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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 After 1950, however, the social welfare state had been replaced by the national security state as the South’s principal benefactor.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.
Posted December 16, 2013
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.