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Editorial: Addressing issues facing left-behind communities is good policy — and good politics

  • Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., campaigns at an early-morning event on March 15, 2019, in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Published: 3/20/2019 10:10:03 PM
Modified: 3/20/2019 10:10:12 PM

During a campaign visit to Lebanon last week, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey discussed, among other things, the plight of rural America and what could be done to help. This is good politics, because Democrats recognize that they need to do better with rural voters than they did in 2016 if they hope to defeat President Donald Trump next year. But that aside, they have to come to grips with the fact that the country cannot truly thrive while prosperity, like the party’s supporters, becomes ever more concentrated in metropolitan areas.

To be sure, it won’t be easy to reverse rural decline. It has been unfolding over many years, and powerful demographic and economic forces are implicated. At the same time, the struggles of rural communities cannot be written off as inevitable, and the issue is now getting the attention it deserves from some Democratic presidential aspirants, such as Booker.

Among the most urgent problems that need to be addressed are the opioid addiction crisis and soaring suicide rates that have decimated many rural communities. The federal government could play an important role in combating both problems by ensuring that an integrated system of comprehensive mental health care is established and adequately funded. That need was highlighted during a visit to Claremont over the weekend by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is thought to harbor presidential aspirations himself, and especially by his wife, Chirlane McCray.

But that’s not enough. Deaths from suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses have been justly termed “deaths of despair.” Any program aiming to revitalize rural America has to address the whole range of problems that have contributed to that sense of hopelessness.

One obvious step, which could appeal to Republican and Democratic voters alike in rural areas, would be to make the infrastructure investments necessary to improve the outlook for economically depressed communities. To cite but one example: The lack of fast, dependable broadband service in many rural areas makes it hard to prosper in the digital age, as some Upper Valley residents can attest.

Stringing fiber-optic cable where it’s needed is only a small part of the equation. Rural areas depend on their roads and bridges perhaps even more heavily than their urban counterparts, both for personal transportation and access to markets. As this infrastructure ages and crumbles, the economy that depends on it becomes less able to compete. Clean water and renewable energy are other areas in which investment by the federal government could yield big dividends and improve the quality of rural life. And as Booker noted, the federal government could give a boost to rural schools by increasing federal aid.

It’s also no secret that the farm economy in many areas, including parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, depends in part on the labor of immigrants, some of them undocumented. Comprehensive immigration reform could ensure a steady supply of willing and able workers whose legal status was not under constant threat. And, yes, attracting young immigrant families could help revitalize declining communities faced with an aging population.

An article in the current edition of Washington Monthly magazine points to another way in which federal action could boost the economy of the heartland, where farmers are squeezed by agribusiness monopolies that, on the one hand, are raising prices for the things they buy, such as seed and fertilizer, while on the other exerting downward pressure on the prices they are paid for what they produce.

The author, Claire Kelloway, writes that the sharpest decline in farm incomes since the Great Depression occurred during the three years preceding the 2016 presidential election and that farmers now receive less than 15 cents out of every dollar American consumers spend on food, compared with 37 cents as recently as the 1980s. (We’re confident that this comes as no surprise to struggling dairy farmers in New England and elsewhere.)

The answer to monopoly is vigorous antitrust action that aims to level the playing field and restore competitive markets. Only the federal government is in a position to effectively challenge giant corporations in this arena, and Democrats should pledge to do so. That’s the kind of bread-and-butter issue that could appeal to a range of voters whose views are otherwise sharply divided over social and cultural matters. More important, helping left-behind communities to catch up is the right thing to do.

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