Investing in rural America would lift nation's economy

Investing in rural America would lift nation's economy
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The 21st century economy runs the risk of leaving much of rural America behind. 

Rural America grows most of the food, generates much of the power, and manufactures many of the goods that are used throughout the country.  When the modern economy threatens to leave much of the country on the wrong side of the ledger, that’s bad news regardless of where you live and work.

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Today, fewer than 15 percent of U.S. businesses are located in rural areas and small towns. Bank loans for amounts less than $1 million, primarily to family-owned small businesses and farms, have dropped by nearly half since 2005. These are warning signs for the basic building-blocks of the economy which serve as the foundation of America’s economic stability.

 

A long-term commitment from Congress and the administration is needed to reverse this trend. 

The Trump administration and Congress have taken significant steps to jump start programs that bolster the rural economy. That’s helping turn the tide in many communities. But reversing this trend requires a sustained focus across the executive branch and Capitol Hill.

The recently passed omnibus budget bill is providing key resources and tools to foster development of energy, telecommunications and other essential services in rural America, including $600 million for high-speed internet access in underserved regions.

Already, there are examples of how these services are changing heartland economies. BOLT Fiber Optic Services, a subsidiary of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, began providing broadband service in 2015 and the fiber network is directly responsible for new businesses creating hundreds of jobs. And similar stories are playing out across the nation. In 2002, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC began providing broadband in the southern Appalachian region of Georgia and North Carolina. Today, the co-op has linked regional hospitals to a common broadband network and helped facilitate e-connectivity at public schools and libraries across the region.

Other sections of the omnibus bill fully fund low-interest government loans or enhance the efficiency of permitting for rural electric programs to improve grid reliability.

These are positive steps. But there’s more work to do.

As local businesses built by the consumers we serve, electric cooperatives have meaningful ties to America’s rural communities. And they are making strategic infrastructure investments to give communities the flexibility to adapt to tomorrow’s energy needs, investing $12 billion annually in the areas that they serve. 

That’s why co-ops have launched community microgrids, lead the nation in the deployment of community solar facilities, and have invested in new XPRIZE carbon capture research.

But it takes more than smart energy infrastructure to rejuvenate rural communities. Co-ops also leverage public-private partnerships to enhance the quality of life. 

Over the last two decades, co-ops have partnered with community stakeholders through USDA’s rural economic development programs on hundreds of projects to construct essential infrastructure, renovate hospitals, build libraries, and expand businesses. Co-ops also use the Rural Energy Savings Program to work with consumers on energy efficiency solutions to their homes to save money on their energy bills.

The farm bill offers an opportunity to bolster these important public-private programs while giving rural America an additional boost.

As Congress continues discussing the Farm Bill, it should support a stronger rural America and enhance key rural development programs by including:

  • Additional funding for rural broadband grants and loans. A reliable, modern grid and vibrant rural communities depend on a robust communications infrastructure.
  • Ample support for proven rural economic development programs.
  • A focus on accelerating energy innovation to build new renewable energy resources and modernize the electric grid. 
  • Continued funding for the RUS Electric Loan Program to allow electric cooperatives to continue delivering reliable power to their members.

The need to invest in rural America is real for all of us. So too are the opportunities for our leaders to make a meaningful difference in its trajectory. 

Jim Matheson is CEO of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the national service organization that represents the nation’s more than 900 not-for-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives. He previously served seven terms as a U.S. representative from Utah.