Saturday, August 13, 2011

White House Releases Report: "Jobs And Economic Security for Rural America"

New Report from White House Rural Council provides five focus points for action, will drive President's decisions on jobs and economy in America's heartland...

President Obama's White House Rural Council, launched in April, on Friday released its first report, Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America. The 26-page document, which has no named author, cites studies from 1992-2010, and lays out all the policies and funding the Administration has offered to support citizens living in rural America, as well as a five-point action plan for the future. The release of the Report comes ahead of a three-day bus tour President Obama begins on Monday, when he will visit Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois for four town halls and one Rural Economic Forum focused on jobs and the economy. (Above: Since he was a candidate for president, Mr. Obama has been wooing the rural vote)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack,
chair of the Rural Council, will travel with the President on his tour. During a conference call with reporters, Vilsack said that President Obama will make announcements involving credit, investment and renewable fuels that will have implications nationwide. Vilsack declined to provide details, however. The bus tour, and the Report, have noting to do with the President wooing the rural vote for the 2012 election, White House officials said on Friday.

Download the Report here; PDF.

“This report on ‘Jobs and Economic Security in Rural America’ underscores the commitment my administration is making to rural communities,” President Obama wrote in a letter accompanying the Report. “It highlights some of the many programs and policies my administration has implemented in rural America to support economic growth. It also offers a look at the economic agenda we will continue to pursue during my presidency.”

Agriculture is flourishing, but other rural sectors are flailing: 5 Action Areas

The White House Rural Council includes the President's Cabinet Secretaries and top officials from every agency, and the Report comes as the Administration is struggling with how to hone its many definitions for what constitutes "rural." The report notes that "the vitality of rural America is critical to ensuring the strength of our economy, the affordability of our food, the independence of our energy supply, and the vibrancy of small communities." It shows that rural America is highly productive in agriculture, but struggling to diversify in manufacturing and other segments, and has an aging and fleeing population.

50 million Americans, about 17 percent of the US population, live in rural areas, and the agricultural sector alone supports 1.8 million American jobs and represents 5% of exports, according to the Report. "USDA studies show that every billion dollars in agricultural exports supports over 8,000 jobs and generates an additional $1.4 billion in economic activity," the Report notes. The President has set a goal of doubling the amount of American goods the US sells abroad by 2014, and the Report notes that "the President recognizes the importance of agricultural exports for the health of our economy."

Still, the President's many efforts to get various trade deals approved by Congress to boost US chances for a flourishing Ag export economy have stalled.

While agriculture is doing well, citizens are hampered by lower personal incomes, and many farmers hold jobs off the farm. Rural citizens make about $11,000 less annually than their urban counterparts--and have lower education levels. The Report focuses on five areas for action: Creating jobs and promoting economic growth; improving access to quality health care and education; fostering innovation; expanding outdoor opportunities for economic development, such as tourism; and supporting veterans and military families.

"Moving forward, the information included in the report on the specific needs as well as unique opportunities found within rural America, will guide the Rural Council as we work to drive job growth and tackle some of the toughest challenges facing our rural communities," Vilsack said.

The Report focuses on issues that rural leaders have told the Administration need to be addressed, such as providing infrastructure and other services necessary to keep the next generation of rural Americans from evacuating (water, sewer, roads, electricity). Infrastructure includes bringing high-speed Internet service into the heartland (McDonald's offers free high speed internet in every location it operates in rural America, which makes the lack of such technology even more glaring in rural areas that have not been colonized by the burger corporation).

Alternative fuel businesses are good for the rural economy, the Report says, as is encouraging manufacturers to locate in the heartland.

Veterans get a special focus in the Report: "Although rural residents account for 17% of the population, they make up 44% of the men and women who serve in uniform...approximately 6.1 million veterans currently live in rural communities," the Report notes, adding that the unemployment rate as of July 2011 among post-September 11 veterans is 12.4%, much higher than the national unemployment rate of 9.1-2%. First Lady Obama's Joining Forces campaign to support military families is mentioned in the Report as part of the Administration's efforts for veterans. Mrs. Obama penned an essay for Friday's edition of U.S. News Weekly, calling for employers to hire vets.

The Report does not mention the many regulatory issues that have been a source of frustration for the Obama Administration and their rural constituents. Farmers and ranchers have faced all kinds of regulations they deem burdensome, such as the Animal Id program from USDA, which requires that livestock transported across state lines be identified with ear tags, tattos, or brands (the rule is open for public comment before being finalized).

A new rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation, proposes that all farm vehicles and motorized equipment be reclassified as Commercial Motor Vehicles, and ID'd as such. This means that anyone driving a tractor or operating motorized farming equipment must have a commercial drivers license, which requires passing the same tests and completing the same detailed forms and logs required from commercial semi-tractor trailer drivers. Critics have called the plan absurd, intrusive, and economically untenable.

There's also no mention in the Report of the Administration's decisions to deregulate the planting of various GMO crops, such as alfalfa, something that smaller and organic farmers have vociferously protested. One group is currently suing the government over the alfalfa regulations.

The Report also does not mention the now-constant GOP criticism that the Environmental Protection Agency is promoting expensive regulatory requirements, such as dust management and pesticide rules, that make farming economically unsustainable. The GOP-led House Agriculture Committee has, in recent months, put out a weekly statement denouncing EPA (or at least it seems weekly; the edicts are frequent and excoriating).

Vilsack told reporters that he and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson are trying to provide “greater regulatory certainty” to farmers through the use of USDA conservation programs to deal with regulatory issues such as the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, rather than the issuance of regulations to achieve similar goals.

"While our economy is growing again, the pace of recovery is still not fast enough. The bottom line is we need to do more to create jobs," President Obama said in his letter. "The journey ahead will not always be easy, but there is no doubt that the inherent strengths of rural communities remain strong."

Report, and bus tour, have nothing to do with 2012 election, White House says...

The Administration is now pushing its rural agenda, and President Obama will be meeting with farmers and ranchers, small business owners, agriculture organizations, and local government officials during his bus tour, as well as with the voting citizenry. But White House spokesmen have repeatedly said the tour has nothing to do with the 2012 election. Dan Pfeiffer, speaking on the conference call for the Report, pushed back against the idea. Spokesman Josh Earnest earlier on Friday also said the President's bus tour is not an effort to garner the 2012 vote, despite the fact that the President is visiting Iowa hard on the heels of a week of GOP candidates campaigning there.

"The President views it as one of the chief responsibilities in office to spend some time outside Washington, D.C., talking to people all across the country about the economy and about how they’re impacted by the policy decisions that he’s making here in Washington, D.C.," Earnest said.

The White House press release for the Report listed many of the events Cabinet Secretaries and Senior officials who have or will engage with rural communities in the coming weeks to bring the President's economic message into the heartland.

*AP photo

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