I grew up in a rural community, began my career as an organizer in small towns, and now lead one of the largest efforts to rebuild pro-democracy, pro-worker civic capacity in rural America. So I can speak with some authority when I say that President Biden, somewhat surprisingly, has ushered in a new economic paradigm that can radically transform the lives of rural people and build a more politically and economically secure future for all Americans.
He calls his agenda “Bidenomics,” a term that will be hotly debated in the months ahead. But what does it mean? And what’s its significance for rural people?
In simplest terms, Bidenomics arguably is the most significant departure in 40 years from the “free market revolution” that rose to dominance in the 1980s — a dramatic alteration to our country’s economic trajectory.
However we describe the policies stemming from that revolution — often called “neoliberal” or “trickle-down” economics — it is beyond question at this point that policies which favor those holding all the wealth do not, inherently, benefit everyone else. In fact, the impact on rural communities too often has been quite the opposite.
Small towns, in particular, have been hollowed out by free trade policies that sent a torrent of manufacturing jobs overseas. Financial sector deregulation destroyed local banking and stripped investment out of many small communities. Family farmers have been driven out of business in droves by ever-growing multinational companies running massive factory farms that pollute the air and water in local communities. And a continual wave of tax cuts that too often benefit only the wealthiest and most powerful have placed an incredible strain on the essential infrastructure that rural people need to live and work, including schools, healthcare, internet and roads.
It wasn’t an inevitable result of larger trends that many rural communities have experienced decline. It was the result of deliberate policy choices. And we can make different choices.
In spring 2021, a network of diverse rural leaders from across the country joined together to address the challenges of economic decline and corporate concentration in rural communities alongside increasing attacks on personal freedoms. They developed a policy roadmap that can rebuild local communities; elected leaders of all stripes would benefit from adopting this popular agenda that connects strongly with rural voters.
Their prescription included:
- reinvesting in essential infrastructure;
- ensuring fair access to capital and other tools and opportunities for rural families; and
- reining in corporate monopolies to promote real competition and protect small businesses, family farmers, and workers from predatory and anti-competitive behavior.
Those leaders reconvened recently to evaluate progress from the last two years and update the policy roadmap. It is strikingly clear that Biden’s first two years in office saw action on many of the roadmap’s priorities and were the most consequential in our lifetimes for rural communities.
The combination of executive and congressional action since Biden took office — from the American Rescue Plan, to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to the CHIPS Act, Inflation Reduction Act and key executive action promoting competition and protecting workers — presents greater potential for revitalizing rural communities than anything since the New Deal. These were huge steps in the right direction, and yet rural people are still struggling. The updated Rural Policy Action Report offers a continued roadmap for how to help rural communities, protect the environment and core freedoms, and renew shared prosperity across geographic divides.
I’ll leave it to others to debate the political wisdom of the label “Bidenomics.” But the wisdom of the policies themselves should be clear.
These policies rest on the indisputable fact that everyday people — small-business owners, family farmers, workers, even unpaid caregivers — drive our economy. As the pandemic made clear, our work, our purchasing and our contributions are the engine of a healthy economy. And policies focused on our economic well being, particularly those that promote higher incomes and lower costs, generate growth — not policies prioritizing the rich and giant corporations.
This is what President Biden is describing when he says that we need to “grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out, not the top down.” When rural voters understand the choice between policies that prioritize their wellbeing versus policies that prioritize the wealthy and corporations, the choice is overwhelmingly clear.
Sarah Jaynes is executive director of the Rural Democracy Initiative.
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