Monday, January 22, 2018

Rural maternal health draws the attention of none other than Samantha Bee

See the segment of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee here

I am not surprised that Samantha Bee is taking up the cause of maternal health, but I am surprised she's advocating for rural women in particular.  They're the sort of constituency she's usually poking fun at. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is a major victory for east coast tribes

"Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among several states, and with the Indian tribes."
- Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution


The underpinning of our understanding of the role of tribes in the national framework comes from the above quote. Tribes are listed separately in the Constitution, separate from the states and from foreign nations. The Framers intended for tribes to occupy a separate sphere of the geopolitical world of the new United States government, a decision that seemed to be of little consequence to the Framers. At that point in history, it was thought that Indian tribes were on the way out and some, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, argued that the path forward for Native peoples was to adopt the customs and traditions of mainstream American society. This thought process would be a recurring theme throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

An affirmation of tribal sovereignty and the codification of the idea of tribes as separate, but not equal, nations came when Chief Justice John Marshall referred to them as "domestic, dependent nations" and described their relationship with the United States government as being like a ward to its guardian. In what is known as the "Marshall trilogy" of cases, Marshall also re-affirmed that the federal government has exclusive right to regulate tribes and that tribes exist separately from the states in which they reside. 

For many tribes however, their sovereignty and right to exist in this framework were not immediately recognized. Many tribes, including my own ancestors, had seen their numbers dwindle and cultures erased by the encroachment of British settlers prior to the American Revolution. For tribes along the east coast, the settlement of the British was devastating. In many cases, our nations were thought to be extinct, our legal rights to our land were not recognized, and the American government would have rather pretended that we did not exist. As I detailed in a previous post, many Native Americans were marked as "free persons of color" or "mulatto" in the United States Census and some legislatures, namely Virginia, went the extra mile and passed legislation that created a racial binary between white and "colored," thus legislatively erasing Native identity.

For many tribes on the east coast, the recognition of our sovereignty has only come about in the latter half of the 20th century, hundreds of years after our first contact with the British. The Mohegan, Narragansett, Catawba, Pequot, Shinnecock, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Pamunkey and many others have only relatively begun to enjoy the sovereignty that should have been recognized at First Contact.

Last week, the United States Senate passed legislation, previously passed in the House, that will add six more tribes to that list. The tribes, all based in Virginia, can trace their lineages back to first contact and include descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy, who remain well-known due to their connection with the Jamestown settlements and their role in American lore. This is an important victory. While tribes in the coastal Northeast have had a reasonable amount of luck in getting their sovereignty recognized, the states in the Southeast have been less fortunate. There is perhaps no better example of this than the tribes in Virginia's neighbor to the south.  

In North Carolina, there are seven state recognized tribes (one federal, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western NC). Most of them are relatively close to the coast and all of them occupy rural spaces. Many of them also occupy spaces that are incredibly economically disadvantaged. In fact, my tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, exists in one of the poorest and most crime ridden counties in the entire United States. While the tribe was granted partial recognition in the Lumbee Act of 1956, our sovereignty was not recognized and the bill had little practical effect. Seeing six Virginia tribes be recognized in one piece of legislation represents a beacon of hope to the tribes in North Carolina who eagerly await for the same fate. 

I will not pretend that federal recognition is not a cure-all for all economic ills. In fact, some of the more dire poverty in the United States exists on reservations where tribes are recognized. However, federal recognition brings with it a few key benefits, the most important of which is a recognition of the existence of sovereignty that predates the existence of the United States.  It also provides tribes with the right to independently pursue economic development without relying on the states, enhanced protection of the rights to their artifacts and history, the right to run their own educational systems, and a litany of other items that come with being a distinct sovereign entity. The benefits of economic development for a tribe extend beyond just creating wealth in the community, it also allows for the raising of funds to assist with cultural preservation and the creation of scholarships and tribal schools to educate youth, both of which are essential for the perpetuation of culture and the expression of sovereignty. 

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is an incredible victory for eastern Native people. We were among the first to encounter the British and seemingly among the last to have our sovereignty and rights to our ancestral land recognized by the United States government. I celebrate the passage of this act and applaud Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine for their work on getting it through the Senate. 


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Maine rural lawyer bill set for public hearing

Back in November, I wrote a post on Maine's rural lawyer shortage and noted that a bill had been introduced into the Maine legislature that would provide tax credits to those who choose to practice in rural communities. This bill is set for its public hearing before the Committee on Taxation in the Maine legislature. The hearing will be held at 1 pm on January 22nd at the Maine State House in Augusta.

Before the bill goes to a hearing however, I wanted to analyze it and see how it stands up. The bill has some interesting provisions that I will analyze below:
  • The attorney must commit to five years in the underserved community. 
I am a huge proponent of this provision because it discourages turnover and encourages people to commit to and put down ties in a community. Five years is also an incredibly long time, long enough to someone to put down roots, start a family and become an integrated part of a community, as often happens in small towns. There is also tremendous value in minimizing turnover because it allows rural clients to have access to attorneys with experience, as opposed to a steady supply of novice attorneys. I am hopeful that this provision eventually leads to people remaining in their community beyond the five year required period

  • In 2024, eligibility to enroll in the tax credit will expire and a report will be commissioned on the success of the program before a renewal bill is introduced. 
I have mixed feelings about this one. I understand the need to evaluate a program's success and make sure that it is achieving its mission. I also think that the report will be a useful source of data for future research on the rural lawyer shortage. The bill does provide that based on the effectiveness of the program, the joint standing committee responsible for reviewing the report may introduce a bill that continues the program. However, I am not a fan of an automatic sunset for a program like this even with the option to renew it. My fear is that it may get lost in the legislative shuffle in 2024. 

The bill provides that attorneys can be "certified" from 2019 through 2024 to begin their five year commitment so it seems as through the final attorney to receive the credit will not be fully out of the program until 2029. I worry that the abbreviated data that would be available in 2024 will not paint a full and accurate picture of the program's success and may jeopardize its renewal. This is especially problematic since only one group of people will have gone the entire five years. 

  • There lacks an actual enforcement mechanism to ensure that an attorney honors his/her five year commitment. 
The bill does not provide any way to hold an attorney to the five year commitment that they are required to make to be eligible for the program. As the bill provides: "[t]he board shall monitor certified attorneys to ensure that they continue to be eligible for the credit under this section and shall decertify any attorney who ceases to meet the conditions of eligibility" There is no mention of the bill of any consequences of decertification, no mention of paying back the taxes saved because of the tax credit or any way to ensure that a person actually honors the commitment that the bill says that they have to make. A person is just simply "decertified" if they no longer meet the requirements of the program. 

  • There is a limit of only five attorneys per year. 
Five attorneys per year is a relatively small number and only gets you twenty-five new rural attorneys through the life cycle of the bill. Since each attorney is limited to only five years of receiving the credit, this also establishes a defacto limit of twenty-five attorneys being a recipient of the credit at any given time. Given the severity of the rural lawyer shortage, this seems like a small number. 

In South Dakota, which has also provided financial incentives to practice in rural communities, there is a limit of thirty-two attorneys being apart of that program at any given time. Unlike Maine, there does not seem to be a limit on how many you can certify per year. However, South Dakota's limit was initially sixteen and it was doubled after the program had existed for two years so it is entirely possible that the same could happen in Maine. I theorize that the low initial ask is due to political pragmatism. 

---

The bill, while it has its flaws, is an important step forward for addressing this critical issue. Maine seems to be leading the way, on the East Coast at least, in actually attempting addressing this. I am especially impressed by the work that Maine is doing and the work that has been put into studying this issue by entities throughout the state. I will be keeping an eye on this and will try to make sure to update you all on its progress. 

New push for two Californias

A group called "New California" announced on Monday a desire to split the state of California into two, with the part carved off to the north and east to be called "New California."  The divide between what would remain California and so-called New California is roughly the rural-urban divide within the state, though coupled with the new, mostly rural state would be San Diego and Orange counties.  I am assuming these counties get included because, even though they are highly urbanized, they are historically also Republican leaning. 

Read more here.  I'm including the proposed map. 


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Why calling South Dakota a sh*#hole is unhelpful (or, an illustration of why two wrongs don't make a right)

Twitter sent me a push notification overnight.  It wanted me to see a Tweet by Andrew Kaczynski      to Tomi Lahren.  Here it is:


The clear implication is that South Dakota, which is apparently Lahren's home state, is a sh*#hole. 

Oh no, here we go again, I thought... And why did the Twitter algorithm want to ensure I saw this?  Does it know I'm a ruralist? Does it know there is such a thing as ruralists?  Is there such a thing as a ruralist?  Or is it just

I don't know much about either of these people, just that Tomi Lahren is some sort of quasi-celebrity by virtue of having been a political commentator and that she's quite far to the right, even supports Trump.  Indeed, wikipedia tells me she is "an American conservative, political commentator, and former television host, currently working for Great America Alliance, an advocacy organization that supports Donald Trump

Andrew Kaczynski describes himself on his Twitter page as
Reporter at CNN's KFile. Challenged to a duel by @RandPaul. “Flex Cam” winner at a @BrooklynNets game. Likes cats.
I know Kaczynski as a Twitter regular, a lefty who often criticizes Trump (as do I, I might add).  Like many (most?) political commentators on Twitter these days, he's willing to get edgy to draw attention and accumulate followers. 

And, of course, Kaczynski is responding to Lahren's defense of Trump's use of the term sh*#hole to refer to Haiti, El Salvador, and the entire African continent.  What Lahren wrote, in case you cannot read it, is
If they aren't sh*#hole countries, why don't their citizens stay there? Let's be honest. Call it like it is. 
Make no mistake: Trump's trash talk about these countries is wrong, and it is deeply embarrassing that he would use such profanity to refer to other human beings and other sovereign nations.  Trump seems to reveal his racism at every turn.  Similarly, I make no apologies for Tomi Lahren. 

But isn't Kaczynski also wrong?  Or at least unhelpful in ridiculing a "flyover state"?  Yes, what will be seen as a clever wit, a getting back at the rubes, is likely to garner him a few more Twitter followers.  But make no mistake he is ridiculing residents of South Dakota. 

My mother always taught me that "two wrongs don't make a right." And I don't think that Twitterverse kudos are a sufficient reward for over-riding that principle--especially not in these extremely politically polarized times. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

On Puerto Rican migration into rural South Dakota

The Washington Post reported last week on a South Dakota poultry producer's recruitment of labor from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, noting that it is part of a "new answer in their ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs." The story, by Chico Harlan, is datelined Huron, South Dakota, population 12,592.  The story begins with a vignette of weather shock and a hint of culture shock:
The airport terminal doors slid open and out came 22 people from Puerto Rico, walking a few weeks ago into the whipping South Dakota wind, not quite ready for what was ahead. One person still wore shorts. Another zipped up a hoodie. The group climbed into three waiting vans. 
“You guys good?” asked one of the drivers who would be taking them to their new home. “Does anybody speak English?” 
“No,” one person said, and the driver let the van go silent before turning up some country music. 
Through the windows, there were miles of emptiness, and Gretchen Velez, 21, looked at the others in the van and was quiet. She’d started the day on an island that was desperately short on electricity and clean water and jobs because of Hurricane Maria. Now, 10 hours later, she was in South Dakota — a place she knew almost nothing about, other than what a job recruiter had told her, that he had a position for her at a turkey processing plant in a rural town nearly 3,000 miles away.
Before Hurricane Maria, Velez was a college student. But when the hurricane hit, her classes were canceled and she lost her job due to the infrastructure and economic conditions on the island.

As for Dakota Provisions, her new employer, it introduces itself on its website thusly:
Dakota Provisions is a state-of-the-art turkey processing plant that produces homegrown, world-class products. Dakota Provisions manufactures and produces poultry and protein products that are specially designed for retail and food service partners. Located just east of the James River, Dakota Provisions was founded by a co-op of growers, most of whom are members of Hutterite communities.
Journalist Harlan explains that its been operating for some dozen years and a thousand people work there, making it one of the largest employers in the state.

Harlan puts what is happening at Dakota Provisions in wider economic and labor market context--particularly as it relates to immigration in rural locales.
[Dakota Provisions] transformed the character of Huron: The starting-level jobs — breast-pullers, carcass-loaders, bird-hangers — rarely attracted anyone from the local workforce, so instead the plant filled with people from all over the world. Soon, a town that had been 97 percent white had four Asian grocery stores and a school district where half the students were learning English as a second language, and at the center of it was a plant in constant need of workers — people who would be ready every morning as trucks dropped off 19,000 live turkeys that would be killed, deboned, sectioned and sliced, and wrapped for restaurants and grocery stores. 
Later Harlan notes:
Only a handful seemed to be local. The people hanging the birds were from Burma. Some of the people trimming the breasts were from Puerto Rico. Deeper in the factory, cutting skin, removing organs, there were people from Cuba and Guatemala and Vietnam. More than a dozen were from Chuuk, an island chain in Micronesia.
As for Velez, she says she hopes eventually to get back to Puerto Rico, but for now Huron, South Dakota and Dakota Provisions represent opportunity.  I felt empathy and sympathy for Velez as I read the story, but as I ponder the extremely difficult work she is doing for $10/hour, I find myself hoping Velez makes it home to Puerto Rico or can otherwise continue her education. 

My academic article about immigration into rural locales of non-gateway states is here.  I have written another post based largely on this same WaPo story for my new White Working Class and the Law Blog, for a class that kicks off Thursday.   That post springboards from this line of the story:  "ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs."

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wisconsin bill seeks to address lack of legal representation for low-income rural citizens

It always makes me happy to read news about states taking substantive action to address the rural lawyer shortage. It especially makes me happy when the action has bipartisan support. In Wisconsin, there is a bill, pending before both houses of the state legislature, that would provide up to $20,000 in student loan relief for attorneys who practice in rural communities and take at least fifty public defender cases per year.

As I have mentioned before in this space, there is a shortage of attorneys in almost every rural space in the country, a fact that leaves rural people without the ability to access the legal system and often exacerbates social inequalities that already exist. The distribution of attorneys in every state, even predominantly rural states, is defined by a clustering in urban centers and a shortage in rural spaces.  As the linked article notes regarding Wisconsin: 64% of attorneys practice in just three urban counties while twenty-three counties have twenty or fewer practicing attorneys and fifteen have ten or fewer practicing attorneys.

Contrary to popular wisdom, there is not an attorney surplus. The fact is that too many people have clustered into areas that are perceived to have more jobs and too few are going to where the work is actually needed. However, it is not as simple as asking someone to just move to a rural community and start working. There is also relatively little funding to actually pay people to do work that serves low-income rural populations. A legal services office is a resource and possible employer but in many states, when legal aid funding is cut, the rural offices are the first to close. There are also few programs and grants that help provide seed funding to help young lawyers start their own firms in rural spaces. Even if a person wanted to move to a rural space and start working, there may also be seemingly insurmountable barriers in the way. This bill seeks to remove one of the barriers, student loan debt.

This bill is also important because it helps to ensure that the Constitutional rights of rural people are actually respected. The right to counsel is a fundamental right for anyone who interacts with our legal system and when there is a lawyer shortage, that right is imperiled. It is important that we ensure that anyone who is accused of a crime has access to competent counsel and an attorney that is overburdened with cases may not be able to offer that. A person's access to competent counsel should not be restricted by their income or geographic location.

Friday, January 5, 2018

So much rural news (much about economics, work, mobility), so little time to blog (Part I)

Happy New Year!  For my first post of 2018, I am going to try to catch up by summarizing quickly a number of recent mainstream, high-profile news stories about rural America--most of them quite depressing.  They feature tales of shrinking amenities and store closures, population loss and migration, shifting rural economies, failing job training and such.

Several of these stories are by the Washington Post, including this one from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, population 16,220, in the western part of the state, about a mall (and a town) that lost its Macy's, then its Sears and which now fears it will lose its JCPenney.  Here's an excerpt from Jessica Contrera's story:
Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?” 
What might have been just a sign of the times in a bigger city was a life-changing and economy-altering loss for Hermitage, the kind of place too far from anywhere to be considered a suburb, but too developed to be considered rural or to attract visitors with small-town charm. The closest thing Hermitage has to a downtown is the intersection where its mall sits, surrounded by McDonald’s, Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts. The biggest buildings down the road are Kohl’s, Kmart and Walmart. The retail industry is the third-largest employer in town, just behind health care and manufacturing.
A WonkBlog piece in the Post a few days later asks a question prompted by the Contrera story:  "America's Forgotten Towns:  Should They Be Saved or Should People Just Leave?"  Heather Long, an economics correspondent, puts the failure of Americans to move for better economic opportunities into historical context:
But the reality is Americans have become homebodies. People in the United States are moving at about half the rate that they did in the 1970s and '80s, according to census data, and no one really understands why. There are obvious economic barriers to moving. It's expensive and risky to leave a place your family has been living in for generations, and there's no guarantee the job you move for will still exist in a few years. But there seems to be something deeper holding people in place.
A high school vocational tech teacher in central Ohio — who asked not to be named, to speak freely — told me: “Most of our students will not give the slightest thought to relocating should they not be able to find good employment here. They cite all the [usual reasons], but a big one is just plain fear of the unknown. My students think Columbus is a big, scary city. Many have never even been out of the county.” 
Among economists, a major rethink is underway about how to help people in forgotten towns, and it's starting to filter into policy debates in Washington. The mentality is shifting from “let's get these people to move” to “let's get new jobs to these towns.”  
Her attention to attachment to place really resonates with me because it's a feature of rural life I've been writing about (and trying to assess the significance of) for more than a decade now.  Long draws heavily on the thinking of Joseph Stiglitz, which she contrasts somewhat with that of Trump.

And that reminds me of this story from The Atlantic about the rights and wrongs of job retraining and how we do it in the United States.  See also this and this from Sweden.   Read more about migration (or lack thereof) for jobs from Alana Semuels in The Atlantic here.  And the Wall Street Journal reported on this issue last summer, and a blog post from earlier in 2017 is here.

I'm going to try to get back to Part II of this post in the next few days, but in case I don't, I'll at least  tease you with this link from the Denver Post on urban-to-rural migration in Colorado (it's about gentrification, cost-of-living and retirement ...) and this one on Puerto Rico-to-South Dakota migration, post-Hurricane Maria (it's about a labor shortage in the meat processing biz). The Georgia legislature is considering the sorts of investments that will be adequate incentives to stem population loss from its rural counties, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports here.  Finally, this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education links lack of education to public health; it features extreme rural poverty in the Missouri bootheel.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Maine Governor tells concerned rural teenager to "read a book" when asked to support net neutrality.


Perhaps the greatest thing about American democracy is the ability to write our lawmakers and representatives and make our voices heard. We send our letters off, hoping that they will be read and considered by their recipient. We also hope for a response, which often comes in the form of a canned letter written by a staffer. What happens however when the elected official sends a personalized response? As a Camden, Maine teenager learned, it's not always a positive experience. 

Governor Paul LePage has a reputation for being a bit of a firebrand, known for leaving a vulgar voicemail for a lawmaker, insinuating that racial minorities are responsible for the drug epidemic, and other things, LePage is not known for self-censorship or obeying etiquette norms. During the recent debate on net neutrality, 16 year old Hope Osgood decided to write the governor to express her views on the subject. LePage returned a copy of the letter and wrote, "Hope! Pick up a book and read!" and signed it "Governor." 

There is of course little context behind LePage's comments and we don't know what he actually meant by them. It is possible that he was trying to minimize the role of the internet in modern day education by insinuating that Osgood would be just as well to read a book. As someone who grew up in a rural community, without broadband, and who had to rely on an underfunded public library for research while in high school, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the internet is a great equalizer in regards to access to information. As Osgood herself notes in the linked article, many of the books in her classrooms are old, outdated, and damaged. If the governor had intended to tell Osgood that the internet was not as important as she thinks because she could "pick up a book and read" then he appears to have missed the target. 

Hidden in the background of this entire situation is the question of rural broadband and its expansion in Maine. With more and more resources becoming available online, including a seemingly endless supply of academic journals, access to the internet is essential for honing your skills as a researcher and accessing a wealth of knowledge. Denying rural students this resource is detrimental to their intellectual growth and development. As the ability to utilize online resources becomes a necessity in the modern workplace, it also puts them as an economic disadvantage. 

A 2015 report found that 80% of Mainers lacked access to download and upload speeds of at least 10Mbps. As LePage said at the time of this report's issuance, "[h]igh-speed Internet is critical to moving Maine forward. It has become increasingly evident that many industries simply cannot prosper in our state without this service ... limited or very basic Internet service can be a barrier to attracting business to our state or moving our existing employers into a digital economy." Governor LePage's office even said that he spoke to President Trump about expanding broadband into rural areas during a visit to Washington in April of last year.

However, LePage has typically favored solutions that lean heavily on the private sector and that require minimal to no funding from the state government. In June 2015, LePage vetoed a bill that would have created a fund (with an initial appropriation of $500) to facilitate the creation of open-source municipal fiber networks in rural Maine. The bill had passed with strong support in the State Senate and with unanimous support in the State House. In his veto letter, LePage noted that he had "attended a launch event for a company whose goal is to ultimately deliver this type of service to 90 percent of Maine by the end of the year. That is just one company. It should come as no surprise; the private sector is already way ahead of Augusta politicians in identifying a business opportunity and implementing a strategy to deliver a needed product and service." By the end of 2015, 90% of Maine did not have access to broadband internet.

Governor LePage would be well-served to consider the words of young people like Ms. Osgood. Minimizing the role of the internet in the modern world is dangerous and a severe disservice to rural residents. As Philip Alston's recent report for the United Nations (see my post on it here) noted, governments, even in predominantly rural states, seem to be lagging behind on addressing this issue. As I have noted in this space many times, there is a huge resource gap between urban and rural communities and that will only continue to get worse as lawmakers refuse to adequately address the lack of access to broadband in rural communities.

Perhaps Governor LePage and his ideological compatriots would also be well-served to consider how President Franklin Roosevelt handled a situation in which an essential utility was not being adequately provided by the private sector.......

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

North Carolina makes a promise to rural public universities.

As my regular readers will know, I am a huge proponent of increasing access to higher education for students in rural communities and supporting institutions already located there. Part of addressing the skills mismatch in rural communities involves ensuring that rural citizens can attend college and that rural areas already home to colleges can attract and retain the talent needed to grow their local economy. In July, I wrote about how this concept could apply to law schools and the legal profession.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that, starting in Fall 2018, would lower tuition at three rural public universities in North Carolina: Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out of state students. What makes this notable for me is that all three are also located in rural, impoverished parts of the state and in counties with poverty rates of 19.2%, 31.6%, and 22% respectively. All three also serve economically vulnerable populations:  ECSU has historically served African American students, WCU serves students from Appalachia, and UNCP was founded by the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina in order to help provide for the education of Native students in the segregated South.

On its face, this legislation seems like a net positive, it enhances college affordability while helping attract people to some of the poorest areas of the state (or in UNCP's case, one of the poorest in the country). It serves the dual purpose of helping local students afford college while also providing a price point that may bring people from out of state who might remain after college and help grow the local economy. If this program were successful, it would be an extreme net positive for all of the communities involved. Like all pieces of legislation however, this one warrants a closer bit of scrutiny.

My major question is funding and how the program's sustainability will be ensured going forward. Some of the initial concerns about the legislation centered on the loss of revenue by the schools that participated in the program and how that would be recouped. UNCP Chancellor Robin Cummings estimated that the school could lose as much as $10-$15 million per year in tuition revenue under this bill. Though not addressed initially, it was addressed in the final version of the bill , which allowed for the appropriation of funding, up to $40,000,000 total for all three campuses, to cover any deficit between the statutory tuition and the actual tuition that the school has to set to meet their expenses. A good explanation of how that actually looks can be seen in this article that discusses ECSU's tuition "increase." Of course, that authorization comes with a major caveat as any increases in funding would have to be approved by the "Director of the Budget." There is a provision however that allows the UNC system (the umbrella body that governs all public universities in the state) to take "appropriate action" should any of the three schools find themselves at the point of insolvency.

Assuming that funding remains in place and is adequate to meet the needs of the schools, the program  should be a positive. It is far too early to speculate on how it will play out and whether or not the legislature will honor their commitment to ensure that the program is fully funded. However, the affected schools and municipalities are already preparing for the possible increases in enrollment that will result from the lower tuition rates. The Town of Pembroke recently rezoned land in order to allow for new student housing to be built and WCU is looking for public private partnerships that would allow them to expand their student housing. Both of the linked articles also show the potency of a strong rural university, WCU is also looking for proposals to help expand their power grid in order to facilitate the expansion of broadband internet to surrounding communities while Pembroke was honored as "Small Town of the Year" by the North Carolina Rural Center, in part because of its relationship with UNC Pembroke.

It is too soon to tell how this will turn out. I think that, if the promises (no pun intended) are delivered, this could be a boon for these communities and provide an infusion of talent and resources that will lead to future growth. These schools however are now more reliant on the state legislature than other public universities in the state and may ultimately end up in a precarious situation if the state fails to authorize enough funding to meet the needs of the institutions. Funding for the program looks to be secure, for now however, given the optimistic outlook that the leaders of the three schools (particularly Chancellor Cummings, who had previously said that he would not agree to anything that would decrease funding for UNCP) have provided. There are numerous "what if?" scenarios that you could play out regarding the funding piece, and that is cause for concern. However, I will reserve my concern for now.

As I said back in July, exposure to rural spaces can lead to students deciding to remain there and I think that a $500 per semester price point will almost certainly pull students into rural spaces who may not have otherwise gone there. I am excited to see how this program ultimately turns out and whether and how it drives regional economic development. Given the development already happening, it looks promising. As someone who grew up 15 minutes from UNC Pembroke, I will be watching closely.

Monday, December 25, 2017

In December, it's good to know a plow guy.

A short post from me today but I wanted to highlight something that I have seen pop up in the media a few times over the past couple of years - the shortage of snow plow drivers in rural communities, particularly in Maine. 

Maine, which recently suffered the effects of a massive winter storm, has a severe shortage of plow drivers. As the Wall Street Journal noted today, the Maine Department of Transportation is having trouble finding workers to fill plow driver vacancies. This is exacerbated by the fact that the skills that plow drivers have could result in higher pay in the private sector, a condition that creates a high turnover rate for plow drivers at the Department of Transportation since many will opt to leave the job once they finish their training period. The state's low unemployment rate creates competition for skilled workers, which are often in short supply. Portland, the largest city in the state, is largely able to avoid this issue by using its relative affluence to pay its drivers more. The Department of Transportation however is restrained by the need to obtain legislative approval before raising the wages of workers, an often time consuming process. 

This is at least the second straight winter that Maine has had this issue, which they have decided to address by contracting with a private firm out of Ohio.  It remains to be seen how this solution will ultimately end up panning out. 

I highlight this because it is a great example of how the rural labor shortage can have an adverse impact on services provided to citizens in these communities. I've already highlighted the rural lawyer shortage in Maine and the effects that it has had on the administration of justice in rural communities. There are labor shortages in the other industries as well. 

The role of the legislature in creating the particular problem highlighted in this point also points to the need for state governments to be more proactive in ensuring that the state can remain competitive with private employers in attracting the talent needed to ensure steady delivery of vital services. 

(In case anyone is wondering, the title of this post is a reference to the the 2011 music video "Granite State of Mind 2" by New Hampshire's Super Secret Project, which you can view here. As you might imagine, the actual answer to the song's question, "who's going to plow this town tonight?" is complicated.)