Rural America gets help tapping into federal funding

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Staff from the USDA will help least 25 rural communities apply for federal economic development assistance.

The Biden administration announced Wednesday it will deploy U.S. Department of Agriculture staff into at least 25 rural areas in five states to help local communities with accessing federal economic development dollars, Covid recovery aid and infrastructure funding.

In a call with reporters on Tuesday, a senior administration official noted that many of these localities have limited staff and can struggle to figure out what grants are available or how to apply for them. USDA’s Rural Development division is leading the initiative, working along with 16 federal agencies and regional commissions.

While staff for the program—who are trained in community development—will come from USDA, they will help communities navigate the complex federal funding process for all agencies. 

“The federal staff will wake up every day with a mandate to work with the local community,” another senior official said on the call.

“USDA and its federal partners are committed to unlocking the full potential of rural America by investing in its people and the unique visions they have for the places they call home,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. 

Vilsack and White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice are expected to unveil the new initiative on Wednesday, meeting with community leaders from Clarksdale and Greenwood, Mississippi, two of the communities that will receive the help.

Not all rural communities will immediately get assistance from the federal workers. What’s being dubbed the Rural Partners Network will initially work with selected communities and tribes in five states: Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico.

[A full list of places that will be involved in the initial phase of the program can be found here.]

The communities were selected based on factors like economic distress and the readiness of local stakeholders to participate in the effort, according to a White House fact sheet.

The Biden administration has plans for the program to expand to Nevada, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Tribal communities in Alaska by the end of August, officials said. It could later spread to all 50 states, but that would depend on congressional approval of funding in the fiscal 2023 budget.

In addition to the staff in the communities, officials said 13 key agencies are creating a D.C.-based point person, or team, to work with the on-the-ground staff. The locally deployed staff will also bring rural issues to the federal policymakers, the officials said.

The effort to help rural communities gain better access to federal dollars is a different approach from a Trump administration rural initiative launched in 2017.

Trump’s Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, created through an executive order, was tasked with identifying changes to regulations, laws and policy that would give a boost to agriculture, economic development, public works and quality of life in rural areas.

A third Biden administration official during the call with reporters touted the new program as a followup to help for rural communities in Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law that the president signed last year.

“We needed to finish the job by making sure rural communities can access those resources,” the official said.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.

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