Spotlight Exclusives

Tom Vilsack’s Legacy on Poverty and Opportunity

Spotlight Team Spotlight Team, posted on

The winds of change in D.C. blow predictably every four (or eight) years, as a new administration ushers in a new cabinet. Regardless of who becomes our next president, most, if not all, current agency leaders will be leaving for new opportunities next January. We want to take a look back at one of those leaders, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who has consistently used his post to fight poverty and expand opportunity since taking over USDA in 2009.

Vilsack’s nomination to the role was received positively by the Senate – which confirmed him unanimously – and agricultural groups, including endorsements from the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund. A former governor of Iowa, he is the only member of the cabinet who has served for the duration of President Barack Obama’s term.

Vilsack has used his longevity at USDA and his working relationships with Republicans and Democrats to advance solutions to persistent poverty, particularly in rural areas, that consistently won support from both sides of the congressional aisle.

  • In 2010, Vilsack helped pass and implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the most significant improvement to the school meals program in 30 years. The law allowed an additional 115,000 low-income students to access free or reduced-price meals.
  • The same year, USDA launched Strikeforce for Rural Growth and Opportunity. The program identifies areas of concentrated and multigenerational poverty and works with state, local, and community officials to connect residents to USDA programs and resources. Earlier this year, Vilsack announced the expansion of Strikeforce into four new states – it now supports efforts in nearly 1,000 communities.
  • Vilsack has led the Obama administration’s White House Rural Council since its introduction in 2011. The coalition has worked to reduce rural child poverty and address opiate addiction and substance abuse.
  • The Rural Impact initiative works directly with rural and tribal communities to identify the best ways to deliver two-generation solutions to poverty. Sec. Vilsack talked with Spotlight last year about Rural Impact and its lessons for governors.

These efforts go above and beyond USDA’s already sizable work to expand opportunity and reduce poverty through programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

Vilsack, if he isn’t asked to stay on by a new administration, will leave his post next year with a reputation for serious, bipartisan work to alleviate persistent poverty. At an AFL-CIO banquet in Davenport, Iowa, last fall, Vilsack said he’s always tried to keep working families foremost in his mind as an elected official. “These are good, hard-working people,” he said. “They care about their families, they care about their community and they contribute, they volunteer. They just simply want a level playing field. They want somebody to champion their interests.”

The Spotlight Team


Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn’t always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact or

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