‘What is the Impact on the Most Vulnerable People?’

‘What is the Impact on the Most Vulnerable People?’
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a Farmer's Roundtable where President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America April 25, 2017, at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Preston Keres / USDA)

Rural advocates and political leaders respond to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement that he will eliminate the undersecretary position that oversees programs for rural housing, broadband, electricity, water treatment and other services.

The other shoe dropped last week when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he plans to eliminate the leadership position of Undersecretary of Rural Development. The reorganization follows President Trump’s earlier budget proposal recommending a 21% cut in USDA discretionary spending and the elimination of some rural development programs.

The undersecretary position, which was structurally part of the Ag secretary’s executive leadership team, oversees dozens of programs. These include loans and grants for housing, water and wastewater treatment facilities, broadband deployment, small business development, electric and phone cooperatives, and a wide range of other community development activities.

Secretary Perdue said eliminating the Undersecretary for Rural Development will “elevate” development programs in the department because they will report directly to the secretary’s office, not through an undersecretary. A former White House policy adviser called this argument “ludicrous.”

The chairman of the Senate committee that oversee Agriculture did not comment directly on the elimination of the undersecretary position but praised the reshuffling for its emphasis on foreign trade. The Ranking Member applauded the increased push for international trade but expressed “concerns” about the elimination of the undersecretary’s position.

Comments from these leaders and several representatives of organizations that are knowledgeable about USDA Rural Development are below.

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Juliette Majot, Executive Director, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)

Secretary Perdue’s re-organization plan puts global agribusiness first by further orienting the agency’s mission toward expanding exports, rather than focusing on the economic challenges facing family farmers and rural communities. We have an emerging farm crisis – with now four straight years of falling farm incomes and rising farm debt. This re-organization expands an export-focused approach that has increased the profits and market power of global agribusiness, while steadily reducing the number of farmers and ranchers, who are the economic backbone of most rural communities.

Ben Lilliston, Analyst, IATP

We are seeing an unfortunate trend with the Trump budget and the USDA reorganization to disinvest in rural communities – even at a time when rural communities are facing economic challenges beyond those in the rest of the country. We hope Congress will carefully review the USDA proposal and ensure we aren’t taking a major step back on rural development. It’s deeply troubling that with just two weeks on the job, the new USDA Secretary would announce such sweeping changes without public input. Our concern with Perdue’s appointment was that he would represent corporate interests at the expense of family farmers and rural communities. This proposed re-organization confirms and heightens that concern.

Moises Loza, Executive Director, Housing Assistance Council

Since 1971, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) has viewed changes to rural development policies, governance structures, and funding levels through an unchanging lens:  What is the impact on the most vulnerable rural people?

Such criteria undergird HAC’s review of the proposed reorganization of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), including slated elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development position.

With a deepening opioid crisis and a frayed rural social fabric in the national spotlight, it is imperative that the Administration send a clear message of support to vulnerable rural people and communities.  A vibrant USDA Rural Development infrastructure can best convey such a message.

USDA Rural Development programs are the linchpin of effective partnerships that are a bridge to private investment in rural America.  It is impossible to decouple the proposed elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development with the Administration’s recent budget proposal that eliminates rural water and sewer and business programs while also de-funding priorities across federal agencies that allow HAC partners to create affordable homes and deliver services to the rural poor.

As the USDA noted in a press release today, persistent poverty is all too common in rural America.  A USDA Rural Development with a profile within the Administration commensurate with the magnitude of its task would send a compelling and much needed message to the communities where HAC works.

Whitney Kimball Coe, Coordinator, National Rural Assembly

The reorganization of USDA, particularly the elimination of the Undersecretary of Rural Development, is worrisome. It suggests an antiquated understanding of rural communities, who they are and where they are going. The primary economic drivers in rural America are no longer tied only to agriculture. Rural people are more concerned with achieving economic vitality through increased broadband access, new economy jobs, stronger infrastructure, educational opportunities and affordable healthcare. Rural America in the 21st century  is a place of great diversity and opportunity, and rural people deserve a Rural Development program that will support the promise of rural America.

DISCLOSURE: The National Rural Assembly is managed by the Center for Rural Strategies, which also publishes the Daily Yonder.

Katharine Ferguson, former Chief of Staff to the White House Domestic Policy Council and former Chief of Staff for USDA Rural Development

[Regarding Secretary Perdue’s statement that he was “elevating” rural development programs by eliminating the undersecretary position]– Anyone who manages anything–a business, farm, project, or family–knows that success requires focused time and energy, day in and day out.

Managing a section of an agency is the same.  It takes a ton of work and it is the Under Secretary for Rural Development whose job security and reputation depends on the success of USDA’s rural development activities.

For another way to think about this, imagine if the President announced that he was eliminating the position of Secretary of Education and that, instead, the entire Department of Education, its staff, (approximately the same in number as Rural Development), grant programs, and loan portfolio, would be run out if the White House by an yet-to-be named assistant to the President.  Ludicrous, a management nightmare, and most certainly not a promotion for rural people or issues!

Anna Johnson, Policy Associate, Center for Rural Affairs

If [the proposed reorganization occurs] Secretary Perdue will be removing the position of the most significant rural advocate within USDA. Rural America stands to suffer as a result.

While USDA has a broad mission to promote and support our country’s food and agriculture, Rural Development is the only part of USDA that has the explicit directive to support rural communities.

USDA’s Rural Development Agencies – the Rural Business-Cooperative Service, the Rural Utilities Service, and the Rural Housing Service – have complex, broad, and deeply important responsibilities in rural communities. These include providing loans for treating wastewater and for the construction of single and multi-family homes.

Other Rural Development programs, such as the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program and Value-Added Producer Grant Program, facilitate innovation and encourage success. We’ve seen that 21st Century jobs being created in rural communities are driven by entrepreneurship. For rural communities to thrive, we particularly need to support the job-creating mission of this agency.

Each of the other mission areas within USDA has similarly complex and important responsibilities, including natural resource conservation, nutrition assistance, and food safety. By removing the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development, rural communities will no longer have a dedicated advocate or an equal seat at the table at USDA.”

If Sec. Perdue truly wishes to support rural America, we ask that he not eliminate the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development nor support deep cuts to the budget of Rural Development. Instead, we ask him to appoint a strong advocate for rural communities as Undersecretary for Rural Development, and to support a budget that allows Rural Development to carry out its mission.

“Rural America deserves a champion who is not distracted by the other demands of managing the diverse responsibilities of USDA. By retaining the Undersecretary position, USDA will be better positioned to work with rural people and achieve a vision for America that includes thriving rural communities and economic opportunity for all.”

Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kansas), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

Just a few short weeks into the new job, I’m pleased that Secretary Perdue continues to hit the ground running on behalf of rural America. The establishment of a trade undersecretary is long overdue.

As I continue to say, we need to get the right folks down at the Department to get to work on the issues that matter most to farmers. Trade is certainly at the top of that list.

I’m hopeful this realignment will benefit rural America, and I look forward to reviewing the report from Secretary Perdue.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The chairman did not respond to a request for comment specifically on the elimination of the Undersecretary for Rural Development position.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry

I applaud Secretary Perdue for taking steps to implement provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill to create an undersecretary position focused on trade and agricultural exports. American agricultural products are in high demand across the world and our farmers and ranchers deserve a strong voice to help them access new global markets.

However, I have real concerns about eliminating the Undersecretary for Rural Development. This proposal would eliminate an important voice for rural America and bypass Congress’s role to confirm a qualified nominee.

I also have questions about realigning the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). While I hope this move will better coordinate programs that help farmers, it is critical that this change does not diminish the important work NRCS does to protect our land and water.

I am committed to working with Secretary Perdue to ensure that any organizational changes will work for farmers, families, and Rural America.

Jim Matheson, CEO, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association

Prioritizing rural development is paramount for America’s electric cooperatives, and co-ops share Secretary Perdue’s desire to improve the lives of every rural American,” said NRECA CEO Jim Matheson. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Secretary, members of Congress, and other stakeholders to ensure that USDA’s Rural Development programs meet the needs of rural America in the most effective manner possible.

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA, The Rural Broadband Association

The Rural Development programs within USDA are critical to national goals with respect to promoting the availability of infrastructure throughout the United States,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield. “The Rural Utilities Service in particular has played and will continue to play an essential role in providing financing for telecommunications network projects that drive economic development and job creation in rural America. We hope USDA’s leadership will help build upon the many successes that these programs have already had and continue to position them for even greater things to come. Rural progress depends in significant part upon the ongoing vitality and sustainability of these programs, including the availability of sufficient resources to achieve their mission.

This piece was originally published by The Daily Yonder.

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