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Why no 'Marshall Plan' for America's rural areas?

(Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Dee Davis op-ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader:

Tommy Blair came from Wagoner, Okla., population 7,669. He played the drums at Broken Arrow High School.

Levi Kinchen was reared in Tickfaw, La., population 617. He killed his first deer when he was 9.

Jacob Butler was from Wellsville, Kan., population 1,606. His father, Jim, said the Butler family "believed in things that were right."

All three are dead now, killed in Iraq in the last few months. All three came from rural America, as did a surprising number of their brothers and sisters in arms. The Americans who died in Iraq came from Comfort, Texas; and Clifton, Va., and Elba, Ala. This has been a war waged by America's small towns.

Congress is now debating a funding extension for Iraqi peacekeeping and reconstruction that would bring the total to $150 billion. The Bush administration says we have to spend that much because the price of failure is incalculable if we lose in Iraq.

Would it be unpatriotic to take a moment from the current debate to ask, "Who lost rural America?"

Of the 250 poorest counties in the United States, 244 are rural. Rural households average 27 percent less in earnings than their metropolitan counterparts, and the poverty rate is 21 percent higher. The suicide rate for males over 15 is 80 percent higher, and the rate of alcohol and drug abuse is significantly higher among rural young people. Rural eighth-graders are 104 percent likelier to use amphetamines and 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine than their peers in metropolitan areas.

Rural residents are more likely to be victims of violence than urban Americans. Rural areas have just half the number of physicians per capita, and rural school spending is 25 percent less per pupil. Forty percent of the rural population has no access to public transportation, even though half of the rural poor do not have automobiles to get them to work or to the doctor.

These conditions exist for a significant number of Americans. There are more rural Americans than Iraqis. The 56 million people who live in rural America, if counted separately, would rank as the world's 23rd largest nation, just behind France, Italy and Great Britain. Yet as a nation, we find difficulty acknowledging that the challenges rural Americans face are national challenges, let alone national priorities on par with rebuilding the infrastructure in Iraq.

Last year, Congress passed a farm bill that did next to nothing for most of rural America. Less than 2 percent of rural families earn their primary living on farms. The farm bill is a five-year, $150 billion subsidy for large agricultural corporations.

Tucked in the bill was a $1 billion economic development program for rural communities to support job creation and electronic infrastructure. That program was killed in committee. It was not a budget priority.

On the Sunday that President Bush spoke to the American people to make the case for an additional $87 billion for the Iraqi effort, musicians from around the country gathered in Columbus, Ohio, for the annual Farm Aid concert to raise a few hundred thousand dollars to help small farms and finance seat-of-the-pants economic initiatives around rural America.

While Congress rushes to fulfill our obligations to the oil-rich Middle East, rural America holds a telethon. While Iraq is being offered a 21st-century Marshall Plan, perhaps rural America should ask for more than a federal exit strategy.

Dee Davis is president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a non-profit communications organization based in Whitesburg.