Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

From New Deal to No Deal

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

From New Deal to No Deal

Article excerpt

Rural America comprises 90 percent of the nation's natural environment and a quarter of its population, but its face - and its policies are rapidly changing as federal funds decline.

Not since the heady years of the New Deal in the 1930s has there been such a flurry of activity in rural policy as is occurring in the waning years of the 20th Century. Following a brief resurgence of interest in the 1960s during the Johnson administration's Great Society, few subsequent substantive changes occurred despite a continuous chorus from nonfarm policy stakeholders for reform of America's federal rural policy. For the past 30 years, powerful commercial farm interest groups and a profound lack of interest by Congress and succeeding caretakers at the White House ensured a stagnant rural policy pool, despite great transformations in the economies and societies of rural America.

Ironically, the current challenges to, and reform of, rural policies, while truly significant, do not reflect a sudden surge of genuine interest in the 90 percent of the nation's natural environment or the quarter of the nation's population that resides in rural America. Rather they are a response to pressures on the federal budget and powerful suburban environmental interests, which suggests that once again rural interests will not be a central concern in setting rural policy.

Rural Policy Arenas

The term rural policy is misleading if you assume it means a unified set of federal policies, designed for rural people, that reflects the broad base of stakeholders in rural America. A more accurate picture is reflected in a pool of fractured federal programs that are not unified by either local interests or by a single political institution.

The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a congressional mandate to coordinate rural policy, but most of the federal budget targeting rural places is mediated through such organizations as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and even the Department of Defense. The rural components of these federal programs are at best secondary and typically are nothing more than simple extensions of programs designed for urban areas.

So why are rural policies today undergoing such significant changes? A large part of the answer can be found in the confluence of three factors. To begin with, rural economies and societies are restructuring, away from agriculture and toward manufacturing and service industries. Second, the federal fiscal crises of the 1980s and much of the 1990s created strong bipartisan incentives to reduce the federal budget deficit. This incentive was strong enough to force deep cuts in social programs. And finally, a bipartisan effort is reducing the size and power of federal agencies in favor of state and local administration in virtually all areas but environmental protection. This political phenomenon has been termed devolution of federal authority.(1)

Devolution, as a federal political strategy, is a de facto unfunded mandate for states and communities to fund programs previously supported by the federal government. Many states and communities, however, typically have neither the tax base to fund the devolved programs nor the administrative staff to manage them. These governments therefore may be unable to maintain devolving federal programs during extended periods of economic recession. Ironically, Congress and the executive branch have politically opposed unfunded mandates implied in environmental policies.

An examination of four rural policy arenas - the farm, the environment, social welfare, and rural economic development programs - demonstrates these fundamental changes under way and the absence of either a unified action plan or a political constituency.

Farm Programs

Federal farm programs emerged from the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. …

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