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Obama Creates Rural Economic Development Council

Governor Daugaard may be working on his "small-town specialists" plan side by side with the White House. On Thursday, June 9, President Obama created the White House Rural Council:

The White House Rural Council will coordinate programs across government to encourage public-private partnerships to promote further economic prosperity and quality of life in rural communities nationwide. Chaired by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the Council will be responsible for providing recommendations for investment in rural areas and will coordinate Federal engagement with a variety of rural stakeholders, including agricultural organizations, small businesses, and state, local, and tribal governments [White House press release, 2011.06.09].

The President identifies this heaping laundry basket of key factors to rural economic growth:

  • Jobs: Improve job training and workforce development in rural America
  • Agriculture: Expand markets for agriculture, including regional food systems and exports (Regional food! Rebecca, Muddy Pumpkin, did you guys catch that?)
  • Access to Credit: Increase opportunity by expanding access to capital in rural communities and fostering local investment
  • Innovation: Promote the expansion of biofuels production capacity and community based renewable energy projects (Biofuels... still campaigning for Iowa?)
  • Networks: Develop high-growth regional economies by capitalizing on inherent regional strengths
  • Health Care: Improve access to quality health care through expansion of health technology systems (Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent says we need a lot more than new technology to improve rural health care)
  • Education: Increase post-secondary enrollment rates and completion for rural students (Mike Knutson suggests rural development is more complicated than just getting more rural kids to college)
  • Broadband: Support the President's plan to increase broadband opportunities in rural America (because then we can set up more telework centers to support holographic teleconferencing)
  • Infrastructure: Coordinate investment in critical infrastructure (like rebuilding our shelled-out county roads)
  • Ecosystem markets: Expanding opportunities for conservation, outdoor opportunities and economic growth on working lands and public lands

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the Rural Council will include Indian Country in its economic development efforts. 43% of the American Indian population lives in rural areas. 20% of the general population lives in rural areas.

Rurally concerned Daily Yonder hears a lot of talk but no clear action:

This appears to be a kind of coordinating body within government. No new staff will be hired. There is no committee appointed to oversee the work of the council — if, indeed, there is any work to be done ["Thursday Roundup: White House Rural Council," Daily Yonder, 2011.06.09].

The economic data from rural states (like South Dakota's relatively strong GDP and low unemployment) may make it look like a focus on rural economic development is misplaced. But as Waddington points out, a strong ag economy doesn't always translate into small-town prosperity. And as we've seen in South Dakota, economic gains may concentrate in bigger towns, leaving the really rural places behind.

Maybe now is the perfect time for Governor Daugaard to invite President Obama to South Dakota for an extended visit. President Coolidge set up his Summer White House in the Black Hills in 1927. President Obama could set up shop in Howard at the Rural Learning Center. Spend a month living in a county where his entourage would likely increase the population 10%. Demonstrate how even the most powerful man in the world can telecommute from a safe, quiet rural community. Collaborate with Governor Daugaard on the small-town specialist program. That experience could give the Rural Council some strong legs.