Congress can put rural communities back to work with smart infrastructure investments

Congress can put rural communities back to work with smart infrastructure investments
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The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy of epic proportions for America. In addition to taking over 600,000 lives, the pandemic has turned our economy upside down and shuttered countless small businesses. While an economic rebound is now underway, millions of Americans are still struggling to find work as a result of the pandemic.

Encouragingly there is light at the end of the tunnel. The national economy is finally starting to bounce back, though not all American workers have benefited yet. And recovery is not inevitable everywhere: For years rural communities across the nation have been beset with sluggish economic growth, stagnant job creation and high poverty rates.

How can we ensure that America’s economic recovery benefits not only Wall Street, but also Main Street in small towns as well as large cities? And that workers in rural West Virginia, Arizona and elsewhere have access to well-paying, good-quality jobs that they can be proud of?

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The Biden administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan offers a historic opportunity to do just that.

The American Jobs Plan has laid out a bold plan for boosting economic recovery while tackling the global climate crisis that is harming Americans every day, from recent scorching temperatures in the Pacific Northwest that killed hundreds of people to record flooding in Detroit that shut down a key highway for days. Driven by a $2-trillion investment in the country’s infrastructure and workforce, the American Jobs Plan proposes investments in renewable energy, transmission grids, energy efficiency and tree restoration that can empower rural America by creating millions of new jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity — all while helping to address the climate emergency.

New analysis from the World Resources Institute shows that a major influx of federal investments in a new climate economy can be a win-win for rural communities. Research shows that if the federal government invested $275 billion over five years — of which nearly $75 billion would flow to rural counties — it could support 1.3 million rural job-years during that period, meaning 260,000 rural jobs sustained for at least five years.

Rural counties in California, Texas, New Mexico, Missouri and Wyoming stand to gain the most in terms of job creation over the next five years. Workers in rural areas across the nation will also see new opportunities, doing everything from manufacturing wind turbines in Colorado to weatherizing homes in South Carolina, to restoring trees on federal and non-federal lands in Ohio and Utah.

For every $1 million invested in rural communities, $1.5 million in value is generated in rural economies, including new local tax revenues that can fund improvements to schools, roads, bridges and emergency services. Nearly half of the benefits would flow to economically disadvantaged rural counties. With over 85 percent of persistent poverty counties designated as rural, federal investment that meets the needs of those counties can lead to more equitable rural development. 

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Not only will jobs like these pave the way for a better future, but they can also help improve the lives of people today. For example, last February’s Texas power outage is estimated to have cost the state between $80 billion and $130 billion — many rural Texas towns were hit particularly hard and were without power for days in below-freezing temperatures. Investing in high-voltage transmission would create jobs and help integrate clean energy resources into the power grid, which would in turn enhance reliability and resilience.

Meanwhile, environmental remediation of abandoned coal mines and orphaned oil and gas wells can create economic opportunities for rural communities that have historically been reliant on the fossil fuel industry but now face challenges as the transition to a clean economy accelerates — all while removing harmful pollution from the air and water.

These are opportunities that rural Americans want. In a recent national survey, 54 percent of rural voters said that taking action on climate change was “very” or “pretty” important, with high levels of support for policies that reduce pollution from power plants, incentivize climate-friendly agriculture practices and strengthen rural communities against extreme weather events. Despite their support for climate action, however, rural voters also report feeling isolated from the current climate policy conversation and feel that climate policies won’t benefit rural areas.

This needs to change. Federal policymakers must ensure that rural voices are included in U.S. climate policy discussions. Not only do rural voters and states wield significant influence on the outcomes of national elections, but rural America is indispensable for the success of U.S. climate policy. Farmers, ranchers, and forest owners manage large segments of American lands that hold enormous opportunities for sequestering carbon in trees and harvesting renewable energy. Rural areas are crucial for clean energy development: According to American Clean Power Association, 99 percent of all onshore wind capacity in the country is located in rural areas, as is the majority of utility-scale solar capacity.

So how do we build this new economy? Federal investments must go hand in hand with complementary policies that ensure that these investments will lead to equitable and durable climate policies. These include adequate investments in workforce training and development for rural communities, ranging from building capacity within the existing workforce development system, to targeting workforce development opportunities in economically disadvantaged rural communities, to career pathway programs starting in high school. Federal investments should also be accompanied with strong labor standards, including a prevailing wage guarantee, “local hire” directives, and preference given to laid-off fossil fuel workers in the region.

Following the outline of the American Jobs Plan, Congress has a great opportunity to build back better from COVID-19, but only if it invests in climate-smart provisions that put rural Americans to work.

Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources, United States. Follow him on Twitter: @DLashof

Devashree Saha is a senior associate at World Resources Institute, United States. Follow her on Twitter: @Devashree_Saha