Joe Biden, former vice president and likely 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and Congressman Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, met virtually on Wednesday morning to discuss issues facing the rural La Crosse area.
The virtual roundtable featured a panel of local experts who discussed key rural issues, such as the job loss and health-care crisis caused by the pandemic, and ongoing issues that the area has battled including the dairy industry collapse.
Biden’s message for the roundtable audience was that rural America is at the forefront of guiding the country out of the global crisis, as it works to sustain and rebuild itself.
“Rural communities power our nation. They feed our bodies, they fuel our engines, they’re stewards that protect our lands, and we cannot sustain an economy that exacts value from them without ever sharing in the rewards,” Biden said.
One of the panelists painted a picture of how rural health-care industries are struggling, especially during COVID-19.
At Scenic Bluffs Community Health Center, providers treat nearly 8,000 patients a year from “all walks of life,” including residents from urban La Crosse, immigrants and members of the Amish community, and already face funding issues.
But the facility is feeling added stress to provide telemedicine to its patients, many of them without internet access, insufficient testing and contact tracing capabilities, an increased need for mental-health services and access to personal protective equipment.
“Even if you don’t know anyone who has been stricken with the virus or is ill., this is stressful and it’s overwhelming and it’s exhausting, and we need to do more to support,” said panelist Mari Freiberg, CEO of the facility.
Biden said redirecting resources into rural health care would not only help them sustain themselves through the pandemic, but could help the communities long term by creating jobs and building resources to battle other ongoing public health crises, such as addiction.
“This isn’t rocket science. It just takes an investment and execution,” he said.
And as the state reopens after months of shutdowns, the economy of rural Wisconsin was on the panelists’ minds.
In rural Trempealeau County, which doesn’t have a community larger than 3,000 and most residents make around minimum wage, the shutdowns were “incredibly devastating,” according to Rob Grover, who leads the county’s tourism and economic development sector.
Small businesses in the area sought federal relief, but hit road bumps, one salon’s application submitted just half an hour after the program ran out of money because her lender was so backlogged, Grover said.
“I think right now, rural Wisconsin and rural businesses feel like they’re being left behind,” he said.
Small businesses in the area are also growing worrisome about opening up their doors again, as the fight against the virus remains uncertain, he said.
“Even though Wisconsin is starting to open up again, if people don’t feel confident that they can come in and be safe, they’re not going to show up,” Grover said, adding that owners are worried they’ll have to close again if the outbreaks resurge.
Biden said his plan for small business relief would be a more hands-on approach, keeping a close eye on the distribution of dollars and providing federal guidance for businesses as they reopen.
The panel touched on ongoing issues in the state, too, closing the discussion on Wisconsin’s dairy industry and its slow collapse over the years caused by trade wars and environmental strains, now sped-up by the pandemic.
“This country is now being reminded that food doesn’t magically appear on our plates. It starts with American farmers,” Biden said.
The pandemic has sent the industry into a hyper-crisis situation, as businesses and schools shutter doors and cancel orders from local farmers, and family farmers find they don’t qualify for federal support.
“We’re really struggling right now,” said Darin Von Ruden, president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
“To even get dollars, even a few dollars, would make a difference,” he said.
Biden suggested the federal government should use dollars to fill the farm-to-table gap, by buying products from local farms and connecting them to groups and organizations who are feeding America.
“People are hurting. Big time,” Biden said. “And this is a place where we can help farmers, we can help restaurants, and the preparers of the food, and we can also help the idea that people aren’t going to have a meal.”
During the roundtable, Biden was critical of the administration’s leadership on the global crisis and ongoing rural issues.
“There’s so many things that we can do to build up rural America,” he said, “There’s a lot that’s out there that we can do that’s not being done, and I don’t quite get why the president has walked away from any responsibility to do it.”
Both parties held virtual campaign rallies in the state on Wednesday, Scott Walker joining the Trump campaign for its livestream.
“Joe Biden and Ron Kind are two sides of the same political coin,” said Anna Kelly, a spokesperson for Trump’s campaign. “Both are do-nothing career politicians who don’t care about rural voters and prioritize policies like the job-killing Green New Deal that would devastate Wisconsin farmers.”
Panelists touched on other rural initiatives, like infrastructure improvements, environmental protections, universal health care, education, noting that rural Wisconsin was in turmoil before the pandemic even struck.
But the panel’s main message for the La Crosse area residents tuning-in was two-fold — that the effort to get back from the brink of this pandemic was going to be a “monumental effort,” but that rural America was the right place to start.
“Rural communities really are the backbone of what happens around the state and around the country,” Von Ruden said, “and once you start losing the backbones of those communities ... you lose the whole community. And we’re seeing way too much of that in rural Wisconsin.”
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