Rural America demands the nation's attention
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One year ago, I wrote an article titled, Do Presidential Hopefuls Have a Plan for Rural America? Little did I know that rural America had big plans for the presidential election.

Most experts agree that working-class voters in many rural and manufacturing areas felt Washington had overlooked their needs, and they made their voices heard in the 2016 election.

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Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpProsecutors investigating Trump inaugural fund, pro-Trump super PAC for possible illegal foreign donations: NY Times George Conway: Why take Trump's word over prosecutors' if he 'lies about virtually everything' Federal judge says lawsuit over Trump travel ban waivers will proceed MORE’s election to the presidency is a wake-up call of sorts. Few predicted the results and even fewer predicted the margins.

His message on the economy resonated with rural voters as they turned out in big numbers. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump took 62 percent of rural America’s votes, compared to Clinton’s 34 percent.

That’s not a blip. While scholars and pollsters will study for years how projections were miscalculated so greatly, it’s our job now to listen to those voters who feel overlooked in America.

One specific section of my year-old article encapsulated what many have said are the underlying issues facing the electorate. While much of the country is recovering from the Great Recession, rural America continues to lag behind in employment, as highly educated, working-aged people leave those communities. 

That trend contributes to why we continue to see rural counties make up the majority of the persistently poor counties in the U.S. The Economic Research Service (ERS) of USDA defines a persistently poor county as one with at least 20 percent of its population below the poverty line over the last 30 years.

Of the 353 persistently poor counties, 85.3 percent are non-metropolitan, rural counties. With rural America not getting the attention and investment it needs, it will be nearly impossible to break the cycle. 

Over the last 30 years, federal community development has fallen by more than 75 percent, putting further strain on rural communities, making the poverty cycle harder to break. Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), Community Development Corporations (CDCs) and New Markets Tax Credits (NMTCs) have been helping make strides, but more can and should be done to support rural America.

No doubt, the Trump administration will have a huge task at hand. If confirmed, appointees Ben Carson and Steve Mnuchin will need to marshal forward the programs and policies that resonate with these so-called “forgotten Americans”.

I’d argue that the CDFIs, CDCs and NMTCs would be great assets to the HUD secretary, the Treasury secretary and the president. These organizations and programs have a track record of success in the very communities that are clamoring for attention while also working well in larger urban areas facing hardship. 

There are a number of federal programs with a proven track record of success in rural America that are as relevant now as they were a year ago, like the Rural Community Assistance Partnership and USDA’s Mutual Self-Help Housing Program. 

With the 2016 election in our rearview mirror, we are learning now that working-class and rural families don’t want a handout. They want respect, support, and opportunity. Most importantly, they want to know that Washington is listening. 

There are a number of successful government programs with strong track records of reaching the disenfranchised. The new administration would be wise to work with bipartisan leaders in the House and Senate who support these programs. 

Then, just maybe, the electorate would know that Washington is truly listening.

 

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


 

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