Invest in People in Place

This guest post is the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition’s contribution to the Rural Assembly’s call for Big Ideas.

We have to do better.

“The employment rate in rural areas was 2.9 percent lower in mid-2016 than it was in early 2007, just before the Great Recession started. In contrast, the employment rate in metropolitan areas is 4.8 percent higher than its 2007 level, and businesses are adding jobs twice as fast in urban areas as they are in rural ones. The recovery from the Great Recession is dramatically different than recovery from past recessions - there has been no jobs recovery in most of rural America. . .

Image credit: Ashley Rood

Image credit: Ashley Rood

Rural vitality is critical to American progress, prosperity, and political stability. Our nation cannot achieve its economic or social ideals if the cultivation of opportunity is concentrated in urban areas. Rural America is both the home and the steward of abundant natural resources on which the American economy depends, and through which the American spirit is nourished.”
These ideas set the stage well. They are familiar, yet impactful, words from Nils Christoffersen, a leader within the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC).

RVCC’s vision is simple: healthy landscapes and vibrant rural communities throughout the American West. We have to do better to get us there. We need some Big Ideas. We need to invest in people in place.

To find these Big Ideas it’s important to remember, there is no one ideology that represents rural America. There isn’t a one-size fits all policy. There isn’t one big fix. Small, dispersed solutions can make a big impact. We need to not only scale up, but to find ways to scale out.

How do we catalyze the kind of rural communities we need? Invest in local jobs and training for community-based organizations. Community-based organizations play essential roles in designing solutions that cannot be filled by government agencies and businesses on their own. These organizations serve as the nodes of innovation, the liaison between decision-makers, and the heartbeat of the communities they represent. Without these groups and this core capacity, the rural places they serve will slowly fade away. The philanthropic community needs to invest in these community-based organizations. They in turn, must advocate for a clear platform of priorities that articulates a case for positive reinvestment in rural America.

Investing in local jobs and training for community based organizations is at the core of what RVCC promotes because we believe that community, economic and environmental health go hand in hand. Investment in the stewardship of our forests, watersheds and rangelands creates local jobs, while providing clean water and clean air for the Nation. We believe our places, our people, and our work matters.

As we pursue this big idea and others—we need to be prepared to spend some money and make some noise. We’ve got a short window where a lot of people are paying attention who normally wouldn't be.

We will do better.

To learn more about RVCC, and our strategy for rural community prosperity in the West, check out our most current transition memo for the new administration.

What if We Kept One Old "Big Idea" – Or What If We Dumped It?

This is a guest post from Joe Belden, a writer and consultant based in Washington, DC.

The Housing Act of 1949 created the USDA rural housing programs.  They may have been a medium-sized idea at the time but grew rapidly in the 1960s and 70s into a big idea – a major resource that has allowed over 2.6 million low-income rural families to become homeowners or live in decent and affordable rental units.  These programs have undergone major budget cuts in recent years but are worthy of rejuvenation and restoration.  Conservatives may like that most of the federal billions invested in these programs over the years are loans and get repaid to the federal government with interest.  

Today these programs are at a crossroads.  They have been cut very substantially since the early 1980s, and there is some interest in turning the programs into block grants or in moving them to HUD.  Instead what if we not only kept these efforts but rejuvenated them to robust funding levels?      

The biggest USDA housing effort is the Sec. 502 home mortgage loan program.  Since 1950 it has provided over $71.5 billion – all loans – to allow rural families to build or buy 2,152,757 modest homes.  All the borrowers are low-income and most of them would never have become homeowners without the Sec. 502 loans.  (A subset of this program is a self-help, sweat equity effort in which families receive a  Sec. 502 mortgage but also cooperatively build their own homes in a group effort, contributing 65% of the labor needed.  Conservatives should love this one.)  USDA itself is the bank here, making and servicing the loans (a really big idea that have may have less attraction to conservatives).  Sometimes called “a hand up, not a handout,” the program has allowed families to build equity, and it does not make predatory loans to unprepared borrowers.  Today about 7,000 new homes are being supported a year, but in the late 1970s this figure was over 100,000 homes a year. 

On the rental side, since 1963 the USDA Sec. 515 multifamily program has provided $15.8 billion in loans to sponsors who have built 533,473 low-income apartments in every state.  Today many of these units are in danger of being lost from the affordable housing stock.  In many rural places these small projects are some of the only rental housing in the community.  Today no new units are being built, but in the late 1970s over 30,000 apartments a year were financed.  

These are resources worth saving – and worth funding at more robust levels.   Another what if (one that is my speculation):  What if you cut back by 90 to 100% programs that improve the lives of low- and moderate-income rural people?  Their opportunities for homeownership or a decent, affordable apartment become much less.  Do many of those people turn sour and vote for a demagogue promising salvation?