Polamalu: "All Americans should be concerned about the plight of American Samoa"

A new approach is needed to revive its dismal economy

I am a National Football League player of American Samoan heritage. Because of my status as a professional athlete, I have been blessed to play a role in educating players and fans about the culture and history of America's southernmost territory.

All of my Polynesian counterparts in the NFL with roots in American Samoa understand how the values embedded in our South Pacific culture -- community, hard work, perseverance, respect -- contribute directly to our success. These same values that drive me and other players every day have inspired American Samoans since the late 19th century to contribute to America's cultural diversity, economic prosperity and national security at a level greater than you would expect from an island of 55,000 people that is seven time zones away from Steel City. In fact, a higher percentage of American Samoans have fought and lost their lives for their country following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 than citizens from any other state or region.

I am proud of my heritage and have happily taken advantage of every opportunity to educate my teammates and Steeler Nation about American Samoa, both as a player and in the community, through the Troy and Theodora Polamalu Foundation Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation. I have a unique position as a proud member of the Pittsburgh Steelers to also bring the best of Western Pennsylvania to American Samoa, hopefully creating some lasting Black-and-Gold fans along the way.

The unfortunate truth remains, however, that American Samoa is in economic distress. Joblessness runs at record levels that in any other part of our country would make national headlines.

This economic difficulty is not due to a lack of interest or ability among my fellow American Samoans, rather it is in many ways due to an archaic approach by our federal government. American Samoa can no longer rely on dated economic policies that have been rendered ineffective due to a dramatically changing and increasingly competitive global economy. Our country's leaders have an obligation to help, and they must recognize that improving economic opportunities for American Samoa is in our beloved country's best interest.

While America's economy as a whole is showing signs of recovery, American Samoa's economy continues to struggle after the physical destruction of an 8.1 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in 2009. The same week as the actual tsunami, American Samoa was hit again with an economic tsunami when a major tuna-canning factory closed its doors, slashing 2,000 jobs in an industry that represents nearly 80 percent of all private sector employment in the territory.

Fortunately, StarKist, headquartered here in Pittsburgh, has been a committed friend and remains the territory's largest private-sector employer. Yet, despite StarKist's contribution, the unemployment rate remains at nearly 30 percent, compared to 7.3 percent for the United States as a whole and 7.5 percent here in Pennsylvania.

While there is a long way to go, important work is happening to make sure American Samoa moves forward. Our new governor, Lolo Moliga, is exploring new economic development ideas. In Congress, which plays a critical role in the island's economy due to our unique status as a U.S. territory, Rep. Eni Faleomavaega is helping to ensure issues facing American Samoa receive the attention they deserve.

The fact remains, however, that American Samoa needs support from others who are in a position to assist. As a territory, American Samoa has no representation in the U.S. Senate, and we Samoans lost a respected and powerful ally with the passing of Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Others, like Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, who represent the headquarters of the largest employer in American Samoa, can and should lend their help.

For example, almost all electric power in American Samoa is provided by diesel generators, resulting in an unreliable and expensive power supply that is a huge barrier for companies looking to do business in the territory.

When it comes to building or fixing roads, American Samoa must meet the same national economic-benefit targets as Pennsylvania to earn federal grants, even though the island's small population and isolated location makes it virtually impossible to do.

By providing American Samoans with help to develop 21st-century energy options and by helping to fix the crumbling roads that now don't qualify for federal money, Congress could level the playing field so it makes economic sense for businesses to invest in American Samoan communities.

Private-sector companies have stepped up by helping to create an environment where businesses can thrive. Led by StarKist, TriMarine, Hamburg Sud, Polynesia Line and others, the Stronger Economy for American Samoa coalition has started building support for a broad-based and sustainable new economic model, one that would help our entire nation move further down the road to recovery.

I am confident that American Samoa will emerge stronger than ever because its people have been part of the fabric of this nation for more than 113 years. American Samoa's impact has been felt from the football field to the boardroom and across every branch of our armed forces. I am proud of my island and its history, and I believe that with more public awareness about the economic struggle in American Samoa, our nation's leaders will listen and take action.

I know the hopes of every Terrible Towel-waving fan rest with each tackle I make or pass I block. I do my best. In return, I ask you to be as dedicated and passionate about our team as you have been every season that I've had the honor to play here.

Please also take a moment to think about my American Samoan brothers and sisters as we face this important economic crossroads. Together we can make life better in our country's southernmost territory, to the benefit of all Americans.


Troy Polamalu plays strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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