Iowa Poverty Conference Brings Rural Plight to Light

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

BELYING the image of farms as places of modest but solid prosperity, rural Americans have recently urged the Clinton administration, in a series of conferences, to help them hold on to their farms, get and keep well-paying jobs, and avoid financial ruin.

President Clinton arranged the forums in California, Texas, and other key electoral states partly in response to one of the biggest challenges to rural Americans: the steady rise in political power of suburban voters who are unattuned to the difficulties of countryside residents.

''Our country's political center has shifted away from the urban areas and rural areas and into the suburbs, and a lot of the people who have to make decisions on these [rural] matters ... have no direct experience on these issues,'' Clinton told the National Rural Conference here on Tuesday.

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Clinton said the political ascent of the suburbs complicates efforts by rural Americans to rally support for coping with myriad challenges: foreign competition, the growing dominance of highly efficient corporate farms, stagnant wages, scant credit, a declining public image, and federal budget cuts threatening farm support payments.

As their relative political power wanes, the plight of rural Americans starkly illustrates the problems dogging many working citizens, the president said.

''There are a lot of paradoxes in the American economy and they are clearly evident in rural America today,'' Clinton said. Most strikingly, there is persistent discontent even though the ''misery index,'' the combination of employment and inflation, is the lowest it has been in more than a quarter century, he added.

Indeed, several conference participants painted a forbidding portrait of the common rural livelihood.

''We have seen our income go way down while our expenses go out the window and it makes us have bad images of ourselves,'' says Lois Wales who, with her husband and two sons, raises cattle and grows wheat, corn, and cotton in Dimmit, Texas. She expressed most concern about the declining prices of key crops and the rise of agri-business.

''I say to you that we have to take bold steps in the next year to stop this, or the structure of the family farm is gone as we know it,'' said Mrs. Wales, a panelist at Tuesday's conference.

Officials and rural residents at the conference, and at a forum held Monday by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in Edwardsville, Ill., identified several strategies to boost rural prosperity.

Government and rural citizens should diversify and beat back foreign competition by nurturing agricultural industries that significantly increase the income from crops and other products.

The annual production in the United States of 1 billion gallons of ethanol from corn is one of the most promising examples of such ''value-added'' industries. Doubling ethanol production would create 28,000 jobs and replace 41 million barrels of imported oil worth $1 billion annually, according to the Department of Agriculture.

And the federal government can help in this effort by stepping up research and development of new goods made from agricultural products, according to Clinton and leading lawmakers. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa showcased some of the new and occasionally quirky results of such research: building blocks made of soybeans; and golf tees, packing material, and window-washing solvent made of corn byproducts.

Moreover, the federal government can help link rural areas to the internet and thereby open the way for new opportunities and efficiencies in business, education, and health care, the officials and rural participants said.

Indeed, expansion of the ''Information Superhighway'' would spark economic vitality as profoundly as the government-supported extension of electricity to rural areas earlier this century, Vice President Al Gore said.

Several farmers also urged Clinton to make only slight revisions to this year's Farm Bill: a program of $10 billion in farm subsidies now being debated in Congress. Clinton said he would seek only minor changes to the bill.

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