Speak Your Piece: Going Down in History

We need a new rule in Washington. When you issue an economic report under the heading of “rural,” you’ve got to talk about more than agriculture.

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The rural economy is making history, but not in the way all the farm-bill back-slapping would have us believe.

In commenting on the new farm bill last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the past five years have seen “historic economic gains in rural America.” 

It’s true that a big part of the ag economy is booming. But there’s another set of economic data coming out of rural America, and it paints a much gloomier picture. It’s still  historic, though. We may have to wait until it’s in the history books before anyone will start talking about it.

Since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, rural counties have led the nation in net job losses. While metro employment has returned to pre-recession levels, nonmetro counties have 800,000 fewer jobs today than they did in 2007. Even though the recession is over, rural job losses continue to mount.

In May 2013, when the Yonder published a multi-year comparison, nine out of every 10 jobs still “missing” from the 2007 recession were in nonmetro areas. Counties that represent less than 20% of the U.S. population had 90% of the net job loss.

The rural unemployment rate remains higher than the metro rate, despite fewer people in rural counties looking for work. From 2010 to 2012, for the first time on record, the number of people living in nonmetro counties went down instead of up. That’s historic by definition.

Net farm income may be up, but real household income in rural America is down – 8.7% in micropolitan counties (counties with small cities) from 2007 to 2011 and 6.8% in noncore counties (ones with no small cities) during the same period.

Contrast this information with a report issued by the White House Council of Economic Advisers last week on the “farm sector and rural economy.”

Photo by the Associated Press
President Obama signs the farm bill in Michigan Friday. He said the bill is about more than farmers. The Council of Economic Advisers’ report doesn’t make the connection.
The report, timed to coincide with the president’s signing of the Agriculture Act of 2014 Friday, is an economic horn of plenty, chock full of ascending arrows on net income and climbing bar charts on production values. 

Aside from descriptions of USDA Rural Development programs, there’s not a single fact or figure about rural America’s nonagricultural economic performance, even though the title of the report says otherwise.

President Obama said Friday that the farm bill does more than just help farmers. And he announced a new program to help connect rural businesses to foreign markets. He acknowledged that even in the agricultural economy, not everything is milk and honey. But the Council of Economic Advisers’ report shows no awareness — let alone analysis — of the large changes that appear to be occurring within the rural economy.

Think about it. It’s as if your doctor spent an entire visit talking about your normal cholesterol levels, ignoring another test that says you have diabetes.

As important as farming is to the rural economy, it’s one piece of a much larger puzzle. Farmers, though economically vital, are a small minority of the rural population. And most people who farm earn more money in town from an outside job than they do from working their land (a fact the CEA report acknowledges without elaboration). One highly respected rural-policy analyst says the best thing we can do for farmers is create healthy, off-farm economies, since most farmers earn the bulk of their income in another job.

We can’t allow our leaders to continue to talk about agriculture as synonymous with rural, any more than we can allow energy production to represent the entirety of the rural economy. Or manufacturing, or services.

We need a new rule. If you put the word “rural” in the title of the report, you should have to say something of substance about the 98% of rural Americans who don’t earn their primary living from farming.

The fact that we can get a glowing report about agriculture at a time when other rural economic news is grim should tell us something. There’s a much bigger story out there.

We need to be clear about that, or we’re history.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

 

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