Sen. John Boozman
The past few years have not been easy on rural America. Trade wars, record-high inflation, breakdowns in supply chains and extreme weather events have taken a toll on our rural communities.
But nothing tested the resiliency of America’s rural communities quite like the pandemic did.
Just ask any parent living in rural America about the challenge of schooling their children from home without internet access.
Or ask the administrators of rural hospitals, already struggling to keep their doors open, who continued to serve their community while navigating the unprecedented effects of the pandemic.
Even the supply chain issues we all faced hit rural America harder. It is difficult to find necessities when you only have one grocery store within a 20-mile radius.
These challenges make it harder to stop an exodus that was already underway. Americans had already been leaving rural communities in large numbers for employment opportunities and the modern services and conveniences bigger metropolitan areas offer.
I’ve seen this firsthand in Arkansas, where over half of our 75 counties lost population in the last census. This trend is playing nationwide, with 53% of counties across the country losing populations.
One reason our rural populations are in decline is that many of these communities simply do not have the infrastructure to provide a good quality of life for their residents to remain.
In the past, we would talk about infrastructure in terms of the three “r’s” roads, rails and runways. Those days are gone. It is simply not enough anymore. While the three “r’s” certainly are vital to a region’s growth, infrastructure plans for the 21st century must also incorporate broadband internet access and improvements to water systems.
In the 1930s, when high costs made electricity non-existent in rural America, Congress responded by passing the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. We need a similar sweeping approach to deploy broadband and other modern infrastructure in our rural communities now.
Rural Americans need access to quality high-speed broadband as quickly as possible. With more than a hundred federal broadband programs, it is critical that resources are targeted to the millions of households who are truly unserved through the development of accurate mapping data. The opportunity cost of leaving rural Americans behind in the digital divide without access to telehealth, online learning, e-commerce, precision agriculture and more, is simply too great to ignore.
Similarly, many rural communities lack safe and reliable drinking and wastewater services. The cost to build, maintain and operate these facilities are very high, and small communities have more difficulty affording them due to lack of population density and lack of economies of scale. When functioning drinking water and wastewater facilities are scarce, a community’s chances of attracting new private investment are slim.
Communities that lack modern infrastructure are at risk of losing hospitals, schools, businesses and, in turn, residents. Once those leave, the turn-back dollars—essential to growth—go with them, and they don’t come back easily. It is a vicious cycle.
This is why it is so important for Congress to pass a new farm bill. While discussions on the farm bill often focus on the agriculture safety net and nutrition programs, the rural development programs within the farm bill bring everything from modern and clean water systems to reliable broadband connections to our rural communities.
When it comes to rural infrastructure, the farm bill isn’t our only tool in the toolbox, but it is certainly a major one. By passing the farm bill, we can ensure the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development mission area can provide loans and grants that can essentially build a community from the ground up. The range of assistance USDA offers is vast—from funding for water, sanitation, electricity, and broadband infrastructure to loans for small businesses, financing for cooperatives and grants for community facilities.
These programs are the gateway for new businesses, new facilities, and importantly, new jobs to come to these regions that have been passed over for far too long. Our rural communities must have the modern infrastructure necessary to attract and retain talent. Farm bill-funded programs are key to that effort.
When one region of the country suffers, the whole nation does. We cannot leave rural America behind. Infrastructure investments across rural America will allow new businesses, with new well-paying jobs, to flourish around our family farms, ranches and forests that provide our food, fuel and fiber. We all win with a vibrant rural America. We can’t afford to find out what happens without it.
• U.S. Senator John Boozman, Arkansas Republican, is the Ranking Member on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. He is the state’s senior Senator and serves on Appropriations; Environment and Public Works; and Veterans’ Affairs Committees. A fifth-generation Arkansan, he is a consistent champion for the state’s farmers, ranchers, and loggers and was instrumental in the fight for an equitable farm bill.
To read the column in The Washington Times click here.