Areas served by USDA’s Rural Partners Network are set to benefit from a wide array of federal programs as the department rolls out almost $400 million to address long-standing poverty in the regions.
The money — a little more than $394 million — is primarily being distributed through loans, but about $35.3 million in grants will also be awarded through USDA Rural Development programs. The loans and grants are spread across more than 50 projects in Puerto Rico and eight states as USDA stands up RPN to focus on reversing trends that have hampered rural communities in their pursuit of economic development.
RPN, USDA said in its news release, "is an all-of-government program (of) more than 800 federal, state and local partners that collaborate to address specific needs in communities that have long struggled to access government programs and funding."
“The reality is that many communities, particularly those who have experienced persistent poverty for an extended period of time, simply do not have the resources that allow them to take full advantage” of USDA programs, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters Monday.
Vilsack said many of the RPN communities have dealt with income disparity issues for “an extended period of time; I’m not talking years, I’m talking about decades. When you have that kind of persistency to the poverty, it makes it really, really difficult for people to see a way forward.”
By bringing in USDA officials who are more well-versed in the federal program application process, communities may be able to access available funding more easily, Vilsack added.
Community networks get help from USDA staff who live and work in the community. "These staff members provide technical assistance based on each community’s needs, helping them navigate federal programs, build relationships and prepare successful applications for funding," USDA said.
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Monday’s announcement includes projects in Puerto Rico and eight states identified as RPN priority areas: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina and West Virginia. USDA says people in three other states — Alabama, Florida and Texas — who are outside RPN communities also stand to benefit from some of the projects in the announcement.
USDA says RPN is currently active in 36 communities in 10 states and Puerto Rico.
A little more than half the funding announced Monday is being distributed through three loans in RD’s Electric Infrastructure Loan and Loan Guarantee Program; a $22 million loan to build and improve 294 miles of power line in Georgia, a $60 million project to work on 161 miles of line and invest about $9.3 million in smart-grid technology in New Mexico and Texas, and a $140.6 million project to build and upgrade transmission lines in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.
In all, funding from 18 RD programs was included in Monday’s announcement.
“Our belief is that this creates, I think, a structure that ought to be expanded and utilized in the future in order to really get assistance and help to communities,” Vilsack said.
A headline for a previous version of this story noted USDA was allocating nearly $440 million in funding. The story has since been updated to indicate the number is in fact nearly $400 million.
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