In May, new Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a reorganization of the USDA that would eliminate the Rural Development Mission Area, dealing a huge blow to rural communities across the country. The Administration attempted to sell the reorganization as an elevation of rural development priorities by saying they would create a new position—Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development—that would oversee rural development priorities and would have “walk-in privileges” with the Secretary. This new position would replace the Under Secretary of Rural Development, two deputy undersecretaries, and administrators of the Rural Business Service, Rural Housing Service, and Rural Utilities Service.
Rural residents, leaders, and advocates around the country immediately expressed outrage about the proposed reorganization. A sign-on letter spearheaded by the National Rural Housing Coalition garnered nearly 600 signatures, including IATP, opposing the changes. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., wrote to Perdue last week stating that they have both “received many communications from stakeholders, interest groups and concerned citizens asking that we oppose the elimination of the Rural Development undersecretary,” and that they “have not received one statement in support.”
The Department of Agriculture opened a public comment period on the reorganization soon after the announcement, allowing stakeholders to weigh in on whether it would improve “customer service.” The public comment period closed on June 14, but on June 12, two days before the public comment period closed, Perdue named Anne Hazlett to fill the newly-created Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development position. Moving forward with this hire sends a troubling signal that USDA does not intend to take the comments submitted during the public comment period into consideration.
What’s at stake for rural communities?
In IATP’s comment opposing the elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, we pointed out the challenges already facing Rural America. Nearly 85 percent of America’s persistent poverty counties are in rural areas, and rural childhood poverty rates are at their highest point since 1986. USDA Rural Development programs support rural communities by making investments in housing, renewable energy, essential community facilities, high-speed broadband, water systems, electric lines, small businesses, and more. The high levels of outmigration and poverty that rural communities are currently experiencing mean USDA Rural Development’s attention and investments are needed now more than ever.
IATP will continue to oppose the USDA reorganization, and will work to promote adequate funding and support for rural communities at the federal level through the 2018 appropriations process and 2018 Farm Bill. Furthermore, we will continue our work on bottom-up solutions for rural resilience by promoting deep listening and civic engagement in rural communities to create solutions that work for the people who call rural America home.