By Tony Pipa, senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution.

Opinion in New York Times | December 27, 2022

(Emphasis by AFLEP)

In what has become a postelection tradition, there has been no shortage of analysis the past several weeks about rural voters and their role in determining the outcome of the midterms.

Yet during a visit to Shamokin, Pa., I asked a former mayor and the current one, both Republicans, whether differences between Republicans and Democrats were affecting local efforts to revive their town. They both agreed: not really. They don’t think about it.

This does not fit the conventional narrative about a former coal mining town of some 7,000, where nearly 70 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020. The town’s decline was already bad enough 30 years ago to warrant a New York Times article with the headline “In a Gritty Town, Hope Outlives the Prosperity.”

The question then was whether the construction of a prison there would help. It didn’t. The town has lost almost 25 percent of its population since, and the poverty rate now hovers above 30 percent.

Shamokin is a cautionary tale for what happens when we lack policy solutions that can truly help places cope and adapt to major economic and social shifts. Despite widespread acknowledgment since 2008 that rural places have generally been left behind, our nation still lacks a coherent federal rural policy.

Almost a century ago, federal policy like the Rural Electrification Act, Title V of the Housing Act and other national-scale development programs helped bring rural America into the modern era, and its contributions helped make the American economy the envy of the world. But today’s federal programs were built for a different era. We need a renaissance of rural policy to enable a renaissance of rural America.

What we have are lots of programs — over 400 available for community and economic development spread across every nook and cranny of the federal government. But navigating that maze and the peculiarities of their applications, reporting and matching requirements is a high bar for anybody, let alone the part-time volunteer elected officials and the bare-bones staffs that make up many local rural governments.

That leaves most rural communities starved for investment. Very few can get the type and level of resources necessary to reinvent their economy or unleash the full potential of their human, intellectual and natural capital as they face rapid change.

Too often policymakers mistake agricultural policy for rural policy. Farming now accounts for just 7 percent of rural employment. Service jobs, retailing, manufacturing and government employment all outweigh agriculture. And while $163 million of the relief the Trump administration distributed during the peak of the trade war with China went to high-income farmers making more than $900,000 annually, small-scale and family farmers are increasingly taking off-farm jobs just to get by.

The prevailing image of rural America represented by an aging white farmer or white blue-collar worker fallen on hard times is difficult to shake. Yet rural America is wildly diverse racially, geographically and economically — from the large expanses of publicly leased lands in the West to Native American reservations and colonias in the Southwest (settlements along the U.S.-Mexico border) to predominantly Black communities in the Southeast.

People of color make up 24 percent of the rural population. Close to half of rural Native Americans and more than half of rural Black Americans live in a distressed county. That’s compared with 18 percent of rural white residents. Anyone serious about racial equity must also be serious about rural America.

With their town on the brink of bankruptcy, leaders in Shamokin secured federal support through the state to turn 8,000 acres of formerly mined land into an outdoor recreation destination and conservation site. An expert detailed to the town from a regional economic development organization has helped break through the bureaucratic maze to gain access to $13 million more to create a plan for the town, facilitate partnerships and collaboration, begin addressing blight and incubating new small businesses, and strengthen the local government.

This is reflective of an emerging model for resilient, equitable rural communities: put local assets to creative use, unleash entrepreneurial activity, share the benefits widely and retain the value locally. Yet Shamokin is still at the beginning of what will require years of work and investment.

We have seen the seeds of a new rural policy to reinvigorate rural America. The bipartisan consensus that resulted in $65 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to address the lack of strong and stable internet service in large swaths of rural America (and too many metropolitan neighborhoods) is an example. But much of the other investment available in that law is at risk of bypassing most rural places, given their constraints and inexperience at navigating the federal bureaucracy.

While the Biden administration has started the Rural Partners Network to embed federal staff members in rural communities to help them identify and secure federal resources, the program is limited to select communities in just 10 states and Puerto Rico. The country needs a national rural prosperity strategy that offers a coherent vision for rural America in the 21st century. Someone at the highest levels of the White House should be responsible for its execution and cutting through the bureaucratic entanglements.

Canada and Ireland, among other countries, have completed such policies and created cabinet-level positions to carry them out. Governors in Wisconsin and Michigan have created rural prosperity offices. Some members of Congress are also beginning to think along these lines, reflected in bipartisan legislation proposed this year by Senator Mark Kelly and several colleagues.

We also need bold policy ideas. This means building the capacity of local governments and institutions and making large-scale, multiyear investments so they have the staff, expertise and partnerships necessary to achieve their vision.

Policymakers are starting to recognize the need to support lagging places better. An experiment such as the recent Build Back Better Regional Challenge, run by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, offers one template. This $1 billion grant competition is supporting 21 regional partnerships with substantial multiyear investments ($25 million to $65 million) to give them a good opportunity to transform their local economies; a couple of them are predominantly rural.

The Recompete pilot program, authorized in the CHIPS and Science Act, offers the prospect of readiness assistance followed by large multiyear grants to distressed communities where employment is severely lagging. It just received initial funding in the recent omnibus appropriations, but nothing stipulates that rural areas benefit. Even the Millennium Challenge Corporation begun in 2004 by President George W. Bush, which brought a rigorous, evidence-based approach that helped transform international development practice, provides an example of what is possible.

Rural policy is one issue where Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground to work together. The new Congress will present a concrete opportunity as it takes up work to pass a new Farm Bill in 2023, a major piece of legislation renewed roughly every five years that — among other things — authorizes rural development programs at the Department of Agriculture.

Yet early indications signal high-profile fights over food stamps, agricultural subsidies and conservation investments — and limited attention to rural development.

Reauthorizing the Economic Development Administration presents another opportunity. Its authorization expired in 2008, and conversations to renew it began in the current Congress but never made it to the finish line. The new Congress can reopen that process to seriously consider the federal role in promoting economic revitalization in left-behind communities.

One thing is clear: Tweaking around the edges will remain ineffective. A serious policy discussion should be dominating the airwaves. Rural America is listening for how public leadership and resources can better support the economic and social renewal of rural communities, but it hears mostly silence.

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