Friday, March 08, 2013

Official argues for broad, larger definition of 'rural'

The Department of Agriculture needs a simpler, consistent definition of "rural" for Rural Development programs, writes Doug O'Brien, deputy undersecretary for those programs, writes in the Daily Yonder.

O'Brien, right, notes that Congress suggested in the 2008 Farm Bill that USDA's definitions "deserved a second look," and that a recent article by the University of Kentucky's Aleta Botts in the Yonder and The Rural Blog said one definition might not work best for various Rural Development programs. "such as business development, infrastructure improvements, and community facilities. . . . We take this point, and also recognize that there is a trade-off between tailoring the definition to each program and having over-all consistent definition that is easier for people to understand."

Skeptics of a single definition fear that it will make more communities eligible for Rural Development help, making it harder for smaller communities to compete. Botts said expanding USDA's current system of adding "priority points" to make sure small places aren't shortchanged would actually help larger ones, which could more easily respond to the newly defined priorities.

O'Brien says the evidence shows that the current system of priority points "works well to ensure the largest areas within this category do not dominate," and cites examples. He argues that a new, overall population limit of 50,000 would spur collaboration among rural communities, and says USDA is not seeing a reluctance by larger towns to work with small ones.

"The different definitions cause confusion for our stakeholders and sometimes cause communities to walk away from possible deals because either the definitions cause roadblocks or they are not interested in contorting the different projects in such a way that may meet the letter of the rural definition," O'Brien writes. He says the existence of 12 different definitions "is not necessarily an indication of fine-tailoring but rather reflects over half a century of legislation on rural programs and the different interests in front of Congress at the time the definition was created for a particular program." (Read more)

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