5 Ways the Biden Administration Can Help Rural America Thrive
The full force of the coronavirus pandemic was slow to come to rural America, but its impact has been devastating in recent months. Three leading experts on rural trends, Ann Eisenberg; Associate Professor of Law, University of South Carolina, Jessica A. Shoemaker; Professor of Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lisa R. Pruitt; Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law, University of California, Davis, recently joined together to write an article for The Conversation about policies the Biden administration can use to help rural Americans recover. Eisenberg, Shoemaker and Pruitt spoke with Spotlight recently about their suggestions; the transcript of that conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us how this article came about?
Ann Eisenberg: Once it became clear that Biden was going to be president, I wanted to ask Lisa and Jess, what’s our wish list for what we’d like to see a new administration do? We all look at pretty different aspects of rural America, so we knew it was going to be a challenge to try to come up with a short op-ed to do this. But that seemed like where the value could be added – in trying to condense some really complicated topics into a brief wish list for the Biden administration. After a lot of back and forth, we ended up drawing on
our own respective strengths to come up with this list of five things that we’d like to see, though it’s obviously not comprehensive.
Item number two is help local governments avoid going broke. With the loss of a lot of traditional rural industries in manufacturing and agriculture and natural resource extraction there’s kind of this invisible crisis happening of local governments losing a lot of their historic revenue and being less and less able to provide basic services. It’s a central piece of this downward cycle for a lot of communities, so we’re advocating more federal intervention to stop the bleeding there and help local governments function.
Number three is rein in big agriculture – target the decades of federally supported farm consolidation that has really helped drive people out of the countryside and consolidate power in certain farming interests in ways that has really had a detrimental impact on rural economies and the environment.
Number four is to pursue broad racial justice in rural America. That’s obviously quite broad but we wanted to draw attention to the one in five rural residents who are people of color, who are two to three times more likely to be poor than rural whites. And we wanted to draw attention to the diverse issues that rural communities of color face in terms of standard of living, whether it’s precarious livelihoods as farmworkers or more limited access to justice on civil rights issues in more remote regions. Though that’s a much bigger box, we wanted to open the door to that as a clear priority.
Number 5 is just focus on the basics, and what we mean by that is really just more anti-poverty initiatives and infrastructure investments. We point out that historically, the greatest effect on rural poverty has come after large-scale federal interventions like the New Deal or the War on Poverty. Certainly, those efforts were not perfect, but they do offer a model for just investing in public needs, whether it’s addressing food insecurity or supporting universities or supporting K-12 schools or otherwise expanding the social safety net. That’s kind of the story behind the article.
Lisa or Jessica, would you like to add anything to that?
Lisa Pruitt: I’m probably the one amongst the three of us who has focused on rural poverty the most over the years. My trajectory, if you will, was in beginning to write about rural difference in relation to the law starting about 20 years ago. And writing about rural difference very quickly brings one to a realization that one of the most central rural differences is rural disadvantage—rural people and communities tend to be disadvantaged in relation to urban and suburban populations. It’s disadvantage in all sorts of opportunities, whether it be job market or education. To be a scholar of the rural, I think all three of us would agree, is to some degree to study rural disadvantage, lack of opportunity, and poverty.
We have certainly tracked the post-Great Recession trends, which indicate that rural America has not bounced back as quickly or to the extent that metropolitan America has bounced back. Now, there’s a parallel concern that the coronavirus will be the second punch in a one-two punch. Rural America is already struggling on so many fronts – education, health care, employment opportunities – and that situation is obviously being enormously aggravated by what’s happening with the pandemic. The USDA Economic Research Service just came out with a relatively new analysis of that. So, we really wanted to point to something that many people don’t realize about rural America and that’s the extent—and often depth—of rural poverty.
Jessica Shoemaker: One of the other things that I think is impactful about the piece is that it also responds, somewhat implicitly, to what has been a pretty strong narrative, both in rural communities and in urban communities, of blaming rural people for rural problems. There’s this idea that rural communities need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. And one of the things that we were also trying to do was point out some of the ways that federal laws and policies have often extracted resources from and neglected rural people in ways that have been really harmful over time. In a sense, the policy proposals are really very simple: don’t forget rural people and what can we do to make life better for rural people.
We also wanted to shed some light on the very outdated image many people have about rural people and places. As we tried to say in the article, and as the racial justice data make clear, rural America is much more diverse than we typically think. There’s much more chronic, concentrated poverty in rural places. And rural and agriculture are not really synonymous anymore. In many cases today, rural people are either not connected to agriculture or are the externalities that are impacted by big agriculture. We were trying to shed some light on these rural realities in the piece, too.
I know we’re just a few weeks in, but do you see hopeful signs from the new administration on rural policy?
Pruitt: I think the $1.9 trillion Biden/Harris plan obviously has some things in it that we love, like help for state and local governments, because that’s going to provide critical assistance to rural local governments, along with metropolitan ones. But there are ongoing concerns about issues that have greater impacts on rural communities. Some of the reporting in recent days, for example, about climate goals takes up how achieving these will impact communities reliant on natural resource extraction—communities that already have seen their tax bases decimated. I think all three of us agree that economies have to shift in order to accommodate climate goals, but we just want to make sure that these communities that are going to bear the brunt in terms of job losses have appropriate safety nets, that the transitions to a green economy are just. We have to look to the future and do what must be done to mitigate the climate crisis, but at the same time, we must not forget what people in rural communities need to survive because of the sacrifice that will be made to jobs in those communities.
It’s interesting that this conversation with you is taking place on the day Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearings have begun (on his nomination to be Agriculture secretary). You will note from reading the piece that we are not big fans of Vilsack. We worry he’s too deeply intertwined with Big Ag, and there were other people we would like to have seen get the Secretary of Agriculture job, people who we think are more attuned to racial justice issues, food insecurity, small farmers, limits on corporate ag, and so forth.
Shoemaker: Just in terms of early steps that the Biden administration has or has not taken, I would just maybe elaborate on some of Lisa’s thoughts about Secretary Vilsack. I think that was a very disappointing nomination for many people – this idea of repeating business as usual and especially by nominating someone whose prior record was somewhat suspect to start, particularly on racial justice. Secretary Vilsack did pursue some progress on corporate concentration in agriculture as part of the Obama administration, but even those efforts were not as much progress as advocates had wished for and of course the Trump administration undid a lot of that work and made the goal of breaking up big agriculture even harder. Honestly, I think it remains to be seen what Secretary Vilsack will do with this second chance. I also think we’re still waiting to see how supportive the Biden administration will be of other efforts like the Justice for Black Farmers Act, which was recently introduced by Sens.(Cory) Booker (D-NJ) and Warren (D-MA) and others.
Eisenberg: I don’t have a lot to add, but the fear for me going forward is that people will start to care about rural but will treat current rural elites as representing all of rural. When you say farmer, there’s a lot of different things that farmers can mean, and that’s the alarm bell that goes off for me, particularly with the Vilsack nomination. What Lisa mentioned with the climate policies and rural is that while we can see policies that may be great for farmers, those farmers may be the largest corporations as opposed to the image of the bucolic, small farmer that can serve to mask what’s really happening. It’s a risk that’s always there in rural policy, but one that the Vilsack nomination indicates might be a real problem for this administration.
There’s been reporting in recent weeks that the administration might consider appointing a czar for rural policy. I’ve covered previous administrations who used czars for various policies and the track record of that being effective is not terribly promising, but I wondered what any of you thought about how it might help or not help on rural issues.
Pruitt: I read the Politico piece that mentioned a rural czar and wasn’t really clear what would set this person apart from the usual Department of Agriculture portfolio. I would want to know more what is the vision for this person and, as you say, the history of naming czars in various departments doesn’t have a great track record. I was intrigued by (Sen.) Jon Tester (D-MT), who published this book in September on how Democrats could win back rural America. I liked the book very much, and in an interview that he did with the NY Times back in December, he talked about the importance of who the messenger is from Washington, from the federal government to people in Montana and to rural populations in other states. Tester made an extremely important point, that someone like (Senate Majority Leader) Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is not the person to be speaking to rural America. At about the same time, a columnist with the New York Times mentioned that (Vice President) Kamala Harris should be given that job, as the Biden administration emissary to rural America. I have enormous respect for Kamala Harris, but neither she nor Chuck Schumer is the right person for this job. My point is that communications style and personal biography are critical to the ability to relate to and communicate with rural folks. So, the messenger matters and picking the right emissary will be crucial to success of any outreach efforts. Having someone who is really steeped in rural America, who has his or her own rural experiences, is one of the first things I would be looking for in a rural czar. If the Biden administration really wants to really reach rural people, many of whom have become cynical about the federal government and what it can or cannot do, should or should not do, then both message and messenger are going to matter.
That column also touched on the larger issue of extremism which, while certainly not confined to rural America, is a significant issue in many rural communities. Will the policies you are advocating help with that larger, existential issue?
Eisenberg: That is a really challenging question. I think all of us encounter the reaction to our work sometimes, of “Tell us what Trump voters think.” As you point out, Trump voters, or people to whom this sort of white nationalist populism has appealed, are 70-plus million people. Because there are plenty of wealthy suburban and urban people for whom that rhetoric has appeal, I don’t think we can say that improving the material conditions in rural communities is the answer to extremism. It does seem like a piece of the puzzle. But whenever I dig into this question of the larger existential issue, I think that the puzzle is so long-standing and so deep in U.S. culture and politics that it’s a bit overwhelming to grapple with. Digging into that question, at some point, you’re asking what is the way forward for our country as a whole. And as an American, I don’t know that I feel like I have that answer. I’d love to hear if somebody else does.
Shoemaker: I think our answer is that we hope the kind of rural-focused policies we suggest in the article will at least help bridge some of what is dividing our country today. I agree with Ann that there is so much more complexity to the ways that we conflate categories of people, and not all rural people are Trump supporters and not all rural people are white nationalists or name your category. One of the big messages here is that rural people are people who have complex needs and demands and they have been left behind in many big, structural ways. More than anything, let’s address those basic needs first, so that we can then build up responses along the hierarchy of human needs and create space for us, as a country, to get to this much larger reconciliation work that needs to be done.
Pruitt: I think the coastal media focus on the rural-urban divide has not been particularly helpful; I think it has aggravated that divide through generalizations that have been counterproductive. There have been a lot of downsides to casting the Trump presidency as the fault of rural America. There are so many ways to slice and dice the electorate, and I think we should be a bit more circumspect about doing that and tagging this demographic or that as being to blame. And the media got some lessons in that from 2020 because Latino voters didn’t do what conventional wisdom said they would do for example in south Florida and south Texas, where growing numbers of Latinx voters supported Trump. All this pigeon-holing of different demographic slices clearly has some pitfalls.
As for policy, I like this idea of really focusing on some very basic needs and, let’s face it, broadband has become one of those basic needs, along with shelter and food, of course. If people feel more inclusion and more economic stability, a feeling that they’re getting a piece of the pie, then that lays the groundwork for the bridge-building that needs to be done to create a more constructive relationship between rural and urban interests.
I find myself actively looking for places where rural and urban interests overlap. One is the U.S. Post Office. Rural residents have been sounding the alarm for years about cuts to the USPS and how they have impacted rural folks who rely heavily on their local post offices. Then, in the summer of 2020, urban folks—suddenly concerned about the need to vote by mail—awakened to the need to ensure the Post Office was equipped to deliver timely and reliable service. Thus the U.S. Post Office suddenly became common ground between rural and urban interests, and this is the sort of potential synergy the Biden administration should capitalize on as it seeks unity.