Speak Your Piece: Rural Economies Must Change or Die

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If we bail out New York City, what about New York Mill, Minnesota? Are we in this together, or are we on our own?


Make rural a clear focus at this White House.  On March 10, 2009, 41 Members of Congress from both parties called upon you to create an office of rural policy within the White House.  Create this office and give it a real place at the table in policy development, budget preparation and oversight of rule making.  USDA will be a critical part of this, but if there’s not an office in the White House, it will not work.

2. Free your departments to innovate in helping communities create solutions.  Rural and urban communities are hampered by categorical programs that disadvantage cooperation and regional solutions.  Allow departments to use up to 5% of their discretionary budgets to help communities and regions create their own solutions, rather than being tied down by inappropriate federal regulations.

3. Pass a national health program that does not disadvantage rural hospitals, clinics and private providers. Earlier national health proposals have actually proposed weakening rural health care as a way of building inner city services.

Create a contemporary and appropriate intellectual engine to build rural prosperity.  End the federal status and support of land grant universities. That is, terminate the Morrill Act.  Hold a national competition on a regional basis to create new research and outreach institutions that have as their mission significant new economic opportunity for rural communities.

Former land grant universities, private companies, state agencies or regional non-profits could run these New Competitive Advantage Institutes.  The Institutes would focus on increasing opportunity in the persistently poor regions of rural America over a 20 year period.   These NCA Institutes, based in rural areas, would be tailored to the needs of specific sub-national regions, rather than abiding by the “one size fits all” approach of some current policies.

5. Pass a rural civil rights act.  People living in rural communities and regions should not be denied opportunities because of their location status.  There about 50 million people living in rural America.  If rural were a catgory like “race or ethnicity,” it would include more people than “Hispanic” or “African-American.”  Separate and un-equal should not be tolerated for any group.  Access to opportunity should be a right, not an accident of locale.  Start by ordering your new office of rural policy to conduct a comprehensive review of how existing policies discriminate against rural communities, intentionally or not.  Then change those policies.

Much of rural is in decline for one basic reason —opportunity is shrinking. The demand for rural workers (skilled or unskilled) is less today than previously.  Rural areas have more people than there are jobs, especially living wage jobs.  The English quaintly call this “redundancy.”  In America it is most often called poverty.

The economic crisis in much of rural America began more than a decade ago.  In some communities, it goes back over 50 years.  You can tell if a place is in decline by asking two questions. First, is the population increasing? Second, is the region creating a growing number of living wage jobs?  For much of rural America, the answers have been “no” and “no” for many years.  People left rural communities and went to where opportunities were expanding.

Now opportunity is shrinking in most of America, and we are all looking for ways back to prosperity. There are many rural areas in America that have been hard at this work for years. We must invest in them, help them succeed and learn from their success.  These places are filled with lessons all of America needs to learn.  Mr. President, we need your help now.  We need help creating strategies for specific places, not national canned answers.

There are many of us in rural communities who are ready to be your “on-the-ground” partners. Together, we can create new places of hope and opportunity.  But Mr. President, we need your help now.

Karl Stauber works on the economic and cultural transformation of rural areas in south central Virginia and north central North Carolina.  He served as an under-secretary at USDA in the 1990s.  He has written and spoken widely on rural development over the last 30 years.