Define Rural before You Budget for It

With so much federal spending under review, we need a clearer, sharper picture of what's rural. Spending on ag alone doesn't tackle the problem of rural development.

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The halls of Congress have already seen tremendous change this year. Almost everyone senses a need to cut spending. It’s also time to draft a new Farm Bill, as the current bill is set to expire in 2012. If the budget-cutting mood persists in Washington, we can expect more funding reductions for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs. But which programs? How much will they be cut? What’s the government’s role anyway? The debates are on.

As part of the Farm Bill hearings, on February 15 I had an opportunity to testify before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture about one piece of the picture: How to define rural? My quick answer has always been that you know rural when you see it, but this approach doesn’t fly when it comes to policy implementation and the distribution of billions of dollars for rural development projects.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee expressed concerns about the definitions of rural that USDA and other federal agencies use. The testimony and questions revealed common threads of confusion and inconsistencies wrought by all of the ways of looking at rural. The appendix to my testimony for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) included nine possible definitions. There are others.

Urban-rural definitions have been refined periodically since the early twentieth century. At first, it seemed easy to define rural as “not urban,” but that approach only presented a fuzzy picture, vaguely outlined by agriculture. More finely drawn distinctions – USDA’s urban influence, county typology, and rural-urban continuum codes, for example – now help characterize America’s changing and diverse rural areas. These definitions began to emerge in the late 1970s and have been adapted to help understand rural change and diversity, as well as shape program delivery. USDA’s county codes move beyond the old “rural equals agriculture” policy that dominated for most of the twentieth century.

Timothy Collins
Bushnell, Illinois, at dusk, shows connections between the small city (about 3,000) and its surrounding countryside. The city also has been fortunate to retain a couple of small factories.

Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission of 1908-1909 defined rural communities as agricultural. An alternative view of smaller towns and their relationships with farms emerged at the same time, manifested through early rural farm-community studies and the American Country Life Association with its broader concerns. The association, begun in 1918, faded from the scene in 1976. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which started in 1919, represented the “rural equals agriculture” equation, but it now conducts policy work in rural development, a recognition of farms’ connection to nearby towns and small cities.

USDA gradually – and perhaps even unwillingly at times – assumed broader rural development duties, especially after World War II. Of course, USDA’s legal name does not even include rural development, but farm bills since 1972 have included a rural development mission for the agency. The inclusion of rural development in USDA’s scope accompanied rapid urban growth that has complicated urban-rural dynamics.

New definitions of rural were an effort both to describe diverse rural life in the United States more accurately and to help researchers and policy makers.  Better definitions were needed to take into account the mixed rural-urban functions of smaller cities and towns, since these are the economic, social, and cultural anchors for wider, less-densely populated regions. Thus, new definitions of rural have prompted consideration of more “urban” issues too.

While USDA’s county codes are extremely useful for research and provide context for rural-urban regions, testimony at the House agriculture subcommittee hearing suggested they might not stand up so well in practice. The reliance on county lines seems problematic when contemporary conditions demand a broader regional approach that might include only parts of counties. In addition, the wide span of big-city influence, with the centralization of jobs and capital, links rural bedroom areas with diverse urban employment opportunities.

Shannon L. Price (screenshot)
Dr. Timothy Collins testified before the USDA’s subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology, and Foreign Agriculture February 15, 2011.

Defining a rural place on the ground seems much easier than defining it from a broader policy perspective. In a dynamic global economy with multi-faceted domestic, urban relationships, the meaning of “rural” is truly problematic, especially on the so-called rural-urban fringe. For example, what about a county with a predominantly rural landscape that’s in a metropolitan area because of commuting patterns? As noted in my testimony for IIRA, communities need assistance not only for rural development, but also to help preserve farmland used for food and energy production from urban encroachment.

For areas relatively removed from large metropolitan regions, micropolitan cities become key to a different rural development strategy, one that links small cities with their surrounding rural areas. (According to the Census Bureau, each micropolitan statistical area must have at least one urban cluster with a population between 10,000 and 50,000.)

Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, stressed the need for new approaches and flexible programs. He argued that micropolitan areas could provide the loci for new rural regional development strategies, including federal support for localized food systems and specialized economic clusters. In response to questions, I suggested that micropolitan areas could be hubs of green energy production and educational outreach through regional universities and community colleges.

But what about budget cutting? The fact is that any changes in definitions of “rural” will coincide with shrinking (or nonexistent) rural-development funding. Newer definitions might help USDA use its funds more effectively, but will the agency have enough money actually to effect development?

Here’s my pipe-dream: Don’t cut rural development. It is, of course, near and dear to the hearts of those of us who work along the margins of agriculture in small towns and cities. We are the ones who constantly chant – sometimes to deaf ears – “Rural is not agricultural.”

Rural development remains a relatively small piece of USDA and a miniscule piece of the total federal budget. Unfortunately, given the budget-slashing mood and current farm politics, rural development is ripe for cutting because its constituency is scattered and because its benefits come in the longer, not the shorter term.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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