Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, August 17, 2021

When it Rains, it Pours

Just like the inland movement of Tropical Storm Fred—currently sitting on top of us and dropping many inches of rain here in Western North Carolina—the rural news overflow-eth the banks of the river this week, Keep It Rural readers. Rather than rant and rave about a particular topic today, I’m going to just dispense a few updates you should be aware of as an active, educated and informed member of contemporary society. Here goes:

1.) The Bipartisan Infrastructure Package passed the Senate. As we discussed last week in these very email keystrokes, the Senate passed the “bipartisan infrastructure deal” with a 69-30 vote. 19 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats in supporting the bill that could deliver $548 billion in new spending for roads, bridges, internet and more. The House of Representatives still needs to pass the bill to make it official, but this seems likely (unless Democratic Party unity falls apart in the reconciliation process). Here’s a good explainer from Farm Progress documenting the rural funding in the package.

2.) The Senate also voted to enable $3.5 trillion in budget authority. This vote, passed only by Democrats through the budget reconciliation process, provides budget guidelines for each committee to hammer out their fiscal year 2022 budgets before the current year funding expires on September 30th. This is a big increase over previous budgets, particularly to cover child tax credit expansion, pay for additional child care provisions, numerous antipoverty measures, support climate action and much more. USDA got a $135 billion increase over mandatory farm bill spending, for example, over the next 10 years. Again, the House will have to okay this spending package before it gets signed, and the next few weeks will feature debates hammering out the details in both chambers of the federal legislature.

3.) A new round of Census data was released, documenting rural population loss. Those of us who track rural demographic change know that rural populations have been shrinking in many parts of the country for decades. This Census release contains data that documents that shrinking from 2010-2020. The biggest rural population declines continue to be in the Great Plains, though rural population losses were also quite significant in the Northeast and South. Some rural counties in the West, notably high-amenity outdoor recreation counties, actually increased populations during this period. (Note: You can use this online Census tool to look up local change in your favorite rural community.)

4.) SNAP benefits get a big boost. Keep It Rural/Daily Yonder readers are likely in on the story that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the program formerly known as “food stamps”) monthly grocery benefits are critically important in many rural communities. SNAP advocates have long called for increased benefits for low-income families, and the Biden Administration just delivered that benefit increase. For context, check out this recent Daily Yonder article by Olivia Weeks documenting the gap between previous SNAP benefits and the actual cost of meals in rural America (nice job, Olivia).

5.) The White House prioritizes rural health care. The Biden Administration released a pretty substantial statement Friday, “Biden Administration Takes Steps to Address Covid-⁠19 in Rural America and Build Rural Health Back Better.” The language is very, very similar to the policy demands by most rural health care advocates I’ve spoken with over the years, including linking rural hospital closures with a lack of Medicaid expansion in some states. There is some valid criticism that the funding in the outlined programs (like the Emergency Rural Health Care Grant Program) isn’t going to meet the full need, but it’s also a positive step forward with budget increases over previous years.

See. There’s a lot of rural news. Now you’re up to speed and ready to read up on other topics, right?

Rural Reading List

Here are this week’s selections of the finest rural stories for your reading pleasure. Well, maybe not the finest, necessarily, but they are things I’d urge you to read. Check them out:

CARES Funding for Rural Assisted Living Gets Protections Within Infrastructure Bill

The Daily Yonder’s Liz Carey on the infrastructure bill protecting funding for rural assisted living facilities.

Covid Drives Decline in Enrollments for Rural Community College Students

This Carolina Public Press story, republished by the Daily Yonder, reports that a combination of Covid and poverty has contributed to a decline in community college enrollment for these rural areas.

Population Decline in Rural Areas Spotlights Severe Shortage in Farm Workers

This AP/CBS story explores the Census’s rural population decline findings through the frame of farmers needing agricultural workers. This issue is really getting some attention, though I find most reporting on it to be lacking important nuance in terms of migrant farmworker pay (it’s too low), work and living conditions (generally terrible) and “immigration status” (we want cheap labor, but we can’t let migrants become citizens).

Tyson Spells Trouble for Arkansas – Its Near-Monopoly on Chicken Threatens Farmers, Workers, and Communities

This joint Union of Concerned Scientists report and Guardian investigation is a deep dive into the broad-based impacts of poultry and livestock giant Tyson Foods in Arkansas. Not to be missed.

One More Thing: National Monuments to Achieve 30×30 Conservation Goals?

I spent a lot of time during the Trump years reporting on public lands and the rural outdoor recreation economy. One of the biggest issues that came up was the rolling back of National Monument designations in Southern Utah, as well as other public lands management changes.

There is potential for the Biden administration to reverse those monument reductions, and to use presidential authority under the Antiquities Act to make new monument designations. One of the early discussions around monument creation would link up Yosemite National Park with Kings Canyon National Park, the potential “Range of Light National Monument,” as it is being called.

Biden’s announced “30×30” goal of achieving conservation protections for 30% of land waters by 2030 is ambitious. I respect that, and think it’s a good goal. That said, defining “conservation” is going to be critical in evaluating the progress (or lack thereof). Creating National Monuments from U. S. Forest Service lands would, to me, generally be considered pretty high-impact conservation. I’ll be watching this issue closely, as many rural communities are becoming increasingly dependent on outdoor recreation and public lands as their economic engine.

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