Hope in Hard Times

Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the Great Depression

Hardback or cased
Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, Michael Cary
Published 01 Jun 2016
List Price £56.95



“The story of Norvelt reinforces the ways race and class are intricately bound together in American policy. . . . It’s a piece of history worth recovering.”

—Margaret Garb, In These Times

“A fine and insightful study.”

—P. D. Travis, Choice

“An elegantly written and historiographically engaged study of the ‘subsistence homestead’ community of Norvelt, in Pennsylvania’s hard-hit bituminous coal country.”

—Robert Shaffer, Pennsylvania History

“A rich history of a little-known community, a valuable study to those interested in the New Deal, community planning, and Pennsylvania history.”

—Lou Martin, Journal of American History

“The dichotomy separating praise for and criticism against the local village, and its ultimate worth, comes to life in Hope in Hard Times.”

—A. J. Panian, Mount Pleasant Journal

Hope in Hard Times powerfully demonstrates the importance of writing history from the ground up. Vivid details of everyday life in Norvelt are woven into a compelling narrative that illustrates how New Deal policies shaped and were reshaped by the homesteaders. Variables of race, ethnicity, class, and gender—too often posited as if already formed—emerge from this particular time and place and lead to a better understanding of where to go from here as we consider the role of government in alleviating poverty.”

—Jane A. Juffer, Cornell University

“Despite its recognition of sobering realities, Hope in Hard Times is, as its title suggests, an optimistic book. Though it provides sufficient statistics and research reviews to satisfy the scholar, general readers will enjoy the intimacy the authors create through their vivid descriptions of the interiors of homes and the testimony provided by current residents, many of whom are descendants of the original settlers.”

—Dennis McDaniel, National Catholic Reporter

Of the many recipients of federal support during the Great Depression, the citizens of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, stand out as model reminders of the vital importance of New Deal programs. Hoping to transform their desperate situation, the 250 families of this western Pennsylvania town worked with the federal government to envision a new kind of community that would raise standards of living through a cooperative lifestyle and enhanced civic engagement. Their efforts won them a nearly mythic status among those familiar with Norvelt’s history.

Hope in Hard Times explores the many transitions faced by those who undertook this experiment. With the aid of the New Deal, these residents, who hailed from the hardworking and underserved class that Jacob Riis had called the “other half” a generation earlier, created a middle-class community that would become an exemplar of the success of such programs. Despite this, many current residents of Norvelt—the children and grandchildren of the first inhabitants—oppose government intervention and support political candidates who advocate scrutinizing and even eliminating public programs.

Authors Timothy Kelly, Margaret Power, and Michael Cary examine this still-unfolding narrative of transformation in one Pennsylvania town, and the struggles and successes of its original residents, against the backdrop of one of the most ambitious federal endeavors in U.S. history.


List of Illustrations



1 The World of Coal Mining, Coking, and Patch Communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania, 1880–1920

2 The Crisis: The Great Depression in the Nation and Westmoreland County

3 The Response: The New Deal and the Subsistence Homestead Program

4 The Great Experiment: The Cooperative Ethos and Community Building

5 Challenges to the Cooperative Ethos

6 Becoming Norvelt: The Triumph of the Middle Way

7 Living in Norvelt: Domestic Architecture

8 Norvelt Today: The Evolution of a New Deal Community

Conclusion: Did Norvelt Succeed?

Appendix: List of Interviewees




Timothy Kelly is Professor of History at St. Vincent College. His most recent book is The Transformation of American Catholicism.

Margaret Power is Professor of History at Illinois Institute of Technology. She is the coeditor of New Perspectives on the Transnational Right and author of Right-Wing Women in Chile, the latter also published by Penn State University Press.

Michael Cary is Professor of History and Political Science at Seton Hill University and the author of This American Courthouse.

Explores the history of Norvelt, Pennsylvania, originally known as Westmoreland Homesteads, which was founded in 1934 as part of the New Deal homestead subsistence program.