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Obama Fulfilling Commitment to Rural America

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We debated stimulus in the winter, global warming in the spring, and health care reform in the summer. The first seven months of the Obama Administration have been the most ambitious of any administration in recent history. But presidents don't just make history with controversial, high-profile issues. Sometimes it's under-the-radar initiatives that can make equally profound and lasting change.

This summer, nine Obama cabinet secretaries -- led by former Iowa Governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack -- launched a tour of rural America (ruraltour.gov), holding town hall meetings on health care, agriculture, business and education. Fulfilling President Obama's campaign commitment to rural America, they are listening, learning and building a plan to invest in a part of the nation whose needs are often forgotten and almost always unmet.

Fundamental to revitalizing rural America is breaking the cycle of poverty, which has gripped places like Appalachia, the deep south and California's central valley for generations. Thus, making change for the children of the region may be our best hope and most effective solution.

The situation is daunting:

  • One in five children live in poverty in rural America, compared to one in six in the rest of the nation.
  • More than half of infants and toddlers in rural America live in low-income homes.
  • All but two of 50 counties with the highest child poverty rates are in rural areas.
  • There is an average of one book for every 300 children in low-income rural areas. In middle class neighborhoods, there are 13 books per child.
  • More than half of poor children in rural areas are overweight or obese, compared to about a third in the rest of the nation.

The ingrained inequities in rural America can be traced back primarily to a failing education system. Just like President Obama is looking for new industries -- like green technology -- to drive the economic recovery, innovative 21st century solutions can be the force behind revitalized rural education.

At a recent conference on rural philanthropy, former President Clinton said: "We can beat up on people and say they should give more money in rural America, but we should give them some new ideas."

In fact, the Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $7.2 billion to, in part, increase rural access to broadband internet, which is vital to ensuring that rural families have access to this now-crucial technology in the home.

And there are other shovel, or classroom, ready projects that are already making a difference.

Save the Children runs public-private partnership programs in struggling rural communities that have a strong track record of boosting reading scores and teaching kids to lead healthy lifestyles.

Our after-school reading program for elementary school kids boosted the percentage of children reading at or above grade level by 42 percent in just nine months.

Serving 50,000 children in 69 of our country's poorest and most remote counties, the goal of these programs is to ensure that the youngest rural Americans are educated, healthy, happy and productive -- the path out of poverty for themselves, and one day, their children.

But the number of children we can reach is limited. So we need greater -- and smarter -- investments from federal, state and local governments, corporate America, houses of faith, community groups and anyone who believes that all kids deserve an equal start in America.

In his inaugural address, President Obama powerfully put the recession in perspective: "Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year."

The same axiom applies to men, women and children living in rural poverty. They are no less ambitious, their hopes are no less vibrant and their commitment to a better, stronger America is no less firm. We just have to give them the investments they deserve. President Obama's rural initiative is an important and powerful first step.