The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack: Rural Council, Congress should limit definitions of 'rural America'


KANSAS CITY — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today that he would ask the White House Rural Council to try to reduce the number of federal government definitions of rural America and also encouraged Congress to take up the issue since rural officials have complained they have a hard time figuring out what programs they qualify for.

After a participant in the Council on Foundations conference on rural philanthropy said that variations in qualifications for various rural development programs make it difficult for communities to participate, Vilsack said he would be glad to take the issue to the White House Rural Council, an Obama administration innovation composed of Cabinet officers and leaders of other federal agencies.

Vilsack jokingly asked the audience if they were bothered that USDA has 11 different definitions of rural America. The varying definitions, which depend on population and other characteristics, “provide a convenient excuse not to do something,” he said.

Vilsack noted that some programs say a rural community cannot be more than 50,000 people, while other programs are for populations of only 20,000 — and that if the population has three people above that number, the community cannot qualify.

The rural development division of USDA is engaged in a variety of programs to help rural America with everything from water and sewer to high-speed Internet service to energy development, but the rules for those programs vary.

Vilsack said he would gladly take the issue to President Barack Obama and the rural council, and insisted that the council’s activities are policy-oriented rather than an Obama re-election effort. The council was established, he said, after he had lengthy conversations with White House officials about the need to use the services of all federal agencies to help rural America, which has a per capita income $11,000 lower than urban areas.

Another attendee at the meeting noted that the definitions are often written by members of Congress who author the programs and want to make sure their districts get included. But Vilsack noted that since Congress has ended earmarks for projects in members’ districts, it should now be able to write programs without so many different definitions of eligibility.

He also told foundation officials that the Obama administration is trying to get around the definitions by using a regional approach to regional development.

The federal government has 16 agencies with 88 programs that have varying and contradictory definitions of rural America for eligibility purposes. The 2008 farm bill included several definitions.

On February 15, the House Agriculture Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture Subcommittee held a hearing on the definitions and their impact on rural development programs. At that hearing Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Ill., the subcommittee chairman, and other members grappled with the definitions, asked the Agriculture Department for more guidance on the issue, and said it would be addressed in the 2012 farm bill.

Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Cheryl Cook testified at that hearing that the definition of rural is "one of the most fundamental and vexing questions we face in USDA Rural Development."

Cook said that federal assistance from USDA "is essential to these communities" as they often don't have access to private capital markets. She said they also have limited access to assistance from other departments in the federal government or lack the population to support repayment of a bond to finance critical infrastructure.

Cook testified that the definition of rurality for eligibility purposes is most often defined in terms of population thresholds. As population grows and areas change the structure of their local government, they may become ineligible, she noted.

At the conference, foundation officials from around the country also grappled with defining rural America in broader terms, and to figure out the advantages and disadvantages in order to help rural areas improved their standard of living.

“Rural America has no definition that is agreed upon,” Robert Groves, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, told the group Monday as he explained that urban sprawl had changed the face of rural America in each decade between 1950 and 2010.

From a Census perspective, Groves said, a rural area is any place that is “absent any urban cluster of 2,500 people.” In a country as large and varied as the United States, characterizing “rural” is almost impossible, he added, but noted that three facts do stand out: rural places have twice as many gas stations per capita as metropolitan America, have about the same number of eating and drinking establishments, but have only half as many dentists'’offices.

The last decade, Groves said, was marked by population losses in the farm areas distant from cities and by Hispanic population growth. The recession has hit rural America hard, he said, adding that many of the small businesses in rural America have failed.

“Entrepreneurial activity is not a growth industry,” Groves said.

Mil Duncan, a sociologist who recently left the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire to become research director of AGree, has divided rural America into four types of communities:
  • Amenity rich communities such as those near lakes and mountains
  • Transition areas with amenities such as old paper mill towns
  • Declining resource areas without the amenities that attract outsiders
  • Chronically poor communities such as Indian reservations and southern and border communities.

AGree is a foundation-funded effort on the 2012 farm bill co-chaired by former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. One of the initiative's goals, Duncan said, is to shift the focus of the farm bill to local foods and job creation.