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Population decline means loss of fed money for territories

OIA will focus on healthcare challenges across the insular areas

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Continued decline in population for some insular areas means a loss of federal monies, which are awarded based on population count, according to the US Department of Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) which made the observation in its proposed fiscal year 2019 budget justification document submitted to the US Congress last week

The US Census Bureau’s population count for American Samoa in 2010 released the following year shows 55,519 people — which was a 3.1% decline, or 1,772 people, between 2000 and 2010.

Local officials, including lawmakers, quickly challenged the accuracy of that count, and the Fono approved a non-binding resolution asking for a recount, arguing that the 2010 census should be higher, closer to 60,000. There was never a recount.

ASG officials, as well as the late former Congressman Faleomavaega Eni, were very concerned that the drop in population means, less formula grant funding for American Samoa. But no changes were ever made to the 2010 census with the next set for the year 2020.

OIA’s budget justification document, or “greenbook” provides a brief update snap-shot of the economies of the territories, saying that the economic picture emerging from the most recent territorial gross domestic product (GDP) data is corroborated by population data from the 2010 census.

(The latest GDP data, released early last year for 2016 by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), shows American Samoa’s GDP in 2015 totaled $659 million and $658 million in 2016. Commerce Department director Keniseli Lafaele, told Samoa News at the time that when comparing the nominal GDP numbers for 2015 and 2016, GDP decreased by only $1 million or 0.15 percent, but when adjusted for inflation, real GDP decreased by $17 million or 2.5 percent — which is significant amount.)

All of the territories, except for Guam, lost population in the previous decade it says adding that the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) leads the territories in population decline, with a 22.2 percent decrease from 2000 to 2010.

“The census data support the anecdotal observation that many islanders are leaving their homes to seek better opportunities elsewhere,” OIA explained. “Continued population loss will exacerbate economic troubles as Federal formula grants which are based on population will decrease.”

OIA points out that the insular economies are small, isolated and dependent on one or two main sources of income. In most areas, it says, federal programs and grants represent a major source of government revenues.

Federal funds, including rum tax cover-over for VI, were 32.2% of government revenues in the US Virgin Islands in fiscal year 2016, 35.8% in Guam, 26.0% in the CNMI and 63.0% in American Samoa.

In three of the four territories, according to OIA, a single industry — tourism — is the major income source, which is influenced by global and regional economic forces beyond their control.

OIA notes that except for Guam and its unique mix of national defense and tourism industries, the other three territories are behind the national norm of per capital real GDP because they depend on a single industry and its ups and downs.

Samoa News notes that American Samoa is the only territory, which currently doesn’t depend on tourism dollars, and its largest private employer is StarKist Samoa. The local tourism industry continues to develop with ASG hoping it will be another boost to the local economy in the future.

“Strong local economies provide employment and a viable tax base for citizens in the insular areas,” said OIA, noting that it “will strengthen insular economies through strategic investments in infrastructure, public services and technical assistance which will attract and retain private sector investment.”

OIA will also promote policies and improve federal coordination on issues impacting insular economies, restore trust with territorial communities and ensure sovereignty means something working with the freely associated states (FAS) — Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Marshall Islands and Palau.

According to OIA, territories and FAS experience significant healthcare challenges and in the upcoming year, OIA along with other partners, such as the US Department of Health and Human Services, will work with insular area partners to focus limited resources in a way that improves the quality of healthcare across the insular areas.

“Investments will be made to implement corrective action plans which address chronic operational shortcomings and modernize healthcare infrastructure in the islands,” OIA explained. “Additional investments will be made to combat non-communicable and communicable diseases impacting the Pacific and Caribbean islands such as obesity, diabetes, and tuberculosis.”