Maybe sometime during the upcoming campaign both the Romney and Obama campaigns will release comprehensive rural platforms. In the meantime, however, the Obama administration offers a document outlining what it has done with rural development dollars.
The Obama Administration recently unveiled a report that, according to the White House Office of Communications, highlights the administration’s “accomplishments supporting rural communities.”
The report is hardly that. Released just months before the coming elections, the document is largely an accounting of the money the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent in each state on community facilities through the department’s rural development program in the fiscal years 2009 through 2011.
But this is an election year, so the report (jammed with individual case studies) was announced both by the USDA and by the White House Office of Communications. The report was billed by the White House as “highlighting Obama administration accomplishments supporting rural communities.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, on release of the document, said, “Quality hospitals, schools and libraries are the building blocks for a vibrant rural America.” To a large extent, the funding outlays in the report reflect these priorities. Health care received $1.787 billion, followed by public service at $881 million, education at $672 million, and public safety at $458 million — all figures from the 2009-2011 fiscal year time period. Some additional money was appropriated for road improvements.
In total, $3,799,695,404 was spent under the USDA Rural Development Community Facilities Program in FY 2009-2011. The money appropriated often went to non-profit organizations. Examples of such projects include a library renovation in Whitfield, New Hampshire, and a repaired dam in Beaverton, Michigan. Of all the projects, 581 were healthcare related, 954 were related to education, 2,190 projects were focused on public safety, and 1,255 were focused on public services.
The administration’s report devotes considerable attention to health care. After all, healthcare received the most funding by almost a billion dollars. Yet healthcare has the smallest number of projects compared with the other areas.
Despite the White House’s billing as a report of the administration’s “accomplishments supporting rural communities,” it does not address several areas that have been important to rural America. For instance, rural Internet connectivity and broadband issues are rarely mentioned in the report, with a notable exception being an expansion of service in Tennessee.
This is not to say the administration has not made progress on increasing rural broadband access. Samantha Bookman of FierceTelecom.com said that the administration’s programs have helped build 18,000 new miles of broadband networks. Fiber to the home (FTTH) has also seen remarkable growth, adding 978,000 lines since 2009, according to Bookman.
But the administration’s push to expand broadband access has struggled, too. Connected Nation, a broadband-mapping group organized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, reports that less than 4 percent of counties completely meets the national broadband goals of 3 Mbps download speed/768 Kbps upload speed, 98% access to mobile broadband, and 85% access to broadband with download speeds of 50 Mbps or better for all residents.
Maps of broadband penetration can be confusing. It’s true that portions of nine out of ten counties meet the national broadband goals. But in half of these counties, only about two-thirds of the populace receives full broadband connection at the speed recommended for the nation. Counties may have a “passing” grade even though a third of their residents don’t receive a “passing” service.
A map on the Connected Nation website shows the areas with the strongest connections are generally urban and suburban, while the counties with difficulty are generally more rural. Bookman reports that 17 states experience a speed difference of 15-25 percent between rural and urban areas. And most of the federal stimulus funding is going to large providers rather than local broadband companies that have stronger ties to the areas they serve.
Since this is a report on the rural development community facilities program, it also doesn’t mention what was, for a time, a primary focus of the administration’s rural development policy — its lengthy inquiry into antitrust violations in the agriculture business. After the Departments of Justice and Agriculture held joint hearings across the country — inquiries that covered business concentration in the seed, poultry, swine, cattle and retail grocery markets — the administration took no further action.
Additionally, efforts to strengthen the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act were largely blocked by Congress.
Rural post offices are another issue critical to rural areas not brought up in the report. The Postal Service has called off its plans to close hundreds of rural post offices, opting instead to reduce hours at 13,000 offices. There is still no final plan (by the administration or Congress) for the Postal Service’s future.
The report from Secretary Vilsack highlights the administration’s rural development outlays in various sectors such as healthcare and education, which parallel the administration’s national priorities. A more complete accounting of the administration’s rural policies and priorities will have to wait for another day — and another report.
Jefferson Sinclair is an intern at the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky, and is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.