Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Compelling report on rural-urban economic differences in Colorado--and their impact on the 2016 election

The Associated Press reported an excellent (if also somewhat depressing) feature story a few days ago under the headline, "Divided America:  The Rural-Urban Split from Rocky Ford to Denver."  The report highlights rural-urban difference, with Rocky Ford, in nonmetropolitan Otero County illustrating "rural" economic decline and population loss and Denver representing "urban" flourishing.  This is a very rich story that captures a great deal of nuance and a range of issues that I have been writing about for several years:  population loss, rural economics, attachment to land, water, and--of course--the rural vote.

Here's an excerpt about Rocky Ford and one of its residents, Peggy Sheahan:
Middle-class jobs vanished years ago as pickling and packing plants closed. [Sheahan's] had to cut back on her business repairing broken windshields to help nurse her husband after a series of farm accidents, culminating in his breaking his neck falling from a bale of hay. She collects newspaper clippings on stabbings and killings in the area — one woman's body was found in a field near Sheahan's farm — as heroin use rises.
The author then depicts thriving Denver and one of its young residents, Andrea Pacheco, commenting that these two women--Sheahan and Pacheco--don't know each other.  Naturally, they don't know each other because rural and urban and separate hemispheres which rarely converge--at least that is what the author suggests:
There are few divides in the United States greater than that between rural and urban places. Town and country represent not just the poles of the nation's two political parties, but different economic realities that are transforming the 2016 presidential election. 
Cities are trending Democratic and are on an upward economic shift, with growing populations and rising property values. Rural areas are increasingly Republican, steadily shedding population for decades, and as commodity and energy prices drop, increasingly suffering economically. 
The political divide goes even deeper than simply between the two parties. In the GOP primary, rural areas voted reliably for Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose angrier style of politics many analysts argued were too harsh and off-putting to play well with a broader electorate. Urban and suburban Republicans were more likely to support candidates widely seen as more electable like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Gov. John Katich [sic]. 
The story quotes Scott Reed, political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who has advised Republican campaigns in the past:
The urban-rural split this year is larger than anything we've ever seen.
The story also addresses other aspects of the disconnect between rural and urban, including the fact that many rural voters feel that urban residents don't understand them and state legislatures and officials do not value them.  They mourn the political clout they no longer have, especially in comparison to the state's urbanites.  Here are some key excerpts:
  • Otero County and other far-flung rural areas face an uphill battle against geography. Economic development officials say businesses increasingly relocate to areas close to international airports, putting far-flung parts of the country at a natural disadvantage. 
  • Residents are painfully aware that they lack the numbers, and corresponding political clout, of Colorado's urbanites.
  • Kevin Karney, an Otero County commissioner, noted that the state Department of Transportation doesn't plow Otero's roads in the winter overnight, because its crews have been shifted to keep snow-free the interstate running from Denver to Colorado's ski resorts. "It's like rural Colorado doesn't matter," Karney said.
  • Eric Van Dyk feels overlooked. The 40-year-old farms as a labor of love — he works fields of hay, corn and small grains, then hustles to the town of Rocky Ford where he teaches agriculture at the local high school to pay the bills. The running joke in the region is that farmers have to have a day job to support their hobby.
  • Van Dyk is happy with his rural life — its quiet, close community ties and a connection with the land that an urbanite who dines at organic restaurants will never fathom. But he's aghast at what he sees as a rising number of people in his county relying on food stamps rather than hard work but acknowledges it's tough to make a living in Otero County. 
The story quotes Richard Florida, a prominent urban theorist about the chasm between rural and urban:  
People in urban and rural areas are living very different lives and experiencing the world very differently.
Finally, the story contrasts the experience of rural homelessness--a burgeoning problem--with the challenge of rural gentrification.

I'm not sure the extent to which the political divide is caused by rural-urban difference versus some other axis of difference that overlaps with the rural-urban axis or continuum, e.g., the economic fortunes the story suggests.  But given that this story plays up rural-urban difference with respect to economics and also in relation to politics, it is interesting to contemplate the parallels between Colorado and the wider United States as we approach the Presidential election and the recent Brexit vote, which I wrote about here.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Rural stories that didn't make it into the New York Times

The last week in June was a busy one, news-wise, not least because of the surprise decision by Britain to leave the EU.  Still, I was surprised that two natural disasters--both in rural places--attracted no (timely) attention in the New York Times.

The first was the fire in eastern Kern county, California, as covered in the Los Angeles Times here.  Over the days when the fire was garnering west coast coverage and some national coverage, I never saw even a short story about it in the New York Times, despite the loss of several lives.

The second was the "once-in-a-thousand-years" flood in West Virginia, which started on June 24 and was first covered in the New York Times the next day, with this story.   This story followed the next day.  The floods, which took 24 lives, didn't make the nytimes.com home page until this story appeared there on the afternoon of Sunday, June 26.  This story ran in the Monday, June 27 edition of the print issue.      

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Pat Summitt, rural Tennessee native

I did not know this until I read it today in the New York Times:
Her childhood on a Tennessee farm lent Summitt a rural hardiness. When she gave birth to her only child, Tyler, in 1990, she went into labor while on a recruiting trip in Pennsylvania and urged the pilots to fly her home so her son would be born in Tennessee.

* * *

She was born Patricia Sue Head on June 14, 1952, in Clarksville, Tenn. The fourth of five children, she slept in a baby bed until she was 6. Her farmer father, Richard Head, was a disciplinarian who, she recalled, admonished his children that “cows don’t take a day off.” 
During the day, she joined her three older brothers in baling hay and chopping tobacco. At night, she played basketball against her brothers and neighbors. 
“I was the only girl,” Summitt once said. “They beat me up, but it made me tougher.”
Summit began her career coaching the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers when she was just 22 years old.  I cannot help wonder if her toughness, bluntness and focus was a reflection of her rural, working class upbringing.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

SCOTUS declares Texas abortion regulations unconstitutional, with considerable discussion of distance and travel--and one little mention of "rural"

The United States Supreme Court yesterday, by a vote of 5-3, declared several parts of Texas H.B. 2 unconstitutional.  The Court struck down the provisions of the Texas law that required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and to meet ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements.

I have, of course, spilled a lot of ink on this law (Texas H.B. 2, that is) and its construction by federal judges over the past several years, most exhaustively here.  One of my complaints--particularly in the more recent rounds of litigation--is that judges have misunderstood the burdens facing rural women and others who live farthest from the abortion providers who are able to comply with the Texas laws and continue to provide this service.  As a related matter, I have complained that the pro-choice litigants have done little to draw attention to these issues and the media have followed suit, shifting their focus to the number of women crowding the few remaining abortion providers in Texas, causing long waits for appointments that sometimes push women into the second trimester.

In light of all of this, I was delighted today to see several features of the majority decision, authored by Justice Stephen Breyer.   First, Justice Breyer was not only very focused on the facts, he relied heavily on the factual findings of federal district judge Lee Yeakel who had ruled in the fall of 2014 that the Texas law imposed a particular burden on poor, rural women.  Yeakel wrote:
[T]he record conclusively establishes that increased travel distances combine with practical concerns unique to every woman. These practical concerns include lack of availability of child care, unreliability of transportation, unavailability of appointments at abortion facilities, unavailability of time off work, immigration status and inability to pass border checkpoints, poverty level, the time and expense involved in traveling long distances, and other, inarticulable psychological obstacles. These factors combine with increased travel distances to establish a de facto barrier to obtaining an abortion for a large number of Texas women who might choose to seek a legal abortion.
Thus Judge Yeakel talked about a particular combination of obstacles--all exacerbated if not triggered by Texas H.B. 2--that could get in the way of Texas women--especially poor, rural, Texas women--getting an abortion.

Breyer did not quote that passage in its entirety, but he did include (in an opinion joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan) this passage from Judge Yeakel's opinion in Lakey/Cole (the name of the case that litigated the Texas law's ambulatory surgical center requirement):
9. The “two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.” 46 F. Supp. 3d, at 683; cf. App. 363–370.
This is at page 6 of the slip op.  Further, the opinion uses the word "distance" five times and the word "travel" once.  I see this as real progress toward recognizing the role of geography--of spatiality--even though the Court's conclusion (what I see as it's essential holding on the "undue burden" point) was was clear that distance alone was not enough to meet the "substantial obstacle" or "undue burden" test:
We recognize that increased driving distances do not always constitute an “undue burden.” See Casey, 505 U.S., at 885–887 (joint opinion of O’Connor, KENNEDY, and Souter, JJ.). But here, those increases are but one additional burden, which, when taken together with others that the closings brought about, and when viewed in light of the virtual absence of any health benefit, lead us to conclude that the record adequately supports the District Court’s “undue burden” conclusion.
This is from page 26 of the slip op. I'll write more in a future post on why I think the majority was equivocal here about the burden of distance--basically that Justice Kennedy (along with Justices O'Connor and Souter) did not recognize the burden of distance as an undue burden in Casey

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Is rural Britain to blame for the Brexit vote?

That's what Roger Cohen of the New York Times suggests in this editorial column a few days after the vote:
London voted overwhelmingly to remain. But the countryside, small towns and hard-hit industrial provincial industrial centers voted overwhelmingly to leave and carried the day. A Britain fissured between a liberal, metropolitan class centered in London and the rest was revealed. 
 A map showing how each area of the country voted is here.

Also, here is a Washington Post story about Cornwall, the far southwestern county in England, which supported Brexit but is now understanding it will lose subsidies from the EU--subsidies based in part on its rurality.  
The county is heavily dependent on the more than 60 million British pounds ($82 million) in E.U. subsidies per year that are transferred to the region and that have helped finance infrastructure projects and education schemes. Now, county officials are panicking — fearing the worst for the county's future and wondering why one of the most E.U.-dependent counties in Britain voted against the E.U. — and its money.
There is certainly an element of "biting the hand that feeds you" going on here.

P.S.  More on who engineered Brexit (elite cosmopolites) is here, and a focus on a more urbanized place that voted to "Leave" is here.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

North Dakota vote on corporate farming ban

Julie Bosman reported in the New York Times last week on a referendum which, if passed, would loosen North Dakota's decades-old ban on corporate farming.  On Tuesday, North Dakota voters rejected that law, which dates to the Great Depression. 

Here is an excerpt from Bosman's earlier report on the significance of the proposed law:
While the debate is very much focused on maintaining the character of North Dakota, it also taps into widespread fears about the disappearance of family farms throughout the United States and the spread of big corporations and their farming methods into rural America. 
People like the Wagners who support the earlier law — one of the strictest in the country — say that it protects the environment and family farmers like them. 
“With corporate farming, they just don’t have the connections,” said Laurie Wagner, whose husband’s grandparents started the farm in the 1930s, as she walked around the property on Thursday. “They could buy up all the land, and it means nothing to them. They could make it impossible for people like us to compete.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

On spatiality and the spread of opioids and meth in the West

The High Country News ran this story a few days ago on how population distribution and the particular pattern of motorways in the American West is facilitating distribution of opioids and meth.  Here's an excerpt from Paige Blankenbuehler's story:
The West’s geography stymies law enforcement’s efforts to crack down: Isolated Western highway corridors span states and allow illegal drugs to move vast distances without being detected.
Blankenbuehler quotes Ernie Martinez, director of the executive board for the National Narcotics Officers Association Coalition, a collaboration between federal drug enforcement officials and state and local-level officers, among others.
You have to look at the geography.  The landscape is a lot wider and traffickers are moving through remote areas. It’s much tougher to find them.
This all reminds me of an argument I made in this 2014 essay, The Rural Lawscape:  Space Tames Law Tames Space:  material space--even when relatively "empty" in the sense of not being built up--impedes law enforcement efforts.  

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Finally, a newspaper story on abortion that focuses on spatiality

The Los Angeles Times reported last week on what it labeled "abortion deserts."  As that phrase suggests, the article takes up issues of women having to travel long distances--often to other states--to get abortion services.  This is in contract to most recent coverage of recent abortion regulations (read more here) which have had the effect of shuttering many abortion providers.  Here are some excerpts from Molly Hennessy-Fiske's story:    
As more states adopt more restrictive laws and the number of clinics dwindles in the so-called “abortion desert” – an area that stretches from Florida to New Mexico and north into the Midwest – women are increasingly traveling across state lines to avoid long waits for appointments and escape the legal barriers in their home states.
* * * 
Doctors are also on the move to handle the shifting waves of patients, flying to New Mexico and Kansas to help staff clinics. 
Dr. Colleen McNicholas flies from St. Louis to work at the Wichita clinic, where 40% to 50% of her patients are from out of state, usually Oklahoma and Texas, occasionally Missouri. 
McNicholas says she has seen women sleeping in their cars in the parking lot.
“Either they don’t want to wait or can’t because of how far along they are,” she said. “So they look at a map and map it out, keep trying, keep calling clinics until they find one that can take them.” 
Dr. Willie Parker recently relocated from Illinois to Alabama to perform abortions there and in Georgia and Mississippi. Many providers in the region won’t handle abortions beyond 15 weeks, he said, creating “watershed areas” where women must seek care across state lines.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The rural-urban (Sanders/Clinton) divide among Democratic voters in California primary

The first thing that popped out at me Tuesday night as the Democratic primary electoral map started to fill out was that Bernie Sanders carried primarily nonmetropolitan counties in northern and eastern (central Sierra Nevada) California.  The only real exception to this trend is that he also carried Santa Cruz County, known for being especially lefty.   This means, of course, the Hillary Clinton was strongest in urban areas which, as this NPR story points out, tend also to be more racially and ethnically diverse.  Danielle Kurtzleben reports:
There's also a relatively clear split between rural and nonrural counties. There are 21 rural counties in California (by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget's definition — click here for details), and Sanders leads in 16 of them. And those counties are also heavily clustered in the northern part of the state. His major nonrural victory was in Santa Cruz County, that small (but high-population) brown spot on our map on the west side of the state. And those few eastern counties he also won? They're also rural. 
The rural counties trend isn't entirely separate from the white voter trend. California's northern, rural counties also tend to be whiter than the rest of the state. (Likewise, the rural population nationwide is whiter than the nonrural population.)
By the way, Kurtzleben is apparently using the Office of Management and Budget definition of rural (see Map 3 and the definitions pages):  "All counties outside metropolitan areas in 2003 (based on 2000 census data)."  She also observes: 
Clinton leads in Imperial County — that southeastern-most one, in the lower tip of the state — by 35 points. That county, with its 82 percent Hispanic population, is the most heavily Hispanic county in the state, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. (Because some mail-in ballots still have to be counted, the candidates' leads in different counties could still change.) 
Of course, the state also has significant black and Asian-American populations. It appears that in some counties, minority voters helped push Clinton's vote total up, while white voters bolstered Sanders' totals in many places. Indeed, the five counties where Clinton got her lowest share of the vote are more than two-thirds non-Hispanic white.

Is this sad (rural) story about economics? politics? society? race? all of the above? and what does it say about the race for U.S. President?

I have not quite known what to do--blogging wise--with this New York Times story from a few weeks ago regarding, well, a vaping store/lounge, The Tapering Vapor, in nonmetropolitan North Carolina.  The headline is, "Feeling Let Down, with Little Hope for Better," written by Richard Fausset, who I don't believe is on the Times staff (at least I have not read stories by him in the past...).

Actually, the story isn't quite as much about e-cigarettes as the lead photo and a great deal of the text suggests.  I guess it is more about the crummy economy in this rural-ish corner of North Carolina, though the story was first called to my attention by a Tweet that picked up on the race--white--of those featured in the story.  That Tweet stated, "This is a good piece, but trying to picture such sympathy for poor black people sitting around smoking & drinking."  To this I responded, "Your comment suggests that (most) readers feel sympathy for these poor whites. Not convinced that's the case."  (Read my analysis of this issue here).  The initial Tweeter then said, "I dunno. Look at the convo around opioid addiction today versus crack. Much more sympathy, much less demonization."

At that point, I and another scholar who writes about drug abuse across and along the rural-urban continuum pointed out that (1) the opioid crisis has some claim to middle class-ness but that the meth epidemic, associated with white poverty, had evoked legal and social response similar to crack and that (2) when the opioid epidemic was more associated with Appalachia in the 1990s, it had not elicited the solicitude of public health officials and policy makers that we have seen more recently as it has spread across the country, to city, suburb, town, rural area.  Also, neither crack nor meth implicated Big Pharma in the way the opioid crisis does, which makes it easier to identify a central bogeyman.

But I digress.  Is this story primarily about race?  or does it reveal something especially important about race?

Let me come back to the gist of the New York Times story out of Wilkes County, North Carolina -- again, admitting that the gist is in the eyes of the beholder:
In an America riddled with anxieties, the worries that Mr. Foster [a 26-year-old white male who quit college but who still dreams of being a marine biologist] and his neighbors bring through the doors of the Tapering Vapor are common and potent: Fear that an honest, 40-hour working-class job can no longer pay the bills. Fear of a fraying social fabric. Fear that the country’s future might pale in comparison with its past.
The journalist goes on to note that Wilkes County, population 68,502, has "felt those stings more than many other places" because the "textile and furniture industries have been struggling here for years."  Lowe's, the home improvement chain, was founded here, but Wilkes County lost the Lowe's headquarters several years ago, part of the reason the median household income there has fallen by 30% between 2000 and 2014.  According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, that is the second-steepest decrease in the nation.  The story also notes that Mr. Foster's support for "Mr. Sanders makes him an outlier in largely conservative Wilkes County. Mr. Trump won the March 15 Republican primary here with 47 percent of the vote, garnering more than twice the votes of Hillary Clinton, who won the Democratic primary."

Fausset continues:  
Still, the regulars at the Tapering Vapor — overwhelmingly white, mostly working class and ranging from their 20s to middle age — provide a haze-shrouded snapshot of an anxious nation navigating an election year fueled by disquiet and malaise.
This reminds me of this paragraph from a Wonkblog entry in today's Washington Post, "The Incredible Crushing Despair of the White Working Class":
Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.
This is fascinating, and others have written about the race-and-psychology/outlook angle on the Case-Deaton study announced last fall, including me here.  Jere is more from the Washington Post piece on what is probably behind the optimism gap:
Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of "a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers," Graham said in an email. "Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have ... they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they" 
And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.
One thing I find interesting about all of this is that not only is an optimism gap growing b/w blacks and Latinos on the one hand and whites on the other, the gap is also growing (of course) between rich and poor whites.  It is important to remember the intra-racial distinctions and not only the inter-racial ones.

In any event, I will just conclude for now that the New York Times story, ostensibly/superficially about the vaping lounge, is about economics, politics, society, race -- and psychology--the psychology of being a low-income white without prospects--and in a (lefty, chattering class) world that vilifies low-income whites as if the source of most of the nation's evils.  And I'll close with another profile from the Times story:
Ms. Chapman [another Wilkes County resident], 47, said she had two master’s degrees and was currently holding six part-time jobs — a mix of clerical, academic and online work, none of which provided health insurance. 
“This is not the life I saw for myself,’’ she said. 
This suggests that education is not the powerful "uplifter" in rural places that it tends to be in urban ones, one aspect of the rural brain-drain.

The entire New York Times story and Wonkblog post--and of course, my academic article about our collective (negative, highly judgmental) attitudes about poverty--are all worth a read in their entirety in this very interesting election cycle.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

On the aging of the rural West

Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic today, from Fossil, Oregon, under the headline, "The Graying of Rural America."  A short excerpt follows:
Fossil is the seat of Wheeler County, where the median age is 56, which is the highest of any county in Oregon. By contrast, the median age of Multnomah County, where Portland is located, is 36.1. From 2000 to 2013, the median age in Wheeler County rose from 48 to 56.

Wheeler is also Oregon’s least populous county, with just 1,300 people, and its whitest (94.3 percent of its residents are white). Being three and a half hours from Portland doesn’t exactly attract very many people, especially young or non-white ones. After the Kinzua lumber mill closed in 1978, the town began bleeding jobs—today, there are only 347 full-time jobs in the whole county, not counting self-employment. This is a 42 percent decrease in wage and salary employment since 1970, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Montana-based consulting firm.
* * * 
Over the past two decades, as cities have become job centers that attract diverse young people, rural America has become older, whiter, and less populated. Between 2010 and 2014, rural areas lost an average of 33,000 people a year. Today, just 19 percent of Americans live in areas the Census department classifies as rural, down from 44 percent in 1930. But roughly one-quarter of seniors live in rural communities, and 21 of the 25 oldest counties in the United States are rural. 
Population decline in rural America is especially concentrated in the West. There’s a lot of wide-open land there, but most people, and young people especially, live in the cities. Half the jobs in Oregon, for example, are now in three counties in and around Portland, according to a study by Headwaters.