Joe Biden should pledge to create a National Office of Rural Prosperity

BY MATTHEW HILDRETH

Donald Trump has lived his life with the philosophy that the big get bigger and the small are irrelevant, and he has indeed gone big in rural America. Over the last two years, between the trade war and the coronavirus bailouts, the Trump Administration allocated nearly $50 billion in stimulus to American farmers — over four times the amount of the 2009 $12 billion auto bailout.

However, much of Trump’s farm bailout never made it to smaller farmers, and in some cases American taxpayers subsidized foreign-owned corporations in direct competition with U.S. farmers. When asked about the future of the dairy business, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out.”

These dismissals and neglect create a big opening for Joe Biden and the Democrats. At RuralOrganizing.org, we know this because we spent a year doing multi-faceted, deep-dive surveys of rural voters. We found that politicians from both parties have largely ignored the true concerns of many rural voters. And that’s more true now, under the Trump Administration, than ever before.

On the right, politicians use talking points about freedom and self-reliance to deregulate special interest industry groups that, in turn, consolidated the agriculture sector leaving America’s family farmers with lower prices, fewer choices, and huge debts to pay for inputs like seeds and fertilizer. 

On the left, many Democrats have all but given up on rural voters, leaving their rural engagement efforts to K Street lobbyists, or pursuing one size fits all policies without much attention to the specific needs of rural communities.

Our polling also revealed that rural people are open to bold actions and big ideas. They know a corporate agenda in Washington, DC is holding back their communities and want leaders who will have their backs by supporting small businesses and critical services in their communities like grocery stores, pharmacies, and schools.

Here’s how Joe Biden and Senate Democrats can win rural voters: propose and promote a national Office of Rural Prosperity to address the unique structural challenges of rural housing, education, healthcare, small business development, and job creation. We know addressing these issues will resonate, because this is what rural voters told us mattered most to them in our extensive research.  

Farmers comprise less than 10% of the rural workforce. Most rural Americans are employed in the education, healthcare and social assistance sectors. These essential institutions are the foundation of strong rural communities, and funding to support them directly benefits all rural people. 

When local farmers have a good year, the entire community has a good year because farmers spend their earnings at hardware stores, fuel suppliers, feed mills, and fix-it shops. Similarly, agricultural subsidies and bail out dollars do flow from farmers into their rural communities through these services — assuming they are locally owned. However, the collapse of small town local businesses and the consolidation of these industries means more tax dollars earmarked for rural people end up on Wall Street instead of Main Street.

Federal programs explicitly targeting economic development in small towns and rural communities only received $3.5 billion in 2020 — just pennies on the USDA dollar compared to the $50 billion bailouts for farmers. 

To make matters worse, USDA is most often tasked with leading federal rural policy, even though federal rural programs are scattered across multiple departments. Without a centralized interdepartmental agency or coordinating body to oversee implementation — and comparatively little investment in rural development research and policy development — it’s hard for tax dollars tagged for rural places to make a real impact.

According to RuralOrganizing.org’s recent polling of more than 7,000 rural battleground voters, only one in ten rural voters think USDA programs benefit small farms and small towns. Two-thirds think that USDA programs benefit big corporations and big farms instead of small farms, small businesses, and rural Americans—and the rest don’t know what to think.

This is something that successful Democrats in red states understand. After Governor Laura Kelly (D) defeated Kris Kobach (R) in the 2018 Kansas race, she established the Office for Rural Prosperity to focus on issues like rural housing, infrastructure, Main Street restoration, rural healthcare, water lines, building maintenance, and other challenges facing rural communities in her state.

This year, Governor Tony Evers (D) in Wisconsin issued Executive Order #65 creating the Blue Ribbon Commission on Rural Prosperity to help rural stakeholders navigate the programs and resources available for building and maintaining rural prosperity.

While President Donald Trump did issue an executive order establishing an “interagency task force,” it amounted to little more than a report and a photo op. To this day, the Federal Government still has no office or agency similar to what we see in Kansas or Wisconsin.

Though the federal reforms rural America deserves will undoubtedly take an act of Congress, the next President doesn’t need to wait for Congress to get the process started. In 1963, President Kennedy created the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission to bring federal dollars to Appalachia. It wasn’t until two years later that Congress made it permanent in creating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Kennedy created the agency after being lobbied by the Council of Appalachian Governors, an ad hoc group of nine governors of the Appalachian states, during his 1960 presidential campaign. It was part of Kennedy’s strategy to win back the region after Democrats took major losses there to Dwight D. Eisenhower during the 1956 election. The strategy didn’t just work to elect President Kennedy, it worked to help rebuild Appalachia.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of ARC. Since 1965, the agency has made nearly 25,000 strategic investments in the region. Appalachia’s poverty rate has been cut in half over the past five and a half decades, from nearly 31% in 1960 to about 16% as of 2015.

Today, we must build on the vision of Gov. Kelly of Kansas and learn the lessons from Kennedy’s 1960 election strategy. We need to invest in community-based, locally-owned enterprises, businesses, and services — rather than extractive, consolidated industries — and ensure that dollars earmarked for rural Americans stay in rural communities.

This election year, Democrats need a bold vision to earn the votes of rural Americans, which they desperately need. This could be the year that we turn it around. It’s time rural America gets the federal attention it deserves, and it’s time the Federal Government listens to rural Americans, not just extractive industry leaders.

It’s time for a National Office of Rural Prosperity.

Matt Hildreth is the Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org, a national rural advocacy organization started in Larchwood, Iowa and now based in Columbus, Ohio.

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