Marx famously wrote of "the idiocy of rural life." He was wrong, about that as so much else. The benefits of rural life are many and those who continue to live in rural communities value their way of life in ways that Marx may not have understood, and that other intellectuals continue to scorn, but which are nonetheless compelling.
Those benefits have often obscured the reality of rural poverty. In the countryside, one can have a few farm animals to produce milk and eggs, and you can grow vegetables and fruits, providing food for your family. The expensive demands of urban life are unknown and unnecessary. Still, poverty persists and challenges the idyllic representation of rural life. And while traditionally some of the pathogens of urban poverty did not migrate into the countryside, such as drug use and the violence that accompanies it, that has changed as new drugs such as crystal meth are made as easily in a rural setting as in an urban one. Most of all, rural poverty is more immune to the promises of our advanced society, more isolated from the opportunities that modern culture present, in short, more resistant to attempts to alleviate that poverty.
Yesterday, in a speech in Georgia, Vice-President Joe Biden announced a series of grants that aim to extend broadband into rural areas. The money comes from the much maligned Stimulus bill passed earlier this year. The government announced the award of $183 million dollars to projects that will help connect people in rural areas to the internet. Companies that have been busy competing for broadband customers in urban and suburban areas have not seen sufficient gain from the prospect of covering rural areas. The government is stepping in to achieve equality of opportunity for rural citizens where the market has failed to do the job. This, like the health care reform effort, is a perfect example of the subsidiarity called for by Catholic social teaching. Yes, solutions should be found at the local level and by the private sector but when these fail to meet their obligation, the government must step in.
The grants announced yesterday are a small downpayment on the $7.4 billion in stimulus funds that will be spent connecting the rural poor to the internet. Some of the grants announced yesterday will connect Hispanics and native Americans in remote areas of New Mexico to the internet. Some money will go to northern Georgia communities currently unserved by internet companies. Rural areas in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont will likewise receive funds.
Some of the money will go to directly connect homes in urban areas as well but most will be spent connecting whole communities to the internet, known as "middle mile" projects, filling in the gaps of coverage that the private market has yielded. With those gaps filled, private firms can step in and offer the services that were heretofore only profitable in urban and suburban settings. As Biden said, "This is what the Recovery Act is all about – sparking new growth, tapping into the ingenuity of the American people and giving folks the tools they need to help build a new economy in the 21st century.
This is money well spent and will hopefully help beat back the canard that government is more the problem than the solution to the nation’s problems. Sometimes, government is in the way. Other times, government paves the way. In the internet age, the broadband highway is like the Interstate highway system Eisenhower began in the 1950s, a way to bind the country together and unleash opportunity for many. Somewhere out there is a young student for whom doors of knowledge and opportunity are about to open. The administration should be applauded.