From 2006 to 2010, I had the honor of representing a large, 16-county Appalachian district in Southeastern Ohio where, as a Blue Dog Democrat, I won my first two elections by healthy double-digit margins. But by 2010, the political posture of my constituency had drastically changed, and I lost by more than 10 percentage points.
That political swing in my district was mirrored around the country. Rural voters turned away en masse from the Democratic Party. A dozen years later, the political fortunes of rural Democrats have only worsened.
It’s not hard to see why. At the end of the day, many rural Americans have felt left behind in a fast-changing world. Climate change is real, but rural Americans are being asked to make outsize sacrifices in our drive to address global warming, especially given the role that coal played in powering our national growth for a century. When coal mines or fossil-fueled power plants shut down, it is typically the small, rural community that suffers the most.
Today, a mine closure in rural southern Ohio does not even register in Columbus or Cleveland, let alone Washington. But to the community that for generations has relied on that mine for its livelihood, the loss is devastating.
Meanwhile, advances in digital technology offer significant promise for generating new income streams, and they have fundamentally changed how we work, educate our children and access health care. Yet a quarter of rural Americans still have no access to broadband, cutting them off from these opportunities and putting them at a significant disadvantage to their metropolitan counterparts.
The sense of abandonment engendered by these trends has manifested itself politically. As we approach the midterms, and look to the more distant horizon of 2024, there is no greater imperative for Democrats in Washington than to bridge this divide, and to drive policy that benefits rural Americans, not leaves them out.
The best place to start is by taking a close look at federal resources currently dedicated to rural and tribal regions: There are more than 400 programs open for rural community and economic development across the federal bureaucracy, which are overseen by no less than 14 committees in Congress.
The infrastructure and reconciliation packages would provide billions more for broadband deployment, infrastructure improvement and economic development incentives.
But there’s a catch: Most rural communities lack the capacity to access these funds.
That is the problem rural advocates in the House and Senate aimed to fix by including the Rural Partnership Program in the reconciliation package. This money would help communities build their own capacity to address their specific needs, allowing local people to carry out local solutions and keeping President Joe Biden’s promise to rebuild rural America. Big federal investments are worthless to rural communities without the personnel, resources or expertise to identify, apply, and put them to good use.
Now, as lawmakers look to trim the reconciliation package and get it passed before the end of the year, they must keep their promises to rural America and fund the RPP.
The RPP would strengthen rural and native communities’ ability to plan for, seek out and implement economic and community development. The program would provide flexible, multiyear grants and technical support to communities, regional collaborations and organizations that serve areas of concentrated rural poverty, address historic inequities and act on climate change.
The RPP is a smart policy that recognizes that rural communities rarely have the means and resources to apply for funding and implement programs that address and meet their specific needs. Without it, those well-intended programs cannot meet their full potential and many rural communities, like those I represented in Congress and still live in today, will continue to be left behind.
The RPP is an important first step in bridging the urban-rural divide, and it must be included in the final reconciliation package.
Providing rural communities with the tools and capacity will mean new jobs in burgeoning sectors that can help to address climate change, provide sustainable sources of healthy food and keep families together in the places they call home. Without the RPP, rural and tribal areas will continue to leave Democrats behind, only serving to widen the gap between the party and the communities it so badly wants to represent.
Zack Space is a former Blue Dog Democratic member of Congress from Appalachian Ohio; he now runs an Appalachia-focused consulting firm, Sunday Creek Horizons, and is a board member of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership.
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