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The Heresy of Rural America

President Trump’s remarks to the American Farm Bureau Annual Convention on January 8th, and the ensuing barrage of press articles, reveal the deeply entrenched moral worldviews that define American political identity today. In Moral Politics, George Lakoff observes that if the facts don’t fit the worldview, we either change them to fit it, ignore them, dismiss and ridicule them, or attack them. There’s a fifth possibility: commit heresy, in the sense given to the word by Aldous Huxley: reveal a truth that contradicts conventional wisdom. Unfortunately, there aren’t many heretics of this type in politics or the media today.

The persevering myth that rural and agriculture are one and the same thing limits the development of potential competitive advantages of rural communities and motivates youth emigration. State-encouraged manufacturing is generating low quality (i.e. low wage/low skill) jobs, thereby deepening the poverty-generating traps that sever individual potential from choices for action. Yet political expediency and top-down corporate capitalism have put the hopes, fears, dreams, and expectations of rural Americans on the butcher’s block.

President Trump’s Executive Order for “Streamlining and expediting requests to locate broadband facilities in rural America” is a positive step in support of rural development and the ability of rural communities and businesses to compete on a more level playing field. But it will not echo a roaring American Dream back to life for them. It can actually generate consequences that will deepen rural distress.

Rural America is hurting. The average median family income in rural areas is 25% lower than in metro areas, and the poverty rate is 22% higher. Rural counties make up 95% of counties with persistent poverty and 67% of counties with higher-than average food insecurity rates. (USDA 2017); an estimated 15% of rural households are food insecure (Feeding America, 2017). Unless the Executive Order is accompanied by measure to provide computers and relevant capacity-building and pay for internet service, those faced with the dilemma of food vs. broadband internet really won’t have a choice.

In addition, the new administration’s budget blueprint, wittingly or not, will undermine efforts by rural communities to rebuild or strengthen their economic development. It heavily cuts or totally eliminates many existing, even if inadequate, services: over $1 billion in cuts in programs that help rural Americans access clean water, health care and decent housing; a 20% cut in the Department of Agriculture’s budget; elimination of more than $2 billion for programs that support critical funds for rural infrastructure and workforce development; and a proposed elimination of more than $300 million in loans and investments to rural communities across the nation (Center for American Progress 2017).

It’s time to choose wisdom over expediency. Rural communities are critical to all Americans. Yet the quest for votes and the tendentious academic expediency of experts have helped maintain the USDA’s funding for rural development (exclusive of farm grants and subsidies) at a mere 2-5% of its budget outlays.

For those critics who see Trump’s speech as hollow, lame or an overstatement of economic victory would do well to remember that rural America is standing on a dwindling cliff being eaten away by hyper-partisanship and economic involution. This lethal combination results in non-development.

Rural revitalization and development is not about recreating corporate capitalism on a smaller scale in rural communities. Nor is it about aid, which is a quest for failure. It is about shifting the paradigm of economic growth to the rediscovery of human potential. Rural Americans need to be given the chance to express a new economic narrative that champions bottom-up innovation through the revival of their entrepreneurial potential, in the widest sense of the word.

Entrepreneurship is a mindset, a way of thinking about the positive relationship between challenge, initiative and risk. It is about imagining new ways of solving problems, and then creating value that is shared with others. This requires believing in those who live in even the smallest and most remote rural communities. It demands providing personal and professional capacity building that inspires innovative success and bolsters individual and community courage and determination to be the best they can be.

Rural revitalization and development is about equalizing capitalism. It is about empowering young and old, men and women, to improve their lives through greater choice. It is about building autonomy and promoting agency. It is about giving the opportunity to rediscover what has always made America exceptional: a can-do-attitude.

Rural America is not just a part of our past. It is our compass to the future. But there are no facts about the future and its possibilities. The future is defined by people’s dreams and inspired by a collective will to reinvent the present. Let us all be heretics and support a brave renewed rural America.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, UpBoost LLC

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