What's rural? Provincetown, Mass., received rural development money.
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 bombï¿½? 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.
(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,ï¿½? and “seasonal increasesï¿½? 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,ï¿½? 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.ï¿½?
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,ï¿½? 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 “recreationï¿½? 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%|
|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%|