U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-19, are pushing for $50 billion in aid to help rural areas.
In a joint video conference Thursday the two Democrats announced the Rebuild Rural America Act, which would help bring federal grant money to rural communities to deal with the economic crisis created by COVID-19.
“Over the past several decades the American economy has changed in fundamental ways,” Gillibrand said. “Unfortunately, federal policy to help rural communities adjust to those changes has not kept pace. We lost more than 100,000 farms nationwide in the last decade. Automation and foreign competitors have led to the closure of local manufacturing plants. Big-box stores have boxed out mom-and-pop shops.”
If passed, the proposed legislation would create a $50 billion grant program, the Rural Future Partnership Program, which would provide noncompetitive five-year renewable block grants to certified rural regions to be able to implement locally developed regional revitalization plans.
Funding would be allocated proportionally based on the population of each region. The allocation would increase for regions with areas with a poverty rate of more than 20%. Eligible regions would include those with a central community of 10,000 to 50,000 people, collections of rural census tracts or counties outside of regions with a central community of 10,000 to 50,000 people, and Native American reservations.
States, in coordination with the United States Department of Agriculture, will certify the regions’ participation in the program, according to a summary of the proposed legislation.
The changes to the economy have left rural communities operating on thin margins, Gillibrand said. This leads to local services such as schools, hospitals and first responders operating without the resources they need to be able to respond to COVID, she added.
“These communities cannot be left out or left behind in our recovery plans,” Gillibrand said. “Rural America and rural New York’s recovery are critical to our national and state recovery.”
Rural communities are often unable to access federal grant money because they do not have the same resources to help secure federal funds that larger areas do, such as grant writers or lobbyists, Gillibrand noted.
The proposed bill would encourage rural regions to develop plans that revitalize infrastructure, provide support for public services and job training, and foster local entrepreneurship. Interested rural regions would be required to form a Regional Rural Partnership Council, which would bring together local leaders, elected officials, economic development organizations, cooperatives, higher education institutions, foundations and other entities important to regional development.
“As I think most of you may know, New York 19 is the eighth most rural congressional district in the nation,” Delgado said. “And for far too long a lot of the federal policies coming out of Washington have not put a spotlight on our rural communities. Too much of the investment, too much of the focus economically has been concentrated on densely populated areas.”
Delgado has spoken with local leaders throughout his district and said their economies have been devastated by the impact of COVID, from closures of stores, restaurants and venues to lagging tourism. Rural budgets have been forced to focus on dealing with the pandemic, which has put other projects on hold, such as expanding rural broadband access and repairing crumbling roads.
“The Rebuild Rural America Act seeks to right the wrongs that have come about by virtue of that bias by providing funding to upstate communities in rural areas and beyond,” Delgado said. “It would deliver resources directly to counties, towns and villages to address issues like food insecurity, high unemployment, a lack of broadband, affordable housing and access to reliable health care. I want to emphasize resources would go directly to our counties, towns and villages.”
Some of the uses Gillibrand and Delgado suggested for the funding include revitalizing Main Streets, expanding broadband internet, replacing old water supply systems, investing in the arts and supporting education.
Delgado and Gillibrand both stated they hoped the proposed bill would pass in Congress as a part of the next COVID-19 relief package.
The senator and congressman previously proposed the Rebuild Rural America Act in October 2019. That bill would have amended the Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act of 1994.