White House launches new initiative to get federal dollars to rural America
On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced a new initiative, the Rural Partners Network, that aims to reset the way Washington works with rural communities around the U.S.
Led by the Department of Agriculture, the program will place federal employees in rural communities around the country to live and work — and bring more federal dollars to the nation’s most isolated communities in the process. Their mission is to help locals navigate Washington’s intimidating bureaucracy all the way down to the level of assisting with grant proposals.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice will officially launch the program Wednesday in Mississippi, and it will begin in more than 25 rural communities and tribal nations across five states — Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and New Mexico.
The White House officials contend the billions sit available to rural communities thanks to a bevy of programs tucked inside the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“We need to finish the job by making sure rural communities can access these resources,” a senior administration official said, adding that the federal government has long been too difficult to navigate.
Rice added in a statement that “just making resources available is not enough — the federal government must work better for rural communities so that they can fully take advantage of these opportunities.”
‘A set of distress indicators’
The effort is part of this month’s Rural Infrastructure Tour. As part of that tour, President Joe Biden visited an ethanol plant in Iowa last week, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg drove an excavator in Wisconsin on Tuesday.
At the early stages, the Rural Partners Network will be small. Each of the targeted states will get three to five staff members immediately, but there are plans to broaden the program out. The officials in the field will be paired with new hires in Washington, DC with the goal of helping locals find the right person in Washington’s bureaucracy.
The new officials will work for the USDA but will be tasked with making connections across the federal government, including the Departments of Commerce, Education, Interior, and Treasury, the Small Business Administration, and dozens more agencies.
The initial emphasis, officials say, is on communities with both high levels of economic distress and a readiness to participate in the program.
While some of the first wave of states being targeted will hold key midterm elections later this year, officials contend that’s not why they were selected. A senior administration official discussed the selection process and noted that overlaying data on areas of persistent poverty, the distressed community index, and the social vulnerability index “created, in essence, a bullseye.”
Officials plan to add efforts in Nevada, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and tribal communities in Alaska by the end of August and then eventually reach all 50 states if Congress approves funding.
The effort is a successor to one launched in the Obama administration called the StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity — again, led by Vilsack, who also served as President Obama’s Agriculture Secretary.