Rural Development Advocates Concerned About Mixed Messages From Trump Administration
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump remains popular in many rural parts of the country where people are eager to hear his message of Make America Great Again. The White House has been laying out ideas to help revive these rural areas where job growth has been slow. At the same time, the Trump administration wants to cut funds for some programs that help rural America. Grant Gerlock of NET News in Nebraska has been gauging the reaction from rural development advocates.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: One sign that President Trump is in tune with rural interests is the administration's infrastructure proposal.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It provides $50 billion for rural infrastructure, who have really been left out.
GERLOCK: In a meeting with local officials last month, Trump said the goal is to spark job growth in part by upgrading utilities like broadband.
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TRUMP: Which they don't have, and they want it.
GERLOCK: Actually, as many as 70 percent of rural residents do have it, though there's still a significant urban-rural disparity. Maurice Jones heads the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and says broadband helps workers connect with online classes and get much-needed job training.
MAURICE JONES: We're talking welders and electricians, coding and medical technicians. If you have the talent that's prepared for the jobs, the jobs will come.
GERLOCK: But other proposals give rural advocates pause. Retaliation against Trump's steel tariffs could harm the ag economy at a time when farm income continues to drop. Then there's the White House budget proposal to cut nearly a billion dollars in discretionary spending from the Department of Agriculture, which works closely on rural issues. That includes defunding the Rural Business Service, which is often a last resort for grants and loans. Johnathan Hladik with the Center for Rural Affairs says USDA programs help create private-sector jobs in places where fewer people now work in agriculture.
JOHNATHAN HLADIK: When we really break it down and we look at where that job growth is in rural communities, it's happening through those small businesses.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Like, I wanted to do it in glitter. Like, do you have, like, different colors of glitter?
SHAWNA MEYER: Definitely, yes, yes.
GERLOCK: Businesses like this custom T-shirt company in downtown Kearney, Neb. Shawna Meyer and her husband, Chais, started making original T-shirts here about five years ago. A wall of shirts shows off their designs.
S. MEYER: You've got to be kitten me. Just people come in, and they want their friend's face huge printed on a T-shirt just as a practical joke.
GERLOCK: They outgrew their one-at-a-time shirt printer and went to seven banks shopping for a $60,000 loan for new equipment. One after another, every banker said no. Chais says the loan finally came from the USDA's Rural Business Service, the same one the White House proposes eliminating.
CHAIS MEYER: It would be a huge disservice to businesses like us to not even have that as an option.
GERLOCK: Now the Meyers have a new workshop filled with big, spider-shaped printers.
This is the place.
C. MEYER: This is our silkscreen shop, yep.
GERLOCK: They grew from 5 workers to 10. And while it's an unconventional rural business, the loan is helping it thrive. Doug O'Brien worked on rural development in the Obama administration. He likes what the Trump White House is saying about rural issues.
DOUG O'BRIEN: But I'm not certain that we've seen the support for some of the strategies that are going to help making sure that there's economic opportunity in rural places.
GERLOCK: O'Brien and others are watching the farm bill, which is up for renewal this year. With significant cuts possible, many people who rely on programs to support rural development say they'd be happy just to keep the status quo. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.
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SHAPIRO: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS THILE AND BRAD MEHLDAU'S "THE WATCHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.