The Critical Importance of Addressing Rural Needs: It’s About Justice & the Only Way We Heal America

5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM

Today we focus on how and why the Democratic Party nationally and in New Mexico must begin addressing the needs of rural America and rural New Mexico. COVID-19 has laid bare the degree to which infrastructure that urban America takes for granted is sorely lacking in most of rural America. We excerpt from “5 ways Biden can help rural America thrive and bridge the rural-urban divide,” an excellent article from The Conversation by three attorneys who practice in rural America: Ann Eisenberg, Jessica Shoemaker, and Lisa Pruitt. “5 ways” points out that the rationale for addressing rural needs doesn’t just revolve around achieving urban-rural equity, but also the more pragmatic desire to ensure that the GOP can’t claim Democrats are urban elitists who don’t care about rural needs, a message that was at the core of Trump’s “drain the swamp” and MAGA mantras.

“Rural communities provide much of the food and energy that fuel our lives. They are made up of people who, after decades of exploitative resource extraction and neglect, need strong connective infrastructure and opportunities to pursue regional prosperity. A lack of investment in broadband, schools, jobs, sustainable farms, hospitals, roads and even the U.S. Postal Service has increasingly driven rural voters to seek change from national politics. And this sharp hunger for change gave Trump’s promises to disrupt the status quo particular appeal in rural areas.”

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

We have written often about how Democrats have turned their backs on the rust belt and the working class. “5 ways” makes clear, that our nation has also failed to address the needs of rural Americans in favor of agribusiness, gas and oil industries and offers five initiatives through which it can begin to rectify this failure.

First Initiative: Achieve Equity in Internet Access

We have read stories about how families are parking outside McDonalds and public libraries to access wifi so their children can participate in remote learning. But lack of internet access impedes small business development, personal job search, acquisition of goods and services, and access to basic news and information. Most of those stories are anecdotal, the map above and data below is not. It is shocking, the disparity between urban and rural America in terms of internet access.

“Yet 22.3% of rural residents and 27.7% of tribal lands residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.”

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

Obama had begun to address this disparity by declaring broadband a public utility, allowing the FCC to regulate it as it does electricity. But Trump exempted broadband from this designation. Biden could easily reclassify broadband as a public utility with an executive order, but there must also be funding for infrastructure development nationally and in NM. Retake Our Democracy is supporting several bills to address broadband and other infrastructure deficits in rural NM, including the Rural Opportunity Act (to be filed on Monday); HB 86 Native American Library, Internet and Education; and SB 83 Local Choice Energy. All three are Transformational bills and together they deliver funding (HB 86), a framework for systemically address inadequate infrastructure (Rural Opportunity Act), and and local tools for generating renewable energy resources (SB 83).

Second Initiative: Increase Investment in Rural Economies

As the chart below depicts, rural America has been very slow to recover from the 2007-08 recession.

An important factor in the failure of rural America to rebound from the recession has been job loss in industries that are no longer economically or environmentally viable (gas and oil, mining, timber). The loss of jobs also results in lost revenue to struggling counties and cities, eroding the quality and scope of public services like libraries, education, road repair, etc. Fortunately, there are tools to help reinvigorate local economies.

Federal institutions could help by expanding capacity-building programs, like Community Development Block Grants and Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants that let communities invest in long-term assets like main street improvements and housing.

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

In NM, the three Transformational bills listed above will afford the state the resources and other tools to invest in long term assets in rural NM. In addition, SB 112 Sustainable Economy Task Force, another Retake Transformational bill, will create a strategic plan for transitioning from a gas and oil dependent economy to a more sustainable one. Given that it is New Mexico’s rural economies that will be most impacted by this transition, this bill will enable the state to justly plan for that transition.

Third Initiative: Rein In Big Agriculture & Invest in Local Farmers

“Only 6% of rural people still live in counties with economies that are farming dependent. Decades of policies favoring consolidation of agriculture have emptied out large swaths of rural landscapes. The largest 8% of farms in America now control more than 70% of American farmland, and the rural people who remain increasingly bear the brunt of decisions made in urban agribusiness boardrooms.”

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

In addition to the ongoing acquisition of farmland from local farmers, other boardroom decisions are contributing to the decline of local economies. Increasingly, agribusiness is requiring farm business to purchase a wide range of equipment, supplies, seeds, and other products utilized in agriculture from monopolistic mega corporations rather than from local hardware and supplies businesses. The lack of affordable land impedes development of local farming, which in addition to generating local jobs would address food scarcity issues that ironically are more pressing in food-producing rural communities than in urban America.

To reverse these trends will require federal investment in local economies and breaking the monopolistic grip of agribusiness. “5 ways” indicates that ” Justice for Black Farmers Act or in other property-law reforms, could help rebuild an agriculture system that is diversified, sustainable, and rooted in close connections to rural communities. The appointment of Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture is not a good sign, as Vilsack spent 8 years as Ag Secretary under Obama, shepherding the concentration of agribusinesses grip on rural America, and over the last four years he has been leading agribusinesses’ Dairy Export Council. Ugh.

Fourth Initiative: Pursue racial justice in rural America

Twenty percent of rural Americans are people of color, yet people of color are three times as likely to be poor as rural whites. Ninety-eight percent of rural land is white-owned, and 83% of farmworkers are Hispanic. What’s more, rural America is far less likely to have implemented worker safety regulations or criminal justice reforms. Recall that during the Trump administration meat-packing workers who were devastated by COVID due to crammed working conditions were denied unemployment benefits if they were to refuse to work in those conditions. These kinds of policies must be reversed.

“At a minimum, the federal government can enhance workplace protections for farm laborers, strengthen protections of ancestral lands and tribal sovereignty and provide leadership for improving rural access to justice.”

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

Fifth Initiative: Restore Basic Services

As a result of the factors outlined above, the basics of what holds a community together are frayed or non-existent in rural America. Libraries, community centers, and social institutions that are the heart of thriving communities are on life-support in rural America. Poverty an economic decline are omnipresent. Fortunately, we have historic precedent for how to successfully address such widespread decline.

“The greatest historic progress on rural poverty followed large-scale federal intervention via Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Although these reforms were implemented in ways that were racially unjust, they offer models for ameliorating rural poverty.

They created public jobs programs that addressed important social needs like conservation and school building repair; established relationships between universities and communities for agricultural and economic progress; provided federal funding for K-12 schools and made higher education more affordable; and expanded the social safety net to address hunger and other health needs.”

From The Conversation“5 Ways Biden Can Help Rural America Thrive and Bridge the Rural-Urban Divide & Lessons for NM”

As the chart depicting the disparity in economic recovery between urban and rural America conveys, national efforts to re-start the economy after the 2007-08 recession have been more successful in urban America. Initiatives and investments like the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act need to be reconsidered and redesigned to better address the needs of rural America.

Clearly, the nation and NM have not done a very good job at restoring infrastructure and injecting resources into rural America, and the same can be said in NM. “5 ways” have offered an array of policy and investment initiatives that could address these failures. In NM there is promising legislation to be considered in this legislative session. On a national level, given the appointment of Tom Visalk as Agriculture Secretary, strong national advocacy will be needed to overcome his instincts for and allegiance to agribusiness. You can’t create strong, sustainable local economies by pursuing failed policies that favor big business over local economies.