Thursday, January 31, 2013

An interesting depiction of the rural South

You can find it in the lede to this NYT story out of Midland City, Alabama, the story about the apparently mentally ill Vietnam vet who has kidnapped a five-year-old and is holding the child in an underground bunker.  The man took the child, who has no known connection to him, after killing the bus driver who was transporting the child on Tuesday.

The headline is "Small Town in Alabama Confronts Boy's Kidnapping," and the lede follows:
Many things hold little Southern towns together. There is a common love of the region, the peace that comes with a rural life and, often, prayer. 
In this town of 2,300 in the heart of peanut country, people drew on all of those as they endured what by Thursday night had stretched into an unimaginable situation.
While this story lists the population of Midland City as 2,300, wikipedia lists it as 1,703.  Surrounding Dale County has a population of 50,044, and is part of the Enterprise-Ozark Micropolitan area. 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tiny Kentucky town defies rural stereotype about LGBT bias

Dan Barry reported today from Vicco, Kentucky, population 318, with the headline "Sewers, Curfews, and a Ban on Gay Bias." Earlier this month, Vicco became the smallest municipality in the country to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

After reporting this news in his wonderfully inimitable way (describing the city commissioner meeting down to the fact that it took place in a former pool hall, with the commissioners sitting on lawn chairs), Barry comments on what might be considered the obvious:
Admit it: The Commission’s anti-discrimination vote seems at odds with knee-jerk assumptions about a map dot in the Appalachian coal fields, tucked between Sassafras and Happy. For one thing, Vicco embraces its raucous country-boy reputation — home to countless brawls and a dozen or so unsolved murders, people here say. For another, it is in Perry County, where four of every five voters rejected President Obama in the November election.
He goes on to explain how Vicco came to make history in this way. You see, Vicco's mayor, 50-year-old Johnny Cummings, is gay.  Cummings is a hair dresser whose salon, Scissors, is just a few doors down from City Hall, and he grew up in Vicco.  Cummings says he never hid his gay identity. "[T]he occasional rude encounter while growing up was nothing that he and his protective friends couldn't handle," Barry writes.

Barry next explains how the anti-discrimination measure got on the City Commissioners' agenda:   
This place-in-progress called Vicco was one of a handful of municipalities to receive a request last year from the Fairness Coalition, a Kentucky-based advocacy group for people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. 
The request was to adopt an anti-discrimination ordinance.  It turns out that Mr. Cummings's sister, Lee Etta, is active in the coalition.  The city’s attorney "trimmed the coalition’s 28-page ordinance proposal down to a couple of pages," and earlier this month, it passed 3 to 1, with members of the Fairness Coalition in attendance for the vote.  

One commissioner who voted for the ordinance, 56-year-old retired coal miner Claude Branson, Jr., said Mr. Cummings's presence had little influence on the matter.  He explained, "We want everyone to be treated fair and just."  

Don't miss the multi-media slide show accompanying this story.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rural kids as part of the "great migration"? what great migration?

David Brooks column in the NYT a few days ago, "The Great Migration," is--in Brooks's own words-- about "the race between meritocracy and government."  Brooks advocates meritocracy, which he implicitly acknowledges increases inequality, but which he sees a having considerable upsides.  "On the other side," Brooks asserts, "there is President Obama’s team of progressives, who are trying to mitigate inequality."

Yes, oddly, Brooks sees meritocracy as being at odds with a reduction in inequality.  But his articulated dichotomy relies on an unusually naive definition of meritocracy.

Regarding "meritocracy," Brooks explains:
First, there is our system of higher education, which is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places. 
Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities.
Brooks continues in a way that builds his arguments that smart people gravitate to smart places, and if they came from places that aren't so "smart," as measured by the lack of social capital, with a focus on education and degrees, then they aren't likely to go back:
In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs [these smart students, now in college]  learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There’s no economic reason to return home, and maybe it’s not even socially possible anymore.
This is what Brooks sees as the success, if you will, of what he calls "meritocracy." He goes on to say that both of the Obamas and most in their administration are beneficiaries of this system, along with  "many people who read this newspaper and many of us who write for it."  (That latter assertion is, I would say, supported by columns like this, which seem to assume that most high school students have the world at their feet when it comes to choosing a college; Bruni seems completely unaware of the elitism that permeates this presumption when less than a third of those in the U.S. above age 25 have even a bachelor's degree, let alone one from a selective institution like those he discusse).

But I am not so sure that Brooks has his facts right.  First, I don't know that our system of higher education takes in the "smartest people from across the country."  Admittedly, Brooks hedges his bets here by saying "some of the smartest people."  Yes, the elit(ist) education system takes in some smart people, alright, but given the proliferation of legacy admits and the well documented link between wealth and higher education access in this country, I am not persuaded.  Indeed, based on a 2003 study by Carnevale and Rose, the Economic Policy Institute released a graph showing that 74% of those from the top income quartile attend top universities, while just 3% of those from the bottom income quartile do so.  See similar analysis by the NYT here.

Indeed, Bowles and Gentis found in a study published in 2002 that "parental wealth and income are strong predictors of the likely economic status of next generation" but that "IQ is not a major contributor."  You are starting to see why I doubt that the "smartest people" really are populating "good universities."   

Yet Brooks insists that these processes he calls meritocracy and migration "work."  What he overlooks is that they work for the privileged few because most of those who attend these "good universities" were destined to be there.  They are not there because they are smart--or at least not merely because they are smart.  For them, being at a "good university" is a matter of birthright.  For the few other lucky ones--the ones who really are migrating from somewhere else (literally/geographically, or up the class hierarchy) to be part of this elite milieu, some "learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs."  Others do not, as Jason DeParle documented in this Dec. 2012 story.

Second and as  related matter, I also am not convinced by Brooks's assertion that smart high school students from rural places get to "good universities," as he defines them.  Le me be clear that I think the University of Nebraska (to continue his use of Nebraska to represent "rural") is a very fine university, but Brooks later makes clear that he is talking about the "smartest people" getting into really good schools.  I assume he means Ivy League institutions, the so-called little Ivies, and the handful of elite schools out here on the West coast.  (He uses the Obamas as examples of this phenomenon, and collectively they went to Occidental, Columbia, Princeton and Harvard, as he notes.) The premier recent study on elite college admissions, however, suggests that rural kids don't often get to these universities--at least not those kids I consider rural.  That is, if "rural" kids get in, they are probably already privileged, e.g., the kids of the local physician, or of a college professor or otherwise well educated parents in a high-amenity nonmetropolitan community.  In short, they are among the predestined, if also nominally "rural."

Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford in their 2009 book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, found that high school students who worked part time or participated in ROTC, FFA, 4-H, and other similar activities caused them to be seen as "careerist" by elite college admissions officers.  Such activities diminished the students changes of admission to elite colleges and universities.  Gone, it seems, are the days when holding down a job while performing well in school made you look industrious--and therefore virtuous.  Also gone, apparently, are the days when elite college admissions officers had any inkling of how the other half--make that the other 90%--lives.  Not only do these college admissions officers not appreciate industry, they don't seem to know that kids attending rural high schools don't have available them to a vast array of extracurricular activities available to the metropolitan teenager.  Read more commentary on Espenshade and Radford's book here, with links embedded.

Do rural high school students go places?  of course.  Some will get college degrees, though very few from elite universities.  Will some return home afterwards?  Will some remain part of the rural brain drain?  The answers to both questions is "yes."  But precious few, if any, will make it into the highest echelons of government.  Robert Byrd did it in his generation.  Tom Daschle did it in his.  But who in Congress or the Obama administration represents rural interests--or working-class interests--from a first-hand perspective now?  Who will do it in the next generation?  (By "first-hand" I mean it is not enough to be able to say that one's grand parents grew up poor during the great Depression or lived through the dust bowl).

Third, while I agree with Brooks that the Obamas are beneficiaries of this meritocracy, I disagree that the majority of those in their administration are.  Indeed, as I wrote here, the Barack and Michelle Obama are about the only two people you can find in their administration who are not silver spoon babies.  The others were predestined, as a Yale alum once told me, to become the leaders of the free world.

Meritocracy?  Hogwash!  What the Obama administration is seeking to do (I hope!) is diminish social inequalities so that real meritocracy--a truly level playing field--can flourish.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

"Rural"--or a proxy for it--in Obama's second inaugural speech

Rurality made a somewhat obscure appearance in the speech on Monday:
Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
(quoted by Charles Blow here)

 I figure Detroit represents the city, and people of color. Appalachia represents the country, and underprivileged white folk. Newtown represents suburbia, though many in the wake of the December massacre there referred to it as a "small town." Thus Obama covered the rural-urban continuum in expressing his concern for all children.

Here is a link to my post about rurality's appearance, such as it was, in Obama's first inaugural address.

Angst over gun laws in "rural" states

The New York Times reports in a front-page story today on responses from folks in various states to recent proposals to tighten assault weapon ownership, "Democrats in Senate Confront Doubts at Home on Gun Laws."  As the headline suggests, a commonality among these states is that they each have at least one Democratic Senator.  Another is that they have significant swaths of rural territory and/or wilderness:  Alaska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, West Virginia, Minnesota, Colorado, and Montana.

The story's dateline is Beckley, West Virginia, and here's an excerpt focusing on gun politics in that state:
If there is a path to new gun laws, it has to come through West Virginia and a dozen other states with Democratic senators like Mr. Manchin who are confronting galvanized constituencies that view any effort to tighten gun laws as an infringement. 
* * *  
As a hunter with an A rating from the National Rifle Association, Mr. Manchin gave advocates for new weapons laws reason for optimism after he said last month that gun firepower and magazine capacity might need to be limited. 
But now, Mr. Manchin, who affirmed his support for gun rights by running a campaign commercial in 2010 showing him firing a rifle into an environmental bill, says he is not so sure. One of his local offices has been picketed, and even some of his most thoughtful supporters are cautioning him that stronger background checks are about all the gun control they can stomach.
An earlier post featuring Senator Manchin's initial comments following the Newtown school massacre is here.

An item more explicitly linking guns to rurality is this opinion piece by former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, regarding his successful fight for gun control down under.  He initially addresses who was in Parliament when a gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania killed 35 in April, 1996, prompting his initiative for greater gun control:
I was elected prime minister in early 1996, leading a center-right coalition. Virtually every nonurban electoral district in the country — where gun ownership was higher than elsewhere — sent a member of my coalition to Parliament.
Of the Australian battle for gun control, he continues:  
Our challenges were different from America’s. Australia is an even more intensely urban society, with close to 60 percent of our people living in large cities. Our gun lobby isn’t as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association in the United States. Australia, correctly in my view, does not have a Bill of Rights, so our legislatures have more say than America’s over many issues of individual rights, and our courts have less control. Also, we have no constitutional right to bear arms. (After all, the British granted us nationhood peacefully; the United States had to fight for it.)
* * *
City dwellers supported our plan, but there was strong resistance by some in rural Australia. Many farmers resented being told to surrender weapons they had used safely all of their lives.
* * *  
Passing gun-control laws was a major challenge for my coalition partner: the rural, conservative National Party. All of its members held seats in nonurban areas. It was also very hard for the state government of Queensland, in Australia’s northeast, where the National Party was dominant, and where the majority of the population was rural.
For a piece that is more optimistic about the possibility of achieving greater gun control following the Newtown massacre, see this.

Postscript:  A story in the January 26, 2013 edition of the New York Times is about a fundraiser by the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, which will give away one rifle each day in May to those whose names are drawn in a raffle.  The organizers have already sold all 1000 tickets, at a price of $30/each. Some of the guns that will be given away are assault rifles, which has added to the controversy over the raffle.  Two New Hampshire gun manufacturers, Sig Sauer and Sturm, Ruger & Company, are co-sponsoring the fundraiser.

Making the point that gun ownership has a strong cultural component, which may be linked to hunting or to rurality, Lorraine Peterson of Litchfield, who was shopping at a gun store in Claremont, New Hampshire, is quoted in the story:
Honestly, I don’t see what the big deal is — they’re just talking about it because of Sandy Hook.  I don’t mean to sound insensitive. This is New Hampshire. This is a sport.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Rural Communities and Obesity – The Struggle for Healthy Living

When the term, “rural,” is heard many people think of small communities that face serious problems including access to healthcare, poverty, and transportation. However, one thing that is often overlooked is access to healthy food. The Rural Assistance Center reports:
Due to distance and limited transportation options, shopping for healthy food can prove difficult for those living in areas not served by a major grocery chain.  
 Further:
For millions of Americans—especially people living in low-income communities of color— finding a fresh apple is not so easy. What can be found, often in great abundance, are convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
Consider the following anecdote: 
Anne, a mother of a small child, decides to spend her Saturday grocery shopping. While this may be an hour or perhaps two-hour excursion for a mother living in a middle-income metropolitan area in the U.S., it is an all day trek for Anne who lives in an underdeveloped rural area.

In order for Anne to get to a grocery store she must take three buses and walk several miles just to reach the store, all with a small child. Once Anne enters the store, she is tired and her child is fussy and angry, the first thing Anne does is grab a coke and hand it to her child, simply to calm him so she can concentrate.

While shopping, Anne is limited in what she can purchase, because anything she buys has to be something that will last, processed foods and canned goods are typical purchases. Anne is further limited by the fact that she can only purchase what she can carry on the journey back, at most two bags of groceries. Lastly, Anne can only buy what she can afford, which limits her ability to buy fruits and vegetable, which are typically more expensive in rural areas.

Once Anne is finished, she is faced with several hours of travel back home. Throughout the week, Anne will be forced to supplement her groceries with foods purchased from local convenient stores and fast food restaurants that are easily accessible.
As can be seen, access to healthy foods is a major contributing factor to obesity in rural areas. This problem is not entirely the fault of poor decision-making or bad parenting; it is also a product of lack of access. Another study reported childhood obesity in urban areas was hire even when differences in diet and exercise were taken into account.

Diet alone is not the only problem in rural communities when it comes to obesity. In addition, rural communities often face problems regarding exercise. The Rural Assistance Center reports that, contrary to popular belief; rural citizens are not more active on a daily basis than citizens in urban or metropolitan areas. This is partly due, again, to access. Many rural areas have less exercise facilities, less physical education in school, and fewer parks and other outdoor recreational areas.

Although there are several ways to combat access to exercise in rural areas, many of them require money and resources these areas might not have. Often suggested are classes on nutrition and healthy cooking classes. However, in areas where healthcare is already limited, this may not be an option.

A better plan is to concentrate on solutions people in the community can implement themselves, at little or no cost. Some programs could be walking clubs, or other health related organizations put together by members of the community. Authorities and experts often report that weight loss and diet change are more successful when done in groups.

Although access to physical activity may be something that can be easily changed with awareness and at a low cost, easy access to health food is a much bigger problem facing citizens in rural communities. Providing better transportation and more grocery stores in rural areas is not a project to be undertaken lightly.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Place as emotional safety net

One of the most emailed items in the New York Times today is this Opinionator column, under the heading/series Anxiety, titled "You Are Going to Die."  The author is Tim Kreider, identified as "the author of “We Learn Nothing,” a collection of essays and cartoons. His cartoon, “The Pain — When Will It End?” has been collected in three books by Fantagraphics."  Kreider starts his column by recounting his observations from a recent visit to the assisted living facility his mother has announced she is moving to, and the column touches on several related themes, including old age and illness, and how society tends to segregate these populations and otherwise make them invisible.

But then the column takes an unexpectedly nostalgic turn about Kreider's own childhood.  In writing about his mother's impending move into what he describes as a very pleasant facility, he notes the implications of that move for him:
But it also means losing the farm my father bought in 1976, where my sister and I grew up, where Dad died in 1991. We’re losing our old phone number, the one we’ve had since the Ford administration, a number I know as well as my own middle name. However infrequently I go there, it is the place on earth that feels like home to me, the place I’ll always have to go back to in case adulthood falls through. I hadn’t realized, until I was forcibly divested of it, that I’d been harboring the idea that someday, when this whole crazy adventure was over, I would at some point be nine again, sitting around the dinner table with Mom and Dad and my sister.
Clearly, Kreider has a strong association between childhood and place, with the farm where he grew up (location unspecified).   Of course, people who grow up in urban locales can also experience such strong attachments to place, but Kreider's had such a rural flair that I couldn't resist featuring it here.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Swarthmore president featured in NYT as former "farm girl"

The New York Times just ran this little profile feature about Rebecca Chopp, president of Swarthmore College, under the headline "From Farm Girl to College President."  It's one of those "rags to riches" tales--well, not so much "rags" as bumpkin farm girl and not so much "riches" as ivory tower success.  But I guess that is the point:  just as we see a sharp divide between "rags" and "riches," so we see a chasm between "farm girl"and "intellectual."  In response to the reporter's query about being the first in her family to go to college, Chopp says:
My father had a farm in Kansas and worked in construction. My mother taught me to read, but my parents didn’t think that girls should go to college. 
I ended up at a big state university, the kind with 600 kids in the Chemistry 101 class, and I was a student who had had no pre-college preparation. In high school, I studied home economics and sewing. I dropped out my first year. 
I later went to a small liberal arts college, thanks to financial aid and working several part-time jobs.
The journalist notes that Chopp, who has also served as president of Colgate University and Dean of the Yale Divinity School, holds "events" for first-generation college students.  This suggests she has a special understanding of the barriers--emotional, economic, and otherwise--that these students face--whether or not they grew up on farms.   

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Upper Big Branch mine boss sentenced

Gary May, superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine, was sentenced yesterday to 21 months in federal prison and a $20,000 fine for malfeasance leading up to and following the April, 2010,  mine disaster there, which claimed 29 lives.

Howard Berkes reported for NPR yesterday that the sentence came as part of a plea agreement whereby May "pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to ordering a company electrician to disable a methane monitor on a mining machine so it could continue to cut coal without automatic shutdowns.  The monitor is a safety device that senses explosive amounts of methane gas and automatically shuts down mining machines when dangerous levels of gas are present."  May also pleaded guilty to deceiving federal mine safety inspectors and hiding safety violations.  He is cooperating with federal prosecutors as they continue to investigate the 2010 explosion, including possible criminal charges against other Massey managers and executives.

Read earlier posts about the Upper Big Branch explosion and investigation herehere, and here.

Meanwhile, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is toughening regulations to make it easier for the agency to sanction habitual violators.  The new rule will trigger "automatic and immediate shutdowns of mining areas if serious and substantial violations are found in mines" with "pattern of violations" status.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On the collateral consequences of an extraction boom: too many men, too much light

At least "collateral consequences" is my takeaway from a couple of stories this week about North Dakota, one about the light pollution resulting from the concentration of fracking in the Williston area, and the other about the shortage of women in the same place.  

The New York Times ran this front-page story yesterday about the shortage of women in Williston, North Dakota--and the consequences of that shortage for the women who are there.  The headline speaks volumes:  "An Oil Town Where Men are Many, and Women are Hounded."  John Eligon explains why the proportion of men to women is so high (the aforementioned extraction boom) and then focuses on the consequences for women:
Many [women] said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth.

“So many people look at you like you’re a piece of meat,” said Megan Dye, 28, a nearly lifelong Williston resident. “It’s disgusting. It’s gross.”

Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults. “There are people arriving in North Dakota every day from other places around the country who do not respect the people or laws of North Dakota,” said Ariston E. Johnson, the deputy state’s attorney in neighboring McKenzie County, in an e-mail.
I find this latter quote especially interesting in its suggestion that the problem is a lack of respect for the laws and women of North Dakota in particular, as opposed to a lack of respect for laws and women generally. 

In the second story, from NPR, Robert Krulwich writes of what Williston looks like from space:  a major metropolitan area.  The story features several amazing images.  Krulwich describes them:
What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation. Altogether, they are now producing 660,000 barrels a day — double the output two years ago — so that in no time at all, North Dakota is now the second-largest oil producing state in America. Only Texas produces more, and those lights are a sign that this region is now on fire ... to a disturbing degree. Literally.
Krulwich notes that  some are calling Williston, population about 16,000 (up 8.8% between April 2010 and July 2011), Kuwait on the Prairie.  He goes on to quote an environmentalist blogger for the proposition that drillers in North Dakota "burn off enough gas to heat half a million homes" every day.  State law permits these gas flares to go untaxed and not subjected to royalties for one year, even if the gas is being burned off rather than sold.
But critics suspect that the state keeps granting exceptions. And state regulators seem less than energetic when farmers call to complain about poisons in the air and water. Many farmers in North Dakota can't prevent drillers from drilling — even if they'd like to. Decades ago, the rights to the minerals below those farms were separated from the rights to the land itself — which is why today, energy companies can move in, create drilling pads where they please, move in trucks and workers, without the farmers' consent.
Another post about the conflict between agriculture and extraction can be found here, with links to others on that theme.

Going back to the gender imbalance issue for a moment, NPR ran this related story on January 6, "Australia's Mining Boom Creates Demand for Sex Workers," dateline Perth.  The story quotes one prostitute at a brothel called Langtree's who says it is the best place she has worked.  The owner of Langtree's says it is the "best three, four years of trade" she's seen in her 30 years.  Journalist Sana Qadar explains:
The sex industry here is mostly legal, and it has boomed alongside the thriving mining industry. Sex workers from around the world have flocked to Western Australia, drawn to the big money earned by thousands of miners. 
Perth is the gateway to the resource-rich state of Western Australia, or WA. Sex workers can earn $200,000 a year here — even more than the miners.
* * *  
Most of the clients are younger men who live in the city but fly out to remote mining sites for shifts lasting several weeks. It's a grueling schedule, and it can make starting a relationship difficult. "Leila," 23, from New Zealand says that's what brings the men to Langtree's.
An earlier post about sex workers in northwest North Dakota is here.  An earlier post about other challenges facing North Dakota in the face of the fracking boom is here.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sexual violence shatters India's rural-to-urban, rags-to-riches dream

In the weeks since a young Indian woman was gang raped with a metal rod, succumbing to her injuries a few weeks later in a Singapore hospital, the incident has been in the news.  Initially the brutality drew attention in India, and that attention--and resulting street riots--have also attracted international attention.   Many stories have mentioned that the rape and murder stirred such national ire because she was such a sympathetic victim, and in explaining what made her sympathetic, I have heard several news outlets describe her as "rural," but also as ambitious--a promising student of physiotherapy who represented the promise of India's next generation.

A story in today's New York Times follows up on these themes with a profile of the woman's family, featuring in particular her father, Badri Nath Singh, who recently returned to his natal village, Medawara Kalan, with the ashes of his 23-year-old daughter.  In Medawara Kalan, the Singh family have undertaken 13 days of Hindu funeral rituals.  Singh and his wife made this reverse migration 30 years after they left Medawara Kalan for New Delhi, seeking a living--their fortune, though certainly not fortunes--in the city.  Heather Timmons for the Times explains the circumstances of their migration:
“At the village we could not fulfill our needs, so it was inevitable to move out,” Mr. Singh said about the decision to leave three decades ago. Although his daughter was born in New Delhi, she returned often to the village with the family, just as many urban Indians still maintain ties to a family village. 
The move to New Delhi put Mr. Singh in the "first wave of a slow shift that is transforming India from the agrarian land of Mohandas K. Gandhi, who said India 'lives in its villages,' to a country of teeming megacities.  India had 23 cities with populations of more than one million in 1991, but more than 50 that size by 2011.  For more on what I have called India's urban juggernaut, read this.  Timmons continues with this comment on the continuing deprivations associated with rural India:
Little has changed in the village since Mr. Singh left, even as development spreads to the far corners of India. Electricity is scarce, farming is the only occupation, and the government school ends at fifth grade.
Timmons tells of how the Singh family sacrificed for their daughter, their first-born child, even over their sons.
To pay for school, Mr. Singh sold most of the land he owned in Medawara Kalan, borrowed money from family members and worked double shifts, 16 hours a day, loading luggage at the New Delhi airport.
The Singhs did so in part because of their daughter's aptitude for school and in part because they expected the daughter's career to finance the educations of her younger brothers.  One aspires to be an engineer, the other an astronaut.

The headline for the story is "For India Rape Victim's Family, Layers of Loss," and its final paragraphs suggest that one of those losses is innocence, and perhaps also community-- losses shared by the nation and characteristics associated with India's rural past.  In the events that took his daughter's life, Mr Singh sees "an overall decline in the country's national character"--a decline he links to urbanization.
[Mr. Singh] drew a parallel between the country’s move toward cities and individuals’ focus on earning more, and the events of that evening [his daughter was attacked]. 
“As there is increase in money, there is within the people greed,” he said. Such a crime never happened in his village, he said.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Hay rustling in the news, again--this time the national news

From the Newton County Times to the New York Times, hay rustling has made the headlines recently. A few days ago I published this post about what is happening in Arkansas and Missouri.  Today, the New York Times published a story under the headline, "Cash for Hay Driving Thieves to Move Bundles."  Here's an excerpt from Jack Healy's story in the NYT:
Months of punishing drought and grass fires have pushed the price of hay, grain and other animal feed to near records, making the golden bales an increasingly irresistible target for thieves. Some steal them for profit. Others are fellow farmers acting out of desperation, their fields too brown to graze animals and their finances too wrecked to afford enough feed for their cattle.
Healy goes on to note that the rise in hay thefts in states like Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Kansas is part of a "broader rise in agricultural crime," including "thefts of grapes, beehives and avocados" in California, where farmers have also had to deal with theft of agricultural machinery as scrap metal prices have risen.  "On the range," Healy writes, "wire fences are being clipped to allow interloping herds to poach grazing land."  I wrote this 2011 post about the rise in pecan thefts in Georgia.

As for the hay thefts, most make off with less than $200-$300 worth at a time--less than a ton.  But some thefts have been larger, like the one over Labor Day at Conrad Swanson's ranch near Wellington, Colorado, where thieves made off with a flatbed trailer full.  The remoteness of rural locales presents an added challenge for law enforcement officials trying to catch the culprits--as does the fungibility of the product stolen.  As Healy notes, reclaiming a stolen bale of hay is "harder than finding a needle in a -- well, never mind."

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Country music a "national darling"?

That's what this New York Times story about Nashville (Tennessee) as "Nowville" (per GQ Magazine) asserts.   Journalist Kim Severson suggests that country music has become a "national darling," and she does so amidst laudatory comments regarding Nashville's many amenities. Severson associates the phenomenon with the past few decades.

Certainly I am aware that country music is not treated with quite the obloquy it was--especially on the coasts--several decades ago, but a "national darling"?  I'm not so sure.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Minot booms ... and diversifies

John Eligon reports for the New York Times today under the headline, "Down-Home American, Korean Style."  The story is of that a Korean-American woman, 48-year-old Geewon Anderson, who last year bought a quintessentially American restaurant, Charlie's Main Street Cafe, in downtown Minot, North Dakota.  Anderson has installed various members of her family there to run the place, along with some other local enterprises in which she has invested.  Although the family members who are operating these businesses have come from South Korea to do so, Eligon focuses on how Anderson and her husband (a Minnesotan by birth) have sought to keep Charlie's quintessentially American, from decor to menu.  Here's an excerpt that evokes a certain nostalgia about establishments like Charlie's:
Charlie’s Main Street Cafe in the heart of downtown here is a monument to small-town Americana.
* * *
It is a gathering place for local leaders, and for residents to catch up on gossip. 
This could well be a haunt on any idyllic American street corner. But Charlie’s is a bit different. 
The purveyor at this landmark of deeply American culture in a town that is more than 97 percent American-born happens to be a South Korean immigrant who traces her earliest awareness of the United States to a story her mom told her when she was in elementary school in Seoul, about a place that boasted of 31 flavors of ice cream.
Eligon also notes that Anderson was attracted to Minot as a destination for her investment because, like its western North Dakota environs, it is enjoying an economic boom from oil and gas drilling in the region.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Drop in wildlife census impacts rural economies

Two stories from different parts of the country this past week discussed the diminishing wildlife populations--pheasants in Iowa and mule deer in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.   Both also explain how wildlife populations and hunting interests are increasingly pitted against economic interests--as in agricultural production and oil and gas exploration. Finally, both also wax nostalgic--at least a bit--about our nation's hunting tradition, which they suggest is being lost.

NPR reported yesterday from northwest Colorado, at the Hilandras Ranch, where journalist Luke Runyon of Aspen Public Radio is interviewing John Hilandras, who runs an "outfitting business out of his family ranch."  When Hilandras was a child, he says, hunting was hardly a challenge.
We had literally thousands of deer.  There were just deer everywhere.  It seemed like they were like rabbits.
Now, however, deer are scarce enough that Hilandras is reluctant to market his services as those for a trophy hunt because weeks can go by without seeing a "prize-winning animal" like a 12-point buck.
In good conscience, a good ethical outfitter offering a trophy deer hunt should be careful 'cause it's not like it was.
The story goes on to discuss the possible causes in the decline of the mule deer population.  Runyon's story suggests that oil and gas exploration on western slope of the Rockies, including the Piceance Basin, is having a deleterious impact on deer habitat.  Other suggest that the burgeoning coyote population is to blame.  Studies are currently probing the impact of both phenomena.

The story closes with Hilandras expressing regret that his young children won't know the hunting he enjoyed.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported from Iowa under the headline, "As Pheasants Disappear, Hunters in Iowa Follow."  John Eligon's story pits hunting squarely against the state's economic engine--farming--noting that Iowa has in the last 20 years lost more than 1.6 million acres of habitat that pheasants and small game use; that is "the equivalent of a nine-mile strip of land stretching practically the width of the state." The pheasant habitat is being put to use in farming, as commodity prices rise, creating incentives for farmers to maximize agricultural outputs.    

And pheasants, "once king of Iowa's nearly half-a-billion-dollar hunting industry," are vanishing as a result of this decline in habitat.  The pheasant "population in 2012 was the second lowest on record, 81 percent below the average over the past four decades." And the number of pheasant hunters is dropping, too, down about 800,000 over two decades, to just 1.4 million now.
The loss, pheasant hunters say, is both economic and cultural.  
* * * 
 “We’re at a tipping point, and we have to decide how important it is to keep traditions for upland bird hunting alive and into the future,” said David E. Nomsen, the vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever.
As for the economic slice, federal officials report that hunters spent about $33.7 billion on hunting in 2011.  That includes $2.5 billion on small game like pheasants.   The story also includes figures regarding the economic value of hunting in the state of Iowa.  

Friday, January 4, 2013

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXI): "No hay rustling reported"

That is the headline for a story in the Dec. 12, 2012 issue of the Newton County Times, dateline Paris, Arkansas, in neighboring Logan County.  The story is apparently from a press release (perhaps by U of A extension), and it reports:
Scarce supplies are prompting reports of hay hijacking in Missouri, but south of the border, bales seem to be staying place, extension agents with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture said Wednesday.   
The president of Missouri's Farm Bureau said thieves are targeting hay left in the field and selling it. 
While drought has made hay expensive in northern and western Arkansas and the Midwest, "I've not heard about people coming around and stealing hay," said Lance Kirkpatrick, Logan County extension staff chair for the Division of Agriculture.  When it comes to a dishonest return on investment, "It's easier to load up 10 cows in a trailer and get $10,000.  It's harder loading up 10 bales and getting maybe $1,000."   
* * *  
Kirkpatrick said that this fall, "we're worse off now than this summer.  Logan County has been dry for two years" and [he]calculated the county would need about 45 inches of rain through May 2013 to make up for the moisture deficit.
In other news, a 30-year-old Kingston man was arrested Dec. 3, following discovery of a clandestine meth lab at his remote Newton County residence.  The man is being held in the Madison County jail on charges of manufacturing meth, possessing drug paraphernalia, and intent to possess and manufacture meth.  In executing the warrant, the Newton County Sheriff was assisted by officers from the 14th Judicial Drug Task Force.  The news report suggests that the man was arrested on Dec. 2 on charges of a residential burglary and theft of property in Fayetteville, and that this arrest led to the search of the man's home.    

A front-page story reports that a man survived a fall from Whitaker Point (also known as Hawksbill Crag), a remote beauty spot in Newton County.  The story indicates that he is first known survivor of such a fall, though a subsequent issue of the paper reported his death from the fall.  The man, a 19-year-old college student, fell 100 feet, but survived in part because the fall was cushioned by tree branches.  The man was rescued by BUFFSAR, the Buffalo National River Search and Rescue team.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Slinging mud at Appalachia

The New York Times reported yesterday on a new reality show on MTV, "Buckwild," which has gotten under the skin of West Virginians, even though it has yet to debut.  The series will fill the slot being vacated by "Jersey Shore," which ran its last episode in late December 2012.  Like "Jersey Shore," the series is eliciting protest because of its "exploitation of broad cultural stereotypes," including "young people prone to fighting, swearing, careening in all-terrain vehicles and wallowing, scantily clad, in the mud."  Trip Gabriel's story, dateline Charleston, West Virginia, quotes several folks from that corner of America, including U.S. Senator and former governor, Joe Manchin:
“It doesn’t help the lousy reputation we already have,” said Greg Samms, 31, a dishwasher on a break at the Charleston Town Center mall. “You go west of Ohio, west of Kentucky — people think we’re hillbillies. 
Kent Carper, the president of the Kanawha County Commission here, said dryly, “Some folks in West Virginia wear shoes, believe it or not.” 
Based on a two-minute trailer that MTV has released online, Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, labeled the show a “travesty” and called on MTV to cancel it. “This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia,” Mr. Manchin wrote in a letter last month to Stephen K. Friedman, MTV’s president. 
He accused the show’s producers of egging on a cast between ages 19 and 24 to misbehave for the sake of ratings. “You preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior — and now you are profiting from it,” Mr. Manchin wrote. “That is just wrong.”
* * * 
The tone of “Buckwild” is set by the saucy drawl of a cast member that is heard in the trailer. “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever” we want, she says, adding an expletive. 
The trailer cuts to shots of a young woman throwing a drink can at another’s face, a young man running nude, and a fiery explosion. There are stunts involving earthmoving equipment, body licking and necking. 
“I have this rule,” says one young woman in the nine-member cast. “If a guy can’t rotate my tires and change my oil at least, we’re just not going to work.”
Earlier posts about depictions of rurality in television are here, here and here.

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part XI): Hitting enrollment threshold but experiencing "fiscal distress"

I've written a lot about the Deer-Mt. Judea School District in Newton County, Arkansas, over the past few years--in particular about the school's falling enrollment and effort to avoid consolidation.  You can read more here, here, here, and here.

This fall and winter have brought both good news and bad news for the school district.  First, the good news:  the district hit an enrollment in excess of 375.  Because the enrollment threshold that mandates consolidation is 350, the school district appears to be in the clear for now.  I find it frustrating that stories reporting on the matter do not what factors have led to the enrollment increasing, well, so precipitously, especially following several years of decline.  The U.S. Census Bureau does indicate that the county's population fell, though less than 1%, between 2010 and 2011.

The bad news was reported in the Dec. 26, 2012 issue of the Newton County Times under the headline, "Fiscal distress indicated at Deer/Mt. Judea."  The troubled school district was notified by the Arkansas Department of Education that the district "has experienced two or more indicators of fiscal distress in one school year."  The indicators are reportedly at a "'nonmaterial level' but without intervention could place the district in fiscal distress."  The two indicators are:
  • a declining balance determined to jeopardize the fiscal integrity of your school district.  
  • any other fiscal condition of a school district deemed to have a detrimental negative impact on the continuation of educational services by that school district.
According to Deer/Mt. Judea Board President Sharon Pierce, the biggest challenge facing the district is declining enrollment, and the fiscal distress indicators are linked to it.  The District is already under Arkansas Department of Education supervision because of its recent enrollment travails, and the Deer-Mt. Judea District will now also be under its supervision as the District works to develop a plan to correct these fiscal indicators.  

In other news, the District has hired an instructional facilitator to help Mt. Judea teachers equip their students to earn higher achievement scores.  The consultant, Dan Raines, will work part time be paid $35,000 in funds secured through an Arkansas Dept. of Education grant.  Raines has 40 years of teaching experience, mostly in Russellville, in neighboring Pope County. Raines retired more than six years ago and lives principally in Russellville, but has a vacation residence in the Low Gap area of Newton County.

Mt. Judea has for three years been on the Arkansas Dept. of Education's list of schools needing improvement based on criteria set for Title 1 participating schools by the USDE.  These "focus schools" were identified "by achievement gaps between the highest-achieving subgroup or subgroups and the lowest-achieving subgroup or subgroups or, at the high school level, the largest within-school gaps in the graduation rate; a subgroup or subgroups with low achievement or, at the high school level, a low graduation rate, or a graduation rate less than 60% over a number of years that were not identified as priority schools."

The Mt. Judea school will undergo a required scholastic audit Jan. 13-18.  The audit team will analyze all areas of underperformance and make recommendations for an improvement plan to be submitted to the Ark. Dept of Education.