Once upon a time, poverty became something of a national campaign issue. No, it wasn’t during the 1960s, although you get partial credit for that answer.
It was during the 1950s. The Republican Eisenhower Administration, facing a noticeable challenge from Democrats in 1954, put poverty on its agenda, especially rural development, to broaden income opportunities for poor, small farmers. The bipartisan congressional farm bloc was not particularly happy with the idea, but assented to a limited pilot program led by Cooperative Extension in a number of counties across the country.
Eisenhower, himself a farmer, was, by some accounts, not all that keen on the project. But he was pragmatic enough to recognize a political liability and empathetic enough to take the word of his advisors and step toward rural development, even if limited to helping poor farm families. As the President noted in a message on agriculture to Congress in January, 1954:
“The chief beneficiaries of our price support policies have been the 2,000,000 larger, highly mechanized farming units which produce about 85% of our agricultural output. The individual production of the remaining farms, numbering about 3,500,000, is so small that the farmer derives little benefit from price supports.”
In an effort to address the inequities, Eisenhower promised Congress the Agriculture Secretary, along with the National Agricultural Advisory Commission, would examine “the problems peculiar to small farmers.” Even at the time, non-farm income was the largest single source of earnings for farmers. But farm poverty was widespread. A 1955 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, Development of Agriculture’s Human Resources: A Report on Problems of Low-Income Farmers, identified nearly 1,000 high-poverty counties across the South, Southwest, Upper Great Lakes, Ozarks, Appalachia, and the Northwest. The study discussed the presence of oppressed minority populations in the South and Southwest and played out natural resources, especially in former timber areas of the Upper Great Lakes.
The report’s chart on the average net income of commercial farmers spoke for itself about the nation’s poor farmers. In 1949, farmers’ income outside poor areas, at about $1,750 a year, generally was triple that of poorer regions. Only farmers’ net income for the Mississippi Delta and the Cascade Mountains came even close, about two-thirds of the rest of the country.
Eisenhower’s pilot rural development program, approved by Congress in 1955, used Cooperative Extension to focus on farm families. The bill directed the agriculture secretary to assist disadvantaged farms with intensive on-the-farm educational assistance; to help local groups to appraise resources for improving agriculture or introducing industry to supplement farm income; to furnish information on employment opportunities, particularly to farm families with underemployed workers; and to help farm families leave their farms for farming or work elsewhere if they, after analysis of opportunities and existing resources, decided to make a change.
In 1957, sixty years ago, Congress appropriated funds for Cooperative Extension work in 57 counties considered representative of differing rural poverty conditions. Special circumstances included a concentration of farms either too small or too unproductive to allow farm operators to make adjustments needed to make the farms profitable or capable of employing available labor. By the end of Eisenhower’s term in 1960, the program was expanded to 200 counties.
The Eisenhower pilot program was not as bold as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal rural development experiments that conservatives viewed as government overreach. In reaction, Eisenhower cautiously focused on families and was individualistic, according to the USDA human resources report:
“The approach to this problem is here regarded as primarily educational and developmental. There appears to be some direct aids in the way of credit, improved opportunities for off-farm employment, and the like, which can be offered. But it is considered that whatever is done must be done within the American philosophy that each individual make his own decisions and set his own goals. Government has responsibility in keeping open the channels of opportunity.”
Opinions of government’s role in rural development and fighting poverty had ebbed and flowed through the crisis of the Great Depression and the more prosperous 1950s. The Depression was a true crisis that devastated rural America. The overall prosperity of the 1950s emphasized rural-urban income disparities, as well as wide income gaps among farmers.
The differences in Eisenhower’s pilot approach to rural development would be sharply contrasted after 1960 by comprehensive efforts of John F. Kennedy’s area redevelopment and conservation policies and Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
To Kennedy and Johnson, rural poverty was more than educating farm families to make individual decisions. Government could and would help establish ways to organize all rural residents to make decisions as part of bettering the whole community. The reverberations of their ambitious approach created shockwaves and conflict that still resonate decades later.
Timothy Collins is an independent writer, editor, and consultant and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is the author of a recently released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus, as well as Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.