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What rural America needs

From Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky.:

Rural America is falling further and further behind the rest of the country. Look at the number of children living in poverty, children without health insurance, or per capita spending on schools, and you see that rural communities continue to lag the nation's cities and suburbs. Of America's 250 poorest counties, 244 are rural. Yet these are conditions that news outlets ignore, charitable foundations avoid, and politicians sidestep.

Sixty million strong – a fifth of the country – rural Americans represent a rich diversity of people and possibilities. When rural communities succeed, the nation does better. Cities and suburbs benefit from richer resources and stronger markets when rural economies are healthy. But when rural communities falter, it drains the nation's prosperity and limits what we can accomplish together.

The recent primary election campaigns steamed through small towns and villages in every state, yet we heard next to nothing about policy or prospects for rural communities outside of obligatory discussions of the farm bill. The farm bill is, at best, legislation designed for a different era and a different rural reality. Fewer than 2 percent of rural Americans make their primary living on the farm.

A recent poll of rural voters showed that their concerns were similar to those of urban and suburban America. Rural voters worry about the skyrocketing cost of gasoline, because they have to drive farther to get to their jobs. They are pressed by the high cost of health coverage. And they are dismayed by the high cost of war, an issue brought home by the disproportionately high number of rural American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

America needs a rural policy that is more connected to the current challenges facing people in the nation's cities, suburbs and country places.

Toward that end, hundreds of leaders from rural America came together to create a different approach to rural policy. You can see it at RuralCompact.org. It affirms the fundamental connection our country shares about place and inclusion. It focuses on education, health, stewardship of the land and investment as opportunities to re-imagine the American trajectory so that rural communities can play their part and make a fair contribution.

The absence of a national rural debate and lingering confusion over rural policy does not serve the countryside – or the country – well. It's time to try something different.

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