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USDA officials diagnose rural America's needs

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack described the depth of poverty in rural America at a Farm Foundation Forum Monday, while at a separate meeting, Lisa Mensah, his top assistant on rural development, called for increased access to broadband as a way to give an economic boost to underserved communities.

Vilsack, speaking at the National Press Club, stressed the importance of targeting USDA resources in rural counties that are persistently impoverished - where at least 20 percent of the county's population has been living in poverty for the last 30 years or more.

Nationwide, there are between 350 and 384 of these “persistent poverty” counties (PPCs) and about 85 percent of them are rural. Of the rural PPCs, about two thirds are located in the Old Confederacy and about one-fourth are within Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, referred to as the Mid-South.

“In the Mid-South, there are 39 PPCs and 35 of those (have a population that is) majority black,” said forum participant Bill Bynum, the CEO of a community development bank called Hope Credit Union Enterprise Corp., which provides affordable financing to underserved communities across Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

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