One of the most pressing issues facing the United States during the 2020s is the issue of homelessness. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the instability of the economy, and the changing nature of employment, more Americans now live in precarity than in the previous decade. In California, where an estimated 30% of the nation’s chronically unhoused live, totaling up to 171,500 individuals, a range of nonprofit and civic groups have worked with state officials to address the issue. For example, Urban Alchemy has launched experiments with “safe sleep villages”: tent communities that offer stable housing, food, and bathroom facilities.
Such a program builds on the same ideas launched nearly a century ago during the New Deal when the Farm Security Administration (FSA) sought to tackle acute homelessness during the Great Depression.
Of the New Deal-era initiatives that sought to uplift unemployed Americans from poverty, the Farm Security Administration experimented with several programs to provide migratory families with stable housing and education to help unhoused Americans get back on their feet. As one of the first federal programs to offer affordable housing to unhoused individuals on a national scale, the FSA’s efficient and effective programs provide a blueprint for policymakers today.
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Founded in 1937 with the goal of supporting struggling farmers, the Farm Security Administration is mostly remembered for its loan program to farmers. The FSA began as an outgrowth of the Resettlement Administration, a program conceived by Columbia University economist Rexford Tugwell to transform American farming by resettling farmers from the Dust Bowl onto arable land. From May 1935 to September 1937, Tugwell’s Resettlement Administration attracted the praise of progressive politicians and the ire of conservative leaders who saw it as too “communistic.” In 1937, to prevent Congress from axing the program, Tugwell resigned and agreed to transfer the program to the Department of Agriculture, then directed by its progressive secretary Henry Wallace.
Yet the organization also tasked itself with providing housing to migrant farmworkers moving to California from the Midwest. Many of them originated from the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Texas, where severe droughts put thousands of vulnerable tenant farmers out of work. Between 1937 and 1940, the FSA established hundreds of tent camps across the United States to provide housing for thousands of migrant farmworkers—the Okies immortalized in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. Tugwell envisioned these camps as self-sustaining projects that allowed tenants to create their own communities—an ethos that continued after Tugwell’s departure.
The program was a major success. In addition to increasing the income of participating farmers by 69%, the FSA camps housed thousands of migrant farmworkers. FSA camps also offered tenants educational opportunities and medical care. Teachers and social workers hired by the FSA provided courses to “rehabilitate” unemployed farmworkers, and public health officials inspected the camp facilities.
Perhaps the most visible legacy of the FSA was not its camps, but the program’s ability to document poverty in the United States. Although anti-poverty campaigns date back to the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, often these initiatives focused on urban settings such as the slums of New York City. To direct national attention towards the urgency of supporting migrant families, Tugwell selected Roy Stryker, a fellow Columbia economist, and charged him with running the program’s photography division.
Stryker hired dozens of photographers who traveled across the country and captured the suffering of unhoused farmworkers. Many, like Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydens, Arthur Rothstein, Gordon Parks, and Walker Evans, received the starts to their ambitious photography careers with the FSA. It was Dorothea Lange’s image of a single mother, Florence Owen Thompson, living on the side of a highway near Nipomo, California, that captured the plight of many Americans, and remains an enduring image of the Great Depression. The FSA’s social documentation program made rural farmworkers the face of poverty, a legacy that endured through President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty of the 1960s and into the present.
As in many New Deal reforms, racism infused the FSA. New Deal officials made concession with Southern Dixiecrat congressmen to ensure the passage of federal programs at the cost of complying with segregation. As a result, FSA camps in the South were racially segregated, and Roy Stryker directed FSA photographers to focus on white subjects to avoid angering Dixiecrat members of Congress. Nonetheless, several photographers like Lange subverted Stryker’s directives by documenting the experiences of African American and Asian American farmworkers and the effects of racial segregation. Several FSA images inspired African American photographer Gordon Parks to become a social documentarian, and in 1942 he was hired by the FSA.
Several of the photographers went on to publish their photographs in books. Walker Evans worked with writer James Agee to set a text to his photographs of Southern Sharecroppers that resulted in the influential study Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Famed novelist Richard Wright used FSA photographs to great effect for his 1941 book 12 Million Black Voices—a valuable source on the African American experience during the Depression.
In addition to being icons of the 1930s America, the photos played a valuable role in promoting the FSA’s policies and securing funding for the program. When a major uptick in migration to California caused by worsening drought conditions in the Midwest occurred in 1939, Oakland Congressman John Tolan organized a select committee to address the increased migration of unemployed workers and secure support for a program that conservative lawmakers derided as “socialistic” and turning farmers into wards of the state.
The House Select Committee on Internal Migration, or Tolan Committee, held hearings in all the major cities across the U.S. to find ways to support the 3 million Americans roaming the country in search of jobs and housing. Photographs, such as Dorothea Lange’s portraits of farmworkers along with photos of unhoused workers near industrial plants were introduced as proof that the FSA needed funding to continue its mission.
Throughout his committee’s hearings, Tolan extolled the virtues of the FSA camps for helping struggling farmers with a chance to get back on their feet. Several witnesses attested to the success of the FSA’s camps; Governer Culbert Olson of California testified before Tolan’s Committee in September 1940 that the FSA’s successful housing of 500,000 migrant families made it a role model for future housing programs. The hearings successfully directed national attention towards the issue of homelessness, and led Congress to boost funding for the FSA in 1940.
In 1941, the committee shifted its focus from migrant farmworkers to the movement of factory workers to cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago in search of defense jobs. As military contractors began seeking workers for their factories, Tolan predicted, the surrounding cities would face acute housing shortages and overtaxed utilities. As a result, factories and army bases that depended upon unhoused workers not only faced staff shortages, but decline in necessary productivity because of the unstable living conditions that workers faced. The FSA continued to operate through World War II and provided housing to workers in the defense industry until its dissolution in 1946.
Today, both state and federal officials alike should look to the history of the Farm Security Administration for clues on navigating the latest housing crisis. Currently, the Biden administration is addressing homelessness by funding a network of partner nonprofits and agencies at the state and city level. But the FSA illuminates the importance of addressing the roots of the issue: financial insecurity. By providing affordable housing and aid for thousands of lost families, the program comforted Americans who fell on hard times, and such a social safety net could do so again.
Jonathan van Harmelen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC Santa Cruz. His dissertation examines the role of Congress in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. His first book, The Unknown Great, is co-authored with Greg Robinson and will appear in November 2023 with University of Washington Press. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.
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