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Commentary: Policy Summit Lays out Roadmap for ‘Rural Renewal’

In a New York Times column earlier this year, Paul Krugman asked a question, somewhat rhetorically: “Can Anything Be Done to Assuage Rural Rage?” This past week, I had the pleasure of co-hosting the 2023 Rural Policy Action Summit, the second convening of more than 50 diverse rural leaders from across the country who provided an emphatic, affirmative answer.

Krugman’s column was addressing the much-discussed political shift among many rural voters in recent years. Although he quibbles with whether the frustrations of rural Americans are justifiable, and seems doubtful that rural people will reconsider who they trust to improve their circumstances, he asserts, nevertheless, that it is important to reverse rural America’s decline. And he credits President Biden’s policy agenda as heading in the right direction – an opportunity for “rural renewal.” On this, at least, we can agree.

First held in the spring of 2021, the summit is a gathering of rural advocates from across the country who are building a network to champion a path forward for rural communities that have been harmed by policies that too many leaders from both parties have supported.

It wasn’t an inevitability, for example, that family farms have been decimated and replaced at alarming rates by giant factory farms that pollute local communities. Or that four giant meat processing companies divide and control regional markets and have the power to dictate to both ranchers and consumers what they receive, and pay. Or that millions of manufacturing jobs have left our shores for China and other countries, hollowing out many communities.

These are all examples that have resulted from deliberate, often bi-partisan, policy choices. And, if there is “rural rage,” to use Mr. Krugman’s phrase, it is both rational and justifiable. 

Where to focus this frustration may be debatable. What is not debatable is that our country is badly in need of a rural renewal that can only be accomplished with a roadmap of clear policies, as laid out in the 2021 Rural Policy Action Report, many of which this administration already is championing.

Like most Americans, rural people have relatively simple expectations from our government. All of us, no matter where we live, want a fair shot, with the tools and opportunities to build a good life for ourselves and contribute to our communities. That means lower costs for the basic necessities like childcare, healthcare, prescription medications, and energy. It means leveling the playing field for small businesses and family farmers and reining in corporate monopolies. It means ensuring clean water and air so that families can thrive, and opportunities to benefit from transitioning to cheaper, locally controlled, and more reliable clean energy. And it means ensuring every family, no matter the color of their skin, can participate in local economies and our democracy.

In the two years since the 2021 report, the Biden administration and leaders in Congress have passed many of our key priorities, including:

American Rescue Plan Act: Rural voters agree that real recovery means providing a foundation for all working families and all communities, and ARPA made it possible for people across the country to return to work and stay working.

Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Like all communities, rural families, small businesses, and family farmers depend on infrastructure to sell and buy goods and to access opportunities. Massive investments in rural broadband will open up critically important opportunities to access health providers and remote education and work.

Postal Service Reform Act: The Postal Service is a lifeline for rural America, and this act expands opportunities for the USPS to better serve rural people.

Key Executive Action: President Biden wasted no time signing orders that rein in corporate monopolies, take on price gouging, and help combat outsourcing and bring jobs back to America and secure our supply chains. 

Leadership Representing America: Our leadership in Washington should reflect all Americans, and with key appointments, like the first Indigenous Interior Secretary, President Biden has done that.

Bipartisan Innovation Act: The “CHIPS Act,” as many call it, represents a critically important reversal of corporate outsourcing, a key step in bringing back manufacturing jobs to America, securing our supply chains, and lowering costs.

Inflation Reduction Act: With overwhelming public support, including rural Americans, the IRA represents a massive opportunity to lower costs of healthcare, prescription drugs, and energy for working families. The IRA also provides critically important resources that will equip rural communities to transition to cheaper, more secure, and locally controlled clean energy. And by doing so, rural America can contribute toward a healthier and more secure future for us all.

These policies can, indeed, lead to a rural renewal. They represent the most significant investments in rural America in our lifetimes. And they are incredibly popular with rural voters. Some leaders, both in Washington and in the states, are attacking these investments and threatening to further undermine rural communities. But the Rural Democracy Initiative network and our partners, hundreds of groups across dozens of states, are committed to ensuring rural communities benefit as intended, and that rural voters have the information to make informed choices and the opportunity to participate fully as we determine the direction of our country.

The insights shared at the summit by diverse experts from rural communities across the country will be incorporated into an update to the Rural Policy Action Report, which will help set priorities for decision makers as they take their case to rural America in the cycle ahead.

Sarah Jaynes is executive director of the Rural Democracy Initiative.

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