As Congress fiddles with major farm legislation, there’s a portion of it that gets very little attention. Some say it is a difference-maker for job creation in small rural communities,and provides a boost those towns need.
Staunton, Illinois mayor Craig Neuhaus is watching nine million dollars go down the drain… in a good way. He’s checking the details as workers put the community’s new water plant on line while pumps push the water through the treatment system. The five thousand residents of Staunton – who lost water for five days last year because of problem at the old plant -- will soon have the latest in water technology. But for this rural community about a half hour north of Saint Louis…the mayor hopes the water system upgrade helps bring business to town:
“These companies come in…first thing they are going to ask is what is your infrastructure. I mean if you don’t’ have sewer or water they don’t want to come.They don’t want to build out and put septic tanks to run this big business or company for the jobs”.
This talk of jobs ISN’T JUST A VAGUE HOPE. The new plant was made possible by a low interest 40 year loan funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program. The federal program -- an often overlooked part of the farm bill -- supports NON-farm projects that backers say are critical to the economic vitality of rural communities. That amounted to about $30 billion in mostly loan guarantees and grants in 2012.
The USDA’s Doug O’ Brien can tick off a list of success stories such as libraries that were built or rural health care programs expanded. A large chunk goes to housing loans. But infrastructure he says is the bread and butter of rural development:
“When you drive across rural America and you see that classic water tower..there’s a very good chance that USDA rural development was there to provide a grant loan mix so that basically we can get to a place that the water system can afford to sustain itself.”
O’ Brien is the USDA’s Acting Undersecretary for Rural Development. So he’s clearly an advocate for the government’s commitment to these programs.
--But not everyone’s a fan.
Critics say loan programs could be handled by the private sector and that Rural Development is a relic of the New Deal of the 1930s. And reports from the Government Accountability Office have raised questions about whether rural development programs duplicates work at other federal agencies such as the Department of commerce or small business administration. The libertarian Cato institute questions whether the money spent actually delivers promised jobs.
Congress has cut the program’s funding by a third in the last decade. And if that trend continues…:
“It’ll be an accelerated deterioration, I would say, of the rural quality of life”
Chris Merrett is director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs.He monitors the rural economy and efforts to revive it. He says this particular bit of funding may be small in the scheme of the farm bill, but it has a mighty impact.
“It’s the idea that the farm economy is more than just simply farms.. and that a healthy agricultural sector needs a healthy rural non-farm sector. It implies everything that people in the suburbs would take for granted”
He and others point out that there are fewer farm lawmakers in Congress making sure the money gets funneled to rural economic development. And with farm bill attention directed at the big money items like crop insurance and food stamp programs. it’s even hard for lawmakers on the Congressional ag committees to remember it.
So it’s not just the farm interests that will keep tabs on what congress is doing with Ag Spending…it’s also towns like Staunton, that face big challenges to their economies, and communities that hope the government can help them reduce or eliminate problems like going without water for a week. Bill Wheelhouse, Harvest Public Media.