Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Perry County, Alabama declares "Barack Obama Day"

NPR reported this evening that the commissioners of Perry County (AL), population 11,861, have voted to institute Barack Obama Day as a county holiday. It will be celebrated each second Monday of November.

Brett Tannehill of Alabama Pubic Radio explains that the community, which lies in the so-called Black Belt, was central to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Further, 72.3% of the county's voters supported Obama in the race for President. Nevertheless, one county commissioner voted against the holiday. He explained that he opposed it because of the expense to the county.

According to the 2000 Census, 68% of Perry County's residents are black. The county seat is Marion, population 3,511.

Given the lack of a personal link to Obama--that is, he was not born or raised in Perry County-- it's interesting that the county would take this step. It strikes me as the sort of the strictly local action most likely to happen in a relatively homogeneous rural place, although it also seems possible that there might some day be a national Barack Obama Day.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A green revolution in the heartland


I recently wrote a short paper about Greensburg, Kansas, a small town that was almost entirely destroyed by a tornado in May of 2007. It is hard to overstate the destruction this town faced. The real story, though, is how the town decided to rebuild: by becoming the greenest town in America. Like many small towns, Greensburg was losing population, especially young people, before the tornado. After its renewal effort, though, the town has a new sense of purpose and hopes to keep and attract residents. The following is some excerpts from my paper illustrating the destruction and the rebuilding:


"The tornado that destroyed Greensburg was part of a massive system of tornados that hit the plains Midwest. Recent research found that 22 storms in total struck roughly within the same time period. The death toll reached eleven, mercifully small considering the incredible destruction. A warning had sounded throughout the town twenty minutes before the tornado hit. One resident described how the local convenience store owner pulled her and several others into the store’s cooler after the alarm sounded. When they emerged, the building around them had collapsed.


In the days and first few weeks after the tornado, it was not clear the town would survive. It was an open question whether older residents and those with young children had the time or resources to rebuild after this level of devastation. As one survivor noted, a town without schools or medical facilities would be a hard place to raise a child. In the end, 95% of the buildings in town, including over 900 homes, were destroyed. The history of whole-town reconstruction is complicated, and not universally happy.

…………..

Three months after the tornado hit, Greensburg published its “Long-Term Community Recovery Plan”. Created in conjunction with the office of Governor Kathleen Sebelius and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the 86 page plan describes no less than 21 discrete goals, most with sub-goals. They reflect both the basic needs of the town (“rebuild medical and emergency service facilities”) as well as its ambitious vision (“prepare a sustainable comprehensive plan”). The citizens of Greensburg took an active role in developing the plan. The town held four meetings to solicit input and feedback, with attendance averaging 400 (more than a quarter of the total population).


A little after the one-year anniversary of the tornado, the Greensburg city council adopted the Sustainable Comprehensive Master Plan. The Master Plan describes in detail the new ethos the town is committed to. All new city building will be built following the LEED Standards for sustainable building. The residents themselves are being helped to rebuild their homes and businesses according to similar sustainable criteria. Development is planned in a way to cut down on driving and encourage a walk-able community. The city is even setting the groundwork for generating its own renewable energy, with the goal to power the entire city with this new energy."


Greensburg’s efforts raise a lot of interesting questions about local government, rural culture, and environmentalism. I’ll save those for other posts. For now, check out their website. What this town is doing is really impressive. I, for one, think it is amazing that a small town on the plains of Kansas is the cutting edge of sustainability. I hope you find their story as inspiring as I do. Here's a link.


A cabinet post for culture, but would it include the rural variety?

William R. Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, makes an interesting proposal in an op-ed piece in today's New York Times. It begins:
IN 1935, as part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Farm Security Administration, which reached out to rural families as they struggled during the Depression. Roy Stryker, who oversaw the agency’s photo documentary program, captured the strength of American culture in the depths of the country’s despair. The photographs of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks showed us both the pain of America and the resilience of its people.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson drew on his Texas roots when he created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, organizations that share America’s arts and humanities with the American people.
In part because of Ferris's role in studying Southern culture and in part because of these opening paragraphs mentiong rurality, I thought his proposal might be particularly attuned to rural and/or Southern culture. I guess I am looking pretty hard for signs that someone is thinking about rural America as we prepare for the inauguration of a very cosmopolitan President and his incredibly urbane cabinet.

But Ferris's proposal is not attuned to rural culture -- at least not explicitly so. It calls for a new cabinet-level post, a "Secretary of Culture," to oversee and coordinate the various federal agencies that have evolved over the years, some from FDR and LBJ initiatives: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NPR, PBS and the Smithsonian Institution. None of these institutions is particularly oriented to rural matters, although I do find NPR's coverage of rural issues to be quite good.

In any event, Ferris's piece got me to thinking about the New Deal-era W.P.A. Writers' Project, which employed writers to produce a set of travel guides called the American Guide Series. That's a project about which I knew nothing until the New York Times series this year, "Going Down the Road." You can read some of the installments in that series here, here, here, here and here.

What has struck me about these guides--or at least the New York Times coverage of them -- is that they documented rural places. I don't know if this was purposeful or not. Perhaps in the 1930s, rural places were viewed as those most needing documentation because little had then been written about them, whereas cities already attracted a lot of attention as bastions of culture, as inherently interesting places. If that was the case then, it is surely even more so now, when fewer and fewer Americans have meaningful and sustained contact with rural people and places and when rural folks seem to be popularly depicted as more marginal, culturally and otherwise, than ever before.

William Yardley wrote in the first of the NYT Going Down the Road series that the American Guides became "literary windows into an era and its aspirations." Of course, those were also the aspirations for particular places in that era. As Yardley expresses it, in places like the Cascades, progress no longer means "more commerce, more logging, more farming. . . . Now, it’s all about enjoying the scenery." The same can be said, of course, about much of the West. But even there it is only part of the picture, as oldtimers often oppose such development. (See related posts here and here). Further, what do we really know as a society about the aspirations of other types of rural places, those suffering population loss and struggling to survive in the face of agri-business growth and other forms of restructuring? How can/do we value their culture(s) -- and how can we document it so that in another half century it won't be lost for good?

Friday, December 26, 2008

A (rural) Mexican Christmas

Don't miss Sam Dillon's story in the NYT about how the holiday is celebrated in Chinantla, Mexico, which he characterizes as rural.

The Christmas season joins people with their loved ones wherever it is celebrated, but in few places, perhaps, does it unite whole villages so thoroughly in communal rituals of music and merrymaking as in rural Mexico.

For nine consecutive nights, starting Dec. 16, villages all across Mexico have been re-enacting Joseph and Mary’s biblical search for lodging. Each night’s procession, called a posada, has led townspeople, marching to the strains of a brass band, to a different home, where humble heads of household . . . . have fed and entertained the revelers.

Read the entire delightful (and sentimental) story here and note the strong rural theme of community throughout.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A new food policy from the Obama administration?

Read Kim Severson's speculation about this in the New York Times here. She recites a great deal of evidence that Obama is the "first foodie President since Thomas Jefferson." One of my favorite parts of the piece is her humorous play a holiday theme.

FROM the moment it was clear that Barack Obama was going to be president, people who have dedicated their lives to changing how America eats thought they had found their St. Nicholas.

* * *

For many food activists, a shiny new secretary of agriculture was high on the Christmas wish list.

About 50,000 people--high-profile foodies and advocates of sustainability among them -- signed a petition asking Obama to consider the six candidates they believed would best promote and protect "farm-based rural America and sustainable agriculture." But, as Severson writes," Santa had other plans."

Those other plans, of course, involved selecting to be Secretary of Agriculture former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, known for his alignment with agri-business interests.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rural Women Making Change

That's the name of a community-university research alliance at the University of Guelph, Ontario. I learned about it this summer from Belinda Leach, a University of Guelph faculty member who leads several of its initiatives. Here's the organization's website.

You'll see that RWMC is involved in a number of research initiatives, including:
  • Gural, which expands knowledge and livelihood opportunities for rural girls
  • Gendering Census and Survey Data

And here is a summary of what RWMC has delivered on just one of those topics: transportation. Lead on this project is Professor Tony Fuller of the School of Environmental Design & Rural Development at University of Guelph, tfuller@uoguelph.ca.

Without access to public transportation in many rural Ontario communities, getting to work or completing household tasks often requires the use of a private vehicle. In this project we are investigating how transportation affects various aspects of women’s lives, how they manage transportation and what options to improve transportation could be considered for rural communities in Ontario.

We started by collecting data and stories from women living in southern Ontario. We found a significant number of women in all types of locations and stages of life adjust their activities and livelihoods around the availability of transportation. The quality of women’s lives in rural areas was tied to transportation in one way or another.

We refined our research tool, and with support from the Sustainable Rural Communities Program, expanded our investigation to the impact transportation has women’s access to employment and job related training in rural communities in northern Ontario. We found that access to a car is important for women to find and maintain employment in these communities. Without access to a vehicle, women are confined to jobs that were accessible by walking, which are often part time and with low rates of pay.

For this project we have delivered:

  • a summary document of our research findings
  • an Op Ed essay in the Wellington Advertiser
  • presentations of results to rural community organizations, women and policy makers across Ontario
  • a Master’s thesis
  • a workshop for participants at the Northern Ontario Women’s Economic Development Conference in Thunder Bay .

In the coming year we are planning to:

  • produce a fact sheet on rural transportation for policy makers and community organizations
  • compile current examples of rural transportation systems
  • write an academic article for publication
  • present our findings at labour conferences.

Resources from this Project Team:


Clearly, University of Guelph has developed an impressive model of academic-community cooperation, and RWMC is making heard the voices and needs of rural women in Ontario.

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part IX): Aspen, Colorado

I’m spending a few days in Aspen, population 5,914. It is the county seat of Pitkin county, population 14,872, and is on Colorado’s western slope. (Photo top Pitkin County Courthouse). While it is nonmetro by OMB standards, the place strikes me as rural by that measure only. Certainly, I have seen nothing here that is culturally rural –though that doesn’t mean that remnants of the rural West aren’t present.


Aspen is, of course, a playground for the super rich. The wikipedia entry for the city boasts that the “downtown has been largely transformed into an upscale shopping district that includes high-end restaurants, salons, and boutiques. Aspen boasts a Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Tod's and recently a Burberry boutique, 3 of which are the only locations in Colorado.” Wikipedia further describes the yawning chasm between rich and not-so-rich: “The city today remains a mix of high-end luxury homes and condos intermixed with legacy residences and mobile home parks populated by an old guard of Aspen residents struggling to maintain the unique character of the city.”


High land values in Aspen also make it prohibitively expensive for many who work in Aspen to live there. Many therefore commute to bedroom communities such as Basalt, population 2,681,.and Carbondale, population 5,196. The Roaring Fork Regional Transit system of buses serves all of these communities and, indeed, reaches as far as Glenwood Springs, population 7,736, 40 miles away in Garfield County. It’s a good thing, too, because even with the frequent bus service, morning rush hour into Aspen and evening rush hour out seriously slow things down. The RFTA also provides free bus service linking Aspen to the other nearby ski areas, including Snowmass and Buttermilk. Snowmass, whose commercial district and housing options have been expanding in recent years, is the largest of the areas in acreage.


Aspen as a resort apparently dates to the late 1940s, when the Aspen Skiing Corporation was founded. Long before that, it was Ute City and came to be called Aspen only in 1880. It was founded as a silver mining community and had its peak years as such in the early 1890s. Now the economy is fueled by tourism and the second-home phenomenon.


Interestingly, Aspen has two newspapers, The Aspen Times and Aspen Daily News. The first dates back to 1881, and the second bills itself as “the Roaring Fork Valley’s only independent and locally owned newspaper.” Both papers have online versions, and both are free in print – presumably supported by the pages and pages of ads they feature. There’s not a lot of national news in these papers, and what there is tends to be a bit sensational – such as an AP story about a boy named Adolph Hitler Campbell, in Easton Pennsylvania, whose parents couldn’t get a local bakery to put his entire name on his birthday cake. In fact, there’s not a great deal of news of any sort in the paper, but what news there is tends to be local, and it’s the stuff you might expect from a town this size: deaths of residents, including a former ski patrolman killed a few days ago in an avalanche while he was skiing just out of bounds; crime; and local politics.


Two stories covered by the papers in the past few days suggest the sorts of local government issues you would expect from a rural resort community like Aspen. One is about a conflict between Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen School Board over the desire of the latter to build teacher housing in an area not currently zoned for it. The school board hopes to seek only state approval, while Pitkin County believes it must be involved. There’s lots of talk in the story about Aspen’s UGB –that’s Urban Growth Boundary. What is at stake for the school board is affordable rental housing for teachers.


Another local government story is coverage of the meeting of Pitkin County commissioners on Wednesday, 17 December. They voted to “require carbon monoxide detectors in all county residences . . . and voted to outlaw drinking alcohol in public—except in licensed facilities—for eight days in January during the ESPN Winter X Games.” Such actions aren’t exactly consistent with rural stereotypes of independence, small government, and lack of regulation. But, as I said earlier, Aspen isn’t very rural by cultural measures.


I overheard the innkeeper at the mid-market inn where we are staying say that bookings are down over the holiday season, compared to past years. He said they “expected Aspen to be immune from the downturn, but it’s not.” This is also echoed in a story on the front page of the Aspen Daily News yesterday. The headline is, “Dearth of jobs awaits influx of workers,” and it tells of the hundreds of seasonal workers who have

descended on Aspen, many from abroad, who are encountering record numbers of “Sorry, we are not hiring” signs. (photo right, Aspen's Workforce center).


Meanwhile, I also see coverage that the town council of Snowmass Village, population 1,822, has cut its 2009 budget by 10%, “citing the uncertain economy and weak winter bookings.” Other headlines today: “Expert: Aspen-Snowmass currently a buyer’s market” and “

Toys for Tots sends an SOS.” Clearly, if Aspen and Snowmass are hurting like this, things truly are tough all over.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Salazar's "characteristic ten-gallon hat and bolo tie"

Obama's naming of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar to be Secretary of Interior and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture is old news by now, and I have little to add to the mainstream coverage of these picks, such as the New York Times reporting here. I will comment, however, that I really like the fact that Salazar appeared at the newsconference with Obama in his cowboy hat and bolo tie, which the Times story called "characteristic."

As I have suggested previously, I think Obama's cabinet needs a little cultural and geographical diversity -- in addition to the ethnic diversity that Salazar represents as a Hispanic. Whatever his other strengths and weakenesses in the eyes of environmentalists and conservationists, Salazar is a fifth generation Coloradoan who has worn many metaphorical hats in the public and private sectors during his career. He grew up near La Jara, Colorado, population 877, where he also attended school. His higher education credentials are more elite -- a B.A. from Colorado College and a J.D. from the Univeristy of Michigan. But with his rural and agricultural upbringing in the southwestern part of a southwestern state, Salazar represents diversity on several fronts.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Did the world become more urban than rural yesterday?

Prof. Ronald C. Wimberley, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, North Carolina State University, posted this to the Rural Studies listserv of the Rural Sociological Society yesterday:
In case you missed it previously, today is one of those days.

Today is the day that the world's population becomes more urban than rural. That's according to what we calculate from the 2008 United Nations' data on rural and urban populations.

It's a symbolic date, of course, due to inherent difficulties in predicting such things. There are the unreliabilities of population counts from the world's countries and varying dates of those counts or estimates to say nothing of inconsistent definitions of what's rural and urban across the array of nations involved.

Then there're the problem of new and updated world and urban-rural population estimates that the UN produces each year. They change. Consequently, our estimated date of the rural-to-urban transition changes as well.

At the beginning of the decade, the UN data only showed that the transition would occur sometime during this decade; later the UN said it would happen in 2007. The UN does not offer a specific day, but recently the UN's revised year for the rural-urban balance to change is this year, 2008.

So, today is one of those days that we have predicted this new demographic transition. With earlier years of the data, we had predicted earlier dates for the global shift (e.g., Wimberley, Fulkerson, and Morris, 2007, "Predicting a Moving Target..." The Rural Sociologist, 28:18-22). Our first prediction of a symbolic date--based on the current data at the time--was May 23, 2007. Later data suggested that the date would be July 13, 2008. But the rural population of the world has held its own much better than expected at the beginning of the millennium.

Our latest estimate of December 16, 2008 rural-to-urban transition date is based on a linear projection of the average estimated rural and urban growth rates from 2005 to 2010 based on current UN data. We think this is as good an estimate as any. Alternately, our exponential projection falls on January 7, 2009.

No doubt, such projections will also change as the UN releases ever newer waves of world population data. By and by, when the population numbers stabilize into history, we may be able to look back and see more precisely when the rural-urban transition actually occurred.

As demographer Nathan Keyfitz (1971, "Models," Demography 8:571-580) once said, demographic predictions are interesting but are an "all-but-impossible prediction of the future." Given our experience at predicting the rural-urban transition date, we agree. But as Keyfitz adds, "the most interesting facts are those relating to the future." So, we keep on trying to predict the future rather than the past.

Regardless of whether the date that has passed, lies in the near future, or is upon us today, the significance of this event is that the world's urban population becomes more and more dependent on rural people and resources as the historic balance toward the weight of the urban population shifts further and further away from the rural.

But this does not mean that rural people and places have become less important. Rather, the smaller proportion of world and its space that is rural has become even more important in supporting both the urban and rural peoples' needs for rural resources.

Tell your students. Tell our politicians and governments. Tell everyone. More of us are depending upon a smaller share of the rural world than ever before. Since we are all vitally dependent upon the rural people, resources, and environment, we should pay greater attention to their needs. The time is now.
I like Prof. Wimberley's optimism. I tend to think that as rural populations diminish, so will their political influence, which is already so low. Prof. Wimberley, however, sees this demographic shift as an opportunity to enhance rural influence -- as the growing number of urban dwellers become increasingly reliant on the shrinking rural population for food and other resources, and to be good stewards of the natural environment.

Caroline goes upstate, but apparently not to cultivate rural support

Today I read with interest the news reports of Caroline Kennedy's visit to "upstate and western New York." Here's the link to the story in the New York Times by Jeremy W. Peters and Nicholas Confessore. Kennedy visited with the mayors of Syracuse and Rochester, cities with populations of 147,306 and 219,773, respectively. In other words, these are neither rural nor nonmetropolitan places. Her visits to them may signal that Kennedy is seeking to build a bridge between NYC and upstate cities, but they do not indicate a sensitivity or awareness to the issues facing rural New Yorkers. Maybe that will come.

Indeed, Gail Collins implicitly touches on rural NY in her December 18 column about "Ms. Kennedy" in which she speculates about her willingness to "do Utica." That city's population is 60,651, so it's closer than Rochester or Syracuse to being nonmetropolitan, and it apparently suffers from some of the consequences of restructuring associated with micropolitan places. Collins continues:
And it’s easy to imagine Kennedy doing a Hillary-like “listening tour,” having round-table discussions about the dairy compact or broadband access while the press corps gently naps in the rear row.
Collins also writes about how well Hillary Rodham Clinton fared in New York's rural/ag milieu:
I remember watching Hillary tour the fair in Syracuse with her family in tow, stopping at a booth that featured a teeny table with teeny teacups and a sign: “Reserved for the Clintons.” Bill and Hillary, instantly perceiving their duty, pulled up two teeny chairs and plopped right down.
I guess Hillary was well served by her time as first lady of Arkansas. Caroline Kennedy may not have anything similar in her background, but as Collins suggests, she could adapt.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Inspector General finds political appointees meddled with scientific reports at Interior

In the New York Times coverage, Charles Savage reports that inspector general Earl E. Devaney delivered his report to Congress on December 12. The report found "serious flaws" in the processes leading to more than a dozen decisions regarding the designation (or lack thereof) of endangered species. Savage's story quotes Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia, who is chair of the Natural Resources Committee:

“The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another’s misdeeds.”
The inspector general's report was particularly critical of the conduct of Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, although it did not accuse her of any illegality.

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, portrayed Ms. MacDonald’s case as a symbol of a broader pattern of manipulation of science under the Bush administration.

“Over and over again, in agency after agency,” Ms. Grifo said, “we’ve seen where special interests bump up against scientific determinations, the science is set aside.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Persistent poverty and the 2008 rural vote (Part III): The Mississippi Delta and the black belt



Most non-metro, persistent poverty counties are in the South. (See a USDA ERS report here). Among this particular group of counties, Obama drew support primarily from counties with significant Black populations. For example, most of the non-metro, persistent poverty counties that lie along the lower Mississippi River Delta—in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana—supported Obama. Most of these counties also supported Kerry in ’04 and Gore in ’00, as well as Clinton in the '90s Presidential contests.


Among the delta region counties in Mississippi that did not support Obama are Warren County, Mississippi (population 49,644), where McCain edged out Obama with 51% of the vote. Interestingly, Warren County, where blacks are 43% of the population, is the only Mississippi county bordering the river that does not share the persistent poverty designation. The poverty rate is nevertheless high there, at 18.7%. Persistently poor counties farther east in the state tend to have higher percentages of white residents, and they tend to vote Republican. 2008 was no exception.

Like Mississippi, Louisiana is a study in contrasts in terms of how its 24 persistently poor, non-metro parishes voted. Persistent poverty was not a predictor of how any given parish voted; race of voters was. McCain easily won most of these parishes, with Obama carrying only those where blacks are a majority of the population. East Carroll (population 9,421; 67% black), Madison (population 13,728; 60%), and Tensas (population 6,618; 55% black) parishes on the Mississippi River (and Mississippi state line) supported Obama by 64%, 58%, and 54%, respectively, but McCain won 60% of the vote in Concordia Parish (population 20,247), just south of those three and only 38% black.

Persistently poor parishes in other parts of the state—all with minority black populations—also supported McCain. In Sabine Parish (population 23,459; 18% black), McCain won a whopping 75% of the vote, while in neighboring Natchitoches (population 39,080; 38% black), McCain garnered a more moderate 53%. Tangipahoa (population 100,588; 28% black) and Washington (population 43,926; 31% black) parishes in the southeast part of the state are also persistently poor, with significant but not majority black populations. They voted for McCain 65% and 66%, respectively. Even in Claiborne Parish (population 16,851) on the Arkansas state line, where blacks are 47% of the population, McCain won 55% of the vote. Thus, a race-linked trend is evident throughout the state’s persistently poor, non-metro parishes.

A quick look at a smattering of persistently poor non-metro counties across the South—from Mississippi to North Carolina—reveals similar results. As a general rule, only counties with majority black populations supported Obama. Because most persistent poverty, non-metro counties in the South have significant black populations, a map highlighting these counties looks very similar to a map showing the counties Obama won. I’ve reproduced the persistent poverty map above; the electoral map is available here (click on “county level” in upper left corner). The so-called black belt is evident in both. What’s stunning to me is that in most of these counties, unless blacks are a majority of the population, McCain probably won. In many, many counties, the percentage of voters supporting Obama was within a couple of percentage points of the proportion of black residents in the county.

What’s equally stunning—at least to me—is that race of voter appears to be a strong predictor of party support at the Presidential level in elections over the past 20 years. If you slide your cursor over the tab at center left on the county-level ’08 map, you will see that most persistent poverty, non-metro counties supported the same party’s Presidential candidates in the ’92, ’96, ’00, ’04 and ’08 races. (The greatest exceptions are seen in Louisiana, where persistently poor white voters, along with most of the state, supported Clinton in ’92 and ‘96).

White people in rural, long-time pockets of poverty tend to vote Republican. Black people living in rural, long-time pockets of poverty tend to vote Democratic. So, a good argument can be made that race of the candidate did not drive voter choice among these populations. Race of the voter—long party-aligned—did. While Obama pretty clearly attracted black voters in the South, in fact, the Democratic Party has long had a good hold on most of these voters. On the other hand, most poor white voters in the South appear to have long been loyal Republicans. This seems consistent with some recent analysis published over at the Daily Yonder. They found that “[r]ural Republican communities on average have lower incomes and less education than rural Democratic communities,” divisions that are growing as people migrate. The Yonder study does not analyze on the basis of race, but its report suggests that being poor and rural doesn’t necessarily lead to a preference for Democratic administrations. Also, the Yonder's analysis is of the nation's rural places, and so it surely reflects the phenomenon of rural gentrification, which is not a major force in the South.

For analysis of the Southern vote in the ’08 race, see stories in the Daily Yonder here, here and here. See also Adam Nossiter’s NYT story about Southern voters here. My other posts on this and related topics are here and here. Read Part I of this series here, and Part II here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

World's largest hog-killing plant -- in a very small town--unionizes

Read the New York Times coverage here about the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, population 70. The unionization battle had been going on for a decade and a half, with some court intervention.

I wrote about the Smithfield plant in an earlier blog post, following an immigration raid there last year. Interestingly, the diminished number of Latina/o workers in the wake of that raid, coupled with greater numbers of African-American workers at the plaint, is believed to have assisted the union cause.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Overlooking rurality, again

David Brooks wrote this week in his New York Times column that Obama should use his recently announced infrastructure investment plan to respond to the way Americans live now -- not in cities, but in suburbs and exurbs, where they increasingly find themselves wanting infrastructure that facilitates community.

If you asked people in that age of go-go suburbia [the 1980s and 1990s] what they wanted in their new housing developments, they often said they wanted a golf course. But the culture has changed. If you ask people today what they want, they’re more likely to say coffee shops, hiking trails and community centers.

Brooks says that the exurbanites' desire for such meeting places responds to their realization that they missed "community and social bonds." He goes on to argue that Obama's half-century infrastructure plan should take these desires into account, helping "create suburban town squares" and other "focal points" such as charter schools and pre-K and national service centers and the like.

Of course, what is largely missing from Brooks' vision--and more importantly (I presume) from Obama's--are the infrastructure needs of rural places. Brooks' call for investment and planning that respond to exurban needs would presumably have an impact in rural places--after all, many in exurbia see themselves as rural, of a sort. At a minimum, exurbanites tend to be closer to rural places. But neither Brooks nor those who wrote letters in response to his column are taking up the needs of the forgotten fifth of our population who live in rural and/or nonmetropolitan places. They may already have the structures that facilitate community -- the structures that exurbanites are longing for -- but they are not without their own infrastructure needs, such as for public and other transportation, child-care center, and better schools. Rurality may be associated with organic change and lack of outside intervention, but there's no reason it has to be that way.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Food price-fixing--right here in River City!

I missed this story in the Sacramento Bee, but picked it up over at the Daily Yonder. Read the Yonder's report here, which says that the "owner of a New Jersey-based food wholesaler routinely paid bribes to purchasing agents to ensure customers paid an inflated price for food and bought food from a particular vendor." According to the Bee, "The investigation has raised concerns within the government that collusion among farmers, processors and retailers may be driving food prices higher."

Small towns--on the winter reading list

A segment on NPR's Morning Edition today reported on popular books this season, and it noted that several are set in small towns. Among them are P.F. Kluge's Gone Tomorrow, Chuck Klosterman's Downtown Owl, Hillary Jordan's Mudbound, and The Oxford Project. I'm most curious about the The Oxford Project, which features two series of photos, taken 20 years apart, of individual residents of Oxford, Iowa, population 705.
The Oxford Project, photographs by Peter Feldstein, text by Stephen G. Bloom, hardcover, 264 pages, Welcome Books. List price: $50
In 1984, Peter Feldstein photographed 670 of the 676 residents of Oxford, Iowa. Twenty years later he photographed them again. From the flashing images of Hunter Tandy at 9 and 30 years old on its holographic cover to the photographer's self-portrait on the last page, each picture is worth a thousand words, and each pair of portraits is fair trade for an entire novel. Buckskinners-turned-evangelicals, old hippies, children, bikers, farmers, waitresses, widows, euchre-players, orphans and truck drivers — each photographed in black-and white, simply standing in front of a sheet of canvas or a concrete wall, the page accompanied by the words they offer up in front of the camera. The real story unfolds in the sag or thrust of a shoulder, the glimmer in the eyes, the jut of a hip or the wear of a pair of shoes. At 5 and 24, 15 and 45, at 50 and 70 — each set of portraits asks, who will you be in 20 years? Who were you 20 years ago? And what would those two of you think of one another?
Happy reading.

"Secretary of food"?

In today's New York Times, Nicholas D. Kristof calls in his column for President-Elect Obama to appoint a Secretary of Food, suggesting that the Dept. of Agriculture is outdated. Kristof asserts that a Department of Agriculture "made sense" a century ago, when 35% of Americans farmed. Now, however, only 2% of our population are farmers. Meanwhile, he points out, all 300 million Americans eat. He thus argues that we should "move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy--all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars."

While Kristof's proposal could be seen as disrespectful to farmers, his column does suggest a concern for small towns, for rural places. Indeed, he holds himself out as a voice of experience on such places, noting his upbringing on a family farm in Yamhill, Oregon. He argues that the USDA undermines towns like Yamhill by fostering agri-business.

For me, Kristof's column revived a concern I've had for some time: making rural policy through the Dept. of Agriculture does not necessarily serve rural communities well. After all, as Kristof notes, a very small number of rural residents are engaged in farming. So, while I have plenty of gripes about U.S. farm policy, and I'm open to re-naming the Dept. of Agriculture, I'm not sure that renaming it the Dept. of Food is going to be beneficial for rural communities. As long as agriculture and/or food are the labels given to the umbrella institution for making rural policy, the needs of populations, communities, and economies in rural America--especially those which are not ag based -- are going to continue to be overlooked by the federal government.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Food banks adapt to changing times--and some to rural challenges

A story by Katie Zezima in today's New York Times tells how food banks around the nation are adapting to changing times, distributing more produce and other perishable foods and letting patrons choose what they want and can actually use. One of the food banks featured is the Montana Food Bank Network, and excerpts about it highlight the spatial challenges to food distribution in the fourth largest state in the nation. One of those challenges relates to the increased amount of produce the network now receives--produce that might not last until it reaches a rural pantry.
“It’s not just handing out a box here or there anymore,” said Peggy Grimes, executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network, which covers the state. “A lot of effort goes into thinking outside the box. It’s becoming the focus of food banking.”

Grimes' organization partners with the Montana State Prison, where those incarcerated can or otherwise process a great deal of donated produce, fish and meat. Grimes explains that this arrangement allows them to accept donations that they would otherwise have to pass up, given the food's short life span and the size of the state.

The story touches on another recurring challenge to social services in rural locales: the fact that agencies such as food pantries in rural locales are often the only social service agency for miles around, and they become clearinghouses for other services and information.

I am reminded of the California Report story which I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago. In Fresno, California, the food bank is delivering food to needy residents who would otherwise have difficulty getting to the distribution point.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cooperation among politicians, environmentalists and timber industry could help save Montana's small towns, among other laudable goals

Kirk Johnson reports in today's New York Times about efforts to save Montana's timber industry as demand for wood products plummets in the economic downturn. The dateline is Seeley Lake, population 1,436, which is northeast of Missoula, and the tale is one of cooperation among environmentalists, the industry, and politicians. Here's the lede:
A scramble is under way here in Montana to save the historically important, culturally resonant timber industry — once a pillar of the state’s identity, now under siege as demand for housing and wood products has plummeted in the national economic downturn.
The reasons for saving Montana's "roughly 200 interconnected sawmills, pulp buyers and family-owned tree-cutting contractors" are environmental as well as economic. Those with the skills to work the woods helps keep them both beautiful and safe. Mary Sexton, who directs the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation, explains: “Our fear is that we could lose our infrastructure — the base of knowledge and experience of working in the forest.”

Here's the part that implicates saving Montana's towns by fending off real estate development and speculation.

Groups like the Wilderness Society, which is working on contracts to expand lower-cost wood supplies to mills . . . say that working forests with controlled harvests of trees are healthier, safer and more likely to be preserved, and that small towns like Seeley Lake with an anchoring employer are less prone to real estate speculation and development.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Why the brightest (and the urban) are not always the best

I found Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times interesting in relation to the urban elitism I have attributed to the incoming Obama administration and the media's coverage of it (as in this post). Rich's column is titled, "The Brightest are Not Always the Best." Rich's headline refers to David Halberstam's book, "The Best and the Brightest," about "the hubristic J.F.K. team that would ultimately mire America in Vietnam." In his new introduction for the 20th anniversary of the book Halberstam "noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had hoped. 'It is often misused,” he wrote, 'failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.'”

Here's an excerpt from Rich's column:
In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”
Of course, it is not only those with rural pedigrees who have common sense and practical experience -- who may have "run for sheriff once." Nevertheless, there is a great deal to say for a little diversity across the rural-urban axis when you're running a country where rural residents represent a substantial minority of almost one-fifth of the population.

Does rurality help explain Arkansas's lurch to the right?

When I first saw the county-level map (select “county leaders” in upper left corner) from the ’08 Presidential election, I could hardly take my eyes off that red blob that is Arkansas, the state of my birth, my upbringing, and still--to some extent--my identity. It is no less than the buckle of the McCain belt.


Seeing the map measuring which counties and states voted for McCain by higher margins than they voted for George W. Bush four years ago was worse still. Arkansas is the reddest state, having doubled the margin of victory it gave Bush in 2004. It is far more red across all counties and regions than Arizona or Alaska, homes to those headlining the Republican ticket.


Here is how the NYT characterized Arkansas’s vote:

In Arkansas, which had among the nation’s largest concentration of counties increasing their support for the Republican candidate over the 2004 vote, “there’s a clear indication that racial conservatism was a component of that shift away from the Democrat,” said Jay Barth, a political scientist in the state.

Indeed, somewhat ironically, the only blue parts of Arkansas on this latter map (the one showing political movement; not just which counties supported whom in ’08) are the parts that (1) are historically most Republican, and so had room to move left, particularly under the influence of newcomers to these amenity-rich counties; (2) the parts with significant numbers of African American voters, mostly in the Mississippi Delta; and (3) the most urban place in the state -- the center of the greatr Little Rock metropolitan area.


To say that I am disappointed that Arkansas appears to be the epicenter of places that rejected Obama, and which did so decisively, would be an understatement. What the 2008 Presidential vote says about the Arkansas electorate is further complicated by the fact that both U.S. Senators from Arkansas are Democrats, as are three of four members of its congressional delegation. Every constitutional office in the state, from Governor on down, is currently held by a Democrat. This across-the-board support for Democrats by Arkansans—with the notable exception of Obama—makes racism seem a force of some magnitude.


But I would like to think that racism was not the only reason Arkansas painted itself so red at the level of the Presidential election. In fact, other factors were surely at play. One of these may have been Arkansans’ enduring loyalty to Hillary Rodham Clinton. This would be ironic since many there reviled her for remaining Hillary Rodham and for other manifestations of her feminist politics (e.g., having a career!) when she first moved to the state and married Bill Clinton some 35 years ago. Maybe, in the end, Arkansans became fond of Hillary, a fondness that generated a stiff loyalty that couldn’t be transferred to that “other” Democrat.


Also relevant is the fact that Obama didn’t set up a single campaign office in Arkansas, the only state he altogether ignored. Read a post on the topic here. Some of the Daily Yonder analysis of the rural vote in the South and Appalachia suggests that Obama lost big in these states because he failed to show up and connect personally with the voters, which is what the voters there seek. (Of course, Obama did show up in some rural places in the South and Appalachia, but not many. Read here about his efforts to reach rural voters). Some Yonder writers claim that voters expect to have a personal connection with the candidate, like Douglas Wilder achieved in Appalachian Virginia in his race for governor several years ago. This phenomenon could explain why Arkansas voters are willing to support both Democrats and Republicans for local and state-wide office, where parties have shared power in recent decades. It doesn’t take a great effort to visit each of the 75 counties at least once, and to do a fair bit of pressing the flesh.

Or, maybe Arkansans has more than its share of bigots because the bad news doesn’t stop with the vote in the Presidential race. Arkansas is also home to a successful referendum that prohibits unmarried, co-habiting persons from adopting or fostering children. The referendum was aimed at would-be adoptive parents who are members of the LGBT community. You can read the New York Times coverage here, coverage linking the decision to Arkansas voters’ antipathy toward Obama. Here’s an excerpt from Robbie Brown’s November 9 story:

Many experts did not expect the measure to pass with Democrats nationwide flooding the polls to support Mr. Obama for president. Prominent politicians, including former President Bill Clinton and Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, publicly opposed the ban. Critics ran television advertisements of foster children pleading with voters not to make it harder for them to find families.

But conservatives mounted a grass-roots campaign, mainly through church groups, that framed the state’s case-by-case approach to adoption requests as an affront to traditional family values.

Brown's story also quotes Jay Barth, a professor political science at Hendrix College in Conway.

"I think white Arkansas Democrats felt cross-pressured in this race. . . . They didn't want to vote for what they viewed as Bush's third term, but they also couldn't bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama. . . . One response was just to bow out of voting, and their absence probably helped this [adoption qualification] proposal succeed."
This op-ed piece by Dan Savage also appeared in the New York Times and was one of the most emailed items on Nov. 12. Savage talks about how unfair the law is to members of the LGBT community, while also providing relevant data about the need for adoptive parents in Arkansas. He offers some hypotheticals to illustrate how dreadful the consequences of this new law are likely to be:

Right now, there are 3,700 other children across Arkansas in state custody; 1,000 of them are available for adoption. The overwhelming majority of these children have been abused, neglected or abandoned by their heterosexual parents.

Even before the law passed, the state estimated that it had only about a quarter of the foster parents it needed. Beginning on Jan. 1, a grandmother in Arkansas cohabitating with her opposite-sex partner because marrying might reduce their pension benefits is barred from taking in her own grandchild; a gay man living with his male partner cannot adopt his deceased sister’s children.

It is easy to attribute these election outcomes to rural voters, to the folks who are varyingly stereotyped as (1) uneducated, anti-government, and close-minded or (2) traditional, hard-working, salt-of-the earth types. In fact, attributes of rural societies are probably relevant to both outcomes – McCain’s landslide and the landslide to ban gay and lesbian families from adoption. After all, the initiative about adoption qualifications passed with 57% of the vote. An initiative to ban gay marriage passed in 2004.

As for the apparent antipathy of many Arkansans toward members of the LGBT community, a study of the 2004 election showed that gay marriage was a critical issue for rural voters in the race for the Presidency. The Daily Yonder wrote about it here, discussing the study by political scientist Peter Francia. Here’s an excerpt:

Francia runs through the usual list of differences: rural Americans attend church more often than urban residents; they are more likely to adopt a literal interpretation of the Bible; rural residents are more likely to be married, to own a gun and to own a house. Rural residents in 2004 were twice as likely as urban residents to support the Iraq War. But rural residents are also more culturally conservative — and in 2004, 71 percent of rural residents said their cultural disagreements with Democrat John Kerry led them to vote for George Bush.

The most important factor in how rural residents voted in 2004 was gay marriage, Francia found. More than tax cuts, guns or the Iraq War, opposition to gay marriage moved rural voters. Francia wrote, “In short, gay marriage appears to have been the dominant cultural issue of 2004 and was important in understanding the success of George W. Bush among rural voters."

So, does rurality explain these election outcomes in Arkansas? Is Arkansas so rural that Obama, not a social conservative (compared to Bush anyway) and not “one of them” (like the Clintons, especially Bill) hadn’t a chance? Was the adoption qualification initiative a done deal as soon as it hit the ballot?

Well, a story in the NYT earlier this year characterized Arkansas as twice as rural as the national average. (Read a related blog post here). In fact, 55 of Arkansas’s 75 counties meet the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of non-metropolitan, meaning the total population of each is under 100K, and no city in any of them has more than 50K. Those counties are home to 43.3% of the state’s population. Forty-six percent of the state’s residents live in places that meet the Census Bureau’s definition of rurality, i.e., places with fewer than 2,500 residents or open territory. Eighty-one percent live in places that have fewer than 50,000 residents.

Apart from these numerical thresholds, Arkansas may also fairly be seen as culturally rural. My guess is that most Arkansas natives who live in one of the state’s metropolitan areas are one, perhaps two generations removed from a more truly rural experience. Sixty-one percent of Arkansans were born in Arkansas (compared to 52% of Californians and just 41% of Coloradoans). As of 2000, 89% of Arkansas residents had been living in the state at least five years. (See Arkansas Census Facts here). In part because of the lack of population churn and in part because of the absence of a major city—a truly cosmopolitan place on the scale of Dallas or AtlantaArkansas has not been widely influenced by urban views and values.

Having said that, I am guessing that a higher percentage of voters in Little Rock, where an out LGBT community of some size exists, opposed the initiative. Obama did win Pulaski County (greater Little Rock), and it is one of just a couple of Arkansas counties that he carried by a wider margin than Kerry did in '04. Across the state, however, tolerance and acceptance of difference seem to be in relatively short supply. Maybe, as Obama expressed it in the big rural gaffe this spring, given the tough lives many of these rural folk have led (I’m paraphrasing), you can understand why they cling to a particular religious interpretation and antipathy to those who are not like them.

Urban, heterogeneous spaces and the change they tend to accommodate—along with the tolerance they ultimately engender—are not widely present in Arkansas, which may surely is a partial explanation of the state's conservatism. The state's historic lack of heterogeneity may be changing, however, as Arkansans have been pressed in the past decade to accommodate the ethnic and cultural differences represented by a huge influx of mostly Latina/o immigrants. (Read my academic analysis of the phenomenon here). Will this ultimately soften them up—and open them up to accepting difference, even celebrating it?

Homophobia and racism have been tempered in our nation in recent years, I believe, as more individuals have had opportunities to live and work among persons of color and LGBT folks. As Arkansans increasingly have those experiences, intolerance fed by ignorance will surely fade.