We also need bold political ideas. This means building the capacity of governments and local institutions and making large-scale, multi-year investments so they have the people, expertise and partnerships to realize their vision.
Policy makers are beginning to recognize the need to better support lagging regions. An experiment such as the recent Build Back Better Regional Challenge, run by the US Economic Development Administration, offers a model. This $1 billion grant competition supports 21 regional partnerships with substantial multi-year investments (between $25 and $65 million) to give them a good opportunity to transform their local economies; a few of them are predominantly rural.
The Recompete pilot program, authorized by the CHIPS and Science Act, offers the prospect of readiness assistance followed by large, multi-year grants to distressed communities where employment is seriously lagging behind. It has just received seed funding in recent omnibus credits, but there is no indication that rural areas benefit. Even the Millennium Challenge Corporation launched in 2004 by President George W. Bush, which has taken a rigorous, evidence-based approach that has helped transform the practice of international development, offers an example of what is possible.
Rural policy is an issue where Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground to work together. The new Congress will present a concrete opportunity as it sets out to pass a new Farm Bill in 2023, a major piece of legislation renewed approximately every five years that, among other things, authorizes rural development programs in the Department of Agriculture.
Still, early indications point to high-profile fights over food stamps, farm subsidies and conservation investments — and limited attention to rural development.
The reauthorization of the Economic Development Administration presents another opportunity. Its authorization expired in 2008 and conversations to renew it began in the current Congress but never reached the finish line. The new Congress can reopen this process to seriously examine the role of the federal government in promoting the economic revitalization of communities left behind.
One thing is clear: edge adjustments will remain ineffective. Serious political discussion should dominate the airwaves. Rural America is listening to how leadership and public resources can better support the economic and social renewal of rural communities, but it is mostly hearing silence.
Tony Pipa is a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution and directs the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative, which aims to transform American policy to better enable equitable and sustainable development in rural America.