Congressman Sanford Bishop

Representing the 2nd District of Georgia

Improving Opportunities for Rural America and its African-American Populations

By Sanford D. Bishop, Jr.

The definition of Rural America is as diverse as its population. These nonmetropolitan pockets are inhabited by fewer than 2,500, but no more than 49,999, people in unincorporated areas.[1] In July 2015, 46.2 million of Americans resided in rural counties, representing 14% of U.S. residents. In 2014, while the U.S. poverty rate was estimated at 15.5%, the rural poverty rate was estimated at 18.1%.

While poverty in itself is race-neutral, when comparing the data comprised within Rural America there is indeed a disparity between ethnic groups. USDA-Economic Research Service analyzed data from the US Census Bureau’s 2015 ACS survey and reported that areas with a high incidence of poverty reflect the low income of the racial/ethnic minorities.[2] Rural Blacks/African Americans had the highest poverty rates (33.8%), followed by American Indians/Alaska natives (30.4%), and Hispanics (25.9%). Poverty rates for rural White Americans were the lowest (15%) of all measured groups.[3]

Persistent poverty adds an additional layer of complexity to Rural America. Counties are defined as persistently poor if 20% or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years.[4] As of 2015, there were 353 persistently poor counties in the United States, with rural/nonmetropolitan areas making up 85.3% of those counties. Additionally, higher incidences of poverty are concentrated in the South (21.7%), followed by the West (17.4%), Midwest (14.9%), and Northeast (14%).[5] Numerous factors including chronic disenfranchisement of African Americans, deindustrialization, and rapid Hispanic population growth all contribute to the systemic nature that allows persistent poverty to exist in modern America.

One cannot discount the economic base that often carries Rural America from year to year. In contrast to their urban compatriots that are often service industry focused (e.g. scientific, technical, and finance), rural areas primarily depend on goods production industries, specifically agriculture (farming, fishing, and forestry). Annual earnings were 15% less in rural areas, with urban areas surpassing median earnings in all sectors (recreation, mining, manufacturing, finance, etc.) except in agriculture and related fields.[6]

Innovation is said to occur in urban areas due to access to updated infrastructure, schools, utilities/water, healthcare, and broadband. Having access to viable human resources is also a key innovation driver. Counties and cities with access to the aforementioned hallmarks are often found in urban areas, further adding to the population decline in rural areas because job markets follow those available services.

Consistently operating at suboptimal levels, rural areas face immense challenges due to inadequate healthcare, poor nutrition, substandard housing and utilities, limited broadband connectivity, and minimal economic development. Poverty and Rural America, especially within the African American community, has become synonymous and unaffected by politics.

There are a variety of programs within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other federal Agencies (Treasury, Education, Health & Human Services, etc.), that when fully funded and acting in concert could be successful in closing the gaps in Rural America, particularly within African-American populations. Below are a few issues, along with example program areas available to address the issue should adequate funding be allocated:

I. Healthcare: In contrast to their White counterparts, African Americans have increased disparities in chronic conditions, such as diabetes, and cancers, including breast and prostate, as well as higher rates of congestive heart failure. Additionally, distance, attracting and retaining medical professionals, and aged infrastructure compound the disparities in rural areas.[7]

Opportunity program example: USDA Rural Development (RD) offers loans and grants to support essential healthcare facilities. US Health & Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Rural Health Policy funds a non-profit network (3RNet - National Rural Recruitment and Retention Network) to facilitate placements of medical staff in rural hospitals and clinics.

II. Housing: Housing options in Rural America are too expensive for low-income families; are in substandard conditions without hot water, have leaking roofs, rodent problems, or inadequate heating or plumbing systems.[8] Mobile/modular homes are in abundance, but provide little safety and security during natural emergencies (tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.).

Opportunity program example: USDA-Rural Housing Service offers loans and grants for single- and multi-family housing. Farm Credit System (FCS) also provides loans for rural housing and utilities.

III. Education: Fewer residents leads to decreased property tax collections and results in underfunded rural school districts. Insufficient resources also hinder educator recruitment and retention. Limited broadband access contributes to minimal educational curricula expansion in rural schools. Provide increased capacity to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) 1890 institutions.

Opportunity program example: Department of Education administers grants through the Rural Education Achievement Program (REAP) to districts for improving student academic achievement, as well as recruiting new educators. Completing broadband expansion using existing FCS loans and USDA-RUS grants can provide internet access for distance learning initiatives in the STEM fields, as well as advanced placement courses, to schools that normally cannot afford to hire specialized instructors. USDAs National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports HBCU-1890 institutional capacity building efforts by strengthening research, extension, and teaching in the food and agricultural sciences to serve surrounding communities. Support USDAs 2501 program to fund HBCUs to provide technical assistance to socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers.

IV. Infrastructure: Aged or non-existent roadways, coupled with limited transportation options make it difficult to access necessary facilities. Community facilities are often in various states of disrepair.

Opportunity program example: USDA-RD and Rural Utilities Service (RUS) administers programs that provide infrastructure improvements to rural communities, including hospitals, community centers, water and waste treatment, electric power, and telecommunications services that are critical in helping expand economic opportunities and improve the quality of life. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grants funds to establish a multi-county transportation networks connecting residents from remote locales to access healthcare facilities.

V. Economic Development: Prospects for utility demand growth in rural communities are limited, resulting in increased charges for access to reliable electricity.

Opportunity program example: Promote industry development opportunities in solar and related energy sectors. Encourage partnerships with local small businesses, counties, and electric cooperatives through HHS’ Community Economic Development (CED) program.

VI. Nutrition: Food deserts exist in rural areas due to limited access to healthy and affordable food retailers. There are opportunities to increase access to healthy food for expecting mothers, infants, and children in child-care and school.

Opportunity program example: The CED-Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) offers programs through the USDA, Treasury, and HHS to provide financial assistance to construct grocery stores, support rural farmers markets, and expand existing food distribution. USDA Food & Nutrition Service (FNS) administers federal nutrition assistance programs including WIC, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), and breakfast/lunch and summer food programs in schools to end hunger and obesity in America. 

VII. Emergency Preparedness and Response: Due to remoteness, communications issues, and resource limitations, first-responders lack the necessary capabilities to plan, prepare, and respond to health or natural emergencies such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Communities operate with a volunteer workforce and have dated minimally equipped response vehicles.

Opportunity program example: Department of Treasury administers a Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund providing underserved populations with loans to promote economic revitalization. USDA-RD and CDFI funds can be used to outfit ambulances with telemedicine capabilities for Emergency operators to expedite triage by transmitting vital signs in advance via the internet.  


Targeted policies aimed at addressing the gaps in raising the quality of life in Rural America are only successful when combined with the necessary resources required to fully invest in human capital, healthcare, education, nutrition, and infrastructure development. Creative funding mechanisms, like the 10-20-30 plan, developed by Congressman James Clyburn (D-SC), received bipartisan support because it is a revenue-neutral initiative allocating funds already appropriated.[9] The ingenious formula calls for at least 10% of a federal program’s funds be directed to counties where 20% of the population has lived below the poverty line for 30 years. Strategically funding federal programs like those described above using mechanisms such as the 10-20-30 plan will provide the necessary convergence to finally reduce the effects of persistent poverty.

                When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed H. R. 4278 “Rural Electrification Bill” in 1944, he remarked “These provisions will make it possible to bring electricity to thousands of farm homes which could not previously be served. From the point of view of raising the living standards of Rural America and providing a more efficient form of farm management, one of the most important projects interrupted by the war is the extension of rural electrification…” and “…The comforts and economic advantages of electricity are greatly desired by these American homes. I am sure of it, and I am sure that you agree with me… ”[10] Together, we can do in 2017 what was put in motion over 70 years ago.


[2] Kusmin, L.D., Rural America at a Glance, 2016 edition. Washington, DC., US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

[3] Kusmin, L.D., Rural America at a Glance, 2015 edition. Washington, DC., US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service...

[4] Proctor, B.D., Semega, J.L., and Kollar, M.A. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-256(RV), Income and Poverty in the United States: 2015, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 2016.

[6] National Health and Disparities Report, 2012. Chapter 10. Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

[7] Smith, M.L., Dickerson, J.B., Wendel, M.L., Ahn, S., Pulczinski, J.C., Drake, K.N., & Ory, M.G. The Utility of Rural and Underserved Designations in Geospatial Assessments of Distance Traveled to Healthcare Services: Implications for Public Health Research and Practice. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2013.

[9] Clyburn, J. E. Policy Essay: Developing the Will and the Way to Address Persistent Poverty in America. Harvard Journal on Legislation. Vol. 51, 2014.

[10] Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Statement on Signing a Rural Electrification Bill." September 22, 1944. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project.

115th Congress