Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Opinion: Rural America is listening for leadership to support its economic and social renewal, but hears mostly silence

America needs a coherent rural policy, writes Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, leader of the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative and host of its Reimagining Rural podcast.

"Despite widespread acknowledgment since 2008 that rural places have generally been left behind, our nation still lacks a coherent federal rural policy," Pipa writes for The New York Times. "The Rural Electrification Act, Title V of the Housing Act and other national-scale development programs helped bring rural America into the modern era, and its contributions helped make the American economy the envy of the world. But today’s federal programs were built for a different era. We need a renaissance of rural policy to enable a renaissance of rural America.

"What we have are lots of programs — over 400 available for community and economic development spread across every nook and cranny of the federal government. But navigating that maze and the peculiarities of their applications, reporting and matching requirements is a high bar for anybody, let alone the part-time volunteer elected officials and the bare-bones staffs that make up many local rural governments. That leaves most rural communities starved for investment. Very few can get the type and level of resources necessary to reinvent their economy or unleash the full potential of their human, intellectual and natural capital as they face rapid change."

Agricultural policy is often mistaken for rural policy, Pipa writes: "Farming now accounts for just 7 percent of rural employment. Service jobs, retailing, manufacturing and government employment all outweigh agriculture." And contrary to prevailing belief, rural America is ethnically and racially diverse: "People of color make up 24 percent of the rural population. Close to half of rural Native Americans and more than half of rural Black Americans live in a distressed county. That’s compared with 18 percent of rural white residents." The image of rural America as an overwhelmingly white place may have cooled some Democrats' interest in it, but elements of the Biden administration remain interested.

"While the Biden administration has started the Rural Partners Network to embed federal staff members in rural communities to help them identify and secure federal resources, the program is limited to select communities in just 10 states and Puerto Rico," Pipa notes. "The country needs a national rural prosperity strategy that offers a coherent vision for rural America in the 21st century. Someone at the highest levels of the White House should be responsible for its execution and cutting through the bureaucratic entanglements. Canada and Ireland, among other countries, have completed such policies and created cabinet-level positions to carry them out. Governors in Wisconsin and Michigan have created rural prosperity offices."

What about Congress? "Rural policy is one issue where Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground to work together," on such things as the new Farm Bill, Pipa writes. "Yet early indications signal high-profile fights over food stamps, agricultural subsidies and conservation investments — and limited attention to rural development. . . . Rural America is listening for how public leadership and resources can better support the economic and social renewal of rural communities, but it hears mostly silence."

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