We Must Come Together As One Country

Communities across the United States, from bustling cities to small rural towns, are experiencing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing has forced businesses, schools, community centers, and places of worship of all sizes to close and caused even small gatherings of friends and family to move online or over the phone. As we have seen states and cities begin to shelter in place, Americans have shown their ability to come together to prevent the spread of the virus and blunt the curve of the pandemic in our country.

Congress and the White House need to act to protect the health and wellness of Americans and the economy. We have to ensure all legislation and policymaking cover the diverse needs of our citizens – including rural Americans.

In times of great uncertainty, as we saw in past world wars and are now seeing during this global pandemic, we must act as one country to tackle the myriad issues before us. This means not leaving rural communities behind. Democrats and Republicans must work together to address rural health care, the farm economy, food security, broadband access, and the ability of every American to exercise their civic duties.

Rural Health Care

Rural hospitals are closing at a staggering rate, with 120 facilities closing across the nation in the last ten years. 2019 was the worst year for closures in the past decade, with 19 hospitals shutting their doors. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, rural health care was suffering from a shortage of general practitioners, specialty doctors, and available emergency medical centers.

The recently passed stimulus package, thanks to strong negotiation from Democratic leadership, includes a $150 billion Marshall Plan for American health care – with $100 billion going to hospitals and health systems and more than $10 billion going to Indian Health Services. It is now critically important that rural facilities and those serving our Native populations receive these funds so they can use them to purchase testing and personal protective equipment immediately.  

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received $200 million in new funds in the stimulus bill to aid in the Commission’s work to increase telehealth options during the crisis – increasing both telecommunications services and the equipment necessary to enable telehealth during an emergency. These are necessary investments that should help rural Americans access telehealth options during this pandemic and routine care moving forward.

To address the need for caretakers, the One Country Board strongly recommends the creation of a medical retiree corps, bringing doctors, nurses, and health care workers back from retirement. We need them on the frontlines. In addition to retired workers, medical students should also be utilized to fight the crisis. While the recently passed stimulus package has suspended student loan interest and payments, this is insufficient for many. We urge full loan forgiveness for any medical professional who helps fight COVID-19.

While the provision and funding of rural health care are important, it’s also vital those who become unemployed during the pandemic maintain access to said care. To aid in this effort, the federal government should provide Medicaid expansion cards to unemployed individuals so they can access care now, when they need it, not weeks or months from now when the crisis is peaking. Medicaid is an established system that works well, and funneling vulnerable people into a preexisting program is more efficient and effective than extending ACA deadlines or creating an ad hoc entity to ensure coverage for those who lose insurance due to the pandemic.

Farm Economy

American farmers have been suffering under the artificial stress of President Trump’s trade war with China and his games with ethanol refinery waivers. Farmers have seen their Chinese markets disappear, and with that, rural communities across the United States have seen a record number of farm bankruptcies. Now with COVID-19 shutting down almost every industry, our nation’s farmers are under even greater stress.

Congress just added nearly $24 billion in funding to aid farmers and ranchers – including $14 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation to help farmers and $9.5 billion in emergency funds for fruit and vegetable growers, dairy and cattle farmers, and farmers markets. This will help our nation’s ranchers and farmers through this tough time, but we need more federal action to help sustain American agriculture into the future – opening markets, building up local rural communities, and listening to the needs of those doing this essential work. 

Food Security

Food insecurity in rural communities is hard to fully address in the best of times; now during this worldwide pandemic, children are home from school, and adults are making record unemployment claims. The recently passed stimulus bill provides a $15.8 billion increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to cover the expected increase in applicants, but it failed to increase the benefit each household receives – a provision Democrats fought to include.

Congress must reconsider this omission in future relief packages. Democrats fought hard to raise the benefits received by families suffering during this pandemic, and it will take their continued leadership to increase the benefits for families who need food support now.

The next stimulus bill should include the expansion of SNAP and the deployment of emergency EBT cards to anyone that is furloughed during the crisis. Tapping into and expanding long-established systems is an effective way to surge food aid to those in need while keeping delays to a minimum. Families should not have to choose between paying their utility bills or buying groceries, and getting food assistance to those who need it now will allow for a quicker recovery later.

Broadband Access

As children have returned home from school and families are physically distancing themselves from friends and extended family, the importance of investing in rural broadband has never been greater. Teachers across the country are being asked to instruct their students virtually, many using video streaming technologies and video conferencing platforms. Students who do not have access to high-speed internet at home are placed at a severe disadvantage, leading to a “homework gap” for approximately 56.6 million American students – including many rural learners.

In Speaker Pelosi’s stimulus plan, she asked for $1 billion to help low-income households gain connectivity, which Republicans quickly attacked. Senate Democrats fought for $2 billion in funding for the FCC’s E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries with internet access. Unfortunately, without bipartisan support, these measures were not included in the final bill. The One Country Board strongly urges these measures to be included in additional stimulus bills. We need the FCC to use every tool in their arsenal to connect our nation’s students including many remote rural students to reliable, high-speed internet. Congress must act to fund programs, like those at the FCC, that will help all of our students cope with distance learning.

Civic Duty

The stimulus bill contained $400 million in election security grants to help states deal with issues related to coronavirus. Mail voting, the voting method best used to preserve social distancing, is still patchy in many states. Currently, 33 states allow vote-by-mail, but many may not be prepared to handle the deluge of mailed-in ballots. Every American has the right and civic duty to vote, and the One Country Board urges Congress and policymakers to act now to prepare for mail-in ballots in November in all 50 states.

Rural communities are some of our country’s most resilient, but Congress must work to ease the burden this virus has placed on all industries and people – not just focus on bailing out corporations and major cities. In the essential work our federal government continues to do, and as discussions of the next stimulus package begin, listen to the needs of rural families and students, and we will make it through this pandemic together – as one country.

– The One Country Project Board (Ashton Clemmons, Anthony Daniels, Joe Donnelly, and Heidi Heitkamp)