© Sergio Flores, Bloomberg
Rural America voted heavily for Donald Trump in the presidential election. Now, a group of congressional Democrats say they have a better solution for what ails the vast stretches of the country outside the cities and suburbs.
Among other things, they oppose President Trump’s plan to use public-private partnerships to carry out $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over a decade.
“Wall Street investors and private equity firms are going to put money, time and resources where they can make a big profit,” and that’s not the countryside, Senator Martin Heinrich, the top Democrat on Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, wrote in remarks prepared for the release of a report called Understanding Economic Challenges in Rural America.
The investors who finance public-private partnerships “are not going into Lordsburg or Anthony,” the senator for New Mexico said, according to his prepared remarks. He complained that Trump’s budget would cut water infrastructure projects for communities of 10,000 or fewer, U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that support small businesses in rural areas, and “even PILT funding.” PILT, short for payment in lieu of taxes, is money the federal government gives local governments to compensate for the fact that federal property within their borders isn’t taxable.
“Declining population, limited employment opportunities, and lack of public investment pose significant challenges to the economic vitality of rural communities,” according to the report, which was written by the minority staff of the joint House-Senate committee. It calls for conventional, government-financed investment in rural infrastructure along with spending on internet connectivity, workforce development, and grant-application-writing skills.
Population growth in rural areas, which exceeded the national average in the 1970s, has fallen below average, the report says. Rural population has actually shrunk slightly since about 2011, according to a chart in the report that cites the USDA. Employment fell about as sharply in the countryside as in metro areas in the last recession but has recovered far more slowly. Wage growth and educational attainment have also lagged. Only a little more than 20 percent of adults 25 and over have bachelor’s degrees in non-metro areas, compared to more than 35 percent in metro areas.
Politics aside, the picture is clear: Rural America is hurting.