COLUMBUS — Poverty in America is more than an urban issue. In fact, the majority of counties with persistent poverty are found in rural counties, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
He spoke Jan. 15, at a Rural Opportunity Town Hall meeting at Ohio State University, where he announced the expansion of the USDA’s “StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative,” which now includes 11 Ohio counties.
The program is a collaborative effort to bring targeted assistance to areas experiencing chronic poverty.
StrikeForce counties in Ohio include Adams County, Athens County, Fayette County, Guernsey County, Jackson County, Lucas County, Meigs County, Morgan County, Pike County, Scioto County and Vinton County.
Currently, 85 percent of the country’s persistent poverty counties are in rural America. More than one-third of rural Americans and one-in-four rural children live in poverty.
According to USDA, research has shown that even kids growing up in families earning as much as twice the poverty threshold are still nearly three times as likely as all other children to have poor health, are more likely to finish two fewer years of school, and are more likely to learn earn half as much money in their adult life.
“Growing the economy by investing in rural communities, farmers, makers and innovators, and increasing opportunities for families are keys to our Nation’s future,” said Vilsack.
“StrikeForce has proven to be an effective, collaborative process that builds partnerships and enables USDA to bring economic opportunity directly to rural Americans, where they live, and helps rural communities leverage their assets.”
USDA launched StrikeForce in 2010 and has since invested $23.5 billion in high-poverty areas to increase opportunity for rural Americans. To date, the program has assisted with nearly 190,000 projects, including things such as home and farm loans, conservation practices, and nutrition assistance.
Fighting drug abuse
Another goal of the program, and the president, Vilsack said, is to fight drug and substance abuse.
“He (Obama) is deeply concerned about the fact that in America today, over 2 million people have substance abuse disorders,” Vilsack said.
Drug abuse is costing Ohio about $1 billion in healthcare costs, and about the same in lost production, Vilsack said.
The secretary, who was adopted as a child, said his own mother struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and worked hard to overcome it.
She “gave me an increbible example of the power of faith and the power of never giving up on yourself,” Vilsack said. “I don’t want to give up and I know you don’t want to give up on all of these folks who are struggling out there.”
At the same meeting, OSU President Michael Drake announced that the university is investing about $100 million, over 10 years, to address food insecurity and food availability. About $15 million will be spent on new faculty hires in that area.
While agriculture is strong and the biggest industry in Ohio, Drake said their are still areas where food is not available, calling it “an interesting and serious paradox.”
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