From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South 1938-1980 / Edition 1

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From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt investigates the effects of federal policy on the American South from 1938 until 1980 and charts the close relationship between federal efforts to reform the South and the evolution of activist government in the modern United States. Decrying the South’s economic backwardness and political conservatism, the Roosevelt Administration launched a series of programs to reorder the Southern economy in the 1930s. After 1950, however, the social welfare state had been replaced by the national security state as the South’s principal benefactor. Bruce J. Schulman contrasts the diminished role of national welfare initiatives in the postwar South with the expansion of military and defense-related programs. He analyzes the contributions of these growth-oriented programs to the South’s remarkable economic expansion, to the development of American liberalism, and to the excruciating limits of Sunbelt prosperity, ultimately relating these developments to southern politics and race relations. By linking the history of the South with the history of national public policy, Schulman unites two issues that dominate the domestic history of postwar America—the emergence of the Sunbelt and the expansion of federal power over the nation’s economic and social life. A forcefully argued work, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, originally published in 1991(Oxford University Press), will be an important guide to students and scholars of federal policy and modern Southern history.
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"From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt marks a breakthrough in social and political analysis, showing for the first time how the interconnection between national and regional politics, on the one hand, and government policy, on the other, brought about the transformation of the social economy of the South from the days of the New Deal to the 1980s. Moreover, it is written with verve and clarity and from a wealth of governmental and manuscript sources. All that is hard to beat."—Carl Degler, Stanford University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822315377
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1994
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 333
  • Sales rank: 851,308
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce J. Schulman is Associate Professor of History at Boston University.

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From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt

Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980

By Bruce J. Schulman

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9996-4


Introduction: Becoming Economic Problem No. 1

In July 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the South "the Nation's No. 1 economic problem—the Nation's problem, not merely the South's." The South, the nation's poorest region, could no longer remain isolated, an island of economic deprivation diminishing a once flourishing nation. In 1937, per capita income in the region reached barely half of the standard of the rest of the nation. The South registered the nation's lowest industrial wages, farm income, and tangible assets. Those abstract statistics translated into concrete human suffering. "The low income belt of the South," the official Report on Economic Conditions of the South concluded, "is a belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death."

Roosevelt convened a conference of prominent southerners to sketch "a picture of the South in relation to the rest of the country, in order that we may do something about it." He intended that portrait to serve as a blueprint for national policy and a manifesto for the upcoming Congressional elections. The ensuing Report on Economic Conditions of the South marked the onset of a concerted national effort to restructure the southern economy. Roosevelt pledged his Administration to develop the "despoiled" southern economy, to "address the challenges of the new industrial era," and to raise the living standards of all of the region's inhabitants.

In the minds of national policymakers, the South's woes stemmed from underdevelopment. The Depression South remained an overwhelmingly agrarian region in an urban, industrial nation. In 1930, the majority of Americans dwelled in cities, while only one-third of the southern people resided in urban areas. With 28 percent of the nation's population, the South claimed an imposing 41 percent of its agricultural workers, but just 15 percent of its industrial wage earners.

Agriculture remained the core of the regional economy and southern farmers had struggled since Appomattox. At one stroke, uncompensated emancipation had eradicated many of the region's assets; it eliminated nearly half of the wealth in the plantation belt of the Deep South. When slavery disappeared so did the South's main source of collateral for credit and the principal basis of tax revenues for state and local governments.

The rural South's most vexing problem, however, was how to organize the labor force after the end of slavery. The freedmen rejected landlords' efforts to reconstitute the slave gang system on a wage basis, especially since the cash and credit-poor landlords offered only end-of-season payments, not regular wages. Under those conditions, ex-slaves insisted on managing their own (and their families') labor, and on working their own land. Landlords found their former bondsmen intractable, even rebellious, and used every means within their power, including extra-legal violence, to discipline and intimidate the freedmen.

Still, planters never succeeded in restoring the plantation regimen. Gradually, family-based sharecropping and the neo-plantation form of labor organization came to dominate the postbellum South. By 1900, most large plantations contained family-operated sharecropper plots, and a residual wage labor section, managed by the planter and staffed mainly by single men. These fragmented farms retarded regional economic development. Share plantations simply operated less efficiently than wage-labor farms; tenants, after all, lacked incentives to improve the land they tilled. At the same time, the credit shortage and the small scale of agriculture forced specialization in cotton and other cash crops. Self-sufficiency was lost. In the plantation districts, production of foodstuffs and livestock declined as large holdings divided into small family-operated units. The South began importing large quantities of foodstuffs from the Midwest.

The Cotton Belt bore these burdens most heavily, and the Cotton Belt expanded in the decades after the Civil War. It grew geographically, economically, and culturally, so that, in the American imagination, cotton cultivation became synonymous with southern life. The postbellum South found itself more dependent than ever on the whims of "King Cotton." As southern farmers increasingly specialized in cotton, international cotton demand alternately fueled and strangled the region, leaving the South at the mercy of the world market. The fortunes of the region's farmers fluctuated with world demand, but never rose high; rural southerners never earned more than half the income of their northern counterparts.

Tenants and sharecroppers suffered most from the failures of southern agriculture. They confronted deep and desperate poverty, and they also faced the machinations of powerful landlords. Still, tenants and croppers were never wholly powerless. They extracted shares or rental agreements rather than settling for end-of-season wages. They worked as families, not as members of supervised squads or gangs. Tenants often compelled landlords to offer them year-round contracts, even though the planters would have preferred to hire them only for the planting and harvest seasons. And southern tenants frequently changed landlords despite the vagrancy and anti-enticement laws on the books in many southern states. As one ex-slave explained, freedom "made one difference. You could change places and work for different men."

This mobility vexed planters; they needed a secure supply of labor for the harvest and planting seasons, so they were forced to rely on tenants rather than machines and seasonal wage-labor. The roar of engines, so common in the corn and wheat belts, was almost unknown on southern farms. To some extent, the low level of mechanization reflected the peculiarities of southern crops and the limitations of existing technology. As yet, no suitable mechanical cotton-picker had been developed. But southern agriculture lagged behind the rest of the nation in the introduction of suitable machinery, even where it was available. Tractors, for example, could perform pre-harvest tasks in cotton cultivation. Yet the South possessed barely half the number of tractors per harvested acre as did the rest of the nation. Poverty, of course, prevented many southerners from purchasing tractors. But the South's largest, most prosperous farms, ones that could easily afford machinery, were the least mechanized. Rather than deficient capital, cheap labor and owners' need for a secure peak season supply of hands inhibited the adoption of machinery. The backwardness of southern agriculture was apparent to nearly all observers by the 1930s.

Shifting their gaze from cotton fields to mills and factories, New Dealers saw only more economic underdevelopment in the 1930s. The South's limited industrial capacity was concentrated in low-wage, low-productivity industries. Low-wage manufacturing—textiles, hosiery, and lumber— formed the backbone of southern industry. These industries relied on unskilled labor, often including women and children. They also employed labor-intensive production processes; in 1937, southern manufacturers employed 18 percent more workers per plant than their rivals outside the region, but the value of output per plant tallied 18 percent less. Low labor costs compensated for this inefficiency. Southern industrial workers put in longer hours than the workers of other regions, but their average annual wages amounted to a meager two-thirds of their counterparts' in the rest of the nation.

After the Civil War, industrialization below the Mason-Dixon line had proceeded rapidly. Led by the development of cotton textiles, the South's rate of industrial growth actually outpaced the national average from 1869 to 1929. In North Carolina, manufactures surpassed farm products as the state's most valuable product during the final two decades of the nineteenth century. Towns sprouted up throughout the region's interior, stimulating the vibrant commerce and local economic boosterism that the Old South had lacked.

But regional industrialization, impressive as it may have been, never induced a full-scale industrial revolution along northern lines. The South of the 1930s still lagged behind the rest of the United States; six decades of catching up had not erased the region's debility. For one thing, the South's industrial revolution, unlike the North's, was not accompanied by rapid urbanization. Towns developed, but few major cities emerged. Textile mills, though they often owed their existence to the capital and the promotional efforts of southern towns, usually located outside a community's borders. There they found cheaper land, lower taxes, and less interference with their labor supplies. Lumber and timber products, the region's other principal industry, likewise located on the periphery of southern towns. Scattered across the region's pine and hardwood forests, small, impermanent southern sawmills contributed little to local economic development.

Meanwhile, southern industry remained dependent on labor-intensive production. From the beginning of the postbellum manufacturing boom, cheap labor had been the secret of southern industrial success. The southern states with the severest capital shortages in 1880 actually led the manufacturing boom; those states harbored the most abundant labor supplies. No other region could match the South's supply of cheap rural labor. Relatively few southern farmers owned their own land or possessed the wealth to withstand chronic agricultural crises. And after 1900, impoverished Appalachian mountaineers swelled the migration to mills and factories.

Southern manufacturing organized around these labor reserves. Employers paid low wages and hired mainly unskilled workers, including women and children. Textile mill owners, for instance, only offered jobs to families which provided many workers, usually demanding a minimum of one millhand for each room of housing the family occupied. Choices of industrial equipment and product lines—for instance, the South's concentration in coarse, low-end textile products—were similarly designed to exploit the region's surfeit of unskilled labor.

The 1920s, the pre-New Deal decade, witnessed further tribulations for southern industry. The once-proud southern lumber industry peaked around World War I, thereafter losing profits and market share to the automated sawmills of the Pacific Northwest. Southern textiles also fell on hard times. After World War I, the sudden burst of the wartime boom spread panic through the industry. Mills compensated for their wartime overexpansion by laying off employees, reorganizing production, and most commonly, by demanding greater productivity from their workforce. At the same time, the regional wage differential mounted. The widening gap in wages only reinforced the impression that the South was falling ever farther behind the rest of America, that it needed not merely more industry, but more high-paying, high-skilled manufacturing jobs.

The sources of the region's distress, then, seemed obvious to the Roosevelt administration and to many contemporary southerners. They viewed the South as a colonial economy, a source of raw materials, cheap labor and profits for the industrial North. "The South actually works for the North," Texas Congressman Maury Maverick explained, "mortgage, insurance, industrial and financial corporations pump the money northward like African ivory out of the Congo." The trials of "colonization" extended beyond the economic sphere. They infected the region's social and political relations as well. "The South never had a chance in American life," the New York Post maintained. "Its economic relationship to the rest of the nation was always cockeyed and from there it is only a step to cockeyed race relationships." Poverty caused racial friction and they in turn perpetuated the undemocratic, demagogic politics of the South.

Franklin D. Roosevelt shared that assessment of the South as a colonial economy. At the time he took up residence in Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1924, Roosevelt's initial impressions of the region echoed Henry Grady's 1889 account of a Georgia funeral, for which the South provided only "the corpse and the hole in the ground." In similar terms, Roosevelt described his distress at hearing the whistles of the milk trains from Wisconsin in a region with fine dairy pasture, at finding only Washington apples in the local store when the "best apples in the world" grew only 75 miles away. "I went to buy a pair of shoes," the President ruefully concluded, "and the only shoes I could buy had been made in Boston, or Binghamton, New York, or St. Louis."

This vision of the South as a colonial economy carried two corollaries. First, it implied that the lack of industry, especially of highly mechanized durable goods manufacturing, was the source of southern backwardness. "Lacking industries of its own," the Report on Economic Conditions explained, "the South has been forced to trade the richness of its soil, its minerals and forests, and the labor of its people for goods manufactured elsewhere." Only advanced manufacturing could provide the high wages, the purchasing power and the tax base to extricate the South from its misery.

For New Dealers, low wages exposed the ills of existing southern industry. The Report on Economic Conditions referred to "wicked wage differentials" between the South and the rest of the country. "Wage differentials become in fact differentials in health and life," the Report concluded. Low wages explained the region's deficient housing and poor nutrition. They forced families to augment the earnings of adult males by sending children and women to the mills. In 1930, for example, the South claimed three-fourths of the nation's child laborers. Therefore, building more of these sweatshops would not deliver the South from its poverty. The new factories might bring some wealth to the South, but they offered little to distressed southerners. Only high-wage jobs, many southern liberals and Roosevelt administration officials believed, could relieve the people of the South, liberate them from colonial bondage, and truly integrate the region into the American mainstream.

The second assumption of the colonial model located the impetus for economic development in the federal government. As a "colony" of the North, the South did not bear full responsibility for its problems, nor did it possess the resources to eradicate them. The failure of philanthropic foundations further underlined the need for national action. Foundations had attempted with little success to bolster southern education, to ease the torments of sharecroppers, and to promote racial justice. State governments had proved similarly incapable. Without appropriate outside intervention, the region could develop only along lines consonant with its colonial tradition; it would remain a rich land with poor people.


The Report on Economic Conditions identified the South's travails in purely economic terms. It carefully avoided apportioning blame to the region's own leadership. Yet President Roosevelt and many members of the conference that prepared the Report recognized the political component of southern underdevelopment. For Roosevelt and his contemporaries, the South was the nation's recalcitrant region, a bulwark of sectionalism against an emerging national political economy. Roosevelt and his advisers desired federal supervision of regional economic reform not only because the southern states were unable to undertake it themselves, but also because they were unwilling.

This regional political economy had its roots in the "Redemption" of the 1870s. In many southern states, the first post-Reconstruction governments had built laissez-faire principles into their state constitutions. Over the ensuing decades, southern governments seldom evinced the desire to evade such constitutional strictures. When the New Dealers of the 1930s looked back at the region's past, they saw an almost unbroken line, a "Solid South" of conservative Democracy and white supremacy unchallenged since the end of Reconstruction.

When the Redeemers assumed power during the 1870s, minimal government largely denned their political philosophy. Decrying the alleged excesses and corruption of Reconstruction, they slashed the salaries of state employees, withdrew funding from educational and social welfare agencies, and shortened the school year. They grasped the reins of power in a poor region, a section which had just emerged from two decades of war and social strife, and established governments largely insensitive to their people's grievous needs. At the same time, the white South returned to the halls of power in Washington. There, southern politicians cooperated with the fiscally conservative Democrats of the Northeast, eschewing, at least for a time, alliance with the agrarian West and its proponents of active government.

The Redemption governments, of course, were not wholly inactive. They promoted the interests of planters by enacting coercive agricultural labor legislation, they wooed business with low taxes and generous subsidies, and they refrained from regulating the work places of industrial laborers. Government spending slowly mounted as well, especially where it could be financed with non-tax revenues.


Excerpted from From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt by Bruce J. Schulman. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface to Duke Edition,
Chapter 1 Introduction: Becoming Economic Problem No. 1,
Chapter 2 "Wild Cards and Innovations",
Chapter 3 The Wages of Dixie,
Chapter 4 "Bulldozers on the Old Plantation",
Chapter 5 Persistent Whiggery: Federal Entitlements and Southern Politics,
Chapter 6 Missiles and Magnolias,
Chapter 7 "Shadows on the Sunbelt",
Chapter 8 Conclusion: Place Over People,
Essay on Selected Sources,

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  • Posted December 16, 2013

    Highly recommend

    Over 20 years since its original publication, this book remains enormously relevant to America’s current political fights over inequality and the appropriate role and size of government. Schulman provides ample data and a focused historical account to document how the post-New Deal South leveraged federal dollars to subsidize its business-friendly, union-hostile, low-tax economy, while impeding policies aimed at alleviating poverty and investing in human capital. Despite its academic density, From Cotton Belt is well-worth reading for its ability to interconnect U.S. economic development with its politics. Its main limitation is a lack of clear policy alternatives to state-backed Southern capitalism beyond hinting that the social welfare initiatives rejected by the South but embraced by the North also failed to eliminate poverty because they were too tepid, fragmented, and insufficiently redistributive. Regardless, Schulman shows how the South’s evolving governing philosophy touting non-reliance on “big government” was belied by a robust history of taking federal dollars, from highway money to agricultural subsidies to defense contracts. Moreover, this commitment to supporting unfettered business growth while morally denigrating support for low-income citizens not only captured the Republican Party but has come to dominate and frame the national conversation over social and economic policy. We may not all be Southerners but, like it or not, we are all now effectively living in the South. We might as well know how we ended up here.

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