The Farm Security Administration and Subsistence Homesteads

The Farm Security Administration and Subsistence Homesteads

Roosevelt's New Deal tried to provide not only jobs but also homes for down-on-their-luck Americans. The Subsistence Homesteads division of the Department of the Interior, created in July 1933 under the National Industrial Recovery Act, was one of the most controversial New Deal undertakings. It attempted to relocate poor rural families into government-funded planned communities where they enjoy much better housing and, in some cases, have gardens to help them produce their own food.

Resettlement Administration poster of projects.
These communities appealed to the sense that people during the Depression needed help, not necessarily hand-outs. Those stricken by the Depression told themselves they would be successful if only they had the opportunity. As Terry A. Cooney writes in Balancing Acts: American Thought and Culture in the 1930s, "The repeated assertions that those who were down-and-out remained 'able-bodied and self-dependent,' that relief recipients were 'individuals,' that the unemployed wanted to work, and that migrant families maintained their dignity and desire, delivered the message again and again that those forced to suffer by the depression were made of an approved American fiber, that their resilience and endurance were the characterological kin of success (185.)"

The Resettlement Administration, headed by controversial figure Rexford Tugwell, carried on work on the communities until finally being taken over by Farm Security Administration in 1937. The FSA also incorporated the Resettlement Administration and also helped tenant farmers buy their own land.

Another Resettlement Administration poster.
The original vision behind the subsistence homesteads was just short of utopian. Milburn L. Wilson, the first director of the Subsistence Homesteads in the Department of the Interior, envisioned an less materialistic, more "socially-minded" America dotted by these communities. Because of its collectivist ideals, as well as Tugwell's obvious desire to radically change the way America communities were set up, the organization was highly susceptible to criticism from both legislators and the press who charged that the agency had communist leanings (Conkin, 163).

To help combat criticism from legislators and press, the FSA created the Information Division. Tugwell appointed Roy Stryker as its director and the Information Divison was soon sending photographers out all across the nation to record both the need for FSA programs, and their effects. John Vachon and Arthur Rothstein spent a day in Norfolk and Paul Carter traveled to the Newport News Homesteads, capturing images of the homesteaders and the conditions of blacks in the area.

About 100 subsistence homesteads were built across the nation and two were built in Virginia. One was the Newport News Homesteads, and the other provided homes for the men and women who were dispossessed from their homes when the Shenandoah National Park was created. One of the more famous subsistence homesteads was built in Greenbelt, Md.