Rural Never Looked So Chic
The ongoing negotiations between House Republicans and the White House to avert the so-called fiscal cliff have provided no shortage of material for the rumor mill. One suggested proposal for “deficit reduction” has been to include the much-maligned farm bill into any grand bargain that is reached under the very flawed premise that there are savings to be gained. This $1 trillion food and farm welfare bill was successfully delayed in the run up to the election, resulting in its expiration and one of the few conservative victories in the last Congress.
The dismal policy proposals embedded within both the House and Senate farm bill have not changed. Real reforms are needed. The big problems with these massive pieces of legislation are well known—creation of new subsidy programs that expose taxpayers to greater risk, corporate welfare handouts, and the fact that 80% of the bill is comprised of food stamps. But one of the more obscure components within the Senate-passed version is the expanded definition of “rural.”
According to the Senate-passed farm bill, “one of the most glamorous places in the world to live, eat, play and, especially, shop” is small enough to be defined as rural. That’s right, but for its adjacency to Santa Monica, the star-studded city of Beverly Hills, California would be eligible for rural water development grants.
One city that would now qualify, it appears, is Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Located 50 miles from Boston with a population of roughly 41,000, it is “one of the largest cities in the county,” but according to the city’s website, “Fitchburg retains its small town flavor.”
At just under 40,000 people, the city of Hagerstown, Maryland would also become eligible. The city’s website gives off anything but a rural vibe: “Today, in keeping with its rich history the “HubCity” sits at the crossroads of two major interstates I-70 and I-81. It serves as gateway to the Baltimore and the Washington,D.C. area as well as the ‘hub’ of government, commerce and recreation for the tri-state area.”
Woonsocket, the sixth largest city in Rhode Island, also appears to gain rural status. The city of nearly 44,000 brags about its “modern Multi-million dollar wastewater and water treatment facilities” that are “currently operating substantially below capacity.” Does Woonsocket really need access to rural water development grants?
And what smaller cities would be competing against these new ones for already limited (albeit dubious) government funding were the Senate bill’s provisions to be adopted?
The city of Roberta, Georgia comes to mind. With a population of 1,000, it is “a small town with a big heart” 80 miles south of Atlanta. The town of Hollywood,Alabama is of the same size as Roberta. Its water tower proudly proclaims: “We’re the Real Hollywood.”
These small towns would be crowded out by the inclusion of much larger municipalities—all competing for the same water development grants from the federal government. This arbitrary expansion of “rural” means hundreds of new cities now have access to federal hand-outs—all courtesy of the American taxpayer. And the understandable protest sure to occur from the smaller towns will likely lead to expanded funding for the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program.
In fact, the outrage has already begun. Robert Stewart, the executive director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, said, “if the definition is expanded to 50,000 and under, many of our nation’s smallest communities will be unable to compete for Rural Development water and sewer infrastructure funds.”
How will lawmakers representing truly rural towns explain their support for this bill? How will they explain that states like California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island appear to have the most to gain?
To be clear, simply striking the expansion will not make the farm bill palatable to conservatives; instead, it serves to highlight both the enormous and convoluted nature of the food and farm welfare bill and the insidious nature of big government.
Expanding eligibility for any federal program, including rural water development grants, creates dependents. In this case, the dependents are towns that are then pitted against one another to justify their own existence. Should the provisions in the Senate farm bill become law, ”rural” America would never look the same again.