Op-ED: Congress needs to back small town and rural life

Nearly nine in 10 rural Americans say the rural and small-town way of life is worth fighting for and protecting, but seven in 10 worry it is dying.

Those are the findings of a bipartisan poll of rural voters in Iowa and 25 other Southeastern, Midwestern and Great Plains states commissioned by the Center for Rural Affairs and completed by Lake Research Partners and the Tarrance Group.

The findings present a worthy challenge to Congress as it completes a new farm bill: Give the small-town and rural way of life the respect it deserves by investing in its future.

Sadly, farm bills have historically treated rural and small-town development as an afterthought.

Our 2007 study found that farm bill rural development programs invested only half as much in creating economic opportunity and a better future for the 316,000 people in the 20 Iowa counties suffering the worst population decline as the farm bill spent subsidizing the state’s 20 largest farms.

It’s not getting better. Real federal investment in helping small towns and rural entrepreneurs has fallen by half over the last decade.

The farm bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives continues to neglect investment in the rural and small-town way of life. It provides no funding for the Rural Microenterprise Development Program, which funds loans and business planning assistance for businesses with up to 10 employees. If the House bill became law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s primary rural small-business development program would die.

That would be a loss to rural Iowa. The program helped Holland Moving and Rigging Supplies of Forest City expand into new markets by enabling it to receive business planning assistance from Iowa’s Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

To make matters worse, the House bill would provide zero funding for communities on the waiting list for USDA loans and grants to make critical upgrades to their water and sewer systems, including 22 Iowa small towns. Unlike all recent farm bills, the House bill would not supplement the annual appropriations funding that has never been adequate to meet small-town needs.

The disregard of the House bill for small towns and small business flies in the face of rural American’s priorities. Eight in 10 of rural voters polled support grants and loans to revitalize small towns through upgrades to water and sewer systems. Over half said “owning my own business or farm is a big part of the American dream for me” and three-fourths agreed with federal funding for small business loans and training.

To their credit, the rural Americans who were polled had a common-sense approach to finding the money to pay for it. Three-fourths said stop over-subsidizing the nation’s largest farms to drive smaller operations out of business.

The House bill does include one step in that direction. It would close loopholes and tighten limits on traditional farm program payments to mega farms. But it would place no limits on what has become the primary farm program — federal crop insurance. If one corporation farmed half of Iowa, taxpayers would foot 60 percent of its crop insurance premiums on every acre, every year — in good times as well as bad.

Such unlimited subsidies for mega farms are a blatantly wasteful use of taxpayer money and damaging to family-size farms. They should offend Republicans and Democrats alike.

In September, a conference committee will develop a final farm bill, drawing on elements of both the House and Senate bills. It should choose the Senate provisions that fund small-town and small-business development programs.

It should also embrace the Senate’s bipartisan reduction in mega farm premium subsidies for crop insurance, cosponsored by a bipartisan pair of farm state senators — Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

The Senate provisions are better for rural Iowa. They are more in touch with rural America and its desire for fiscally responsible policy that respects the small town and rural way of life.