Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says there’s little doubt the urban areas of the U.S. are recovering from the “Great Recession.” The same can’t be said for the remaining 14 percent of the population who live in rural America.
According to economists, that recession began in December of 2007 and ran through 2010. During that time, almost 9 million jobs vanished from the U.S. economy and GDP shrank by more than 5 percent, making it the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
“While the rebound has been slow, most of America has recovered and is now ahead of where they were when the recession kicked in,” Perdue said. “But the same cannot be said for many pockets of our rural population, and that, ladies and gentlemen, concerns me and that is our challenge.”
Perdue, the former governor of Georgia who clearly reveled in addressing a southern audience, was the keynote speaker at the 82nd annual meeting of the Delta Council, the organization that represents agriculture and business in northwest Mississippi, which has been referred to as home of the some of the poorest counties in the country.
During the Delta Council annual meeting, also on the Delta State University campus, in 1947, then Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson laid out the principals for what became the Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe from World War II.
Poverty in rural areas
On Friday (June 9) Secretary Perdue spoke about the need for a renewed effort to restore prosperity to the rural areas of America that have been left behind in the recovery since the end of the last recession.
“Today, sadly, nearly 85 percent of America’s persistently impoverished counties are not in the inner cities, but in rural areas,” he said. “One in four children live in poverty, a rate we’ve not seen since 1986. Deep poverty, which is defined as having income of less than half of the poverty threshold, is more prevalent among children in rural areas than it is in urban areas.
“We hear a lot of attention in the media about the decaying inner cities, but we have situations out in rural areas that it is my absolute intention to address, and the president’s intention to address, as well.”
He cited the exodus of young people because they can’t find gainful employment in the small towns and rural areas as another reason for concern..
“You and I know that our children are growing up and leaving our rural communities and not coming back,” he said. “With four children and 14 grandchildren, my wife, Mary, and I are the kind of parents who want to gather them around as close to us as we can.”
Lowest level since 2010
The secretary noted the growth of the rural population has not kept pace with the remainder of the country, “and is now at its lowest level since 2010. So the question begs itself – what do we do? We’re not going to stand idly by.”
The president, he said, has asked all leaders in the administration to focus on job creation. USDA will focus, in particular, on job creation, economic vitality and prosperity in rural America.
Perdue, who called President Trump “a man of action – he says what he means and means what he says, and so do I,” listed several action verbs USDA will use in that quest: Collaborate, eliminate, innovate and “sellabrate.”
Saying the administration plans to collaborate across all departments, including USDA, Perdue cited the employees he visited at the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Mississippi State University facilities at Stoneville, Miss., on his trip to the Mississippi Delta as examples.
“I’ve never seen a better collaboration between state and federal partners than I observed yesterday and today in speaking with the employees of the Stoneville research facility. We need more people, not less, coming together at the federal level, the state level, the local level, the private sector, the public sector for the benefit of all of us. It’s all of our civic responsibility to participate like that.”
‘Not going to hurt you’
He gave audience members a new take on the old saying “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help you” to explain the second action verb: eliminate, as in doing away with excessive regulations, one of the main campaign themes of Republicans during the 2016 elections.
“Our statement will be ‘We’re here from the government, and we’re not going to hurt you. We’re not going to be your adversary; we’re going to be your facilitator and to help you grow America again.”
Innovation will involve finding new ways to bring products from rural America to other markets both domestically and around the world. It also means making sure rural residents have access to capital, business development opportunities and the Internet.
In his term as governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011, Perdue established a public-private sector commission, called The Commission for a New Georgia, that focused on the way the state conducted business activities.
“You’d better believe we implemented the proposals from that commission that made sense,” he said. “My commitment to the members was that if you spend your time and come up with sound ideas that make sense from a business perspective, we will implement them.”
180 days to report
Perdue said he believes the president expects the same level of achievement from the inter-department task force he asked Secretary Perdue to chair shortly after he was sworn in as secretary of agriculture.
“The president, as I said, is a man of action, and he gave me 180 days, not two years or four years, to come up with a report, and we plan to accomplish that directive with good, sound ideas,” the secretary noted.
The secretary said he’s using a new spelling for the word celebrate – sell-a-brate – because of the importance of increasing exports of U.S. agricultural products overseas.
“I’ve told the producers of America that they do a great job of producing it, and it’s my job to sell what they produce around the world,” he said. “We have a hungry world that wants good, USDA-stamped products. We’re going to go around the world and develop free and fair trade policies where the producers of America benefit.”
He defended his plan to reorganize USDA by creating a new undersecretary of agriculture post for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. “I want a person who gets up every morning with the one question on their mind – Where can I go today to knock on doors and sell America’s agricultural products. Ladies and gentlemen, you grow it, and we’re going to sell it.
Work with Commerce, USTR
“The new undersecretary for trade will work hand-in-hand with our Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and our new U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer because food is a noble thing to trade.”
Although critics have said Perdue lessened the rural development role of USDA by removing the undersecretary post for rural development to make room for the new trade undersecretary, he said he had, in fact, elevated it by having a new position of assistant secretary for rural development report directly to him.
The new assistant to the secretary will have “walk-in privileges where we can make decisions very quickly and deploy the vast resources of rural development across this country,” said Perdue.”I didn’t want to add another layer to the bureaucracy to stand in the way of good ideas and better ways to do things.”