Friday, November 16, 2018

Paradise fire provides tragic opportunity to blog about several aspects of contemporary rurality

A week ago, the Camp Fire roared through Paradise, California, a community of about 27,000 in Butte County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento (where I happen to live).  Events like these are so shocking--and almost unimaginably tragic--that I've been almost paralyzed, unable to write about the conflagration and its aftermath.  But that's the task I'll undertake today.  

I'll start with the most recent news first:  The number of persons missing from the fire has just shot into the 600s, after days of hovering in the 200s.  The various public agencies apparently began to check the lists and logs of calls and against one another, and the news was not good.  Read more here and here.  The death toll now stands at 63, greater than that from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, making it the deadliest natural disaster in history.  Other stunning data points about the Camp Fire from today's Sacramento Bee:
So far, the blaze has burned 142,000 acres — about 221 square miles — and is 45 percent contained.
More than 52,000 people have been evacuated and 12,256 structures destroyed, 9,700 of them homes.
Speaking of the nearly 10K homes lost in the fire, media are now starting to focus on the impossibility of an adequate response to the widespread human displacement because of California's already enormous housing shortage.   This is a housing shortage afflicting both rural and urban places, and those in between, like Butte County.  The New York Times headline is "California Fires Only Add To Acute Housing Shortage."  The data point it features includes both the Camp Fire and the Southern California fires, where 432 homes have been lost in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Related to this is the tent city that has sprung up next to a Walmart parking lot in Chico California, one of the Butte County seats and just 20 minutes from Paradise.  The Sacramento Bee headline two days ago was "Refugee camps for fire survivors? Butte County on 'edge' of humanitarian crisis after Camp Fire."   The story quotes David Cuen, a survivor of the fire who is living out of his truck in the parking lot,
“People go right next to you, not respecting that we’re sleeping in our vehicles – not respecting that we don’t have nothing no more,” Cuen said of this haphazard community of survivors that has taken shape in recent days.
The lot has become a de facto refugee camp as those who have lost everything seek the most basic of necessities: a place to be. Exactly how long people will stay there is an unsettling and unanswered question in Butte County. In a region already plagued by a severe shortage of homes and apartments, the Camp Fire may usher a massive housing shortage, potentially leaving thousands of fire victims homeless for months or even years. 
The more than 50 tents, and the dozen or more RVs and occupied cars such as Cuen’s in the parking lot represent just a small fraction of the staggering number of families that have been left temporarily or permanently homeless...
Ed Mayer, executive director of the county's housing agency had this to say when asked if the county was facing a humanitarian crisis:
"We’re on the edge."
Local officials warned the destruction from the Camp Fire could set off a wave of refugee migration akin to a smaller version of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. 
“Big picture, we have 6,000, possibly 7,000 households who have been displaced and who realistically don’t stand a chance of finding housing again in Butte County,” Mayer said. “I don’t even know if these households can be absorbed in California.” 
The county has the capacity to place 800 to 1,000 households in permanent housing, Mayer said, but its short-term options are overwhelmed.
The New York Times story on the housing shortage, by Thomas Fuller, Kirk Johnson and Thomas Dougherty, includes this information:
Housing experts said wildfires have transformed a housing problem that was already vast and deep into something sharp and local. 
“We’ve had a huge increase in population and a huge increase in jobs, and we do not have anywhere close to the supply of housing to put people,” said Carol Galante, faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at University of California Berkeley. “There is no margin when there is a disaster; there is no cushion at all.”
It later continues:
For disaster-prone California, the housing shortage creates instant refugees. 
The journalists quote Casey Hatcher, spokeswoman for Butte County: 
There is no way that the current housing stock can accommodate the people displaced by the fire.  We recognize that it’s going to be some time before people rebuild, and there is an extremely large housing need.
One possible solution, [Hatcher] said, would be for FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to provide trailers that people could live in while their homes were being rebuilt.
While it is very difficult to find good, credible hard data -- as opposed to anecdote--those who work on rural issues in California have been well aware of the housing shortage facing rural residents for some time. 

The Los Angeles Times "equivalent" headline on the same day that the Bee used the term "humanitarian crisis" was "'We have nothing':  Camp fire evacuees turn Chico vacant lot into a tent city."  A story by the local NPR affiliate yesterday commented that homeless people in Chico had made their way to where fire relief goods, including clothing and blankets, were being distributed.  The radio journalist interviewed one of the long-time homeless residents who was thankful for what he could get, and the journalist them commented on how much the fire evacuees and long-time homeless now suddenly have in common.  Homelessness in rural California is another big issue for rural advocates in the Golden State.

Speaking of humanitarian crises, a Norovirus outbreak has recently been confirmed at several Chico area shelters. 

Another fascinating story out of the Los Angeles Times (which is continuing to provide excellent coverage of the Camp Fire, though it is very far from Los Angeles) regards the coverage of the fire by Chico's newspaper, the Enterprise-Record.  David Little, the paper's editor, took a photo with his iPhone from atop the paper's office building as the fire burned last Thursday morning.  That photo has now been seen around the world, appearing on the websites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Time Magazine.  I can't re-print the photo here without permission, but/and I do hope it is enriching  Mr. Brown and the Enterprise-Record.  You see, they are operating on a shoe-string budget, with a staff of 10 and 4 part-timers, down from 45 when he started running it two decades ago.  That's the story of rural and small-town newspapers these days.  As the Los Angeles Times story points out, Little and his team are doing a heroic job of covering the Camp Fire, well beyond that pervasive, eye-catching photo. 

Little oversees not only the  Chico paper, but also one that serves Oroville (co-county seat of Butte County), as well as the Paradise Post.
The twice-weekly Paradise Post also falls under his supervision, and its staff of two has been in overdrive, he said. They work in the Chico office, and the paper is printed there as well — along with a dozen other dailies and six weekly and semiweekly papers from Monterey to Eureka. The challenge, though, has been where to deliver the Paradise Post.

“How do you distribute a newspaper to a town that’s not there?”
Moving on to the next topic, Donald Trump is coming for a visit tomorrow.  Governor-Elect Gavin Newson and Governor Jerry Brown have just announced they will accompany him.  Read more here.  I assume they'll visit both Butte County and the So. Cal fires.  We shall see.  

P.S.  Here is a powerful BBC story, really a series of human stories, about the Camp Fire and the loss of Paradise. 

And here is information on how to get help if you have been displaced by the Camp Fire.   

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Rural voters in the 2018 midterms

Analysis of Tuesday's midterms is reaching new levels of sophistication two days on, and that is resulting in more nuanced commentary than we saw on election night.

Here is a quote from the New York Times story this morning, "For Both Parties, a Political Realignment Along Cultural Lines,"
The midterm elections on Tuesday laid bare the growing chasm between urban and rural America, leaving Republicans deeply concerned about their declining fortunes in the metropolitan areas that extinguished their House majority and Democrats just as alarmed about their own struggles to win over voters in states that strengthened the G.O.P.’s grip on the Senate.
I think the focus on "cultural" issues rather than on race (which may effectively mean the same thing) is interesting.  That NYT story by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns then turns to Eric Cantor, former majority leader of the House who was ousted from his district by the more conservative newcomer Dave Brat in the 2014 midterms.  Cantor lamented the apparent "collapse of the longstanding political alliance between culturally conservative rural voters and high-income suburbanites who are focused on the economy and issues like education and child care."

This is interesting because I never perceived any real allegiance or meaningful coalition between suburbanites and rural folks regarding any issues, least of all those like child care.   That's mostly, I guess, because rural folks have little hope of ever having child care--or for better education funding for rural schools, which are costly because of inabilities to achieve economies of scale.  When it comes to education, I would assume that rural and suburban schools actually compete with each other for funds.

Here's another quote with rural overtones:
Democrats further retrenched from the agricultural and industrial communities where they once dominated.
Which leads me to this from Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa who was also agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, who "complained bitterly about his party's worsening struggles with rural voters."
“It’s so frustrating,” said Mr. Vilsack, who has been pleading with Democrats to aggressively court the Farm Belt. “You pick out the interest group that’s part of our base and we always have a message for all of those folks, but we don’t do the same thing for folks in rural places.”  
Note Vilsack's implicit rurality as identity point, a staple of this blog and some of my earlier writing.

Here's another story out today's NYT on the mid-terms, this one by Mitch Smith and Monica Davey, focused on the Midwest.

Similarly, I noticed some folks on Twitter lamenting the Democrats' problem with rural voters, the alienation of rural voters rom the Democratic Party.  Among these is Alec MacGillis of ProPublica, whose work I have cited extensively here.  Here he re-Tweets Matt Stoller, policy director of the Open Markets Institute.  

Here's a Tweet from Dave Weigel of the Washington Post, who writes about politics.  He comments on Missourian Claire McCaskill 's failed bid to keep her U.S. Senate seat.  Note the focus on lack of local news outlets and the nationalizing of media sources--especially the impact of Fox News.
And here is a salient Tweet from Jedediah Purdy of Duke Law School:

Meanwhile, Cheri Bustos, U.S. Congresswoman from rural western Illinois who helped formulate the Democrats' come-back strategy, was upbeat on National Public Radio the morning after.   She was focused on the infrastructure Dems could support rather than on the culture wars stuff, which she has previously advised the Democrats to avoid.     

Lastly, I'll link to this from 10 days before the election, on how Colorado effectively bridges the rural-urban divide, from Roger Cohen of the New York Times.  That, in turn, reminds me of this piece on the rural-urban divide in Colorado, this before the 2016 election. 

Post Script:  David Leonhardt of the New York Times titles his daily email on Friday, Nov. 9, "America's Small Town Crisis."  He cites Stoller and MacGillis--and quotes them, too. He also has this to say: 
I understand why talk of rural America often frustrates progressives: Rural America — which is, of course, overwhelmingly white — already has outsize political power in this country, thanks to the Senate, the Electoral College and the privileged role that Iowa and New Hampshire play in presidential elections. But life in rural areas and small cities hasn’t exactly been easy in recent years. In virtually every measurable way — incomes, wealth, education, health, longevity — large metropolitan areas have done better. 
Democrats should, by all means, continue fighting for the issues that matter to metropolitan America, like civil rights. But there is a clear moral case for devoting more attention to small-town America at the same time. There is also a self-interested political case for Democrats.
In other words, Dems don't have to choose between supporting metro areas and civil rights on the one hand and rural interests on the others.  As I have written before, that is a false choice.  

Thursday, November 1, 2018

So much rural news, so little time to blog: health, local economic woes, tariffs

National Public Radio continues to cover the results of the rural survey/health poll it co-sponsored with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others.  

One headline is "Methamphetamine Roils Rural Towns Again Across the United States."  The lede is:
The sharp rise in opioid abuse and fatal overdoses has overshadowed another mounting drug problem: Methamphetamine use is rising across the United States. 
"Usage of methamphetamine nationally is at an all-time high," says Erik Smith, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Kansas City office. 
"It is back with a vengeance." he says. "And the reasons for that are twofold." The drug's now stronger, and cheaper, than it used to be. 
No longer chiefly made by "cooks" in makeshift labs in the U.S., methamphetamine is now the domain of Mexican drug cartels that are mass-producing high-quality quantities of the drug and pushing it into markets where it was previously unknown.
But even in rural communities ravaged by decades of experience with the drug, meth is on the upswing thanks to its relatively low price, availability and a shortage of treatment options. 
Frank Morris reports the story out of Quilin, Missouri, in the state's bootheel.  Other posts out of that down-and-out region are here and here.

Another story in that series on the poll/survey is headlined, "Rural Americans are OK with Outside Help to Beat Opioid Crisis and Boost the Economy."  Frank Morris is again reporting from Missouri, this time out of Belle, Missouri.  Here's an excerpt:
Small towns face big problems. In rural America, rugged individualism is still prized, but so is the pragmatism that has begun to trump traditional disdain for government. 
When NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health polled rural Americans this summer, 58 percent said they want outside help with community problems. 
"I think that's a surprise for a lot of people," says [Robert] Blendon, [Professor of Health Policy and political analysis at Harvard] "that there is a willingness — by most, not all — to reach out for outside help." 
Many rural communities are facing two big, persistent issues: drugs and economic stagnation. Take Belle, Mo., with its population of 1,500. 
"Money is a big problem," says Kathy Stanfield, who is in her late 60s and raised her children here. "You don't have the tax base anymore that you used to have." 
Stanfield says Belle has struggled since the shoe factory closed decades ago. It was once the town's biggest employer. 
Increasingly, the town relies on grants to pay for basic maintenance, like replacing crumbling sidewalks or fixing faulty water lines. And that money is getting harder to come by. 
Belle has a drug problem, too, and Roxie Murphy, a newspaper reporter who covers Belle for the Maries County Advocate, says drug-related crime is on a lot of people's minds.
"Even though we're rural, the idea that we're safe isn't really there anymore," says Murphy.
I wrote this post about a third story in the health poll series here.

Another recent NPR story with a rural angle is about the impact of Trump's tariffs on farmers.  The dateline is Randall, Iowa, and here's the lede for Amy Mayer's story:
As Branon Osmundson harvests soybeans in Randall, Iowa, the combine's blades cut the stems, pods are pulled apart and the hard yellow beans fill the hopper. Osmundson's cousin pulls a matching red Case I-H tractor up alongside, positioning the attached grain cart to catch the beans as they're augured out of the combine. 
Osmundson is relieved to be in the field on a windy, clear day because he waited through weeks of heavy rain before his crops were dry enough to harvest. Beyond the rain, stubbornly low crop prices have been exacerbated by the trade war that decimated the once-lucrative Chinese market for soybeans. China used to be the biggest buyer of U.S.-grown soybeans. But this year, in retaliation for similar U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, China imposed a 25 percent tariff on imports of U.S. soybeans, resulting in a dramatic drop in shipments. 
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture still predicts a record soybean harvest, which only further complicates the situation. 
Osmundson says the price he will get is $2 per bushel lower than last year because of the uncertainty in the export market. That could end up costing him tens of thousands of dollars.
I'm excited to see so much recent media attention to rural America, and I can't help wonder if it'll taper off after the election--or be ramped up, depending on the rural vote. 

Friday, October 26, 2018

"Sparse country" at Harvard as derision of rurality and conflation with whiteness

Prof. Jeannie Suk Gersen writes in the New Yorker this week under the headline, "At Trial, Harvard's Asian Problem and a Preference for White Students from Sparse Country."  She is writing about the same landmark affirmative action case I wrote about a few days ago here.  And, as I predicted in that post would soon happen among commentators, Professor Gersen conflates rurality with whiteness.

Prof. Gersen, of Harvard Law, repeatedly uses the phrase "Sparse Country," capitalized even (perhaps for emphasis?  Is there a whiff of disdain--or more than whiff--here?) to refer to the 20 states from which Harvard makes a particular effort to recruit students.  (I want to know what 20 states constitute "sparse country" but Gersen does not list them; elsewhere the New York Times listed a few of them, including Montana and Alabama).
In his testimony, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, who has worked in the admissions office since before Bakke, reminisced about his Harvard roommate in the nineteen-sixties, who was “a great ambassador” for South Dakota. He also testified about the letters Harvard sends to high-school students in Sparse Country who have P.S.A.T. scores of at least 1310, encouraging them to apply. The only Sparse Country students with such scores who do not get the letter are Asians; to receive it, an Asian male must score at least 1380. An attorney for the plaintiff asked why a white boy in, say, immigrant-rich Las Vegas with a score of 1310 would get the letter, while his Asian classmate with a 1370 would not. Fitzsimmons responded with generalities about the need to recruit from a broad array of states to achieve diversity.
The quotation marks around "great ambassador" suggest to me Gersen's derision of the rural experience and the notion that kids from rural places might have anything to teach urban kids, who are no doubt the Harvard student body default. 
When asked whether Harvard “put a thumb on the scale for white students” from Sparse Country, Fitzsimmons contrasted students who “have only lived in the Sparse Country state for a year or two” with those who “have lived there for their entire lives under very different settings.” Perhaps he meant that whites are more likely to be “farm boys” or “great ambassadors,” like his South Dakotan roommate. Or perhaps he meant that Asians are more likely than whites to apply to Harvard, less likely to be accepted, and more likely to enroll if accepted, so Harvard saves itself postage costs by reducing its recruiting of Asians. But the exchange highlighted a key question of the trial: whether the Harvard admissions process treats white racial identity as an asset, relative to Asian identity (or treats Asian identity as a drawback, relative to white identity).
This explanation of Harvard's desire to attract students from "Sparse Country" suggests another meaning of the phrase--that the sparseness refers to the dearth of applicants from these places, not necessarily to the low density of the population.

As for Prof. Gersen's conflation of whiteness with rurality, it is arguably supported by Fitzsimmons' distinction between students who have not been in Sparse Country for very long and those who have been there all their lives.  That is, immigrants are moving into "Sparse Country" (as I have written about here and my colleague Michele Statz has written about here), and I would hope that Harvard would not devalue those immigrants simply because they have not lived in rural America for very long.  Indeed, those immigrants are probably valued by Harvard because they represent racial and ethnic groups generally underrepresented at Harvard--regardless of whether they are admitted to Harvard from rural or urban places.

One issue that is not explicit in Prof. Gersen's musings is the distinction between "Sparse Country" as rural and "Sparse Country" as urban.  This gets at the issue of scale:  Is the scale of the "state" helpful if we want rural voices at Harvard and similarly situated institutions?   I have often argued (in conversation, though perhaps not explicitly in my publications) that admitting the children of doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers and such from Billings or Missoula or Bozeman Montana (or, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque or even Rapid City or Sioux City) is really nothing like admitting the real "farm boy"--or, more importantly, farm girl--from one of these states.  So if Harvard sees "Sparse Country" as 20 states, it's missing out on the complexity of the dramatic variations within those states.

The best seller Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, helps to make my point.  Tara was raised by fundamentalist Latter Day Saint parents in southern Idaho--which is NOTHING like being raised by wealthy retirees in, say, Sun Valley, or even as the daughter of physicians in Boise.  Do we really want to look at issues like diversity of lived experience at the level of the state?  Or do we need to look to a lower scale to achieve more authentic diversity?  Doesn't the phenomenally successful Educated help us to see that distinction quite clearly?

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Playing the rural healthcare card in race for governor of Georgia

I was excited to see this piece on Stacy Abrams' campaign for governor on the front page of today's New York Times.  The headline is, "Stacy Abrams Hopes Medicaid Expansion Can be a Winning Issue in Rural Georgia," and the lede of Abby Goodnough's story follows: 
For the upscale urban audience at a campaign town hall here, it would have been enough for Stacey Abrams to pitch Medicaid expansion as a moral issue — the health-care-as-human-right argument that appeals to progressives everywhere. 
Instead, Ms. Abrams, the Democrat in the tossup race for Georgia governor, stuck to the pragmatic line of reasoning she has pushed in making Medicaid expansion a top priority of her campaign: It will help save the state’s struggling rural towns without busting its budget, since the Affordable Care Act requires the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost. 
Goodnough quotes Abrams talk at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college: 
Raise your hand if you would say no to someone who said, ‘Give me a dollar and I’ll give you $9 back.' It is economically false, a falsehood over all, to say we can’t afford to expand Medicaid.  
The story later continues:
By framing the expansion of government health coverage for the poor as a smart business move that would save teetering small-town hospitals and create thousands of jobs outside metro Atlanta, Ms. Abrams, an unabashed liberal, is hoping to add enough rural votes to her column to beat Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, a Trump-style conservative who is against expanding Medicaid.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Rural gets mention in lawsuit faulting Harvard's admission (affirmative action) policies

This story has been making big headlines all week, but today was the first day I noticed multiple mentions of rural students--specifically rurality as an aspect of the much sought-after diversity in higher education.  The headline in the NY Times today is "Harvard's Admissions Process, Once Secret, is Unveiled in Federal Court."   One of the secrets, apparently, is that being from a "rural" place still matters.  I say "still" because back when UC Regents v. Bakke was decided 40 years ago, Justice Powell wrote, citing Harvard's admission policy (as a model for what would be appropriate for public universities):
In practice, this new definition of diversity has meant that race has been a factor in some admission decisions. When the Committee on Admissions reviews the large middle group of applicants who are ‘admissible’ and deemed capable of doing good work in their courses, the race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.  (emphasis added)
Bakke, at 316-17.  While the word "rural" is not used here, "farm" is a proxy for that characteristic, that life experience.  Read more analysis of how rurality plays in college admissions more recently, from my 2015 law review article here.

This quote from today's NYTimes story recounts what happened at the trial in Boston this week:
There is the longtime dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons (Harvard Class of 1967), on the stand, grilled on whether rural students receive a leg up over urban students. They do.
Something tells me that the observers are likely to invoke rurality as a proxy for whiteness, urbanicity for blackness, as happened with another controversy that arose from the favoring of rural folks earlier this year (that one regarding SNAP work requirements).  That conflation of rurality with whiteness is  a pity because, among other reasons, it is misleading:  Many of the poorest rural folks in the nation are Latinx, American Indian, and African American.  Just check out the nation's persistent poverty map.

Back to the NYTimes story, which later features this comparison of Harvard's admissions standards to the secret formula for Coca-Cola:
Some, but not all, of the secrets have buttressed Harvard’s elite reputation. 
It casts a wide net for students, aggressively recruiting those in “sparse country,” predominantly rural areas that yield few applications. It considers a dizzying array of factors, from SAT scores (the higher the better) to athletic ability (recruited athletes receive a big advantage) to interviews (be “effervescent,” “fun,” but “mature”) and more. A lack of deep pockets won’t hinder a hopeful and might even help one’s chances, testimony showed.  (emphasis added)
I can't help wonder if geography--and rurality in particular--will be noted in the outcome of this case--as it was in Bakke--even though rurality was not a characteristic that loomed large in the pleadings by either side. 

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

An update on Spectrum and their dispute with the State of New York

As you may recall back in August, I wrote a story about Spectrum losing their right to operate in the State of New York after they failed to meet their goals for expanding broadband into the rural parts of the state. In July, Charter, the parent company of Spectrum, was given 60 days to come up with a plan to exit the state. That deadline was later extended to November 8 and the New York Public Service Commission voted last week to grant them yet another extension, until December 24, to come up with a plan. In granting the extension, the Commissioners noted that they felt that talks with Charter had been productive and that they hoped to continue negotiating. Charter has said that they will likely pursue legal action if the talks prove unfruitful and Charter is ultimately told to exit the state.

Broadband expansion has certainly been an issue in multiple state legislative races in rural New York (see here and here) so there is clearly a lot of interest. Let's see how this issue plays out in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rural New Hampshire school district considers hiring collection agency for student lunch debt - Lessons in NH school funding

A couple of weeks ago, Claremont, New Hampshire's school district announced that they were considering a plan to hire collection agency to collect nearly $32,000 in delinquent lunch fees.  This move, said by school leaders to be needed due to fiscal concerns, is interesting because it brings to mind the funding issues that Claremont has faced over the years and their attempts to get the State of New Hampshire to remedy them. New Hampshire school funding is a tricky issue. They are the only state to lack both an income and sales tax, which creates an incredible reliance on property tax as a means of financing state and local functions. Within this framework, Claremont finds itself in a precarious situation. It is property poor, meaning that its taxable property is not worth very much. It also has a poverty rate that is almost double that of the State of New Hampshire more broadly. What this means is that Claremont has a relatively small local tax base, so it does not have much money to draw upon to fund its local schools, and an economically vulnerable population, who also live on the margins and for whom bringing in a collection agency may create more problems than it solves. Understanding why this story is significant and why Claremont may opt to attempt to recoup the money requires an understanding of the myriad of challenges that Claremont (and communities like it) have faced in attempting to achieve access to equitable school funding.

Here's some background: In 1989, Claremont's school district found itself in dire straits. Its funding issues had created a cascading waterfall that had a detrimental impact on its ability to provide a quality education for its students. They had been forced to make severe education cutbacks, its school buildings were in a state of disrepair, and their high school had even come close to losing accreditation. Facing these circumstances and with the hopes of compelling them to provide more funding to the district, the school board and its chairman decided to explore a litigation strategy against the State of New Hampshire. In June 1991, the Claremont School District (and various co-petitioners from around the state) filed their lawsuit.

In their initial decision, commonly known as Claremont I, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that "[The New Hampshire Constitution] imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every educable child in the public schools in New Hampshire and to guarantee adequate funding" and in remanding the case to the lower court placed the onus on the Governor and State Legislature to come up with a means of guaranteeing this.

When the case was reheard by the NH Supreme Court in 1997, it was held that New Hampshire's scheme of school funding violated the state's constitution, in particular the duty outlined in Claremont I. In their holding, the court clarified that the state's duty to provide a "constitutionally adequate education" extended beyond core subjects and had to be mobile to the changing demands of society. In particular, they said:

"[It] is not the needs of the few but the critical requirements of the many that it must address. Mere competence in the basics — reading, writing, and arithmetic — is insufficient in the waning days of the twentieth century to insure that this State’s public school students are fully integrated into the world around them. A broad exposure to the social, economic, scientific, technological, and political realities of today’s society is essential for our students to compete, contribute, and flourish in the twenty-first century." 

The Court also held that the state had to have a role in funding an "adequate" education and could not simply delegate this to towns. Since the Claremont decisions, New Hampshire has toyed with various schemes of supplementing funding local funding for schools with none of them being particularly successful at fully bridging the achievement gap between high income and low income school districts.

To further complicate things, there is also evidence that New Hampshire's school funding scheme is starting to resemble what it was before the Claremont decisions. In the immediate aftermath of Claremont II, state revenues made up the majority of the local school funding. In 2000-2001, for example, local taxes made up only 40.4% of school revenue. However, local tax revenues now make up the majority of local funding for schools in New Hampshire and this is an increasing trend. In 2013-2014, local taxes made up 57.7% of education funding and by 2016-2017, this had increased to 67.5%. This increasing percentage is the result of a series of policy decisions by the New Hampshire legislature. In order to attempt to bridge this gap, property poor districts are having to increase their tax rates in order to attempt to raise sufficient revenue to fund their schools. For example, Lebanon, a more affluent district 20 miles north, has a property tax rate that is 60% that of Claremont's. The people who can least afford to pay higher taxes are being asked to do so.

Given the history of Claremont's issues with school funding, it is perhaps easy to understand why they may feel that they have to take drastic steps recoup thousands of dollars in lost revenue. After all, when you are operating on the margins, every little bit counts. However, Claremont is in its situation because its residents are low-income and largely economically vulnerable, conditions that hiring a collection agency may only serve to exacerbate. After all, having an account in collections may adversely impact their ability to secure a loan to buy a car, a necessity in rural New Hampshire, or result in them paying a substantially higher interest rate than they may otherwise have, which could cost them thousands of dollars. The practical effects of this are obvious. If a person can't get a car, they won't be able to work and if a person has to pay a higher interest rate, they lose money that they could have used to feed their family or provide other essentials. This line of logic also applies if a person needs to access an emergency line of credit for pay for an unexpected repair or any other unforeseen circumstance. This is not an easy situation for anyone involved but getting a collection agency involved seems as though it would create societal problems whose value exceeds the money that the city would recoup.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Rural Americans see financial problems and health care as biggest issues facing them

National Public Radio today reported on a survey of 1300 rural residents' thinking about a number of issues.  The headline is "Drugs and Economy are Biggest Concerns in Rural America,"  and the lede follows:
Opioids and drug abuse and addiction, along with local jobs and the economy, are the top issues facing rural Americans, according to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A majority of rural Americans believe outside help will be necessary to solve major community problems in the future, and many believe government will play an important role in solving these problems. 
"For many years, the opioid crisis was seen as affecting only a few states — West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire among others. But it never was just about those states," says poll co-director Robert J. Blendon of Harvard. "It's now at the same level of a very serious economic plight that people are really worried about. It affects elections, and it affects how people elected from rural areas view their priorities." 
However, the poll also finds considerable optimism about community life in rural American – and a confidence that the next generation will have a better life than current and past generations.
Other themes from the poll include the brain drain, upward mobility, and the significance of community.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Supreme Court agrees with federal judge in Sacramento regarding State of Jefferson suit on underrepresentation of rural Californians

The Record-Searchlight of Redding, California reported a few days ago that Citizens for Fair Representation, "a group of rural residents mostly from the North State," have been rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court in their effort to convene a panel of three federal judges to consider their claim that California is too populous to be governed by the current number of State Senators and Assemblymen currently serving in Sacramento.  The lede for Alayna Shulman's story  follows:
Originally just upset with the state political system they say is unfair to rural residents, now "State of Jefferson" proponents are mad at the judge handling their lawsuit on the issue, part of which has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
* * * 
On top of their disillusionment with the state overall, the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 1 shot down a petition the group filed because it was upset U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller didn't convene a three-judge panel to hear their suit.
Shulman explains that three-judge panels can be used to speed up cases that question the size or composition of congressional districts.
In court fillings, Mueller says the case doesn't yet meet legal requirement for a three-judge panel. She wrote that two things are holding up the panel: The Jeffersonians' lawsuit is not suitable for federal court based on its current complaints, and the state filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which needs to be considered before the panel would convene.
Interestingly, the State of California declined to comment for the journalist, and it did so through both the Secretary of State's office and the State's Press Information Officer.   Both punted, referring Shulman to the other.  Maybe they see what they consider to be a frivolous suit to be beneath them in terms of offering commentary.   

A lawyer for the movement, Scott Stafne, remains hopeful, however, stating:
The Supreme Court didn’t say, 'No.' They didn't say, 'Yes.' They just decided not to hear the petition.
Read more about the State of Jefferson here (with many embedded links to other posts). 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

More on hurricanes and rural neglect

Here are two New York Times stories about how rural victims of Hurricane Michael are among the hardest hit but least seen and helped. 

From Panacea, Florida, population 816: I Got Stuck:  In Poor, Rural Communities, Fleeing Hurricane Michael was Tough

From Marianna, Florida, population 7,293:   Far from the Shattered Coast, Hurricane Michael Packed an Unexpected Punch

My earlier post on Hurricane Florence and rural neglect is here