Folks Need Help. Money Is Available. But How to Get that Money Out the Door…

I write a lot about the prospect of rural communities landing federal dollars to pay for things like infrastructure, health care, nutrition assistance and economic development. Often, this focuses on the politics of delivering investments through the federal budget process. Year after year, the basic question is whether the president and leaders of both political parties in the House and Senate can work out a budget deal.

Sometimes this results in a boost in spending, as it has the last couple of years due to Covid-19 relief. Other times it puts deep cuts in programs that rural communities count on. Often, the budget remains fundamentally unchanged. On rare occasion, we get a performative federal government shutdown for days or weeks to increase the pressure on negotiators to get a deal done.

While I’ll be among the first to nerd out about congressional action (or inaction), I do admit that there is a far more complicated and necessary component to converting this potential for federal funding into tangible on-the-ground spending that benefits rural people and communities. This involves the ability and willingness of federal, state and local government officials to actually get allocated money out the door. And that last bit, friends, is where the whole process can regularly grind to a halt. 

Take, for example, the recent situation of congressional funding to support renters (and landlords) who have struggled financially during the pandemic. Lots of low-income and unemployed rural people are in this situation, and there has been a federally-imposed moratorium on evictions to limit the impact of both public health issues and the economic depression caused by the pandemic. Congress passed $25 billion in rental assistance for tenants establishing the Emergency Rental Assistance program (ERA) last year, and the American Rescue Plan Act passed in March 2021 provides an additional $21.55 billion for ERA. That’s a grand total of $46.55 billion in emergency rental assistance.

Out of $46.55 billion in funding to support renters and landlords during a mounting rental housing crisis as millions of people are facing eviction with an expiring moratorium, how much do you expect has been spent to help get the finances of both parties back on track? Half? Two-thirds, maybe?

Nope. Today, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, only $7.48 billion has been spent to solve this challenge. That leaves $39 billion on the table that could otherwise be solving problems, making landlords whole, injecting cash into the economy, etc.

I find this to be one of the most frustrating, and regularly misunderstood, parts of governance in our quasi-democratic society. Governors and state legislatures regularly reject federal funding out of spite or political differences (like with the states who haven’t expanded Medicaid). Billions in disaster aid routinely go unspent and are “sent back to DC” because, apparently, these places didn’t “need the money.” And then there’s situations like this rental housing assistance program where the bureaucracy, whether through incompetence, lack of capacity or poor organizational infrastructure, just can’t get the job done. It’s the same situation with the rollout of loan forgiveness for socially disadvantaged farmers.

To effectively increase the actual flow of money to rural communities, not just the theoretical “money is available” category of funding, we rural advocates need to focus as much on implementation and follow-through as we do on legislative action. There’s a lot of talk about “messaging” in politics, as well as the all-important how-a-legislator-voted-on-certain-bills “scorecard” approach. Unfortunately, I rarely hear politically active rural folks talk about implementation performance as a measure of effective leadership. The to-do list keeps growing. But that’s how it goes.

Rural Reading List

We have another solid reading list this week. Maybe that’s because there’s good rural journalism happening throughout the rural reporting network. Or maybe it’s because the timing is right. Either way, check out these stories: 

Women Miners Work to Record a More Complete History of 1980s Labor Strikes

Abby Lee Hood with their first for the Yonder, this one broadening the scope and diversity of miners’ union organizing and solidarity in rural Appalachia and the United Kingdom.

Birding in the Black Belt: An Alabama Ecotourism Effort Builds on Natural Assets

This Daily Yonder story highlights the potential of a working agricultural landscape to also support tourism and outdoor recreation in a rural region with a struggling economy.

The Tragedy of America’s Rural Schools

One of those coastal elite publications doing the rural thing (in this case the New York Times Magazine). I don’t love the headline here, as even limited-resource rural school districts can do a decent job, but this is some solid reporting on education challenges for many rural schools.

Rural Vaccinations Rise but Still Lag Behind Cities

This Marketplace story highlights some progress on the rural vaccination front. Rural counties are still behind urban vaccination rates, but they are increasing, often as the pandemic continues pummeling rural places. (Bonus: the piece references Daily Yonder’s publishing organization, the Center for Rural Strategies, too.)

One More Thing: Reservation Dogs. Watch it.

I know you don’t generally read Keep It Rural for my hot takes on contemporary culture. I’m a 44-year-old white dude with a beard who loves IPAs and cucumber-and-onion salad, after all. My musical sweet spot is the Byrds’ 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, if that tells you anything.

But I have recently been watching the new-ish TV series “Reservation Dogs,” and I’m gonna tell you you are missing out if you haven’t seen the show. It centers around a group of teens in Northeast Oklahoma doing their thing and having adventures while also trying to save up some money so they can head west to California. All four main characters, and many of the supporting cast, are American Indians. It’s hilarious, it balances the sweet and the crude, it’s thought-provoking and it honestly depicts life for the lot of us who grew up rural working class or poor. Personally, I like it because the teens in the show are pretty much free and on their own, loosely “parented” by family, extended family and the place they live.

The show is filmed in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, a half-hour and some south of Tulsa, capital of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. Created, written, directed and acted by a Native American crew, Reservation Dogs is delightful, frankly. It balances laughs with wholesomeness, regional flavor and drama. It can be a little bit edgy too, but not brutally so even as it deals with drugs, violence, sex, emotional and physical abuse, poverty and more.

And, as if this wasn’t already good enough, the show is sponsoring one of my favorite podcasts, This Land. Cherokee Nation member Rebecca Nagle recently released her second season of This Land, this time centering on a “timely exposé about how the far right is using Native children to quietly dismantle American Indian tribes and advance a conservative agenda.” Don’t miss this important reporting.

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