A hundred years ago, T. Roosevelt made the mistake of equating rural with "agricultural." The latest version of the Farm Bill is guided by the same wrong idea.
Count me among the disappointed. Or pessimistic. Or both.
Bill Bishop’s recent discussion of President Obama’s “rural term paper” suggests the continued withdrawal of Washington from large segments of rural America. The administration’s support of the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill, which, at the moment lacks a rural development title and reduces funding for food programs and conservation, is problematic at best. The apparent support for cuts in food programs is reprehensible.
The Farm Bill, as currently presented, is designed for the few, not the many. Apparently, this is acceptable to the administration. That’s disappointing, especially from an administration that says it believes in rural communities and people.
If rural development is eliminated from the 2012 Farm Bill, with the administration’s endorsement, we are moving beyond unconstitutional post office closures; we will be abandoning policies that have evolved for more than a century, accelerating since the early 1970s. We are talking ultimately about limiting opportunities to improve the quality of life for the majority of rural residents who are not farmers. If food programs for the poor are reduced, those cuts will fall more heavily on rural communities where, even in good times, job opportunities are limited and poverty can be grating. Cuts in conservation programs are coming even as we need to use our land more intensively for food and energy.
Tuesday afternoon, rural development funding was retained in the Senate version of the Farm Bill, but at a much reduced amount from the previous bill. An amendment restored $150 million for development purposes; since 1996, farm bills have had an average of $413 million for rural development. The House must still concur with the Senate bill.
A “rural equals agriculture” policy strategy has predominated in this country at least since it was enshrined in Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission Report of 1909. Even Roosevelt’s friends and advisors recognized the mistake, and by 1920 they were talking about programs for rural communities that included small cities, towns, and villages. They came to understand a holistic approach that included education, human services, clean water, sewage systems, transportation, and a host of other factors that improve the quality of rural life.
Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, got it pretty close to right in the 1930s. His administration took into account not only the plight of the nation’s farmers during the Depression but also the desperation of nonfarmers. His diverse policies stressed immediate relief accompanied by rural community-building that included bold experimentation. Facing a calamitous economic slowdown, Roosevelt accepted the seemingly contradictory wisdom of going into debt to invest in America’s future. The lesson is lost in Washington.
Peculiar conditions during the current economic downturn have made rural America relatively prosperous in many ways, especially in the farming sector. But, if you live in rural America, you don’t have to look far to see just how limited and shallow that prosperity is.
The future may prove me wrong, but the farm/energy economy that the Obama Administration is relying on to drive rural development is highly cyclical: boom now, bust later — or sooner. The current boom has been driven by low interest rates and a global competition for energy and food. These are not new factors, and we need to remember that.
Meanwhile, the larger economy is still teetering, and the farm economy remains vulnerable. The Farm Bill includes a much-needed experiment in risk management to escape the mess of farm subsidies. Here’s hoping it works, because this bill hacks away at other safety nets.
I am disappointed with the Senate and the President. My pessimism about rural America is running high. Will the loss of rural development funding be a disaster? Hard to say — it’s such a pittance anyhow. Will people be hungrier as a result of cuts to food assistance programs? Probably, and that’s inhuman. Will we immediately feel the effects of soil erosion and declining water quality? That will take time, but it will be costly in the long run.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.