As the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged America over the past year, rural communities have struggled to stay afloat. Rural hospitals, which were already extremely vulnerable before the pandemic, saw a record rate of closures in 2020. Rural nursing homes have been hard-hit by the virus and often lack the equipment necessary to fight it. Rural ambulance services have all but run out of money. The pandemic’s domino effect on employment and the economy has ravaged rural businesses and workers, who are struggling to stay afloat as GOP governors slash safety net benefits. Rural homelessness, already a challenge to measure before the pandemic, has been exacerbated by the insufficient funding afforded to rural shelters and housing.
Recognizing these dire realities, Joe Biden pledged during the 2020 campaign to make rural economic development a core part of his “Build Back Better” agenda. While he has made a promising start in taking on corporate agribusiness as President, his sweeping plan for Rural America has faced legislative roadblocks ranging from the filibuster to obstructionist corporate Democrats.
Lucky for Biden, the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Division could be the key to delivering swift investment in rural America. But we are deeply concerned that his appointment of Third Way consultant Xochitl Torres Small to lead it and failure to fill lower-level vacancies will undermine this effort before it gets underway.
What is USDA’s Rural Development Division?
Housed within the sprawling Department of Agriculture, the Rural Development division contains various lending and grant programs and is sorted into three agencies. The Rural Housing Service helps fund rural residential housing and community facilities (like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and first responder vehicles) in partnership with local non-profits, governments, and native tribes. The Rural Utilities Service (the modern-day incarnation of the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration) focuses on rural water, electricity, and telecommunications infrastructure, as well as a range of broadband grant programs aimed at expanding rural internet access. Lastly, the Rural Business-Cooperative Service offers job training, education, and lending assistance to workers in the agricultural sector and rural business owners.
While the division boasts a broad array of responsibilities, its capacity for rural development has been poorly realized in recent years. A 2015 Politico investigation found that the Obama-era Rural Utilities Service grossly mismanaged rural broadband funding from the 2009 Recovery Act, abruptly terminating at least 40 previously-approved rural broadband projects while greenlighting others that were poorly-run and diverted funding away from rural communities. This mistreatment of the division continued during the Trump years, when corrupt Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sought to eliminate rural development as one of USDA’s mission areas and strip the division of much of its budget (Congress stopped Perdue from doing this by including provisions protecting the division in the 2018 Farm Bill). During his four years in office, Trump never nominated an Undersecretary of Rural Development.
In a welcome break with his predecessors, Biden has recognized the Rural Development Division’s importance and already integrated it into his Build Back Better agenda. The Emergency Rural Health Care grant program, which was created by Biden’s American Rescue Plan, is housed at the Division and seeks to fund investment in rural COVID-19 testing and vaccines, food banks and distribution facilities, and long-term rural health care infrastructure. Just this past month, the White House cited the division by name in a fact sheet on rural pandemic response.
Personnel Is Policy: Biden Must Staff USDA With The Right People
Unfortunately, Biden has followed the lead of past administrations and made a less-than-promising start in staffing the Rural Development Division.
His pick for Undersecretary of Rural Development, former Blue Dog Congresswoman Xochitl Torres-Small, is a mixed bag on rural issues. Despite her positive past efforts to bolster USDA’s ReConnect Program, official ethics filings reveal that Torres-Small is a consultant for Third Way, a Koch-funded neoliberal think tank whose very name alludes to the failed Clinton-era consensus on financialization and free trade that cost Democrats support in the Heartland. Third Way has repeatedly advocated for policies that have devastated rural America, from championing unfair trade deals and Big Telecom-friendly broadband expansion to opposing single-payer healthcare (which would be a revenue-boosting lifeline for cash-strapped rural hospitals). According to her ethics agreement, Torres-Small advised Third Way’s Shield PAC, a super PAC formed by defeated corporate Democrats that has dubiously claimed progressives cost swing-district House Democrats their seats by inviting GOP attacks on “socialism.”
So many of the deficiencies in modern bipartisan “rural development” models arise from Third Way’s neoliberal vision for government, which subsidizes the private sector to perform duties that progressives and socialists alike believe are more effectively and less corruptly handled by a democratically-elected government. We can only hope that, if she is confirmed by the Senate, Torres-Small will acknowledge the root causes of rural decline rather than bring Third Way’s destructive and failed ideology to the Rural Development division.
The division is also plagued by several lower-level vacancies, including full-time administrators for each of its three agencies. The lack of a full-time administrator for the Rural Utilities Service is an alarming parallel to the Obama years, when the delayed nomination of Jonathan Adelstein knee-capped the rollout of Recovery Act broadband projects. Other positions listed as “vacant” or “acting” on the division’s website include the Administrative Specialist for Rural Housing, the Single-Family Housing Executive Director of Guaranteed Loans, and the Community Facilities Program Deputy Administrator.
Perhaps most alarming is the Biden administration’s slow pace of hiring of Rural Development Division State Directors, who helm state-level division offices across the country that serve as the primary point of contact between USDA and rural Americans. Every single state office, according to the Rural Development Division’s website, has been helmed by an acting state director since the end of Trump’s term in January. Given the central coordinating role that these directors play in administering the division’s grant and loan programs, the widespread lack of full-time appointed staff is highly troubling.
There is one bright spot in Biden’s staffing of the Rural Division: his appointment of economist Olugbenga Ajilore as a Senior Advisor in the division. Ajilore co-authored a 2020 CAP report with Caius Z. Willingham calling for progressive wage and collective bargaining laws, grassroots-driven grant funding, and stronger inter-agency coordination to be integrated into federal rural development policy. The vision laid out by the Ajilore-Willingham report is a stark contrast to Third Way’s, accurately diagnosing root causes of rural decline (like unfair trade agreements and deregulation) and prescribing progressive policy solutions (like a $15 minimum wage or robust collective bargaining laws). Like the appointment of his former CAP colleague Andy Green as USDA’s Senior Advisor for Fair and Competitive Markets, Ajilore’s hiring is a good first step and should be followed by other progressive personnel hires at the Rural Development division.
Why Going Big On Rural Development Matters
From healthcare to housing to economic revitalization, the pandemic has emphasized the urgency of addressing rural America’s development needs. And as lawmakers debate Biden’s infrastructure push, it would be unwise for the President to rely solely on the legislative branch for rural development.
Take broadband access, which has become essential to rural students trying to adapt to remote learning, farmers seeking access to the online agricultural carbon credit marketplace, and countless other rural Americans. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen noted, the vague broadband measures contained in the Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal fail to prioritize utility co-ops or public broadband operators. Instead, it gives free rein to Big Telecom monopolies — who for years have written off rural communities as unprofitable and aggressively fought municipal broadband operators — to direct rural broadband policy.
More money into this failed monopoly-centric model will boost Big Telecom’s profits and largely fail to boost internet access for the millions who are falling behind in internet access, which has become increasingly central to the modern economy.
In lieu of meaningful legislative action and amidst a delta variant-induced fifth wave of Covid-19, many of these problems can be mitigated by USDA’s Rural Development Division (and indeed, the Biden administration has begun to do so in a few key areas).
But Biden should take note of the stakes and closing window of opportunity when it comes to rural development. Since the 1990s, Democratic leadership has routinely ignored the material needs of rural communities in policy-making, championing destructive trade deals and Big Ag mergers while leaving investments in rural housing, infrastructure, and businesses almost completely off the table. While Barack Obama made remarkable electoral gains in rural America in 2008 by promising to fight corporate agribusiness and prioritize rural development, he quickly lost that support by failing to follow through on his promises. If he fails to break this cycle of broken promises, Biden risks permanently burning what bridges remain between his party and rural America.
On the other hand, if Biden properly harnesses the executive branch to challenge concentrated corporate power and prioritize public-sector investments in rural communities, he could make a meaningful difference in the daily lives of millions of rural Americans. As my colleagues have written before, governance that focuses on people’s “kitchen-table” needs and interests — from healthcare to food assistance to fair competition — can be much more effective in reaching voters than governance focused on issues that largely matter only to elites (think the Trump-Russia scandal). Executing the provisions laid out in his Build Back Better Plan for Rural America — from strengthening rural hospitals to expanding capital to rural small businesses — through USDA’s Rural Development division will help Biden build back trust among communities who have felt left behind by Washington since the Clinton years.
Here again, as with all things in government, personnel is policy: the enormous opportunity to rebuild trust and restore the economic promise of rural America through USDA’s Rural Development Division can only be realized if Biden fills executive branch vacancies quickly and with qualified, public interest-oriented staff. With the rural state-heavy midterms and a potential 2024 rematch with Trump on the horizon, it is in the president’s interest to do so as soon as possible.
Special thanks to Caius Z. Willingham for their help with this article.
IMAGE: “Polk County Steak Fry” by Joe Biden for President, Flickr