‘What’s Rural?’ Becomes A Farm Bill Question

ProvincetownThe Washington Post reported that Cape Cod's Provincetown received rural development money. So Rep. Mike McIntyre asked for a new definition of "rural" and the fun begins.

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ProvincetownWhat's rural? Provincetown, Mass., received rural development money.
Photo: Allogist

A seemingly innocuous provision in the House version of the farm bill asking the Secretary of Agriculture to define what’s rural has set off a furor on Capitol Hill. One rural advocacy group described the provision as a “time bomb�? that could strip counties of rural development assistance.

Stand Up For Rural America has started a petition drive aimed at removing the provision as the farm bill is considered in the Senate. House staff members are a bit baffled by the opposition and were meeting with representatives of Stand Up For Rural America late this week.

Indeed, any attempt to define rural is baffling and almost sure to run into problems. There are more than a half dozen ways the federal government defines rural, and each definition controls a federal program or fund. Nobody can keep the definitions straight — and each definition includes places that are clearly urban and excludes communities everyone would agree are rural.

For example, in the most widely used system, which simply divides the country between metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties, the Grand Canyon is in a metro area. Rural school advocates, meanwhile, point out that under one definition used for a federal education program, no school in South Carolina qualifies as rural. The Daily Yonder has even come up with its own definition of rural.

California rural, based on commuting areas(What’s rural in California? It all depends. The map at right shows rural areas in white, based on the Economic Research Service's Rural/Urban Commuting Areas. Look here for some of the many different ways federal agency definitions paint rural California.)

This current rural definitional saga began after The Washington Post reported that Provincetown, the high-priced resort at the tippy end of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod, received a $1.95 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to construct a dock and nearly $3 million in grants and loans from USDA to build an art gallery. The Post gave examples of other coastal resort communities, near urban areas, that had received rural development funding.

By most definitions, Provincetown and Barnstable County are urban. Barnstable is considered a metropolitan county by the U.S. Census, which finds that only 8.8 percent of the county’s population lives in a rural setting. Provincetown qualified for rural development assistance because it had a year-round population of 4,000, although during the summer it swells to over 40,000.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from coastal North Carolina, responded to the Post article by inserting a new paragraph into the House version of the farm bill. The chairman of the subcommittee on rural development asked the Secretary of Agriculture to define what’s rural. Furthermore, McIntyre’s provision told the Secretary to consider income, “demographics,�? and “seasonal increases�? in population — and to send rural development grants and loans only to communities that meet this definition.

McIntyre was “concerned that rural development money was going to places that might not really be rural,�? said Kim Sega, the congressman’s staffer in charge rural development issues. “We wanted to make sure we were targeting places that really need the help.�?

McIntyre also required the Agriculture Secretary to conduct a study of all the definitions of rural and to report on how those definitions affect the agency’s programs.

For rural housing advocates, the prospect of a study and yet another definition of what’s rural raised uncertainties. “Any place could be knocked out,�? said Sandra Rosenblith, senior vice president of the Rural Local Initiatives Support Corporation. The high prices and high rents found in tourist communities work special hardships on poor residents, Rosenblith argued, and these places shouldn’t be excluded from rural assistance money just because their populations balloon during the summer.

The farm bill containing the request for a specific definition for rural development projects has only passed the House. The Senate won’t take up the farm bill until late in September or some time in October.

Meanwhile, however, the amount of money available for rural development has dwindled over the years. Federal spending for rural housing loans has shrunk from $550 million in 1993 to less than $200 million this year — and the Bush Administration has proposed to end the program next year, according to the National Rural Housing Coalition’s Budget Bulletin. Similarly, the administration has proposed reducing funding for rural farm labor housing programs and water and sewer grants.

Stand Up For Rural America contends the language of the House bill targets a group of 347 “recreation�? counties already identified by the USDA. Many of those counties have tremendous levels of poverty — such as communities with casinos in the Mississippi Delta or on Native American reservations. Others, however, have high incomes and little poverty.

What if high-income, low-poverty recreation counties were excluded from rural development money? Geographer Tim Murphy has compiled a list of the 47 rural recreation counties with the highest average family incomes and the lowest levels of poverty:


County

County Seat

State

Type of Recreation

2000 Population

Median Income in 2000

Percent of Population in Povery, 2000

Pitkin County

Aspen

CO

Ski resort

14,872

$59,375

6.2%

Summit County

Breckenridge

CO

Ski resort

23,548

$56,587

9.0%

Teton County

Jackson

WY

National park

18,251

$54,614

6.0%

Denali Borough

  AK

National park

1,893

$53,654

7.9%

Routt County

Steamboat Springs

CO

Ski resort

19,690

$53,612

6.1%

Gilpin County

Central City

CO

Casino

4,757

$51,942

4.0%

Park County

Fairplay

CO

West mountain

14,523

$51,899

5.6%

Douglas County

Minden

NV

Casino

41,259

$51,849

7.3%

Clear Creek County

Georgetown

CO

Ski resort

9,322

$50,997

5.4%

Teller County

Cripple Creek

CO

Casino

20,555

$50,165

5.4%

Wasatch County

Heber

UT

West mountain

15,215

$49,612

5.2%

Kendall County

Boerne

TX

Miscellaneous recreation

23,743

$49,521

10.5%

San Miguel County

Telluride

CO

Ski resort

6,594

$48,514

10.4%

Grand County

Hot Sulphur Springs

CO

Ski resort

12,442

$47,759

7.3%

Leelanau County

Leland

MI

Midwest lake/Second home

21,119

$47,062

5.4%

Walworth County

Elkhorn

WI

Midwest lake/Second home

93,759

$46,274

8.4%

Monroe County

Stroudsburg

PA

Northeast Mountain/Lake/ 2nd home

138,687

$46,257

9.0%

Rappahannock County

Washington

VA

Miscellaneous recreation

6,983

$45,943

7.6%

Nevada County

Nevada City

CA

Ski resort

92,033

$45,864

8.1%

Dukes County

Edgartown

MA

Coastal ocean resort

14,987

$45,559

7.3%

Storey County

Virginia City

NV

Miscellaneous recreation

3,399

$45,490

5.8%

Ottawa County

Port Clinton

OH

Midwest lake/Second home

40,985

$44,224

5.9%

Brown County

Nashville

IN

Miscellaneous recreation

14,957

$43,708

8.9%

Hood County

Granbury

TX

Reservoir lake

41,100

$43,668

8.5%

York County

Alfred

ME

Coastal ocean resort

186,742

$43,630

8.2%

Belknap County

Laconia

NH

Northeast Mountain/Lake/ 2nd home

56,325

$43,605

6.1%

San Juan County

Friday Harbor

WA

Coastal ocean resort

14,077

$43,491

9.2%

Grand Traverse County

Traverse City

MI

Midwest lake/Second home

77,654

$43,169

5.9%

Dare County

Manteo

NC

Coastal ocean resort

29,967

$42,411

8.0%

Monroe County

Key West

FL

Coastal ocean resort

79,589

$42,283

10.2%

Ouray County

Ouray

CO

Ski resort

3,742

$42,019

7.2%

Teton County

Driggs

ID

West mountain

5,999

$41,968

12.9%

Grafton County

North Haverhill

NH

Northeast Mountain/Lake/ 2nd home

81,743

$41,962

8.6%

Sauk County

Baraboo

WI

Midwest lake/Second home

55,225

$41,941

7.2%

Deschutes County

Bend

OR

Other mountain

115,367

$41,847

9.3%

Oconto County

Oconto

WI

Midwest lake/Second home

35,634

$41,201

7.1%

Calaveras County

San Andreas

CA

Other mountain

40,554

$41,022

11.8%

Otsego County

Gaylord

MI

Midwest lake/Second home

23,301

$40,876

6.8%

Windsor County

Woodstock

VT

Other mountain

57,418

$40,688

7.7%

Jo Daviess County

Galena

IL

Miscellaneous recreation

22,289

$40,411

6.7%

Lake County

Two Harbors

MN

Midwest lake/Second home

11,058

$40,402

7.4%

Emmet County

Petoskey

MI

Midwest lake/Second home

31,437

$40,222

7.4%

Carroll County

Ossipee

NH

Northeast Mountain/Lake/ 2nd home

43,666

$39,990

7.9%

Bennington County

Bennington

VT

Northeast Mountain/Lake/ 2nd home

36,994

$39,926

10.0%

Charlevoix County

Charlevoix

MI

Midwest lake/Second home

26,090

$39,788

8.0%

Rich County

Randolph

UT

West mountain

1,961

$39,766

10.2%

Green Lake County

Green Lake

WI

Midwest lake/Second home

19,105

$39,462

7.0%

 

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