Chairman of the White House rural Council, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, gave rural advocates in Washington a long overdue reality check over the weekend in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal.
He had harsh words for the rural parts of the country when he said, "it's becoming less and less relevant."
But, he is exactly right that, "It's time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America ..." and that ... "it's time for a different thought process here."
The secretary’s disturbingly honest statements make a big point. They show what is at the heart of this generation's lack of leadership from inside the beltway: its technocratic stop-gaps, poor sense of scale, and inability to even define "rural" have lead rural America away from its affection for community — the family, the neighborhood, the church, the Friday night high school football game, and the civic association, instead favoring the impulse for centralized government which results in a lost sense of place and weak, unhealthy communities where all that flourishes is isolation, alienation, and a lack of interest in civic life or enrichment.
Vilsack's comments echo that of other groups set up by Congress and charged with evaluating the effectiveness of rural programs. In June, congressionally chartered groups MedPAC and the Institute of Medicine issued reports explaining that the differences between health care in rural America and cities are more subtle than in the past.
Rural voter turnout in the 2012 election dropped 18% in 2012, twice that of the nation on the whole. The Agriculture Department says about 50% of rural counties have lost population in the past four years and poverty rates are higher there than in metropolitan areas, despite the prospering agricultural economy. In the exit polling, two-thirds of this year's rural voters said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. How do policy makers and DC’s rural advocates (who earn lavish salaries from non-profits, some even propped up by government grants), reconcile that?
Farm bill subsidy programs supply landowners with billions of dollars regardless of whether they grow crops. Hospitals and health care providers are increasingly dependent on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, payments which will soon be crowded out by unsustainable entitlement programs that no tax increase could conceivably come close to covering. It is no surprise that after years of this technocracy and federal government power grabs that non-participation and quiescence in a demographically evolving rural America is now the norm; we must not place blame on the people living there.
Vilsack said in his comments "There's a huge communication gap between farmers and the food-eating public.” While that trend is more than obvious, as a rural millennial I would also agree with the secretary’s comments that rural Americans need to continue to embrace diversity because it is an issue important to young people who are leaving rural areas. The worst part of all of it is that young people’s "sense of place," regardless of where they live, is weaker than ever before.