Rural Challenges, Federal Responses

photo of a rural houseMoving to a small quiet town surrounded by nature holds appeal for many Americans. However, there are a number of unique challenges to living and working in rural communities, including purchasing homes, building in high-risk areas, and accessing high-speed Internet service.

Today’s WatchBlog explores how the federal government is assisting rural communities with these challenges.

Housing assistance

One way the federal government assists rural communities is by helping residents in rural areas purchase their own homes. For example, USDA’s Rural Housing Service has helped more than 1 million low- and moderate-income families in rural communities finance their homes by guaranteeing home loans made by private lenders—although this program could better assess its performance and oversee its lenders.

The Federal Housing Administration also has a similar program but it doesn’t have the same geographic and income limits (and we looked into the possibility of consolidating these two programs).

Building in flood plains

Additionally, the National Flood Insurance Program helps protect property in rural areas (tractor sheds or bins for grain storage, for example) that are at high risk for floods provided that they have met certain building requirements. We did find that farmers in some locales—for example, the Sacramento Valley in California—considered meeting these building requirements difficult and costly. We recommended the Federal Emergency Management Administration (which runs the flood insurance program) update its guidance to provide better options for farmers as they try to minimize flood damage.

Connecting to the rest of the world

Figure 5: Picture of High-Speed Internet-Enabled Telemedicine Cart from the Village of Nenana, AK

Excerpted from GAO-16-222

Finally, while many of us view the Internet as indispensable, Americans living in rural areas and on tribal lands disproportionately lack access to high-speed Internet service, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Less populated areas can have rugged terrain, making it difficult to build and maintain infrastructure needed to deliver this service.

However, since internet access can improve the quality of life, education, and healthcare in a community, the federal government is working to ensure that small towns and rural areas have access to the Internet. For example, the Federal Communications Commission has a Universal Service Fund to subsidize the costs of getting high-speed Internet to schools, libraries, and clinics in remote areas.

USDA’s Rural Utilities Service also provides funds for technology to link educational and medical professionals with people in rural areas. The Community Connect Program provided about $53 million and the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program provided about $128 million in grants and loans between 2010 and 2014.

For more information on these and other of our reports, visit us at www.gao.gov.


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