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Keeping them down on the farm

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Esther Cepeda
June 13, 2011
— Last week the White House announced it was forming what it called the first-ever council to address the unique challenges of rural America. The best news coverage the proclamation got was a mock story at the top of Comedy Central's political website.

Under the headline "White House rural council will blow your mind," the Onion-esque story described "a heady bit of breaking news" thusly: "OMG YOU GUUUUYS! It does NOT get BIGGER than THIS! ... President Obama has created a Rural Advisory Group."


OK, I admit that an announcement of a rural council doesn't exactly send shivers up the spine. Yet it should have gotten more attention.


About 60 million people live in rural America, and their needs are obviously similar to those of urban dwellers: access to credit, health care and the Internet, development of renewable energy, better school graduation rates and, of course, economic opportunities and jobs. But rural residents find it harder to meet those challenges because of a lack of infrastructure and interest.


As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who will chair the new council, pointed out at the news conference, without rural America, city and suburban folks wouldn't have a ready supply of "food, feed, fiber, water, and an ever increasing amount of fuel. And a disproportionate ratio of military recruits comes from rural areas."


Basically, the heads of all the major executive branch departments, agencies, and offices are going to talk to each other about coordinating their efforts for rural America. Vilsack confirmed that this work habit is sadly lacking when he noted, "The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing in order to leverage and use our resources more wisely."


Let's shudder that such obvious coordination is a light bulb that just now went on -- and hope common sense dictates that other issues can be tackled through this novel concept of talking to each other.


Cynics will say that history is littered with other White House initiatives, councils and agendas that never lived up to their potential. That's true, but even if the council only makes us recognize the value of what Interior Secretary Ken Salazar calls the "forgotten America," it will have at least been a partial success.


Dayton Duncan, documentary filmmaker and author of "Miles from Nowhere: Tales from America's Contemporary Frontier," told me that rural issues have, sadly, never been part of the national conversation.


"The people who live in rural areas always feel that they're overlooked either by their state government or by the federal government. To a great extent they're correct and sometimes heaven help them if they do get attention," Duncan told me. "There is a long and sad history of the federal government seeing places that are 'virtually uninhabited' as last in line for attention. But I think it's wonderful that an administration is trying to pull all these different elements together to look at rural places in a coordinated fashion. I guess the question is what comes of it."


Indeed, advocates and skeptics alike will rightly question what actually comes of the council's work. But what a worthwhile question to ask.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.



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