April 21, 2022 | Reading Time: 2 minutes

America needs an internet version of Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration

Our kids deserve access.


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In the United States, it might be surprising to learn approximately 1.5 million people suffer from what’s known as “plumbing poverty.” That’s when people do not have access to water, indoor plumbing, etc. 

Surprising also is rural electrification. It remains spotty. It’s still a problem for populations such as the Navajo peoples, decades after the New Deal process of ensuring easy, affordable access to electricity.

The cause is primarily the federal government. Utility companies were not eager to connect the poor to the cross-country grid in the name of altruism. This meant cutting costs where it seemed as though it would matter least: the poorest out in the vast, endless expanses of the US. 

The cities had power and amenities like water and plumbing because there were great and obvious health and financial incentives to connect factories and housing together. So they did it in these places. 

The US might be a more just and equitable society were access to the internet given the same treatment as access to water and electricity, telegraph, and telephone lines once was.

Yet in places like East Texas, which a young Lyndon Johnson once called home, there was no access to electricity, and often plumbing as well, for the people who needed it most, as late as the early 1930s. 

Johnson went on to work in the Rural Electrification Administration when he was a Congressman to help electrify his constituency in the 10th Congressional District of Texas, which included the famed Texas Hill Country at that time as well as many of its neighbors. 

By the 1950s, across the entire nation, the REA’s job was essentially completed. Modernity had been brought to these United States. 

So it’s worth asking why the internet is not consistently or easily accessible for approximately 19 million Americans. Why isn’t it treated like a public utility, available to everyone at reasonable prices, good speeds, and with wifi freely accessible throughout the society? 

Access to the internet reflects the socioeconomic standard of one’s family, neighborhood, class, etc. Less well-off children have considerably less access, and knowledge of using it, than their wealthier counterparts. The US might be a more just and equitable society were access to the internet given the same treatment as access to water and electricity, telegraph, and telephone lines once was.

The internet is like food for the mind – food each child deserves. The internet is the greatest collection of knowledge mankind has assembled in one place – one place is all places simultaneously.

There is no good reason for studies featuring children lacking reliable access for homework, study and learning. Financial hardship shouldn’t be a barrier for parents to give their children every possible advantage.

Joe Biden should do the internet version of Roosevelt’s REA. Such an agency would not only provide money and motivation to wire the nation. It would also declare by doing so that the principals of its expansion were consistent with American liberty and justice for all.

The internet fulfills a basic need. If access to electricity and clean water, two things all people should have, and that still too many around the world do not, helped change and positively develop the world and its people, then we must add to that list the internet.

Boons such as expanded access to electricity, water and plumbing, as well as to the internet, do as much as anything to push humans and their societies forward toward new civilizational epochs, for they create a better, more equitable environment for all people to exercise themselves toward their collective and individual goals and passions.

Trent R. Nelson is a historian and political and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributor to Liberal Currents. Follow him @TRichard_Nelson.

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