Historical Context

Our country has an incredible opportunity, as we build back from a pandemic and the economic toll that has taken on many communities, to drive shared economic growth and prosperity. To better understand how the policies referenced in this document can help rebuild rural communities, it is important to understand how policy choices from our recent past have contributed to growing disparities for many rural communities.

These disparities are not simply a function of macro economic trends, but also driven to a great degree by policy priorities of leaders in Washington – from both parties. The historical trends highlighted below are, admittedly, incomplete. But they provide a narrative framework to help understand how the economic decline experienced in many rural communities is not an inevitability and can be reversed.

SOME IMPORTANT TRENDS IN THE LAST FORTY YEARS:

THE REAGAN/BUSH ERA

Rural communities were hit hard in this period by policies that focused on cuts in government funding and services. Concentrated corporate power, the War on Drugs, and a farm price crisis began to reshape rural people’s views of government. The emerging narratives of “jobs versus the environment” and “deregulation” were popularized by many conservative leaders.

THE CLINTON NINETIES

A new era of Democrats brought a much more corporate and Wall Street friendly viewpoint. These leaders supported welfare reforms and expanded free trade, including NAFTA. Rural economies were rapidly changing, aided by corporate concentration and globalization. An immigration crisis, the militarization of the Mexico-US Border, and the expansion of factory livestock operations also began reshaping life in many rural communities. Rural resentment was building and was expressed in multiple ways, including the rise of violent right wing hate groups and Black farmers suing the United States Department of Agriculture for years of discriminatory policies.

THE GEORGE W. BUSH YEARS

The era was dominated by a strong sense of patriotism and military service in the post 9-11 period with a “War on Terror.” Rural young people looking for opportunities were among the most likely to enlist in the armed services. Domestic policy mostly focused on continued deregulation and free trade expansion, along with tax cuts for the nation’s highest earners. The economic crisis caused by the Wall Street/housing bubble collapse hit many rural communities already struggling with huge job exports hard.

THE OBAMA YEARS

After a historic election of the nation’s first Black president, who ran on a platform of economic populism, there was great optimism for real recovery. While many urban and suburban communities saw job and business growth in these years, counties with less than one hundred thousand residents saw very little. The Administration’s domestic economic policies, to a great degree, continued to promote corporate concentration, particularly in sectors like agriculture and natural resources. Commodity price booms did occur, but only a few farmers and fossil fuel companies benefited. The farmer and worker share of consumer dollars continued to decline and many rural small businesses continued to fail. “Obamacare” helped millions of people, but residents in states that didn’t choose to expand Medicaid did not receive the full benefit of that signature policy. In these states without Medicaid expansion, many rural hospitals continued to close.

TRUMP ERA

A perfect storm – growing economic disparity, growing distrust of institutions, as well as concentrated and unregulated media power, provided Donald Trump an opening for his “drain the swamp” nationalism that propelled him to the White House. His “America First” policies were only superficially populist and clumsily executed, while his biggest achievements largely benefited the super rich. And many rural communities continued to be left behind.

THE START OF THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION

Progressives may have been skeptical of Joe Biden, but the start of his Administration has renewed hope for an economy that works for everyone and builds greater shared prosperity. The $1.9 Trillion American Rescue Plan represents one of the most important pieces of legislation for working people and rural Americans in a generation. But the investment needed to rebuild our economy and set rural America on a path toward more sustainable economic growth is greater still. The opportunity to transform our economy and rural communities is tantalizingly close, and we hope the progressive movement will lock arms with rural Americans to help make this a reality.