Rural Economy

by Linda Horning

Our rural economy is suffering under the administration of Donald Trump.  As his largest voting bloc, rural voters believe he has their best interests at heart, but his own federal policy experts say he does not support rural prosperity.  The Economic Research Service (ERS), a non-partisan entity within the Department of Agriculture, has concluded farmers have been financially harmed by Trump’s trade feuds and the Republican tax code rewrite.

As might be expected, reports released by the ERS emphasizing a 50 percent decline in farm income since 2013 ran afoul of the Trump administration.  Claims of retaliation against employees at the ERS resulted, and in late April led to the resignation of six economists on the same day.

As early as January of this year, the ESPN political blog FiveThirtyEight ran an article entitled “Is Trump Trying To Politicize Agricultural Data? Some Former USDA Officials Suspect Yes.”  In it, the author described a plan hatched by the Trump administration to reorganize the ERS and move it outside Washington DC.  Under the guise of saving money and serving its stakeholders, the plan would undermine the agency’s ability to carry out its mission and threatened to destroy its independent status.

The mission of the ERS is (or was) to provide evidence and to inform policy, not to support one position over the other.  It was a source of truthful, unbiased information that helped rural America understand how the current administration’s policies were affecting them financially.  Donald Trump knew this truth was hurting him, so he found a way to silence them.

The 2019 Farm Income Forecast might have shed some light on the plight of small farmers, except for the fact that it has been altered for political purposes.  Net farm income is forecast to increase by 6.3 billion, not to decrease as was previously forecast.  In addition, the estimated effects of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 now predicts average tax rates are expected to decline for family farms, and it also suggests fewer farms will be subject to estate tax.  Of particular interest is the errata paragraph included in the report, which sets the date the report was revised as March 25, 2019.

Another federal agency where Trump is actively ‘cooking the books’ is at the Environmental Protection Agency.  Rural counties have long favored deregulation of the EPA over issues around farm pollution, timber harvest and wildlife preservation, but this type of legislation is designed to protect rural residents, as well.  They value their clean air and water as much as anyone.  Now the Trump administration has rolled back as many as 83 environmental rules, and to justify their actions, they’re changing the calculations used to determine the costs and benefits.  These changes agree more with industry and corporation demands.

In the absence of reliable federal economic reporting, rural California can turn to state or county agencies for sound economic data.  The California Economic Summit’s Elevate Rural CA initiative is a statewide collaborative committed to a higher quality of life for all Californians.  Among items being discussed is the state’s 33 million acres of forestland and how to manage them in this era of climate change.  More than half may be in need of treatment, including removal of beetle-infested dead trees and fuel loads caused by decades of fire suppression.  It’s a huge undertaking.  One study estimates it could take 100 years to complete.

A proposed stimulus package supported by every democratic frontrunner opposing Donald Trump addresses climate change and economic inequality in a way reminiscent of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Called the Green New Deal, it combines modern ideas such as renewable energy with economic reforms and public works projects. If such a proposal were put into motion, it could mean millions of jobs in rural America and relief from our most pressing problems.

Is it too late to hope for such a change?  Starved of the truth and consistently fed lies about how well the economy is doing, rural voters may not be prepared to vote in a way that protects their interests, but hope emerges from the sheer enormity of our challenges.  We will pull together because we must.  The alternative is unthinkable.

a higher quality of life and greater well

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