Opinion by Tom Vilsack
The White House Rural Council: Partnering in Support of Rural America
By Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary
Rural America faces tremendous uncertainty today. Congress has not yet passed a Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, and the current extension of 2008 Farm Bill programs will soon expire. Additionally, thus far, no budget has been provided by Congress to continue funding the Federal government past Sept. 30.
Amid this uncertainty, USDA remains focused on our mission and on our work to revitalize the rural economy. We have delivered record investments under President Obama’s leadership, and we will continue working to do so. In a time of reduced resources, we’ve also taken a wide range of new, collaborative approaches with other government agencies – complementing our public-private partnerships and creating better collaboration among state and local partners.
In 2011, President Obama created the White House Rural Council to bring together a number of Federal agencies to focus on rural issues. In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to visit with members of the Rural Council on progress we’re making and work with them to lay out ongoing efforts to grow the rural economy.
Today, the White House Rural Council is focused on three main priorities.
First, we’re helping foster innovation and new economic opportunity in rural America, building ladders of opportunity and helping to grow the rural middle class. Rural Council partners have taken steps to increase the flow of capital to help with workforce development and business infrastructure across rural America. For example, a 2013 agreement between USDA and the Small Business Administration is providing $175 million in microloans and business development training to small rural businesses.
Second, we’re working to improve quality of life for folks who call rural America home. Rural Council partners are improving access to quality health care, education and housing. For example, recently the Rural Council announced new efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs to bring better health and mental health services to veterans in rural areas. Along with USDA, the Rural Council also is working together to explore the further expansion of health information technology in rural America.
Third, we are focused on expanding conservation opportunities, while helping producers care for the environment and adapt to climate challenges. In 2012, the Rural Council undertook a strategy to improve restoration of our national forests. This effort will ultimately provide greater environmental benefits in rural areas, while creating jobs in the forest and timber industries. Conservation and forestry partnerships can also play a key role to help strengthen the bio-based economy in the United States, which holds tremendous potential for job creation.
All of these efforts complement our work at USDA, and many still depend on passage of a new Food, Farm and Jobs Bill to have full effect. But we know that working together with our Federal partners, we can achieve more for rural Americans than we could acting separately. We can make government work better for folks in a time of ongoing uncertainty on Capitol Hill.
I am heartened that the Federal family is working more closely than ever to help America’s rural communities. And with the right tools to do the job – including a long-term Food, Farm and Jobs Bill – USDA and our Rural Council partners will keep these efforts up in the years to come.