State of the (Rural) Union


The president then began his description of how the world has changed. Steel mills that once needed 1,000 workers can produce the same goods with 100. Companies can set up shop wherever they can latch on to a good Internet connection.

President Obama then went on like most good Southern governors over the past generation, preaching the need for smarter workers and more competitive companies.

Rural communities know all about this kind of economic transition. A hundred years ago, the economy was in the middle of a shift from food-producing work to jobs in the urban factory. Machinery and science had diminished the need for farm labor. Like Obama’s steel factory, farms could produce more with only a fraction of the workers.

The economy left rural America behind, in a sense. And last night the president was telling us we run the risk of having the economy leave our entire nation behind.

Rural America’s problem of adjusting to a new economy over the last century is now the nation’s challenge. 

We’re all rural now.

Claiborn Crain, former congressional staffer:

While President Obama’s direct references to rural America and to agriculture were few, there were some significant ones. 

His comments on infrastructure were of significant importance to those who live in rural communities.  Broadband deployment to all areas of the country as a part of the infrastructure section of his speech clearly laid out this service as critical infrastructure. His reference to the success of deploying electric power in rural America placed broadband as a high priority.  

We should note that the president referred to wireless technology specifically rather than being neutral on the type of broadband technology.

The president listed the importance of clean energy, but he did not talk about bio-energy or the use of farm products to develop renewable energy sources. 

His general reference to the need for safe drinking water did not make a specific tie to rural areas, but it kept this issue on the front burner.  The USDA Rural Utilities Service Water and Waste Disposal program has been one of the best-run programs in the Federal Government and should continue to be a high priority.  

We will have to see what is in the budget that will be delivered next month to know how the president plans to treat rural communities in the coming years. The Debt Commission listed both the water and waste disposal funding and broadband deployment as areas of major cuts to help bring spending under control. When you look at the USDA budget, the actual appropriations for the Water and Waste Programs represent the largest actual outlay of funds in the Rural Development mission area.

Part of the story for rural America is the things the president did not mention.  The President did not talk directly about cuts in other areas of the USDA budget. He did not mention cuts in areas like farm program supports, conservation or local food initiatives. He did talk about the importance of safe food as well as safe water, but again, no specifics.  

Like they always say, the devil is in the details.

I did notice that as the Senate progressed over to the House Chamber for the State of the Union, the new Chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, Senator Debbie Stabenow, and Kansas Senator Pat Roberts were walking side by side as a part of the effort to be more civil and bi-partisan. Of course the Agriculture Committees for both the House and the Senate have historically been more bi-partisan than many of the other committees in both chambers.  

Dee Davis, Center for Rural Strategies

I fixed the over and under at mentions of “rural” at one before the speech and bet the under. I was pleased to have lost. 

The first mention was in the historical context of what Americans did around rural electrification. As the song says, “once I built a railroad, I made it run….”  

But the second mention was in connection to the immediate challenge of getting high speed Internet to rural communities, and what the details may show as an audacious pledge to extend that access to 98% of America. That is a headline promise, given how far the U.S. has fallen behind in connecting in population and how uninterested the telcos are in serving poorer rural communities.

There were other declarations that would also signal dramatic shifts for rural: replacing No Child Left Behind that has been so vexing for rural school systems, championing of community colleges that are often the only rural option, the bold goal to make our energy clean by 2035, the somewhat outrageous idea of connecting 80% of us by high speed rail, and even a more prosaic promise that we would help foreign farmers raise more food.

And there was the rural iconography of rural electrification in the South, Oak Ridge, Tennessee as a place of scientific invention, but bigger yet, the finale.  

The President finished by shining his light on a drilling company from Berlin, Pennsylvania, the small town innovation that saved the 31 trapped Chilean miners, and the humble innovator in the presidential box who went back home and back to work rather than hog limelight that was in store for the rescued men. America at its best. Gary Cooper gone glandular.

Missouri farmer Richard Oswald:

The President talked about clean energy, included clean coal and natural gas, but he didn’t say “ethanol.”

He said there was too much regulation across too many agencies. I wonder if this signals bad news for the administration’s attempts to bring competition back into the agriculture and food markets? The president said the word “competition” six times, but he wasn’t referring to farm markets. 

The president said there was too much overlap among government agencies. There has already been some debate about USDA and FDA splitting duties on food inspection. Will that be good or bad for agriculture?

He mentioned Korea 9 times, China 7 times, farmers 3 times, rural communities 4 times, ethanol not at all, and biofuel twice. About the only thing I heard pertaining to rural was more emphasis on infrastructure to connect the nation.

Mary Annette Pember, Daily Yonder correspondent:

Indian Country has a long standing philosophy of environmental protection and stewardship and has long had a commitment to renewable energy. The more than 30 tribal colleges in the U.S. have a history of innovative renewable energy programs such as the Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, ND, whose goal is to be 100 percent energy self-sufficient by using wind and closed loop thermal heating. 

During the recent Democratic Congress, the Tribal College Act has received its highest level of funding. Will tribal colleges’ funding allow them to pursue their own Sputnik moment? Past Republican Congresses have funded the Act at less than 25%.

Steph Larsen, with the Center for Rural Affairs

It was interesting to note that President Obama mentioned broadband and compared it to when we electrified rural America. 

The rural electrification act spent $50 million a year starting in 1936, which would be $782.4 million dollars today (assuming 3.8% average inflation). Can you imagine how great rural broadband would be if we spent that much on infrastructure today?

Laura Tillman, journalist 

Many of President Obama’s suggestions applied to all areas of the country, rural, urban and suburban, with a dream of “winning the future.” Most notably for rural areas, Obama pushed the country’s improvement in Internet access and lamented the slip in the country’s infrastructure. He said America “has to do better” and said that the U.S. must redouble its efforts to repair crumbling roads and bridges, and within the next 25 years give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail.

President Obama pledged to cut subsidies to oil companies and put 1 million electric cars on the roads by 2015.

Tim Marema, Center for Rural Strategies

Not surprisingly, rural America was not a major part of the president’s State of the Union address. But there were some direct and indirect references to rural issues and concerns.

First and foremost, there’s broadband. The White House has consistently touted greater broadband access as a boon for rural communities, and he continued this theme in his State of the Union speech. He said he expects American businesses to deploy the next generation of wireless high-speed access to 98 percent of Americans. That would reach most rural Americans, who constitute about 20 percent of the U.S. population.

The impact of this broadband access, the president said, is better markets for rural communities “in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world.”

Certainly many rural Americans would agree with the president that “winning the future” (the theme of his speech) has to include improved broadband access if rural areas are to be part of this reimagined economic future.

Obama mentioned wireless broadband as part of a discussion of the nation’s infrastructure needs. He also mentioned the repair of crumbling bridges and roads and constructing high-speed rail. It’s hard to provide a lot of detail in a one-hour speech, but ensuring that these investments benefit rural communities, rather than further siphoning off population and economic activity, will be a major challenge.

Small-town America also was in the spotlight at the conclusion of the president’s speech, when Obama singled out Center Rock Inc., based in Berlin, Pennsylvania, population 2,192. The company designed and built equipment used to pluck miners from beneath the surface of Chilean mountains earlier this year. Whether companies like this one can rescue the rural economy remains to be seen.

Dr. Robert Bowman:

Biomedical research – For many years now biomedical research has been resulting in higher costs with less benefit. The typical investments of millions of dollars develop new technologies that address the needs of very few Americans while raising health care costs for all Americans and resulting in less return in years of useful life. America needs more solid investments in health care services, particularly in rural areas.

Health information technology – Studies on billions of health care encounters published this week in Annals of Internal Medicine point out that health information technology remains just a promise of better quality that has yet to be realized in health care outcomes. Health care needs to be understood as delivered by people not engineered by information processing, particularly in rural areas. Tens of billions spent on health information technology is limited in duration and application, particularly when we have an insufficient health care workforce and an insufficiently trained health care workforce. 

Jobs for rural people are a critical area. Rural jobs are particularly dependent upon education and health care spending. The past two years’ efforts have been a good fit with schools in concentrations of people and poverty but have not been a good fit for rural locations. Designs for health spending and rural workforce fail for rural areas. A failing rural workforce results in failed services, jobs, business, and economics arising from rural health. 

How do we replace the rapidly aging health and teaching workforce in rural areas?

It is not possible to continue “as is” in health care designs without slashing benefits for future generations.

I am concerned about “Merge, consolidate, and reorganize government” – common in state government during times of recession. This typically results in centralization with rural job and service losses.

There was nothing in the speech about reigning in health care costs that are crippling all local and state governments and U.S. businesses and U.S. economic competitiveness.

There was nothing about election reforms that would allow states with smaller populations to elect their own senators and congressmen rather than the current situation where elections are more and more likely to be shaped by forces and funds arising outside of a state.

Sputnik-moments are a good idea, but how do we re-engage in a national response similar to that seen after Sputnik? Then, Americans in all locations and socioeconomic segments received a substantial education, an opportunity boost in the 1960s and 1970s that allowed us to be prepared for a new future. It also allowed us specifically to prepare for the doubling of medical students from 1970 to 1980, the major period of primary care recovery in the United States.

American families have been falling behind as sources of the physician workforce for the United States. Over 40% of U.S. physicians arise from physicians born in other nations or physicians with a foreign-born parent. These are also the physicians that are least likely to be found in rural locations. We should work on improvements in nurturing, child development and education and higher education, to return to American-origin physicians who will work where they are most needed.