IN an effort to streamline the delivery of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development financial and technical assistance, USDA is proposing to eliminate the current 11 different definitions of "rural" and instead clarify that a population of 50,000 or fewer people constitutes a rural area.
The 2008 farm bill required USDA to complete a report examining the definition of rural by June 18, 2010, to assess how the various definitions have affected rural development programs and to make recommendations on ways to better target funds. Now, nearly 2.5 years after its due date, the report is drawing mixed support from Congress, while Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defends the new definition and its ability to better serve rural America.
The USDA Rural Development mission area provides financial and technical assistance through 40-plus programs to support economic and community development for rural residents and their communities. The report notes that simplifying the eligibility determination for these communities is a "key step in streamlining program implementation and providing a more transparent process for accessing financial and technical assistance."
The report concludes that having a population limit of 50,000 people for all programs would "remove confusion over what constitutes a rural area and would encourage more multi-jurisdictional collaboration."
The report notes that the many different population thresholds create arbitrary barriers to regional strategies, perpetuating community isolation and less cost-effective economic and community development practices. It also limits USDA from providing comprehensive, integrated program delivery in any community or group of communities larger than the smallest population threshold.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) welcomed the effort, saying the issue has long frustrated officials and other members of rural communities.
"Under current law, USDA uses 11 different definitions of 'rural,' creating red tape and making programs unnecessarily difficult to use," she said. "The Senate last year passed a farm bill with overwhelming bipartisan support that eliminated the 11 different definitions of 'rural' and replaced it with just one. This is a commonsense solution that will help our rural communities and small businesses grow and create jobs."
However, Stabenow's counterparts in the House expressed concerns with the report. In a joint statement, House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.) and ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) expressed disappointment that USDA's proposal would "shift funding away from the most rural areas by inflating the definition across the board," which would result in small communities competing with larger and more urban areas for funding.
Vilsack explained that individual communities, of and by themselves, may not have enough human capital or financial capital to really fundamentally change their economy. He encouraged communities to think regionally and collaboratively to leverage resources more effectively.
"In an increasingly tight fiscal environment, careful targeting of scarce funding is critical to ensuring the communities who should benefit from these programs are given priority," Lucas and Peterson said. "Congress placed a clear emphasis on targeting the most rural areas, with eligibility criteria that emphasize the need to carefully allocate scarce resources."
Vilsack said there will be efforts to target those areas where more resources are needed. He added that the new definition has the potential to give that "small community an identity within the region" and make sure that it has adequate resources.
The report suggests giving Rural Development the ability to evaluate a common range of factors for all community-based applications, taking into consideration total population and awarding higher scores to less-populated areas.
"The convergence of new 2010 census data adoption and new farm bill development offer a unique opportunity for a long-term solution on how best to ensure that resources appropriated to Rural Development are appropriately targeted to rural people and places of greatest opportunity and greatest need," the report notes.
The full USDA report is available at www.rurdev.usda.gov/Reports/RDRuralDefinitionReportFeb2013.pdf.