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.
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.
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