Our nation is facing some of the toughest economic times in decades and this recession is hitting rural America just as severely as the rest of the country. A recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that in December 2008 alone, our nation’s rural counties lost 282,000 jobs. It is now more important than ever that Congress gives rural America a seat at the table and focuses on policies that will give our communities the economic boost they desperately need and deserve.

Since 2005, I have had the privilege to serve as Chair of Rural Outreach for the Senate Democratic Caucus. Through this leadership role, I help lend a rural perspective to the Senate agenda and promote policies beneficial to rural America. In an effort to further highlight rural issues, the Senate Democratic Caucus has unveiled its Rural Agenda for the 111th Congress. We recognize that rural America is very diverse, reaching across every state -- including Indian Country -- and have formed an agenda that will guide our caucus as we continue to fight for policies on behalf of our rural communities.

In our rural agenda, we highlight the need to provide rural Americans with access to affordable, quality health care by supporting rural hospitals and community health centers; giving rural communities access to emergency devices and pharmacy services; funding area health education centers; equipping providers with health information technology; and addressing workforce issues in the health care sector. We also express our commitment to offering students in rural America an opportunity to excel in the classroom through policies that recognize the unique challenges for rural schools. These school districts need the tools to attract and retain qualified teachers, the resources to get students to and from school, and the technologies to ensure that rural students graduate and can compete in a global economy.

It is also critical that we strengthen the rural economy by fully funding economic development programs, encouraging public-private partnerships at the local level, and supporting vocational schools and community colleges. Ensuring that our nation’s veterans and service members are provided benefits and services worthy of their sacrifice and equipping first responders with the training and tools necessary to protect rural communities are also top priorities.

One of the most valuable resources that rural America provides is our safe and abundant food supply. Senate Democrats support our nation’s family farmers, ranchers, and producers and will continue to ensure that they can provide food to us here at home, while remaining competitive in the global marketplace.

Our agricultural producers and others living in rural America will also play a critical role in the new green economy.  Senate Democrats will promote renewable energy incentives to utilize the unique natural resources that rural America has to offer in order to create green jobs and new energy technologies. We also will continue to support policies that help protect the environment in order to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations to enjoy.

Lastly, you cannot stimulate the rural economy without making critical investments in infrastructure such as broadband access, clean drinking water, bridges, roads, air and rail.  The economic recovery bill Congress passed last month will provide much-needed dollars for rural infrastructure projects, including $7.2 billion for broadband.  We must continue to make these investments in order to create jobs and strengthen our rural communities.

Senate Democrats are committed to providing a voice for the over 50 million hard-working rural Americans and will continue to work toward policies that will revitalize and reinvest in our rural communities. Visit our new rural outreach website to learn more about how Senate Democrats are building a stronger rural America.