A young mother’s feet hit the cold linoleum before sunrise to tackle another day’s seemingly endless household chores. There are lamps to light, stoves to stoke and water to haul. Her husband is already out the door. It takes long hours of backbreaking labor to keep the farm going.
Then the electric cooperative (often called the “REA”) came, bringing electric lights, later an iron, a washing machine and electric stove. Electric pumps and motors increased the farm’s productivity.
Suddenly, both the husband and wife had a few extra minutes each evening to sit with their family, listen to the radio and “visit.” Their lives were dramatically better because of the electric co-op.
Fast forward 80 years. Few families in rural South Carolina can imagine life without the conveniences of electricity, but they face new challenges. Finding adequate health care can be a problem. Seniors are often going it alone as younger family members have moved away to find employment opportunities. Parents worry about the quality of local schools.
The very fabric of rural America is unraveling. In the past four years alone, more than 50 percent of rural counties lost population. The poverty rate for these communities hovers at 17 percent—much higher than the rate for metropolitan areas.
Just as cooperatives transformed the lives of their members 80 years ago, they are still working to do so today, by partnering with leaders on Main Street and focusing on the broader challenges of rural America. During the past year, a dedicated group of electric cooperative leaders from across the country set out to define how co-ops can effectively help their members meet the challenges of the future. They just released their report, The Electric Cooperative Purpose: A Compass for the 21st Century.
These leaders concluded that providing affordable, reliable and safe electricity is job one, but that electric cooperative members deserve more. They pointed out that cooperatives are businesses with a higher mission and a unique ability to empower members to improve the quality of their lives.
Improving the quality of life is our heritage and duty. It is why our South Carolina co-ops proudly sponsored two Honor Flights within the past year— hosting our distinguished World War II veterans on trips to Washington, D.C. It is why Palmetto Electric Cooperative created the Operation Round Up program, where co-op members contribute on a monthly basis to help fellow members in need—a program that has been replicated throughout the state and across the nation. It is why our cooperatives are providing scholarships to young people, making grants to local schools and investing in developing industrial parks and water infrastructure. It is why cooperative leaders are active in their churches, local Rotary clubs and Chambers of Commerce.
Over the past several decades, polls have shown a loss of faith in government, business and other institutions on which Americans have traditionally relied. People are looking for organizations they can trust. You need look no further than your local electric cooperative, a business that authentically cares about its members.
The “bottom line” for electric cooperatives is not profit, but the benefit of members. It’s a principle that dates back to the 1930s, but one that will guide us well into the next century and beyond. Our members deserve more than electricity.