President Donald J. Trump announced earlier this year his intention to weaken and eliminate funding for rural development at USDA as part of a larger ‘re-organization.’
This isn’t selling well with many in rural America.
The National Farmers Union and the Ohio Farmers have joined joined a coalition of 578 farm and rural organizations, businesses and local governments in sending a letter to Congress pushing back on the administration’s recent budget proposal and proposed reorganization for USDA. The groups urge lawmakers to reject both proposals, as they would eliminate Rural Development as an essential Mission Area of USDA and cut Rural Development funding and staffing by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.
Let’s start with what USDA Rural Development programs mean to Ohio.
The Avita Health System facility in Ontario, Ohio, just west of Mansfield in Richland County recently opened. It brought 350 jobs to the area and according to USDA, Avita Ontario will serve the health care needs of around 125,000 north-central Ohioans.
It would not have happened without USDA Rural Development.
Avita Ontario got $91 million in Community Facilities loan funding to repurpose nearly 200,000 square feet of abandoned retail space. Inpatient hospital services, an emergency department and labs are among the features at Avita Ontario.
Rural Development dollars in Ohio for FY 2016 included (among others):
- $53.6 million in rural electrification loans or guarantees
- Nearly $500 million in single-family housing lending in rural areas
- $44.5 million in waste and water district lending in rural areas
“The administration’s proposals do not sit well with family farmers and rural residents who benefit tremendously from the work of USDA Rural Development,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “While we appreciate Secretary’s Perdue’s heightened interest in rural economic development, President Trump’s proposed budget does not align with this interest. In fact, the budget proposal and proposed USDA reorganization bring the long-term viability of USDA RD into question.”
The coalition letter noted that for more than 50 years, USDA rural development programs have improved housing, utilities and community facilities, and economic opportunity for rural America. In fiscal year 2016 alone, USDA made available more than $29 billion in loans, guarantees, grants, and related assistance to over 157,000 individuals, businesses, non-profit corporations, cooperatives, and governments.
Yet there is still much work to be done in rural America, the coalition argued.
According an analysis of socio-economic well-being prepared by the Wall Street Journal, rural counties in America are in worse condition than big cities, suburbs and small or medium metro areas. Rural communities, and the people who live in them, have higher poverty and unemployment rates as well as a higher incidence of substandard housing and rent overburden when compared to metropolitan areas.
Despite this information, the Trump Administration proposed:
- Eliminating funding for two dozen housing and rural development programs.
- Rescinding USDA’s responsibility to provide direct rural housing loans, grants for mutual and self-help housing, financing for water and waste disposal systems, or loans and grants to small rural businesses, cooperatives, and value added producers.
- Reducing funding for many other programs under Rural Development well below their current rate.
“What will be left is a hollowed-out Rural Development function, degraded within the Department with far fewer resources to help rural America,” the coalition noted. “We urge the (Appropriations) Committee to reject the Administration’s FY 18 budget and reorganization proposals for Rural Development and instead provide appropriations at no less than the current rate and maintain the Rural Development mission area and position of Under Secretary for Rural Development.”
NFU’s Johnson has also filed public comments with USDA on the matter.
“The future success of family farms is inherently tied to economic well-being and quality of life in the communities in which farmers and ranchers live and raise their families,” wrote Johnson.
“Rural Development’s $216 billion portfolio provides rural Americans with access to efficient transportation infrastructure, high-speed broadband, affordable housing and water, quality schools and essential services,” he continued. “Providing these critical resources requires the highest caliber of leadership and accountability. NFU urges the Administration to reconsider its proposal and maintain the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary.”
Johnson also addressed the false notion that USDA had to eliminate a current Under Secretary in order to create the new Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs. This action would significantly offset the positive effects of creating the new post in the first place.
“The success of production agriculture is also inherently tied to the success of rural economic development and quality of life in rural communities,” he said. “Rural America should not have to choose between production agriculture and critical economic development investments.”