By Ms. Tilt
One of FDR’s greatest policy accomplishments was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Designed to provide jobs, prevent floods, and provide cheap electricity throughout the region, the TVA took responsibility for lifting a large section of Tennessee’s rural population out of dire poverty. Both historically and recently, the TVA has come under attack; leftist groups like the Sierra Club cite environmental concerns such as the Kingston Fossil plant spill, whereas right-wing business leaders have claimed that the TVA represents a government-owned monopoly designed to price private energy producers out of the market. However, this writer believes that it is unreasonable to judge the success of the program by these standards. At the time, circumstances called for dramatic government intervention. In 1933, a reporter named Lorena Hickok corresponded with Harry Hopkins, the Director of the Federal Emergency Relief Agency, about the state of rural poverty at the time:
Out of nearly 70,000 families on relief in Tennessee, probably 30,000 or more live in small towns or in the country. Many of these are in abandoned lumber and mining camps. Most of them who are farmers apparently are living on sub-marginal or marginal land. Fairly typical, for Western Tennessee, I gather, was a district I visited yesterday. Table land. Thin soil. Terrible housing. Illiteracy. Evidence of prolonged undernourishment. No knowledge of how to live decently or farm profitably if they had decent land. “Five years is about as long as you can get any crop on this land,” one farmer told me. “Then it’s gone and you have to clear some more and start over again” (Lorena Hickok’s Letters from the Field: Reports on the State of the Nation).
It is fair to claim that Hickok’s letter smacks of New Deal ego, the belief that government bureaucracy and research held the power to reform the lives of backwards rural folk who may have wished to be left alone. On the other hand, rural Tennessee was struggling under the burden of traditional farming methods that left the soil depleted, families hungry, and many jobless. Its impact on the region was sudden and dramatic. Inhabitants received access to cheap electricity and 9,000 much-needed jobs were created, lifting many rural Tennesseans out of poverty.
Overall, the TVA did have a positive effect on America in a time when dire poverty wracked the nation. Modern critics are welcome to criticize the legacy of the TVA today. This writer only asks that they avoid projecting their criticisms into 1933, when the TVA was a precious source of jobs, agricultural research, and prosperity.