The cover of the report. Courtesy of Anthony Flaccavento.
The cover of the report. Courtesy of Anthony Flaccavento.

Southwest and Southside Virginia have an abundance of challenges, from the opioid epidemic, closing rural hospitals and a lack of affordable housing to the long-term economic challenges created when coal mines, furniture factories and other traditional industries shut down. While state and federal officials know these problems well, often they’re less aware of the other side of the coin: Many small towns and rural communities in this part of the state are fighting back, creating new economic opportunities and tackling intractable issues with effective, home-grown solutions.  

This bottom-up approach to fixing what’s wrong and building what’s right is happening from Pulaski to St. Paul, from Floyd to Danville. In many cases, the kernel of an idea — reopening historic downtown theaters in Pennington Gap and St. Paul, repurposing abandoned buildings into residential and commercial hubs in Danville, building a food hub across the region to give small farmers access to bigger markets — moves local leaders to action. Once it begins to take shape, state and federal resources are brought into the mix to expand or complete the local initiative. Rather than top-down, cookie cutter solutions, these are community driven, place based efforts that get an assist from federal resources. They don’t always succeed, but on the whole, this model has worked well in rural areas around the commonwealth and the nation.  What’s lacking is a serious and sustained commitment to rebuilding small towns and rural communities at the national level, something both parties have largely neglected for most of the past forty years. 

Could this bottom-up approach to fixing what’s wrong while building what’s right be dramatically scaled up to cultivate prosperity across much of rural America? I believe the answer is an emphatic “yes!” That’s why the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative, in concert with Progressive Democrats of America, has just released the Rural New Deal, a detailed template for federal action that will enable and support community driven actions to revitalize rural America. Based on the experience of rural innovators in community development, housing, entrepreneurship and more, the Rural New Deal differs from many other national policy platforms in its focus on ambitious but practical, tried and true strategies.

Release of this template for federal action comes as the Biden administration is taking substantial steps to reverse 40 years of disastrous trickle-down economic policies, instead making major investments in infrastructure, food and agriculture, rural broadband and American manufacturing. What’s more, Biden’s aggressive antitrust actions on multiple fronts have begun to reverse the tide of corporate concentration in every part of American life. And the recent changes enacted by the National Labor Relations Board will help ensure that workers can no longer be intimidated or stalled in their quests to unionize.

That’s where the Rural New Deal comes in. Building on historic investments now hitting the ground, the Rural New Deal will accelerate the process of revitalizing rural communities, while contributing to the overall health and resilience of the American economy. A concise but relatively detailed platform for federal action, the Rural New Deal puts workers and good jobs at the center, dramatically expands critical rural infrastructure, levels the playing field for family farms and small businesses against absentee corporations, and addresses a myriad of health, housing and other problems with locally tailored solutions.

The Rural New Deal has 10 pillars, each of which contains five to eight recommendations for public policy, primarily at the federal level. While rural-driven and rural-focused, many of the recommendations would benefit people in cities and suburbs as well. As an example, the second pillar, “Reward Work and Ensure Living Wages,” calls for a federal jobs guarantee with livable wages, expansion of effective training and apprenticeships for displaced workers, eliminating unfair barriers to unionization, and support to small businesses who struggle to pay fair wages.  The third pillar, “Dismantle Monopolies, Empower and Support Local Business,” dives deeper into support for independent businesses, including cooperatives, while squarely tackling extreme corporate concentration through aggressive antitrust action, reduction of corporate subsidies and challenges to the unbridled power of private equity.

While the Rural New Deal is a nonpartisan call to action, one which could be embraced across the political spectrum, it is rooted in a progressive economic vision. According to PDA Director Alan Minsky, “Addressing the problems and concerns of rural America, isn’t just the right thing to do, it is essential for the health of our nation. Too many Progressives have ignored rural and small-town America for too long. The Rural New Deal will change that.”  Talk about a welcome change!

The Rural New Deal won’t fix all our problems. For that we need to rebuild trust across geography, race and ideology, something RUBI is working on in local communities in Virginia, North Carolina and elsewhere. But the RND could make a big difference as well.  Mike Schmuhl, the chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, put it this way: “While we can’t rewrite the past, we can reframe the future. A policy framework like the Rural New Deal would recenter our policy debates to people and local communities, cut through the political noise, build understanding and trust, and put us all on a path for a real American renewal.”  

Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, rural development consultant and author near Abingdon. He is cofounder and executive director of RUBI, the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative.

Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, rural development consultant and author near Abingdon. He is co-founder...