Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Biden’s First Budget Proposal Full of Rural Investments

If you’re a real policy nerd like me, you likely subscribe to the adage “budget proposals are moral documents.” While I’m fairly agnostic on mainstream notions of morality most of the time, I do have some deep-held beliefs about bullies and bullying, chest-thumping masculinity, racism and hate, overinflated sense of self, greed, materialism…

Okay, okay. Back to policy. I do figure budget proposals matter as a means of learning about the people  who write them. What do they boost? What do they cut? Do they frame up the cuts or money drops in high-minded rhetoric? Do they focus on problem solving through investments or slash and burn austerity? What tricks do they use to document or hide their moving-of-money-around to minimize the appearance of “budget impact”?

This is relevant because President Biden dropped his first budget on Friday afternoon (right before a holiday weekend, which is usually a politician’s trick to avoid attention) without much fanfare. And while that’s a few days ago in politics and punditry time, the information is still important.  Reviewing it from a rural lens, I have some thoughts:

1.)  The Biden budget approach is drastically different than the Trump budget proposals. I covered the Trump budget four times, and in all cases, the Trump White House proposed deep cuts to USDA and other rural agencies and programs. Biden is proposing to boost existing programs that serve rural people, while also proposing a few new programs as well. This is not a big surprise, but it still is worth pointing out.

2.) The Biden budget focuses on rural infrastructure and climate. The budget proposal includes pretty big boosts to rural internet and water infrastructure, as well as funding to revamp the electric grid to support more clean energy production and distribution. USDA Rural Development would get a boost in funding for staffing and technical support to accomplish these goals. And “agriculture can help with climate change” is peppered throughout the whole document.

3.) The Biden budget comes from a lens of ending rural poverty and supporting rural communities of color. Biden’s draft budget provides a lot of additional focus and support for delivering rural economic development to places of concentrated rural poverty, especially places with disgusting historical records of racism and discrimination. Biden’s USDA is proposing to revive the “StrikeForce Initiative,” for instance, in a bid to steer services to largely Black, Latino and Hispanic and Native American rural places. The budget also includes many millions of federal dollars to support “socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” through multiple programs.

I will say that the Biden budget plan is not as thorough and clear as most Trump budgets were. The Trump Administration borrowed heavily from the conservative think tanks Heritage Foundation and Republican Study Committee, so those budget were detailed in clear ways about all of the so-called “wasteful government spending that should be addressed by the private sector.” The Biden budget people could certainly do a better job of itemizing and compartmentalizing budget changes from previous years, and maybe that will happen once they’re fully staffed up and headed into their first “complete” budget cycle.

One other thing to keep in mind when it comes to budget wonkery is that a president’s budget often has very little resemblance to the final budget negotiated by Congress. Congress, per the Constitution, has the ultimate power of the pursestrings. This became almost comical during the Trump Administration, as unhumorous politicians (even Republicans) tried to one-up each other with one-liners about “no comment” or “let’s just say they don’t know what they’re doing over there in the White House Office of Management and Budget.” Who doesn’t love an old white dude in a suit smirking about how the world’s most powerful government has a leader presenting an unrealistic and illegal budget that is “dead on arrival?”

Anyway, here is your annual reminder that the president starts the budget process, then Congress negotiates a while and then gets mad at each other along party lines. They likely extend the existing budget a time or two or three after shutting down the government a few days or even weeks. Then they cut a deal that pretty much aligns with what they should have passed six months before but couldn’t really muster up the gumption to do at the time. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen that way this year, but I’m afraid that’s where we headed.

Rural Reading List

Budget information and commentary aside, there are numerous rural-oriented writings I’d urge you to read this week. I’ve picked stories on Covid relief and anti-poverty in rural, North Missouri’s pork giant underreported Covid meatpacking infections and declining river flows in Arizona’s rural regions. Check them out:

Historic Expansion of Anti-Poverty Programs Comes with Expiration Date

Props to the Daily Yonder’s Olivia Weeks for documenting pandemic changes to the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, and how that short-term change will benefit rural communities.

Covid-19 Outbreak at Smithfield Foods Meatpacking Plant in Missouri Likely Larger Than Originally Known, OSHA Documents Say

Smithfield has been using and abusing the good people (and land and water) of North Missouri for years. This time they are shirking their responsibilities to their workers, which seems like it should be their official slogan.

Recent UA study confirms groundwater pumping is drying up Arizona rivers

This Arizona Republic story documents how deep groundwater pumping and megadrought are combining forces to de-water Arizona rivers.

One More Thing: An Ode to Lightnin’ Bugs, the Unofficial Harbinger of Summer

I had the pleasure of returning to the humid, rain-blessed oak-hickory-poplar-conifer mixed forest region of the Upper South this past week. After many months spent in the desert and a year on the road a lot of the time, it took only a dip in a deep cold water lake and a post-dusk show of lightning bugs to make me feel a bit more normal than before. That and the chorus of peepers and other amphibians singing for love on a running creek’s edge.

I haven’t seen a lightning bug for years, as they exist neither in southern Arizona nor western Washington. They’re such curious creatures, and a joy to observe. They signal, to me, the summer “school is out” season, and that is something we all should universally celebrate. Even bookish nerds like me.

Happy seasonal change, Keep It Rural friends. I hope that summer is knocking on your door—if it hasn’t already arrived—and that your favorite seasonal changes are imminent (can’t wait for real tomatoes in a few weeks).

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