Thursday, January 21, 2021

Law professors who study rural poverty suggest five ways Biden can bridge the rural-urban divide while helping rural

President Biden now leads a country with deep economic, cultural and ideological divides between rural and urban areas. But he and his government can take concrete steps to help rural economies and bridge the rural-urban divide, Ann Eisenberg, Jessica Shoemaker, and Lisa Pruitt write for The Conversation, a site for journalism by academics. The three are law professors who study and advocate for interventions to help economically distressed rural communities; Eisenberg at the University of South Carolina, Shoemaker at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Pruitt at the University of California, Davis. Here are the top five initiatives that would help:
  1. Make sure all rural Americans have access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet. The pandemic has made clear that broadband is critical for education, work, health care, and more, but many rural Americans lack true high-speed access. Just how many is unclear, since the Federal Communications Commission has relied on faulty data maps. The Trump administration reversed an Obama-era rule that categorized broadband as a utility like electricity. "When broadband was regulated as a utility, the government could ensure fairer access even in regions that were less profitable for service providers. The reversal left rural communities more vulnerable to the whims of competitive markets," they write. Biden could get the ball rolling on more equitable broadband by reinstating the order that says broadband is a public utility.
  2. Help local governments avoid going broke. Local governments pay for services that range from trash pick-up to public health oversight. But many rural local governments are on the verge of fiscal collapse because of economic losses. "Federal institutions could help by expanding capacity-building programs, like Community Development Block Grants and Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants that let communities invest in long-term assets like main street improvements and housing," Eisenberg, Shoemaker and Pruitt write. "Rural activists are also calling for a federal office of rural prosperity or economic transitions that could provide leadership on the widespread need to reverse declining rural communities’ fates."
  3. Rein in Big Agriculture. Decades of policies that favor consolidation mean that big agribusinesses control most of America's farmland, the professors claim. Meanwhile, farmers lose access to affordable land, and rural communities near big farms are more likely to have unsafe drinking water, lower incomes, and greater economic inequality. "What many rural people want from agricultural policy is increased antitrust enforcement to break up agricultural monopolies, improved conditions for agricultural workers, conservation policies that actually protect rural health, and a food policy that addresses rural hunger, which outpaces food insecurity in urban areas," they write, adding that property-law reforms could help small farmers get more affordable land.
  4. Pursue broad racial justice in rural America. People of color make up one-fifth of rural America, and they're at least twice as likely to be poor as rural whites. Rural Hispanics make up more than 83 percent of farmworkers, but very few own farmland. "Criminal justice and law enforcement reforms occurring in cities are less likely to reach small or remote communities, leaving rural minorities vulnerable to discrimination and vigilantism, with limited avenues for redress," Eisenberg, Shoemaker and Pruitt write. "At a minimum, the federal government can enhance workplace protections for farm laborers, strengthen protections of ancestral lands and tribal sovereignty and provide leadership for improving rural access to justice."
  5. Focus on the basics. Some say the rural poor simply need to move to wealthier areas to improve their fortunes, but rural communities provide important connections and support systems for residents, such as child care, the professors write, arguing that large-scale federal interventions of the New Deal and Great Society have been effective and provide a model for another such intervention. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson "created public jobs programs that addressed important social needs like conservation and school building repair; established relationships between universities and communities for agricultural and economic progress; provided federal funding for K-12 schools and made higher education more affordable; and expanded the social safety net to address hunger and other health needs," they write. "A new federal antipoverty program – which urban communities also need – could go a long way to improving rural quality of life. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act targeted many of these issues. But urban communities’ quicker and stronger recovery from the Great Recession than rural ones shows that this program neglected key rural challenges."

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