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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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Under the leadership of Elizabeth H. Nutting and Virginia Pierce Wood, executive secretary and chairman respectively of the Character Building Division of the Council of Social Agencies in Dayton, in the fall of 1931, groups of unemployed and partially employed families in ten sections of the city were organized into so-called "Production Units". This in an attempt on the part of the Council to develop a more constructive program of relief than that to which the city Welfare Department was limited by law. The aim of each unit was primarily to manufacture for the group's needs, and secondarily to barter a portion of their products for raw materials which they were unable to produce themselves. Though in this they differed from most self-help, barter organizations, i.e., in their emphasis on production for use, their unusual success from the start must be attributed rather to the outstanding leadership which spurred them.

But excellent as the plan was, helpful as it was in supplementing meager incomes, the limitations inherent in it prevented its even attempting to take its membership completely off relief. And in the last analysis that was the real problem. The difficulties were simple. Distribution and overhead costs, the inability to grow or manufacture their own material in the city, and the necessity of paying rent for headquarters and individual residences made it impossible for the members to secure enough for their labors to make them self-supporting. Indeed if the units were charged fully with all that was donated to them‹rent, land for gardens, tools, implements, materials and supplies‹the virtual impossibility of their ever breaking even is self-evident.

As consultant economist to the Unit committee (a group of public-spirited men and women appointed by the Council of Social Agencies to sponsor the activities of the DACPU) it was my privilege a year ago to point all this out and to outline a future program. My suggestion was that a plan be developed for moving groups of families (some members of whom would have work in the city though inadequate to meet the families' needs) to the country within commuting distance of the city, each group of families to live on a "subsistence homestead" where their chances of making themselves independent‹partly through production, supplemented by wages from those who worked in the city‹was possible.

This plan was adopted and members of the Production Units were encouraged to move into the country as rapidly as possible.
Dayton, Ohio, it should be remembered, is an industrial city of about 200,000 population. Well-known products made in the city include National cash registers, Frigidaire refrigerators, Delco electrical appliances. Demand for these products has been hard hit by the depression. Last winter some seventy thousand persons (fourteen thousand families) were on relief. At this writing there are about fifty thousand persons on relief, with the numbers steadily rising. This winter promises to be as bad if not worse than last. A still larger number are on the verge of being forced on relief by the final disappearance of their savings, or are kept off relief only by earnings insufficient to maintain a decent standard of living or by going deeply into debt. The majority of relief families seem to be capable, hardworking-people normally self-supporting.

Dayton Family on Farm
Photographs by Frank G. Betz, Dayton, Ohio

A dayton family after a few weeks on the farm.
They had been on relief, discouraged, and under care of a physician

THE first Homestead Unit was organized in the spring of 1932. A farm of 160 acres, purchased for $8000, was divided into thirty-five three-acre plots, fifty-five acres being reserved for community pasture and woodlot, commons and public roads. Thirty-five families immediately took possession.

The homesteaders themselves are a cross-section of American society, ranging from families of professionals (architect, teacher, engineer) to tradesmen and white-collar workers (grocer, bookkeeper, clerk) as well as craftsmen and laborers (carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers). They include men and women over fifty with grown children, some of whom join their parents in purchasing the homestead, as well as young couples without children. Two young people in fact married on the strength of this opportunity to build a home of their own.

The background and attitude of one family while perhaps not typical may be regarded as symbolic of the entire group. The family consists of the parents in their early twenties and two young children. The father—a man with a good work record at the National Cash Register Company where, however, employment has been unsteady-and the mother, a trained nurse, have gone at the task of building a homestead with the spirit and determination of pioneers. Together these two, unaccustomed to manual labor, did not hesitate to swing picks in an effort to speed up work on the foundation of their home. I saw them industriously at this work one Saturday afternoon holiday at a time when the man happened to have some work at the cash register factory.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003