October 17th, 2008
06:47 PM ET

Nobody is going to bail out rural America

Editor's Note: Dee Davis is the founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies. Dee has helped design and lead national public information campaigns on topics as diverse as commercial television programming and federal banking policy. He shares his thoughts on the presidential election:

Dee Davis | BIO
President, Center for Rural Strategies

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a lot to brag about when it comes to rural America. Through the sustained economic boom of the nineties and the skyrocketing real estate valuations of this decade, rural communities have lagged behind conspicuously. Rural America has the highest proportion of children in poverty, lowest educational attainment, worst rates of substance abuse. Of the 250 poorest counties in the U.S., 244 of them are rural. If the effectiveness of a government is at all reflected in the well-being of the populace, then the 60 million of us in rural America may want to petition for a new constitutional convention.

I was 16 in 1967 when I signed up to work in my first political campaign passing out handbills and bumper stickers in Hazard, Kentucky, my small hometown in the Appalachian coalfields. The night before the election one of the party faithful came into headquarters and gathered the youth volunteers. He said it was high time we understood what really went on in politics. He said, “We’re out of liquor.”

Then we kids stood there awed at being allowed in on the conspiracy, listening as he phoned around for additional cases of half pints to be handed out surreptitiously to undecided voters. I came to learn that Election Day liquor was a tricky business. Not only was it illegal to give away, it could be a risky investment, especially if you put it in the hands of your poll workers too early. Politics like most enterprises depends on figuring out what people want.

Here is another lesson: Nobody is going to bail out rural America. No matter how bad things get, there is never going to be $700 billion of stop loss or reinvestment or economic stimulus for the countryside. Government is going to be there to look after besotted financiers in $5,000 suits and Gucci loafers a long time before it notices small town folks struggling to feed their families or gas up to get to work.

But that doesn’t mean that the Countryside can’t help us out of this mess. When the credit crisis abates and the debts of all the profligates have been forgiven, the nation will still have some tough choices. Will we rev up the same economic machine, built on the notion of cheap fossil fuel and limitless consumption, or will we shoot for something a little more sustainable? If it is the latter, rural communities have something to offer.

The next president can choose to re-imagine rural policy in a way that prioritizes feeding and fueling a fragile planet. We now have agricultural policy that has lead to a spiraling decline in farmers and to an America – once breadbasket to the world – that is becoming a net food and agricultural products importer. We now have an energy policy that values riskier and riskier extraction and increasing consumption of fossil fuel, more than it values developing renewable energy and sustainable power.

How we come out of this meltdown moment could dramatically improve the prospects for rural communities. There are other options.

  • Localize food systems so we support area farmers more and global transportation less,
  • Seek more sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fertilizer and pesticide production agriculture,
  • Open up the power grid so locally scaled and more environmentally sound approaches to power generation can compete for market share ,
  • Cap carbon emissions so that we begin to acknowledge the hidden costs of pollution and monetize the value of rural expanses where the sky is still clean,
  • Invest in clean, renewable fuels that we can create in the American countryside.
  • And rethink the inevitability of endless suburban sprawl built on housing speculation, loosey-goosey credit markets, and the expectation of cheap gasoline.

There may very well be a kind of economic development that protects the planet and at the same time reduces the number of rural kids living in poverty. One that connects rural enterprise to urban markets. It will not happen without planning. And it will not happen without policy makers who can see what rural communities have to offer. But if we are going to re-create a healthy national economy, why not shape it so everyone can pitch in? Good rural policy is preferable to the half pint.

Filed under: Dee Davis • Economy • Raw Politics
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Brandon

    Rural areas deserve everything they get. These areas have time and time again elected members of the republican party, which believes that less government is good government. Then when there roads or crappy, schools suck, and jobs move out of there town to some foreign country, they turn around and elect another republican.

    October 17, 2008 at 9:49 pm |
  2. Larry

    What's that saying, you should only eat produce that has been grown within a 200 mile radius of where you live?

    October 17, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
  3. Fred

    It's terrible how greed has left the rural areas of this country to fend for themselves. Maybe if you could host a $30,000 a plate fundraiser in rural america, more politicians would give notice. But would you really want them there?

    October 17, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  4. Christopher Armstrong

    Annie I too would like to see that in many aspects, but we as Americans have to realize that the reason we import so much of our food now is because it is more cost effective. Americans as consumers need to be willing to pay a little more for homegrown foods. We have more strict health codes and production laws, and have to pay our American workers more money to grow and produce our products, so as consumers if we want to keep it in America we need to willing to pay for it. I go to the local farmers markets on Wednesday and Saturday in my hometown to support what I am talking about, and the grocery store I go to also sells local produce and other products. Our future as a whole depends on this realization, and truly hope that many more people catch on before it is too late.

    Christopher Armstrong
    Olathe, KS

    October 17, 2008 at 8:13 pm |
  5. Judith Walden

    Amen to you. I support you in this effort. God forbid that rural America is left in the dust to further disrepair from poverty and drug abuse.

    October 17, 2008 at 8:05 pm |
  6. Annie Kate

    I'd like to see us as a country start growing more of our own food rather than getting it from imports from countries which don't have the same quality and safety standards we do here. Being self-sufficient as a nation, even in this global economy, would be a good thing security wise I would think.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    October 17, 2008 at 7:47 pm |
  7. Max

    Rural areas ALWAYS need to PICK their BATTLES.

    Sometimes if people decide to WORK together – less government INTERVENTION is better.

    Even in RURAL communities the COMMUNITY spirit was LOST in many, many PLACES.


    October 17, 2008 at 7:20 pm |