We know this much after President-elect Barack Obama made a speech Thursday on the economy: a forthcoming economic stimulus plan will contain money to increase internet broadband access in rural America.
We also know that discussion of how rural America fits into any federal stimulus plan won’t end with broadband. Several powerful members of Congress this week talked about how rural communities needed to be fully included in any stimulus package. But the first concrete mention of spending in rural America came from the President-elect and it was about broadband.
In a speech at George Mason University, just outside Washington, D.C., Obama said his economic recovery plan would not be “just another public works program.” He said he wanted federal investment in “priorities,” such as health care, education, energy and, yes, broadband in rural America.
The President-elect said he would “put people to work” repairing roads, bridges and schools. To “retrofit America for a global economy,” Obama said, he would expand “broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.”
Broadband has become the go-to project when people talk vaguely about rural economic development these days. It’s concrete, it’s not agricultural and broadband is something everyone believes is necessary for an economic revival of rural America. The emphasis here should be on belief; we’re still looking for the evidence that universal broadband will significantly change rural economies. Still, just to stay even, rural communities need to be connected and when it comes to broadband, too many rural communities are still technologically isolated.
Business Week described what a rural broadband plan might look like. First, Obama apparently plans to spend up to $30 billion on increasing the speed of existing Internet lines and expanding broadband. The first goal would be to extend broadband networks into areas that currently have no service. These projects could get as much as 60% of their investment back in tax credits, according to Business Week.
“In addition to the tax credits under discussion, the federal government may also provide grants to states for the construction of broadband networks in regions that never get coverage,” writes Business Week reporter Arik Hesseldahl. “States probably would use the money to hire private companies to build networks in remote areas. The Agriculture Dept. already has a Rural Development Broadband Program, which has connected nearly 600,000 households in 40 states since 2002.”
Surely there will be more than broadband for rural communities in the Obama recovery plan. Some people, both inside and outside Congress, however, are worried that rural communities are not a focus of the new president’s thinking.
For example, in late December, the Obama transition team announced the White House Task Force on Working Families. The group is to be chaired by Vice President-elect Joe Biden and will begin work on January 20th, when the new president is sworn in. The task force is charged with expanding education, improving work and incomes and protecting retirement security. Members of the task force include the Secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, Commerce, as well as folks from the president’s economic team.
What about that other Secretary, the one in charge of all the programs involving rural development? We think he’s called the Secretary of Agriculture. Oooops. That Secretary was not included in the original announcement.
This omission did not escape the notice of Gary S. Marx and James B. Kersten, who co-wrote a column in the Des Moines Register headlined, “Boosting the middle class must include rural America.” The two writers — Marx is from Washington, D.C., and Kersten is from Fort Dodge, Iowa — noted that the Ag Secretary “traditionally has overseen rural economic-development programs” and that relatively few rural counties are economically dependent on agriculture.
“The White House Task Force on Working Families should therefore keep rural America in mind as it formulates its agenda,” Marx and Kersten urged.
Meanwhile, several members of Congress have piped up in the last several days about the need to keep rural America in mind as the stimulus package progresses. Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (of South Carolina) leads several House Democrats who “are pushing for language in the economic stimulus package that will ensure that rural communities and more impoverished areas receive their fair share of development funds,” according to Congress Daily. Clyburn raised this issue in a closed-door meeting of congressional officials with President-elect Obama on Tuesday.
“Those of us who studied what the government did, we know that various communities and various entities were excluded from that recovery,” said Clyburn. “We have to be careful that we do not create a 21st Century New Deal because we very well might be visiting on rural communities and others a raw deal. This legislation will have to be written in such a way to be fair to these communities.”
Other House members followed Clyburn’s lead. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a North Carolina Democrat said in a news release that “rural America must be a part of the stimulus package.” Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton sent a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging her to “carefully consider the unique needs of rural America…I am particularly hopeful that the Congress will look specifically at rural stimulus initiatives when drafting economic recovery legislation.”
What would a rural stimulus plan look like — besides broadband, that is? That’s the issue we all need to watch carefully as the debate continues.