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Whither Rural? Development Policy and the Debate over Rural America’s Future, 1945-1980


This project examines the response of policymakers, rural people, and social scientists to the major economic and demographic changes transforming the rural United States after 1945. Farm land concentrated increasingly in fewer hands, competitive markets and low prices for farm products strained small farmers, and many farm jobs mechanized. Rural jobs beyond the farm, particularly in mining and timber, began to disappear as well. These changes were not necessarily new but were deeper and far more wrenching following World War II. The population loss, community decline, and unemployment they caused posed the more general question of rural America’s future. My project aims to understand not just how these changes were understood and addressed, but more importantly how policymakers, experts, and rural people envisioned the place of rural America in a changing society.

Examining major and in some cases pathbreaking rural development initiatives in California, Missouri, and Georgia, my research ranges across the broad diversity of rural America to analyze the emergence of three distinct approaches to solving the rural crisis. One, focused primarily on what was referred to as “nonfarm” development, saw the era of the small farm as finished, and aimed to replace disappearing farm jobs with federal loans and grants that funded infrastructure projects, industrial development, and rural tourism. Another solution found its fullest expression in the land reform efforts of small, African American-led farm cooperatives, who blended calls for civil rights and economic justice in their attempt to build a cooperative farm economy. Finally, Mexican American farmworkers allied with activist lawyers to regulate California’s large farms and fight for collective bargaining rights. Taken together, these two efforts at farm reform suggested that rural America could be revived only through a dramatic reorganization of agriculture. Delving into the assumptions, legislative and administrative politics, and the federal and local power dynamics that shaped the practice of rural development, my project tells the story of a deepening rural crisis, and the effort to solve that crisis and in the process redefine rural America.

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