Rural Policy: ‘Here’s What We Need,’ Advocates Say

The Trump administration and Democratic presidential candidates have had a chance to sound off on what they think needs to happen in rural America. Now we hear from advocates on the ground who identify the key policy changes they think would do the most good for rural America forward.

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Rural America is ready to contribute more to the nation’s health and economic vitality, say advocates working in community development, education, healthcare, philanthropy, and other fields.

To unleash that potential, rural America needs strategic support for the people, institutions, and infrastructure that that underly all successful communities, they say.

The Daily Yonder, working with the Rural Assembly, identified a dozen rural-policy advocates with firsthand knowledge about the impact of federal policy in rural communities.  We asked these in-the-trenches experts to name the top policies they would like to see 2020 presidential candidates address and eventually enact. (The Rural Assembly is a national network of rural leaders. It is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.)

New or increased funding for rural programs is on the agenda. But other themes include a call for inclusion, cultural parity, redirecting programs for more community impact, and holding large institutions accountable for the way they serve rural America.

If you’d like to see how candidates’ policy proposals square with what these advocates think would help the most, see the Daily Yonder’s guide to candidates’ policy proposals.

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Arts and Culture

Carlton Turner

Carlton Turner is the Director and Lead Artist of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, which promotes local economic development through media and arts initiatives. Based in Utica, Mississippi, Turner oversees initiatives to mentor lower-income community members in agribusiness and media.

The rural arts landscape is beautiful and unique all on its own because it is made up of stories that reflect a culture of amazing people with rich and complicated histories. We will never have the infrastructure of urban art centers, neither should we seek to emulate them. But we do need our stories to be validated. We need our artists to know that their stories matter. We need spaces for our children to lean into the stories that connect them to their identity, to learn how to share their dreams and imaginations with pride, to use the tools that speak to them, whether they be on analog or digital platforms. Our communities also need exposure to the disciplines that have the potential to speak to them: dance, music, theater, film, etc. We also need meaningful exchange with artists who share perspectives and life experiences connected to, but different from, our own.

Our needs are simple. We need significant dedicated funding to support arts programming in the schools and beyond. We need a digital infrastructure (rural broadband) robust enough to grow connections with regional and global communities. And we need our arts spaces funded in ways that allow them to serve the communities’ basic needs to see their stories reflected in the myriad of ways that art shows up in our lives. We need rural arts support to be considered as an integral part of community health and wellness, not an afterthought.

Housing

David Lipsetz

David Lipsetz is the Executive Director of the Housing Assistance Council, which provides funding and expertise to local organizations developing affordable housing in rural communities.

From World War II to the present day, federal housing policy was designed to create suburbs and revitalize urban centers. Billions were spent on housing tax credits and deductions; millions of home purchases were publicly insured; and trillions flowed through the secondary mortgage market’s government-sponsored enterprises. As a result, 52 percent of Americans now live in suburbs, and most of our wealth sits in a handful of metropolitan regions. It’s time to level the playing field and redesign federal housing policy to better include rural America in our plans for prosperity.

The 2020 presidential election is likely to put lots of attention on rural communities. It’s also likely to include a debate over housing policy. It’s about time! Rural housing is what we do at the Housing Assistance Council. It’s been our sole focus since 1971 and has allowed us to advise nine presidential administrations — a few of whom have even listened. This time around we’re reminding candidates: strong local institutions don’t happen by accident; and housing markets wither and die without access to capital. We suggest:

  1. Invest heavily in the capacity of hometown non-profits to give rural communities a local champion and a fighting chance in the complex world of housing finance; and
  2. Channel capital to community development finance institutions to deploy in places banks can’t reach. It will prime those places for future private investment and allow the big primary and secondary mortgage market players to meet their duty to serve and reinvest in rural communities.

Agriculture

Niel Ritchie

Niel Ritchie is the CEO of Main Street Project, which develops programs to combat rural poverty through regenerative poultry-based agriculture systems. Based in Northfield, Minnesota, Mr. Ritchie oversees initiatives to develop regional small-scale agricultural economies.

Our globalized, industrial food system is having devastating effects on people and the planet. From dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico to new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases and the destruction of rain forests, the cost of our “cheap food” is going up.

U.S. farm policy is largely to blame, based on a persistent myth that our farmers must produce as much as possible in order to “feed the world.”  This policy relic of the Cold War fueled the expansion of chemical-intensive, monoculture production on marginal lands, lowered crop and livestock prices, and drained the wealth from rural communities. It’s time to turn the page.

In its purest form, agriculture is an economic engine capable of generating rural wealth. It holds tremendous potential to restore soil health, protect our waters, and mitigate climate change.  Unlocking that potential requires new tools for farmers and a shift in policy to support more sustainable and regenerative farming practices.

For decades, bipartisan farm bills have included both farm safety-net programs (e.g. crop insurance) and food and nutrition programs (e.g. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP).  The strategy of combining rural and urban interests in the bills has served as a bulwark against the politics of division.

Going forward, we must make the health of people and the planet our guiding farm-bill principles. We must expand and strengthen rural-urban alliances to bring about the needed changes in policy.  And we must put an end to the myth that we’re “feeding the world.”

Investment

Bill Bynum

Bill Bynum is the CEO of HOPE Credit Union and HOPE Enterprise Corporation. Based in Jackson, Mississippi, HOPE provides financial services, policy analysis, and philanthropic support for economically distressed communities in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Nationwide, there are 395 counties or parishes where the poverty rate has eclipsed 20% for three decades in a row. The vast majority of these are rural places. Those of us who live and work in persistent poverty areas know these challenges extend far beyond a chronic lack of income to the externalities of underinvestment.  Low health and education outcomes fostered by dilapidating and aging community facilities, a lack of quality affordable housing, and the proliferation of financial deserts all strike a common chord in regions such as Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Black Belt, U.S. Mexico border, California’s Central Valley and in Indian Country.

As the 2020 election draws near, candidates should demonstrate a real commitment to expand investment in persistent poverty places by:

Supporting the 10-20-30 plan:  The 10-20-30 plan requires federal agencies to designate 10% of all discretionary funds to be allocated to places where the poverty rate has exceeded 20% for the last 30 years. The plan should be comprehensive and include the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Transportation and Treasury.

Modernizing the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) to increase lending and investment in rural areas:   Too many rural communities exist beyond the reach of the Community Reinvestment Act. This phenomenon occurs because CRA links its requirements for lending, service and investment to places where bank branches exist.  As a result, while large banks extract substantial profits from rural communities, they are not required to reinvest there because their physical presence is limited.  CRA should require investment in these economically distressed places, including investing in CDFIs that serve these communities.

Philanthropy

Brian Fogle

Brian Fogle is the President of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, a network of foundations and donors serving communities in central and southern Missouri. Based in Springfield, Missouri, Fogle consults with civic organizations and 49 affiliate foundations with $283 million in assets.

We’ve been talking about this for a long time.  I remember over 20 years ago, when I was involved in the Stand Up For Rural America campaign , we had an ongoing dialogue with the Council on Foundations about rural funding.  A few years later, there was a gathering in Montana to answer a challenge from Senator Max Baucus (who served represented Montana I the U.S. Senate from 1978 to 2014) to bring more philanthropy to rural America.  The resulting product was a book and a continued decline in funding.  If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 50 times from funders “we can’t scale our programs in rural areas efficiently and effectively.”    And that’s true—if we try to replicate large programs for small communities.  It doesn’t work.  As a result, funding continues to dwindle.

What many funders don’t realize is the impact that seemingly small dollars can have in rural places.   As a community foundation serving many rural communities, we’ve seen recipients cry from a podium receiving a $5,000 check, knowing what that means for their hometown. For the price of a consultant in an urban area, you can have a tremendous, lasting impact in a small community. Rural citizens know how to make a little go a long way through volunteerism, grit, and frugality.

Most of America is served by one of the 860 community foundations that exist in our country.  They are all place-based and are governed by the people who know the area best—their residents. I think one of the best possibilities to serve rural America is for governments and national funders to work with their respective community foundation to address challenges and build community.  They know how to scale giving to make it work, and they know the strengths and challenges of their community the best because they live, work, and play there.

There is much hope and promise for rural America, still, but we need to halt the dialogue after several decades and start investing.

Climate

Anna Claussen

Anna Claussen leads rural climate dialogues that engage communities on initiatives to address climate change. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Claussen founded Voices for Rural Resilience.

We must ensure our climate and environmental solutions are also rural community solutions.

Most of our natural resources essential for survival and critical in addressing our climate crisis are stewarded by rural people living and working across 84 percent of our nation’s geography. Rural people have lower life expectancy and higher poverty rates, are on average more food and energy insecure, and earn less than their urban counterparts.

The future of our planet – of our climate and our environment – is explicitly linked to the health and well-being of our rural people and places. It depends on policies and programs that prioritize rural equity, seeking to achieve a balance between economic and social vitality and commitments to long-term climate resilience. These policies must reduce—not increase—our historic discrimination and ongoing inequities (economic, racial, cultural, geographic, etc.) of vulnerability.

Examples of solutions that will achieve these aims:

  • Invest in efficient buildings and increase access to affordable and renewable energy sources, while prioritizing local ownership, for our rural communities to benefit from decreased energy poverty.
  • Support a diverse suite of locally determined conservation efforts across both public and private lands, including working landscapes, that support both vibrant rural communities and healthy landscapes.
  • Provide incentives for clean-energy infrastructure and community-based energy projects while simultaneously supporting our nation’s farms, towns, and rural tribal communities in the transformation of their function and identity.

Ultimately, the most robust approach to addressing climate change and protecting our environment will come from a foundation of reciprocal exchange, intentional representation, and authentic compassion. It will require slowing down to get there faster.

Jobs

Michelle Decker

Michelle Decker is the CEO of The Community Foundation, serving Riverside and San Bernadino, California. Ms. Decker has 27 years of experience in community economic development and previously served as the CEO of Rural Action, in the Appalachian region of Ohio, where she led efforts in social enterprise development.

The first thing each presidential candidate should do is declare that they have no clue about how to create more jobs in rural America. At that point, they should stop and wait for the influx of ideas from rural America. The main idea folks will share will be around infrastructure investment because unless that’s fair and equitable, rural America will have a hard time even floating a good idea.

Once that budgetary item is resolved, which I’m sure it will be (a huge investment in USDA Rural Development will work nicely), then we can discuss how rural America is rich with the sustainable, biological resources that our country requires for an energy, food, and fiber independent future. We will talk about investing in the management of those resources, as well as the technological breakthroughs that will be required to use them sustainably.

The management will require some public funds (for U.S. Forest Service, BLM, etc.) but we think we can use private and public investment for the tech transfer ideas. But we’ll only use those dollars if the venture capitalists promise the jobs stay with rural America, and don’t have to move to San Francisco or other such places.

We will also promote a very large investment in the entrepreneurial culture of our rural communities through various vehicles, to foster our natural talent for figuring stuff out on our own and supporting local businesses to grow. This will involve our universities and community colleges and their incubators and accelerators, but there will be a clear-as-a-bell understanding that we have to build a resilient ecosystem to support job creators of all sizes, and that there is no silver bullet here.

There will also be a clear understanding that rural America is a prize, not a drain. Any investment pays back well. Our presidential candidates will listen deeply and make a clear commitment that every square inch of these United States of America is invaluable to the nation’s future and that of Planet Earth.

Education

Francisco Guajardo

 Francisco Guajardo is Professor of Organization and School Leadership at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. He is national leader in place-based educational initiatives.

National strategy:  Rural schools can learn from each, advocate for each other, and share collective resources. Professional development for rural schools and communities often calls for theories and practices different from predominant educational thinking born out of urban educational settings. A national rural education strategy can address issues of professional development for teachers, school leaders, and community advocates.

From deficits to assets:  Rural schools and communities have wide-ranging strengths and assets, but popular perceptions continue to view rural schools and communities as poor, marginal, and part of a hinterland reality. While conditions of systemic poverty may grip many rural schools and communities across the country, those same schools and communities also have strengths, virtues, and proud histories. To move from deficits to strengths can impact the psychology of a school and a community; it can produce a shift from hopelessness to hope and opportunity. To build rural school and community strength often requires a change is consciousness, before rural folk feel good about working for positive change.

Tackle rural poverty:  Rural schools and communities continue to be mired by conditions of poverty and low levels of educational investment, a historical pattern that has grown unabated. Poor health care, inferior access to technology, and local economies without strong employment opportunities perpetuate conditions of rural poverty.  Local, state, and federal policies can impact conditions of poverty, but policy makers must understand rural poverty, before they create policy opportunities for rural schools and communities.

Technology, tolerance, talent:  Rural schools have a history of incubating innovation, invention, and creativity. Places that do that generally offer access to technology. They are places that are culturally and socially tolerant, and they figure out ways to hold onto their talented people–and in some cases recruit talent.  In the Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argues that the most creative communities, including rural places, emerge as creative communities because they focus on technologies, on being tolerant, and on nurturing local talent. I grew up in a rural school that met that criteria.

Health

Alan Morgan

Alan Morgan is the President of the National Rural Health Association, a network of individuals and organizations engaging in research and advocacy for rural health policies.

As mortality gaps between rural and urban Americans escalate, three in five rural voters say they would be more likely to vote for a candidate in the 2020 election who prioritized access to health care in rural America.

Access to care for many rural patients has worsened.  One hundred eight rural hospitals have closed since 2010, more than 46% of rural hospitals are currently operating at a loss, meaning hundreds more will close if federal policies don’t soon change. When rural hospitals close, they rarely reopen — rural patients are left without emergency room access, and 20% of a community’s economy vanishes. Health disparities and economic decline ensue.  Most closures are occurring in areas where hospitals are needed most — in communities of high health disparities, high poverty and high minority populations.

Drastic and draconian Medicare cuts and the lack of Medicaid expansion are closing rural hospitals.  The Save Rural Hospital Act will both stabilize current reimbursements and create the Community Outpatient Hospital, a new model that offers the flexibility needed for rural communities. Rural hospitals must be empowered to deploy innovative approaches to deliver care that protects emergency access.

Healthcare workforce shortages plague rural America. (About 20% of the population is rural, yet only 9% of physicians work there.) Hundreds of rural maternity wards have closed, leaving 54% of rural counties without hospital-based obstetrics and creating high risks for mother and child. Overcoming chronic shortages is vital; support of workforce development programs and telemedicine is critical.

Citizenship

Marlene Chavez

Marlene Chavez is the Director of Community Engagement and Outreach at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which provides free legal services to 23,000 low-income farmworkers, veterans, and disaster survivors. Edyael Casaperalta is a Fellow at the American Indian Law Program of the University of Colorado Law School, where she researches and writes about federal Indian law, indigenous peoples’ rights, international human rights, and telecommunications and technology.

The strategies of terror embraced by the current administration hurt rural communities. Terror tactics such as separating children from their parents, locking up children in make-shift camps, conducting highly-publicized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, adding a citizenship question to the Census,

Edyael Casaperalta

withholding the rights of Americans of Muslim faith, and deploying a task-force to reopen cases of citizenship, among others, hurt rural Americans, our neighbors, our families, and threaten our communities. We want the next president to renounce and halt these tactics designed to reverberate fear throughout our communities. We want the next president to address the following areas of migration policy:

  • Fund rural America’s progress, not waste public funds on a border wall.

Since 2007, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars in the construction of barriers across the border with Mexico. In May of 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released a study indicating where new segments of the border fence are to be constructed in the Rio Grande Valley, overriding environmental concerns, impact on water level, increased risk of flooding, and possible violations of a treaty with Mexico. The billions of dollars in taxpayer money spent to pursue and build this wall are better spent in addressing socio-economic problems in rural America. These funds should go to helping the 17 million of rural Americans who live in areas without a rural health clinic, end the hunger that plagues 2.4 million of rural households, reopening the 102 hospitals that were closed in rural communities, and close the digital divide for the 23.4 million of rural Americans still lacking internet access.

  • Protect the right to asylum

The Trump Administration has implemented the Migrant Protection Protocol in some areas of California and Texas and on July 16, 2019, announced plans to expand it. This program requires certain asylum seekers to begin their asylum cases in Mexico or Guatemala, yet both countries have not agreed to acting as a “3rd country.” This protocol poses an extreme burden on their right to apply for asylum. Many migrants have no living arrangements in Mexico or Guatemala and are forced to rely on shelters or other unstable living arrangements while they are there. Border cities are often dangerous, and asylum seekers may be subject to additional persecution and danger while they await a decision in their cases. This protocol also gives border patrol agents unfettered discretion to decide that someone is not an asylum seeker and should return to Mexico, even involuntarily, without any review by an immigration judge. This is a potential violation of the Convention Against Torture and the Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act which says that it is U.S. policy “not to expel, extradite, or otherwise effect the involuntary return of any person to a country in which there are substantial grounds for believing the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 8 USC 1231.

  • Uphold our tradition of citizenship

It is an American tradition, affirmed by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and the Supreme Court, that those born in the United States are automatically U.S. citizens. Since the late 1800s, our nation chose to bestow citizenship automatically upon those who are born within our territory. In January, a bill that would limit the American tradition of citizenship to apply only to those born to a parent that is a citizen, legal permanent resident, or served in the U.S. military. This effort is yet another attempt to control the migrants that join our communities. But rural America has always been a land of migrants. Since the inception of our nation, rural communities were the destination for millions of New Americans. It is in rural towns, farms, and local governments that newcomers forged their identity as Americans and did the work to build each state of our nation. This bill will not stop migration from taking place, migrants from giving birth to new Americans, nor migrants from becoming the linking threads in the fabric of rural America. This bill will only serve to limit the pool of talent that joins and takes root in rural communities. This bill goes against the rural tradition.

Technology and Broadband

Roberto Gallardo

Roberto Gallardo is Assistant Director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development at Purdue University. He has written numerous articles for the Daily Yonder and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

Talent exists everywhere; the ecosystem under which it thrives does not. As the digital age continues to unfold, rural communities are at risk of being left behind. The following areas need to be addressed to ensure rural communities can participate fully in the digital age:

 

  • Ensure mechanisms where adequate and affordable broadband is a reality in rural areas. This may include better aligning existing resources and incentives to smaller providers that are vested in these rural communities and/or explore open access models in areas where dedicated infrastructure is too expensive to build.
  • Provide resources and technical assistance to rural communities to improve their ability and capacity to pursue funding mechanisms to upgrade their broadband infrastructure.
  • Design, fund, and implement a national strategy delegated to states that addresses digital inclusion, including devices, adequate and affordable connectivity, and digital skills/literacy.
  • Increase awareness efforts throughout rural communities on the implications of the digital age and how they can plan for, transition to, and prosper in the digital age.
  • Assist rural communities in shifting their economic development strategies from industry attraction to place making and economic gardening, strategies that focus inward rather than outward.

This document was edited and compiled with the assistance of Charlie Zong.

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