Page 113] United States. (Even before the 2009 bailouts, the U.S. government was increasing its debt by $2 billion a day. Since 1990 U.S. public and private debt combined has grown by $45 trillion to a current total of $57 trillion, partly driven by trade deficits in goods totaling $8.2 billion since 1985.)

A few irritants do mar this fine book. Its dozen...