By the time she left the little box marked “Rural Development,” Lillian Salerno had spent the better part of five years inside it. The box’s function was simple: to channel low-interest-rate loans, along with a few grants, mainly to towns with fewer than 50,000 people in them. Her department ran the $220 billion bank that serviced the poorest of the poor in rural America: in the Deep South, and in the tribal lands, and in the communities, called colonias, along the U.S.-Mexico border. “Some of the communities in the South, the only checks going in are government checks,” she said. And yet, amazingly, they nearly always repaid their loans.
Half her job had been vetting the demands from rural America for help. The other half had been one long unglamorous road trip. “It wasn’t like I could just fly to New York City. I’d be going to, like, Minco, Oklahoma. Everywhere I went was two flights minimum plus a two- or three-hour drive.” On the other end of the trip lay some small town in dire need of a health center, or housing, or a small business. “You go through these small towns and you see these ridiculously nice fire stations. That’s us,” she said. It was always more expensive for these towns to get electricity and Internet access and health care. “But for the federal government rural Alaska wouldn’t have any drinking water.” The need was incredible; her work felt urgent. “We’d give $40,000 for a health clinic and the whole time you’re like, Shit, this makes a difference.”
As the U.S.D.A.’s loans were usually made through local banks, the people on the receiving end of them were often unaware of where the money was coming from. There were many stories very like the one Tom Vilsack told, about a loan they had made, in Minnesota, to a government-shade-throwing, Fox News-watching, small-town businessman. The bank held a ceremony and the guy wound up being interviewed by the local paper. “He’s telling the reporter how proud he is to have done it on his own,” said Vilsack. “The U.S.D.A. person goes to introduce herself, and he says, ‘So who are you?’ She says, ‘I’m the U.S.D.A. person.’ He asks, ‘What are you doing here?’ She says, ‘Well, sir, we supplied the money you are announcing.’ He was white as a sheet.”
Salerno saw this sort of thing all the time. “We’d have this check,” said Salerno. “We’d blow it up and try to have a picture taken with it. It said, UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT, in great big letters. That was something that Vilsack wanted—to be right out in front so people knew the federal government had helped them. In the red southern states the mayor sometimes would say, ‘Can you not mention that the government gave this?’” Even when it was saving lives, or preserving communities, it remained oddly invisible. “It’s just a misunderstanding of the system,” said Salerno. “We don’t teach people what government actually does.”
She herself hadn’t learned until very late. She’d grown up in a family with no money, and nine children, and Republican sympathies, in a small farming town in Texas called Little Elm. Her graduating high-school class had 18 people in it. She was both student-council president and head cheerleader. (“The reason I’m not very good at math is you had to choose: cheerleading or math. And I chose cheerleading.”) Few of her school’s graduates ever went to college, but she was admitted to the University of Texas, on a Pell Grant. She paid for what the grant didn’t by waiting tables.
She was waiting tables in Little Elm in the late 1980s when friends started getting sick, and dying, from AIDS. She went to Dallas to visit them. There, at a Dallas hospital, she saw that men condemned to death were going without care: the nurses were frightened to interact with them. They had a particular fear of being infected by the needles that delivered medication to the patients. “At that time everyone died,” said Salerno. “And they are told, ‘The nurses aren’t coming.’ I said, That’s about as fucked as anything I ever saw.”
She had a raw sense of injustice, and a desire to see life be made fair. “Small town, big family, no resources: you look at the world in a certain way.” She also had a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-fix-it attitude. After seeing the needless suffering she came up with an idea: the retractable needle. It worked like a ballpoint pen. A friend of hers, an engineer, designed it. She applied to the local community bank for a loan and got it. It wasn’t until much later that she discovered that the loan had ultimately come from the Small Business Administration, and that the federal government had simply used the local bank as a delivery system. She didn’t know enough to know that no bank was going to lend money to a first-time entrepreneur on the strength of a new invention—in part because banks didn’t value willpower. “All good inventions come from something personal,” she said. “People create things because it’s personal.”
Salerno and her partner built and ran the new company in Little Elm and called it Retractable Technologies. They received their first patent in the early 1990s and F.D.A. approval in 1997. The first year in business they sold one million syringes, the next year three million. By the third year her company employed 140 people in Little Elm. She repaid the bank her government loan—and she still didn’t realize it was a government loan. For the first time in her life she had money.
She also now had a view of the inner workings of the health-care industry. The company that had made the old syringes, Becton, Dickinson & Co., controlled more than 80 percent of the market and felt threatened. It wasn’t long before it started to require hospital systems to buy its clumsy new version of a safe syringe, by bundling it with other products. Salerno assumed Becton, Dickinson was counting on her inability to pay for the lawsuits required to fight them. But she did and wound up with a settlement of $100 million in 2004.
Even then, Becton found ways to keep her new product from gaining full access to the market. Her company survived but didn’t become what it might have. It now employs 130 people, instead of the 200 at its peak. Salerno concluded that increased corporate power was one of the forces that had reduced the opportunity available in rural America. The rapacity of companies with monopolistic power, and their ability to have their way with the government, got her thinking about the big American systems. “The entire health industry lies about what things cost to make,” she said. “I know what things cost because I made them.”
Her outrage led her to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2007, but she soon switched to Obama. (“I switched because I got so angry at how they were beating him up.”) After Obama won, Salerno was a natural candidate for a job she had no idea existed: helping people in rural America to help themselves. “Someone said, ‘Why don’t you become an administrator in rural America, at the Department of Agriculture?’ I said, ‘There’s an administrator in rural America?’”
She’d come to her job inside the little box marked “Rural Development” without any particular ambition to be there. The sums of money at her disposal were incredible: the little box gave out or guaranteed $30 billion in loans and grants a year. But people who should have known about it hadn’t the first clue what it was up to. “I had this conversation with elected and state officials almost everywhere in the South,” said Salerno. “Them: We hate the government and you suck. Me: My mission alone put $1 billion into your economy this year, so are you sure about that? Me thinking: We are the only reason your shitty state is standing.”
She was a small-business person first and had no affection for the inefficiencies she found inside the federal government. “You have this big federal workforce that hasn’t been invested in forever,” she said. “They can’t be outward-facing. They don’t have any of the tools you need in a modern workplace.” She couldn’t attract young people to work there. Once, she tried to estimate how many of the U.S.D.A.’s roughly 100,000 employees had been taught how to create a spreadsheet. Fewer than 50 people, she decided. “I was always very aware how we spent money. When I would use words like ‘fiduciary duties’ or say, ‘Those are not our dollars,’ they would say, ‘Are you sure you aren’t a Republican?’ But I was really sensitive to the fact that this wasn’t our money. This was taxpayer money. This was money that had come from some guy working for 15 bucks an hour.”
The big messy federal government was still the only tool for dealing with what she saw as a growing crisis: the deconstruction of rural America. “It’s hard to quantify what it means not to have your entire town’s businesses shuttered up because Walmart moved there,” she said. There was a hole in the American capital markets: they simply didn’t reach small towns. And there were lots of stats that suggested that our society benefited from having small towns—and that small-town life made some important, perhaps undervalued, contributions to the whole. Fifteen percent of the country lives in towns of fewer than 10,000 people, for instance, but a far greater proportion of the armed services come from rural areas than from urban ones.
But the more rural the American, the more dependent he is for his way of life on the U.S. government. And the more rural the American, the more likely he was to have voted for Donald Trump. So you might think that Trump, when he took office, would do everything he could to strengthen and grow the little box marked “Rural Development.” That’s not what has happened.
The Trump administration wanted to show early that it was serious about foreign trade. This desire expressed itself in the Department of Agriculture by a splitting of the little box marked “Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services” into two little boxes—one for Farm programs and another for Foreign Agricultural Affairs, or trade. Oddly, at that very moment, Trump was removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and costing American farmers an estimated $4.4 billion a year in foreign sales, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. As there’s a rule against having more than seven little boxes on the U.S.D.A.’s org chart, they had to eliminate one of the little boxes. The little box they got rid of was Rural Development. “I worked in the little box in the government most responsible for helping the people who elected Trump,” said Salerno. “And they literally took my little box off the organization chart.”
This troubled Lillian Salerno, and not just because she’d spent five years of her life inside that little box. It troubled her because it made her wonder about the motives of the people who had taken over the Department of Agriculture. She’d worked inside the little box for a reason. And if you wanted to understand what was at stake inside these little boxes, you could not neglect the motives of the people who ran them. “You want to know what worries me most?” she says after I ask her the question I’d come to ask her. “I am absolutely convinced about one thing: there are conversations going on right now in New York and Washington between people in the Trump administration and Wall Street bankers about how to get their hands on the bank portfolio. Folks in banking: I’m sure they are nice people—they just can’t help themselves.”
She’s worried that an only partially adequate tool for helping people who were raised in the country’s unlucky places will be turned into a source of profits for the biggest financial firms. She thinks that was why they eliminated her little box and moved the $220 billion bank into the office of the secretary: so they could do new things with the money without people noticing. “At the end of the day, what do I think they are going to do?” she said. “Take all the money and give it to their banker friends. Do things like privatize water—so people in rural Florida will be paying $75 a month for it instead of $20.”
Lillian Salerno had observed the Trump administration for a long moment. Virtually all the people Trump had sent into the Department of Agriculture were white men in their 20s. They exhibited no knowledge of, or interest in, the problems of rural Americans. She decided there was only one thing to do: move back to Texas and run for office. She had no illusions about herself as a political candidate. She was still a small-town girl from Little Elm, Texas. “I’m still basically a waitress,” she said. “I still feel like this. If I get to be a congressman, I’ll still feel like that.” Ali Zaidi had asked a question: Where would the political capital come from to help people in rural America? Well, it would come from her.
Zaidi marveled at how hard it was for Americans to see the source of their society’s strength. People who came to the United States from other countries had this one advantage: they didn’t take it for granted. “The immigrant journey has a time compression to it,” he said. “Within a generation you’re able to see how the rungs of the ladder of opportunity are laid out in front of you, and you can see the hands that pull you up. You see people pull you up and you say, O.K., I’ve got to do the same thing for other people.
“I came up that ladder of opportunity, but even I didn’t know the names of the government programs that made up the ladder itself. Growing up, what was obvious to me was the kindness of community members. But government was less visible. You need to work really hard to appreciate it.”
And who wants to do that?