How to Aid Croppers, Slummies
Harry Gunnison Brown
[Reprinted from The Freeman, July, 1938]
Almost four years ago an economist studied the problem of farm
tenancy in the South and how it was affected by payment of crop
control subsidies, for the Department of Agriculture. He reported that
there was widespread evasion of the provision of A.A..A. contracts
requiring a division of subsidy payments between landowner and farm
cultivator, and urged that the provision be made more binding and that
it be stringently enforced. The result? Not an increase in the dole
obtained by the share-cropper but a tendency for the farm owner to
dismiss his sham-croppers and replace them with day laborers. And the
reason? The editorial writer in my morning newspaper says:
"The Government specifies that the landowner share the subsidies
with the share-cropper, while no such regulation applies to the day
laborer. So there has been a general tendency to dismiss the
share-cropper families and keep all the Government bonus payments for
himself. And as bad as is the plight of the average sharecropper, that
of the agricultural laborer is worse."
Well, after all. who but a naive idealist of "intellectual"
proclivities could have expected anything else? Indeed, if it were not
for the mulish determination of our "intellectuals" never to
consider or mention Henry George's brilliant analysis of the land
question -- while persistently soaking tip diluted Marxism at every
opportunity -- some of our ''highbrow" magazines would have been,
and our "liberal" newspapers would have been, emphasizing
from the beginning that these farm subsidies are primarily subsidies
to landowners and that, in the long run, only landowners are likely to
profit much from them.
Who could seriously think that landowners would not get rid of their
tenants when the law makes it more profitable to do so? Who could
seriously conclude that the average owner of land would not, if he
consented to have tenants at all, in the end charge higher rents for
the use of the land if the user is entitled to receive a subsidy from
Of course our kind-hearted legislators, who will gladly do everything
to help the poor man except what most needs to be done, have arranged
a solution. The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act provides for loans at 3
per- cent interest to a limited number of tenants in selected
counties, to enable them to buy farms. It is true that, thus far, so
little money has been appropriated for this purpose, relatively to the
vast number of tenants, that no appreciable effect is likely to be
If, however, available funds should be greatly increased and if many
tenants attempted, with such government aid, to buy farms, no one at
all familiar with the mental reactions of landowners, and especially,
land speculators, can doubt that they would then charge higher prices
for their land. Tenants would therefore have to borrow correspondingly
more money in order to buy farms, thus assuming a larger mortgage
indebtedness. A larger proportion of them would fail and sink back
into tenancy. And they must sink back the faster because of the wide
variety of taxes on sales and on numerous specific articles of
A. similar difficulty applies to the movement to abolish slums in our
cities. Any widespread effort to purchase land for "low-cost"
housing must have a tendency to .stiffen the price of land. Surely,
none of our kind-hearted housing reformers thinks that a demand for
land for this purpose makes land cheap in the regions or areas where
it is purchased! And past experience does appear to indicate that,
ordinarily, when the "model, low-cost" tenements are done,
they are too expensive for the class that was supposed to occupy them.
And our heavy indirect taxes which are levied on everything poor
families must buy, must also lend, along with high land prices, to put
decent housing beyond their means.
If Congress really wanted lo promote farm ownership by tenant farmers
in the country and slum clearance and widespread homo ownership in the
cities, there is an altogether desirable way of accomplishing this
end, but a way which we may -be perfectly certain that the present "liberal"
Administration and Congress will no more at tempi than our previous "conservative"
Suppose it. were announced that Federal funds would be available, as
loans or on some other basis, for the encouragement of alum clearance
and of home and farm ownership, but only in states, counties and
cities which would seriously attempt to substitute taxation of
valuable natural resources and of community-produced site values for
sales taxes and other taxes that now rest heavily on the poor.
Suppose a serious statement were issued by the Administration to the
effect that there is no use distributing Federal funds to accomplish
the desired purpose where all the local conditions as regards taxation
arc hopelessly adverse, that the Federal government cannot afford to
adopt a policy analogous to pouring water into a sieve, and that funds
can therefore be provided only in communities adopting a lax policy
that discourages land speculation, brings down the sale price of land
for would-be builders and owners, and leaves the poor untaxed on the
goods they have to buy. and so with some chance to earn their way to
Such an announcement would go Immeasurably far to encourage the local
adoption of a tax policy favorable to the end in view, not to mention
other ends greatly to be hoped for.
But. of course, no one, not even the most optimistic reader of The
Freeman, expects any such announcement. Almost all the currents of
recent propaganda, along with the powerful influence of a landowning
class, run in the opposite direction.
Is it not rather to be expected that the poor will be levied upon by
new processing taxes so as to provide more bonuses for landowners,
that land prices will therefore become, as the years go on, still
higher than now, and that the poor, with an even larger part of their
incomes taken from them by taxation, will find land-ownership more
unattainable than ever?
And that if then we try to subsidize a few of the poor so as to aid
them to ownership, we shall do so by still greater taxes on other
poor, thus making ownership all the harder to attain by the others so