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EDITORIAL: Bridging the urban/rural U.S. divide
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EDITORIAL: Bridging the urban/rural U.S. divide

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The electoral map of the United States continues to look the same. Democrat Joe Biden is now president largely because of huge volumes of votes from urban and suburban areas. In nearly every state, rural areas went red for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

The so-called urban/rural divide has grown larger in recent times. In his call for unity in America, can President Joe Biden find ways to bridge the gap between Americans that find too little in common and often have often hostility toward each other?

Ann Eisenberg, a law professor at the University of South , along with law professors Jessica A. Shoemaker of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lisa R. Pruitt of the University of California-Davis, think the situation can be effectively addressed.

Writing for theconversation.com, they state: “Rural communities provide much of the food and energy that fuel our lives. They are made up of people who, after decades of exploitative resource extraction and neglect, need strong connective infrastructure and opportunities to pursue regional prosperity. A lack of investment in broadband, schools, jobs, sustainable farms, hospitals, roads and even the U.S. Postal Service has increasingly driven rural voters to seek change from national politics. And this sharp hunger for change gave Trump's promises to disrupt the status quo particular appeal in rural areas.”

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By contrast, metropolitan stakeholders often complain that the Electoral College and U.S. Senate give less-populous states disproportionate power nationally.

But, as pointed out by the three law professors, that power has not steered enough resources, infrastructure investment and jobs to rural America for communities to survive and thrive.

Based on their years of research into rural issues, the three are offering Biden ideas for initiatives that could help rural communities and bridge the urban/rural divide. Three proposals are:

• Get high-speed internet to the rest of rural America: “The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access and even a social life depend directly on broadband.”

Yet 22.3% of rural residents and 27.7% of tribal lands residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.

Although President Joe Biden has signaled support for rural broadband expansion, it's not yet clear what the Federal Communications Commission might do under his leadership. “Recategorizing broadband as a public utility could help close the digital divide.”

• Help local governments avoid going broke: Local governments are vital for services, from trash pickup to overseeing public health. A lot of rural local governments are dealing with an invisible crisis of fiscal collapse. Regions that have lost traditional livelihoods in manufacturing, mining, timber and agriculture are stuck in a downward cycle: Jobs loss and population decline mean less tax revenue to keep local government running.

“Federal institutions could help by expanding capacity-building programs, like Community Development Block Grants and Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants that let communities invest in long-term assets like main street improvements and housing.”

• Focus on the basics: People who live in distressed rural communities have important place-based connections. In many cases, the idea of "just move someplace else" is a myth.

The greatest historic progress on rural poverty followed large-scale federal intervention via Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. They created public jobs programs that addressed important social needs like conservation and school building repair; established relationships between universities and communities for agricultural and economic progress; provided federal funding for K-12 schools and made higher education more affordable; and expanded the social safety net to address hunger and other health needs. More can be done.

“The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act targeted many of these issues. But urban communities' quicker and stronger recovery from the Great Recession than rural ones shows that this program neglected key rural challenges.”

The law professors note that congressional support will be needed in efforts to boost rural America, closing with the key question: “Will federal leadership take the bold steps necessary to address rural marginalization and start mending these divisions? Or will it pay lip service to those steps while continuing the patterns of neglect and exploitation that have gotten the U.S. to where it is today: facing an untenable stalemate shaped by inequality and mutual distrust.”

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