Rural perspectives should be present in every office in the Biden administration, said a panel of rural policy experts convened by students at Kenyon College.
When decision-makers don’t understand rural communities, bad policy can be the result.
“Personnel is policy,” said Thomas Mitchell, scholar at Texas A&M University School of Law.
The biggest takeaway from the panel, said Daniel Napsha—founder of The Rural Cause initiative at Kenyon, is the need for rural voices in policy discussions. A non-representative body of policymakers has resulted in major structural problems, he said.
In the new administration, “We have to value the knowledge already in rural communities,” said Napsha.
Other takeaways from the February 18th panel, entitled “The Future of Rural America under President Biden,” include the harms of rural stereotyping, the importance of data collection, and the need for direct funding of rural development.
The panel, which consisted of “experts on equity in agriculture, economic development, healthcare, broadband access, and tribal relations,” was sponsored by The Rural Cause, a student-led advocacy group seeking to better connect Kenyon College with its rural Ohio surroundings.
Panelists spoke against inaccurate rural stereotypes and the policy implications of misunderstanding.
There is a common misunderstanding that “rural” means “white,” said Mitchell.
Tribal communities are often forgotten in conversation about rural America and are underused and underfunded as a result, said CEO of the Native American Agriculture Fund, Janie Simms Hipp. “We tell our stories about who lives in rural America but it doesn’t reflect the truth.”
Mitchell studies solutions to land loss by Black Americans since the early 20th century. In his line of work, the need for diverse rural perspectives in policy is clear: “Rural communities of color are often rendered invisible,” he said.
Also prevalent is the conflation of “rural” with “agricultural.” Even politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders, from the largely rural state of Vermont, are prone to this oversimplification, he said.
“In one of the Democratic debates, the question was rural and [Senator Sanders] responded with farming,” said Mitchell.
One way to improve this situation, said Zoe Willingham, research associate at the Center for American Progress, is to decouple rural policy from the Department of Agriculture, which houses non-agricultural rural-development programs in housing, broadband and utilities infrastructure, and a range of other community-development activities. “To modernize and look to the future, while agriculture is important, it would benefit policy makers to take a holistic view and look at other industries,” Willingham said.
Another marker of increased rural resiliency, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health, Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, is increased broadband access. “We tend to talk about broadband as meta-infrastructure,” he said. “If you have good broadband it makes everything better.”
Necessary to increasing rural internet access is direct funding. The price tag on building broadband access for all Americans is $80 billion, said Windhausen. Another challenge is the difficulty of identifying areas in need. Often FCC data can be misleading because if one household has broadband, then the entire census block can be deemed served, he said.
This dearth of rural data affects conversations about Black and Indigenous farming. “We don’t even know how many acres of land African Americans own,” said Mitchell.
Indian Country agriculture is undercounted by at least half, said Hipp.
Coverage of voter data in the 2020 election is an example of this imprecision: CNN listed votes by race for White, Latino, Black, and Asian people, while Native Americans did not have their own category.
“I will never forget CNN capturing Native people as ‘something else,’ ” said Hipp.
The conversation closed on an audience question, striking a note familiar to rural residents: “How does the panel address the problem of outsiders telling rural people how to live their lives?”
Hipp’s response was a simple “amen.”
“It speaks to what Zoe talked about,” said Director of the Rural Policy Research Institute Keith Mueller, “about the importance of having people with rural backgrounds in key roles. If we can’t get that we at least need listening stations.”
A recording of the panel can be viewed online.