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Clinton and Gore Pledge Rural-Development Strategy

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Ames, Iowa

Pledging to put together a development strategy for rural communities that will stretch well beyond farm policy, President Clinton and Vice President Gore stopped in Iowa last week to hear from farmers, bankers, health-care workers, and students.

Despite the promise of modestly priced housing, safe neighborhoods, and community spirit, rural communities are increasingly threatened by withering economies, aging populations, and isolation. Facing a host of troubling signs, the President and Vice President--both boasting of their small-town roots--said their appearance at the National Rural Conference here was the first step toward finding ways the federal government might help.

At the top of their list of priorities is bolstering rural schools.

"Going to high school graduations in rural communities and asking the class, 'How many of you will have to leave to find a good life?' and watching 90 percent of them raise their hands, you have to know what that does to their parents and their communities," Mr. Gore said.

"And that's what we're talking about," the Vice President continued. "We have got to pay attention to those things like health care and education that help people find ways to make a stand and make a way for themselves in rural areas."

Many participants agreed that finding a way to keep rural youths at home is a problem they need help with.

"I want to stay rural," said Tami Lassen of Nevada, Iowa, the mother of three children. Even though she works two part-time jobs and her husband is also employed, she said, the family still qualifies for welfare.

"I want to stay in Iowa, and, hopefully, we will be able to stay," she told the President.

L.C. Dorsey, the director of the Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Miss., told the President that the truth is that most rural youths would be better off someplace else.

"It's hard to say to young people that they should come home and study, because there is nothing for them to do," she said. "The poor children have no place to enjoy life and plan their future."

Saved by Technology?

The President acknowledged that turning around the fortunes of rural areas will be a tough job.

"You look at the heartland of America, and it seems like the harder you work, the behinder you get," Mr. Clinton said at the conference, which was hosted by Iowa State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

One of the chief hopes for rural areas may be finding ways to harness technology. Beyond the distance-learning projects that use satellites to beam instruction into small schools, the power of long-distance computer connections may also offer new economic opportunities to small towns.

President Clinton nodded with apparent interest when an audience member suggested that the federal government take the lead by relocating some of its offices to show companies how computer linkups can make distant office locations feasible.

If such plans are to become reality, schools are positioned to become the technology center for community development, said Robert G. Rogers, the superintendent of the Scott-Morgan Community Unit No. 2 school district in Bluffs, Ill., which educates 320 students in grades K-12.

He added, however, that telephone-company regulations still pose a major obstacle for rural schools seeking to connect to the nation's information highway at an affordable price.

Increasing Distress

Tyrone Bacon, an education student at Fort Valley State College in Perry, Ga., gave the President a checklist of steps the federal government could take to improve the prospects of rural schools and, in turn, rural towns.

"There is a burden put on rural boards of education to take care of students and offer technology, but you can't ask for the impossible," said Mr. Bacon, who hopes to teach agriculture. Congress could help fund technology for rural schools and encourage them to beef up the agricultural component of science classes to show youths a route to local employment, he said.

Further, he said, politicians should back up their rhetoric by standing up for, and helping raise the profile of, such rural student groups as the Future Farmers of America.

"I don't believe in just spending money. I'm cheap," Mr. Bacon said. "A lot of these programs don't need more money, they need more support."

Mr. Clinton agreed, noting that many student organizations in rural schools, including the F.F.A. and 4-H, have long practiced the kind of community service he envisions for urban and suburban youths.

President Clinton said the juxtaposition of enduring "basic values" and fragile rural communities is a vexing issue that he has pondered since his days as the Governor of Arkansas.

While new jobs are being created across the country, wages are not going up, especially in rural communities, the President said. At the same time, conference participants noted, many farmers are fighting to break even although food production has reached an all-time high.

Others pointed to an irony of life in the United States in the 1990's: As many urban and suburban Americans pine for a simpler life, rural families are hugely distressed.

"We've given our best and our brightest to war and to work in other states," said Joan Blundall, the associate director of the Northwest Mental Health Center in Spencer, Iowa.

Leaving Home

Ms. Blundall said rural residents are making an increasing number of calls to mental-health hot lines, showing more and more signs of depression, and living with poverty-level incomes despite hard work. She cited a recent Iowa study that found that half the state's school principals would like to quit their jobs because of burnout.

The pessimism is often rooted in watching over and over again as promising children leave home, a theme conference participants repeatedly returned to.

"We don't need to hear that this is the best place to raise our children and then say, 'Kids, you need to get out of here as soon as possible.' We hear that too often," Ms. Blundall said, urging Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore to make their top rural-policy priority offering opportunities for bright rural children.

"Our hope is going to come through the schools," she said.

To make any progress, Mr. Clinton acknowledged that he will need help in persuading a Republican-controlled Congress.

"Aside from college loans, they probably don't think that anything else the government does is worth much, so doing this will be hard unless your voice is heard," said the President, who asked for the audience's support in this year's farm-bill debate as well as for their backing for a larger rural-development strategy.

"We need to remember that whether you are Republican or Democrat, these are the real problems of real people spoken in practical, common-sense, old-fashioned American language," Mr. Clinton said.

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