Infrastructure in America is too often referred to as “aging,” “decaying,” and “failing.” In a recent letter to President Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called it a priority for both parties in Congress. Unfortunately, the letter had little to no mention of rural America.
We are pleased to see congressional leadership focusing on our country’s need for improved infrastructure and engaging President Trump in discussions on a path forward. However, no infrastructure plan can be complete unless it directly addresses the needs of rural communities. In order to truly serve one country, any infrastructure plan should include, at a minimum, investments to:
1. Prevent and mitigate flooding. The toll of recent flooding in the Midwest along the Missouri River has incurred at least $3 billion in damages to homes, businesses, and agriculture. Over half of that cost, $1.6 billion, is in Iowa alone. As affected rural counties begin to recover, we must recognize this isn’t a one-time occurrence, and any infrastructure plan that doesn’t include flood prevention policy will fail this region. We need Congress and the President to ensure any infrastructure package includes increased funding with rural set asides for flood prevention and watershed management programs. Such programs include those administered by the Army Corps of Engineers, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations Program, and FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Grant Program.
2. Rebuild rural schools. In June 2017, the Rural School and Community Trust estimated more than 8.9 million students attended rural public schools — constituting 18.7 percent of all students in the United States. Despite the scope of rural participation in the public school system, many schools are in dire need of capital improvements. In rural states such as Wisconsin, Indiana, and North Dakota, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated respective $836 million, $518 million, and $162 million gaps in school capital expenditures for 2017. The federal government has not done enough to support rural education. From 1994–2013, the federal government provided only 0.2 percent of funding spent nationwide for school construction. During future infrastructure discussions, lawmakers should examine expanding the scope of federal support for improving our rural schools.
3. Make sure rural hospitals can pass a physical. Rural medical facilities, in addition to facing staff and specialist shortages, are older and receive lower quality scores than hospitals in major metropolitan areas. A great number of rural hospitals were built in the post-world War II era with funding from the 1946 Hill-Burton Act, and have since fallen into disrepair or cannot accommodate modern health care equipment. Access to modern care cannot depend on your zip code. Federal leaders must invest infrastructure dollars to make sure all Americans have access to world-class medical facilities.
4. Enhance rural access to energy. Rural communities across the United States need reliable access to affordable energy to ensure public services and industry are able to thrive. In his Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) Budget, President Trump proposed eliminating funding for the Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program and the Rural Energy Savings Program. Additionally, he called for selling federal power marketing administration transmission assets, which have kept electric power prices affordable for more than 100 million people living in rural America. We need to double down on building 21st century electrical infrastructure that balances the need for affordable and renewable energy options — not cut programs rural Americans rely on.
5. Connect rural communities to the Internet. According to a March 2019 Congressional Research Service report, “as of 2017, 24 percent of Americans in rural areas lacked coverage” from broadband, “as compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas.” In his FY20 budget, President Trump chose to zero out funding for Rural Broadband Access Loans. The White House and congressional appropriators need to further invest infrastructure dollars in grants and loans to rural communities because high-speed internet is essential to close the growing opportunity gap in the American heartland.
Our current leadership is not doing enough to create opportunity for rural Americans. Under President Trump, we have seen a trade war with China that has caused drastic declines in agricultural and manufacturing exports and a tax reform law that has benefited corporate interest far more than family farmers. This has resulted in an estimated 13 percent drop in net farm income in 2018 and a forecast that it will fall again in 2019.
Our nation needs a comprehensive infrastructure package that directly focus on reversing these trends by rebuilding rural communities. President Trump and Democratic leadership should put their differences aside to move this initiative forward.