As the country fell deeper into its depression in the 1930s, President Roosevelt realized that he had to take sweeping
action in order for America’s economy to turn around. While nationally these transformations took the form of new monetary policy, federal jobs, and fireside chats, for one portion of the country, the FDR coalition meant a complete transformation of life as they knew it.
In the Tennessee River valley, life had been tough even before the depression. Due to frequent flooding, poor economic and educational prospects, and high rates of disease, many of the Americans living in these regions, which spanned across the south, led lives that were a far cry from their more metropolitan counterparts. By the 1930s, while most Americans had access to cars, electricity, and radios, the families living in the Tennessee River valley still lacked access to basic clean water, medicine, and electricity. FDR knew that these groups would fall further and further behind their peers unless he stepped in with clear policy goals.
These ambitions manifested in the Tennessee Valley Authority, a sweeping federal program with the intent of bringing the Tennessee River valley into the 20th century. While the program was multifaceted, the most famous aspect of it was the construction of hydroelectric dams throughout the valley meant to provide cheap electricity to the homes in the region1. This was the first program of its kind and a new arena for the federal government, which had largely stayed out of the utility sector.
Despite initial distrust of the government officials and their respective plans from locals, the Tennessee River Valley Authority was a resounding success, bringing both electricity and jobs to the region. The program was not without its opponents, the most famous being Wendell Wilkie, president of several utility corporations in the region and later Republican Nominee for president in 1940.2 Wilkie, who argued in front of congress and later the Supreme Court that the TVA was an unconstitutional monopoly over utilities, led a crusade against the expansion of the TVA. Though the Supreme Court did uphold the legalities of the program in the Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority While his attempts to stop the original TVA failed, Wilkie later found success in halting the expansion of the program that FDR had intended to do.
What is most impressive about the TVA is FDR’s initial reasoning for creating the program. Roosevelt understood that, without utilities like electricity, the Tennessee River valley would fall further behind the rest of the country and eventually reach a point where it would be deeply challenging to catch them up. He thought that electricity was a basic right that these Americans deserved and needed in order to be fully functioning citizens in the national community. This assumption was correct; after electricity was brought in, the region blossomed. Factories began to open that had not been able to prior due to lack of power, families were able to buy radios and tap into the national conversations which they had previously been segregated from, children were able to attend schools that had the same resources as their peers across the country, and slowly but surely the region was lifted out of the dark ages.4 Though nowhere in the constitution is electricity an enumerated right, FDR correctly saw that an electrified world was the way of the future. For all of America to fully move into that age, the long arm of the federal government had to help the least fortunate among them.
Almost a century later, we know that FDR’s beliefs about the need for electricity were apt, as we now live in a world where electrification is even more crucial than it was when he created the TVA. However, despite his efforts, many Americans are still being left behind, but in a new way: the internet. Even before COVID-19, internet access was an unspoken necessity in modern life-- from accessing homework to staying in contact with loved ones-- and while for those without ready access to the internet there were some modes of assistance (think public libraries or internet cafes), COVID-19 simultaneously cut off the supply for those who needed it the most while also greatly increasing the need for an internet connection.
We now live in a world where, without the internet, you are without the key to accessing almost all of the elements that make our modern society run. While it is true that this new form of e-living will not be as pronounced after the pandemic, it is clear that trends in telework and online learning, among many others, will stand the test of time, thus making internet access crucial to succeed. Yet, just as COVID-19 exposed how important internet access is in our world, it also exposed just how many of us do not have consistent internet access.
In 2021, as President Biden’s plans to rejuvenate the country run through Congress, many Americans are pointing to the need for universal broadband internet as a way to ensure that no American is left behind in our online age. In February, the House Energy and Commerce Committee met with experts in the field of education to hear about how lack of internet condemns the students most in need to fall behind their peers5. In prepared testimony for the hearing, Tiffany Anderson, the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools, explains that “Families simply cannot access services without it and currently the marginalized suffer the greatest, which is widening the economic and academic gaps rapidly.”6 Though the custodians of student success lay largely on the state and local officials leading education, it would be not only unfair but wholly inequitable to make states take the lead on this issue. Students in Alabama should not be struggling with internet connectivity while students in Maine have guaranteed access, this equity in access needs to be taken up by the President, much as FDR did back in the Depression, to guarantee every American, regardless of zip-code, income, citizenship status, or racial makeup, access to consistent internet.
While the universal need for this interest is a vaster demand than the one FDR had to work within the Tennessee River valley, the parallels between electricity then and the internet now are indisputable. With this in mind, guaranteeing every American internet access in the 21st century should not be something out of a politician’s wildest dreams; FDR showed us that government-led utility service is possible, and needed, to make sure every American has a fighting chance at success, especially our students.
1. “TVA,” History Channel, June 10, 2019. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/history-of-the-tva
2. “Tennesee Valley Authority; Electricity for All,” Social Welfare History Project, Virginia Commonwealth Universities, February 8, 2021. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/tennessee-valley-authority-electricity/
3. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Tennessee Valley Authority." Encyclopedia Britannica, July 7, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tennessee-Valley-Authority.
4. “How TVA Changed Lives,” Tennessee Valley Authority, February 8, 2021. https://www.tva.com/about-tva/our-history/tva-heritage/how-tva-changed-lives#:~:text=Building%20a%20New%20Life%20for%20the%20Tennessee%20Valley&text=%E2%80%9CTVA%20made%20a%20new%20life,life%20all%20the%20way%20around.
5. “Hearing on ‘Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems,” House Committee on Energy and Commerce. February 17, 2021. https://energycommerce.house.gov/committee-activity/hearings/hearing-on-connecting-america-broadband-solutions-to-pandemic-problems
6. “Witness Testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce,” Dr. Tiffany Anderson. February 17, 2021. https://energycommerce.house.gov/sites/democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/files/documents/Witness%20Testimony_Anderson_CAT_2021.02.17.pdf