MEMORY LANE: Bring on the juice

Tue, 06/30/2009 - 8:20pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technologywriter, Denver, Colo.

“Mother, I didn't realize how dark our house was until we got electric lights”

According to the 1930 U.S. Census, 90 percent of the nation’s rural dwellers had no electricity. That is to say, no way to store meat without it spoiling and no way to light rooms at night except for candles or kerosene lamps. These conveniences were by then familiar to the Stewart Schleymajority of Americans who had electricity in the 1930s. But farmers and rural homeowners remained suspended in a sort of yesteryear bubble as power companies refused to spend the capital needed to extend lines into sparsely populated areas.

The Roosevelt administration identified the disparity as an imbalance deserving of federal remedy, and it came up with a plan to bring electricity to rural America. The main instrument of rectification would be money: low-cost loans and grants that would help rural electric cooperatives and small, private power companies string electric lines to isolated houses and farmsteads. They would be administered through the Rural Electrification Association, one of the New Deal agencies Roosevelt created in an ambitious drive to lift the country from economic depression.

If the goal was to light up the nation’s farmsteads, the REA certainly succeeded. By 1939, REA-funded electrical cooperatives brought power to 90 percent of rural homes, transforming life for close to 300,000 farmers and rural homeowners.

“The first benefit we received from the REA service was lights, and aren't lights grand?” wrote a customer of the Shelby, Ark., Rural Electric Cooperative in 1939. “My little boy expressed my sentiments when he said, ‘Mother, I didn't realize how dark our house was until we got electric lights.’”

It seemed hard-hearted to argue against the virtue of empowering young farm children to read books into the evening, or keeping food from spoiling in the same farms that produced it for the rest of the country. But REA detractors were abundant. Some, representing industry, argued that devoting taxpayer money to create electricity represented a step toward socialism. In 1935, the executive secretary of the National Coal Association, John Battle, told a congressional hearing that a federal plan to draw electrical power from water dams – an outgrowth of the REA-backed Tennessee Valley Authority – represented a brash intrusion on capitalism. “We feel that the American businessman is far more capable of visualizing the needs for electrical power and far more capable of designing ways and means by which it may be furnished to prospective customers than is the government itself,” Battle proclaimed.

Others pointed out that stringing power lines to America’s farmland did relatively little to further a policy ambition of the Roosevelt administration: to preserve America’s agricultural economy. By the 1970s, 98 percent of U.S. farms had access to electricity – clearly a demonstration of the REA’s impact – but the number of family farms had dwindled severely as a decades-long exodus to urban and suburban areas continued. Even so, the REA lived on and extended its funding role to encompass rural telephone service in 1949. The agency was abolished in 1994 as the Rural Utilities Service assumed its mission.

The RUS is back in the news today as one of two federal agencies charged with distributing roughly $7.2 billion in federal loans and funding for the expansion of access to broadband communications capability. The parallels between the Obama administration’s broadband stimulus program and the rural electricity component of Roosevelt’s New Deal are striking.

Many of the arguments for and against the broadband stimulus are derivations of what lawmakers heard in the 1930s: On one hand, industry advocates argue that private enterprise is better suited to decide where and how to make service available; on the other, public interest groups rail against the private-sector Scrooges that refuse to extend broadband connectivity beyond densely populated areas. Somewhere in between, proponents argue that no matter who builds it, the availability of broadband will spark spillover economic benefits as newcomers buy upgraded computers, shop online and participate in the information economy. (This is a nifty companion to the 1930s finding that the availability of electricity meant good things for makers of refrigerators, radios and washing machines.)

Among all of the similarities, though, one disparity emerges. In the 1930s, almost no one argued that rural Americans might not want electricity. The same can’t necessarily be proven about broadband. A Pew Internet and American Life survey recently found that of the 25 percent of the U.S. population that isn’t connected to the Internet, about half said they’re simply not interested. For all the furrowed concern about broadband as an instrument of global competitiveness, it’s possible that policymakers have overlooked one important dynamic: Not everyone desperately wants broadband. Even with $7 billion of juice behind it.


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