Monday, February 28, 2011

You can take the rural out of the farm, but...

Despite the fact that studies have all conclusively proved that only a very small minority of rural people are involved in agriculture or farming (7%, according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation), it appears that not only do non-rural people still equate the rural with agriculture, but the United States government still structures itself so that "rural" is equated with "farm" as well. Although not surprising, the so-called Department of Rural Development is located as a subsidiary of the US Department of Agriculture.

What are its goals, you may ask? According to its website, the DRD is dedicated to "helping improve the economy and quality of life in rural America."

Our financial programs support such essential public facilities and services as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities and electric and telephone service. We promote economic development by supporting loans to businesses through banks , credit unions and community-managed lending pools. We offer technical assistance and information to help agricultural producers and cooperatives get started and improve the effectiveness of their operations. We provide technical assistance to help communities undertake community empowerment programs.

The Department of Rural Development not only has a national secretary and under secretaries, but it also has a director appointed for almost every state in the union--thankfully, there is no director for the state of Rhode Island, which, I can assure you, is so densely populated that not a single inch of it could be classified as rural.

Perhaps the federal government does not want to waste money re-structuring its programs just because populations have shifted, or technology has enabled farming to become something that is less labor-intensive, but placing its Department of Rural Development squarely under the USDA, which monitors, among other things, the country's food and nutrition, seems like it might largely be ignoring the true needs for adequate social programming for rural families and children-- such as education, job opportunities, and access to holistic medical care.

Of course, I'm sure entire courses are taught in Political Science discussing the origins and functions of government bureaucracy, so the process of changing which Department administers the Rural Development Department may just be more work, time, and effort than would be deemed necessary or appropriate. However, it seems perfectly clear that the general publics' assumptions about rurality being overwhelmingly linked to agriculture may be reinforced by the federal government's continued insistence that the two go hand-in-hand.


Jon di Cristina said...

I wonder where Rural Development might find a better fit? Considering that there is an entire cabinet-level Department of Housing and *Urban* Development, perhaps USDA is simply considered historically the most logical department to focus on the rural counterpart. I agree that it would be unfortunate to focus too much on agricultural areas, but my understanding is that Rural Development has a broader mandate.

Sarah J said...

Maybe the answer would be to create an entirely new branch for the Department of Rural Development, so that it doesn't fall under the USDA at all. I am not extremely well versed in our government's intricate web of bureaucracy, but I imagine that there is a better place for the Department than under the USDA. While agriculture is hugely important to our country, I doubt that those working for the USDA have the time and resources to consider social-programming to the extent that is desperately needed in rural areas. It sounds to me like this restructuring is necessary if rural areas are to be afforded proper educational and economic development programs.