Wide Open, Empty and Overpopulated? Population Change on the Great Plains

J. C. Cram sod house in Loup County, Nebraska. (Photo credit Solomon D. Butcher, courtesy of the Library of Congress; LC-DIG-ppmsca-08379)
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March 7, 2014 - 6:30am

The Great Plains region is known for being open and largely empty. Yet throughout the last century many have considered it overpopulated. Derek Hoff, an economic historian from Kansas State University, recently spoke on the topic of population change in the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of the Paul A. Olson lecture series.

NET NEWS: Can you explain the paradox of the Great Plains being perceived as a huge, wide open place, but also one that needed to control its population?

DEREK HOFF: My larger book is about the debate about population growth in the history of the United States. Many people until the 1970s-1980s feared that the population in the U.S. was growing too quickly, too large. Yet the Great Plains occupies a special place in that debate. Because on the one hand, the Great Plains, almost by definition, is empty, land is almost limitless, and it's where Americans moved in the late 19th century for almost free, dirt cheap land, to get away from crowded eastern cities. And so the Great Plains is a place that boosters of all sorts, from railroad executives, to ethnic minority leaders and land companies promoted as a place of nearly unlimited space and natural resources. On the other side of the equation, the Great Plains is defined by ecological fragility, with violent storms, and weather extremes--a place that is not wet enough for traditional forms of farming. It’s very tough to make a living off the land in the Great Plains.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Derek Hoff is an associate professor of history at Kansas State University specializing in the economic and political history of the modern United States. He is the author of The State and the Stork: The Population Debate and Policy Making in US History (University of Chicago Press), and, with John Fliter, Fighting Foreclosure: The Blaisdell Case, the Contract Clause, and the Great Depression (University Press of Kansas). Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he graduated from Carleton College and earned his PhD in history at the University of Virginia.

So on the one hand you’ve got a place that should allow for ever more people. On the other hand, throughout the history of the Great Plains there’s been a cycle of booms and busts dependent on rainfall. And very often, people have looked at the Great Plains and said, even though it’s relatively lightly populated, it’s actually got too many people.

NET NEWS: The Homestead Act only gave farmers 160 acres, which many found to be unsuitable for long-term agriculture. Many homesteaders ended up selling out and leaving. Can you explain how the theory of resource limitation and population control played out on the plains?

DEREK HOFF: Before the closing of the frontier, which is about 1890, when the Census Bureau said there was no longer a discernable line of white settlement, you didn’t really have that many people saying that America was overpopulated; that’s really going to come after 1890. But during the 1860/70/80s you see some of the first critics who are questioning the Homestead model, questioning the population boosters, the railroad executives of the Great Plains. People like John Wesley Powell, a very famous explorer who went down the Colorado River in a canoe. He argues that that model of humid farming on 160 acres assumed by the Homestead Act simply isn’t going to work on the Great Plains and in the West. But the idea that the U.S. may have too many people, which I call Malthusianism (Thomas Malthus was a British economist at the turn of the 19th century who argued that population growth eventually overwhelms natural resources)-- those ideas really take off after the closing of the frontier.

NET NEWS: How did population growth influence westward expansion? Did we move west because our population was growing, or did our population grow because people saw the frontier open?

DEREK HOFF: It’s both. There are population pressures on the East Coast, essentially, the third child no longer gets the farm, and people perceive cities as crowded. And so they move out west for very real economic opportunity and cheap land. And people did have more babies when they moved to the Great Plains than back in those eastern cities. So in some sense, the population continued to grow because of westward expansion. This is also an era when America had very high immigration, between 1870s and WWI, and a lot of those immigrants eventually find their way to the Great Plains and the West.

I think westward expansion is really fascinating when it comes to population growth. Because on the one hand it shows that traditional American exuberance and optimism and boosteristic spirit: the idea is we can absorb millions and millions of more people because we have all this land on the Great Plains and out west. So you think westward expansion is about unlimited population growth. But there’s a flip side: which is, many people argued that in fact the East was getting overpopulated, getting closer to European cities, with all the things Americans didn’t want at the time, like permanent working classes, and unions, and radical ideas. And that in fact, the Great Plains was a safety valve: that because of this overpopulation, people should move out west. Slavery is an important part of this debate as well, which is a very complicated story, but many Democrats in particular, before the Civil War, promote western expansion for slavery’s expansion.

In his lecture, Derek Hoff addressed the idea of relocating people away from the Great Plains in further detail:

The Future of the Great Plains (1936), written by a committee charged with studying the great drought of the time, was ambiguous on the question of population growth, but in the end it concluded that fewer people and fewer farms were needed to make way for larger units and greater efficiency.

The committee’s stated desire was to stem the human “drift away from the Great Plains,” to conserve human beings as well as land and water. And like any government document, The Future of the Great Plains ended on an optimistic note: if the land was exhausted, New Deal conservation programs could resuscitate it. “Over the long period of years,” the report concluded, “the Plains will support more people and continue in larger measure their contributions to the country’s welfare if the proposed program is adopted.”

But if it minced words, The Future of the Great Plains anticipated and called for a Great Plains with fewer farms and thus fewer farmers. It called on the government to determine the optimal level of population for the United States … an old chestnut of the Malthusians. It concluded that “whether or not the region can support adequately the population now residing within its limits is a question which cannot at present be answered,” indeed implying that the proper level was lower. If its stated goal was to preserve people on the Great Plains, it also suggested that people should be relocated away from the region, when advantageous.

Population resettlement away from sub-marginal lands, sometimes to entirely new government-built towns and suburbs, was the New Deal’s most famous — if stillborn — population policy. As it tried to move farmers to new lands, the Resettlement Administration purchased thousands of acres of land in the Great Plains, returning much to grazing — in the process speeding up the consolidation of holdings — and saving a bit that later became national grasslands.

Just how large a population relocation program the New Deal envisioned is a matter of some debate. Most farmers who left did so on their own accord, and these losses were almost balanced by a temporary influx of people moving from the city to the countryside. Initial indications from administration officials suggested large-scale relocation goals. The head of the Reclamation Bureau said that because his massive immigration plans had not come to fruition, tens of thousands of people would have to be moved from the drought-stricken lands in the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska.

Plains residents may have been sympathetic that their lands had too many people to sustain current forms of agriculture, but they weren’t about to leave town to prove the theory. Growers howled at the talk of population relocation, and in 1936 the Lincoln Evening Journal called the New Deal’s resettlement programs “a wild scheme that offers no solution to the drought problem.” Nebraskans, at the least, wanted to resettle Nebraskans in Nebraska. A state senator from Chadron proposed using federal funds to resettle farmers from Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan counties to an irrigation district in Dawes County.

Soon the administration was backpedaling, insisting that it always had in mind only the emergency relocation of the most distressed farm families. Roosevelt stated in a press conference that “nobody ever had any idea in their sane senses of depopulating the country.” Sympathetic editors in the Great Plains wrote of a “relocation bugaboo.” By the end of the 1930s, the administration emphasized “rehabilitation in place” through water and soil conservation — not population relocation. The Malthusian moment had passed on the Plains.

--Derek Hoff

NET NEWS: Your lecture touched on the role of technology—like irrigation—to combat the resource/population challenge, though you mentioned that the Bureau of Agriculture opposed dryland farming here in the 1920s because of population concerns. Can you explain that?

DEREK HOFF: Many people on the Great Plains were moderate Malthusians. They were concerned about the misalignment between population and resources, that maybe there were too many people on the Great Plains for current technological and agricultural models. They weren’t giving the solution to this problem that would come in the 1960s and 1970s, essentially, have fewer babies, actually take steps to depopulate the country. They believed in technological fixes. They essentially believed that with better agricultural technology, in particular irrigation, that the U.S. could continue to absorb more people on the Great Plains. So right around the era of massive federally sponsored irrigation projects at the turn of the 20th century, many were arguing that the Great Plains with existing technology can’t absorb population growth, but if we can sponsor irrigation and make much more land fertile, you can continue to have population growth. By the 1920s, in the federal government, we’re starting to see experts critique the idea of using just technological fixes, and they’re becoming more sympathetic to the idea that the Great Plains is about dryness and ecological fragility, and the fix of irrigation is not going to be sufficient, and that you’re going to have to change the agricultural model. Part of that means larger holdings and taking lands out of crop production and moving them into cattle and other forms of grazing. By the 1930s part of that is actually programs to literally depopulate the Plains, to move farmers away from so-called marginal farmlands into other areas throughout the country.

NET NEWS: In the last century we’ve seen the growth of large-scale agriculture and further technological advances as far as agriculture, but also rural depopulation. Can you bring us up to today's population debate?

DEREK HOFF: Many counties in the Great Plains are still seeing population decline, they’re getting older, and some are even launching programs to get people to move there. So many people on the ground on the Great Plains continue to be population boosters. Still, the states in the Great Plains are growing. The end point in my book is essentially how we came to love babies in the United States. In other words, I think we’re in an era right now of a very widespread and bipartisan celebration of the virtues of population growth in the U.S. Which is ironic, perhaps, because the U.S. is an outlier—we’re one of the few rich, industrialized nations that’s expected to see its population grow meaningfully in the 21st century. From 320 million people today, the U.S. may have something like 570 million at the end of the 21st century. For hundreds of years the U.S. debated population growth. Obviously there are many supporters and critics who worried about the environmental, social and economic consequences of the U.S.’s really remarkable population growth. Right around the 1960s something called the Zero Population Growth movement peaked, an offshoot of the environmental movement of the 1960s. It directly took on what it saw as America’s celebration of population growth and actually called for tangible steps to slow the birth rate in the U.S.. That movement had a brief 15 minutes of fame and really fell off dramatically in the 1979s for a whole host of reasons I talk about in the book, both cultural and economic.

The story of this great switch in population thinking in the U.S., from a great deal of concern to what I think is a widespread celebration across the political spectrum today, has many causes in the 1960s and 1970s. Many people have written about how population issues were basically sucked into the vortex of the new culture wars. There had been bipartisan support for population control and lower birth rates, but with the abortion and immigration politics of the 1970s, overpopulation critics fell by the wayside. Many Republicans who had been sympathetic to the idea of a lower population, in an era after Roe v. Wade, they absolutely despised any talk of overpopulation because that was an idea that linked with support for abortion rights, because many of them argued it would help lower the population. In addition, immigration really picked up steam in the 1970s. Many progressives and liberal environmentalists that had been sympathetic to the idea of lowering the population in the U.S. shied away from talking about population because they didn’t want to be perceived as racist or anti-immigrant. Those politics are still with us today. And finally, there was an important shift in the realm of economic ideas. Throughout the 20th century many people had argued that a slowing or stable population would be good for the U.S. economy—it would allow all of us to consume more. We’d have to make everyone richer to keep the economic machine growing, instead of just relying on having more people. Which is a really old-fashioned way of thinking about economic growth in an era when we emphasize technology and innovation. And yet if you open a newspaper today, many people will say, every baby equals more economic growth. In the 1960s and 1970s, many conservative economists, at the forefront of a revival of conservative, market-oriented economic ideas, started to reinvigorate a celebration of population growth, arguing that population growth spurs innovation, economies of scale, and is necessary for vibrant economic growth. And I think that’s where we are today, 40 years later. Except for a few critics who link population growth to climate change and some of those environmental concerns. But I think it’s notable today that we’re having a climate change debate largely divorced from the question of population growth.



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