Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A New Deal for the Virgin Islands

(Roosevelt Park in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island. Formerly called Coconut Park, it was renamed in 1945 to honor the President's 1934 visit. The park features a children's playground, picnic & chess tables, shade trees, and also serves as a venue for music, e.g., a local flute player and several jazz festivals. Most importantly, the park contains several urns and plaques that honor territorial "veterans who died defending the United States." Photo taken by a local resident, used with permission.)

The Virgin Islands, though beautiful, has long-struggled with poverty. In modern times, "The average  income of island residents is considerably lower than that of residents of the mainland United States...[a problem] further compounded by the relatively higher costs of living on the Virgin Islands" ("Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the United States Virgin Islands, 2009," United States Virgin Islands Bureau of Economic Research, p. 13).

When you consider that Congress has not adequately addressed poverty in its own neighborhood (Washington, D.C.), it seems unlikely that they'll ever adequately address it in the Virgin Islands. However, if some future Congress does show a greater willingness to help, it might look towards the New Deal for some policy guidance.
Consider these New Deal facts & figures for the U.S. Virgin Islands...

Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA):

Between 1933 and 1935, FERA granted $1.2 million to the Virgin Islands for relief efforts (about $20.4 million in today's dollars). FERA funds typically went towards cash relief, rural relief projects, and a wide variety of work programs.

(Source: "Final Statistical Report of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration," 1942, p. 103)

Civil Works Administration (CWA):

When the sugar industry in the Virgin Islands crashed during the Great Depression, the CWA relieved some of the resulting unemployment during the winter of 1933-34.

(Source: Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, p. 103.)

(When President Roosevelt visited the Virgin Islands in 1934, he said: "My friends in St. Croix - I am very glad to come here and I am very grateful to you for this splendid reception and very hearty welcome, and I want you to remember that today, more than ever before, the people of the continental United States remember and realize that you, also, are a part of the American Family." Quote from, "Extemporaneous Remarks in St. Croix, Virgin Islands," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, p. 346. Photo above (not taken in the Virgin Islands) courtesy of the National Park Service.)
The Virgin Islands Company:

The Virgin Islands company was created by the U.S. federal government with $1 million in start-up funds from the Public Works Administration (PWA). The goal of the company was to rehabilitate the island's sugar and rum industries. President Franklin Roosevelt summed up the situation in the Virgin Islands, before and after the creation of the Virgin Islands Company:

"In the years preceding 1933, there had been a gradual and serious decline in the economic well-being of the Virgin Islands...unemployment was so widespread that over 60 percent of the population was found to be eligible for relief...The major industry in the Virgin Islands has always been the sugar 1930, the West India Sugar Factory, Inc., which controlled 75 percent of the sugar business in St. Croix, discontinued operations. Efforts to organize a successor company were unsuccessful. All of the people who had worked in the industry, and in the cultivation of sugar cane for it, were thrown out of employment...The Virgin Islands Company now manufactures raw sugar and a substantial amount of rum, and has been engaged in restoring wastelands to sugar cane cultivation. During the development of the physical equipment of the company, employment was given to approximately 1,500 people, a very large percentage of the unemployed on the island of St. Croix. In fact, during this period of development there was practically no unemployment whatsoever in that is anticipated that a thousand persons will be constantly employed by that company  

(Sources:  (1) "Virgin Islands Laboratory for New Deal Experiment," Associated Press, July 7, 1934, found in the Reading Eagle newspaper (Pennsylvania), July 8, 1934 edition, p. 5. (2) Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, pp. 102-104.)

(In March of 1934, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and made a note in her diary about the extreme poverty she saw. Photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum.)

Public Works Administration (PWA):

Between 1933 and 1942, the PWA granted about $4.6 million to the Virgin Islands to help with 43 infrastructure projects (federal and non-federal projects combined) - or, about $77 million in today's dollars.

Among the PWA projects, were three urban housing projects and the creation of St. Thomas' Bluebeard Castle Resort. The latter was intended to boost the tourism industry of the Virgin Islands, and is still in operation today

Of PWA housing efforts, Luther Evans, the tenth Librarian of Congress, wrote: "Two-room houses are being built at a cost of about $200 each. The author can say from personal observation that these houses are far superior to those now occupied by the majority of Virgin Islanders..."  

(Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, "Third Annual Report, 1942," Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942, pp. 126-127. (2) Accompanying note to "The Beginnings of a Comprehensive Plan for the Social and Economic Advancement of the Virgin Islands. White House Statement," Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, F.D. Roosevelt, 1934, Volume 3, pp. 103-104. (3) Luther H. Evans, "The Virgin Islands: From Naval Base to New Deal," Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Press, 1945, p. 306) 

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC):

Former Vermont State Forester Perry H. Merrill described the work of the CCC in the Virgin Islands: "Enrollment for the conservation work on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix, Virgin Islands was authorized on December 6, 1934. For the two islands, 100 enrollees were assigned to camps there. Typical conservation work carried out by the native enrollees under the supervision of a forester included the development of wind breaks, propagation for mahogany and bay trees, and the development of springs" (other projects they engaged in can be seen in the video below).

Over time, the number of CCC enrollees may have grown to between 160 and 221.

(Sources: (1) Perry H. Merrill, "Roosevelt's Forest Army: A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942," Vermont, 1981, p. 32. (2) "The Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-42: Chapter 11, United States Territories and Insular Possessions," National Park Service,, accessed June 14, 2015. (3) Works Progress Administration, "Report on Progress of the Works Program," October 15, 1936, p. 82.)

(In the video above, we see the Civilian Conservation Corps at work in the Virgin Islands. This film was created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, ca. 1937, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives.)

National Youth Administration (NYA):

On any given month during academic year 1940-41, there were about 61 young men and women working in the NYA's student work program in the Virgin Islands. They worked part-time and earned about $4 a month (about $67 today).

On any given month between July 1941 and June 1942, there were about 270 young men and women working in the NYA's out-of-school work program in the Virgin Islands. They could earn up to $26 per month (about $433 today).

Though the pay was not great, participants in the NYA had opportunities for training, education, recreation, networking, and the building of social skills.  

(Source: Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, "Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943," Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, pp. 248-256.)

Treasury Department Art Projects:

In the latter part of 1936, the Procurement Division of the U.S. Treasury, which was operating two art programs--the "Section of Painting & Sculpture" and the "Treasury Relief Art Project"--reported that a project was "operating in the Virgin Islands, with a total of five artists engaged in easel painting."

(Sources: (1) U.S. Treasury Department, "Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1936," pp. 182-183. (2) Works Progress Administration, "Report on Progress of the Works Program," October 15, 1936, p. 82.)

(This mural is in the post office at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas Island. According to VInow, a Virgin Islands tourism website, it was painted by Stevan Dohanos with funding from a U.S. Treasury art program, circa 1937-1943. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

Works Progress Administration (WPA):

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided at least $2.8 million in funding towards work-relief projects in the Virgin Islands (about $47 million in today's dollars). These projects included roadwork, sanitation, water supply systems, pest control, studies of diseases, sewing projects, nursery schools, handicrafts, cabinet-making, fruit-preserving, farming activities, airfields, welfare services, and more.

The number of men & women employed on WPA projects in the Virgin Islands appears to have peaked in June of 1940, with 1,760 workers.

(Sources: (1) Federal Works Agency, "Report on Progress of the WPA Program," June 30, 1939, pp. 124-125. (2) Federal Works Agency, "Final Report on the WPA Program, 1935-43," 1946, various tables, pp. 106-130.) 

Federal Works Agency (FWA):

When the WPA ended operations in June of 1943, Congress recognized that unemployment was still a major problem in the Virgin Islands - so it provided funds for a five-month work-relief program to help ease the transition. This program was administered by the FWA, an agency that had been created in 1939 to manage and coordinate several New Deal (and New Deal influenced) programs, including the WPA.

After the special work-relief program ended in November of 1943, the federal government and the FWA began a multi-million dollar infrastructure improvement program in the Virgin Islands (in accordance with Public Law 510, 78th Congress, approved December 20, 1944). Projects that were approved and started included the establishment of "A primary and a secondary set of roads...for each island" and a water supply system for the city of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas Island.      

(Sources: Annual Reports of the Federal Works Agency, 1944-1948.

(According to the Living New Deal, this mural, titled "Insular Possession: Virgin Islands," was painted by artist James Michael Newell in 1939, with funding from the U.S. Treasury. It is located in the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith and the Library of Congress.)

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