Op-Ed: We haven’t shaken the rust off the Rust Belt

CNBC | By Heidi Heitkamp | April 19, 2020

One thing is certain – Covid-19 has drastically changed the way Americans go about their daily lives. From rethinking that trip to the grocery store to working from home for the foreseeable future, life as we know it is different.

As a result, the U.S. and world economies are suffering. In the midst of this pandemic, the U.S. stock market experienced historic losses and unemployment claims have crushed previous records, leading economists to brace for “the deepest recession on record.”

But here’s the thing. In certain parts of the U.S., like the Rust Belt and other rural areas, things haven’t been good for a while, despite President Donald Trump’s claims that manufacturing is up. In fact, U.S. manufacturing activity is at its lowest level in more than a decade and manufacturing jobs continue to decline month over month. Further, rural areas still have higher rates of poverty when compared to urban areas and farm debt continues to increase and hit historic highs.

In response to Covid-19, Congress has passed three stimulus packages aimed at helping Americans, businesses, and the economy generally, and there are talks of a fourth infrastructure-focused package. But before that can happen, the first three stimulus packages need to start working.

That means Americans need to receive their direct payments as soon as possible, unemployment claims need to start being processed in a timely fashion, and small businesses need to receive loans so they can keep their doors open and their employees paid.

Focus on rural America

Once that happens, the conversation around the fourth stimulus package should address correcting the underlying issues faced by those in rural areas. This means accounting for higher poverty levels in rural areas, more reliance on WIC and SNAP benefits, and less access to health care.

More so, special attention needs to be given to small, rural businesses. To do so, more banks and lenders in rural areas need to be certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration as 7(a) lenders in order to quickly process loan applications from small businesses.

And as congressional Democrats look to the fourth package as a way to steer more money into infrastructure projects and help the economy slowly recover from the effects of COVID-19, the needs of rural America and Rust Belt states must be included.

In order to have a successful fourth stimulus package, it must include funding for rural broadband infrastructure, funds to create an affordable and reliable power grid, and increased budgets to improve our nation’s roads, bridges, and transit networks. These projects will not only put thousands of Americans back to work, they would also help shake the rust off the Rust Belt.

With more and more companies and schools relying on their workers and students to work from home, a strong, reliable broadband infrastructure needs to be prioritized. Only 63 percent of rural Americans have a broadband connection at home, and they are 12 percent less likely than other Americans to even have an internet connection.

School districts are scrambling to shift to online learning, and for those in rural areas, are scrambling to teach students who don’t have access to the internet. During this pandemic, it is clear internet access is now a basic need, and that means making sure every American has access to it.

Connecting to the grid

It’s not just broadband infrastructure that needs improving in rural areas, it’s power infrastructure too. Without a strong power grid, no other industry can thrive. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “Without a stable energy supply, health and welfare are threatened, and the U.S. economy cannot function.”

With more Americans forced to stay home due to shelter-in-place and stay at home orders, the United States needs to ensure every home across America is able to turn its lights on – and keep them on.

Finally, we need a transportation system that works. Roads and highways need to be repaired and bridges and tunnels need to be structurally sound. Without a well-oiled network of roads, bridges, and railways, we cannot transport the made in America goods manufactured by those in Rust Belt states and the agricultural products that keeps Americans, and the world, fed. A crumbling infrastructure risks putting dents into an already fragile supply chain.

Infrastructure has been a traditionally bipartisan issue. Now more than ever, Americans need Congress to come together to agree on a fourth stimulus package that stems the bleeding caused by the COVID-19 pandemic coming from Rust Belt states and other rural areas – but we also need a plan that ensures the sustainability and modernization of Rust Belt states.

We can only hope Trump puts his false claims aside and realizes that rural communities in our country’s Midwest needs our help, and fast.