USDA officials diagnose rural America's needs

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 18, 2016 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the depth of poverty in rural America at a Farm Foundation Forum Monday, while at a separate meeting, Lisa Mensah, his top assistant on rural development, called for increased access to broadband as a way to give an economic boost to underserved communities.

Vilsack, speaking at the National Press Club, stressed the importance of targeting USDA resources in rural counties that are persistently impoverished - where at least 20 percent of the county's population has been living in poverty for the last 30 years or more.

Nationwide, there are between 350 and 384 of these “persistent poverty” counties (PPCs) and about 85 percent of them are rural. Of the rural PPCs, about two thirds are located in the Old Confederacy and about one-fourth are within Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, referred to as the Mid-South.

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“In the Mid-South, there are 39 PPCs and 35 of those (have a population that is) majority black,” said forum participant Bill Bynum, the CEO of a community development bank called Hope Credit Union Enterprise Corp., which provides affordable financing to underserved communities across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

PPCs can be found “in Indian country - in the Dakotas, in New Mexico, in Arizona - (and) in Appalachia, which is majority white,” he said. The point is: “When you paint a picture of persistent poverty, it's a picture of America.”

Rural poverty doesn't just affect adults, either. One in four children in rural America lives in poverty, and many reside in the North-Central region, encompassing agricultural powerhouse states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

Jason Henderson, associate dean of Purdue University's College of Agriculture and director of Purdue's Cooperative Extension program, said impoverished kids in North Central states have lower education attainment and are at higher risk of opioid abuse later in life - a societal scourge Vilsack and President Barack Obama have taken on in earnest this year.

Henderson said through his post at Purdue Extension, which runs the state's 4-H program, he's been working to provide underprivileged kids with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities.

“I don't know how you learned,” he said to the audience, “but I learned by breaking things and trying to get them fixed before my dad got in from the field.”

Vilsack said USDA has been targeting its rural development funding in communities with the highest rates of adult and child poverty through Obama's StrikeForce program. Launched in 2010, USDA has invested $23 billion in nearly 190,000 projects in high-poverty areas in rural America. Plus, he added, the department has met its goal to devote 20 percent of its rural development resources to the 20 percent of the rural communities that are 30 percent or more impoverished.

Mensah, USDA's under secretary of rural development, spoke to more than a hundred small- and medium-sized rural broadband providers who gathered for NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association's annual member meeting. “Despite challenges,” she said, USDA is fully committed to expanding rural broadband access.

“We're not going to watch the clock,” even though the end of the Obama administration is approaching, Mensah said. “We have ongoing programs to administer.”

Both Vilsack and Mensah mentioned that applications are now being accepted for the department's Community Connect grant program, which provides funding for the construction, improvement, expansion, acquisition or leasing of facilities to deploy rural broadband. Community Connect funds can also be used to provide broadband service free of charge to critical community facilities for two years.

Mensah recounted the work USDA's Rural Utility Service had done to expand telephone service in rural America a half century ago in the Johnson administration. “This work on broadband gives new meaning to an agency that really has had one of the most successful (partnership) stories in government. We did this as a partnership to bring telephone service, and now we're going to finish that partnership in rural America (with broadband),” she said.

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“This is a very bipartisan issue. Red state (or) blue state, you need broadband,” she added. “Rural America is the biggest area where we need this service to expand.”

Another significant piece of addressing rural poverty, the three Farm Foundation speakers agreed, is recruiting talented people to start businesses, or expand existing ones, in rural America.

“For rural communities, that means they have to toot their own horn and be a little less humble and talk about their successes,” Purdue's Henderson said.

Vilsack concurred. “We don't market particularly well,” he said. Rural America has “reasonably priced real estate (and) downtown buildings that are empty.” These locales could “in-source” the jobs American companies outsourced to China and India for years, like computer tech support or video game coding jobs, if only they could get the word out, Vilsack said.

These careers demand an understanding of U.S. culture, but don't necessarily have to be based in a city center, he continued. They just need “the technology and the broadband access (to) bring those jobs back.”

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