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Opportunity for All: White House Rural Council Launches “Rural Impact” Effort to Help Rural Children and Families Succeed

Rural Impact is a new effort from the White House Rural Council to address the challenge of rural child poverty by bringing together federal agencies and public and private resources.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack serves Des Moines, IA McCombs Middle School student Miracle Kizer

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack serves Des Moines, IA McCombs Middle School student Miracle Kizer from the fruit line at the after-school meal program offered by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Iowa at McCombs Middle School in Des Moines, IA, on Thursday, Apr. 9, 2015. (USDA Photo by Laura Crowell)

President Obama believes that every child should have an opportunity to succeed. Yet some rural kids are falling behind—or worse, starting behind. A full 85 percent of our country’s persistent poverty counties are in rural America. Lack of opportunity for rural kids and families is often compounded by other challenges, including distance from health and early learning programs, lack of access to public transportation, and higher rates of drug and substance abuse, among others. But for all kids, the road to successful adulthood relies on a strong foundation of access to basic health, nutrition, high-quality early education, strong schools, and support from parents and caregivers.

Rural Impact is a new effort from the White House Rural Council to address the challenge of rural child poverty by bringing together federal agencies and public and private resources. Rural Impact focuses primarily on a multi-generational approach to how public and private resources are invested in rural families and communities. With support from the President, Cabinet officials, universities, foundations, non-profits and community groups, Rural Impact will focus primarily on three major areas:

  1. Innovation: Developing new approaches of program delivery, including integrated services and remote health and learning technology, to address rural challenges and barriers;
  2. Awareness: Enhancing public awareness of rural child poverty and its impact on the future of rural communities and our nation’s global competitiveness; and
  3. Investment: Improving access to high-quality child care, early learning, and continuing education, and making work pay.

The interagency effort will build on ongoing Administration efforts to support children and families, including the “Invest in US” early learning initiative, the vision of “Middle Class Economics” outlined in the FY16 Budget, and the Generation Indigenous initiative, while tailoring policy and outreach to address the unique circumstances of rural families. The blueprint of policy and engagement activities includes:

Developing new approaches to address rural challenges and barriers.

The White House Rural Council will explore new partnerships and innovative models of service delivery to increase access and take-up of key programs in underserved rural places. 

  • Launching Rural IMPACT: Rural Integration Models for Parents and Children to Thrive. This summer, the White House Rural Council will identify a group of 10 rural and tribal communities to test mechanisms for delivering two-generation services. Federal agencies will work together with communities to address the needs of both vulnerable children and parents, with a goal of increasing parents’ employment and education and child and family well-being.
  • Integrating federal resources to develop a systems approach to addressing rural poverty. USDA’S StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative is at work to bring integrated resources to 880 rural counties experiencing chronic rural poverty in 21 states and Puerto Rico. StrikeForce efforts have helped direct over $16 billion in investments to create jobs, build homes, feed kids, assist farmers, and conserve natural resources in the country's most economically challenged rural and tribal areas.
  • Piloting telehealth and distance learning technology to connect rural children with health services. Rural children living in poverty face a range of health and human service needs and often lack direct access to quality clinical and social, human, child development and family support services. HHS’ Office of Rural Health Policy will award up to three pilot grants for a total annual investment of $945,000 in FY2015 (and $2.8 million over three years) to test new ways to use telehealth and distance learning technology to link rural children living in poverty with specialized health and human service that may not be available locally.
  • Combatting child food insecurity. In March 2015, USDA announced the establishment of the USDA Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center at the University of Kentucky. With USDA's investment of $2.5 million, the Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center will administer and evaluate a series of sub-grants targeted to as many as 30 rural areas with high rates of persistent poverty in up to 15 states. The communities will use the funds to better coordinate existing child nutrition programs and create solutions to improve takeup among children.
  • Supporting community-led innovation to promote childhood wellness and rural economic growth.  This summer, EPA and federal partners (USDA, DOT, DRA, and other federal agencies) will pool resources and technical support for communities interested in integrating local food systems into their community and economic development plans. The new round of the Local Food, Local Places program will focus on helping poor families through efforts that increase access to healthy foods, including Farm to School, healthy food aggregation and distribution, and efforts to combat child obesity.
  • Shrinking the summer food gap for children in rural and tribal areas. While more than 21 million low-income children rely on free and reduced price meals at school, only a fraction of eligible children receive free meals in the summer months, when families can have a hard time stretching their food budgets. In rural areas, where children often live far from the community buildings that typically host summer feeding programs, accessing meal service sites can be difficult. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is working to close this gap by expanding the number of accessible feeding sites in rural communities through partnerships with the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and philanthropy. In addition, in 2015 Congress appropriated $16 million to expand the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children (SEBTC) program, which provides additional SNAP or WIC benefits to families with low-income children during the summer months when school meals are not available. This summer, FNS will focus SEBTC expansion primarily in rural areas. The President’s Budget proposes to increase the overall investment in SEBTC to $67 million in 2016.
  • Expanding access to nutritious school meals through Community Eligibility: The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is an option that allows school districts in high-poverty areas to offer school meals at no cost to students through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. This option improves access to school meals in eligible high poverty districts and schools, including in the country’s rural and tribal communities, while eliminating the administrative burden associated with collecting and processing applications for free school meals.  The Administration is working with states and communities to help more rural schools take up this option for streamlining their program and bringing nutritious meals to more students.
  • Empowering individuals and communities to address rural challenges. In the coming weeks, the Rural Council will work with the Corporation for National and Community Service, the agency that administers United We Serve and the President's Call to Service, to launch #ServeRural, a national effort to enlist volunteers and local organizations to help build thriving rural communities.

Enhancing public awareness of rural child poverty and its impact on the future of rural communities and our nation’s global competitiveness.

The White House Rural Council and partner agencies will conduct research and engage key leaders and experts at regional events across the country. The convenings and research agenda will seek to raise awareness of the strengths and challenges of poor rural families, elevate best practices, and highlight the importance of implementing the Administration’s Middle Class Economics agenda in rural places.

  • Cabinet “Rural Impact” Tour. This spring, members of the Cabinet will headline a series of regional roundtables in areas of persistent rural poverty, including Appalachia, the Delta, the Colonias, and Indian Country. The convenings will provide an opportunity to lift up promising local practices and forge local and regional partnerships.
  • Administration report on challenges and opportunities of addressing rural poverty. In May, the Administration will release a report on rural child poverty. The report, to be released in conjunction with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s international rural development conference, will highlight current trends, the unique circumstances of rural communities, the importance of the safety net, and concrete steps we can take to reduce rural child poverty.

Improving access to high-quality child care, early learning, and continuing education, and making work pay.

President Obama has advocated for unprecedented investments to help support middle class kids and families and those striving to reach the middle class.

  • Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education. The Budget proposes significant new early learning investments, including an historic investment in child care to ensure that quality, affordable care is available to all eligible low- and moderate-income working families with young children, as opposed to the small share of children who receive this help today; new funding for Head Start so that all programs can serve kids for the full school day and the full school year; and an investment in public preschool, so all four year olds have access to a high quality start to elementary school. The Budget also creates a new $100 million child care innovation fund to help states design programs that better serve families facing unique challenges in finding and accessing quality child care, such as low-income families in rural areas. Finally, the Budget triples the maximum Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit (CDCTC) for families with children under age five and makes the full CDCTC available to more families.
  • Providing free community college for responsible students. The President's America's College Promise proposal creates new federal-state partnerships to provide two years of free community college to responsible students, while promoting key reforms to improve the quality of community college offerings to ensure that they are a gateway to a career or four-year degree.  If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit from this proposal. Rural and tribal community colleges currently serve 3.4 million students nationwide at 600 schools and will play an important role in expanding access to higher education for more Americans.
  • Making the tax code work for working rural families. The President’s plan would double the childless worker Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and expand eligibility, reducing poverty and hardship for 13.2 million low-income workers nationwide. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has endorsed the President’s proposed expansion, while other members of Congress have put forward similar proposals. The President’s plan would also make permanent critical improvements to the EITC and the Child Tax Credit currently set to expire after 2017, preventing a tax increase on 16 million families with 29 million children.  The Budget also includes a tax cut for two earner families that often face higher costs as they struggle to balance work and family obligations.

Doug O’Brien is Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs with the White House Domestic Policy Council.