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Subsistence Homesteads: President Roosevelt's New Land and Population Policy

by Ralph Borsodi

School of Living, Suffern, New York

January 1934

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Where do most of the unemployed live? If you go through the smaller communities of New York and Connecticut you will find no starvation, no evictions, few people who have not got an overcoat or a pair of shoes. And if you go into the farming areas you will not find people starving on the farms. On the contrary. There is suffering, there is deprivation; but in the smaller communities and on the farms, there is not the same kind of being up against it, of not knowing where you are going to sleep tonight or where you are going to get the next meal that you find in cities. I venture the assertion that at least three quarters, and probably more of the dependent unemployed throughout the United States today, are in the cities. Are we not beginning now to visualize a different kind of city?

Are we not beginning to envisage the possibility of a lower cost of living by having a greater percentage of our population living a little closer to the source of supply?...

We hope blindly that government in some miraculous way can prevent any future economic depression, that government or some great leader will discover a panacea for the ills that have been hitting the world ever since history has been recorded.... I am wondering if out of this regional planning we are not going to be in a position to take the bull by the horns in the immediate future and adopt some kind of experimental work based on a distribution of population.... Regional planning dares us to make experiments, for this country will remain progressive just as long as we are willing to make experiments, just as long as we are able to say: "Here is a suggestion that sounds good. We can't guarantee it, but let's try it out somewhere and see if it works. (See Survey Graphic February 1932.)

THUS spoke Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York in January 1932 at the completion of the Regional Plan of New York, putting into words a philosophy he had long cherished of a practical kind of regionalism which would bring producers and consumers together not in a city market, but on their own acres of farmland or rural village. A little over a year later, the former governor, the new president of the United States, with the aid of Congress established the machinery whereby his theories regarding a better way of life could be tried out. Indeed the most important development in connection with the present back-to-the-land movement is the fact that the present administration has committed the government to a new land and population policy.

According to section 208 of the National Industrial Recovery Act, $25 million has been appropriated for the establishment of "subsistence homesteads." This section reads: To provide for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers $25,000,000 is hereby made available to the President, to be used by him through such agencies and under such regulation as he may make, for making loans for and otherwise aiding in the purchase of subsistence homesteads. The money collected as repayment of said loans shall constitute a revolving fund to be administered as directed by the President for the purposes of this section.

On the negative side likewise the administration's legislative and administrative measures indicate that it is opposed to the old policy of increasing the numbers engaged in the acreage given over to commercial farming, as well as to the further development and concentration of population in industrial centers. The establishment of subsistence homesteads is, however, one of the positive indications that we are actually on the eve of a new land and population policy.

PERHAPS the only reason why the significance of this action on the part of Congress has not been generally recognized is because the putting over of other sections of the NRA, the AAA and the PWA has occupied the major efforts of the powers-that-be thus, for the time being, completely dominating the picture. But the Subsistence Homestead Division of the NRA is at last beginning to function and inasmuch as the President has stated that it is not only a major policy of his administration but a primary purpose of his life to put into effect a workable back-to-the-land movement, there is every reason to believe that even larger funds than these already available will be appropriated for the purpose. Under these circumstances, we may well ask what is "the way of living" toward which this new land and population policy points?

How better could an answer be found than by reviewing the history of the first project to receive a federal loan, the Dayton Homestead Unit; for since it was selected from nearly three hundred applicants for a loan, it is reasonable to assume it embodies the principles toward which the government policy is directed.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003