Monday, February 17, 2020

Another farmer suicide feature, this one from the LA Times

Seema Mehta reports from Marcus, Iowa, on the suicide of farmer Troy Sand.  It's a shattering lede: 
On a mild spring day, Troy Sand took his middle son, Connor, out for lunch and to shop for a new laptop for college. Then he returned home, wrapped a single-shot shotgun in a rug, drove to his girlfriend’s house in nearby Cherokee, walked into the backyard and shot himself in the head. 
Sand was 51. His death devastated his large, close-knit family and shattered this tiny community of fewer than 1,200 people in northwestern Iowa. His death also represented a growing manifestation of despair in rural America — farmers taking their own lives. 
“When you have a suicide in your family, that person’s pain ends, but that pain gets put on everybody that’s left behind,” said Jill Vrieze, Sand’s younger sister.
Among the rural themes in this story is lack of anonymity, specifically as related to the stigma of mental health.  One data point included in the story regards the lack of mental health support in rural communities:  76 of Iowa's 99 counties have too few mental health professionals.   

Several presidential candidates passing through Iowa in recent months addressed the phenomenon of rising farmer suicides, which are sometimes framed as deaths of despair.  Here's what Bernie Sanders had to say:
For rural working-class people, life expectancy is going down. Doctors call it the diseases of despair. That means when people feel hopeless … they turn to alcohol, they turn to drugs, and increasingly in rural America, people turn to suicide.
Klobuchar and Booker also acknowledged the phenomenon; indeed, I note that Klobuchar is tweeting frequently about farm and ag issues, not surprising in light of her own midwestern roots.   

More coverage of farmer suicides on Legal Ruralism can be found here, including stories out of Australia and India. 

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law. 

Thursday, February 13, 2020

California's oldest weekly newspaper saved by local man with Citizen Kane complex

Coyoteville Cafe, just south of Downieville, July 2018
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 
The New York Times reported this week on the sale of Sierra County, California's weekly newspaper, the Mountain Messenger by one county elder, 67-year-old Don Russell, to another, 71-year-old Carl Butz.  It's an uplifting story well worth a read, not least because closure of local media outlets is becoming a huge problem throughout the nation.  But the Mountain Mess, as it is affectionately known locally, isn't just any local newspaper brought back from the brink of death.  It's the oldest weekly newspaper in the United States, dating to 1853 when Downieville was a contender to become capital of California.  Equally as extraordinary is that Mark Twain once wrote for the paper breifly, though Twain is perhaps more famously associated with Calaveras County, about a hundred miles south of Downieville as the crow flies, on state highway 49--yes, named for the gold rush era.

The Messenger is based in Downieville, population 282, the county seat of one of the Golden State's least populous counties, just 3,240 residents spread across a sliver of a county stretching from the foothills of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains across the range to the Nevada state line.  It's also home to the Downieville Downhill, a cycling race; when I passed through the town a few summers ago, several vans hauling bikes and riders were crowding the town's little public parking lot.

Below is an excerpt from Tim Arango's story for the NYT, the  set up being that Russell was retiring, prepared to shut down the paper, before Butz emerged as a last-minute buyer:
[O]ne night Mr. Butz was watching “Citizen Kane” on cable and thought, I can do that. He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the “four figures,” he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books. 
Still, Mr. Russell, an old friend of Mr. Butz’s, was a reluctant seller. “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy,” Mr. Butz said. “He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.”
Arango quotes Liz Fisher, who previously edited the Messenger and now runs  The Sierra County Prospect, an online news site.
Thank God for Carl, he stepped in It was devastating for everybody that we were going to lose The Mountain Messenger.
Sierra County Courthouse, Downieville
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2018
While this New York Times story has garnered a lot of attention on my Twitter feed since it was published on Monday, it's only fair to note that the Los Angeles Times was all over this story a month ago.  Diana Marcum wrote under the headline, "Whether good news or bad, northern Sierra readers can always blame the Messenger."  Her focus was more on Russell than his successor--who as of her writing had not emerged.  As with Arango's story, Marcum's is partly a tale about the lack of anonymity that marks rural places and shapes relationships there.  Here's an excerpt about how Russell ran the paper, specifically his reputation for telling it like it is:
Russell was never sued, commenting: “If I say it’s a fact, it’s a fact, damn it. I do my homework.” But there have been a couple of times an irked politician drove around and bought all 200 copies as damage control. 
A self-described contrarian, Russell uses every edition to help him prove that a small town’s strength is its common ground. He can call someone an idiot, disagree with their politics, question their good sense and still share a breakfast table or a drink. 
Breakfasts are busy at the Coyoteville Cafe on Fridays, when the latest “Mountain Mess” — as many here call the paper — is first out. 
“Good ol’ Don Russell, he’s quite the character. He’s so blunt and straightforward, but the funny thing is he’ll come in with someone on the same day he’s bad-mouthing them,” said Patrick Shannon, 38, who works in his mother’s cafe and as a handyman, EMT and the town’s water meter reader.
Both the Marcum and Arango stories are full of so much local color, from a gay county sheriff to "she who does the work," the unofficial title of Jill Tahija, the only other employee of the Messenger.  Tahija will be staying on under Butz's regime.
One of Downieville's lodging options, next to the one-lane bridge on Hwy 49
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2018
I especially love this turn of phrase from Marcum's story, "In a decidedly blue state, this region is as red as a painted barn." But does it really matter, I find myself thinking, when so much (if not all) politics is local?

One change being made with Butz's takeover of the Messenger is a digital presence, which Russell has strictly rejected.  Happy to say that I followed the Messenger on Twitter last night @TheMountainMess, and they just followed me back today.  I also see that the New York Times story is generating lots of press from statewide outlets, including radio.


The Sierra County newspaper is not the only local enterprise recently looking for a new owner.  When I drove through Downieville and neighboring Sierra City in 2018, I noticed lots of businesses for sale, including an inn and a gas station.  The innkeeper at the bed and breakfast where I stayed in Nevada City, an hour or so south in Nevada County, said it had been on the market for several years, with very little interest.  I don't know how long the inn I saw in Downieville had been for sale, or if it has since sold.  Certainly I'm hoping it'd not out of business.

These "For Sale" signs on businesses in this remote but scenic region got me worrying about how tourism in these places will survive if folks aren't willing to run these crucial businesses.  The Pacific Coast trail cuts through Sierra City, maybe 10 miles up the road from Downieville, and while hikers don't need gasoline, the folks who run the other businesses that support tourists, along with a local resort oriented to trout fishing do. Locals also occasionally need attorneys and they're in short supply in Sierra County, which as of 2016 had only eight, including just one in private practice, Ingrid Larson, who was admitted to the bar in 1973.  Read more here and here.

I'm thrilled that the Messenger has been saved, and I hope other courageous entrepreneurs like Mr. Butz will step forward to save some of Sierra County's other crucial businesses.
Sierra County's only attorney in private practice was admitted in 1973
(c) Lisa R Pruitt 

Friday, February 7, 2020

Rural access to justice draws significant press coverage

We've seen lots of coverage of access to justice in rural places in the past few weeks, and I'm going to use this post to collect and highlight some of the stories.

Most prominently, the ABA Journal has run its second cover story this decade on the rural lawyer shortage.  This one is by Wendy Davis, and the headline is "No Country for Rural Lawyers."  The last one was by Lorelei Laird and appeared in October 2014.  That story was headlined "In rural America, there are job opportunities and a need for lawyers."  Sadly, these stories, put side by side, suggest that little has changed in five years.  This month's story is more focused on the economic challenges of practicing law in rural America, a matter I have written about here and here.  Indeed, I note that Wendy Davis uses the title my co-author and I selected for my first rural ATJ piece, "Law Stretched Thin" as subhead in her story (and she mentions that 2014 article, though not by name, early on as the source of a data point about 2% of small law practices being in rural America).  Here's what Davis writes under "Stretched Thin" regarding Alaska, which is one of several states from which Davis draws anecdotes:
Vast swaths of Alaska are so remote they are only accessible by plane or boat. Often those areas lack any private attorneys or police officers and jails—a situation prompting Attorney General William Barr to declare a public safety emergency for rural Alaska in January 2019. 
Nelson estimates that the Alaska Legal Services Corp., which represents low-income individuals, turns away one potential client for each one that’s accepted.
I and my students have written about justice in Alaska here and here.  Other states featured in the ABA Journal cover story are Iowa, Arkansas (a rural incubator based at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law) and South Dakota.  Data from New York and Nebraska are mentioned.  Davis does mention both my (co-authored) Legal Deserts piece, while borrowing that phrase, too, for a subhead. 

Also in this month's ABA Journal (online) is this piece by Pamela Metzger of SMU's Deason Center for Criminal Justice Reform, writing about what it's like to be an urban person (and, ultimately, an urban lawyer) discovering the range of different (and similar) issues implicit in criminal justice reform.  Spoiler alert:  among these is the burden of distance, a challenge that exists with respect to getting access to all sorts of services.

Many of the other rural ATJ (access to justice) issues in the news recently are out of New Mexico, where the state has undertaken a multi-pronged approach to rural access.  Law 360 did a story this week, and before that there were court press releases and a story in the Houston Chronicle and by the Associated Press.  I'll just note that the Chronicle story is surely in part a reflection of the lack of a law school in southern New Mexico or, for that matter, neighboring west Texas.  That practical reality has consequences, as Hannah Haksgaard of the University of South Dakota has commented upon. 

Finally, a January story about rural ATJ in North Dakota is here.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Trump budget (says it) attends to rural

Here's an excerpt from the story by David Jackson of USA Today about the Trump administration's Fiscal Year 2021 budget, which will be released next week.
"Many Americans living in rural communities continue to face barriers that prevent them from attaining the quality of life they deserve," said a Trump budget document provided to USA TODAY.
* * * 
Discussing the rural plan on condition of anonymity because the budget has not yet been released, officials pointed to several proposals in the budget, including: 
– A $1.5 billion loan level for rural business and industry guaranteed loans; $8.9 billion in farm loans; and $25 billion for a new "Revitalizing Rural America" grant program to help areas with broadband, transportation, water and road and bridge projects. 
-$614 million in funding for water and wastewater grants and loans, and $5.5 billion in rural electric loans. 
– $250 million for a Department of Agriculture Rural e-Connectivity "ReConnect" pilot program, $690 million in loans to finance broadband infrastructure deployment of rural telecommunication facilities, and $30 million for the "Community Connect grant program" that targets remote areas. 
– Funding for health care programs that include what the budget plan calls "telemedicine services," rural health clinics, and new emergency hospitals. The proposed budget will also call for the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide more programs in rural areas. 
– $13.5 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education to expand broadband access in areas that are home to Native Americans.
Needless to say, Democrats are skeptical, pointing out the ways in which Trump's trade policies, among others, have hurt farmers and other rural folks.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Impeachment and the rural-urban divide

Everyone talks about the rural-urban divide in politics a lot more than they used to, in part because of Trump's presence on the national stage and the disproportionate support he has garnered from rural America.  The same is true now that Trump's impeachment trial is over and he has been acquitted.  The headline I just saw in the Washington Post is "69 million Americans voted for senators who supported impeachment," and the subhead is "Or about 55 percent of the votes received by sitting senators."  Phillip Bump's story is to contrast citizen support for impeachment with citizen opposition to it, responding to a figure oft-quoted by Republicans in recent weeks--that 63 million citizens voted to put Trump in the Oval Office.  Bump writes: 
The charges against Trump must be so robustly proved, Trump attorney Robert Ray said last month, that “the 63 million people like me who voted for President Trump accept his guilt of the offense charged” — enough to “overwhelmingly persuade a supermajority of Americans and thus their senators of malfeasance warranting his removal from office.”

Those 63 million people, the people who backed Trump in the 2016 presidential contest, were presented as being at risk of having their presidential vote thrown out.
Bump also contrasts the number of votes that put the Democratic senators in office with those that put the Republican senators in office, which of course highlights the fact that "rural states" get two senators each just like urban ones do.  Here's Bump's data point:
Nearly 69 million votes were cast for senators who supported removing Trump from office based on that first article of impeachment, about 12 million more votes than were received by senators who opposed his removal.
That's the count in the Senate.  Over in the house, members "who supported the first article of impeachment received about 38.5 million votes in 2018 — over 6 million more votes than were cast for members who opposed the article."

All of this reminds me of a funny piece a few days weeks ago about whether cows are better represented in the Senate than people, also from the Washington Post

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Vera Institute, Arnold Ventures partner with WSU and U of Georgia to study rural jail expansion

Last week, the Vera Institute of Justice, with support from Arnold Ventures, announced new partnerships with research teams at Washington State University and the University of Georgia to address rising jail incarceration rates in rural areas to form a Rural Jails Research and Policy Network.  Regular readers will know that I've devoted a lot of reporting here on Legal Ruralism to goings on with rural jails, including here, here and here (all collecting sources and prior posts), so I'm excited to see what these new partnerships will reveal.

Over the course of a year-long grant, the researchers at WSU and U of Georgia will form partnerships with criminal justice stakeholders in rural counties surrounding each university.  These partnerships will permit researchers to collect and analyze jail data to identify drivers of jail growth in rural areas.  The researchers will also host convenings of stakeholders to discuss unique issues facing rural criminal justice systems. They will also work to develop rural-focused policy and practice solutions to reduce jail incarceration and help to bring those solutions to the attention of state-level policymakers. The project will conclude with a national convening where the researchers and stakeholders will share their findings with a larger audience.

According to Vera, the selection process for this grant was quite competitive.  Vera received applications from university-based researchers in 24 states, and from many different disciplines: sociology, public policy, government, criminal justice, public health, and psychology. This wide response is encouraging and shows that academics from a broad range of study recognize the need to invest research and resources in rural areas around the country.  The robust response also suggests that many researchers understand the impact of criminal justice systems on the wellbeing of entire communities.

From the Department of Sociology at Washington State University, Dr. Jennifer Sherman and Dr. Jennifer Schwartz will work in a group of rural counties on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. Divided physically from the more urban western side of the state, rural communities in eastern Washington often report that their voices are not well-represented in state government, an issue I've written about here. As a result, well-intentioned criminal justice reform policies often are not workable for their smaller systems.

From the Department of Sociology and the Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, Dr. Sarah Shannon and Dr. Beverly Johnson will lead a team of researchers who will work in clusters of rural counties in southwest and northeast Georgia. The UGA team will focus on the specific impact of private probation services and lack of mental health resources on growing rural county jail populations, as well as on the effect of state-level criminal justice reforms on local systems.

In both Washington and Georgia, many rural counties have experienced steadily rising jail populations in recent years. Local governments in both places indicate that they do not have the time or resources to develop sustainable solutions tailored to their rural environments. This project aims to help change that, and to develop a method for developing reforms that can be replicated in other rural areas of the country.

I am looking forward to hearing more as these research projects progress, and I'll be sharing periodic updates here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

My Rural Travelogue (Part XXVIII): New Zealand


Secondary road between Rotorua and Taupo
Sign for passenger ferry on Waiheke Island
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
I spent the winter break in New Zealand, starting on the north island before spending the last few nights on the south island.  Both are highly agricultural and, as several Kiwis have commented, quite "rural."  The rurality is especially striking from the vantage point of most roads, which tend to be two-lane, with relatively frequent passing lanes.  In fact, according to the government of New Zealand's own very miserly definition of rural (places with populations less than 1K), only about 13% of the nation's population is rural.
Horse manure for sale, across from school and near car ferry,
Surfdale, Waiheke Island
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019

After a few days on Waiheke Island (population 9,770) off Auckland in the Hauraki Gulf, we headed south through Hamilton, population 165,900 and the country's 4th most populous city (also home of Jacinda Ardern), to the Huka Falls area, near Taupo, population 24,700.

Activities on offer at Oneroa community hall
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
That journey took us along two-lane roads amidst many, many dairy farms, the signage for which indicated that they night be jointly owned, or part of a co-operative, as they shared a common name and then were numbered up to 9 (of course, there could have been more that I did not see).  Above is a sign we saw on the road to Orakei Karako Thermal Park--a sorta' mini Yellowstone, between Rotorua and Taupo.  In that region, we saw farms featuring both cattle and sheep.  From there, we headed to Hawke's Bay along a two-land road with signs that said things like "Roaming Livestock . Call 0800 4 Highway" and several signs announcing places where stock waste can be disposed.  In the Hawke's Bay area, we saw many wineries--and a lot more sheep and lambs.
Cattle and sheep operation near Orakei Korako Thermal Park, Waikato Region
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019

On the road between Queenstown and Glenorchy, south island
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2020




From there we flew to Queenstown, population 15,850, on the south island.  Queenstown is a tourist center--indeed, the so-called adrenaline capital of the world--and its population swells during summer and winter. Among the smaller communities outside the small city of Queensland, are Glenorchy, ArrowtownWanaka, and Cromwell.   Indeed, some agricultural pursuits, including (once again) sheep and wine, flourish nearby.

The Queenstown area in Cental Otago seems to have grown up around two primary pursuits--before the adrenaline thing took off:  gold mining and sheep.  Arrowtown is a place associated with the mid 1800s gold rush, and the old assay office is now a museum.  Walter Peak, a "high country farm" across the lake from Queenstown, is now also a delightful tourist attraction where you can have a fabulous meal and see sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Maduro's abandonment of rural Venezuela

That is the subject of Anatoly Kurmanaev's report here. An excerpt follows:
[B]eyond [Caracas], this facade of order quickly melts away. In order to preserve the quality of life of his most important backers, the country’s political and military elites, his administration has poured the country’s dwindling resources into Caracas and forsaken large swaths of Venezuela.
“Venezuela is broken as a state, as a country,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas. “The few available resources are invested in the capital to protect the seat of power, creating a ministate amid the collapse.” 
Across much of the country, basic government functions like policing, road maintenance, health care and public utilities have been abandoned. 
Kurmanaev quotes an 83-year-old woman using a machete to tend her bean field. 
We are forgotten.  There’s no government here.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lone Pine Policy V: The end of an era (1978)

By 1978, New Hampshire was in a state of transition. Outmigration from Massachusetts and other nearby states, in part fueled by New Hampshire's tax climate, had caused the swelling of the southern New Hampshire's population. Many small towns found themselves quickly becoming Boston exurbs and their leaders were becoming increasingly concerned about how to adequately provide basic services to these populations. During the yearly town meetings in March 1978, many Southern New Hampshire towns passed ordinances that were aimed at slowing the growth in their communities. However, those ordinances were met with criticism, notably by former state planning director, Democratic State Senator Mary Louise Hancock of Concord, who believed that such restrictions would exacerbate New Hampshire's already existing housing shortage for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and low income. Growth in the southern tier of the state was so unexpected that a special committee, chaired by future governor John Sununu of Salem, was convened to study the issue to find ways that the state could assist the changing communities. In his report to the governor, Sununu attributed the restrictions on growth to a failure in long range planning and stated that he hoped that these restrictions would be replaced by long term plans. He noted the relatively scarcity of growth plans around the state and how few communities were prepared for rapid growth.

Much like today, economic growth in New Hampshire was not equal. According to an article in the March 14, 1978 edition of The Boston Globe, 90% of industrial and commercial development occurred south of the imaginary line that runs across the state from Portsmouth to Keene. Unemployment was higher in the northern and more rural portions of the state. In a May 14, 1978 interview with The Boston Globe, North Country Regional Planning Commission Executive Director, Gerald Coogan noted that some communities in the North Country had unemployment rates twice as high as communities in southern New Hampshire. Even in the New Hampshire's relative economic boom in the late 1970s, its most rural corners were left behind.

Meldrim Thomson began 1978 in South Africa, thousands of miles away from rural New Hampshire, on a trip that was funded by pro-Apartheid South African Freedom Foundation. While in South Africa, he praised the Apartheid government, attacked President Jimmy Carter's foreign policy, even calling the State Department "Un-American," attacked the United Nations, favorably compared housing in Soweto, a segregated black community, to housing in his hometown of Orford, and said that Apartheid was a "local South African problem." He also compared the decision of the South African government to hold people without a trial to Abraham Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. In Thomson's mind, the white minority government was in a war against Communism and victory must be achieved through any means necessary. 

Thomson's excursion to South Africa and his controversial comments were met with some resistance back home where fourteen of the state's top religious leaders issued a letter denouncing his comments. His invitation to speak at a fundraiser for Republican Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Edward King was also revoked. President Jimmy Carter denounced Thomson's comments during a February town hall in Nashua. Thomson doubled down on his praise for South Africa's government and said that the criticism was rooted in misinformation and prejudice against South Africa.

As was common during his three terms as governor, Thomson found himself mired in controversy. It was quite the auspicious start to an election year where he was seeking to win his fourth term in office. However, other obligations were drawing Thomson's attention towards more national and international issues issues. By 1978, Thomson had become the chair of the national Conservative Caucus, which often required him turn his attention to issues outside of the borders of the Granite State. He also found himself mired in the controversy over the Panama Canal Treaty, which was being debated by the Senate in early 1978. He held rallies across the country and even in Panama to voice his disapproval of the treaty. Thomson's strong stance against the treaty even earned him a denouncement in a floor speech by Senator Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire.

Thomson's controversies weren't just confined to his excursions outside of New Hampshire, he also found plenty of it during the course of his duties as governor. In March, he issued a proclamation calling for the lowering of the flags on Good Friday to honor Jesus Christ, which was later stayed in a 5-4 decision by the United States Supreme Court. In April, he denounced a special session of the legislature and said that, "[t]here are times when we serve best by not serving at all." His stance against the special session brought him into conflict with his own party, including House Speaker George Roberts of Gilmanton who told his caucus to not be beaten into submission by the governor. His inability to cooperate with the legislature would also prove problematic in June when the State Senate failed to advance a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would've limited the ability of towns to raise property taxes, required their budgets to be balanced, and even limited the surplus that they could have. Thomson's efforts to enshrine this into the state's constitution was influenced by a successful effort in California.

He also found himself in the middle of the battle over a proposed nuclear power plant in Seabrook, reminiscent of his earlier battles over an oil refinery plant in Durham. Thomson was an active supporter of the nuclear plant, even hosting a pro-nuclear plant rally in Concord to rally support for it.   In June, Thomson vetoed a bill that would have banned electric providers from raising rates to help finance the construction of the plant.

The 1978 governor's race would come to be defined by economic issues with a particular focus on the Seabrook nuclear plant. The differences between Thomson and Democratic nominee Hugh Gallen are well outlined in this Washington Post piece. The idea of adding a little extra to everyone's electric bills, a tax if you will, to pay for the facility was not especially popular in New Hampshire. Thomson's support for this idea and his staunch anti-tax stance also gave the Democrats a wide opening to paint him as a hypocrite and for Gallen to establish himself as the real anti-tax candidate.

In quite poetic fashion, Mel Thomson would fall on election day 1978. In a lot of ways, he was a victim of his own success. His success in creating a political environment in New Hampshire that didn't favor taxation of any form gave him very little wiggle room on the plant issue and ultimately helped lead to his exit from Concord.

I would be remiss if I did not offer an assessment of Thomson, the central figure of this series thus far. While it is quite easy to disagree with his policy and tactics, you have to take note of his political successes. His ability to implement his agenda and shape the conversation in the state was perhaps made even more remarkable by the fact that he was a constant magnet for controversy, even among those in his own party. His success in New Hampshire made him a national figure in the conservative movement and helped to reshape the direction of the national party, ultimately leading to the nomination and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

As we wrap up this portion of Lone Pine Policy, we also have to look at New Hampshire as a whole and how it changed between 1968 and 1978. As we have explored in these five parts, the Mel Thomson era of New Hampshire politics brought about sweeping changes and codified many political norms that are still pervasive in the state to this day. It also marked the deepening of the divide that still defines New Hampshire to this day, namely the fact that the southeastern urban and suburban portion of the state has continued to grow and prosper while the rural areas have been slower to keep up.

I also want to take this opportunity to announce that I am taking a hiatus from writing to focus on other professional pursuits. I do hope to sometimes pop in with an update or new post. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

On rural homelessness in Texas

The Texas Tribune reports today, dateline Stephenville, population 21,164, the anchor of a micropolitan area in Erath County, population 41,169.  The headline for Juan Pablo Garnham's story is "In rural Texas, people experiencing homelessness lead 'masked' lives outside of public view."  The themes are predictable and familiar to those who know anything about rural livelihoods.  A big one is lack of services, and another is lack of reliable data.  Here's a short excerpt from the story:
Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott spotlighted homelessness in Texas urban areas after battling with Austin's mayor over tent policies and services for those in need. Meanwhile, rural Texas is experiencing a surge in homelessness, and it lacks many of the resources the big cities have to cope. 
Rural counties don’t typically conduct the homelessness counts that urban areas like Austin, Dallas or Houston organize each January. But the Texas Homeless Network estimates that in 2019 more than 8,000 people experienced homelessness in 215 Texas counties outside the state’s urban regions. That’s almost how many people experience homelessness in Dallas and Houston combined. And, since 2016, homelessness in those less populated counties has increased by 33%.
And then there is this on the rural-urban charity gap:
Forty miles north in Mineral Wells, James Rhodes relies on Fort Worth supermarkets to donate the groceries that stock the food pantry of New Haven Ministries, an organization he directs that provides food, clothes and shelter to people in need. 
“The problem with rural areas is that nobody thinks about us. There’s no resources, and we have to do a lot with what we can get,” Rhodes said. 
He oversees volunteers who help him organize, pack and distribute food. New Haven doesn’t receive any state or federal money. Rhodes doesn’t even know where to go or how to apply for the funds that bigger cities get.
Mineral Wells, population 16,788, straddles Palo Pinto County (population 28,111) and Parker County (population 116,297). 

Interestingly, one part of the story suggests that rural services can be better than urban ones in some instances.  Take the case of Michael Landers of Fort Worth, who lost his job five years ago and subsequently spent two years sleeping with his wife and child in their vehicle and in hotel rooms.  They ultimately moved to Mineral Wells where they could stay together as a family at the shelter--not an option in Fort Worth where men and women get separated into different shelters.  Landers found out about the Mineral Wells option, 50 miles away, online.  Here, Garnham quotes Landers:
We didn’t know anything about Mineral Wells.  We didn’t know anybody there, but it was the only option for us.
* * *
This was a smaller community.  They know your name, what you need. In the larger shelters and in larger cities, you are not going to have that.
Garnham provides additional context: 
At [the Mineral Wells] shelter, the Landers family got a bedroom with a bunk bed. Their son would sleep on the top, Landers and his wife on the bottom. The shelter also helped him get his driver's license back, and he found work as a commercial truck driver.  
The Landers family is now living in a suburb of Fort Worth.  

Monday, December 23, 2019

Two sobering stories out of far northern, coastal California

Tsunami Hazard Zone sign along Highway 1 in Sonoma County, California
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
The first of the stories I want to highlight here is from today's Los Angeles Times by Hailey Branson-Potts, dateline Crescent City, California, population 7,643, county seat of Del Norte County, population 28,610.  The headline is "Tsunamis tourism: By marketing disaster, a struggling California town hopes to recover economically," and here's the lede:  
Three years into his job as a city councilman, [Alex] Fallman’s take on this Northern California harbor town was not that of a civic booster. His words unspooled like a dirge. 
“Cool, worldly things don’t happen here,” the 23-year-old said. 
Del Norte County Fairgrounds, July, 2019 (c) Lisa R. Pruitt
Crescent City is a land of wild beauty, where towering redwoods meet quiet, foggy beaches. It’s also a place of economic despair. As with many small California towns, its downtown is marked by empty storefronts. Homeless men shoot methamphetamine in the beachfront park.
To push back against these trends, some in the city are embracing tsunami tourism.  After all, 41 tsunamis have crashed into Crescent City since 1933, the most damaging of which killed 11 people and destroyed 29 city blocks in 1964.  As the story notes, these repeated disasters have stunted the city's growth, leaving many city blocks empty. 

Branson-Potts provides important socioeconomic context for Crescent City's seemingly odd approach to economic development, including the fact that nearly a third of Del Norte County residents live below the poverty line--about twice the state and national rates.  The median annual income is just over $27K, about half the state median.  The story also includes information about recent economic development investments in Del Norte County, including its designation as an opportunity zone and upgrades to the airport, which now features more flights to and from Oakland. 

Veterans Memorial Hall, Crescent City, July 2019
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
The last time I wrote about Crescent City/Del Norte County was here (and other posts mentioning it are here, herehere, and here). Another recent Los Angeles Times story about the area--specifically its majestic redwoods--is here.

This LA Times report on tsunami-oriented tourism reminded me of this October story out of neighboring Humboldt County (population 132,646), specifically the county seat, Eureka.  The story was reported in the Eureka Times-Standard by Sonia Waraich.  Here's the lede:  
Eureka has a self-esteem problem, according to the survey results of marketing firm Eddy Alexander. 
More than 3,425 city’s residents, workers, business owners and past residents out of 25,529 who were sent a survey completed the survey. The majority responded with a negative view of the city and are more likely to discourage visitors from coming to Eureka than they are to recommend it, said Jennifer Eddy, founder of the Virginia-based marketing firm. 
At the meeting revealing the results Tuesday night at the Wharfinger Building, Eddy also showed homeless, drug, dirty and crime were the words that people said first came to mind when they think of Eureka. 
“Lots and lots of cities are dealing with homelessness as a challenge,” Eddy said. “It is not unique to this community. It’s not even necessarily a detractor for tourists.” 
The respondents were most likely to be proud to be affiliated with Northern California, the redwood coast and Humboldt County, but weren’t as proud of the city and had less and less pride when it came to their specific neighborhood, Eddy said. About 10% responded “none of the above” to having pride in any of the area’s features and attractions.
As with the Del Norte County story, two themes of this Humboldt County story are homelessness and drug use.  A 2018 post on Eureka's drug and homelessness problem is here.  It's more than a little sad to see a region as beautiful as this section of far northern California have its natural beauty and amenities so eclipsed by man-made problems, though I note the negativity more associated with the city than the county and coast. 

Other somewhat more upbeat LA Times stories out of rural northern California are here and here, the first from January 2019 about a local newspaper in Sierra County (population 3,240), and the second about a "fraternal order," E Clampus Vitus, associated with the gold rush era. That latter story out of Plumas County (population 20,007), just north of Sierra County, is a few years old now but also by Branson-Potts, a talented feature writer.  Reading these stories once again leads me to appreciate the very good job the Los Angeles Times does of covering a region of the Golden State that is so very far away--in physical distance and culture--from the Los Angeles metroplex.