Modernizing federal government’s rural policy could reduce rural-urban political divide, researchers write

Rural America needs more support, but the current federal programs and tools meant to encourage rural community and economic development are "outdated, fragmented, and constrained, and the resulting incoherence and complexity is not producing deep enough results fast enough."

One reason rural Americans have become more conservative is that they feel left behind by federal economic policy, according to a recent think-piece. Revitalizing rural federal policy could help reduce rural-urban political polarization, Anthony Pipa and Natalie Geismar write for the Brookings Institution. Pipa is a senior fellow in global economy and development at Brookings, and Geismar is a global economy and development project coordinator and research assistant at the Center for Sustainable Development.

Though most of the American economy boomed over the past decade, employment in many rural areas still hadn’t recovered from the Great Recession when the pandemic hit. “According to analysis from the Center on Rural Innovation, the four industries at highest risk of being impacted by covid-19 account for 56 percent of jobs in rural areas, compared to 43 percent in metro areas,” Pipa and Geismar write.

The pandemic has exacerbated other inequalities rural Americans face: they’re more likely to die from COVID-19, they have less access to health care, and lousy broadband makes it harder to navigate work, schooling and more while social distancing, Pipa and Geismar write. 

Rural America needs more support, but the current federal programs and tools meant to encourage rural community and economic development are “outdated, fragmented, and constrained, and the resulting incoherence and complexity is not producing deep enough results fast enough,” Pipa and Geismar write. 

They say research found that, not only is the bureaucracy governing such programs “bewildering,” but that programs are far more likely to administer loans than grants, which increases rural debt load. They also found that “rural communities lack access to flexible grant funding and are often disadvantaged by eligibility requirements, per capita spending formulas, and allocation formulas that privilege densely populated urban areas.”

They suggest three broad actions:

  • Launch a domestic development corporation that would award large, flexible block grants for local improvement, empower and support local leadership, provide technical support, and rigorously measure and analyze results to make sure it’s working.
  • Create a national rural strategy, and reform current policy to improve its coherence, regional integration, and transparency.
  • Appoint a bipartisan congressional commission to analyze the effectiveness of rural policy and build bipartisan “momentum” for rural policy reform.
Modernizing federal government’s rural policy could reduce rural-urban political divide, researchers write

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The Rural Blog is a publication of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues based at the University of Kentucky.

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