U.S. Department of Agriculture Administration Building in Washington D. C. is only one of many in a complicated network of federal agencies that run rural development programs. (Source:Wikipedia)

The incoming Biden/Harris administration has signaled that it has big plans for rural America. But according to a report from the Brookings Institute, the tools that make up federal rural strategy are themselves in need of a makeover. 

“The federal government has always seen itself as being a really important partner in helping rural communities thrive,” said Tony Pipa, an expert in economic development and one of the co-authors of the report. 

The problem, he said, is that many of the federal programs that exist are outdated and unable to adapt effectively to the diverse and changing realities of rural communities, including the rise and fall of traditional rural industries, demographics, and challenges related to climate change. 

“Rural communities are trying to thrive, and in some places renew themselves, because of the changes that they are going through in an environment that is pretty dynamic,” Pipa said. “And yet it seems to us that the structures that were set up at a federal level are legacy programs that weren’t designed to address those particular issues.”

The report recommends a transformative reimagining of federal rural strategy to implement more cohesive and effective rural policy nationwide. Using the framework of development effectiveness, which is most commonly applied to U.S. international development policy, the authors suggest streamlining and centralizing federal rural programming, analyzing data in order to maximize the effectiveness of future programs, and facilitating local leadership in the creation and implementation of policy. 

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One of the biggest challenges to overcome is the sheer volume and unwieldiness of current federal rural policy. According to the report, there are “over 400 programs open to rural communities for economic and community development, spanning 13 departments, 10 independent agencies, and over 50 offices and sub-agencies.” 

Natalie Geismar, the co-author of the report, said that this poses a challenge for the rural practitioners who hope to benefit from the policies. “Especially for rural communities with lower capacity, it can be quite a trial just to even attempt to navigate that maze of programs and access funds,” she said. 

The report also pointed to structural problems embedded within current federal rural policy, including biases that disadvantage rural communities, the conflation of rural and agricultural, and varying and conflicting definitions of what constitutes rural. 

A dedicated commission made up of a diverse group of regional experts and leaders will create momentum in congress and ensure that the much-needed structural overhaul of federal rural policy will address the needs of a changing society. 

Pipa and Geismar also stressed the need to bring a rural lens to all federal policy, not just rural-specific programs. The first test for the Biden administration in this regard will be the upcoming Covid-19 relief plan. 

For example, Geismar said the original CARES act implemented in March of 2020 limited Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for communities that were heavily reliant on revenue from gaming and casinos. As a result, she said, “a lot of tribal communities got excluded. So my hope would be that the next round of legislation incorporates a more rural lens to understand how different communities will be impacted.” 

“Structural urbanism”—structural biases that benefit urban communities over rural ones in rural-eligible programs. These include eligibility requirements where communities must meet thresholds of absolute numbers of beneficiaries (disadvantaging less-populated communities), and highly involved applications that may require a large number of man-hours and/or technical expertise unavailable to some rural communities. 
Conflation of “rural” and “agricultural”—The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with coordinating rural policy. Although agriculture has long been an important element of rural life, it accounts for less than 5% of jobs as the rural economy has become increasingly service oriented. Rural economies and communities require federal programming that goes well beyond agriculture. 
Varying definitions of “rural”—According to the report, at least 15 different definitions of “rural” are currently in use by federal agencies and programs. While the diversity of rural communities certainly justifies flexible definitions, having so many competing qualifications for “rural” confuses any attempts at a comprehensive federal strategy.

Pipa added that he hopes to see rural development included among the priorities, as “it has a tendency to get shunted aside, especially in the big packages.” 

And for an administration focused on unifying the country, Pipa and Geismar see transforming federal rural policy as a key step in fighting spatial inequality. “There’s a real opportunity for us to leverage [urban-rural] links to a much greater degree than we do already, and challenge ourselves to be thoughtful about how federal policy can incentivize strengthening those links in a more peer-to-peer fashion, not where rural areas are just getting spillover effects for what’s happening in urban areas,” Pipa said. 

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS
Launch a domestic development corporation, modernizing technical capabilities and financing tools.
Using principles and strategies that have proven effective internationally, the domestic development corporation would award large, flexible block grants to support programming that strengthens rural communities.  
Create a national rural strategy and undertake associated reforms to improve coherence, regional integration, and transparency.
This includes establishing offices and positions to oversee rural and tribal strategy within the White House, setting clear and cohesive national priorities for rural development, strengthening connectivity and collaboration between rural communities and their urban counterparts, and creating web tools to promote transparency.
Appoint a bipartisan Congressional Commission to undertake a top-to-bottom review and build bipartisan momentum for improving the effectiveness of federal rural policy.

If implemented correctly, Pipa and Geismar said, federal rural policy could strengthen and balance economic and cultural connections between rural and urban America, which has the potential to benefit the whole country. 

“I think [transformative rural policy] would provide a much better chance to a more consistent and even level of prosperity that is more geographically distributed throughout the country,” Pipa said. “And I think that would result in an America that is more competitive internationally and more resilient domestically.”