America's rural areas are suffering from a serious case of neglect, says a group of farm-state lawmakers already campaigning to provide the countryside with a federally financed face lift.

"Rural Americans are worried that the state of the economy in their communities will force them to abandon their chosen way of life," Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said at a recent news conference.The long-running debate over rural development seems certain to come in for renewed debate on Capitol Hill next year.

Broader than a mere farm issue, rural development focuses on vast stretches of land and takes in problems ranging from backed up sewer systems in country towns to persuading companies to move to places best known for cows and plows.

Lawmakers calling for stepped-up rural development point to higher poverty rates among the 54 million Americans who live outside urban centers - and note that farmers represent only a fraction of that number.

Rural America's poverty rate currently is running at 18 percent, well above the urban level, and the unemployment rate remains 2.6 percent higher in the countryside than in the cities, according to statistics compiled by the National Governors Association.

Rural areas will be gaining jobs for the rest of this century at only 73 percent of the urban rate, according to the group's projections.

Demands for congressional action started in the mid-1980s as a reaction to small-town distress that stemmed in part from crop surpluses that hurt farm incomes.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., convened two sessions of the panel this fall with the aim of producing a rural development bill. But the effort fizzled amid questions about the price tag.

Leahy, however, has been calling for resumed action next year.

Money remains an obstacle. It is in short supply as Congress wrestles with towering budget deficits. Indeed, levels of many rural programs have come down during the Reagan years.

The Agriculture Department provided rural areas with $290 million in water and waste disposal grants in 1980. That dropped to $125 million in 1982, see-sawed in the mid-1980s and has held steady over the last three years at $109.4 million.

But money is not the only obstacle. Priorities are important, too.

Since the mid-1980s rural development has proven itself attractive enough politically to get talked about. But issues with more powerful voter appeal always seem to get the lion's share of the attention. Only a few lawmakers from the most rural states are persistent advocates.

"Rural and small town Americans are asking the federal government to help them make rural life economically viable - We cannot ignore their dilemma," said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D.