Critical Thinking

Lazy Afternoon Reruns: “For Job Creation, Local is Better”

In his 1993 book The Selling of the South, historian James C. Cobb writes about Southern states’ Depression-era invention of using tax breaks, free land, and cheap labor to woo businesses to locate new industrial facilities in our region to remedy the desperate unemployment of the period. The innovator responsible for putting this strategy in motion in the mid-1930s was Mississippi’s governor Hugh White, and at the time, his state desperately needed any help it could get. The Mississippi Historical Society’s History Now website explains:

By any measure, Mississippi entered the Great Depression far behind the rest of the nation. The mere 52,000 industrial jobs the state claimed in 1929 fell to 28,000 by 1933. Bank deposits dropped from $101 million to $49 million over the same three-year period. Nearly 1,800 retail stores closed as sales shrank from $413 million to $140 million. Farm income was reduced by 64 percent. The average annual income, already the worst in the nation at $287, fell to an unbelievable $117. On a single day in 1932, one-fourth of the state’s farm land was sold for taxes.

White’s “Balancing Agriculture with Industry” program (BAWI), which was adopted in various forms all over the South, combined the state government’s power to organize and negotiate with a reliance on local chambers of commerce recognizing and offering up their own communities’ resources. Essentially, local leaders would identify unused land, untapped labor, and money available for investment, and the state would help the community find a company that could use what they had. BAWI may have been a viable engine for economic recovery in a mostly agrarian society— but as a long-term solution in the modern Sun Belt South, not so much.

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