It’s Time To Talk About Rural America On The National Debate Stage

Photo by Julie Fleming

Guest op-ed from Patty Judge, chair of Focus on Rural America

Iowans take our role in the presidential process very seriously.

Much like combining corn at midnight to get the crop in before rainfall, we make time when it’s important. When hit from spring to fall with heavy floods then early snow, feeding and fueling the world might mean working a 20-hour day.

When a possible president of the United States visits our grain elevator or rotary club, we show up no matter what.  

With the past year rural America has experienced – extreme weather, trade ups and downs, and handouts for big oil — it’s no surprise rural voters are paying special attention.

Rural communities voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but they also voted for President Obama. Focus on Rural America met with these voters and in focus groups learned that, while offensive to them, Trump represented an alternative to the status quo. He promised to drain the swamp, fix health care, create jobs, and build roads. While late to commit to him and often hesitant, they voted for change.

Nearly 20% of Americans live in rural communities and today they are feeling the sting of Trump’s broken promises. His policies are hurting us, rippling through rural economies as ag income declines and manufacturers like John Deere and ethanol plants lay off workers. At a time of national wealth and income growth, USDA economic reports show Trump’s polices are devastating rural communities

Of all the promises Trump made, he kept the very worst — the undoing of clean air and water standards and exiting global initiatives on climate change. Rural America is where our food is grown and where carbon can be sequestered. We must be a part of the conversations on soil preservation, water quality improvement, and climate change. 

Rural Americans are fighting to hold on, but community anchors continue to fade away.

Across the U.S., 161 rural hospitals have closed in the last 10 years, including eight in Georgia, five in Minnesota, and 11 in North Carolina. Until our nation figures out how invest in rural economies to attract and keep health care providers, our communities will suffer. The same goes for retaining teachers and job makers.

That’s not going to happen if we can’t talk about it on a national stage, and so far, the presidential debates have failed to serve rural communities and give the candidates credit for the work they are doing.   

First, the candidates are showing up. Not only do they understand the need to revitalize rural America, they understand the math. Winning this election isn’t about urban or rural. The candidates need all of us to win; they need to go everywhere. 

Democrats have visited small and rural towns en masse and they have made a sincere effort to hear rural voters. They aren’t faking how to drive a tractor or milk a cow. Those old photo-op days are over. They’re having real and difficult conversations about highspeed internet and how to include farmers in the fight against climate change.

Never before have we seen such attention from Democrats in rural communities, but you wouldn’t know it from the debates televised for the nation to see. 

As our candidates focus intently on rural communities, where are the debate questions on their rural plans? We hear so much about Medicare for all versus Medicare for some, but what does that matter if you can’t access care? 

Fourteen candidates visited ethanol plants in Iowa and saw firsthand the economic benefits. Fifteen have crafted rural plans they would tackle if elected. These candidates have newfound perspective on America’s Heartland and the problems we face.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was the first to take the lessons to D.C. After leaving the presidential campaign trail, she introduced the Rebuild Rural America Act to provide federal funding to projects in rural communities, much needed capital in towns full of entrepreneurs and big thinkers, but fewer options for financing. 

The rural plans range in size and scope, but one thing is consistent – a commitment to evaluate the issues and partner with rural residents who have felt politicians turn their backs on them. For years they have been told high-speed internet would be addressed, that hospital access would improve, and 21st-century jobs would come to town.

Yet, after each election we hear little about these critical issues. This time it must be different if rural America is to survive.

We have an opportunity at Wednesday’s debate. Please ask the candidates what they believe they can do for rural communities that have suffered economic despair and population shifts for decades. Rural communities present major opportunities to invest in America, grow the economy, and fight climate change.

I urge the moderators and candidates to address the issues at stake across rural America. This is their chance, and it is our chance, too. 

 

By Patty Judge, chair of Focus on Rural America; former lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture
Posted 11/19/19

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