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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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THESE aspects of the plan warrant, in my opinion, the making of loans up to any amount—to billions of dollars, provided enough families with the proper qualifications for homesteading are selected.

And here is where we may examine the national implications of the first Homestead Unit. In making the application for a loan we emphasized the point that while the experiment with the thirty-five families was well worth while, even more important was the fact that an industrial city such as Dayton was prepared to experiment with enough units to test out the social effects of large-scale subsistence homesteading, for plans have been worked out for establishing units involving between 1750 and 2000 families as the goal for the first year.

Homesteading such a large number of families near one city will make it possible for the whole country to see what the effect of homesteading will be upon employment, labor, social and relief conditions in industrial cities. With the cooperation of the manufacturers in the city, it will be possible to draw accurate conclusions as to the effect of the changes in employment conditions both upon the homesteaders and the workers remaining in the city. With the assistance of the relief authorities and the educational institutions, it will be possible to draw similar definite conclusions upon the changes in standards of living and social conditions traceable to homesteading. And with the assistance of the merchants of the community, the experiment on such a scale will furnish a definite answer to the questions constantly raised about the purchasing power of homesteaders and the type of merchandise for which this new way of living will create a demand.

These arguments evidently so impressed Dr. M. L. Wilson director of subsistence homesteads, and his advisory board the they urged the Committee to get additional units under way a rapidly as possible, a separate loan to be made to each as organized As a result, in addition to the original Homestead Unit, two of the original Production Units are now organizing for the purpose of establishing themselves on homesteads, while a group of German Americans, some of whom had lived in the garden homes with which Germany has been experimenting, is also being organized. We hope that others will shortly be on the way.

Dayton may therefore not only furnish to the country the first model of a subsistence homestead community, it may be the first city which will have developed the idea on a scale large enough to enable the country to determine its effects upon industrial and city conditions.

What finally may we look for from the spread of this movement throughout the country? What changes would follow upon such a widespread return to country life? This age is conspicuous, among other things, for its concentration of population and for its centralization of production. Are there any grounds for expecting any reversal of this trend?

My answer is yes. The gasoline engine and the electric motor have robbed the factory system of many of the advantages it has possessed up to now. Power can now be used not only for small scale and custom production, but even for domestic and individual manufacturers‹a technological change which makes decentralization economical. But in my opinion any profound change in ways of living such as we are considering, can come only from one of those combinations of historical events which usher in revolutions. Out of such a concordance of events we get not only social and political revolutions such as have taken place in Russia, we get economic and social revolutions such as the Industrial Revolution.

Is not such a combination of incidents in existence at present? The long drawn out business depression with its collapse of the dream of golden plenty from mass production, and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt with his belief in the possibilities of subsistence homesteading, have combined to give this movement a chance to spread rapidly. If the NRA fails to end industrial unemployment, as I believe it will fail; and if we fail to make commercial farming profitable, as we have failed with all measures for agricultural relief up to the present, the hundreds of thousands of people now eager for some other way of life than dependence upon jobs and the insecurities of modern business will be augmented by millions. And as the catalytic agent to produce action we have this appropriation from Congress of $25 million for the purpose of initiating this new land and population policy.

But one thing is essential if the movement is to gather headway, and above all if it is to achieve the objective of a better and more secure way of living. Homesteading must be treated not as an economic problem solely nor as a housing problem, nor as an agricultural problem (all of which it is in part), but primarily as an educational problem. There is no insoluble economic problem involved in subsistence farming‹hundreds of people to my personal knowledge have succeeded in living on subsistence homesteads for years, and thousands and thousands have lived that way more or less unconscious of doing anything unusual for centuries.

The really difficult problem is that of inspiring and training families—for this is a family undertaking—to change their notions of the good life, and their ways of securing the necessities and satisfactions of life. In some way they will have to be taught to think in terms of years instead of weekly pay-envelopes; to look upon the earning of cash as something to which they ought to devote only part of their time, and to secure their satisfactions out of creative and self-expressive activities instead of out of conspicuous consumption and vicarious play. Homesteading is, then, in the last analysis, a problem in adult education and as such must secure the right kind of educational leadership.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003