Sunday, November 23, 2014

A Federal Recipe for Rural Pessimism

11/07/2011

vine phone booth Timothy Collins It's been awhile since Superman or anybody else used this phone booth in Bernadotte, Illinois. Rural America needs faster more reliable communications with the rest of the nation. Let them eat cake.
— Attributed to Marie Antoinette.

Chuck Fluharty has been a participant-observer in rural policy circles for a long time. With his expertise and information networks, the Rural Policy Research Institute’s president is a great bellwether.

Normally, Chuck is optimistic about rural America. A recent encounter at a meeting found him changed, even from earlier this year when our paths crossed. He is now pessimistic, but remains open to potential opportunities.

In short, Chuck believes the federal government is serious about budget cutting. Cuts in the next five to ten years will fall heavily on rural America. Whatever cake we’ve seen is going to have a new recipe and will be smaller, less nutritious, and harder to find.

Chuck, like any of us, is deeply disappointed with what is or is not happening in a polarized Washington. What follows is my interpretation of his remarks, heavily laden with my own biases and frustrations. I, too, am fighting the pessimism.

Events now unfolding in the nation’s capital were seeded in the 1970s with anti-government activities, such as Proposition 13 property-tax caps in California, In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's "New Federalism" was intended to reduce federal government and let states and communities take over some responsibilities. To put it mildly, the results of Reagan’s “devolution” have been mixed. But don’t worry. There’s more to come.

Both parties in Congress, as well as President Barack Obama, seem determined to reduce federal spending, even as the nation struggles in a protracted but unofficial recession. Starting in the 1930s, the federal government tried to address some aspects of market failures that afflict rural areas. But the three-decade-long pullback has grown stronger and is gaining momentum. It could get much uglier.

News reports indicate that the so-called budget super committee is split and may not meet its November deadline. If automatic budget cuts are enacted, constituents won’t have any say. Rest assured, those cuts will affect the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies that serve rural areas. In fact, USDA has been a target of budget reductions for a long time now.

One main source of federal fund transfers to rural areas comes through the Farm Bill, which is in negotiation. Fluharty expects less spending. Direct farm payments will be reduced or eliminated. Land conservation programs will see past gains wiped out even as world demand grows for food and energy.

Apparently, renewable fuel use and technology goals set during the George W. Bush administration are now seen as unrealistic. Bioenergy is being moved off the table, despite the need to limit fossil-fuel carbon emissions that are triggering global warming. President Obama’s jobs bill, now dead, offered little, if anything for green energy, a cornerstone of his 2008 campaign. Ethanol tax subsidies will likely disappear after December 31, and research funding for other forms of ethanol and biomass seems moot.
old town hall Timothy Collins The decaying town hall in Bardolph, Illinois, is a reminder of democratic ideals in a town that is fading. We are making the same mistakes we made in the early 1980s, when the federal government largely abandoned green energy. Here’s what the private sector has to offer, if institutional advertising is any indication:

One energy alternative to create rural jobs focuses on returning to “clean coal” – perhaps cleaner where it is burned because of new processing, incineration, and smokestack technologies, but environmentally destructive, especially when the coal is surface mined, euphemistically called “mountaintop removal” in the Appalachians, where rubble is dumped into watercourses.

Of course, let’s not forget “clean, efficient natural gas” – cleaner than coal when burned, but forced from the Earth by destroying rock formations that also hold our precious groundwater. (“Let them drink water,” if they can find it.)

Most troubling of all, rural and urban poor will “share the pain” as food and nutrition programs are curtailed, despite rising demand. These cuts will fall harder on rural areas because a greater proportion of rural people live in poverty. The extended economic malaise also continues to squeeze state budgets, with cuts already falling on the poor. Over the past several years, states have reduced funding for programs that address immediate needs of disadvantaged citizens: housing, heating, and services for those with disabilities. Sadly, even maintaining Social Security, basic health care, and unemployment benefits has become a major political struggle.

abandoned building and flag Timothy Collins A flag awaits a breeze outside an abandoned building in Dana, Indiana, across the street from a state historic site dedicated to Ernie Pyle, beloved World War II journalist who died in the Pacific Theater. According to a recent Pew Stateline.org series, states are slashing funds shared with municipal and county governments. Couple this with the budgetary constraints of local tax caps, and communities across the country are laying off employees and reducing services. Devolution goes awry. Quality of life declines in a variety of ways.

Are there any bright spots? Maybe. Fluharty notes that Obama’s place-based rural policy is real, with higher levels of agency cooperation. Obama noted that “Strong rural communities are vital to a stronger America… that’s why I’ve established the White House Rural Council to make sure we’re working across government to strengthen rural communities and promote economic growth.”

In the current climate, however, Fluharty wonders about the likelihood of specific legislation to benefit rural areas, especially as they become even more marginalized on the political scene. Obama’s council, with its cross-agency activities, might allow rural issues to be slipped into legislation for urban areas. But, for the moment, funding is limited or nonexistent.

Rural development, however, is finding support in some quarters. For example, both the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union are now engaged in rural development lobbying. Organizations such as the National Association of Counties and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are educating federal departments about rural-urban dynamics. The question lingers, however: where’s the batter to make cake?

The bottom line, for now at least, is that U.S. politics are polarized and devil-may-care. They will be increasingly urban-centric when redistricting takes effect after the 2012 elections. The rural economy remains on the margins of a global economy where few do well, a few do all right, and many struggle to survive. Plenty continue to leave small town, moving to cities where job opportunities also are bleak.

The national-level case for pessimism is powerful. If Congress reduces the already tiny rural cake to crumbs, large sectors of the nation’s bread (and energy) basket will be hungrier than ever.

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