44. Welfare under Water: TVA as an Impetus for Socioeconomic Change

Author: Jennifer Archis, Sophomore


When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed office in 1933, the United States was in the depths of the Great Depression. The Tennessee Valley Authority, commonly known as the TVA, was established the same year by Congress as part of the New Deal Program. In his request for the establishment of the TVA, Roosevelt stated, “It [TVA] should be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation, and development of the natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general social and economic welfare of the Nation” (Roosevelt). The TVA was charged with bringing industry, economy, and livelihood to the struggling South; to do so, it would work independently of Congress and in tandem with local agencies in the Valley. The power of the TVA was divided largely among three individuals: David E. Lilienthal, a member of the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, Arthur E. Morgan, a civil engineer for the Miami Conservation District, and Harcourt Morgan, an educator and agricultural expert who was serving as president of the University of Tennessee at the time of his appointment (Tennessee Valley Authority). The Tennessee Valley Authority as imagined by Roosevelt had a variety of goals, but he placed special focus on the goal of socioeconomic betterment in the Tennessee Valley. The area was plagued by problems such as overpopulation and poor soil quality and had a bleak outlook in terms of socioeconomic improvement; Roosevelt hoped that the TVA’s initiatives would help rectify these problems.  The initiatives that were to have the most impact on socioeconomic betterment were the TVA power program, relocation efforts, and education efforts. However, these initiatives proved ineffective in promoting positive socioeconomic growth, often leading to more adverse than favorable effects for a majority of the Valley’s people. They typically benefitted only a subsection of the population: the more affluent of the farming families, specifically those that were white. Those that fell outside of this group – such as tenant farmers and African Americans – were not adequately provided for, often being relocated to substandard locations without enough reimbursement to eke out a better living. This arose due to a variety of factors within the design of the TVA itself: an overwhelming breadth of goals, a fear of setting precedent as a relief agency, a focus on planning for the future at the expense of current socioeconomic problems, and the TVA’s interactions at the local level. The “marginalized” groups – those that were not white landowning families – in the Valley at the time of the TVA’s advent were therefore incapable of reaping any of the benefits provided by the program and remained trapped in a cyclic pattern of poverty.

The Tennessee Valley at the time of the TVA’s formation was heavily plagued by environmental forces outside of its control and trapped in repeated patterns of destitution; a TVA spokesman described the area as filled with “poverty, hunger, isolation, and a general separation of farming from the progressive economical forces at the time” (Droze 190). Life was difficult in the Valley, and the effects of the Great Depression only served to decrease the standard of living. There was minimal industry and mechanization, and agriculture was still the main occupation; farms were below average in size and most farmers were still uneducated (Boles 457). Economic improvement was highly difficult in this environment, and farmers often fell victim to forces outside of their control. Some farmers owned land and family farms that were prosperous even by national standards, but this was not the norm for most of the Valley. The disproportion between well-to-do families and poor marginalized families was one of the largest socioeconomic problems faced by the Valley’s people (Droze 193). Overpopulation was also an immense problem at the time of the TVA’s advent. There was not enough land to support the number of agricultural families that inhabited the Valley, especially with much of the land having poor soil quality. Bitterness over the Civil War and Reconstruction Era was still abundant, and many people felt a loss of pride and self-motivation (Creese 91). Communities were often segregated along racial divides, with black farmers experiencing a disproportionate impact of hardship; Grant described blacks in the Valley at the time as experiencing a “double edge of racism and poverty” (xxix). Within the agricultural system in place there was no way to get ahead; this left marginalized people in the Valley with a bleak future in terms of socioeconomic betterment.

Despite this poor outlook, however, farmers felt a deep-rooted sense of community and self-sufficiency that was often overlooked by outsiders examining the area’s social stratification. Farming communities within the Valley tended to be independent of one another, functioning successfully as units and held together by deep community ties (McDonald and Muldowny 99). Families typically had lived in the same area for generations and held set patterns of life. Within the community, people were well-acquainted with one another and readily banded together for support in times of need. However, this high degree of trust and kinship was lost when the TVA began work in 1933. Myers Hill, a farmer living in the Valley at the time, lamented the loss of this close-knit community, stating: “Seems like they was more close to one another, and [there was] more love for one another than there is today” (qtd. in McDonald and Muldowny 38). Many others felt similarly and believed that the TVA’s coming had disrupted the only way of life they had ever known. The Authority, therefore, had to navigate these sentiments and be supportive of the communities while still attempting to enact widespread change. This caused a variety of responses in the people of the Valley. Some of those dispossessed by the TVA’s land purchases tried to stall their relocation for as long as possible, but others were more obliging. John Rice Irwin, an American historian, noted that in his dealings with people in the Valley, “I recall many, many times hearing them say that they hated to leave more than anything in the world, but they felt it [TVA] was a worthwhile project, and they held little bitterness for it” (qtd. in McDonald and Muldowny 56). The people believed that the Tennessee Valley Authority would improve their lives, and because of this they were more agreeable to the adverse effects it could place on them. Interestingly, however, farmers’ expectations of what the TVA would provide for them in the way of economic improvement were still generally modest (McDonald and Muldowny). None of them believed that drastic change to their socioeconomic status could come out of the TVA’s work, but they did anticipate some socioeconomic betterment. These minimized expectations may have arisen out of a lack of understanding as to what Roosevelt expected the TVA to provide to them.

In his address to Congress asking for the formation of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Roosevelt outlined the purpose he envisioned for the TVA in a broad scale combining multiple initiatives. From Roosevelt’s preliminary vision, six main goals were derived that constitute the full TVA program:
(1) the maximum amount of flood control; (2) the maximum development of the Tennessee River for navigation; (3) the maximum generation of electric power consistent with flood control and navigation; (4) the proper use of marginal lands; (5) the proper method of reforestation of all lands in this drainage basin suitable for reforestation; (6) the economic and social well being of the people living in the Tennessee River basin (Kimble 339).


Because the objectives for the TVA were so broad, the program itself drew from the ideas of a diverse pool of experts and was headed by a diverse group of directors: Lilienthal, Arthur Morgan, and Harcourt Morgan. Each director was to be put in charge of a different facet of the program: Lilienthal focused on the power initiative, Harcourt Morgan spearheaded TVA’s agricultural efforts, and as chairman Arthur Morgan oversaw the remaining affairs (Tennessee Valley Authority). Roosevelt hoped that in dividing up the power, equal treatment would be given to all TVA goals. Another characteristic of the TVA was its federal autonomy as a regional planning agency, which allowed the program a certain degree of freedom in conducting affairs. The directors would be directly responsible for the administrative actions of the TVA, not Congress (Lilienthal, TVA 151). The final organizational characteristic of the TVA was that it would work side-by-side with local agencies, a concept known as grassroots democracy. While all six goals of the TVA were important, the sixth and final goal – the well-being of the people in the Valley – was a particularly important and anthropocentric goal. The coming of the Authority would mark a huge change in the lives of the Valley’s people, and Roosevelt did not want environmental improvements to overshadow the importance of bettering life for them. Arthur Morgan noted that in their initial meeting, “he [Roosevelt] talked for an hour about its [the TVA’s] possibilities and there was scarcely a mention of power or fertilizer. He talked chiefly about a designed and planned social and economic order. That was what was first in his mind” (Creese 282). Roosevelt’s concern was logical: the TVA’s coming would displace a large number of people and ideally change the entire lifestyle of the Valley from one focused on agriculture to an integrated industrial and agricultural one. Both he and Arthur Morgan believed that ensuring beneficial change was an essential part of the TVA program and placed higher priority on this idea than either Harcourt Morgan or Lilienthal did. Arthur Morgan in particular was an immense proponent of small-community living and homestead programs, stating that “mass production will also have its place” but focus should be put on “an increase of general well-being” (72). The community-building program that Morgan desired never came to fruition, and he was removed from his position in the Authority in 1938 after years of conflict with his fellow directors (Lilienthal, Journals 74). Though a full socioeconomic improvement initiative was not formed, the TVA did attempt to take steps in improving the welfare of the Valley through more indirect routes: the relocation of peoples displaced by the TVA, agricultural education on how to farm more efficiently and effectively, and the formation of its power program. However, the repercussions of these indirect programs often led to more negative impacts than positive for the people they had been designed to help. 

The Tennessee Valley Authority operated under an over purchase policy in many of its dams, such as Norris Dam in Tennessee. The rationale behind such a policy was to keep land tangential to the dam from being exploited and to build up an erosion buffer. However, this policy led to the displacement of far more people than anticipated. In Norris, for example, as many as 1,500 people may have been unnecessarily removed (McDonald and Muldowny 136). In an area already plagued by overpopulation, this served to compound the problems faced by the now-dispossessed people struggling to find a new community. The demand for new housing in the area and a lessened supply of land available for new housing gave rise to price inflations in the area. For a family that had limited supply of money, was accustomed to a system of barter, and lived a mostly self-sufficient life, finding affordable and comparable housing was problematic. A study done by the TVA showed that in Norris, 41.9 percent of tenants and 28.8 percent of owners out of the study population felt that their homes were not as good as those that they had previously inhabited (McDonald and Muldowny 251-252). While land-owning families could likely anticipate monetary compensation from the TVA for their land, tenants were often bypassed and received less assistance in starting their lives over. Dispossessed tenants were forced to enter into new contracts or hope that their current landowner would consider relocating them onto their new land. However, there was little guarantee that the tenants would be provided for by their landowners; in Norris, for example, 25 percent of the 1,857 owners within the removed population were renting to tenants at the time of TVA displacement, and approximately 33 percent of those expressed interest in providing for their tenants after relocation (McDonald and Muldowny 93). This left many tenants without compensation for their dispossession, the finances to live on their own, or the promise of a place with their previous landowner.

Another facet of the TVA’s goal of social betterment was its hydroelectric power program. The power program appeared to signify a change in the economic lifestyle of the Valley from an agricultural one to a more industrial one. However, the power program served more to widen the disparity between marginalized and well-to-do groups than to provide direct benefit, largely due to a lack of money among marginalized groups. Tenants and poor landowners could not afford the appliances that could have improved their quality of life; finding housing and land was more important to them than luxurious appliances such as refrigerators. They could not afford to take advantage of the power program and therefore it did not serve to improve their socioeconomic status in the Valley.

Furthermore, the TVA focused on the power program more than its relocation and education programs. Lilienthal wrote in Democracy on the March that “a high production of electricity per person of population is a requisite of a technical society” and proudly boasted that “since TVA began operations, the amount of electricity produced, per person, increased more than 900 per cent, three times as fast as the United States as a whole” (17-18). A large majority of the improvements made by the TVA were within the power program; therefore, the TVA was seen largely as a power program initiative and not as a comprehensive program with a myriad of goals. This meant that other programs, such as relocation and education, were not fully invested in. In short, the TVA widened already existent inequalities between socioeconomic classes by focusing too intensely on the power program, which offered little benefit to marginalized groups.

The hydroelectric power program, while failing to provide direct assistance to marginal farmers and serving to amplify the disparities between opulent and poor, also had adverse effects on the amount of profitable land available for relocated persons. The majority of soils in the Valley had been worn out from extensive farming of a limited array of crops, and the areas of most profitable soil were typically along the Tennessee River shoreline. When the TVA purchased land on which to build its dams, it purchased some of the most fertile lands only to inundate them with water. This lead to an overall soil quality reduction among the tracts available for relocation. In Blount County, Tennessee, for example, the TVA built the Ft. Loudon reservoir at the expense of half of the area’s best farmland (Walker, All We Knew 157). A similar experience can be found in both Norris and Wheeler, Alabama; in Wheeler, surveys done by regional planning staff found that 69 percent of farmers were relocated to inferior land (Grant 75). This reduction in the amount of productive land available – as well as a general reduction in land available for relocation – heightened the disparity between classes in the Valley. Families with enough financial support could afford to purchase the more expensive arable land, while marginalized families could not do so and therefore had little capacity for improving their farms, especially without relocation assistance.

The relocation policies of the TVA, which could have been a great benefit to the dispossessed, did little to assist marginalized groups in navigating the processes of resettlement and land acquisition within the Valley. The TVA often did not involve itself in the relocation process, instead passing off responsibility at the local level; when it did involve itself, the policies it put forth were disorganized and conflicted. There was no clear-cut plan to provide for the dispossessed – especially those in already-precarious socioeconomic situations – when the Authority began population removal. Typically, the TVA tried to put families in touch with local welfare departments after dispossessing them, but this did not always go as expected. A survey conducted in Norris claims that of the 2,572 families sampled, only 35.7 percent of them were aided in their resettlement by agencies (McDonald and Muldowny 254). Agencies were often backlogged with families to aid, and had little to offer them in assistance because of a lack of inexpensive arable land and proper housing. Another issue with agency workers – both at the local and TVA levels – was their minimal understanding of the specific needs of marginalized families. In the Ft. Loudon Dam area, for example, a TVA worker stated that a family would have “little if any” change in their lives because they were moving only a mile away. However, this particular family had no means of transportation and had to walk everywhere they went (Walker, All We Knew 157). In the context of the family’s resources, then, a mile more of walking in any direction was a significant change, something the worker failed to comprehend.

This incomprehension was even worse for agents assisting African American families. TVA workers did not understand the specific needs of black families because they were typically white and therefore lacked an integral understanding of the problems blacks faced in the relocation process. For example, the population of the Wheeler Dam area was 25 percent black, but the TVA had only one black relocation agent named Birdius Browne working in the area (Grant 77). A similar demographic consisting of mostly white relocation agents can be found throughout the TVA, which caused problems in giving proper assistance to blacks. White workers often incorrectly assumed that because African Americans were excluded from white communities, they did not have communities of their own and would not be impacted by relocation (Walker, African Americans 428). This most likely arose out of the segregation that was in place at the time; because blacks were so alienated, white workers often had experienced very little of their culture and community organization. In summary, blacks received less assistance overall, and what assistance they were given was made by workers who failed to understand the specific issues the family would face.

In addition to being unable to understand the needs of the Valley’s people, the TVA also made conscious decisions to deny support to families that had little promise for benefitting from the Valley’s mechanization. The Authority promoted commercialized and mechanized agriculture over the simple and self-sufficient farming familiar to marginalized groups (Walker, All We Knew 156). Because of this, it offered limited relocation assistance to them, preferring to work with farmers it believed would be more productive. This left marginalized groups trapped in the same cycle that they had been in before the onset of the TVA: a cycle of debt and inability to move forward. The TVA had no organizational relocation policies, nor did any of the local agencies that it worked with, and so there was no structure to encourage improvement in socioeconomic status. Tracy Augur of the TVA’s Land Planning and Housing Division criticized the TVA relocation program, stating:
No attempt is made to secure a better population pattern than now exists, or to furnish a more stable economic base than is given by the practice of Agriculture. …it does not at all fulfill the Authority’s opportunity to improve the status of those with whom its work has brought it into direct contact. In fact, it tends to perpetuate a condition which is admittedly bad, and which it is one of the Authority’s functions to improve (McDonald and Muldowny 166-167).
In short, the Authority was wrought with infrastructural problems that prevented marginalized groups from receiving the relocation assistance that they desperately needed if they were to improve their socioeconomic status. 

A final aspect of the TVA’s goal of bettering socioeconomic status among the people of the Valley – furthering education – was a beneficial tool in improving the problems posed by poor land quality. However, it contained bias that further marginalized poor farmers in the Tennessee Valley. Agricultural education was undergone through the mediums of “test farms” and partnerships with local land grant colleges to study fertilizers, in the hopes of improving knowledge on proper soil care and farming technique. The TVA test farms were a method by which the Authority could spread knowledge of proper farming practices by supplying specific farmers with tools and fertilizers to improve productivity; when other farmers saw firsthand the increase in productivity, they would be more inclined to try and improve their own farms. The problem was that many farmers with poor output did not have enough money to purchase the supplies that the TVA used on test farms, nor did they stand a chance of becoming demonstration farmers themselves. The Authority chose more prosperous farmers over the poorest ones because they saw more possibility for growth in them (McDonald and Muldowny 258). Marginalized farmers could observe the benefits of mechanization and fertilizers but could not experience them personally, hindering any growth that could have arisen from the TVA’s agricultural education. The Tennessee Valley Authority also worked in conjunction with land grant colleges to form the test farms and research the benefits of fertilizers, but worked only with white land grant colleges (Grant 30). Black agricultural colleges were denied the opportunity of working with the TVA, which would have meant gaining a better understanding of agriculture and farming methods and therefore becoming more capable of bettering their socioeconomic status.

Another aspect of education within the TVA was job training. People in the Valley were largely unfamiliar with industry, and so the TVA sought to provide education alongside its industrialization of the Valley. African Americans did not receive this opportunity; instead, they received education and training only for jobs of similar standing to what they already kept, such as handymen, janitors, and housekeepers (Grant 93). The education programming of the TVA was oriented more towards an improvement of life for people who already had resources, bypassing those without resources or high societal status.

Despite its admirable intentions to meet the goal of socioeconomic betterment, the TVA failed to do so for the majority of the Valley, improving quality of life for only those who already were relatively well-off and sidelining the rest. Droze states in “TVA and the Ordinary Farmer” that “there are still many limited-resource farmers who have been bypassed by progress” (201). This phenomenon was not unique to the people in the Valley at the time; rather, it perpetuated for years to come. In 1961, for example, the TVA released an annual report that stated “the region’s weakest points are in its overpopulated rural areas where thousands of farms are still too small for economic operation of adequate incomes” (qtd. in Droze 196).  Because the marginalized people in the Valley did not have resources already on hand, they were unable to reap the benefits of the Authority’s power, relocation and education initiatives. Consequently, they remained trapped in the same cycle of debt they had begun in, often with inferior land and housing with which to work.

Much of the TVA’s inability to improve the lives of the people in the Valley arose from its very design. The TVA had an overwhelming breadth of goals, was incapable of operating as a relief agency, and focused on planning for the future at the expense of existing socioeconomic problems; additionally, it was forced to operate in the context of the Southern culture in which it worked because of its devotion to the idea of grassroots democracy. These factors all served to prevent any real socioeconomic change from being accomplished by the TVA’s initiatives.

The TVA was charged with overseeing a variety of projects simultaneously, and this involved a coordination among all parties that was difficult to balance and often ended in extensive focus being given to one project over the others. Lilienthal commented in TVA: Democracy on the March that “even at best it is difficult for each specialist to appraise the relative importance of his own task as part of the whole picture, or its importance as compared with the tasks in some other technical branch” (69). It is this very same problem that plagued the three directors and eventually led to Arthur Morgan’s removal. The inability of the directors to balance all goals forced a shift away from community planning and direct socioeconomic improvement, with the power program claiming the attention previously given to these goals.

When Hoover commented on the TVA, he cited its main purpose as “the purchase, construction, transmission and sale of electricity in the Tennessee Valley and neighborhood, together with the manufacture and merchandising of appliances, fertilizers, chemicals, and other commodities” (8). The power program overshadowed the other aspects of socioeconomic wellness in the Valley as the TVA focused more on long-term status improvement than it did on the current. Arthur Morgan addressed this in his 1934 article on the TVA, stating “The average man often endeavors to judge the merit of long-range generalizations by temporary and partial results” (64). Ironically, this idea brought about the TVA’s ineffectiveness as an impetus for socioeconomic change. The TVA focused on long-range generalizations – such as electricity in the Valley – when the “temporary and partial,” such as relocation initiatives and bettering socioeconomics, would have been more beneficial to the people. This forward-thinking concept meant that the TVA also did not consider existing socioeconomic divides in its planning and took an intensely impersonal route in its work in the Valley. Grant described the Tennessee Valley Authority planners as tending to speak in “terms of efficiency and practical and logical development rather than in terms of morality, compassion, or justice” (149). This could be ascribed to the TVA’s failure to recognize the current environment in which it worked and account for it accordingly, for fear of becoming a solely philanthropic venture. The TVA did not have the resources to fully dedicate itself to the cause of socioeconomic betterment and so
“gratuitous aid” would have been a dangerous precedent to set (McDonald and Muldowny 172). The Tennessee Valley Authority was not designed to be a relief agency, and attempts to construe it as such would have been an overextension of the TVA’s statute. Therefore, to keep from being overwhelmed by relief and charity actions, the TVA kept its focus on improvements for the future rather than the present.

Even with its long-range planning, however, the TVA did not give extra provision to African Americans as may have been assumed by a forward-thinking program. This arose out of the juxtaposition between a program that wanted progress for the Tennessee Valley but was forced to work within the confines of its societal norms. The grassroots democracy that the TVA utilized in an effort to involve the local people prevented the TVA from enacting real change. The Authority “deferred” societal planning to other local programs, thus preventing any blame from being passed to them for failing to improve the lives of marginalized groups. A 1936 Annual Report for the TVA stated that “planning of the River’s future is entrusted to the TVA. The planning of the Valley’s future must be the democratic labor of many agencies and individuals, and the final success is as much a matter of general initiative as of general control” (Menhinick and Durisch 120). This deference allowed for the directors of the TVA to justify its inattention to those dispossessed by its actions as well as knowingly give local agencies with ingrained ideas about social stratification the power to continue current practices of segregation and racial disparity. In Lilienthal’s journals, he recalled visiting Norris Lake with his family and having to explain why a sign reading “Whites Only” was posted:
There was no use pretending that there would be anything but social distinctions, and with them segregation, perhaps for generations to come. The thing to do was to try, patiently and with considerable difficulty, to remove some of the causes of race feeling, but to stand like a rock on the right of each Negro to an opportunity to work and to learn as much as he was capable of learning, on his merits (516).
At the same time, however, the TVA was limited in its ability to foster these educational opportunities for blacks. By trying to avoid opposition at the local level by politicians and leaders, who were largely responsible for the cooptation of the TVA, the TVA was careful to adhere to segregation and educational disparity.

In conclusion, the Tennessee Valley Authority had no comprehensive programming designed to better socioeconomic status within the Valley. Even Arthur Morgan, the largest supporter of socioeconomic planning among the three directors, acknowledged this fact, stating: “The public of America quite generally has the impression that the Tennessee Valley Authority was given a charter with far-reaching powers to plan and to work out the social and economic re-construction of a great region. That is far from being the case” (qtd. in Menhinick and Durisch 144). The TVA instead utilized indirect impacts from its other programs – relocation efforts, hydroelectric power, and education – to try and affect socioeconomic change. The goal of socioeconomic change, which had the potential of making an immense impact on the marginalized people in the Tennessee River Basin, was never fully carried out, and attempts to carry it out often ended in benefit being provided only to the well-to-do farmers and elite rather than the poor and marginalized groups. This ineffectiveness in planning arose from a variety of factors, but the most notable causes came from within the program design. The TVA was given too many broad goals, which led to an imbalance of focus on each. This was especially evident in the power program of the TVA and its precedence over relocation policy and providing for the dispossessed. The concept of grassroots democracy, which required participation at the local scale, forced the TVA to adopt African American segregation and disparagement practices into its initiatives and consequently added bias to the program. The elite of the Valley were the ones involved locally, rather than the marginalized, and therefore the program was tailored more to those already moderately well off. Additionally, the Tennessee Valley Authority was too forward-thinking, often at the expense of the marginalized groups who had known nothing but the agricultural community in which they lived and needed immediate assistance in finding new homes, jobs and ways of life. McDonald and Muldowny describe modernization’s impact as being greatest on those directly in its path, stating “The first groups of people to feel the full weight of modernization, be they communities or nations, are more apt to bear the disruptive effects and tensions of that process than are the generations that follow” (25). The TVA had an immense impact on people living in the Tennessee Valley at the time of its development which it was incapable of avoiding due to a variety of autogenous factors. Because of this, the TVA – an organization designed to breathe life into the stagnant socioeconomic climate of the South – fell short of accomplishing its goal for the marginalized groups that it was intended to help.  


Works Cited


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