Barack Obama struck a chord with many when he challenged those who “slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states.” At the Democratic Convention this summer, the Illinois candidate for Senate spoke eloquently of Americans’ fundamental belief that “we’re all connected as one people … E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.”

The Bush-Cheney campaign is banking on heavily rural “red states,” and they claim that rural voters in swing states will help swing the presidential elections their way. Twenty percent of the electorate lives in rural communities. But these communities have more in common with urban areas than the GOP would have us believe.

Poverty rates in rural areas exceed those in metropolitan areas, and closely mirror the highest rates found in central cities, government figures show. The dismal economy, health care, retirement insecurity, the war, our kids’ future — these issues are resonating in farm communities and small towns much as they do in Chicago or Cleveland.

Focusing on the real issues

In the Midwest and Great Plains, the League of Rural Voters (LRV) is working to activate rural voters on the fundamental bread-and-butter issues. Niel Ritchie, the organization’s director, believes the Republican effort to divert these voters with anti-abortion, anti-gay

and anti-immigrant hysteria is running out of steam. “Farmers aren’t sitting around the table worrying about gay marriage — they’re worrying about health insurance,” Ritchie said.

“We think there’s a lot of opportunity” to involve rural voters in questioning the political decisions that affect their lives, Ritchie said. The Iraq war is a striking illustration of how politics affects rural areas, he noted. Their sons and daughters enlist in the military as “economic refugees, seeking help in paying for a college education, a little second income.” Now the casualties are being disproportionately borne by rural communities. “These people have given a lot, and for what?” he asked.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s cuts in vital domestic programs are taking a real toll in small communities, Ritchie said. “‘Get the government off my back’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got one guy who plows the roads,” he commented.

The LRV, based in Minneapolis, has a network of 8,700 people in a dozen states, especially Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. It aims to promote discussion in the countryside on issues of concern to rural voters, and to encourage their involvement in political action. These efforts are drawing a lot of response this year, Ritchie said. While there are many organizations working on farm issues, most can’t get openly involved in electoral politics. “We think of the League as the glue,” he said.

There’s a lot of mythology that rural people are narrowly self-interested, bigoted or small-minded. “We’re fighting that idea,” Ritchie said. “We intend to fight the right-wing at every turn.”

Is there a future in farming?

Steve Linder and Donna Lambert are raising their two children on the northern Minnesota farm that has been in Linder’s family for over a century. When their 9-year-old son Ben told this reporter he wants to be a farmer when he grows up, they rolled their eyes.

Oklee, Minn., population 396, where they live, lost 12 percent of its population between 1990 and 2000. The 2000 Census showed the median household income at $23,214. About 15 percent of the population was below the poverty line. One in four of those were children.

As we talked on a recent fall afternoon, Linder pointed to a gigantic tractor whose cab towered over our heads. If you want to buy one of these nowadays, you have to shell out $150,000-$250,000, he said. That’s why farmers spend much of their time keeping their old machinery going. In addition to several tractors and trucks, Linder’s machines include huge combines he relies on to harvest 1,350 acres of wheat and soybeans.

Since Linder started farming in the 1970s, his expenses have tripled, while the price of a bushel of wheat is about half of what it was back then. This drives people to farm more acres, he said. But the price of land has also tripled, and many farmers can’t afford to acquire more land. That trend has led to increasing consolidation of farms into fewer and fewer hands. Of the dozen or so of Linder’s high school classmates who took up farming when he did, only a handful are still at it. “People don’t quit farming because they’re making too much money,” he commented.

A reason to divorce Bush’

In the 1930s New Deal legislation implemented a system of federal price floors on crops that enabled family farmers to meet their costs and stay afloat. Starting in the 1950s, agribusiness has pushed to slash those price floors so the processors can have “access to cheaper product,” Linder told me. Now, the Bush administration is talking about cutting farm price supports to help the ballooning federal deficit.

Low prices for farmers don’t translate into cheaper food at the supermarket, but into bigger profits for big food processors. Coupled with free trade agreements that give free rein to corporate food giants, both small farmers and consumers get the short end of the stick.

Linder tied the depressed prices of wheat, soybeans and other crops to the free trade agreements, which are driving farmers off the land both here and abroad. President Bush and other free trade advocates say such agreements are raising the living standards in other countries as well as here. “That’s a joke,” Linder said.

In the nearby Red River Valley, Minnesota and North Dakota sugar beet farmers are up in arms over the Bush administration’s drive to pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which would open the gates for corporate food processing giants to import cheap sugar, pitting U.S. and Central American farmers against each other in a race to the bottom. The sugar growers were cheered recently when John Kerry pledged to scrap trade agreements that hurt the American sugar industry. In the valley, a sugar worker told me, “tons of farmers are looking for a reason to divorce George Bush.” CAFTA could be that reason.

Immigrants transform rural communities

Worthington, Minn., in the state’s southwest corner, is evidence of another way in which corporate globalization is transforming rural communities. Displaced farmers in Latin America and elsewhere, forced to migrate to the U.S. in search of a livelihood, have found work in towns like this, first harvesting crops, and then in hard, dirty jobs like meatpacking. The Swift hog plant here employs 1,600 workers. About half of them have come in the last dozen years, from Mexico, Central America, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Jesus Alcantar works second shift, wielding a knife to debone hogs. He has had the same job since he came here 11 years ago. Born in Mexico, Alcantar is vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1161, which represents the Swift workers. The immigrants have given new life to the town, he said proudly. A new school has been built to accommodate the new young families. The community center teaches both English and Spanish. One Latino union member is running for school board.

Worthington was one of several rural towns to host Minnesota’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride earlier this month.

Health care is a rural crisis

Like other family farmers, Linder and Lambert have to buy their own individual health insurance. They pay around $400 a month just to get catastrophic coverage for their family — with a $2,000 deductible, they still have to pay all their day-to-day medical costs out-of-pocket.

Linder belongs to the National Farmers Union, a 100-year-old organization with a membership of nearly 250,000 farm and ranch families throughout the United States. The NFU’s Political Action Committee has endorsed Kerry for president. NFU President Dave Frederickson recently singled out health care as a major crisis for rural America, saying Congress and the president must address the “fundamental issues of affordability of and access to quality health care in rural communities.”

“Because farmers and ranchers must operate within scant margins, health insurance is too often sacrificed,” he wrote. “Most fall between the cracks, unable to afford health insurance premiums but not qualifying for programs such as Medicaid.” The NFU advocates a national health care plan that ensures universal coverage.

Black farmers battle persistent poverty

There are 382 counties in the U.S. that have had poverty rates of 20 percent or higher for decades, the Rural Policy Research Institute reports. These persistent poverty counties are overwhelmingly rural (95 percent), and are concentrated in the South, Appalachia, the Rio Grande Valley (in Bush’s home state), and in areas with Indian reservations, the institute says.

In the South, Black farmers are battling discrimination by the federal government. The lack of resources going to Black farmers and rural communities is “appalling,” said Heather Gray, communications director for the Georgia-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives. “It’s not just a legacy of discrimination, it’s still very real.” A lot of the same people who have violated African Americans’ rights in the past are still sitting in Farm Service offices, she told the World. “I’ve had guys crying in my office,” over the humiliation they have experienced at the hands of racist government officials. She tied these farmers’ struggles to the struggle over voting rights that is once again being waged in the presidential elections. “It took so long to get voting rights in the South,” she said. “We never knew we were going to have to work so hard to get our votes counted.”

Main Street’ issues

Across the country, small-town Main Streets are lined with dollar stores and boarded-up shop windows. After decades of falling behind economically, many rural people have “given up,” says Ritchie. They blame themselves for shopping at Wal-Mart, he said, but they aren’t willing to blame someone else. They don’t see the connection between their problems and politics.

But what gets people mad, he said, is the notion that there’s no chance for their children to make a life for themselves in their communities.

Matt Russell grew up on a farm in Iowa. He works in Des Moines as an organizer for Iowa Citizen Action Network and the LRV, where he stresses “Main Street issues” like affordable and accessible health care, quality education, restoring small town businesses, and providing fair and open markets for small farmers.

The Bush administration has blocked efforts to curb the corporate free trade drive, protect small farms, and preserve the rural environment, Russell noted. For rural voters, he said, the question to politicians should be, “Are you going to stand up for farmers and the communities where they live, or for the vertical integrators, the packers and processors?”

All these efforts look beyond Nov. 2, to organizing for the long term. They mesh in many ways with the nitty-gritty grassroots organizing being carried out by labor, African American, Latino, and Native American groups. Together, they are giving life to the American motto Barack Obama spoke of: E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Susan Webb is a member of the editorial board of the People’s Weekly World. She can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.

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CONTRIBUTOR

Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more. Previously she taught English as a second language and did a variety of other jobs to pay the bills. She has lived in six states, and is all about motherhood, art, nature and apple pie.

 

 

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