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Rural America Needs A Cabinet Post

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
Rural Rural America can be disappointed with both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to developing and implementing programs that address its most pressing challenges. Election year after election year, we hear the promises and plans for rural renewal only to see those promises unfulfilled.

Each election year, the media assess the urban-rural divide and the root causes behind it. Each time the questions are asked, with each study that is completed, the answer is the same: There is a growing gap in economic prosperity and opportunity between rural and urban areas. We out here in the sticks are being left behind.

It’s a gap that leaves rural Americans resentful and distrustful of government, with both sentiments quickly capitalized upon by the political parties.

In the 30 years between 1988 and 2008, over a third of America’s non-metropolitan counties lost population. It was a trend that started decades earlier as migration for rural communities to the big cities gradually accelerated. It continues today.

“Ensuring rural Americans can achieve a high quality of life is the foundation of prosperity. Quality of life is a measure of human well-being that can be identified through economic and social indicators,” Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in announcing the administration’s rural plans. “Modern utilities, affordable housing, efficient transportation, and reliable employment are economic indicators that must be integrated with social indicators like access to medical services, public safety, education, and community resilience to empower rural communities to thrive.” Encouraging words.

“Population loss tends to reduce property values, increase tax burdens, reduce the supply and demand for local goods and services, and result in the loss of young, highly-skilled workers,” former President Obama’s Administration said in in one of its rural budget plans. “Given the unique needs of rural farm and non-farm communities, the President’s Budget proposes to refocus and reprioritize assistance to rural America to more appropriately address these needs.”

Yet, despite the lofty words, little changes in rural America. The party that finally figures how to deliver for rural America will win its allegiance – assuming we can put politics aside and vote for those who would advance rural renewal programs.

Some have proposed a “Marshall Plan” for rural America. It was a plan implemented by the U.S following World War II to help revitalize western Europe. It committed $12 billion to the program, $204 billion in today’s dollars. We could use such a plan.

First, the Biden Administration is going to have to develop a well-articulated rural policy strategy. “As early as the 1970s, officials in the Carter administration noted that ‘the federal rural development effort consisted of programs, rather than policy,’” Anthony F. Pipa and Natalie Geismar write in an article titled: ‘Reimagining rural policy: Organizing federal assistance to maximize rural prosperity.”

 “A national rural strategy will strengthen coordination by providing clear policy direction to the agencies and stakeholders involved in rural development,” they write.

Current programs to assist rural America are spread out, and disconnected, Pipa and Geismar say. They need to be brought together so their efforts can be coordinated.

“Over 400 programs are open to rural communities for economic and community development, spanning 13 departments, 10 independent agencies, and over 50 offices and sub-agencies,” the two point out.

“A total of 14 legislative committees have jurisdiction over the authorizing legislation for these programs. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with coordinating federal rural policy, these programs go far beyond its authority - similarly, today’s rural policy must go far beyond agricultural policy,” Pipa and Giesmar write.

In 2019, 93 of these programs awarded $2.58 million in grants and loaned out $38 billion, they report.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to fight rural poverty, provide rural housing, economic development, community infrastructure, finance expansions of rural healthcare facilities, and much more.

It is estimated that over 400,000 jobs could be created in renewable energy, with rural America playing a central role.  America’s leading energy producers aren’t being forced out of fossil fuels; they are gradually migrating away from them because solar and wind energy are so much cheaper to produce. As their technology continues to improve, the production of renewable energy will accelerate.

USDA can play a crucial role in making rural America a world leader in producing renewable energy technology and products.

USDA could become the source of substantial block grants that spur rural economic development in renewable energy and value-added agricultural products. They could work with local economic development organizations providing matching funds.

Rural America needs a well-financed and aggressive workforce housing initiative to help bring more people to settle in our rural communities. The program would significantly reduce the cost of getting into a home for workers.

One of rural America’s most significant challenges is attracting families and workers to live in our communities. USDA Rural Development grant and low-interest loan programs could be established to help our communities make the cultural and recreational facility improvements that young people demand.

Rural America needs immigrants to prosper, and many of those immigrants are going to come from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Between 1990 and 2010, immigrants were responsible for 83 percent of the population growth in rural counties. Undocumented workers make up more than half the country’s farm workers.

We need policies that facilitate legal immigration, providing workers rural America needs to prosper. Many of these workers and their families will be welcome additions to our communities.

We need an “American Rural Renewable” post in Washington, D.C., with direct input into a president’s administration.

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