First, we are very happy to see the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hold this hearing with Secretary Vilsack. Our rural communities, families, and farmers are facing issues that have beset them for years. This latest hearing builds on the previous hearing on the Committee’s hearing in March on “ Rural Quality of Life.”
In our rural communities, we see first-hand how Wall Street and agribusiness monopolies are rigging the system, and as a result, wages have stagnated, well paying jobs are harder to come by, and access to higher education and technical training programs as well as quality healthcare are increasingly scarce. Fortunately, the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats have made historic investments in rural communities, primarily through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and the Biden administration’s creation of the Rural Partners Network and the Rural Prosperity Interagency Policy Council.
USDA is not only tasked with addressing the challenges facing farmers and ranchers, but the agency also oversees a variety of rural economic development priorities that extend far beyond agriculture as more rural Americans are employed in the education services, health care and social assistance industry than agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting and mining.
There are several key issues that impact the daily lives of rural communities that need to be addressed. Poverty is persistent in rural America. In fact, per the USDA website, “according to the most recent estimates from the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS), the nonmetro poverty rate was 15.4 percent in 2019, compared with 11.9 percent for metro areas.”
These are some of the key challenges facing our rural families and communities:
Affordable Housing: This is probably the biggest concern we hear from our colleagues working in rural communities. It is a growing crisis and impacts the ability of residents to stay in their communities. There are programs that can address housing issues that could benefit from better coordination between USDA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Well paying jobs and supporting small businesses: Rural small business has remained an area of slow growth even before the pandemic crisis. Corporatized supply chains hollowed out rural America and are currently failing it in a crisis. Unfortunately, last week, Senate Republicans blocked legislation which would have supported these small businesses and invested in keeping jobs available in rural communities.
Access to quality health care: First and foremost, people need to get the care that they need to keep themselves, their families, and their communities safe. Rural hospitals are closing and access is harder to find while hospital consolidation and privatization is increasing costs without increasing quality or service offerings. At the same time, long-term care for our aging population is a critical need that is hard to meet in rural communities due to a lack of providers.
Access to child care: Another issue that is a constant concern for rural families and an issue that directly impacts our local economies. We need more child care workers and more child care availability. Solutions both for families in need of quality care that meet the unique needs of rural families and solutions to the broken childcare economic model that makes it hard for providers to stay in business are urgent needs for rural communities.
Climate resilience: Rural communities are on the frontlines of climate change and facing some of the most dramatic impacts, yet often lack access to resources for resilience. This is obviously a major concern for farmers, but also the damage brought by drought, violent storms, and fires are having outsize impact in rural areas.
This is not an exhaustive list, but is meant to highlight some of the biggest concerns, which we know are faced across the country. For rural communities, we believe an important next step is passage of S.486, The Rebuild Rural America Act, sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, which will help address the critical issues facing rural communities by- providing enough resources for our local governments to start addressing these issues. Importantly, the legislation ensures that solutions are locally led and locally driven.
The mission of RuralOrganizing.org is to rebuild a rural America that is empowered, thriving, and equitable. Follow us on Twitter @RuralOrganizing.