Federal Rural Development Policy in the Twentieth Century

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Summary
Assessing a century of rural development policy and programs is not an easy task.
As we view the changes and the Federal policy role over time, it can be difficult to sort
through the strategies, program impacts, and unintended consequences of the policies and
programs of 17 Presidential administrations and 50 Congresses. Adding to the difficulty
is the fact that some of the main theoretical concepts and the underlying structural
conditions of rural America—including definitions of rurality, the structure of rural
economies, population characteristics, and the reality of rural isolation and distances—
have been altered repeatedly throughout the 20th century.
Tracing the long-term effects of a single policy or program or even a set of
policies and programs is immensely complicated by all of the factors that can come into
play over a span of many decades. Some efforts that may have seemed to be failures at
the time may in the longer view be seen as successful. A review of past policies may
offer insights about the circumstances under which programs were developed and the
reasons why they evolved into their present forms. Those insights may lead to a better
understanding of how current policies embody the slowly distilled experiences of
generations confronting the same problems time and time again.
Over the years, rural development approaches have been modified to meet
changing economic, political, and demographic contexts. The rural economy has faced
recurring expansions and recessions that haven’t always followed national and urban
patterns. At the same time, the nonfarm economy has come to figure more prominently
in rural development planning and programs. Population migrations have altered over
time from a consistent rural-to-urban movement to a variable pattern of movement
between rural and urban areas, depending upon the economy and on such factors as
natural amenities. In response to shifts in party control and the public political
consensus, leadership, initiative, and funding for federally supported rural development
have moved from a primarily Federal orientation to a partnership among public and
private enterprises and multiple levels of government. All this has been further
complicated by competing visions of Federal rural development policy championed by
the many agencies, Congressional oversight committees, interest groups, and regions that
create and support rural development initiatives.
Many of the challenges that faced leaders early in the century remain challenges
today. Rural poverty and chronically distressed regions continue to present policymakers
with unsolved problems. The structure of the farm economy continues to change in ways
similar to earlier periods–fewer and larger farms produce most of our commercial food
and fiber–although the number of small farms which depend upon off-farm income
continues to increase and present new employment challenges to the rural economy.
rural areas also face challenges that have only recently become part of the rural
development policy portfolio. For example, increasingly open global trade will require
economic adjustment in a number of industries–including textiles and clothing
manufacture–that are concentrated in rural places, but may also offer increased
employment in other new or expanded industries. Similarly, increased movement of
recent immigrants to rural communities for work in restructured industries may pose
problems for local services like education, but may also offer opportunities for renewed
business in the housing and retail trade.
Federal Rural Development Policy in the Twentieth Century 2
Still, there have been fundamental changes in the ideological context of Federal
rural development policy. The urban American public seems to have moved from a view
of rural America as primarily the source of agrarian values and the foundation of the
nation’s character to one that emphasizes the value of rural areas for providing an
enhanced quality of life and access to natural beauty. For policymakers, although equity
between urban and rural areas continues to be a driving force for rural economic
development, the purpose has moved from one of assuring basic, minimum standards of
living in the countryside to one of trying to create new, higher-paying jobs for rural
residents while sustaining rural communities and amenities that can be appreciated by all
Americans.
Finally, the Federal government’s role has shifted as the goals of rural
development have become more local and regional in nature. Many national-level goals-
-electrification, access to telecommunications, good roads, general educational reform,
poverty and malnutrition relief, and farm income variability–have been addressed and are
well-established components of Federal policy and programs. As local and State capacity
to address the problems of job creation and community development has increased,
leadership has devolved to local and State governments, regional organizations, and the
private sector to develop and implement programs to solve new problems. However,
Federal financial assistance remains a constant and critical input into the rural
development process.
During this century of change, however, there have been important continuities.
Across the entire period there seems to have been agreement, built upon successes of the
late 19th century, that the Federal government has a clear role in providing what we now
call technical assistance–information, education and training, and infrastructure
development. From USDA’s early Office of Public Roads to the Transportation Equity
Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), for example, Federal involvement in developing rural
transportation systems has been well accepted. Likewise, since the electrification
programs of the New Deal, Federal support for telecommunications infrastructure
development–from telephones to the Internet–has been fairly quickly accepted.
There has also been general agreement that local initiative is a key ingredient in
successful rural development. Respect for the Federal system of local, State, and national
government prerogatives has influenced the design of rural development programs from
the earliest years of the century.
Some areas of disagreement have also been continuous over the course of the
century. The degree of Federal leadership, coordination, and control of programs has
been among the most contentious of these. Disagreement on this aspect of rural
development programs has led to repeated policy and funding swings that have often
brought about abrupt changes in program administration. Lack of consensus has also
persisted regarding the centrality of the farm economy and farm policy to rural wellbeing,
as well as the level of assistance and focus that should be placed on economically
distressed communities.

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