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USDA program targets 29 rural W.Va. counties for aid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Twenty-nine West Virginia counties have been added to a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative targeting persistent poverty in rural America.

Of the 703 U.S. counties with poverty rates above 20 percent, 537 are found in rural areas, according to a survey by the USDA's Economic Research Service.

"There's a significant rural component to poverty in America," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a teleconference call with regional reporters. "The average wage-earner in a rural county makes $6,500 a year less than an urban worker" in the same region, Vilsack said.

As a result, "people in many rural areas feel disconnected from the rest of America and left out. We decided it was time to address this feeling," Vilsack said.

The USDA antipoverty program, called StrikeForce, matches federal funds with local projects and their sponsoring organizations. Last year, the program financed, among other things, more than $9 million in micro-loans to beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, and $68 million for community buildings in StrikeForce areas.

Since 2010, the StrikeForce program has partnered with more than 400 community organizations, businesses, foundations and universities to provide funds and technical expertise for more than 80,000 projects, channeling $9.7 billion in investments into rural America.

Projects StrkeForce has been involved with range from financing summer feeding programs for rural schools and building tribal administration offices for American Indians to providing farmers with funds for seasonal greenhouses and providing loans for rural housing.

StrikeForce began operating in 2010, starting in three southern states. Since then, rural poverty areas in 16 additional states were added. Vilsack's announcement earlier this week that 29 West Virginia counties would be included in the program, along with impoverished counties in Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana, brings the number of states served by the program to 20.

By working on problems identified by local community groups, universities and businesses, the USDA avoids the off-putting "I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help" approach used by some agencies, Vilsack said.

"The StrikeForce strategy of partnering public resources with local expertise is helping to grow rural economies and create jobs" in rural areas with persistent poverty, Vilsack said.

In coming months, a StrikeForce team will travel to West Virginia to begin identifying projects that could benefit from the program, according to the Agriculture secretary.

The West Virginia counties in which the program will operate are Barbour, Boone, Braxton, Cabell, Calhoun, Clay, Doddridge, Fayette, Gilmer, Hampshire, Lewis, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mason, Mercer, Mingo, Nicholas, Pleasants, Randolph, Ritchie, Roane, Summers, Tyler, Upshur, Wayne, Webster, Wirt and Wyoming.

For more information on the USDA initiative, visit www.usda.gov/strikeforce.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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