Editor's Note: The following commentary is written by Bill Menner, state director of USDA's Rural Development agency in Iowa. Menner, who resides in Grinnell, was appointed USDA Rural Development state director in Iowa in July 2009. He oversees USDA Rural Development programs in the state. The agency has 11 offices in Iowa including a state office in Des Moines, along with area offices in Albia, Atlantic, Humboldt, Indianola, Iowa Falls, Le Mars, Mount Pleasant, Storm Lake, Tipton and Waverly.
As the countdown to the Iowa caucuses winds down toward January 3, the scrutiny of the state's role in nomination politics is again increasing. It happens every four years and the spotlight is on again this year. National pundits look at Iowa as unrepresentative and unworthy of its first-in-the-nation status.
A furor erupted last week following the publication of an Atlantic Magazine profile of the state written by University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom. Bloom's cynical perspective in the article is that of a non-native who is looking at the state with the dispassionate gaze of a journalist. The picture he paints is less than flattering. He acknowledges it prompted a backlash that he compares to a "raging bonfire."
Professor Bloom moved to Iowa a year after me. He and I live in college towns. We were both trained as journalists and spent many years as working reporters. We have both spent the better part of two decades observing the state and its people. He sees trouble while I see opportunity.
The pride Iowans take in their local communities is Iowa's greatest asset
I get to travel the state extensively in my role overseeing USDA's Rural Development agency and its programs within Iowa. And it's not uncommon for rural residents to speak plainly to me about their town or state. I've heard comments ranging from "It's not the best place, but it's ours," to "We make do with what we have," or "Main Street was a lot busier back in the 50s. It's a shame what's happened."
In reality, those comments are not dissimilar from Bloom's writing. But we can say those things about ourselves. Let someone else take aim, and as Bloom has found, you get a "raging bonfire" of backlash. In part, those comments are rooted in a rural sensibility. It's unseemly to brag. There is also a natural yearning for the "way things used to be."
But when Iowans talk about themselves and their communities, they don't always express the great pride they take in the state. And that pride is Iowa's greatest asset. Folks here care about their towns and they're willing to fight Stephen Bloom or anyone else who speaks ill of them.
That pride comes out in the way rural communities have responded to declining population. They're working together, both within their counties and regionally. They're developing entrepreneurs and creating leadership programs for young people. They're reaching out to former residents who've moved away and now have young families and who are looking for the quality of life they once had. They're starting new businesses and sparking innovation.
Iowans prize their state, what it means to live here; they stand up for it
I see rural Iowans banding together in ways I have not experienced in my 21 years of Iowa life. In response to Bloom or Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who questions government investment in non-urban areas, Iowans prize the state and what it means to live here. They understand that if they don't stand up for their community, their rural quality of life, no one else will.
Rural Iowans are also putting their money where their mouths are. They're investing in community foundations, understanding that the most effective grants are those made locally. In a 12-month period ending June 30, total assets in Iowa community foundations grew $100 million. Generations of Iowans will benefit from the collective efforts of these funds, namely by the investment in community facilities that ultimately leverages these dollars with private and public sector sources.
My boss, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and his boss, the President of the United States, are committed to rural economies. From job creation to investments in renewable energy and broadband, this administration is working with rural residents to make sure our communities are thriving.
Our rural communities help drive the thriving ag economy in this state
It's not easy. Government funding at the federal, state and local levels is declining. Our rural population is getting older. There are tremendous infrastructure needs that have been deferred that pose a huge challenge.
But our rural communities help to drive the thriving agricultural economy in this state. They create jobs that provide off-farm income. They provide health care and education and retail opportunity. And rural America contributes approximately 40% of our active servicemen and servicewomen. That rural ethic valuing service to country can't be understated.
It's that rural ethic, too, that draws candidates to Iowa every four years. Voters are committed and intelligent, asking tough questions and carefully weighing their options. In these waning days of the caucus campaign, it's a final chance for Iowans to remind the candidates, and the nation, of rural America's importance.