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The Dread of Plenty: Agricultural Relief Activities of the Federal Government in the Middle West, 1933-1939.

The Dread of Plenty: Agricultural Relief

The Dread of Plenty: Agricultural Relief Activities of the Federal Government in the Middle West, 1933-1939. By Michael W. Schuyler * Manhattan, Kans.: Sunflower University Press, 1989. xiii + 237 pp. Illustrations, note on sources, and index. $26.95.

Although Michael Schuyler never says so explicitly, he has written a book for a general audience: his study is short (225 pages), contains no footnotes, and devotes much of the text to 103 photographs. Moreover, the book's purpose - to assess the New Deal's response to American farmers' problem of excess production - is a topic that scholars have explored at great length. Schuyler himself does not offer a new interpretation. Instead he constructs a traditional political history, tracing the evolution of New Deal farm programs in response to the particular context of the Middle West.

Even so, if one assesses the book on its own terms - as an introduction to New Deal farm policy - Schuyler has written a clear, concise study. He centers his narrative around two questions: first, why did New Deal farm programs, which never solved the problem of excess production, achieve such support among farmers and members of Congress? Second, how did the New Deal assist those trapped by the poverty of abundance - the rural poor?

As Schuyler traces the introduction of New Deal programs, he gives special attention to the great droughts and dust bowls of 1934 and 1936. These calamities, Schuyler argues, generated a broad base of political support. In 1933, the year prior to the first drought, Franklin Roosevelt's administration had introduced the three main relief programs: acreage controls, price supports, and special sources of credit. Critics quickly faulted these efforts for their slow action and large bureaucracies. But such views changed in the course of the 1934 drought. First, because the drought was a natural crisis - a crisis beyond an individual's own control - farmers came to accept government relief not as a form of charity but as a "legitimate response to their needs" (p. 156). Critics likewise recognized that the federal government provided the one full-scale assault on the crisis. Schuyler quotes Kansas senator Arthur Capper, saying "|Whether we like national planning for agriculture or not, the fact that we have it is going to help a lot in meeting this drought problem'" (p. 88). Finally, the farm programs combined with the droughts caused a decided rise in farm income and fall in farm debts. By the late 1930s Republicans and Democrats alike might complain about the cost of farm programs, but no one challenged their existence.

Although most farmers came to rely on price supports and acreage controls, marginal farmers understood that such policies would not help them. As Schuyler explains: poor farmers "were not able to produce enough to escape their marginal existence. Government payments to cut back their production would do little to improve their economic status . . ." (p. 20). Roosevelt's administration created the Resettlement Administration, later renamed the Farm Security Administration, to aid these farmers. But these agencies made only a small difference. Their funding was limited; their resources frequently were diverted to emergency problems; and the farm legislation often hampered efforts to assist poor tenants. Schuyler concludes that by the end of the Depression relief efforts, such as tenant loans, were "nothing more than a |teaser'" (p. 203).

Schuyler writes a clear narrative history, but his account has certain limits as a more analytical study. Consider for example the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938. Schuyler tells us that the passage of this act was "an important watershed in the nation's history" (p. 183). The act made the system of price supports, administered by the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), the centerpiece of the New Deal's farm policy. But Schuyler sidesteps an explanation of why farmers, agricultural experts, and members of Congress came to rely so heavily on the CCC. This kind of analytical perspective is also missing in Schuyler's general statements about the Middle West. Under the rubric "Middle West," Schuyler lumps together states in the Corn Belt, such as Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana, and states in the Wheat Belt, notably North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. But these regions differed in at least two important ways. First, whereas wheat farmers received CCC price supports only in 1938, corn farmers had obtained such supports in 1933. Yet Schuyler does not examine how the timing of the CCC's introduction affected farmers in the two regions. Second, Schuyler also fails to distinguish among regions is his discussions of the droughts. The droughts and dust bowls inflicted far more damage in wheat states than in corn states. Again, Schuyler does not assess how such differences affected farmers' reception of the New Deal or the New Deal's consequences for the two regions. Finally, Schuyler scatters his analysis of the efforts to raise prices, boost farm income, and reduce the burden of debts throughout the text. Yet because this is a general survey, it may have been worthwhile for Schuyler to have better organized his statistical information. Perhaps a few photographs could have been sacrificed for a few tables, charts, or descriptive maps.

Despite these shortcomings, Schuyler by and large achieves his goal. The Dread of Plenty is a clear, narrative introduction to the New Deal in the Middle West, one that is accessible to the general reader.

Sally Clarke is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin. She is writing a history of the consequences of New Deal regulation for the revolution in farm productivity in the United States during the twentieth century.
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Author:Clarke, Sally
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1990
Words:925
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