President Joe Biden seems to be reframing his domestic agenda around decreasing inflation, lowering costs, and reducing the deficit. In his State of the Union Address last week, the president appeared to retreat from the Democrats’ Build Back Better Agenda, leaving aspirational federal investment promises of his first year for a more Manchin-friendly austerity message. This would likely be a critical miscalculation of what rural voters want.
This strategic pivot is occurring during an election year where Democratic candidates across the country, once again, are struggling for an actual plan to deal with their “rural problem.” We think that much of the answer lies with Democrats delivering tangible benefits to help rural poor and working-class people pay their bills while aggressively taking on inflation. Democrats already have a lot of policy wins to hang their hats on and can double down on many of them.
To best serve rural America and its diverse people and regions, this inflation reduction package should include:
- Action to Diminish Corporate Power: Taking on monopoly control of important rural industries such as agriculture, energy and manufacturing. The White House has already taken initial steps to increase competition in the livestock and meatpacking sectors, as Biden mentioned during his Address. Now they need to follow through by finalizing rules that actually diminish corporate concentration, as well as increase investments to create competition and build resilience through local and regional independent food system infrastructure.
- Cutting the Cost of Prescription Drugs: Capping the price of indispensable, life-saving medicines. Huge annual price increases are nothing new to the health care industry, particularly on the part of pharmaceutical companies. Rural people—who are poorer, sicker, and older on average—have a disproportionate share of diabetes, for instance, requiring expensive insulin. Capping prices for drugs and medicines like insulin, Epi-pens, and inhalers is incredibly popular in rural America.
- Replacing Fossil Energy with Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency: Inflationary impacts of transportation and home energy costs hit the rural poor and working class hard. Driven largely by huge price swings for petroleum, natural gas, propane and diesel fuel, fossil energy corporations are some of the most profitable in the world. By investing in on-farm renewable energy production and helping rural electric cooperatives lead the transition to more diversified renewable energy production, energy companies would have less ability to price gouge rural people.
- Climate-Smart Programs to Reduce Farming Costs: Costs for fertilizers and other inputs have soared 30-50% in the last year alone. While fertilizer companies are cashing in with record profits, programs that could help farmers implement regenerative farming practices, diversify crops, and engage in soil and habitat restoration languish with stagnant budgets. Boosting conservation program funding could help reduce costs and decrease the climate impact of fertilizer application on tens of millions of acres while supporting many farmers’ incomes.
- Building Rural Water Infrastructure to Reduce Costs: In many regions, rural water delivery and wastewater infrastructure are either nonexistent or highly inadequate. Coupled with pollution from industrial agriculture, mining, or the production of toxic chemicals, rural America’s water systems need an influx of federal dollars to cover costs of the rebuild. The bipartisan infrastructure bill began this work but there is much more to do. These investments would protect rural Americans from rising monthly water and sewage bills.
- Raising Corporate Tax Rates: Corporate profits have soared, both because of price gouging and because of the 2017 Republican tax cuts. Increasing the corporate tax rate would not only increase federal tax revenue, it would incentivize corporations to spend to invest in new equipment or materials, raise wages, or hire more workers. Plus, raising the cost of doing business for corporations will help independent Main Street and small businesses throughout rural communities.
Besides these anti-inflation measures and investments aimed at cutting out-of-pocket costs for people, Democrats should put money directly in people’s pockets right now to pay for increased inflationary expenses. Continuing to help working families, as they achieved with the American Rescue Plan Act last year, is incredibly popular and Democrats should take credit and invest more. Rural families need additional support through extension of the 2021 expanded Child Tax Credits, continuing the 2021 expanded SNAP nutrition benefits, more funding for rural affordable housing programs, and additional funding in low-income home heating and energy support programs.
Obviously, this package of budget policies would help urban people as much as rural people, but we feel this tailored approach on rural issues could help Democrats improve their messaging and performance in the November 2022 elections. Rural voters will be critical in determining Senate races in Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire, along with playing a minor role in Arizona, Florida, and Nevada. In the House of Representatives, there are 15-20 rural districts that could be competitive. Rural state legislatures and 36 governors’ races are also up for grabs.
To have any chance of winning these races, Democrats will need to run on a track record of success and getting the job done for rural America. They can improve their chances by delivering a budget that decreases inflation while helping poor and working-class families pay their bills. They can improve their chances by solving their “rural problem” and their “Democrats-can’t-get-anything-done problem” with one sweeping legislative victory. Right now, that’s all still possible, but the clock is ticking.
Bryce Oates writes the weekly “Keep It Rural” newsletter for the Daily Yonder. Subscribe here. Jake Davis works as an entrepreneur, farmer, consultant, and policy advisor.