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5 ways Biden can help rural America thrive and bridge the rural-urban divide

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Associate Professor of Law, University of South Carolina
Professor of Law, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Law, University of California, Davis
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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It’s no secret that rural and urban people have grown apart culturally and economically in recent years. A quick glance at the media – especially social media – confirms an ideological gap has also widened.
City folks have long been detached from rural conditions. Even in the 1700s, urbanites labeled rural people as backward or different. And lately, urban views of rural people have deteriorated.
All three of us are law professors who study and advocate intervention to assist distressed rural communities. The response we often hear is, “You expect me to care about those far-off places, especially given the way the people there vote?”
Our answer is “yes.”
Rural communities provide much of the food and energy that fuel our lives. They are made up of people who, after decades of exploitative resource extraction and neglect, need strong connective infrastructure and opportunities to pursue regional prosperity. A lack of investment in broadband, schools, jobs, sustainable farms, hospitals, roads and even the U.S. Postal Service has increasingly driven rural voters to seek change from national politics. And this sharp hunger for change gave Trump’s promises to disrupt the status quo particular appeal in rural areas.
Metropolitan stakeholders often complain that the Electoral College and U.S. Senate give less populous states disproportionate power nationally. Yet that power has not steered enough resources, infrastructure investment and jobs to rural America for communities to survive and thrive.
So, how can the federal government help?
Based on our years of research into rural issues, here are five federal initiatives that would go a long way toward empowering distressed rural communities to improve their destinies, while also helping bridge the urban/rural divide.

The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access and even a social life depend directly on broadband.
Yet 22.3% of rural residents and 27.7% of tribal lands residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.
The Trump administration undermined progress on the digital divide in 2018 by reversing an Obama-era rule that categorized broadband as a public utility, like electricity. When broadband was regulated as a utility, the government could ensure fairer access even in regions that were less profitable for service providers. The reversal left rural communities more vulnerable to the whims of competitive markets.
Although President Joe Biden has signaled support for rural broadband expansion, it’s not yet clear what the Federal Communications Commission might do under his leadership. Recategorizing broadband as a public utility could help close the digital divide.

It’s easy to take for granted the everyday things local governments do, like trash pickup, building code enforcement and overseeing public health. So, what happens when a local government goes broke?
A lot of rural local governments are dealing with an invisible crisis of fiscal collapse. Regions that have lost traditional livelihoods in manufacturing, mining, timber and agriculture are stuck in a downward cycle: Jobs loss and population decline mean less tax revenue to keep local government running.
Federal institutions could help by expanding capacity-building programs, like Community Development Block Grants and Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants that let communities invest in long-term assets like main street improvements and housing.
Rural activists are also calling for a federal office of rural prosperity or economic transitions that could provide leadership on the widespread need to reverse declining rural communities’ fates.
Only 6% of rural people still live in counties with economies that are farming dependent.
Decades of policies favoring consolidation of agriculture have emptied out large swaths of rural landscapes. The largest 8% of farms in America now control more than 70% of American farmland, and the rural people who remain increasingly bear the brunt of decisions made in urban agribusiness boardrooms.
Rural communities get less and less of the wealth. Those in counties with industrialized agricultural are more likely to have unsafe drinking water, lower incomes and greater economic inequality.
What many rural people want from agricultural policy is increased antitrust enforcement to break up agricultural monopolies, improved conditions for agricultural workers, conservation policies that actually protect rural health, and a food policy that addresses rural hunger, which outpaces food insecurity in urban areas.
Access to affordable land is another huge issue. Beginning farmers cite that as their biggest obstacle. Federal support for these new farmers, like that imagined in the proposed Justice for Black Farmers Act or in other property-law reforms, could help rebuild an agriculture system that is diversified, sustainable and rooted in close connections to rural communities.
Biden’s plan to bring former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack back in the same role he held in the Obama administration has cast doubt on whether Biden is really committed to change. Vilsack built a suspect record on racial equity and has spent the past four years as a marketing executive for big dairy, leading many to worry his leadership will result in “agribusiness as usual.”
One in five rural residents are people of color, and they are two to three times more likely to be poor than rural whites. Diverse rural residents are also significantly more likely to live in impoverished areas that have been described as “rural ghettos.”
More than 98% of U.S. agricultural land is owned by white people, while over 83% of farmworkers are Hispanic.
Criminal justice and law enforcement reforms occurring in cities are less likely to reach small or remote communities, leaving rural minorities vulnerable to discrimination and vigilantism, with limited avenues for redress.
At a minimum, the federal government can enhance workplace protections for farm laborers, strengthen protections of ancestral lands and tribal sovereignty and provide leadership for improving rural access to justice.
People who live in distressed rural communities have important place-based connections. In many cases, the idea of “just move someplace elseis a myth.
The greatest historic progress on rural poverty followed large-scale federal intervention via Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Although these reforms were implemented in ways that were racially unjust, they offer models for ameliorating rural poverty.
They created public jobs programs that addressed important social needs like conservation and school building repair; established relationships between universities and communities for agricultural and economic progress; provided federal funding for K-12 schools and made higher education more affordable; and expanded the social safety net to address hunger and other health needs.
A new federal antipoverty program – which urban communities also need – could go a long way to improving rural quality of life. The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act targeted many of these issues. But urban communities’ quicker and stronger recovery from the Great Recession than rural ones shows that this program neglected key rural challenges.
Some of these steps will also require Congress’s involvement. So the question is, will federal leadership take the bold steps necessary to address rural marginalization and start mending these divisions? Or will it pay lip service to those steps while continuing the patterns of neglect and exploitation that have gotten the U.S. to where it is today: facing an untenable stalemate shaped by inequality and mutual distrust.
This article was updated to clarify that the largest 8% of U.S. farms control more than 70% of U.S. farmland.
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What the $25 billion the biggest US donors gave in 2020 says about high-dollar charity today

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Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University
David Campbell is vice chair of the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation in Binghamton, New York.
Elizabeth J. Dale has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via Indiana University and The Giving USA Foundation for her research on philanthropy. The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect policy stances of Seattle University.
Jasmine McGinnis Johnson is a Visiting Fellow at Urban Institute, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

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Editor’s note: According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 50 Americans who gave the most to charity in 2020 committed to giving a total of US$24.7 billion to hospitals, homeless shelters, universities, museums and more – a boost of roughly 54% from 2019 levels. David Campbell, Elizabeth Dale and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, three scholars of philanthropy, assess what these gifts mean, the possible motivations behind them and what they hope to see in the future in terms of charitable giving in the United States.
Campbell: Pandemic. Pandemic. Pandemic. The share of giving that went to social service nonprofits, food banks and homelessness assistance groups rose sharply. At the same time, performing arts organizations, largely shut down as a result of the pandemic and starved of revenue from ticket sales, received more support from big donors in 2020 than in 2019, with charitable gifts and pledges to them increasing to $65 million from $51 million.
McGinnis Johnson: Likewise, Racial justice. Racial justice. Racial justice.
For example, basketball legend Michael Jordan declared that he would personally give at least $50 million to racial equity and education causes over the next decade, with his footwear and clothing company kicking in another $50 million. Also, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillan gave a total of $120 million divided into three equal gifts to Morehouse College, Spelman College and UNCF – the group previously called United Negro College Fund that pays for students to attend historically black colleges and universities. Neither Jordan nor Hastings and Quillan, who said their increased awareness about the country’s racial injustices and the deaths of Black people in police custody inspired them to give, made the Chronicle’s list of top donors in 2019.
These and other unusually large gifts taking aim at racial injustice, and other forms of social injustice (not counting HBCU donations), totaled $66 million in 2020. But I had anticipated that there would be even more of this giving by the biggest donors.

Dale: In particular, MacKenzie Scott – Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife – made many gifts to HBCUs. These donations included $50 million for Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Morgan State University. In addition to racial justice, her philanthropy has raised the profile of causes like civic engagement, community development and the need to address the medical debt crisis in the U.S. Scott was the second-largest donor for the year, after Bezos. Combined, their commitments totaled nearly $16 billion. Neither made the top 50 in 2019.
Until now, the ultra-rich haven’t typically supported causes like these. Instead, extremely wealthy donors have historically been more inclined to fund higher education and health care, largely with big donations to elite universities, hospitals and arts institutions like museums and operas.
The other aspect that strikes me is the “who” part of the list. There are many new faces: Eight of the 20 top donors didn’t make an appearance on the Philanthropy 50 list for their 2019 giving.

McGinnis Johnson: A total of about $14 billion of this giving went to foundations led by the givers themselves and donor-advised funds, which work somewhat like foundations in that donors set money aside for charity before they actually give those funds to nonprofits. When wealthy people set aside money this way, they receive tax benefits before giving those funds. In a troubling development, some foundations have begun to put some of their disbursed money, which was already designated for charity, into donor-advised funds rather than addressing today’s many urgent needs, such as alleviating hunger and staving off evictions amid a major economic crisis.
Dale: This list reminds me of the limits of philanthropy, especially with a problem as widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you add all of the social service gifts together, including donations to food banks, efforts to help the homeless and gifts to pay off medical debt, it adds up to only about $700 million. Compared to the trillions of dollars in relief the government is providing individuals and small businesses for economic problems that began in 2020, you can see that philanthropy from the very wealthiest Americans doesn’t come close to meeting all of the nation’s needs.
One possible way Congress could encourage more donations is by increasing the share of assets that foundations must give away every year. A coalition of wealthy donors including Walt Disney Co. heiress Abigail Disney and at least two members of the Pritzker family – heirs to the Hyatt fortune – supports this change.

McGinnis Johnson: I think that major gifts in support of racial and social justice causes may continue. I also expect to see the emergence of new donors spurred on by these crises who can give in new and different ways. And I hope that more wealthy donors begin to pay more attention to leadership, by supporting organizations led by people of color.
Campbell: Donors like MacKenzie Scott and Susan Sandler – the heir to a fortune made in the home-mortgage business – and some foundations are going out of their way to invest in people, places and organizations that have long been ignored or marginalized.
Also, their public statements about their giving, along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet listing his donations, have raised the bar for transparency in philanthropy.
I believe these new approaches can engage the public in an ongoing debate about the best way to use charitable dollars to build a better world. The question is, will other wealthy donors follow their lead?
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New steps the government’s taking toward COVID-19 relief could help fight hunger

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Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond
Tracy Roof does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle hunger as part of his administration’s efforts to alleviate poverty.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden declared on his second full day in office, invoking the “values of our nation.”
One way his administration aims to accomplish this goal is by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the country’s largest anti-hunger program. I’m researching this program, long known as food stamps but today referred to as SNAP, for an upcoming book. The program helps struggling families while boosting the economy during downturns.
As Biden’s presidency gets underway, I’m watching to see not only whether the government expands the amount of aid this program provides people in need today, but whether there are lasting changes to SNAP and other anti-poverty policies that could reduce hunger in the future.
Unlike the Trump administration, Biden’s team is eager to find ways to maximize the use of SNAP to fight poverty during the pandemic and beyond.
Former President Donald Trump criticized the large number of people who remained on SNAP after the last recession, which occurred partly because poverty rates remained high even as unemployment went down. Believing that the program discouraged work, Trump repeatedly tried but failed to limit who could get SNAP.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people enrolled in SNAP soared again. Spending on the program surged even more because the government temporarily let all beneficiaries get the maximum amount of benefits.
Government aid through SNAP totaled a record US$85.6 billion in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 2020. That money helped feed around 44 million people, up from 35 million a year earlier.
But until recently there was no extra help for the roughly 40% of the people who were already getting the maximum benefits because of their very low incomes. Congress changed that when it approved a 15% increase for all SNAP recipients as part of the December 2020 $900 billion relief package. That benefits boost started the following month.

Despite SNAP’s expansion and additional aid flowing to food banks from government assistance and many high-profile donations to food banks and food pantries by some of the richest Americans, hunger has remained a problem throughout the pandemic.
By January 2021, a government survey found that some 11% of adults, and more than 1 in 7 of all U.S. households with children, said they were having trouble getting enough to eat – well above pre-pandemic levels. The problem is even worse for people of color.
Along with the 15% increase in SNAP benefits Congress approved in December 2020, which initially was to last for six months, were changes to make it easier for college students and those on unemployment benefits to get SNAP.
Biden wants to offer Americans who face economic hardship additional help. He has proposed extending the SNAP increase for at least another three months, through September 2021. Further, he has pledged to work with Congress to tie benefit increases to the health of the economy and the people so that Congress would not have to take action for extra help to kick in.
If Congress adopted such an approach, I believe vulnerable families would no longer be at the mercy of the kind of political squabbling that has delayed additional help during the pandemic.
Biden also signed an executive order directing federal agencies to try to do more for the poorest families through SNAP. In addition, his administration is trying to make it easier for states to send more help to families with children who are missing free or reduced-price meals at school or who are too young to attend.
The proposed SNAP changes are among many temporary benefit increases Biden and others have recently outlined, such as in unemployment benefits and new tax credits for families with children.
Columbia University researchers estimate that a combination of Biden’s proposals could reduce poverty in 2021 by almost 30% and halve the number of U.S. children living in poverty. If successful, this could launch a longer-term transformation in anti-poverty policies.
Many advocates of policies that help the poor have long argued that SNAP benefits are too stingy to provide enough nutritious food for an adequate diet.
On average, people on SNAP use over three-fourths of their benefits by the middle of the month – even in a strong economy. As a result, many SNAP recipients run out of benefits and regularly turn to food banks. In fact, more than 40% of food bank clients are enrolled in SNAP.
Why don’t these benefits fill more gaps?
Technically, food stamp recipients are expected to spend 30% of their own income on food. If they have income, as most SNAP recipients do, their benefits are calculated by reducing the maximum benefit for their family size by 30% of the value of their income after deductions for things like child care. But many financially stressed families don’t feel they can afford to spend that much on food.
Another problem is how the maximum benefit is set. It is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture in 1975 as “a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”
Despite changes to reflect new official nutritional recommendations, the government has maintained the same inflation-adjusted cap on spending in place for decades. As a result, the plan relies on unreasonable and outdated assumptions that underestimate average meal costs, especially in areas with high food prices.
One of Biden’s executive orders instructs the USDA to carry out an until-now overlooked mandate that could fix this problem, potentially increasing the amount of SNAP benefits during good times and bad.
To be sure, it’s unclear what will happen with SNAP benefits.
Presidents have often used emergencies to make lasting policy changes, but big expansions in anti-poverty programs have historically been passed with large Democratic majorities in Congress as in the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the 1960s.
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Today, the Senate is evenly split, with Democrats wielding control through Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote in that chamber. The Democratic majority in the House is also narrow.
Just as Trump failed at his efforts to cut many anti-poverty programs, Biden may not succeed in expanding them. But his proposed changes reflect a big shift in how the government uses policies to help Americans in need.
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Mothers who earned straight A’s in high school manage the same number of employees as fathers who got failing grades

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Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina – Charlotte
Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
Mothers who showed the most academic promise in high school have the same leadership opportunities as fathers who performed the worst, according to our new peer-reviewed study. That is, in their early-to-mid careers, mothers who got straight A’s end up overseeing a similar number of employees as men who got F’s.
To reach these conclusions, we used a U.S. national survey that since 1979 has tracked a group of baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964. We focused on the 5,000 or so participants for whom researchers obtained high school transcripts and then compared the data with their responses to career-focused surveys taken over an 11-year period from 1988 to 1998 – a period when most of them were in their 30s.
Overall, our results showed that men manage more employees than women regardless of their GPA. For participants without children, the leadership gap between men and women was fairly constant across GPA levels, with men managing about two to three workers more on average.
What was most interesting to us is what we learned when we focused only on parents. Fathers with 4.0 GPAs reported overseeing an average of 19 people, compared with 10 for childless men with similar grades and about five for fathers with a 1.0 or less. In contrast, the best-performing mothers managed fewer than five people, compared with seven for childless women with top GPAs and three for mothers with the worst grades.

In other words, becoming a parent boosts leadership opportunities for men while diminishing them for women. Even attaining a college or advanced degree had the same effect, helping fathers but doing little for mothers. Other research reveals that men have a faster route to leadership positions across occupations, including in stereotypically feminine fields such as human resources and health care.
Recent economics research has highlighted “lost Einsteins” – the really smart students from poor families who never become inventors because they don’t receive the same advantages and support that even low-achieving kids from rich families do.
The same can be said for women, whose talents have long been underutilized by corporate America. Our research showed that even the most talented and brightest women experience diminished leadership prospects on account of gender-related barriers, especially if they became mothers.
But the problem isn’t motherhood or fatherhood per se. Past research has shown it’s more about how society views mothers and fathers and the associated stereotypes that contribute to gendered outcomes. For example, fathers could be getting more leadership opportunities because employers stereotype them as better fits for positions that emphasize authority, long work hours and travel. Mothers, on the other hand, may see fewer chances because employers falsely believe they are less committed or competent.
Employers could help overcome this problem by reviewing how they evaluate workers and adopting fairer promotion practices that are more likely to recognize women’s talent. More family-friendly policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care could also help.
Given the limits of our sample, we do not know how our findings translate to younger groups, such as millennials. But given that progress toward equality in the workplace has slowed or even stalled on certain measures in recent decades, we believe it’s likely that the leadership prospects of academically gifted women haven’t improved much.
COVID-19 has harmed women’s employment and productivity more than men’s, particularly among parents because of a lack of child care support. We plan to conduct additional research to better understand how women’s leadership opportunities may have been affected by the pandemic.
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