On Feb. 18, the Rural Cause student organization held a virtual panel to discuss the future of policy affecting rural communities under President Joe Biden.
The Rural Cause was founded by Daniel Napsha ’21, who also moderated the panel, and aims to strengthen ties between the College and the surrounding rural communities. The organization invited a panel of experts to discuss long-standing issues facing these communities, including difficulties with access to healthcare, hospital and pharmacy services in rural areas and rural development.
Keith Mueller, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute, explained that many of the healthcare facilities that serve rural communities have been understaffed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted that, over the last 15 years, an increasing number of rural hospitals have closed and those still in operation have been struggling financially, creating a shortfall within rural healthcare delivery.
Janet Simms Hipp, the CEO of the Native American Agricultural Fund, expanded on Mueller’s point, explaining how this gap in rural healthcare delivery has heavily impacted Indigenous people in rural areas. She said that the Indian Health Service — an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for providing federal health services to those populations — has been consistently underfunded, which has caused a shortage of staff at many rural hospitals responsible for serving Indigenous Americans.
Furthermore, Hipp explained that, for many rural Americans, there is a lack of transportation services to hospitals, and the lack of funding for the Indian Health Service has prevented the agency from finding ways to transport people to hospitals.
“If you don’t have clinics, and you don’t have health manpower, then you better have a car,” said Hipp. “Transportation to those [healthcare] facilities is a big issue.”
Additionally, the panelists discussed the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural economies, which have already suffered from chronic divestment and economic downturn prior to the pandemic, and how policy should be employed to strengthen those rural economies.
“We’re looking to modernize [the rural economy],” explained Zoe Willingham, a research associate at the Center for American Progress. They asserted that rural development should no longer be conflated with agricultural development, and that COVID-19 economic recovery policy should focus on rural America.
Willingham advocated for the creation of a rural opportunity administration, which would subsume the responsibilities and programs of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Office of Rural Development. They also advocated for federal policymakers to concentrate on growing industries like green technology and business services, and for the expansion of grant programs for rural communities in order to achieve meaningful economic recovery.
Furthermore, Mitchell believes that the full breadth and diversity of people living in rural communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color and LGBTQ+ Americans, must be placed in positions of leadership so that policy more accurately reflects the needs of those living in rural areas.
In addition, John Windhausen Jr., the founder and executive director of the Schools, Health, & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, explained that expanding the technological infrastructure to include adequate broadband is an important factor for increasing rural economic development.
“You have to have a good broadband network to make sure that electricity grids operate better, you can provide better transportation and healthcare. So it’s fundamentally important to have broadband,” he said.
Overall, the panelists expressed hope that changes in the future of rural policy, including the inclusion of experts from diverse rural backgrounds, will aid in the further development of rural America.