Rural Water - Quarter 3, 2013 - (Page 28)
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Uncle Sam has more than a dozen answers.
LENOIR IS A small town in western North Carolina. It has 18,000
people, a Wal-Mart, a Waffle House and an annual parade famous
for people carrying pans of blackberry cobbler.
Is it a rural place? The U.S. government
has an answer: Yes.
Yes. Yes. No. No. No. Yes. No. No. No.
The problem is that the U.S. government has at least 15 ofﬁcial deﬁnitions of
the word “rural,” two of which apply only
to Puerto Rico and parts of Hawaii.
All of these deﬁnitions matter; they’re
used by various agencies to parcel out
$37 billion-plus in federal money for “rural
development.” And each one is different.
In one program, for instance, “rural”
is deﬁned as any place with fewer than
50,000 residents. So Lenoir is rural, and
eligible for money. But in another, only
towns smaller than 2,500 residents are
“rural.” So Lenoir isn’t, and isn’t.
And so on. There are 11 deﬁnitions of
“rural” in use within the U.S. Department
of Agriculture alone.
“Sometimes we’re in. Sometimes we’re
out,” said Lane Bailey, the city manager in
28 • Third Quarter 2013
Lenoir. “We always have to check what our
deﬁnition is for different grants. ‘What are
we this day?’”
These varying deﬁnitions have become
a baroque example of redundancy and
duplication in Washington. They mean
extra costs for taxpayers — and extra
hassle for small-town ofﬁcials — as separate ofﬁces ask them the same question in
up to 15 different ways.
“If you were starting from a blank
slate, providing one deﬁnition would be
optimal,” said Doug O’Brien, the USDA
ofﬁcial in charge of rural development
But optimal is not happening. The
Senate is expected to pass a bill that would
pare down the list of deﬁnitions. Not down
to one, however.
Down to nine.
Every year, there are billions available
to fund projects in rural communities.
Money for housing. Community centers.
Sewer plants. Broadband connections.
But what, exactly, is a rural area? Is
there a single deﬁ nition that could take
in a Kansas wheat farm, a West Virginia
coal town, a Vermont dairy and a Hawaii
“It’s like, if I said to you, ‘Give me a deﬁnition of love,’” said Gary Hart, the director of the Center for Rural Health at the
University of North Dakota. “You wouldn’t
give me one deﬁnition. You’d give me 20.”
The list has grown in the way government duplication often does: one good
intention at a time. Frequently, a new set
of legislators or bureaucrats has set up a
program to help rural communities, and
has come up with its own deﬁnition of what
“rural” ought to mean.
But nobody bothers to erase the other
deﬁnitions already on the books.
Then, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Today, the
government’s ofﬁcial deﬁnitions of “rural”
include one written in 1936: an area with
fewer than 10,000 people. That one is
still used to parcel out rural telecommunications grants. Another deﬁ nition
was written in 1949: any place with fewer
than 2,500 people. It is used for housingaid programs.
These exist alongside other, different
deﬁnitions: One sets the population limit
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Water - Quarter 3, 2013
FROM THE PRESIDENT
PROJECTS THAT START IN RURAL AMERICA TOUCH THE LIVES OF ALL AMERICANS
WHAT DOES RURAL MEAN?
PROTECTING THE LAND
THE POWER OF AN ASSOCIATION
OLD CONSERVATION IDEA STILL IN VOGUE
THROWING MY LOOP
INDEX TO ADVERTISERS/ ADVERTISERS.COM
FROM THE CEO
Rural Water - Quarter 3, 2013