Salvation for the Tenant Farmer
J. M. MaclachlenPublishing Information
There will probably be a good many proposals and counter-proposals before any bill to help share tenants is passed. Whether the Bankhead bill or some similar one will be passed during the present session of Congress cannot be known at this writing. But it appears that the Bankhead bill, because it does not set any rigid rules for administration offers a potentially good point of departure. Beyond establishing the amounts of money to be used (100 million at the beginning, with one billion as the upper limit), Senate bill 1800 leaves virtually a clear field for administrative policy.
Under its present terms tenants may be given tiny farms and left to live in the same isolated ignorance that has been their lot for generations. Also under its present terms, well coordinated large-scale organizations, socially and technically efficient, could be created. What will be the nature of administration of the Tenant Homes Act if it becomes law?
The answer determines whether it will bring any benefit to southern society as a whole, or merely stabilize labor supplies for the large farmers. If the tenants themselves are to get a better way of life from it, the Act must be directed to ends which place their interests first.
It is no criticism of their personal characters to say that many southern planters, hirers of labor, can be expected to oppose legislation which would have the effect of taking away from them the more efficient and ambitious of their farm laborers. There will no doubt be a faction representing the more reactionary planters who will attempt the outright defeat of the Bankhead Bill. But probably more numerous, and better able to muster political strength, will be those who, while appearing to accept the proposal, will try to change it so as to obtain its maximum benefits for themselves.
Their line of attack is easy to predict. It will be proposed to scatter the purchasing tenants over the countryside on very small farmsteads, and to leave them there with little or no further assistance from the government. Since the Bill provides that the production of commercial crops (i. e., cotton and tobacco) "shall be discouraged" among the purchasing tenants (and in any event their allotments are likely to be very small) the only recourse of the purchasing tenant will be to work off of the farm in order to get the cash required to make payments of principal, interest or taxes.
Two sources of such income suggest themselves. One, of course, is public works with wages paid by the Federal, state, or county government on rural projects. The other is the traditional "hiring out" which in late 1934 was bringing well under $1 for a ten or twelve hour day. Since local employers appear to have won conclusively their demand that public works wages shall conform to prevailing low wage levels, and since the southern rural labor supply appears to be permanently from 20 per cent to 30 per cent above the seasonal needs, no rise in farm wages can be expected.
We do not need extensive research to show that a former cropper endowed with "forty acres and a mule" (or less), a thirty year mortgage, a small cash crop allotment if any, and a prospect of earning less than $1 a day by intermittent labor off the farm, will be in very much the same circumstance as before the government acted. For generations the ignorance, bad health, and lack of social responsibility of the southern tenant were attributed to the mere fact that he was a tenant rather than a landowner.
But in fact these traits are largely the wages of poverty itself, and the tenant system has been correlated with them because it was a surer way of achieving and maintaining poverty than any other invented in agricultural America. If we merely wave an official wand over any number of tenants, and change their class-name, we shall not accomplish a powerful magic. If we leave the basic inability to buy education, good housing, good clothing, proper medical attention and satisfactory recreation, we shall have left tenant families as unfortunate as they were before.
Yet if the proposals now current are administered in their literal terms that is exactly what we may expect. Technological changes to be expected in the cotton economy within a few years, particularly the perfected mechanical cotton-picker, will liberate the large planter from his former need for the tenant system. With a strong government-supported control of cotton production and price, the larger farmers are already shifting to the use of wage labor at the planting, cultivating, and harvesting seasons. The tendency is for planters to leave these laboring families on public relief rolls between the short seasons when they are needed in the fields. If the AAA continues its cotton program and succeeds in maintaining a higher price for from "furnishing" the cropper family to paying day-wages to the occasional laboring family will be advantageous to southern planters even if the promised mechanical cotton-picker fails of general adoption as soon as some people expect.
This new effort to alleviate southern tenancy through Federal loans to buy farms for tenants has arisen without much pressure from the tenants themselves. Almost all of the 700,000 Negro tenants of the cotton states are totally disfranchised. Most of the approximately one million white tenants are also not voters, either because they are disillusioned about politics or because of the barrier of the poll tax.
Furthermore, the southern urban or industrial worker, Negro or white, shows no consciousness of the problems of farm tenancy. In most southern cities where Negroes are allowed to vote, their votes follow the most corrupt local political machines. This seems to be because the majority of Negroes are poor and most of their political or business dealings with whites are perforce confined to ward henchmen, shyster lawyers, gouging time-merchants, vendors of worthless penny-a-day insurance and other commodities designed to take advantage of ignorance and poverty. Under the circumstances, it is not to be expected that Negro voters will have any profound sense of the responsibilities of citizenship.
Lack of a mass political support for the alleviation of share-tenancy leaves liberal southern leadership in a precarious position on this issue. Undoubtedly it has been the knowledge that southern farm tenants are beginning to organize a smaller crop, this shift under left leadership, a small but potentially "dangerous" start toward radicalization, that has urged the present administration toward actually trying to do something about tenancy. At the same time, articulate mass support for the Bankhead Bill is non-existent. It will be difficult under such circumstances to hold out for the necessary elements of a socially desirable plan. It will be extremely easy to accept a shortsighted policy of surrender on crucial points in the hope that such a retreat will eventually result in strengthening the position of liberalism.
Very practical arguments can be advanced in favor of scattering the purchasing tenants over the landscape, of buying up for them lands which the larger landholders have no further use for, of establishing cropper families on the traditional one-mule farm with all its natural inefficiencies as a production and consumption unit. Such a unit will be still more inefficient than it has been in the past if it is not given a cash-crop government allotment big enough to provide a decent cash income.
The argument for small individual holdings will, however, have to overlook the most practical considerations in the situation. They will have to ignore the proved inefficiency of production-stated in cash money-under such a regime. They will have to ignore the social costs of isolation, bad health, ignorance. They will have to ignore the ultimate fact that other classes, such as professional men and merchants, stand to gain more than lose by having a prosperous instead of a subsistence population majority.
These latter facts are well known to anyone who has made an adult study of the South. They should be sufficient in themselves to drive enlightened persons who are able to exert influence to do so in favor of an economically and socially sound solution of the tenant problem.
One group of American liberals propose the European peasant proprietor as a model for our emulation. The reasoning here is succinct. It can be proved that the peasant, far from being the least fortunate of mortals, is actually somewhat better off materially than our own tenant class. European laws (such as Hitler's) preventing the mortgage, sale or division of peasant holdings, render the peasant legally a very "stable" man, whereas in 1930 about so per cent of all southern tenants had changed farms within a year or so. The peasant maintains or even builds up Europe's soil fertility, whereas our southern tenants allow the top soil to dissolve away into the streams. In terms of crop-values per acre of land cultivated, both the European peasant and the southern tenant could be called efficient producers, but this per-acre efficiency is in both cases bought at the expense of medievally back-breaking human toil.
In support of the proposal for an American peasantry, many students of the tenant problem remind us that the European peasant has developed an indigenous way of life. He has ritualized his existence from the cradle to the grave. He has created a folk dance, a library of ballads and songs, a vast number of picturesque legends, and in some places he still wears the charming regional costume of his ancestors.
Last, but one may justly fear not least, the European peasant is the last resort of political and religious orthodoxy. His resistance to change can be credited with the failure of numerous European countries to become genuinely democratic or socialist. His opposition to the drive of rationality against old superstitions, his identification of his small holding with the empires of the great industrialist, his derived reverence for authority, are often cited as civic virtues. Summarized under the term "political stability," this trait of the present proprietor could be developed in our own proposed group of purchasing tenants without any very great extension of attitudes prevailing among them as croppers.
Yet it is doubtful that his political stability has helped the European peasant to attain a modern standard of living with all that means in comforts, conveniences, and opportunities of education for the younger generation. This in spite of the fact that peasant proprietorship in northern Europe has reached the ultimate development that can be expected of it through almost complete agricultural cooperation among the proprietors. It is true that farmers cooperatives have expanded during the depression in this country and their development could be insured by governmental help, but there are several human and economic factors entering into the southern situation that will make it quite impossible for us to imitate European rural policy.
First in importance comes the fact that due to a very high southern rural birth rate in the early part of this century, especially among the whites, our on-coming generation is, and will continue to be, large and for that reason pressing in its demands. Second, there is the fact of drastically shrunken markets for agricultural products. The development of a stable and relatively prosperous north European cooperating peasant class was favored by an expanding rather than a contracting farm market. Peasant proprietorship can only answer the conditions of a stable or expanding farm market, a stable population, and a stable living-standard. Given a reduced farm market, an increasing farm population and the mass industrial production that requires the whole population to improve its living-standard-and peasant proprietorship ceases to answer the conditions.
The European peasant woman, pictured as pulling the plow for her husband, probably has no harder work to do and no fewer privileges than the wife of the cropper who is expected to help plant, hoe, and pick cotton besides doing all the housework and bearing the children fast enough to maintain a good supply of family labor. The children of the peasant probably do no more labor, perhaps even less, than the youngsters who have to help cultivate cotton or top, hoe, worm, and harvest tobacco.
However, the role of advocate for the creation of an American peasant class is not a consistent one for the liberal leader to play. He can hardly consider himself true to the ideals he purports to uphold if he endorses and tries to perpetuate a technique of crop production which inevitably requires the labor of women and children, accompanied by the subjection to the male head of the family that such labor implies. If it be objected that these undesirable situations need not prevail among an American peasantry, one need only refer to the money return which the family labor can expect to earn with traditional equipment. It takes only a simple bit of arithmetic to show how little that income would mean per person in the family.
But is there any practical alternative to the proposed establishment of an American peasantry? Is it not better, one hears, to avoid great obstacles and to take a small gain in the hope of extending it later? It might be better, and a surrender might be justified if the inference were true that any other type of administering this reform would meet irresistible opposition.
We have two fairly distinct groups of landless farmers in the South. Any southern farm reform should recognize their differences in training and the type of roles each might play in some new situation less suffocating than peasanthood. One group consists of some hundreds of thousands of young men, many white and some Negro, who have been reared on farms owned by their parents, some of whom have had the advantage of sound training in farm organization and management and in farm technical subjects through the land-grant colleges.
There is no question but that many of this group would have migrated to industrial or urban jobs if the depression had not interfered. Nor is there any question but that many of them can operate a farm, given certain minimum necessities, independently and successfully, on the production end at least.
The case for this type of establishment has been fully made in numerous publications. It does not, however, touch on the needs of the entirely disadvantaged cropper and share tenant. We cannot ignore the tremendous psychological as well as physiological beating these families have for generations taken from the system.
Furthermore, although it is probable that the younger, educated, group among southern landless farmers, a small minority of all those contemplated by tenant reform, could succeed at small proprietorship, given the terms above outlined, liberals should think twice before separating this group of natural leaders from those larger masses who are their natural followers. Undoubtedly an important factor in the present plight of southern country life is the fact that the natural leaders of the rural South have been for the last few generations constantly drained off for the benefit of urban, and largely northern urban, life. In the alternative administration of southern tenant reform, outlined below, the natural role of technically educated farm youth would be that of salaried social and technical community leaders, not that of small peasant proprietors struggling with the burden of individual farm debt, and with the hand labor and the petty problems of a twenty-acre farm.
Returning to the main problem, the masses of disfranchised and ignorant share-tenants, we know very well from the best studies of the question that the old view of tenancy as the second rung in a "social ladder"-labor, tenant, part-owner, owner-has almost no validity in the South. The reasons adhere in the social as well as the strictly economic aspects of share tenancy.
These social traits of an hereditary caste cannot be described at length here. Suffice it to mention the chief result-a social cynicism which looks suspiciously on every governmental activity, discounting it as personal, political aggrandizement. Most southern share-tenants can be expected to regard the small-holdings loan plan as just another; political skin game and to take practically no interest in it.
Can anything be done to revive the dormant ambition and hope of this largest and therefore most important group of southern tenants ? Could any program be made that would at one stroke liberate them from tenancy and clear the way for uprooting the darker ignorances about health, education, farming practices, etc? Could they be given a fuller life which would at the same time promise a brighter future for their children ?
Certainly this is a tough question and no one student of the problem could presume to know the right answer. It is easier to say what won't work than what will, but we can say that one proposition is more likely to answer the known conditions than another proposition. The proposition given here would certainly be more likely than peasant proprietorship to combine immediate material betterment with a system of production that would not require women to labor in the fields, children to go to school fewer months and fewer years than city children, that would not require the unit of human labor to be as unproductive and uneconomical as it has been in the past. Briefly the proposal is:
The Bankhead Bill at present calls for an initial outlay of 100 millions. This sum would be sufficient to set up, with all necessary equipment and a substantial working capital some five hundred farm corporations serving at least 50,000 tenant families or in the neighborhood of 250,000 people. After the first year, provided the land is good, all or practically all of them should be self-supporting and, if each family is given an allotment of not less than four acres of tobacco or six of cotton, should be able to make a good start toward paying back its debt to the Federal government.
The basic reason why this sort of organization would be a better proposition for the government lies in the fact that land cultivation costs only about one-fourth as much when done by modern methods as when done by the antiquated one-horse plow. There are some areas, such as the southern mountains, where the topography prevents operation of large single fields, but it happens historically that few of the tenants are in these areas, most of them now living in flat country.
The social and cultural advantages of large scale farming are as obvious as the technical economies. Demonstration agents and teachers of every kind, as well as those supervising farm operations, could give superior teaching at far less cost per person served. Former tenants could become share-holders in concerns of which they could be proud, thereby removing their traditional inferiority complex. No longer would he be in deep isolation from his fellows and far away, economically and spatially, from the services and comforts of modern civilization. There would be no need for women and children to labor in the fields. The doctor would no longer be miles away over bad roads. For the first time these people would have reason to look to a good future for their children.
Opposition from reactionary elements would be less than might be anticipated for two reasons. First, to take 250,000 people out of the present tenant class would not constitute an immediate reduction of the southern farm labor supply below the needs of the agricultural system, which has a surplus of about 25 per cent. Second, as already mentioned, the transition from a tenant to a paid-labor system of production has become desirable to the landowner when he can count on a controlled higher price. AAA operation in the South would be facilitated by such a plan for tenants whereas it is impeded by the present agricultural situation, in which marginal non-contract producers can always get cheap labor to over-plant proposed acreage.
The establishment of farming associations or corporations offers efficient and economical supervision, economic stability and productiveness for the governmental agencies concerned, and for the people served it offers material cultural and personal advantages, such as no system of scattered holdings can approach. To turn entirely away from this rational solution of our tenant problem merely in order to avoid hearing a few adjectives from the extreme right would be a national as well as a southern regional tragedy.
It is high time for liberal leaders to concern themselves with the practical problems of administration facing the men who will have to carry out the program, and to bring forward such influence as they can to see that shortsighted policies do not cripple an important new governmental agency.