Biden’s rural challenge: turning flood of aid into results on the ground
CLARKSDALE, MISS. — President Joe Biden and Democrats have pushed through billions of dollars in new funding for rural development to help small communities build everything from hospitals to broadband networks.
Now they’re running up against a federal bureaucracy that makes it almost impossible for local leaders in the smallest, poorest areas to figure out how to get the money.
Biden and Cabinet officials have been on a “rural infrastructure tour” this spring to encourage small communities to apply for the funds. Now the White House is asking the Agriculture Department to help ensure the poorest and most underserved areas get their share. But all that outreach obscures the reality that it will be months, or even years, before the vast majority of projects are completed.
The timeline means Democrats, already facing political headwinds in rural areas, aren’t likely to see much benefit from their spending push ahead of the November midterm elections as they struggle to hold onto their congressional majorities. Still, Biden administration officials are working to gain a bit of credit while helping simplify a Byzantine system.
“We were in the community earlier today of 130 people,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview last month as he toured the Delta region of Mississippi. “The mayor had zero full-time employees. There is no way that community could ever qualify or ever know how to qualify. Those are the communities we need to help.”
The Agriculture Department oversees the largest set of programs focused on rural communities — roughly 40 — but there are more than 400 programs operating across the federal government. In 2022, the USDA rural development budget received a boost of $8 billion dollars, a 19 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. And USDA’s rural development loan portfolio reached $240 billion in 2021, the highest in over a decade. Through the bipartisan infrastructure law and American Rescue Plan, the administration’s first Covid-19 rescue package, Congress directed billions more for rural broadband, rental assistance, hospitals and other projects operated by the USDA, and an alphabet soup of other federal Cabinet departments and agencies.
The wide swath of programs and the influx of money from Congress is intensifying long-standing concerns about how well federal money to help rural communities is getting to its intended recipients. In response, the White House has tasked the Agriculture Department with coordinating a pilot program, the Rural Partners Network, to help ensure the funding reaches the poorest and most underserved communities in the country. It is launching in five states and with three Native American tribes this spring to start, with plans to expand to another five, as well as Native Alaskan communities, in August.
“We’re sitting in Washington going, ‘We’ve got this American Rescue Plan money, we’ve got this bipartisan infrastructure money and it’s no good unless it’s getting to the people who need it most.’ And we have been very focused on ensuring that as these resources are made available, and they’re not just going to the same old people, the same old places,” said White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, who accompanied Vilsack to Mississippi, one of the states participating in the pilot program. “You know, in Black and brown and rural white areas, that just haven’t had what they needed.”
Rice and Vilsack visited the Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale, Miss. and the Greenwood Leflore Hospital in Greenwood, Miss., while hearing from local mayors, hospital leaders and educators about the challenges they face navigating federal loans, grants and programs — especially in the Delta region.
Quentin Whitwell, a hospital administrator, told the administration officials that they are banking on federal funding to expand medical services in counties that currently do not have hospitals.
“I know how to build a path to better health care, but it takes time and it does take capital and we don’t have that capital coming in just from community banks. We need it at the federal level,” Whitwell said.
Corey Wiggins, federal co-chair of the Delta Regional Authority, met with Vilsack during the roundtables and told POLITICO in an interview afterward that in some communities mayors and local leaders are part-time or even volunteer — limiting the time, knowledge and ability to sift through the hundreds of federal programs that could fund projects.
“We have a lot of communities’ mayors that are not full time,” Wiggins said. “Maybe they’re a mayor, but they may also work as a school bus driver or doing something else that actually provides support for their families.”
“Most people find it surprising to know that the Department of Agriculture can help fund the brick and mortar of a school,” Vilsack told one group in Mississippi. “We can lend you the money or grant money to create a mental health facility.”
Over the next four months, the department aims to hire two to five rural development staff members for the pilot in the selected communities in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico, as well as the San Carlos Apache Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation and Cocopah Indian Tribe in Arizona. They will work out of the designated communities, in coordination with “rural desk” staff based in D.C., who will be placed in 17 various federal agencies to serve as liaisons as they try to find the best federal program for each community’s needs. In August, the pilot will expand to parts of Nevada, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Native Alaskan communities.
The goal, according to Vilsack, is “to make sure that we are providing the technical assistance to provide communities the ability to qualify for grants.”
Unlike past rural outreach efforts launched by the Agriculture Department, like the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative conducted by the Obama administration, officials didn’t pick the communities in the Rural Partners Network solely on the basis of their persistent poverty levels. Administration officials used the Social Vulnerability Index, which measures the relative social vulnerability of every census tract in the country based on a number of factors, such as poverty, crowded housing and access to transportation following a natural disaster, in combination with the Distressed Communities Index, which measures community well-being at the ZIP code level.
And perhaps the big difference from past attempts: Rural Partners Network staff will work within multiple agencies, not just USDA.
But it may take years before the pilot communities see tangible results. The Agriculture Department faces deep staffing shortages, and adding new hires will be a lengthy process. Rural Development staffing, specifically, has decreased by a third over the last decade, while their portfolio of responsibilities has increased by 80 percent, according to Justin Maxson, deputy undersecretary for rural development. In addition, 47 percent of Rural Development staff are eligible to retire.
The Biden administration has requested more money in its latest budget request to address staffing shortages, including funding to hire 450 rural development employees. But a congressional spending agreement is unlikely to come before the November midterms. And at that point, Republicans are likely to have reclaimed at least one chamber of Congress, giving them the upper hand in future negotiations.
The election results could also jeopardize the future of the Rural Partners Network program, which Congress seeded with $5 million included in the spending bill it passed in March. The Agriculture Department has requested $39 million for the coming fiscal year to implement the pilot in other states.
But Republicans in recent years have been eager to cut, not boost, federal rural development programs. In former President Donald Trump’s 2018 funding proposal, he pitched getting rid of certain rural development programs, including the Rural Business-Cooperative Service and wastewater and housing grants, as POLITICO reported, because the programs were deemed as redundant since other federal agencies and the private sector have similar ones. He proposed cuts once again in 2018 and issued a 12 percent reduction proposal in 2019.
Congress declined to make such deep cuts, but it also did not boost rural development funding significantly — until Democrats took control of the White House and Congress in 2021.
Most election observers, however, remain doubtful rural voters will reward them. Democrats are projected to lose badly in swing states and districts, as well as in the few red states where they still hold congressional seats, endangering their control of both the House and Senate.
“Democratic policies have always been pretty popular among rural voters. It’s just rural voters don’t like Democrats,” said Matt Hildreth, executive director of Rural Organizing, a progressive rural organizing firm.
“Most voters actually don’t know what rural development is. Oftentimes, they think rural development means urbanizing a small town,” Hildreth added. “Politicians and elected officials have done a really, really bad job over the last 40, 50 years talking about what is happening at USDA and what’s happening to rural development.”