Whites, angered at blacks and immigrants receiving “government handouts,” forget they were lifted out of poverty through racially exclusive welfare programs in the 1930s.
2001 and 2010, Westmoreland County, Pa., lost at least 8,000
manufacturing jobs. That’s one explanation for why this once-blue
region gave more votes to Donald Trump than did any other
Pennsylvania county, helping swing the state in his favor and
propelling him to a surprise victory.
want our jobs back,” John Golomb, a retired steelworker in
Westmoreland County and lifelong Democrat who voted for
Trump, told the Wall
adding that previous presidents from both parties “forgot us.”
form of historical amnesia also afflicts Westmoreland County. Largely
absent from discussions of its decline are the ambitious social
welfare programs that once helped its residents climb out of poverty.
Two generations ago, this area of rural Pennsylvania was the site of
a sweeping—and successful—federal housing program. The New Deal
subsistence homestead program, launched in 1933 with $25 million,
built modern homes for low-wage industrial workers and gave them
plots of land for subsistence farming. In this corner of coal country
devastated by dangerous labor practices and low wages, federal
officials constructed a new community that gave poor white families a
stepping-stone to home ownership and the middle class. The story of
this housing program is told by historians Timothy Kelly, Margaret
Power and Michael Cary in Hope
in Hard Times: Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the
one of 34 communities in 18 states completed under the Roosevelt
administration’s subsistence homestead program, remains today as a
village of more than 1,000 residents in Westmoreland County. The
median household income in Norvelt is more than $56,000, just above
the state median. Fewer than three percent of residents live in
poverty, a lower rate than any of the surrounding communities. It’s
a monument to the potential for “an ambitious and innovative
federal government” to “work positively in people’s lives,”
the authors write. But it is also a reminder of the federal
government’s inability—or refusal— to address the unyielding
racial segregation in America’s housing markets. The authors can
document just one African-American family living in Norvelt in the
late 1930s, and the community is still largely white today.
of the community’s first residents were the children or
grandchildren of immigrants from southern or eastern Europe and had
lived in “coal patch” communities owned by Henry Clay Frick. The
move to Norvelt could not have been more stark. The men had worked
10-to 12-hour days in Frick’s coal mines and coke ovens while
residing in “patch” communities, in houses of four to six rooms
owned by the mining company. Into the 1930s, families shared
outhouses, carried water from a communal pump and heated their homes
with coal stoves. Coal dust and contagious diseases spread from house
to house, making the lives of wives and mothers a constant war
against dirt, malnutrition and the diseases that put child mortality
rates among the highest in the nation.
houses, by contrast, had indoor bathrooms, kitchen sinks with running
water, furnaces and electrical appliances, providing the miners and
their families with middle-class living standards. They worked
collectively in the hatchery and vegetable gardens, producing food
for their households and subsidizing their low wages at the mines. By
all accounts, Norvelt was a healthy, prosperous community. The town
was named for Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong supporter of the federal
program, who visited Westmoreland Homesteads on May 21, 1937.
Roosevelt had taken the train from Washington to Greensburg, Pa.,
then insisted on driving herself the eight miles to the settlement,
where she was greeted by a welcoming committee and given a three-hour
tour. Following her visit, the residents of Westmoreland, grateful
for the first lady’s support, renamed their community Norvelt.
homestead experiment ended after WWII, when residents took ownership
of their houses, incorporated their towns, and turned the cooperative
farms into individually owned yards. A generation or two after the
federal government built Norvelt and other homestead communities,
many children and grandchildren of the original beneficiaries became
Nixon’s silent majority or Trump’s Rust Belt whites, angered by
what they perceived as government handouts to African Americans and
immigrants. It’s an ugly irony that the book’s authors do not
most Americans think about public housing today, they picture the
widely despised high-rise projects blamed for destroying black urban
neighborhoods. This was federally funded housing for the urban
working class, introduced under the 1937 Housing Act. Early public
housing offered comfortable, modern apartments for both white and
black families, but racial segregation was enforced. By the 1960s,
high-rise public housing was underfunded, poorly maintained, and
considered little more than a warehouse for the black urban poor.
the federal government’s role in building and subsidizing the
homestead communities—and the larger government programs to
subsidize construction of white suburbs across the nation—is all
but erased from history. This allows contemporary white Americans to
assume they came by home ownership, and the family wealth it
produces, through individual hard work. It also sustains their
refusal to recognize the ways white privilege—or what W.E.B. Du
Bois called “the wages of whiteness”—propelled white workers
into middle-class economic stability.
in the 1970s and 1980s—coupled with 40 years of stagnant wages and
the 2008 housing crisis—have eroded the value of whiteness, though
certainly not eliminated it. Eighty years after Norvelt, the
right-wing elite plays on the anxiety of working-class whites who
have lost some of the economic privileges that their grandparents
took for granted.
story of Norvelt reinforces the ways race and class are intricately
bound together in American policy. Government support for housing the
laboring poor was among the New Deal’s most innovative programs,
one so effective that government’s role in building a nation of
homeowners is now largely forgotten.
success of New Deal homestead towns, in particular, reminds us that
sweeping social welfare programs can benefit and win the support of
the rural working class. But like so many New Deal programs, the
homestead program was shot through with contradictions. It mixed
idealism with opportunism, collective values with individualism,
working-class uplift with racial exclusion. Ultimately, this helped
to forge America’s massive racial wealth gap. It’s a piece of
history worth recovering.
>> The article above was written by Margaret Garb, and is reprinted from In These Times.