Joint work on the new critical access hospital facility of the Uvalde County Hospital Authority in Texas A coalition of groups is calling for a new set of rural policies, including more support for rural hospitals. (USDA photo)

In his first 100 days, President Biden and Congressional Democrats passed the American Rescue Act, the single biggest shift in rural policy in decades. The bill put money in the hands of municipal and county governments to pay for essential services, created rural jobs, put money in the pockets of rural families to help lift children out of poverty, and forgave the debt of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who farm and ranch, and who have long been discriminated against by their own government. 

While this was a good start, given the challenges rural communities face due to bad policy and neglect, there is so much more we are counting on federal policymakers to deliver in the next two years. For decades, rural America has been hollowed out by policymakers from both parties who were either disinterested or purposefully supportive of policies that extracted wealth and opportunity from these communities.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the 2020 election created an opportunity to take bold action to change that, and Democrats appear to be listening to rural leaders calling for change. 

To chart a path forward that could improve the quality of rural life and unite rural and urban allies, Rural Democracy Initiative, Family Farm Action, and joined forces to co-host a Rural Policy Summit. This virtual gathering convened rural advocates and policy experts, including organizers in Indigenous communities, healthcare advocates organizing in mountain communities, family farm advocates and rural educators in the Midwest, advocates for farmworkers, and rural Black leaders from the South.

Today, we are releasing the result of that unique gathering: the 2021 Rural Policy Action Report, a comprehensive rural federal policy action agenda that reflects the wide diversity of rural people, rural needs, and rural experience.

The Report calls for action on four important pillars of specific investments, policy improvements and regulatory reforms that will improve the economy, infrastructure, and equity for diverse rural communities, including actions to:

  1. End historic discrimination
  2. Invest in rural communities, while creating millions of good jobs     
  3. Rein in corporate monopolies and prioritize working people and locally owned businesses to level the playing field
  4. Build a rural economy that prioritizes community and is sustainable, not extractive

To flesh out these themes, we identified critical legislation and funding priorities that could help to reverse the bipartisan legacy of rural under-investment and neglect of rural issues. We are calling for a broad-based set of priorities that include reducing corporate control of the farm economy, cutting greenhouse gas pollution, making affordable high-speed internet and housing available to all rural Americans, and creating jobs in the clean energy and health care sectors.

This list of priorities challenges policymakers to expand their notion of what is meant by the rural policy. Our report is inclusive of rural environmental justice issues, economic viability and infrastructure, healthcare access and affordability, and the rural imperative of a more robust public sector. We also prioritize efforts to address systemic discrimination against rural Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian residents of rural communities who have experienced specific systemic racism and discrimination in federal policy and government operations.

Thankfully, President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plans already include significant portions of our rural policy action agenda. We support the already-passed American Rescue Plan’s provisions for county government funding, as well as $4 billion in debt retirement that will benefit Black, Indigenous, and Latino farmers.

Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposal includes a number of our priorities for rural water and communications infrastructure, funding for rural electric cooperative coal debt retirement, and will create millions of jobs in clean energy and ecosystem restoration. The recently-released American Families Plan includes key provisions supporting rural health care workers and family-friendly policies to make childcare and pre-kindergarten more available and affordable.

But plans without action won’t get the job done. We are concerned that these critical proposals could languish or stall. We can’t afford to fail on delivering the boost rural America needs to recover from the public health and economic crisis we’re facing. After generations of rural disinvestment, now is not the time to think small.

Democrats articulating, and then passing, a pro-rural policy agenda could mark the next generational shift in national politics. We can’t overstate the importance of rural voters when it comes to building required majorities in the House and Senate to accomplish progressive change. 

With that in mind, we need Congress and the President to build on the momentum of the first 100 days of a successful Biden Administration and Democratic majorities. Democrats should seize this moment by taking bold aggressive action demonstrating to rural America that they hear rural people, will act to restore rural economic opportunity, and will not leave rural people behind again. And in return, rural voters could give Democrats the electoral advantage they will need to win. 

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