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Rural America Needs Bold, Decisive Leadership Now

Rural America needs bold and immediate action to weather the humanitarian and economic crisis sparked by COVID-19. Rural people -- whether they are white, Black, brown, or indigenous -- are poorer, older, and experience higher rates of key risk factors when compared to the nation as a whole. This combined with diminished social safety nets, strained healthcare systems, and crumbling infrastructure means that rural communities will be shocked by the force of this pandemicwhatever the timing and geographic distribution of cases. While a historic crisis looms, rural America is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, which hit rural communities harder, earlier, and longer than urban areas, and still lags behind in employment, child poverty, and life expectancy

Federal stimulus and emergency investment in rural America must go directly to rural governments and people—not the corporations and investors who received bailouts in 2008 and failed rural communities. Effective federal response should leverage the specific assets of rural America—strong civic and community care networks, connection to land and place, growing diversity, and vibrant beauty and creativity—to address this crisis head on, while establishing a strong economic foundation for rural communities to thrive for generations.

The President and Congress need to take clear and decisive action now, spend whatever is necessary to meet the scale of the crisis, minimize long-term damage, and invest in the innovation of rural communities and the strength of rural economies. Following a playbook from our grandparents and elders nearly a century ago, we rural people and organizations support a short-term stimulus and relief package that injects cash and resources through existing federal programs and institutions.

Our demands are guided by these principles:

  1. Bail out people, not corporations.

  2. Prioritize those likely to be hit worst and first by this crisis, including low-wage workers, health workers, independent contractors, family farmers, farmworkers and all food chain workers,  Black and Latinx communities, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous peoples, people who are incarcerated and in detention, people who are homeless or housing insecure.

  3. Use this opportunity to repair structural deficiencies in rural economies and move towards a green, fair future.  

Urgent Healthcare System Support

First and foremost, people need to get the care that they need to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe.

  • Medicaid Expansion for the uninsured

  • Further increase the federal share of Medicaid

  • Mental health services must be included

  • Classify food chain workers, including farmworkers and other workers who offer critical support as emergency personnel and in order to access childcare during school closures.

  • All tests, related fees and follow-up care must be fully covered for everybody regardless of immigration status. 

  • Recently closed rural healthcare facilities re-opened & costs paid by the corporate operators not the public. 

  • Moratorium on closure of any rural hospitals/clinics for 2 years

  • Universal Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave

Paid Sick Leave and Family Leave must be truly universal. No exceptions for large employers over 500 employees, and small employers should be reimbursed for their costs by the government, but no exceptions should be made. 

Prepare Rural Health Systems for Crisis

The press and our fellow rural advocates have made clear that rural medical resources are already overburdened and declining, with half the doctors per capita and shortages in medical supplies, staffing, and hospital beds compared to cities. With a late onset of acute cases expected, the national medical system will be drained by the time rural America needs help the most. 

  • Take preemptive action to ensure that respirators, testing kits, and hospital beds required to cope with a flood of coronavirus patients are provided immediately, as the National Farmers Union and others have demanded.

  • Community health care providers should be first in line for no-interest loans in order to meet the peak demands of the pandemic. While dozens of rural hospitals close in the past year, more cannot go bankrupt providing emergency help in a crisis.

  • USDA must boost and lower barriers to grants from the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program. 

  • Major investment in local and county governments to prepare rural communities for crisis, outlined in this letter from the National Association of Counties. 

  • Provide additional support to migrant-facing and Community Health Centers, which require additional support, often serving under-resourced populations in medically underserved areas. Community Health Centers serve a majority rural population despite rural people making up just 15 percent of the total population.

  • Community-based organizations that represent, serve, and are trusted by farmworkers must receive funding to conduct outreach and provide information to their clients on the coronavirus pandemic and how to best protect themselves, their families and their communities, with special attention to community based organizations that work with farmworker women and children. 

Protect Rural Livelihoods 

Rural people living without an economic lifeline must be provided assurance that they can stay home and prevent a collective catastrophe without going hungry or bankrupt. One in four Americans deferred necessary healthcare in 2017 because they couldn’t pay, and four in ten don’t have $400 in savings to cover an emergency expense. Rural populations are even more acutely cash-strapped, and the poorest regions in the nation are rural communities of color—particularly those in the South. 

  • Following the lead of Maxine Waters, transfer $2,000 monthly in cash to each adult and $1,000 for each child in the United States, starting immediately

  • Social security payments should increase by $200 per month immediately

  • Emergency Funding for Publicly Funded Child Care, Head Start and Early Head Start.

  • Expand and Fund Unemployment Benefits

These interventions should continue as “automatic stabilizers” that are implemented for as long as the crisis lasts rather than one time payments or expansions. We support “automatic stabilizers” that are triggered when we enter into a crisis and remain as long as we are in one, as proposed by Claudia Sahm.

Keep Americans in Their Homes

Homeless and housing insecure Americans are more vulnerable to contracting and dying from COVID-19. Rural homelessness is a widespread and acute issue. Low-income workers and tenants should never disrupt their care for themselves, children, or other dependents because of the cost of rent, utilities, mortgages, or fear of foreclosure.

  • Institute a nationwide rent/mortgage holiday, rent/mortgage freeze, and/or rental assistance

  • Enact a nationwide eviction/foreclosure moratorium coupled with a total freeze on debt interest payments.

  • Immediately ban electric, water, gas, phone, and internet utility shut offs and late fees, and restore service to all households

  • Provide homes and expanded services for people experiencing homelessness

  • Provide immediate support for public housing residents

Stop Deportations, Detentions, and Cash Bail
  • Immediate Moratorium on the Public Charge Rule which would disqualify immigrants who use public assistance from obtaining permanent residency status. 

  • Release all detainees from immigrant detention centers and detention camps 

  • Implement an immediate moratorium on all immigration enforcement, including repatriations and deportations of guest workers and non-status migrants

  • Provide funding for legal aid providers in rural areas to address the increased, myriad, and critical civil legal needs faced by low-income rural residents.

Keep Children and Families Fed

Limited staffing, weak infrastructure, high transportation costs, lack of economies of scale, restrictions on spending, and numerous other factors raise per-meal costs and limit the quality of school lunch programs for rural schools, which make up half of public school districts, while rural children are disproportionately food insecure and often eat breakfast and lunch at school. Rural school districts serve poorer populations and are especially dependent on Federal support to close gaps in services, all while facing constant pressure to consolidate and program cuts. Many small town areas draw major employment and economic activity from public schools, colleges, and other institutions of education that will be shuttered for pandemic mitigation.

  • Fund schools to provide universal free and nutritionally adequate meals and require that meals are delivered to students at or near their place of residence during the crisis. Ensure school districts have the resources, including transportation, necessary to keep feeding all eligible children and assuring all children and especially the most vulnerable children are reached with food distribution and delivery efforts. 

  • Quadruple the budget, loosen barriers to application, and abandon all eligibility restrictions to SNAP (commonly known as food stamps), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and consider ways to allow dual participation in SNAP and FDPIR simultaneously for all those eligible. Expand healthy and sustainable options within those programs.

  • Establish an Emergency Tribal Food Assistance Fund and enhance FDPIR for food, administration, and infrastructure, along with providing administrative flexibility.

  • Provide rural stimulus by doubling school meal reimbursement rates if school districts agree to (1) make meals free (these meals should be available to anyone requiring a meal, not just schoolchildren and their families), (2) buy only American-produced food and (3) by not buying any product produced by an EPA defined CAFO

  • Ensure that the definition of "homebound" for the Meals on Wheels program includes seniors who are under quarantine, shelter-in-place orders or practicing ‘social distancing.’

Support Farmers, Farmworkers, and Food Processing Workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the multiyear farm crisis ripping through rural America, with farm bankruptcy and farmer suicide rates climbing. Farm prices have been declining for the last six years due to overproduction of many commodities and inadequate farm policy safety nets, with especially disastrous consequences in some sectors like dairy. The policy responses to these earlier problems have been inadequate overall and have proven virtually nonexistent for family farms and local and regional food providers.

Farmworkers, meanwhile, suffer severe health conditions, harsh labor conditions, low wages, and other injustices that make them more vulnerable to communicable disease and require appropriate and urgent response from the federal government. Lacking any safety net, farmworkers and especially farmworker women are forced to choose between caring for their kids and losing their job and therefore the means to support their families. The farmworker workforce flows back and forth daily across the US-Mexico border, and the border closings are rendering them jobless with severe consequences for the food supply as well. In addition, the militarization of the border leaves the workers in a continual climate of extreme fear and persecution.

Following the lead of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, federal authorities should “declare local farm and food assets as key community assets,” “require emergency food assistance dollars flowing to communities to support local farm and food businesses,” and “explicitly integrate local farm and food business into all small business, workforce and emergency payments/loan programs.” In the immediate term, we need to ensure that local and producers can survive this crisis if public health measures separate them from their customers. 

In the longer term, relief funding for agriculture must be made available to all types of producers, not just the largest producers of commodity crops, and USDA and state programs must provide resources that work for all scales of agriculture. We must also prioritize rebuilding supply chains that are more resilient than today’s highly consolidated system for food processing and distribution, which has resulted in shortages in highly populated areas. A farm system with more independent farms serving regional markets is a more resilient system that will bounce back from this type of disruption and should be prioritized in any agriculture relief program. 

Provide Credit and Debt Relief for Farmers and Ranchers
  • Require USDA to direct local FSA offices to aggressively use every tool available to keep farm families in their homes and on the land under current regulations.

  • Declare a two-year national moratorium on farm foreclosures and require agriculture mediation for all future farm foreclosure proceedings after that point. Require an independent review on cause and effect of farm loss, particularly for farmers of color.

  • Forgive FSA loan debt held by producers and suspend debt payments (both principal and interest) for two years for all producers of any scale.

  • Increase funding for direct and guaranteed loan programs and implement low- or zero-interest operating loans for family-scale farmers, fishermen, and ranchers, while ensuring that borrower rights for FSA direct loans are extending to all guaranteed borrowers. 

  • Direct USDA to utilize the authorities of the Commodity Credit Corporation Charter Act  to shift $50 million in funding to ag mediation programs, including funding to prepare farmer borrowers for mediation.

  • Adapt USDA and SBA credit, financing and funding implementation requirements to meet the evolving demands of farmers, ranchers, and fishermen through measures such as extending deadlines, waiving cost-share requirements, ensuring effective outreach to producers or other actions. Equalize and expand access to crop insurance, technical assistance, low interest credit, and technical assistance for independent producers, particularly producers of color.

  • Establish an emergency disaster program for family-scale farmers/ranchers/fishermen and independent agriculture and seafood businesses that endure revenue losses attributable to coronavirus emergency measures, including producers who distribute fresh and minimally processed foods directly to individuals, families, food hubs, and schools.

  • Provide immediate funds for purchase of small-scale equipment including farm equipment, refrigeration, trucking, and delivery systems to ensure independent farmers can meet current demand.

  • Provide unemployment benefits to farm, food and fish workers through small- and medium-scale businesses that can demonstrate inability to pay their workers because of coronavirus emergency measures.

  • Recognize fisheries and small fishers as part of the food system by providing federal support parallel to that of agriculture producers.

Bolster Producers who Source Local & Regional Food Systems 
  • Exempt farmers' markets from definitions of "public places" and categorize them as “essential services” in order to continue feeding local communities

  • Ensure access to emergency grants and loans to enable producers to purchase equipment to ensure continuity of food access and delivery systems.

  • Strengthen and expand the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks and allow all program funds to cover direct sales from farms and seafood businesses.

  • Increase funding for the USDA Local Agriculture Marketing Program to strengthen local food system resilience and food security for rural people.

  • In order to support small and very small meat and poultry processors, waive all USDA inspector overtime costs for this fiscal year for plants with a USDA Grant of Inspection with less than 50 employees. 

  • Create opportunities for regional food chain initiatives by expanding financing, technical assistance, and procurement support for community-owned and “socially disadvantaged” farmers, fishers, and ranchers.

  • Ensure that food safety rules support small farmers, fishers and regional food systems; expand training and technical assistance; make certifications more affordable and accessible (reducing penalty fines) for small farmers.

  • Subsidize expanded, energy-efficient on-farm and community cold storage and refrigerated vehicles 

  • Allow latitude for local producers to source the Emergency Food Assistance Program by relaxing Commodity Credit Corporation standards through USDA AMS, and direct additional funding to farm-to-food bank programs to help compensate local and regional food producers for their direct sales losses during the pandemic, as advised by NSAC.

Bolster Agricultural Resilience To Reduce Risks Of Future Crises
  • Institutionalize strategic public national food reserves for future crises.

  • Pass systemic fair pricing legislation, coupled with supply management, for food producers to strengthen rural economic resilience.

  • Support fair agricultural contracts, farmer/grower/rancher rights, and competitive markets by reissuing and finalizing the USDA Farmer Fair Practice Rules.

  • Prohibit crisis profiteering and corporate consolidation by enacting an immediate moratorium on acquisitions and mergers in the food and agriculture sector and enforce antitrust laws.

  • Ensure that any farms that receive a bailout implement stewardship practices; make real, measurable conservation a condition of eligibility for bailout.

  • Bolster regional food systems by investing in worker and neighborhood-owned food and agriculture enterprises.

Ensure the health and safety of food and farmworkers

Almost all of the food we eat passes through the hands of workers who grow, catch, harvest, process, transport, prepare, and serve it. Now more than ever, we recognize that the 21 million workers in the food chain system are essential workers. They also constitute the largest segment of employment in the private sector, and their health and safety must be prioritized and protected. As grocery firms respond to surges in demand, farmworkers are continuing to work overtime under the same unjust conditions. 

  • All workers and their families must have access to free testing, healthcare coverage and emergency care,  regardless of immigration status and size of workplace, including contract workers and all workers in the US on H-2A or migrant worker visas.

  • Require workers compensation coverage for all workers, including contract labor.

  • Waive any waiting period for farm workers and other workers to be eligible for sick pay  

  • Eliminate the practice of requiring doctors’ notes when workers take sick time  

  • If workers or immediate family members (spouses or children) are identified as infected with COVID-19, those employees should be placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of their illnesses  

  • OSHA must issue an emergency standard for public health and infectious diseases to ensure that workers will be protected from and all infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and climate intensified illness including heat stress, in their workplaces.

  • A minimum of 15 paid sick days per year for all workers regardless of size of workplace including for pandemic related illness or required quarantine. Additional paid sick days for all workers when there is a public health emergency.

  • H-2A workers that are currently working in the US and who become ill must be assured not only free health care, but with no penalties for inability to complete a contract due to the illness. They must be provided all important information about safety and security relative to their safe transportation back to their home country. Guestworkers awaiting arrival in the U.S. and Canada to begin work must be provided all relevant information regarding health and safety protections and measures. 

  • Employers must provide workers with accurate and current information on how to protect themselves and their communities from the virus in a language they understand, that is culturally appropriate, and at a literacy level that is appropriate. 

  • Workers should be afforded the right to receive critical health, emergency and safety information directly from sources that they trust, including community based organizations who must receive funding to provide this critical service. 

  • Allocate funding for translation of materials, assignment of interpreters, and communication in relevant languages. 

  • Employers must guarantee safe workplaces, including providing all necessary protective equipment, frequent and regular hand-washing breaks, and the required space for “social distancing.”  Farmworkers must be provided easy access to clean and a sufficient amount of water at close proximity to the work site.

  • Employers must be required to upgrade housing to meet all relevant standards, as well emergency public health standards. 

  • Workers must be supplied the equipment and training necessary to protect themselves and their families during public health emergencies.

  • Workers in industries like retail, warehousing and distribution, and delivery that are expanding their hours and work during this time should make overtime voluntary and guarantee overtime pay.

  • All food workers continuing to provide essential services should be entitled to receive hazard pay, at a premium of time and a half. 

  • If a food worker becomes sick with COVID-19, all their medical costs must be paid for by their employer.

  • Ensure that any companies receiving a bailout continue to pay workers until COVID-19 is no longer considered a pandemic

  • Remove restrictions on work permits for guest workers and migrant workers who have been laid off or terminated  

  Assist Rural Small Business Owners

Rural small business has remained an area of slow growth even before this crisis. Corporatized supply chains hollowed out rural America and are currently failing it in a crisis. We need distributed, diverse, resilient local and regional supply chains and the policy tools to build these should be passed now. Rural industries like agriculture, retail, and healthcare saw unprecedented waves of consolidation after the Great Recession. It is critical that we not only stimulate our economy with resources but also with market competition and fairness. Any industry support should prioritize reducing market consolidation, attach critical management strings for those with the largest market share, and safeguard workers’ rights. We must invest now in the sectors of our economy that will create opportunity and resilience in the future or we risk millions of Americans, particularly rural, being forgotten once again.

  • Enact an immediate moratorium on rent and debt payments for small rural businesses

  • Strengthen SBA Rural Initiative 

  • Expand USDA Rural Development Business Program Investment including resources and staff 

Address the Rural Communication Crisis

Local newspapers, especially which have seen 1 in 5 papers close recently, need to be stabilized so that news can be quickly disseminated or else these rapid response lines of communication will be lost. A disproportionate number of newspaper mergers and closures served rural, and counties with no newspapers at all are more likely to be rural (and in the South).

  • Enact a digital advertisement tax and require all proceeds go to funding local news

  • Provide tax and debt relief for all newspapers

Update Rural Energy, Water, and Communication Systems for the 21st Century

Every American should be guaranteed a job. Rural infrastructure like roads, drinking water facilities, and energy resources are in need of major updates. Many communities also suffer from a severe lack of internet connectivity putting them at a great disadvantage in a crisis that requires working from home when possible. We have the opportunity to create jobs and level the playing field for these communities. This crisis is an opportunity to get ahead of the source of nearly all coming crises for generations of rural Americans: climate-related flood, drought, heatwave, and crop failures while extractive industries foul environmental resources with dire human consequences. But the solutions to environmental problems can create economic regeneration and community multipliers that solve social and economic problems concurrently.

  • Expand USDA Rural Energy for America Program 

  • Expand USDA Rural Development Community Investment Programs 

  • Begin holistic Federal Rural Broadband Investment 

  • Pass the WATER Act immediately to invest $35 billion to rebuild water infrastructure across the country. 

  • Commit $100 million Rural Housing Support Funding

 

 

 

 

 

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