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A fighting chance: Righting the wrongs against rural America

A fighting chance: Righting the wrongs against rural America
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At the start of 2020 rural America was already lagging the nation in economic growth and prosperity. But when the pandemic hit rural areas, it hit hard

Rural hospitals, diminished by a recent spate of mergers and closures, were quickly overwhelmed by the demand for ICU beds. The lack of broadband access in remote places meant that while many urban workers and students moved their lives online, many of their rural counterparts were left in the dark. Despite the dramatic impact of the pandemic on rural communities, they were mostly overlooked by the CARES Act.

Rural communities have for too long been neglected by federal policymakers. The Trump administration in particular is riddled with policy failures that have wounded rural communities deeply. Among these is the rollback of key federal protections that would have shielded farmers from abuse at the hands of large corporations. More recently, the systematic dismantling and defunding of the U.S. Postal Service has particularly harmed rural America hard amid the pandemic. Rural areas, typically not served by private delivery services because of the high cost of servicing them, have experienced outrageous delays in the delivery of medication prescriptions and live chicks — who, after a two-day delay, became dead chicks.

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But the betrayal of rural America dates back much further than the past four years — it stretches back to to the 1980s. Since then, conservative lawmakers have passed policies that allowed large corporations to systematically exploit rural America’s workforce and natural resources. The world’s thirst for fossil fuels has forced towns to depend on the oil, gas and coal industries and obscured the jobs that renewable energy and environmental stewardship can bring to these struggling communities. The “get big or get out” mentality in agriculture has all but destroyed the family farm and has given rise to an extractive corporate agriculture that enriches distant shareholders without benefiting rural areas. Trade agreements that failed to set high labor and environmental standards opened the floodgates to outsourcing key manufacturing jobs overseas.  

All of these policy decisions have hollowed out rural America and starved it of opportunity. Since the Great Recession, employment rates outside of metro areas barely improved while urban job markets fully recovered. Some rural communities have fared worse than others. In predominantly African American counties in the rural south, just three in 50 kids born in the lowest quartile of income reaches the top 20th percentile of income as an adult. Moving rural Americans to cities is not the answer. Research from economist David Autor shows that rural workers who move to cities without a college education do not score higher wages. Meanwhile, the premium even for highly-educated workers who move to cities is on the decline. And why should Americans have to uproot their lives and leave their hometowns just to make a living? 

The right of everyone to pursue economic opportunity regardless of where they were born is a central value of this country — including the 20 percent of residents who live in rural areas. Rural America is not doomed to decline, as others have argued. Rural communities just need a partner in charting their future. And whether those in metropolitan areas realize it, their fate is inextricably tied to that of rural America through everything from the food they consume to the parks they enjoy. That’s why we believe it’s time for a bold new strategy to inject rural communities with meaningful, sustained investments to promote home-grown opportunities. 

The first step in a forward-looking rural agenda is to elevate rural development to a prominent, well-resourced Rural Opportunity Administration within the USDA. For decades, the USDA has been the lead agency for rural development policy, given the large role that farming played in rural America historically. However, today only one in five rural counties is dependent on agriculture and the largest share of rural employment is in the service sector. The unique challenges changing the face of rural America and its challenges requires a robust, semi-autonomous administration with a Senate-confirmed commissioner solely dedicated to meeting the task and an elevated status in Washington. 

This Rural Opportunity Administration (ROA) would be charged with the mission to promote rural economic growth, health and education and be charged with cutting rural poverty rates by 90 percent by 2040. To accomplish this mission, the ROA would take a unique approach that empowers communities to make local investments themselves directly. This would include the creation of a participatory grant program in which communities are entitled to an annual sum of money that is spent in accordance to a locally developed plan that is approved by local stakeholders and shaped by public input. This program would enable communities to identify their unique needs and develop their own solutions. Secondly, the ROA would have its own counterpart to HUD’s Community Development Block Grant, providing crucial revenue streams to struggling local governments in order to maintain critical public services.

Rural America is often dismissed as a lost cause, but it’s decline is not inevitable. Rural communities are ailing because they’ve had their natural resources extracted without having the benefit of enjoying the wealth they create for shareholders. By partnering directly with communities, federal policy can empower them to use their local knowledge to chart their own futures.

Zoe Willingham is a research associate for Economic Policy at American Progress. Olugbenga Ajilore is the senior economist at the Center for American Progress. Follow the organization on Twitter @amprog.