A Federal Recipe for Rural Pessimism

[imgbelt img=collinsoldtownhall350.jpg]Big budget cuts at the federal level portend very hard times in small
town U.S.A. Tim Collins looks at what’s likely to change in alternative energy and social services.


[imgcontainer left] [img:collinsvinebooth250.jpg] [source]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.
[imgcontainer left] [img:collinsoldtownhall350.jpg] [source]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.