Investing in Rural Communities Pays Off

We cannot build a strong nation on a foundation of crumbling communities. Even the sound elements are weakened by those not maintained.     

So it would be a mistake to write off rural communities and suspend federal investment in their future, as advocated by some in the September 13 New York Times article “US Spending Billions on Rural Jobs, But Impact is Uncertain”.  It would be just as misguided as cutting off investment in strengthening core urban areas. 

There are proven strategies that work to create genuine opportunity and a better future in rural communities. Small business and microenterprise development have worked to create new jobs and genuine opportunity across rural America, in many instances aided by U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.  That strengthens all of America.   

The USDA recently launched a brand new Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program to finance loans, training and assistance in developing business plans for rural businesses with up to ten employees.  The program is modeled after a Nebraska project that spent less than $1,000 per job created or saved, and enabled its predominately low to moderate income clients to make significant, measureable gains in income and business assets.

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture program has already helped launch promising entrepreneurial ventures across rural America.  It enabled a cedar mulch and fence post production business to get started in Menominee County, Michigan, where unemployment peaked recently at over 12 percent.  The business was financed by Northern Initiatives, a community development corporation, with funds from USDA.       

Opportunities for new business development are growing in rural America.  New energy sources, such as wind energy, can help solve climate change as they create tens of thousands of jobs and new business opportunities across the Great Plains. 

The Internet is enabling small rural businesses to sell business and professional services to metropolitan companies. And rural small businesses can now reach beyond their local areas to sell goods nationwide and worldwide.  For example, Guy and Jennifer Lewis just launched Valley Fire Pottery and Gallery in Ord, Nebraska, aimed at selling products across America via Internet.  They were financed with the help of Department of Agriculture funds.    

Enterprises like Valley Fire Pottery would be dealt a severe blow by those who would eliminate federal broadband programs, particularly in rural areas private industry will not serve.  To oppose federal investment in extending quality Internet service to all of America is to propose that we have two Americas — with the rural America excluded from the main avenue of 21st century social and economic life.

There is, nevertheless, much to criticize in Department of Agriculture spending.  As directed by Congress, it spends billions to subsidize the nation’s largest farms while doing relatively little to improve the economies of millions of rural people and communities.

To put it in perspective, a 2007 analysis by the Center for Rural Affairs compared federal subsidies to the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states with Department of Agriculture investment in rural development in the 20 counties suffering the most severe population loss in the same 13 states.   

We found that across the 13 states, the federal government spent nearly twice as much to subsidize 260 big farms as it spent to create genuine opportunity for millions of rural people, in thousands of small communities in 260 struggling rural counties. 

The problem is not federal investment in rural development.  The problem is that the federal government is over subsidizing the big and power while under-investing in creating genuine opportunity for ordinary rural Americans and the communities where they live.

That will not make America a stronger or better nation.  A “winner take all society” where resources are showered on the most successful and ever more people and communities are left behind is a society wracked by division, decay and decline.  

We should not write off America’s inner cities — or its rural communities.  Both are part of America.  And for America to achieve its full strength, we must invest in building widespread capacity to share in and contribute to our nation’s prosperity. 

Chuck Hassebrook is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, Nebraska.