Obama administration’s rural strategy has experts ‘hopeful’
Barack Obama promised in 2008 to help reverse rural decline.
With rural communities losing population and becoming older and poorer, his campaign's Blueprint for Change included a "rural revitalization program” to "attract and retain young people.”
Four years later, experts find hope in the focus and structure of his administration's efforts.
A key example: the Rural Jobs Accelerator, a competitive grant program that cuts across federal agencies to award funding for regional projects.
"The only way you're going to get young people to stay in rural places is with a vibrant economy, a next-generation economy,” said Deborah Markley, an economist who leads the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. "These kinds of efforts are the first step to getting kids to come home."
Her center's research shows meaningful numbers of young families would return to rural hometowns if there were jobs — particularly in growth industries.
So, for example, the administration has targeted the biosciences, the focus of a $1.8 million jobs grant in and around St. Louis.
Erik Johnston, the associate legislative director for the National Association of Counties, points to the creation last year of Obama's White House Rural Council as a "significant decision” to better coordinate rural policy efforts, including the Rural Jobs Accelerator program and an expansion of the National Health Service Corps.
Those are two "very specific initiatives that help attract and retain young people,” he said.
It's not just grant funding that experts find promising, but the shift in how that money gets put to work, said Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute who testifies before Congress on rural issues.
The Obama administration has moved toward more efficient and effective "place-based policy,” Fluharty said.
Rather than, say, a federal program within one agency to make credit available to small businesses generally, a place-based policy would draw on work of multiple agencies to foster regional "clusters” of businesses, according to a 2010 White House policy memo.
That's a significant shift that draws rural areas into larger regional planning, Fluharty said. It also coordinates dollars for bigger impact — necessary in a world where there will be less federal money to spend.
Early administration efforts aren't yet sustained or sufficient, Fluharty said, but the framework has been laid for serious policy shifts that leave him "hopeful.”
Obama promised to "create a Rural Revitalization Program to attract and retain young people to rural America.” While there's more yet to do, the creation of a White House Rural Council to coordinate programs such as the Rural Jobs Accelerator and an expansion of the National Health Service Corps makes this a Promise Kept.
Interview with Charles Fluharty, president and CEO, Rural Policy Research Institute, research professor, University of Missouri, Dec. 7, 2012
Interview with Deborah Markley, RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, Dec. 17, 2012
Email interview with Erik Johnston, associate legislative director, National Association of Counties, Nov. 30. 2012
White House, "Developing Effective Place-Based Policies for the FY 2012 Budget,” June 21, 2010
USDA, "FY 2011 Budget Summary And Annual Performance Plan," 2010
Council of Economic Advisers, "Strengthening the Rural Economy," April 27, 2010 | Report
White House Rural Council, "Policy initiatives," accessed Nov. 28, 2012
White House Rural Council, "Executive Order - Establishment of the White House Rural Council," June 9, 2011
USDA, "The Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge,” March 20, 2012
USDA, "Obama Administration Announces $9 Million Investment in Rural Communities to Foster Job Creation and Innovation," Aug. 1, 2012
USDA Rural Development, "Rural Jobs Accelerator," Nov. 29, 2012
Rural Policy Research Institute, "Rural Regional Innovation," accessed Dec. 11, 2012
PolitiFact Obameter, "Support regional innovation clusters,” updated April 27, 2012
PolitiFact Obameter, "Expand broadband's reach," updated April 23, 2012
Rural revitalization becomes part of the Obama agenda
On the campaign trail, Barack Obama addressed one of the most pressing issues facing small agricultural communities: keeping young people in rural areas.
The problem was best summed up by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in his confirmation hearing.
"Small towns and rural communities continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles," he said on Jan. 14, 2009. "These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy."
Keeping young workers in rural areas could help farming communities to thrive, the administration argues. That means supporting businesses, culture and infrastructure necessary to keep and attract younger people to small towns.
So, how has Obama worked to reverse the brain drain?
Arguably, the most visible effort is a series of town hall-like meetings Obama announced on June 30. So far, Vilsack has held at least a dozen meetings on the administration's Rural Tour meant to "engage in a more robust dialogue with folks living in rural America," according to the Web site the administration has launched to publicize the effort. "Today, our communities, big and small, are struggling. And the challenges ahead are even greater."
Meanwhile, a little more than half of the Agriculture Department's share of the stimulus funding -- about $28 billion -- is dedicated to rural development projects. For instance, in October, Vilsack announced $30 million in stimulus funding for 36 community facilities projects, many of which are health care facilities. That was in addition to $335 million that the Agriculture Department had already announced for such projects.
"President Obama and USDA are committed to revitalizing rural communities and bringing quality facilities such as libraries, public buildings and community centers to small towns and cities that can benefit from new construction or upgrades to existing ones, " Vilsack said on July 8.
Other projects include funding for rural broadband, water recovery and home ownership programs.
Additionally, on Dec. 17 Vilsack asked his department's office of Rural Development and the Farm Service Agency to host a series of meetings intended to gather ideas about job creation in rural America. The request was the direct result of a job forum hosted by the White House in early December.
So, the Obama administration is clearly taking rural development and revitalization seriously. But this is a big promise and it's unclear whether the efforts will pay off. We'll be keeping tabs on this promise, but move it to In the Works for now.
U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Secretary Asks USDA State Offices to Seek Ideas on Ways to Create Jobs Throughout the Country
, accessed Dec. 22, 2009
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Highlights Recovery Act Efforts to Bolster Healthcare Infrastructure In Rural America , Dec. 22, 2009