DENMARK — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the point Tuesday that about 90 percent of the continuing poverty in America impacts those who live in rural areas — the same areas that are often on the outside looking in when it comes to federal funding.
Vilsack was at Voorhees College to announce that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will expand a program to South Carolina and nine other states to ensure poor, rural counties will no longer be forgotten.
The program, called StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity, has already been implemented in six states: Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.
“It is incumbent upon us to focus time, attention and resources on these persistently poor areas to give them a better shot, to give them economic opportunity, to give them quality of life,” Vilsack said.
“Rural America is the place where most of the food we consume in this country comes from. Rural areas are the place from whence our water comes ... It is where most of the power, the electricity and ... the fuel comes from that is domestically produced. It is not given its due.”
A former governor of Iowa, which has an agricultural-based economy, Vilsack said the StrikeForce program will partner the USDA with community-based organizations to ensure rural, poverty-stricken areas get funding assistance where needed.
The USDA will help communities leverage their resources to access programs, promote economic development and create more jobs, he said.
Vilsack presented a brief video about the program with testimonials from those who have had wells dug or received farming equipment though loans and grants. Also benefitting from the program are rural hospital that receive telemedicine and electronic record-keeping assistance, he said.
Loans will go toward construction of broadband infrastructure and creation of biofuel technologies, Vilsack said. The federal loans will also be available to local fire stations and other services that improve the quality of life, he said.
“We know this process works,” Vilsack said. “We believe that (in) those areas where poverty is high, we can make a difference.”
Congressman James Clyburn, who accompanied Vilsack, provided an example of how rural areas are often overlooked in Washington. He recalled that a few years ago, the USDA was going to receive $2.5 billion in funds and the U.S. Department of Commerce was set to receive $2.5 billion for rural broadband. He said the U.S. House approved the allocations.
When the bill got back from the Senate, however, about $7 billion was approved for the Department of Commerce and none for the USDA, Clyburn said.
“We were able to get the $2.5 billion back,” he said. “We want to be sure that resources (are) targeted in areas where they are needed. I wanted to make sure rural communities get treated with equity.”
Dr. Cleveland L. Sellers Jr., Voorhees College president, said Denmark epitomizes a rural area, noting South Carolina is home to many towns just like Denmark.
“South Carolina has the fourth highest unemployment rate in the country. .. and seventh lowest median income,” Sellers said. “It is my hope that South Carolina, along with other states, will be able to assist in addressing rural areas immensely with the implementation of this initiative.”
S.C. Department of Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers praised the relationship the SCDA has had with both the USDA under Vilsack’s leadership and with Clyburn.
“The things I have been so impressed with (about) the Congressman has been his open-door attitude for the rural areas of South Carolina and his advocacy for rural areas of agriculture in South Carolina,” Weathers said. “His strength and resolve (is) helping rural South Carolina advance, especially areas where we live that have a wide variety of agriculture.”
Vilsack and Clyburn also held a press conference later Tuesday morning at the Statehouse in Columbia to announce the StrikeForce initiative expansion.
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