Through six combined presidential debates, the questions presented to the candidates have primarily focused on what candidates plan to do to build a better and stronger America. The plans vary significantly, especially across party lines, but the one area that they all have in common is the lack of a plan for “rural America.” The affordable housing community and economic development challenges faced by rural, or non-metropolitan, areas are different from those of large cities and urban centers. With close to 20 percent of Americans living in small towns and rural communities, our question to the candidates—both Republicans and Democrats—is: What is your plan for rural America?

Only one candidate—Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE—has identified a dedicated plan for our rural communities, though it has not been discussed in a debate yet. While as a rural housing and community development advocate I applaud this initiative, we hope to see candidates discuss their plans on stage and flesh them out into a robust strategy for addressing the needs of rural populations. And, considering these rural communities tend to favor Republican political candidates, we are hopeful that we will see this subject addressed in the upcoming debates.


The Great Recession led to soaring unemployment rates and disinvestment in communities around the country, but while much of the country has been recovering, rural America has not seen much of this change. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service notes that while national unemployment rates are better than before the recession, employment in rural areas has declined, remaining at three percentage points below pre-recession levels. The rates do not necessarily indicate the full scale of the issue because fewer people are participating in the labor force, which skews the outcome as a percentage. In fact, data for 2014 indicates that a much of rural America continued to lose jobs. The result is more and more highly educated, working aged people are leaving rural communities.  There is an answer to this problem though, and that is increased investment for rural housing and community services, as well as incentivizing economic and business development for rural areas.

Unfortunately, over the last 30 years, federal community development has fallen by more than 75 percent, as measured as a share of GDP. This puts further strain on rural communities that are left to compete with cities, which typically have greater human and financial resources, for increasingly scarce resources. Moreover, what works in cities and urban centers, doesn’t often translate to small, rural and farming communities, though Community Development Financial Institutions, Community Development Corporations and New Markets Tax Credits have been helping make strides.

A good example of this is rural water and sewer issues—amenities many take for granted in the United States. The vast majority of metropolitan areas have city planners and other staff to oversee their infrastructure and public services. Cities also have greater opportunity to raise funds from users of these systems. Rural communities do not have this, leading to a lack of clean water or adequate wastewater infrastructure. In fact, a 2009 American Community Survey’s 2009 indicated 662,411 U.S. households lacked adequate access to water and wastewater systems. Virtually every system in America that is in violation of federal clean water or safe drinking water standards is located in a rural area.

The need for affordable, decent housing is also great. Many rural communities face problems related to poor quality housing with exposed heating sources, lack of adequate plumbing and unprotected windows.

There are a number of federal programs with a proven track record of success in rural America. The Rural Community Assistance Partnership is one group using these resources to ensure even the smallest of villages have access to clean, safe water and wastewater disposal, but funding cuts are making that job more difficult. On the housing front, USDA’s Mutual Self-Help Housing Program, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, is making a huge difference. Through a partnership between the federal government and state, local, and private actors, low-income families build their own homes, earning “sweat equity” and reducing construction costs to keep the overall mortgage amount down. This year, the 50,000th family completed their home.

The want for these basic amenities is an impediment to the development of commercial and industrial facilities, as well as new housing – all sources of jobs and business activities. As the presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle move forward, I would encourage them to think of rural America and programs with a proven track record. And during the remaining debates, let’s ask each of the candidates how they plan to make smart investments in rural America – because a one-size-fits all approach won’t work and we need to build stronger communities in all corners of our country.

Rapoza is founder and president of Rapoza Associates, a public interest lobbying and government relations firm located in Washington, D.C