USDA & HHS Pick 10 Rural IMPACT Demo Sites: Community Action Agencies Well Represented

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September 27, 2015; Bristol Herald Courier

To their credit, ten communities have just landed Rural IMPACT demonstration designations to pursue two-generation approaches to addressing the needs of poor rural children and their parents. For the ten communities and the nonprofits that will be the lead agencies of the demonstrations, this is national recognition by two federal agencies—the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services—and potential exposure to national foundations that have been recognized by the Obama Administration as leaders in two-generation strategies such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Casey Family Programs.

Particularly notable is that five of the ten demonstrations are being led by community action agencies:

The dominance of CAAs among the USDA/HHS Rural IMPACT awards reflects a story about nonprofit success in rural America that deserves to be told. Few people recognize the increasing importance of nonprofit community action agencies—the bulwark of the nation’s anti-poverty commitment in rural communities. In many rural areas, community action agencies provide critical services available nowhere else. They are rural lifelines providing everything from early childhood education (Head Start) to energy assistance (weatherization and LIHEAP), often playing big roles in rural economies as employers and generators of business.

That being said, there is some question about what all the Rural IMPACT hullaballoo is about. The program seems to be of a model that characterizes several new initiatives of the Obama administration: Demonstration projects that promise no new funding, but rather the hope for enhanced access to existing federal programs and improved program coordination. This is generally similar to what President Obama’s recent Promise Zones (not Promise Neighborhoods) initiative offers—interagency coordination and “the implicit promise of preferential consideration for existing federal funding programs”—although the White House hopes that Congress will pass new tax credits designated for the Zones.

The Rural IMPACT designations will offer six months of technical assistance to the demonstrated projects for their planning efforts, another six months of TA on implementation, placement of one or more AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to help the designees “develop new or enhance existing antipoverty programming,” participation in a “peer learning network to facilitate the sharing of best practices,” and “support from a federal interagency team to identify and address barriers to cross-programmatic work.” In a press call on September 25th hosted by USDA Secretary Vilsack, HHS Acting Deputy Secretary Mary Wakefield explained that the program actually builds on the Promise Zone program—in other words, promises of help, but no money.

Community action agencies probably know as much as any federal agency representatives about the design and implementation of two-generation strategies and the integration of otherwise “stovepiped” human service programs. If HHS and USDA are going to be hiring consultants to provide the Rural IMPACT TA, there is money in the program, but it won’t be money that ends up in the coffers of the lead agencies. Wakefield suggested this is the kind of program that could bring Head Start to the table with the local Workforce Investment Board. In rural communities, the metaphorical table is generally the nonprofit community action agency itself, truth be told.

With no discredit to either USDA or HHS, this is the sad state of affairs in federal policy. Programs are increasingly built around providing technical assistance, promises of coordination, and hints of enhanced access to future grants, but no real grant money. It isn’t clear that the Rural IMPACT demonstration program is going to demonstrate anything that isn’t already well known, and the result of the demonstration program, whatever it might be, doesn’t seem to be a plan to lead to a broader public policy. In today’s federal government, a demonstration program at best leads to another demonstration program, or more likely, some glossy reports prepared by federal consultants. Public policy advocates end up advocating for serial demonstration projects, with the demonstrations taking the place of substantive, broad-based federal programs.

The ten Rural IMPACT designees have much to be proud of as exemplars of agencies willing to take on two-generation program design and development. As a federal program, Rural IMPACT exemplifies what is not happening in federal policy, a diminution of the federal policy process in rural and urban communities.—Rick Cohen