EDITOR’S NOTE: USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolff will lead a White House forum on rural America Wednesday in State College. The forum starts at 8:30 a.m., and will be live streamed.
This will likely be one of the last public events of the White House Rural Council under the current administration. President Obama established the Rural Council by executive order in 2011 to help with “streamlining and improving the effectiveness of federal programs.”
In a press call earlier on Tuesday, October 4, Secretary Vilsack expressed hope that the next administration would continue the council’s work. “I would hope that the next administration would see the wisdom of a program that was designed to reduce barriers to federal resources … and to focus efforts in poor and challenged areas,” he said. Vilsack sponsored the press call to highlight rural efforts undertaken during the Obama administration.
I’ve spent most of my life living in big cities. But the truth is, a lot of what’s shaped me came from my grandparents who grew up on the prairie in Kansas. They taught me the kind of values that don’t always make headlines, let alone the daily back-and-forth in Washington. Honesty and responsibility. Hard work and toughness against adversity. Keeping your word, and giving back to your community. And treating folks with respect, even if you disagree with them.
They’re the same values I saw as a senator in Illinois, driving long country roads to visit with folks in small towns. They’re the same values I saw in Iowa, campaigning for this office in community centers and coffee shops and high school cafeterias. They’re the same values that have inspired me every day as president, in visits to all 50 states and letters I read every night from every corner of this nation. And it’s only reinforced my belief that the values that drive our small towns and rural communities are the same ones that drive America as a whole.
At the same time, what’s also true is that when our country is tested, our rural communities are tested as well. An economy that’s been changing for decades – more automation, more global competition – has, in many ways, hit rural communities particularly hard. Too many people are still fighting back from the recklessness on Wall Street that shuttered storefronts on Main Street. Too many workers are still reeling from plants that moved overseas and took good jobs with them. Too many communities are struggling to compete, hamstrung by lagging infrastructure like slow or nonexistent broadband connections. And too many families have been ravaged by the heartbreaking epidemic of opioid use.
For too long, leaders who could do something to help have passed the buck or pointed fingers, rather than offer concrete solutions and new avenues of opportunity. But we’ve pursued a different approach – one that helps workers retrain and learn the skills they need for a job in the new economy. One that supports small businesses and entrepreneurs to help attract more of the new economy’s jobs to rural communities. One that upgrades our schools – from working toward universal preschool to two years of free community college – so that all our kids have the same chance to reach their potential without having to leave their hometown.
Over the last eight years, my administration has worked hand-in-hand with rural communities to build more opportunity – investing in rural schools, supporting rural small business owners, deploying high speed internet and wireless, and building partnerships between businesses and colleges to help train folks not just for a job, but for a career. And for those struggling with opioid use, we’ve expanded access to treatment to help them get the care they need.
So we’re making progress – progress that’s possible only because of the strength and resilience of the people in our rural communities.
In Clinton County, Ohio, young people have organized to tackle the brain drain, creating a fellowship program that matches local businesses with college students home for the summer. And those young people aren’t just learning, they’re leading – just last year, Wilmington, Ohio, elected a majority-millennial city council.
In Piedmont, Alabama, school leaders have invested in high-speed connectivity and laptops for every student, so that teachers can tailor lessons to individual students and assess each student’s progress in real time. Already, test scores and graduation rates are up, and tiny Piedmont City School District has emerged as a national model for digital learning.
That’s what rural America can look like in the 21st century. Smart investments that lead to real, tangible progress. Today, rural unemployment has dropped from a high of about 10 percent during the Great Recession to 6 percent. The rural child poverty rate is dropping, and rural median household incomes are rising again.
We certainly still have more work to do, but we’re moving in the right direction. And that couldn’t be more important. Because as a prominent rural Kansan – President Eisenhower – once said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”
In so many ways, from its resilience and ingenuity in the face of a challenge to the defining values that power it every day, rural America represents that beating heart. That’s why these communities are so important – because when America’s rural communities are strong, America is strong.