Rural America To Obama: Remember Us Fifty million Americans live in the nation's smallest and most remote places — and most of them voted for John McCain. That has some wondering whether President-elect Barack Obama will pay much attention to rural issues.
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Rural America To Obama: Remember Us

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Rural America To Obama: Remember Us

Rural America To Obama: Remember Us

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, suppressing press coverage of a drug war with murder. But first, a year before his election as president, Barack Obama told a gathering in Iowa that one of his first tasks as president would be a summit on rural issues.

(Soundbite of Democratic campaign rally, Iowa)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Because what's good for rural America will be good for America, because the values that are represented are values that built America. And we've got to preserve them.

SIMON: President-elect Obama has yet to announce his rural summit, but rural activists are already preparing their wish lists. In our series "Memo to the President," NPR's Howard Berkes looks at the rural landscape that the new president inherits.

HOWARD BERKES: Public opinion surveys indicate rural people seem to want the same things everybody else wants: prosperity, security and peace. But rural advocates are much more specific. And many want the president-elect to understand this.

Mr. DEE DAVIS (Director, Center for Rural Strategies): Reality is, for most rural people, is that farming is not how we make our living.

BERKES: Dee Davis directs the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based group trying to attract attention to rural issues.

Mr. DAVIS: You've only got about 1 percent of rural America making their primary living on the farm. So what's important is to think about those other 99 percent and what's possible for them.

BERKES: Many of them are challenged by a rural economy that tanked sooner and deeper than the nation's economy. Thousands of rural manufacturing jobs have gone overseas. High energy prices made food and long commutes more expensive. And most rural places are losing population. When President Obama tackles rural recovery, he should first bridge the digital divide, says Debbie Kozikowski of RuralVotes, a group that campaigned for Obama.

Ms. DEBRA KOZIKOWSKI (Proprietor, RuralVotes): Internet access is not just for watching YouTube. It's an instrument of commerce and education.

BERKES: Rural areas lag behind cities and suburbs in access to broadband, making economic growth more difficult. Kozikowski also wants attention to the basic infrastructure of asphalt and concrete.

Ms. KOZIKOWSKI: You know, bringing us into the age of technology for new commerce and educational opportunity doesn't mean anything if you can't bring your product across a safe road or bridge.

BERKES: Both moves would help...

Dr. JAMES GIMPEL (Professor of Government, University of Maryland): Overcome the friction of distance, or overcome the costs that are associated with distance to these locations.

BERKES: That's James Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, who also cites as critical the nature of work in rural places.

Dr. GIMPEL: Key to the rural economy, really, is the notion of self-employment. Self-employment is much higher in rural America than it is anywhere else.

BERKES: Self-employed rural people find it difficult, Gimpel says, to make sure their businesses survive when they retire. So Gimpel suggests lower capital-gains taxes for Main Street businesses. That's based on his parents' experience in his Nebraska hometown. They had to inflate the selling price of their Western-wear shop so they could pay the capital gains tax and still have enough money for retirement.

Dr. GIMPEL: They sold it at a price that made it difficult for the purchaser to then operate the business at a profit while still servicing the debt. Within a couple of years, that business on Main Street closed after 30 years. And this happened to a number of other businesses on the same block in the same town.

BERKES: Cutting a tax rate is a relatively simple step that could help Main Streets survive. Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies has something more sweeping in mind for rural policy.

Mr. DAVIS: There's not going to be a bailout for rural America. And somebody writing a check to rural America, that ship has long ago sailed. What I'm talking about is having the opportunity to help the rest of the country out. And we don't have to think of rural as a deficit. We can think of it as a strength. We can think of it as the way to begin to reimagine our economy.

BERKES: Davis imagines rural areas focused on renewable energy and alternative fuels. And he envisions new markets tying local farmers to towns and cities close by. Yes, he warned earlier that agriculture is a small part of the rural economy, but farm and rural policy are still intertwined. Tomorrow, a memo to the president from the farm. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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