The debate on whether federal economic stimulus efforts have worked is not really a debate, according to Dallas Tonsager, USDA undersecretary for Rural Development. During the past 18 months, Tonsager has overseen the deployment of resources that are part of the economic stimulus approved in early 2009.
"The stimulus package offered huge resources for rural America for all kinds of development," Tonsager says. "One of the things we felt so good about when implementing the package is that the leadership is coming from people in communities to put together projects, deals—things that create long-lasting effects for those communities."
USDA Rural Development typically has about $20 billion budgeted to support efforts in rural areas. The additional $20 billion in stimulus dollars encouraged a new sense of motivation.
Get connected. One of the key stimulus efforts has been in broadband communication. Tonsager says the grants and loans that Rural Development has put out into the countryside "will affect 7 million people in rural America and will give them better access or new access. We’ve worked with hundreds of communities, with hospitals, clinics, libraries and fire halls."
Tonsager notes that Rural Development is not pushing the money at the communities. "The communities sought it. Leaders worked with people in their communities to create opportunities," he says.
A chief concern about broadband Internet access is cost. Internet options for those who live beyond the reach of DSL Internet are costly, ranging from $60 to nearly $100 per month.
Expanding the offerings should help with the cost factor. "Affordability should be part of the process," Tonsager observes. "We did not mandate rates in the grant loan program. We simply asked the providers to show how they were going to make it work. Part of that has to be affordability. If they’re going to reach the number of customers they hope to get, they have to price it to achieve that. So that was part of the process we went through in the grant loan combinations as we looked at potential projects."
Getting public facilities—libraries, schools and hospitals—outfitted with the latest broadband technology was a high priority because "those institutions are everywhere in rural America."
"I think you’re going to see affordability come," Tonsager continues. "We think the economic potential of this is great. I understand a lot of rural Americans relate it to e-mail, but it’s so much more than that. Urban people take for granted all the economic opportunities, information availability and educational opportunities that occur every day with accessibility."
Been there, done that. Broadening access is not something new for Rural Development, Tonsager reminds people. Its predecessors played a role in creating the national rural electric and water systems in the 1930s.
"What would rural America be today if our grandparents and great grandparents had not made sure we had electrical power and access to water?" Tonsager asks. "If we don’t create a national broadband system with access for everybody, what will it be like in the future? We believe it’s not optional, it’s absolutely critical for communities in rural America." He expects that people will eventually feel that broadband Internet is "as much a part of their lives as water and electricity."
Tonsager says some of the stimulus funds went to help businesses in rural areas stay afloat during the recession.
"I think around 2,000 businesses took loan guarantees to keep their businesses alive," Tonsager explains. "Along with that, around 100,000 homes were financed out of the stimulus package—all of this at a time of deep economic recession."
Even as the stimulus dollars are put to use, Tonsager and his agency will continue to keep an eye on rural home-ownership and other economic indicators as they seek to put rural America on a firm footing for the recovery that they believe lies ahead.