Rural America: Left Behind Economically, and by our Politics
John Whitaker, Founding Member — Rural Forward
Rural Forward is a 501c4 issue advocacy organization formed in 2017 as it became apparent that progressives and Democrats need a renewed focus on bringing progressive solutions to rural America. You can sign-up for more information and communication at http://join.ruralforward.com.
It has been remarkable how quickly the “buzz” about rural voters and their electoral impact has faded.
Many Main Street advocates, myself included, predicted the super-majority of rural voters who carried Donald Trump to victory would prompt a policy spotlight that would shine brightly on small towns and rural spaces. After all, without rural voters there would be no President Trump.
Then, the incoming Administration waited until the day before the inauguration to announce an Agriculture Secretary-nominee. Earlier, a biofuels skeptic was nominated to run the EPA, which oversees the Renewable Fuel Standard.
And there was talk of a multi-front trade war, which prompted furrowed brows among farmers and ranchers. And rural hospitals questioned the fiscal impact of an Obamacare repeal without some reasonable replacement. And suddenly the rural voting bloc that reigned on Election Day was left scratching its head.
But things were no different in Des Moines. Iowa voters, including huge majorities of rural pollgoers, presented Republicans with keys to the Legislature to go along with GOP-controlled Terrace Hill.
In the early weeks of the Legislative session, majority Republicans have passed cuts to education that disproportionately affect rural district. They raided the state’s Cultural Trust Fund, whose grants are much more significant to rural arts groups than more well-to-do urban organizations. And they are now mulling the repeal of the existing Certificate of Need program, which prevents unnecessary duplication of medical services. That will disproportionately affect the 89 rural hospitals in the state who are often the largest employer in their communities.
Across rural Iowa, there are common challenges being raised in every county. There is a huge demand for workers, for housing, for high-speed broadband in areas not served by a rural telephone cooperative, for mental health services and more. They are big issues that will impact rural Iowa for years to come.
So there are steps Iowa lawmakers and the governor can take. But the solutions don’t have to come entirely from the State. Many federal programs impact the lives of rural Americans on a daily basis. The current hiring freeze, though, has a limiting effect on program delivery and the ability of rural communities to access critical resources.
Rural America single-handedly elected a president. Rural Iowa gave Governor Terry Branstad a Republican Senate and House. Rural voters went to the polls in November and tipped the balance of power.
They’re now wondering if anyone noticed.
John Whitaker is a founding supporter of Rural Forward and former State Representative in the Iowa House. John most recently served as State Director of the Farm Services Agency in Iowa. John farms in SE Iowa.