Three law professors who have studied rural issues for years have suggested five initiatives the Biden Administration could take to improve life in our small town and rural communities. They saw their recommendations “would go a long way toward empowering distressed rural communities to improve their destinies, while also helping bridge the urban/rural divide.”
They point out that despite the conservable power rural states have with each having two U.S. Senators, little has been done to turned the tide of economic and population decline.
Here are the recommendations of professors Lisa R. Pruit of California, Jessica A. Shoemaker of Nebraska, and Ann Eisenberg of the South Carolina, with a few edits and observations, to make them more meaningful for rural Minnesota.
High-speed internet for everyone
“The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access, and even a social life depend directly on broadband,” they write.
Some of us are fortunate in that our rural internet connections are very good. The vast majority of Stevens, Swift, and Big Stone counties have excellent broadband speeds of 100 MPS or better. Other counties in western Minnesota aren’t as fortunate and need improvement.
If President Joe Biden and members of Congress want to improve rural America’s competitive edge, finance the expansion of high-speed internet.
What we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the remote working required by so many is that more people can live and work from rural America.
Finance local governments
“It’s easy to take for granted the everyday things local governments do, like trash pickup, building code enforcement, and overseeing public health. So, what happens when a local government goes broke?”
Again, we are fortunate in that many of our county and city governments are financially health. That isn’t always true for our rural hospitals and schools, which could certainly use more financial help. Both are critical to our ability to attract new residents and meet the needs of those already living here. Our schools are at a significant disadvantage because of the unequal funding due to our low enrollments.
We also need additional funding to help our local governments meet our pervasive housing shortage that hurts our ability to attract new families.
Rein in big agriculture
With each passing year, there are fewer families on the land as farms get ever larger. “Only 6% of rural people still live in counties with economies that are farming dependent,” they point out. And, “the top 8% of farms in America now own more than 70% of American farmland.
This trend has resulted in an increased disconnect between people and the land. Large-scale farming has led to increased pollution of drinking water, the depletion of aquifers that serve communities, and habitat reduction.
“What many rural people want from agricultural policy is increased antitrust enforcement to break up agricultural monopolies, improved conditions for agricultural workers, conservation policies that actually protect rural health … ” the three write.
There is also a pressing need to help beginning farmers buy land to start their owner operations. Putting more farmers on the land would “help rebuild an agriculture system that is diversified, sustainable, and rooted in close connections to rural communities,” they argue.
Little will change as long as the government plays a significant role in financially rewarding large-scale farming.
Pursue broad racial justice
Racial justice is not nearly as much of an issue for rural Minnesota as it is for areas of the South and Southwest. Yet, we must strive to do all we can to ensure that minorities moving to our rural areas are welcome. Minorities are substantially responsible for population growth in many rural counties.
Focus on the basics
In arguing that the Biden Administration and Congress implement significant programs to fight rural poverty, the three are only partially addressing rural Minnesota’s challenges.
To reduce poverty, people need jobs. We have plenty of jobs available if people are willing to work. We do need those employees to be paid a living wage. If you want to help small rural businesses provide that living wage, provide them the tax and job assistance incentives to offset the cost.
“People who live in distressed rural communities have important place-based connections. In many cases, the idea of “just move someplace else” is a myth,” the three write. Some people will live in poverty to remain near family, friends, and a familiar neighborhood.
Our ancestors left their homes and families to come to America for a better life. Immigrants coming to America today do the same in pursuing their dreams. How do we get those stuck in their places in America to dream?
Strengthen community newspapers in rural America
We would add a sixth, and essential necessity in meeting the needs of rural America: Supporting an independent, healthy press to report factually what is happening in our communities, to hold power accountable, and to bind our community together with common purpose.
These days it is also crucial that we give our readers information that offsets the continuous avalanche of disinformation on national and state issues. We must act as a vaccine to inoculate our readers against the disease of misinformation that so easily poisons our thoughts.
Every incentive we look to for improving the economies and quality of life in rural America must be also fixed on the goal of rebuilding rural population. Support for small businesses, support for cities and counties for housing development and supporting entrepreneurs, support for rural education, and support for our health care facilities all are pieces of that strategy. We also need incentives to motivate people to move to rural America.