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Biden’s Rural Challenge: Turning Aid Flows into Results on the Ground

The timeline means Democrats, already facing political headwinds in rural areas, are unlikely to see much benefit from their spending ahead of November’s midterm elections as they struggle to hold onto their congressional majorities. . Still, Biden administration officials are scrambling to gain some credence while helping to simplify a byzantine system.

“We were in the community earlier in the day of 130 people,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview last month while touring the Mississippi Delta region. “The mayor had no full-time employees. There is no way the community can ever qualify or know how to qualify. These are the communities we need to help.

The Department of Agriculture oversees the largest set of programs focused on rural communities — about 40 — but there are more than 400 ongoing programs across the federal government. In 2022, the USDA rural development budget received an increase of $8 billion, a 19% increase over the previous fiscal year. And the USDA’s rural development loan portfolio reached $240 billion in 2021, the highest in more than a decade. Through the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the U.S. Bailout, the administration’s first Covid-19 bailout, Congress directed billions more for rural broadband, rental assistance, hospitals and other USDA-managed projects, and an alphabet soup of other Federal Cabinet departments and agencies. .

The wide array of programs and the influx of congressional money heightens long-standing concerns about how federal money to help rural communities reaches its recipients. In response, the White House tasked the Agriculture Department with coordinating a pilot program, the Rural Partners Network, to help ensure funding reaches the poorest and most underserved communities nationwide. It’s launching in five states and with three Native American tribes this spring to begin, with plans to expand to five more, as well as Alaska Native communities, in August.

“We’re sitting in Washington saying, ‘We’ve got this US bailout money, we’ve got this bipartisan infrastructure money and it’s no use if it doesn’t get to the people who need it most. “And we’ve worked to make sure that those resources are made available, and that they’re not just for the same old people, the same old places,” the White House domestic policy adviser said. , Susan Rice, who accompanied Vilsack to Mississippi, one of the states participating in the pilot program. “You know, in the black and brown and rural white areas, it just didn’t get what they needed.”

Rice and Vilsack visited the Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale, Miss. and Greenwood Leflore Hospital in Greenwood, Miss., while listening to local mayors, hospital leaders, and educators about the challenges they face navigating federal loans, grants, and programs — especially in the region. of the Delta.

Quentin Whitwell, a hospital administrator, told administration officials they are banking on federal funding to expand medical services in counties that currently do not have hospitals.

“I know how to pave the way to better health care, but it takes time and capital, and we don’t have that capital that only comes from community banks. We need it federally,” Whitwell said.

Corey Wiggins, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, met Vilsack at the roundtables and told POLITICO in an interview afterward that in some communities mayors and local leaders are part-time or even volunteer – limiting the time, knowledge and ability to sift through the hundreds of federal programs that could fund projects.

“We have a lot of community mayors who are not full-time,” Wiggins said. “Maybe they’re mayors, but they can also work as a school bus driver or do something else that supports their families.”

“Most people find it surprising to know that the Department of Agriculture can help fund a school’s brick and mortar,” Vilsack told a Mississippi group. “We can loan you money or grant you money to set up a mental health facility.”

Over the next four months, the ministry aims to hire two to five rural development staff for the pilot project in select communities in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico, as well as the San Carlos Apache Tribe. , the Tohono O’odham Nation and Cocopah Indian Tribe in Arizona. They will work from designated communities, coordinating with DC-based “rural office” staff, who will be placed in 17 different federal agencies to act as a liaison as they try to find the best federal program for each individual’s needs. community. In August, the pilot will expand to parts of Nevada, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Alaska Native communities.

The goal, according to Vilsack, is “to ensure that we provide the technical assistance needed to enable communities to qualify for grants.”

Unlike previous rural outreach efforts launched by the Department of Agriculture, such as the Obama administration’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity initiative, officials did not choose Rural Partners Network communities solely on the basis of their persistent level of poverty. Administration officials used the Social Vulnerability Index, which measures the relative social vulnerability of each census tract in the country based on a number of factors, such as poverty, overcrowded housing and access. transport after a natural disaster, in combination with the index of communities in distress. , which measures community well-being at the postal code level.

And perhaps the big difference from past attempts: Rural Partners Network staff will work across multiple agencies, not just USDA.

But it can take years for pilot communities to see tangible results. The Department of Agriculture is facing severe staffing shortages, and adding new recruits will be a long process. The rural development workforce, in particular, has shrunk by a third over the past decade, while their portfolio responsibilities have increased by 80%, according to Justin Maxson, deputy assistant secretary for rural development. In addition, 47% of rural development staff are eligible for retirement.

The Biden administration asked for more money in its latest budget request to address staffing shortages, including funding to hire 450 rural development staff. But an agreement on Congressional spending is unlikely to come before November’s midterm elections. And by then the Republicans will likely have won back at least one chamber of Congress, giving them the upper hand in future negotiations.

The election results could also jeopardize the future of the Rural Partners Network program, which Congress endowed with $5 million included in the spending bill it passed in March. The Department of Agriculture has requested $39 million for the coming fiscal year to implement the pilot project in other states.

But Republicans in recent years have been keen to cut, not boost, federal rural development programs. In former President Donald Trump’s 2018 funding proposal, he proposed getting rid of some rural development programs, including the rural business cooperative service and sewage and housing subsidies, as POLITICO reported, as the programs were deemed redundant since other federal agencies and the private sector have similar ones. He offered cuts again in 2018 and issued a Proposed 12% reduction in 2019.

Congress refused to make such deep cuts, but neither did it significantly increase rural development funding — until Democrats took control of the White House and Congress in 2021.

Most election observers, however, doubt that rural voters are rewarding them. Democrats are expected to lose big in swing states and districts, as well as the few red states where they still hold seats in Congress, jeopardizing their control of both the House and Senate.

“Democratic politics have always been quite popular among rural voters. It’s just that rural voters don’t like Democrats,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, a progressive rural organizing firm.

“In fact, most voters don’t know what rural development is. Often they think rural development means urbanization of a small town,” Hildreth added. “Politicians and elected officials have done a very, very poor job over the last 40, 50 years talking about what’s going on at the USDA and what’s going on in rural development.”

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