Monday, January 17, 2011

The Recovery Act and rural California

At least with regard to unemployment, the sour economy does not seem to have affected rural communities differently from urban ones. Rural and urban areas certainly vary from state to state, but rural and urban unemployment rates offer a similar – albeit bleak – picture of economic health across the United States as a whole. California fits nicely into this generalization. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, the unemployment rate for rural California stood at 12.5%, slightly higher than the urban rate of 11.4%.

This data does not contradict the image of recession ravaging our urban centers, but it does augment the picture. If unemployment is at least as bad in rural communities as it is in urban ones, then we must consider Oakdale as well as Oakland. People are out of work everywhere, and the need for recovery therefore extends well beyond the limits of our major cities.

That being the case, I was interested to see how rural areas are being treated under a centerpiece of the federal government’s recession legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Recovery Act). Passed nearly two years ago, this bill’s stated purposes are to save existing jobs, create new jobs, and spur economic development in both the near and long terms. These are broad goals, and an overview of the Recovery Act’s rural impacts would accordingly be far too extensive for a blog post. I therefore offer merely a snapshot by examining Recovery Act funds spent in rural California last year through USDA Rural Development.

A great deal of Recovery Act funds went to basic municipal services like police, fire, schools, and libraries. Bishop received a $38,250 grant to help purchase “a four-wheel drive police vehicle, K-9 Officer and related equipment.” The Woodlake Fire Protection District in Tulare County received a $120,000 loan and a $50,000 grant to obtain a new fire truck. Covelo received $100,000 for computers, furniture and other essential equipment as part of a major library renovation. Kern and Mendocino Counties each received grants to buy bookmobiles. Complete with broadband-equipped computers, these vehicles are designed largely to increase rural access to the internet.

Among municipal services, though, water attracted special attention. Between February and October 2010, the California office of USDA Rural Development distributed $11,707,850 in Recovery Act loans and grants related to obtaining, treating, and delivering water in rural communities. This accounted for more than one-third of the total $30,945,240 in Recovery Act funds granted or loaned by that office during that time period.

However these federal funds affect the specific problem of rural unemployment, they should assist in creating “stronger, more vibrant rural communities” by increasing quality of life. Hopefully they will realize the Recovery Act’s goal of job growth for the targeted communities, but they are at least a move in the right direction toward safer, healthier, better educated rural populations.

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