Glenn Morris, 83, harvests corn

Glenn Morris, 83, harvests corn on October 11, 2021 in Princeton, Indiana.

(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Progressive Groups Unveil 'Rural New Deal' to 'Reverse Decades of Economic Decline'

"Addressing the problems and concerns of rural America, isn't just the right thing to do, it is essential for the health of our nation," said the head of Progressive Democrats of America.

"A Rural New Deal is urgently needed to build and rebuild local economies across rural America, reverse 40 years of wealth and corporate concentration, restore degraded lands, reclaim land and ownership opportunities for those whose land was taken by force or deceit, and ensure that communities and the nation can and do meet the basic needs of its people."

That's the opening line of a report released Tuesday by Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) and the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative (RUBI), which recognizes that "for too long, we've neglected, dismissed and underinvested" in rural U.S. communities, and offers "a broad policy blueprint to help steer progressive priorities" in such regions.

"Addressing the problems and concerns of rural America, isn't just the right thing to do, it is essential for the health of our nation. Progressives have ignored rural for too long," said PDA executive director Alan Minsky in a statement. "The Rural New Deal will change that."

"Rebuilding and renewing supportive social and economic connections across rural and urban lines, empowering rural people and communities, moving away from extractive relationships of the past, is the course we must chart together."

The report provides principles to guide development and implementation of a Rural New Deal (RND), asserting that all policies must be worker-focused as well as "flexible, adaptable, and locally driven to the greatest degree possible," and should "encourage and invest in innovative, effective solutions."

The principles section stresses that "farmers and business people, nonprofit innovators, union and worker advocates, and community and political leaders must be part of the design of specific initiatives for their communities—rather than simply being recipients or implementors of top-down programs."

The section also highlights goals that should be woven into the 10 "pillars" of a Rural New Deal: reversing corporate concentration; focusing on real and durable wealth; addressing generations of racially based discrimination; restoring degraded landscapes to their full productive and ecological potential; and investing in the organizational infrastructure and local leaders that sustain rural programs.

The RND pillars—which each include up to eight recommendations for primarily federal action—are:

  • Rebuild farm, forest, and food economies;
  • Reward work and ensure livable wages;
  • Dismantle monopolies, empower and support local business;
  • Invest in community and regional infrastructure;
  • Rebuild small town centers;
  • Cultivate self-reliance and resilience;
  • Invest in rural healthcare;
  • Fully fund rural schools;
  • Make rural and small town housing affordable; and
  • Re-localize rural and small town banks.

Policy proposals include supporting regenerative farm, forest, and fishery businesses; adopting a federal jobs guarantee with a living wage and essential benefits; making broadband access universal; expanding Medicaid and Medicare access; incentivizing installation of solar technology on buildings and non-prime farmland, over parking lots, and in vacant spaces; and enacting reforms to rein in private equity's "unbridled power," such as eliminating the carried interest tax loophole.

"At the heart of a RND is the recognition that rural places are fundamentally different from urban and suburban areas, not only culturally and politically, but physically. They are 'rural' because they are expansive and land-based," the report emphasizes. "This does not mean that all efforts to rebuild rural economies and communities should revolve around farming or other land-based sectors. However, it does mean that land-based (also including rivers, lakes, and oceans) enterprises must still play a central role in rural development, even as internet access, virtual work, and the tech sector grow in importance."

While different, rural and urban communities are "deeply intertwined," with rural businesses often relying on urban markets and capital. Thus, the document adds, "rebuilding and renewing supportive social and economic connections across rural and urban lines, empowering rural people and communities, moving away from extractive relationships of the past, is the course we must chart together."

The RND report comes as a potential government shutdown looms and as far-right members of the U.S. House of Representatives open an impeachment inquiry into Democratic President Joe Biden, despite a lack of any proof of wrongdoing.

The politically divided Congress has passed few pieces of legislation this year, and the nation only narrowly avoided a catastrophic U.S. default because Biden struck a controversial deal with GOP economic hostage-takers to temporarily suspend the U.S. debt ceiling. As Common Dreams reported during that fight in May, Fix Our House released an analysis arguing that "Congress lacks the incentive structure necessary to responsibly handle crucial tasks like raising the debt limit."

While "gerrymandering is a huge problem," polarization is also an issue, as "rural voters are increasingly trending more to the right, and urban voters more to the left," the Fix Our House report says. Members of Congress elected in uncompetitive districts fear primaries, so they focus on their voting base and refrain from working with "the enemy."

RUBI director Anthony Flaccavento said Tuesday that "the extreme political divide in our country robs rural communities of the resources and opportunities they need, while making it nearly impossible to address the biggest problems we face as a nation."

"The Rural New Deal will help break that stalemate," he suggested, "because it is both comprehensive and bottom-up in its approach, focusing on strategies that we know from experience will work."

In a Newsweek op-ed, Flaccavento noted that "some will argue that we can't afford the investments proposed in the Rural New Deal, or that the federal government should not be 'picking winners' by supporting small businesses, clean energy providers, or family farmers. We don't buy it. The United States currently has 756 billionaires with an estimated collective net worth of $4.5 trillion. If we include U.S. millionaires, this tiny slice of our population holds over $190 trillion of wealth."

"The federal government has been picking winners for decades, and most of them are among that group," he declared. "It's long past due for our elected representatives to level the playing field between the rich and the rest of us and to support the long-term resilience that investment in rural people and places will help bring about."

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