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Biden’s infrastructure success depends on implementation, not just ideas

A New Deal era program reminds us that the people who enact policies also shape them.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Virginia, U.S. May 28, 2021. REUTERS/Ken Cedeno/File Photo (Ken Cedeno/Reuters)

In April 2021, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y) proposed a bill to establish a Climate Conservation Corps that states that “all Americans who want to participate may do so, regardless of race, age, or gender.” Such proposals aim to build on the legacy of the New Deal while addressing the reality that much of the work done by the “alphabet soup” of New Deal agencies and public infrastructure projects of the 1930s, such as the WPA, the CCC and the TVA, focused on improving the lives of those who were male and White. They advanced and hardened racial and gender inequalities, even as they helped millions.

And yet, while Biden’s plan promises to center women’s economic concerns (in particular, by addressing the need for better, and better paid, childcare and education), the actual implementation of the programs matters as well. Yes, the New Deal was designed with men in mind, but because of women who worked for agencies like the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), New Deal programs served a much wider constituency than its planners originally envisioned. While it will help to focus on communities most in need when designing Biden’s programs, the lesson of the REA is that if the Biden team truly wants to serve a wider group of Americans this time around, they should also give equal attention to implementation.

The REA offers a great reminder of how the people who enact policies also shape them. For example, during the late 1930s to early 1940s, the REA sent a literal “electric circus” into rural America to spread the good word of electricity. To accompany the traveling show of electric farm equipment and home appliances, the agency also employed a cadre of experts to teach rural people about the merits of electric living — most notably, a group of female home economists.

Home economists were career professionals, often younger, well-educated and less likely to be married than their rural ‘students’ at the traveling appliance schools. While typically sidelined to areas traditionally identified as “women’s work,” such as the efficient running of the kitchen, the laundry and the household, they had an opportunity to shape key elements of the REA’s programming. In fact, they challenged the assumptions of male agency leadership while simultaneously making the program more responsive to women’s practical needs.

The original premise of the REA appliance schools relied on patriarchal assumptions about rural farm life that rarely reflected the work that women actually did on the farm. In a report to her supervisors, Clara Nale, the REA’s chief home economist, described one of the REA ‘Appliance Schools’ organized in July 1940 for the women of Comanche County, Tex. For four days, 35 women enjoyed air conditioning, cooked on electric stoves, laundered shirts and tested electric irons. They weighed the merits of a well-ordered refrigerator and professed amazement when pudding cooked on the stove didn’t taste like onions. By the conclusion of the school, the women proved to be passionate proponents of the “electric way” of life.

And yet, programs like the Comanche County Appliance School did more than educate groups of women about electricity. Women were teaching the REA what they needed to know to help with the specific challenges that their rural lifestyle entailed. Enthusiastic home economists arrived in town prepared to give women information about electric refrigerators, washing machines, kitchen lighting and perhaps the occasional chick brooder. But these agency experts were “simply swamped” with questions from their students about everything from plumbing to electric wiring, which prompted Nale to contemplate “the type of information that [...] users should have before and after they get electricity.”

Nale’s reports to her supervisors offered a glimpse into the work that women actually did on the farm: in contemplating the switch to an electric stove, one woman mused whether it could cook enough beans for eight farmhands — hardly the ideal nuclear family envisioned by male REA bureaucrats. The Appliance School also included a field trip to one Miss Alice Robertson off Route 1, who had left her small town job to take over the family farm when her brother, a college professor, suffered a nervous breakdown. Her responsibilities meant she needed to understand the application of electricity to farming work as well as housework.

Despite the school’s initial focus on neatly packed refrigerators and the aesthetics of kitchen lighting, the women of Comanche demonstrated that they were an integral part of the farming economy. As Robertson illustrated, they needed to know how to irrigate a commercial flower bed as well as make fragrant pudding. The fact that this 1940 school even included farm equipment was a significant tip of the hat to women’s actual work. By comparison, an earlier 1936 pamphlet of “Xmas suggestions” for the Clinton, Tenn. Cooking School had listed “gifts for Mother” that only included electrical equipment one would find inside the four walls of a kitchen.

These schools were more than a sales pitch. From Nale’s perspective, enlisting women’s groups in community education campaigns was a crucial element of the success of the REA. In reports to her superiors, she argued that the “training of farm women leaders … would not only strengthen the electric cooperative, but it would also contribute in many ways to other agricultural programs.” Extension studies shared with the REA home economists highlighted how indirect influence through previously existing networks was the most important method of information dissemination.

Beyond improving the REA program itself, then, these schools empowered women to make the electric changes they wanted to see in their own communities. At the end of each ‘school’ day, the students convened to discuss the role that their group could have in the county’s electrified future. As the session wrapped up, they agreed to take their learning out to other members of the community. They would start by educating the local public schools on proper lighting and food preparation. By plugging into these networks, the home economists helped integrate women into the overall state-building project of electrification. The Comanche County REA Women’s Club — not the REA — would promote better school lighting.

Although the (male) REA leaders did not understand the needs of farm women, the home economists leveraged existing women’s groups and networks to make the agency’s programming more responsive to the needs of rural communities. Their appliance schools had an impact that lasted long after the REA “circus” had packed up and left town. REA home economists did more than inform women about modern conveniences available through electricity. They helped women envision a role for themselves in their communities’ electrified future.

To implement a truly successful 2021 infrastructure plan, the Biden team should broaden this lesson to include not just women, but members of other marginalized and underrepresented communities in implementing whatever program Congress enacts. Federal agencies need to be truly reflective of the communities they serve, and courting the participation of community organizations will ensure far more effective implementation — one which actually meets the needs of all communities in America.