Op-Ed: The ground is shifting under our feet


The Samoa News Classified Ads sometimes reveal trends.

A few weeks ago, the only “Help Wanted” ads in that day’s edition called for potential employees who could speak both English and Mandarin (Chinese).

A recent ad was looking for a “German Chef”. It is not clear whether the chef should be of German nationality, should speak the German language, should know how to cook wiener schnitzel, or all of the above.

I presume, perhaps erroneously, that ads like these are being run as part of an effort to justify immigration clearances for workers. Our immigration law, which is in need of extensive review and modification, expects employers to hire people already here when possible. These ads help sponsors justify their claim that no qualified individuals are already living here.

Or maybe I’m wrong – maybe someone just needs some Mandarin-speaking workers from the resident local population to serve the resident local population. Could be. There are enough Chinese people on island that the idea is not so far-fetched.

There have been a lot of houses, studios, duplexes, apartments and Section 1602 housing units advertised recently. I presume there will be a lot of vacant rentals in the months to come as more of the Section 1602 rental units get completed (a total of 512 were funded but most are not yet complete. There are a total of about 10,000 houses or apartments in American Samoa). Absorbing 500 rental units in a place this small would be difficult almost anytime, but the challenge is even greater if it is true that our population is falling.

According the US Census Bureau, American Samoa’s population is shrinking. In the year 2000, there were 57,291 people counted by the Census, but when the Census enumerators went back in 2010, they tallied only 55,591 residents, a drop of 3.1%. Prior to the actual count, government officials were estimating the population at about 66,000 residents, so they were off by 20%.

An ASG Review Group endorsed the Census. The Group included the Treasurer, the Secretary of Samoan Affairs, the Attorney General, the Director of Health and the heads of ASTCA and ASPA.

What happened? Were babies not born? Were there a lot of deaths? Did people move away from American Samoa? Let’s review those questions.

Did people stop giving birth? No. During the ten-year period of 2000-2009, there were 15,489 babies born at the LBJ Hospital. (See Births Graph, which shows that the number of births per year has been dropping since the 1990s, probably due to more birth control and fewer potential mothers.)

See Birth Graph below

Did lots of people die? No. During that same ten year period, there were 2,917 deaths reported in American Samoa, which is a lot fewer than the number of babies born. (See Deaths Graph, which shows that the number of deaths each year has been rising since the 1970s, even as the number of births started decreasing almost 20 years ago.)

See Death Graph below

Twenty-five years ago (in the late 1980s), there were about 10 babies born in American Samoa for every person that died. That ratio is now down to 4.5. There are only about 4.5 babies born for every death. (See Ratio Graph).

See Ratio Graph below

The “natural growth” of the territory (births minus deaths) from 2000-2009 was almost 13,000 people. In other words, if we had sealed the borders on January 1, 2000 with 57,291 people in the territory, the population on December 31, 2009 would have been over 70,000 due to the babies born (minus the deaths). But the borders were not sealed, and instead of 70,000 residents, we had less than 56,000 people.

What happened? If the Census figures are accurate, the only answer is out-migration: more people departing from American Samoa than moving to American Samoa.

Some people leave and some people arrive, but it appears that the imbalance was 14,000 people last decade. In other words, 14,000 more residents departed from American Samoa than moved here.

Population stagnation, let alone decline, is something new and different for American Samoa. The census of 1900 showed 5,679 residents and there have been increases in every decade since then, until the most recent decade. (See Population Graph.)

See Population Graph below

From 1980-89, American Samoa added 15,000 residents. From 1990-99, American Samoa added another 11,000 residents. Now, we might be in decline for the first time since the American flag was raised here.

If there truly was out-migration after decades of in-migration, what was the cause? Nobody can say for certain, but the closure of Samoa Packing (2000 jobs lost) and the loss of 1200 jobs at StarKist certainly are part of the answer. Those job losses caused individuals and families to leave and highlighted what was already true: there aren’t enough jobs here and there aren’t enough good jobs to keep our young people here or to persuade them to return home after advanced schooling.

Another interesting angle is to look at the racial make-up of American Samoa in 2010 as compared to 2000. Like it or not, there are undeniably more non-Samoans living here than there used to be. So if 14,000 people left, but there are more non-Samoans than ever, that probably means the island is becoming less and less Samoan, despite our immigration laws and the protestations of our politicians.

The ASG Department of Commerce told the Fono last year that the percentage of “foreign-born immigrants” in American Samoa has increased from 40% in 2000 to more than 50% in 2008.

Young people, especially American Samoan young people, are leaving (to go to school, to go to the military, to get off the rock, to find a job). And other residents are perhaps moving back to Samoa because the canneries are downsizing. But at the same time, people are moving here from the Philippines and China, because there are still opportunities here (including US passports for those born here).

Maybe the shiny new Section 1602 rentals will find tenants from the increasing number of landless immigrants in American Samoa. The availability of1602 rentals might make it easier for more non-Samoans to take up residence here, because there will be a variety of rental housing available for them. In the past, outsiders often found it challenging to find housing, but thanks to Uncle Sam that might not be an impediment to immigration in the future.

This may be one of the unintended consequences of the Section 1602 program.

A version of this commentary first appeared in Tiotala.com, and is used with permission.


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