Local Government in Rural America

Faculty Respondent: Carol Greenhouse, Anthropology, Princeton University

Brooke Depenbusch, History, University of Minnesota
“Working on Welfare: The Art of Survival in Mid-Twentieth Century Rural America”

Amidst a growing economy and even in the shadow of the federal welfare state’s unprecedented growth, for Joe and Theresa Mason and their five children it was the mundane struggle to make ends meet that continued to characterize and structure the lives and work of each of the family’s members. After struggling to make ends meet on an income of $1,100 dollars a year, the Mason family applied for and eventually relied upon general assistance payments administered by the department of public welfare in their rural Kansas community. Throughout the 1950s the Mason family’s extreme lack of resources was far from exceptional and over a million other Americans similarly relied on locally-funded and administered general assistance payments in order to supplement miniscule family budgets.

I broadly argue that the history of general assistance from 1935-1962 forces us to reevaluate our understanding of the economic and social security supposedly on offer in postwar America as economic prosperity and American democracy were increasingly thought to be guaranteed by widespread and unbridled consumption.  In this particular paper I develop this argument vis-à-vis an exploration of poor rural families’ experience of consumption as well as the political discourse surrounding these practices. In this paper I explore the family economies of poor rural families and suggest that their experience of consumption was unique in both its ends as well as the channels through which it was pursued. Moreover, I explore pervasive political discourses that loudly pilloried and proposed to regulate such families’ consumption.  Finally, and at the nexus of these practices and discourses, I explore the ways in which the legal administration of general relief took into account poor rural families’ consumption in ultimately determining their eligibility for community support.  It was in this context that Theresa Mason’s purchase of a secondhand washing machine was not only taken as evidence that she was “lacking in common sense and has no sales resistance whatsoever” but was also taken to indicate that the whole Mason family “would likely not make fit citizens” within their community.  As I explore in this paper, if postwar American society was increasingly envisioned as a “consumer’s republic,” this was a polity wherein poor rural families were rendered experientially and discursively alien.

John Moran, Anthropology, Stanford University
“Defeating the Marsh Marxists: Rural Gentrification, Environmental Regulation, and Gender in the Florida Panhandle”

Thanks to publicly held lands and isolation from the state’s population centers, Franklin and Wakulla Counties, Florida are among the least developed coastal counties in the Eastern United States. Freedoms—to fish and hunt, master one’s property, and not have anyone care if you are wearing a seatbelt—remain central to outdoors-oriented masculinity among multi-generational residents who identify as “locals.” Informal economies, especially in seafood, echo an earlier era when the leading industry in the region, alongside timbering, mullet fishing, shrimping, and oystering, was marijuana cultivation and smuggling. Today the wildness and lack of development in the region is an economic asset, and branding the region as rich in cultural and natural heritage has attracted environmentalists, especially liberal Baby Boomers from elsewhere who move to the region to retire or work in neighboring Tallahassee. These new residents bring cultural attitudes toward government that emphasis professionalism and are antagonistic to nepotism and corruption. They also support regulation and community planning, which real estate developers and property owners, supported by the Tea Party movement, decry as burdensome and un-American. This paper explores the cultural politics of the 2014 citizens referendum on the Wakulla Wetlands Ordinance, a vote that repealed Wakulla County’s prized wetlands buffer. Through examination of how different residents relate to and describe wetlandscapes, marine creatures, their government, and each other, this paper suggests that gender identification is essential to debates concerning the regulation of development in Florida.

Ryan Parsons, Sociology, Princeton University
“When I Was Sick You Insured Me: Rural Black Churches and the Affordable Care Act”

Much has been done to explore the phenomena of persistent poverty in urban neighborhoods and the institutions that fail to support transitions out of poverty. Wilson (1996) offers a broad conceptual framework for understanding the causes and implications of chronic joblessness in urban contexts. Fernandez-Kelly (2015) explores the “liminal” institutions that serve the urban poor and accounts for their role in exacerbating inner city poverty. While this work offers important theories for understanding urban poverty, there has been little work done which extends these theories to rural contexts. This paper considers how rural communities experiencing persistent poverty address problems associated with joblessness and exclusion from mainstream institutions through the work of religious congregations, in particular historically African American churches in the American South.

The paper begins with a discussion of the community function of rural black churches. Drawing on theoretical and historical work beginning with Du Bois, it seeks to articulate a stipulative theory of rural African American religion’s community function that explains how these congregations engage with policy implementation at the local level. How do these churches engage with social policy, particularly in a context in which many mainstream institutions have left? This paper takes as a case study enrollment in health insurance exchanges defined by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) since 2010. Data come from interviews conducted with religious leaders in congregations in one Deep South state which have explicitly engaged in assisting congregants enroll in marketplaces or otherwise gain health insurance. Additional interviews with participants in a “community health advocate” training program at a nearby medical school offer insights into how faith-based outreach efforts are perceived by healthcare professionals in secular institutions.

A final set of data comes from interviews with ministers and other church leaders in rural, high poverty communities in which most formal institutions (such as private businesses or schools) have left or dissolved. Analysis of this data provides a broader conceptualization of the challenges facing rural black churches and their congregants. These discussions seek to locate the social and community function of the rural black church in both its historic legacy and in the realities of persistent rural poverty. Results from these investigations will serve as the foundation for additional ethnographic work in this region.

Emily Prifogle, History, Princeton University
“Modern Pioneers in Oneida County: Rural Zoning in the Midwest, 1933-1953”

This paper sets out to use rural zoning as a way to investigate local governance in the rural Midwest. Taking Oneida County as its primary case study, the paper traces the development of rural zoning between 1933 and 1953 from the perspectives of outside elites and local community members alike. Tax delinquency had become rampant during the agricultural depression of the 1920s and only worsened in the 1930s. These ordinances were largely formulated by experts at the University of Wisconsin as a way to address rural tax delinquency and restore Wisconsin’s cutover area to protected and productive forests.

Local communities were initially receptive to proponents of rural zoning primarily for two reasons. First, the depression has pushed many non-farmers “back to the land,” increasing at minimum the perceived, if not the real, number of transplants to the communities of the rural cut-over. Rural communities thought that the new transplants increased relief demands because—being both desperate and unfamiliar with farming practices—they settled on submarginal land, thus unable to support even subsistence farming. Second, soon after rural zoning was passed, federal agencies targeted already zoned communities for investment. Those who zoned were made eligible for grants to move isolated settlers and buy out submarginal land.

In the years that followed the initial passage of rural zoning ordinances across Wisconsin, local communities often forgot that they existed or purposefully ignored their enforcement. The first celebratory reaction to, followed by neglect of, rural zoning ordinances reveals three things. First and foremost, it the process is a perfect illustration of how rural communities pushed and pulled on outside efforts to regulate and reform rural governance and communities. We quickly find a community using a legal tool for their own purposes, in their own time, regardless of whether the use was intended by the tool’s creators. Second, the debates and “talk” around rural zoning illuminate the different ways distinct groups conceptualized what it meant to be rural or live in a rural community. Residents, committee members, and outside experts stood (literally) on common ground, but differed often in their understanding of rural residents as decision makers. And third, the chapter argues that the Wisconsin example and the origins story of rural zoning helps to explain why rural zoning did not prevent suburban sprawl in the postwar period.