Friday, May 31, 2013

Bridge collapse taking Washington town's economy down with it

Kirk Johnson reports in today's New York Times on the impact that last week's I-5 bridge collapse is having on the town of Burlington, Washington, population 8,388.  An excerpt from his story follows:
Interstate 5, before last week’s bridge collapse over the Skagit River on the south end of town, was the great pumping arterial source of economic life here. It brought Canadians, shopping for furniture or clothes. It brought day-tripping outlet mall lovers from Seattle. 
Thanks to its embrace of retailing beginning in the 1980s, Burlington eventually boasted the highest level of retail sales per capita among all Washington cities.  
But now the people are not coming to buy, and they are mostly not stopping. The message by the state to avoid the area to help ease congestion, and the news images of stalled traffic and twisted steel, have created a secondary collapse, business and political leaders here said, in a community that was poised this year to finally break through, back to prerecession health.
Earlier this week, Democratic governor Jay Inslee released $150,000 "to support local economies."  It is not clear how much of this will go to help Burlington.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Place, politics and well-being

I don't read Ross Douthat's column in the New York Times on a regular basis, but this recent one caught my eye because of its use of the word "density":  "On Suicide, Does Density Disprove Durkheim?"  You see, as a ruralist, I think a lot about population density and its consequences, and Douthat, in an exchange with Nate Cohn of the New Republic, is discussing the possible impact of population density on rates of suicide.  Cohn argues that population density is the "only definite driver" of suicide rates.  Douthat had suggested in an earlier column a correlation between a state's suicide rate and the rates of marriage, religious practice, and single occupancy homes.  Cohn responds:
If anything correlates with suicide rates, it’s a states’ population density: In populous areas, suicide rates are low; in the sparsely populated hinterlands, suicide rates are high. Perhaps depression and loneliness is particularly harsh in desolate areas, and maybe it’s easier to cope in a major city like D.C. or New York. A more intriguing possibility is gun ownership, which, like suicide rates, is highest in the West and lowest in the Northeast … Then again, the South has high levels of gun ownership and higher levels of depression than the inland West, but suicide is rarer in Alabama than Montana.
Cohn also observes that some states that are struggling economically, e.g., Michigan and Indiana, have suicide rates near the national average, while some states with booming economies, e.g., North Dakota, have high suicide rates.  He also observes the lack of correlation between the high rates of depression in the Deep South and Appalachia and the incidence of suicide there.  Rates of suicide are apparently higher in the inland West.

Douthat, asserting that Cohn overstates his point, writes:
A strong link between population density and suicide hardly demonstrates that social belonging doesn’t play a role in suicide rates: It just suggests that the literal physical component in loneliness can matter as much or more than emotional and institutional ties.
* * *   
The contemporary evidence for the Emile Durkheim thesis on suicide and social connection — the studies linking higher suicide rates (especially for men) to joblessness, to divorce, and to weak religious attachment, and linking lower suicide rates with reversals in some of those trends — can certainly be questioned in various ways. (There’s vigorous debate over whether unemployment leads to mental distress or whether mental illness causes unemployment, for instance, and the same correlation-causation issue obtains with the other social factors.) But the mere existence of a big density-driven divide does not justify setting this evidence aside, or suffice to make the anti-Durkheim case.
This whole debate started when Cohn responded to Douthat's prior post, "When Place is Not Enough."  That post commented on the recent book by Rod Dreher about his sister, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming.  The book, which is about the sister's death from cancer at the age of 42, has gotten a lot of attention--including on NPR here.  I first wrote about the underlying story of Ms. Leming's death here.

Douthat had invoked the book in his column the prior Sunday, "All the Lonely People," in which he ruminated on forms of community.  He suggested that the strongest forms--which may help people from feeling lonely--are still the traditional ones:  "shared genes, shared memory, shared geography." Douthat held out Dreher's book as illustrating this point:
A journalist and author, Dreher had left their small Louisiana hometown behind decades before and never imagined coming back. But watching how the rural community rallied around his sister in her crisis, and how being rooted in a specific place carried her family through its drawn-out agony, inspired him to reconsider, and return. 
What makes “The Little Way” such an illuminating book, though, is that it doesn’t just uncritically celebrate the form of community that its author rediscovered in his hometown. It also explains why he left in the first place: because being a bookish kid made him a target for bullying, because his relationship with his father was oppressive, because he wasn’t as comfortable as his sister in a world of traditions, obligations, rules. Because community can imprison as well as sustain, and sometimes it needs to be escaped in order to be appreciated.
In "When Place Is Not Enough," Douthat praises Damon Linker's commentary on "Little Way," which is titled "The new anti-urban ideology of ruralism."  That commentary links the book to the so-called Porcher movement, derived from the conservative camp who gather at Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative.  Douthat quotes form Linker's column on what Douthat labels a "broader intellectual tendency on the post-Bush, post-Great Recession right."
Influenced by an eclectic range of thinkers, including sociologists Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, political theorist Wilson Carey McWilliams, Catholic philosopher David Schindler, and poet and essayist Wendell Berry, the Porchers see conservatism as a disposition or way of living locally, within moral, religious, economic, and environmental limits, in tightly knit, sustainable community with neighbors and the natural world. If they have a rallying cry, it’s “Stay Put!” Or, in Dreher’s case, “Go Home!”
Linker labels this an "ideology of ruralism,'" but Dreher insists it's "an ideology of rootedness, as applicable in the suburbs and the city (or some suburbs and some cities, at least) as it is in Saint Francisville, Louisiana," the place to which Dreher returned and where his sister Ruthie had lived.

Douthat concludes:
I think the distinction suggested here — between a philosophy of rootedness and a philosophy that just stresses “place” in general or idolizes the rural life in particular — is central to Porcherism’s ability to offer a realistic response to the ills of contemporary American life. A communitarianism that just suggests that everyone should find their own St. Francisville is obviously unresponsive to the reality of a post-agrarian society, but a communitarianism that just tells people to “stay put!” more generally, whether in cities or suburbs or exurbs, is likewise insufficient … because to a surprising extent, Americans are already doing just that.
In Douthat's view, then, place is not enough--even when the place is rural.  Connection with family and community, he asserts, are also necessary.

A cynic might call these the three legs of nostalgia:  place, community and family.

As for me, maybe I'm nostalgic enough to think Douthat is actually onto something here--that place, community and family attachments are conducive TO well-being.  It's not terribly original, but it might be right.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Two stories highlight spatiality's challenge to service delivery in Alaska

NPR reported this morning on the federal government's efforts to track down veterans in remote northwestern Alaska, the same day that the New York Times reported on the challenges presented by rural and remote spatiality to deliver medical services in that region, but in an area to the south, in the Bethel and Kuskokwim Delta area.

Kirk Johnson's story for the Times, headlined, "Health Care is Spread Thin in Alaska's Vast Frontier,"  focuses on the spatial and climate challenges faced by the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, which serves 28,000 residents, most of them Alaska natives.
[H]ere in the state’s far west end, spread out over an area the size of Oregon that has almost no roads. People can travel by boat or snow machine at certain times of the year, but not right now: the Kuskokwim River, which wends through Bethel to the Bering Sea, is choked with unstable melting ice in late May, magnifying the isolation that defines everything in what may be America’s emptiest corner. 
* * * 
The 56 tribes in the region voted in the mid-1990s to bundle their health care money from the federal government to finance the hospital. Grants supplement the work. 
But the one thing that shapes every care decision, from the routine to the catastrophic, is the map. Triage in medical decisions, logistics and money is all filtered through an equation of time and distance on a vast and mostly untracked land.
Not only is this story about the challenges of spatial isolation and the struggle to achieve economies of scale, it tells of how the health corporation trains local residents, called community health aides, to assist with triage and to provide care.  At a time when California is debating whether to permit nurse practitioners to practice alone--in part because of the dramatic need in rural areas and other underserved communities--I was struck by the description of these health aides, who have far less training than a nurse practitioner.  They are part of a "uniquely Alaskan" system that dates to a 1950 tuberculosis outbreak, in which aides were trained to dispense medicine:
[I]n sessions here at the hospital, ... 150 ... aides, mostly women, learn medical skills that include trauma response, pregnancy testing and vaccination, all based on a book that they call their bible, which walks them through a kind of algorithm of step-by-step questions leading to treatment protocols.
Lack of anonymity can be an added stressor for these aides.
In a tiny village, every patient is without exception also an acquaintance or a relative.
One aide is quoted:  
It’s really tough to work on someone you know.
Lack of anonymity and spatial isolation also play roles in Quil Lawrence's story for NPR.  Lawrence reports from Wales, Alaska, population 150.  It is the westernmost population cluster in mainland Alaska, and is farther north than Bethel, part of the Nome Census Area.  The headline is "Searching for Veterans on Alaska's Remote Edges," and this is the story of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs outreach efforts to those entitled to benefits, but who may not know that.  Amazingly, the Department does not have a master list of those who served.  That means someone from the VA has to go find them.  It's a task that tests the limits of the federal government's commitment to these folks and their communities.  

This vignette in particular is the story of the VA's assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, Tommy Sowers. He has traveled many hours from Washington, DC, to near the Bering Strait to find veterans and inform them of their rights.  Lawrence reports:  
Sowers visited Alaska recently to look at what challenges rural veterans face in getting benefits, but it turns out that just finding them can be a challenge. 
Twenty-two million Americans served in the military, but the vast majority are from the Vietnam and Korea generations. They're getting older now, and many live in rural, sometimes remote areas. Alaska has the highest number of veterans per capita in the country — native Alaskans and other vets who got posted up here and never left.
Ron Huffman, a tribal veterans representative who volunteers as a liaison between the VA and local veterans, is an example of the latter phenomenon. The military brought Huffman, a Virginian, to Alaska in 1963, and he married an Alaska native woman and stayed.

But this is a story not only about the literal spatial challenge of finding vets, it is also one of a frontier culture of self-reliance.  Huffman states:
Most of these vets, they've never applied for any type of entitlement whatsoever. ... And a lot of them are at the age now that they're suffering with some pretty severe-type ailments. It would be very beneficial for them to try to get connected with [the VA]. 
Indeed, Huffman knows about the ethos of self-reiance.  Though Huffman now lives in Nome, he and his wife visit her native village each summer, where they catch enough salmon to get them through a winter.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXV): Jasper School Board authorizes random drug testing of students

The May 15, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the Jasper School Board has voted 4-3 on May 9 to conduct random drug tests on students.   The board of education had been considering the policy--and soliciting public input--since the superintendent proposed a draft of the policy in March.  

The stated purpose of the policy is:
to provide for the health and safety of students in all activity programs and students who park vehicles on campus; to undermine the effects of peer pressure by providing a legitimate reason for student to refuse to use illegal drugs and to encourage students who use drugs to participate in drug treatment programs.  
One member of the public, Lex Pruitt (no relation), spoke vigorously in opposition to the policy.  He is a high school teacher who instructs students online in a distance learning program, but the the new report does not make clear whether he does so for the Jasper School District or for a different entity.  He had written an editorial published in the Newton County Times urging school board members to be first to be drug tested.  At the public comment portion of the May meeting, he stated that among the students he teaches, who are 13 different schools, those whose schools conduct random drug testing say they "feel they are 'targeted.'"  Pruitt acknowledged that drug testing may deter drug use, yes, but that it undermines students' rights, especially the right to privacy.  He asserted that drug testing would only add to the drama that teenagers already wrestle with, and the urged the school board to "take away the drama."

Pruitt also expressed concerns about the fair administration of the policy, and he questioned the meaning of terms used in the policy such as "reliable source" and "reasonable suspicion."  To this, the superintendent responded that Pruitt was referring to an outdated version of the policy, and that those terms are no longer part of the policy under consideration.

Among the board members, one, Todd Scarborough vigorously opposed the policy, stating, "I cannot vote for it in any form."  He cited the cost of paying for the drug testing as a reason for opposing it.  Rex Van Buren also opposed the policy, saying it violates privacy and assumes guilt. He also cited cost and said he would prefer to have trained drug-sniffing dogs make unannounced visits to the school.

Four members voted for the policy, with one of them saying his vote reflected the views of 80% of the parents who commented to him about the proposed policy.  He said most parents felt the policy "will be another set of eyes on their children."  Another board member who voted for the policy said he believe it would be effective at deterring younger students from trying drugs in the first place because of their desire to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.

What is not clear is whether the board of education has seriously considered--or understands--the constitutional issues raised by the policy.  An earlier report, in the April 24, 2013, issue of the Newton County Times, notes that the Conway (Arkansas) School District was sued over its drug testing policy a decade ago.  The district suspended testing before the case came to court, and abandoned the program in 2007.  The Conway superintendent, interviewed by the Arkansas Times (no date given), indicated that dropping the policy was the correct decision, and that the Conway board had done so based on community input.

The Times story notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of random drug testing "for student athletes and students participating in extracurricular activities." It also notes that Arkansas School Board staff attorney Kristen Gold has said that "the legality of random drug testing of students is not questioned." Her opinion states:
Students cannot be denied the opportunity to go to school but can be drug tested as a condition of being allowed to participate in a program that is a privilege, not a right.
Her memo cited the 4th amendment protection for citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government.  She explained that a school district is a government entity, and the drug test is a type of search and seizure.  (New York Times coverage of the constitutionality of such school drug testing is here and here.  The ACLU collects case law on the issue here).

Also unclear from the Newton County Times coverage is whether the drug testing will be strictly random.  I note that board member Scarborough suggested it might not be, indicating his concern about the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities.  Also unclear is whether the drug testing is linked to participation in extracurricular activities, as opposed to carrying broader implications for students who may test positive.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cuts in federal payments to counties decimate rural law enforcement budgets

NPR reports today on the impact that cuts in federal timber payments are having on county budgets in the West--focusing on the impact on law enforcement budgets and consequent failures to respond in particular to domestic violence.  Amelia Templeton reports for Oregon Public Broadcasting under the headline, "Loss of Timber Payments Cuts Deep in Oregon."  Templeton focuses on Josephine County, Oregon, population 82,000, in the far southwest corner of the state.  The lede follows:
Today in Oregon, voters are deciding whether to raise their own taxes to make up for lost timber payments from the federal government. Hundreds of counties in Western states are facing a financial crisis due to the loss of timber payments. Property taxes usually pay for county services such as law enforcement. But counties in states from Colorado to California have vast national forests and can't collect taxes on that land.
To compensate counties (as arms of the state) for that loss, Congress created "timber payments."  Now, however, the bill authorizing those payments has expired, leaving many county governments in a budgetary crisis.  Public safety is bearing the brunt of those cuts in a number of counties.  The budget for the Josephine County Sheriff's Department, for example, has been cut in half.  That cut means officers no longer responds to emergency calls in the evening or on week-ends.

Templeton's story, which focuses on failure to respond to domestic violence calls in particular, reminds me of (part of) what I wrote about here regarding domestic violence in rural settings, as the 2008 economic crisis was breaking and high fuel prices were greatly restricting what law enforcement could do in rural counties, with vast areas to patrol.

Warning:  Templeton's story contains a lot of upsetting detail about the realities of domestic violence.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

As plains aquifer dries up, so do rural communities

The New York Times reported yesterday on the greatly reduced water level in the High Plains Aquifer, which stretches through western Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma down to northern Texas.  The story is primarily about the impact this phenomenon is having on agriculture in the region, but Michael Wines, reporting from Haskell County, Kansas, also gives a nod to the region's population clusters.  Wines notes that while some farmers are turning to uses of the land that require less water, such as raising cattle instead of growing corn, many are not convinced that this will save the region.  Some believe that "when irrigation ends, so do the jobs and added income that sustain rural communities."  Jim Butler, a hydrologist and senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey, is quoted:
Looking at areas of Texas where the groundwater has really dropped, those towns are just a shell of what they once were.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Alaska village an early casualty of climate change

The Guardian reported this week from Newtok, Alaska, a mostly Yup'ik Eskimo village of about 350, surrounded on three sides by the Ninglick River, on the state's west coast.  Suzanne Goldenberg came to Newtok to do this story because scientists predict the village will soon be flooded due to rising sea level attributable to climate change.  Goldenberg calls Newtok's residents "America's first climate refugees" because their village could be underwater in as little as four years.  Here's an excerpt:
The people of Newtok ... are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away. 
The Ninglick River ... has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100ft or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave. 
* * * 
It is not a ... future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup'ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands. 
But exile is undeniable. 
A report by the US Army Corps of Engineers found "no possible way to protect the village in place."  A new site nine miles away has been selected for the village.  Ironically, Newtok is a creature of Alaska's statehood.  In 1959, state authorities "ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point" for delivery of supplies, and that became Newtok.  Needles to say, the locale was not chosen with a view to climate change.      

NPR picked up the Goldenberg story, including its attachment-to-place theme.  NPR quotes resident Tom John:
"I'd rather stay here, where I grew up.  I love Newtok, you know. I don't want to move to somewhere else."
NPR's story continues with excerpts from an interview with Goldenberg:  
The Yupik Eskimos who live there are intimately connected to the land, Goldenberg says, where they've fished and hunted for centuries. All that time they have built a culture and tradition that comes from depending on each other in a harsh environment.
But changes in the climate have meant changes also to those centuries-old routines, according to some of the village's residents, who spoke with Goldenberg and her videographer Richard Sprenger. 
"The snow comes in a different time now. The snow disappears way late," says villager Nathan Tom. "That's making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they're starting to lay eggs when there's still snow and ice. We can't even travel and go pick them. It's getting harder. It's changing a lot."
* * *  
There are also the financial considerations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that the cost of moving Newtok — with 63 homes — might reach $130 million. The people of Newtok do not have that kind of money, Goldenberg says. 
"These people are living well below the average income of other Americans. They're able to live that way because they hunt and fish for what they eat," she says. "So they can't all of a sudden go and build and pay for new houses on the other side."
And Newtok is hardly a unique case.  Climate change is presenting similar challenges to 180 Alaska native villages.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

Conservation groups to sue USDA over hog farm loan

The May 8, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times reports on a press release indicating that "a coalition of conservation groups" will sue the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture regarding the Farm Service Agency's loan guarantee for C & H Farm, an industrial hog farm on Big Creek, a tributary to the Buffalo National River.  Read earlier blog posts about the hog farm here and here.  The coalition apparently intends to argue that the decision by the FSA "was not properly examined and may violate the Endangered Species Act."

The Buffalo River watershed is "home to over 300 species of fish, insects, freshwater mussels, and aquatic plants, including the endangered snuffbox mussel, the endangered Gray bat, and the endangered Indiana bat." A spokeswoman for the Southeast Region at National Parks Conservation Association stated:
This factory farm will produce massive quantities of waste just six miles from the Buffalo River, and that waste will be spread on land that is right next to one of the Buffalo's major tributaries.  We are talking about one of the most beautiful areas in the country.  To think that our government would allow this hog factory in the watershed without examining its impacts is unconscionable.
The Farm Service Agency of USDA guaranteed 90% of the loan to C & H Farm.  That loan was used to purchase 23.43 acres in Mount Judea, Arkansas, and also for the construction of two barns. Those barns will house more than 6500 swine.

Robert Cross, president of the Ozark Society is quoted in the story:
This is the greatest threat to the Buffalo River since the Corp of Engineers damn proposal that we were able to thwart 50 years ago.  The porous limestone and karst that underlies all of the soil in the Mt. Judea region provides a direct passageway for leakage from the waste holding ponds and for untreated recharge from the waste application fields to reach the groundwater and thus Big Creek and the Buffalo River.  The risk for contamination of the Buffalo River is unacceptably high.  
Hannah Chang, an attorney with Earthjustice, is also quoted:
The letter we are sending today is a notice to the Dept. of Agriculture that its Farm Service Agency failed to undertake the consultation that is required to ensure that endangered species are not harmed as a result of the agency's action. 
Lastly, Jack Stewart of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is quoted:
Our aim is to prevent this farm from going forward without a thorough examination of the consequences--consequences that could result in irreversible damage to one of America's most treasured places, the Buffalo National River.
Earthjustice and Earthrise are representing the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the National Parks Conservation Alliance, and the Ozark Society in sending the the notice of intent to sue the USDA.

$240 million judgment against turkey processor for abusing disabled workers will be reduced

NPR reported this week on a huge judgment the EEOC got earlier this month against Hill County Farms, a contractor at a turkey processing plant where 32 intellectually disabled men worked in abusive conditions over the course of three decades--for $2/day.  Hill County, which is now out of business, was the company paid to oversee the men's work and provide their accommodation.  And their accommodation was part of the problem--an old school that was roach and mice-infested, which the fire inspector immediately condemned once the men were emancipated four years ago. Supervisors for Hill County had hit, kicked, handcuffed and verbally abused the men, who ranged in age from their 40s to their 60s.  Many of them had worked in the plant for most of their adult lives.  The civil suit initiated by the EEOC established the men's physical and emotional abuse.

The matter was in news this week because the $240 million judgment for the men will be reduced because it exceeds a legal cap on jury awards.  But Yuki Noguchi, reporting for NPR, took that opportunity to amplify how "the case highlights the difficulty of preventing and identifying abuse of vulnerable workers, who are also the least likely to come forward about violations."

Susan Seehase, the director of a support center in Iowa that took in many of the men following their emancipation, said the abuse "went on and on ... because the men knew nothing better and because no one reported the abuse."  
Their life experiences didn't tell them that there was really another option for them.  It's incredibly difficult to try to understand. And I have no explanation. And I don't know who can explain how this really happened.
Certainly, a lack of legal consciousness was part of the problem.  Also, the men had all been moved to Iowa from Texas, and thus were far from family and friends.  

Robert Canino, who prosecuted the case for the EEOC is also quoted about how these cases can go undiscovered, and he compared this one to human trafficking cases he has prosecuted in that the victims are isolated from family and friends:  
"We see the impact of the verdict as one that will hopefully open all our eyes to be more vigilant as a society, to be more watchful.  Maybe they're people who we see but we don't notice. We don't notice them because we consciously or subconsciously assign them to some different station in life, and we assume that we can't connect with them, we can't relate to them, so we go about our business." 
This case, he says, demonstrates the cost of failing to notice. "It's a wake-up call, and hopefully we don't ever in the future have to ask the question: 'How could this go on for so long and nobody notice?'"
As a ruralist, I can't help wonder if and how the place where these events took place had an impact on the failure to discover the abuse sooner.  This abuse occurred in Atalissa, Iowa, a town of 311, in the southeast corner of the state.  Small towns are known for their lack of anonymity and lack of privacy, yes, but rural space can also conceal, resulting in enhanced privacy, hiding abuse like that against these men. That is the paradox of rural privacy.  The photo of the school where the men were housed appears to be in a rural area, not in a town itself, but I can't be sure from just the photo.  If the old school was not in the town itself, that locale might have played a role how long the abuse dragged on.  But the bottom line is that, like the women rescued last week in Cleveland, this abuse happened in someone's "backyard."  It's hard to believe--especially in a community so small--that no one saw anything to raise alarm over the course of several decades.  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

More "hicksploitation," this time out of Louisiana

Campbell Robertson reports today for the New York Times under the headline, "Seeking Fame in the Bayou?  Get Real." The "real" is a reference to reality TV. A number of shows of that genre are based on and filmed in Louisiana:
In the past few years, there have been shows about Louisiana alligator trappers, exterminators, sheriffs, prisoners, brides, shrimpers, nutria hunters, mixed martial arts fighters, garbage collectors, “bad girls,” overnight millionaires, run-of-the-mill rednecks and pawnshop owners (about whom there are multiple shows). There are more shows on the way, prompting the question of whether there actually are any interesting people left in Louisiana.
In relation to that, Robertson quotes an A & E executive:
There’s more material to be found in Louisiana; it’s just going to be harder to find.
My other favorite quote is the story's lede, and it takes us back to Honey Boo Boo.  It, too, is from one involved in the business, the head of Hollywood South casting, James Bearb, who is also a Louisiana native.
If I had a dollar every time they asked me for the next Honey Boo Boo Child, I swear I would be the next millionaire.
In other words, everyone wants the opportunity to be a voyeur of rural others.

Read more commentary on hicksploitation here and on Honey Boo Boo in particular, here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A vignette of early--very early--rural life

This piece from NPR's Salt blog provides a glimpse of the how and why of early (we're talking 12,000) years ago) rural societies. The story, by Rhitu Chatterjee, doesn't use the word "rural," instead referring to early farmers.  The story contrasts societies which relied on farming with nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies.  I realize that nomadic hunter-gatherers might also be commonly thought of as rural, at least by those who conflate "rural" with wilderness and the natural.   But this depiction is of a different type of society--one more akin to what I think of as rural, with villages or what we now call small towns.

Chatterjee is reporting here on the findings of Samuel Bowles, director of the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.  The tale is one of how hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers.  Turns out that early farmers were descendants of hunter-gatherers who had ceased to be nomadic--and had therefore become rural.  They settled in fertile places where food was abundant and so they began to store the excess.  They lived in small population clusters, owning houses and "other objects ... jewelry, boats and a range of tools."
These societies had seen the value of owning stuff — they were already recognizing "private property rights," says Bowles. That's a big transition from nomadic cultures, which by and large don't recognize individual property. 
But when tough times came--maybe weather or animal migration routes changed--Bowles says, the communities had to choose between returning to the nomadic life or "stay[ing] put in villages they had built and 'us[ing] their knowledge of seeds and how they grow, and the possibility of domesticating animals.'"

Bowles believes that those who stayed put did so in large part because raising children is easier when you aren't on the move.  Recognition of private property played a role, too.  In a simulation using mathematical models, Bowles and a colleague found that "farming evolved only in groups that recognized private property rights."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Growth is growth is growth, right?


As our economy stumbles out of the Great Recession, three of America’s largest growth sectors – energy, agriculture, and manufacturing – are concentrated in rural America.

The country is in the midst of an energy production boom. While there is consternation about the environmental impacts of increased gas & oil production and a good deal of hemming and hawing about its real value to the domestic economy, our trade deficit, and the global energy market, the scaling of new extraction technologies has undeniably brought stunning growth to rural America. North Dakota has captured a lot of the attention, but the growth has been national:
Texas alone has added 180,000 mostly highly paid energy-related jobs. Oklahoma added 40,000, and the Intermountain West well over 30,000. In what could be a persuasive case, Pennsylvania, a blue state with a hunger for jobs, has joined the party; the original center of the U.S. energy industry is now enjoying a resurgence.
Agricultural exports are on an historic tear as well, driving economic growth in rural communities. The U.S. exported $135 billion worth of agricultural products in 2011, with a net favorable trade balance of $47 billion – the highest agricultural trade surplus in nominal dollars since the 1980s. This has been led by growing markets in the developing world that show no sign of slowing. For instance, China now consumes 60% of the world’s soybeans while producing only 5%, while the U.S. (led by Iowa) is responsible for a third of global production.

The manufacturing sector is growing as well, and rather than returning to legacy manufacturing centers in the Rust Belt, new operations are largely creating jobs in rural and exurban communities in the Great Plains and the South. A recent Boston Consulting Group report analyzes this incipient "reallocation of global manufacturing" fueled partially by foreign firms but also in large part by American firms bringing production back from China due to rising manufacturing and shipping costs there.

Rural communities often portrayed as stagnant are seeing development! At first blush this is fantastic news; can we finally lay off the hand-wringing regarding the future of our nation's pastoral communities?

I’m not so optimistic. This economic growth is largely driven by commodities – edible and otherwise – whose prices are driven by the whims of a global urban population. While the uptick in manufacturing-related jobs is welcome relief for an eroded middle-class job base, there’s no denying this sector’s steady march towards automation – in fact the BCG report cites sophisticated automation technologies as a driver of the reallocation of manufacturing back to the U.S. from China. And haven’t we seen the boom and bust cycle of extractive energy projects play out enough times to know that we can’t frack our way to sustainable economic growth? There are signs, in fact, that even as natural gas extraction begins to ramp up, the related economic boom in rural communities is already cooling down.

Inclusive, sustainable rural economic development thrives on many of the same ingredients as inclusive, sustainable urban economic development: local ownership of community visions for success. What’s missing in the current spate of headlines is local control driving these communities’ economic futures.

I see hope, however, in a host of organizations growing up in rural communities focused on generating sustainable, homespun economic growth. The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, for example, is building rural community capacity to advocate for community design that fosters economic development and contributes to livability. Others, such as the Center for Rural Affairs, are developing ground-up strategies and narratives that envision new rural futures, including an ‘un-apologetically rural’ campaign. Finally, while rural entrepreneurship isn’t a common phrase in our urban-centric media, there is increasing energy around cultivating economic growth untethered from urban actors.

Falling Sky Farm, in central Arkansas, is emblematic of that push. Cody Hopkins and his wife Andrea Todt identified a market for grass-fed livestock, and they’ve laid the groundwork for a network of environmentally- and economically-sustainable farms focusing on "food security, cultural production, and economic opportunity."

Economic recovery in rural areas is great news, but the nature of the growth matters. There are some healthy demographic shifts underway – growing migration to rural areas from urban areas and increasingly educated rural populations – that I’m hopeful will contribute to continued local movements that take the long view, offering alternatives to extractive projects and short-term booms spurred by outside forces.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Industrial hog farm in the Ozarks a done deal, but no one seems to be responsible for it

Farrowing barn at C & H Farm, photographed from Mount Judea School. 
I wrote (here and here) a few months ago about a proposed industrial hog farm in Newton County, Arkansas.  The massive hog farrowing operation made news--even state and regional news, such as here and here--because of the unusually skimpy notice process followed by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) in granting a General Permit for Concentrated Feeding Operations (CAFO) to C & H Hog Farm.  The permit and the process behind it also attracted attention--and ire from many local stakeholders--because the CAFO is in the watershed of the Buffalo National River.  Indeed, not even the National Park Service nor its officials overseeing the park locally received notice that the permit for the 6500-hog farm was being sought for a site just six miles from the scenic river, which is a popular tourist destination in the region.

Various formal and informal entities, including the National Park Service and some grassroots organizations, were soon up in arms over the decision.  The National Park Service wrote a letter to ADEQ in February articulating 45 irregularities in the permitting process.  ADEQ responded in late March with a 33-page letter, responding point by point to the discrepancies the National Park Service had enumerated.  ADEQ's executive director, Linda Newkirk, signed the letter, which she said responded as best the agency could to some of the "innuendo and conjecture" in the NPS letter.  Newkirk also stated firmly that ADEQ would not conduct an additional environmental impact assessment.  The permit was granted based on a "finding of no significant impact" by the Farm Service Agency.  ADEQ has authority to grant such permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Meanwhile a group of concerned citizens associated with the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance lobbied the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission in Little Rock on March 22, seeking to have the Commission revoke the farm's permit or otherwise intervene.  The Commission chair responded simply that ADEQ and C & H Hog Farm had followed the letter of the law.  Read more here.

Because the permit was granted in August, 2012, and the hog farm was nearly complete by the time it came to widespread public attention in February, prospects for stopping the facility--which by then was nearly complete--seemed slim.  In March, ADEQ announced it would hold a public meeting in Newton County in May, but that meeting was more to inform residents and to respond to questions.  ADEQ did not hold out any real likelihood that the decision would be reversed, stating:
We want to visit the community to provide information in person and hopefully answer some questions that have been raised about the operation and how our permitting process works.  
An overflow crowd gathered at that May 8 meeting, with law enforcement positioned to keep order and direct traffic.

ADEQ Director Teresa Marks stated at the meeting that the agency "didn't know [the permit applicant's notice of intent] would cause this kind of outcry," but that the agency had some to county by way of response to many emails and phone calls about the permit.  Marks said that the same provisions "apply to general permits all over the state," with no exceptions for places like the Buffalo River watershed.  Acknowledging that many in attendance disagree, she said "You may feel that way and you have the right to talk to your legislators to make sure they treat [the Buffalo] differently."  The headline for the story in the Newton County Times is "ADEQ explains limits of authority, and it reminds me of an earlier headline in which the Newton County Quorum Court (the Arkansas name for the county board of supervisors), disclaimed any responsibility for the farm, nor any power to stop it.  (Read more here). It's as if these lower scales of government--especially the state via ADEQ--are saying "the devil made me do it," and the devil in this case is the federal government which sets the environmental standards for such permits. Ironically, the federal government also oversees the Buffalo National River, which stands to lose greatly from the hog farm.

Signs in "downtown" Mount Judea, across
from the school, direct drivers to the hog farm.
Newton County Times coverage of this meeting does a better job than I have seen elsewhere explaining why the permit application process did not require local notice.  The story quotes an Arkansas Water Engineer, John Bailey, who explained that while state permits require notice in a local newspaper, because this is a federal permit simply administered by the state, it requires neither notice in a local newspaper nor a public meeting.  The CAFO permit will have to be renewed in five years.  When the permit is up for renewal, the phosphorous index for the soil will be measured, and if it indicates over-application of manure, "a decision will have to be made based on either best management practices" or the inclusion of additional land on which the manure can be spread.

Marks remained firm at the meeting regarding the agency's refusal to re-visit any aspect of the process, including the details of the environmental impact assessment.  This is in spite of some contrary scientific opinions about how the 630 acres set aside for manure spreading are likely to "cope" with the manure generated by thousands of hogs.  The facility is already housing 850 sows and three boars, with the first litter of pigs expected in August.

Marks noted that a water monitoring station exists on Big Creek, just above its flow into the Buffalo.  She said inspectors will be available to respond to any complaints and that she expected this "to be one of the most closely watched hog farms in the United States."
Entrance to C & H Farm; just up the driveway is
a "No Trespassing" sign.   

The Times story featured a text box with quotes from the meeting, absent the context in which they were spoken.  A few of the more interesting ones follow:
  • Who's going to compensate the land owners near Mount Judea for the loss of property values?
  • There are industries all over the state that people don't want, but they are actually necessary.  So, what we [ADEQ] try to do is to make sure there's no environmental harm that comes from these industries.  We don't regulate odor.
  • The minimum distance a hog farm should be from a community or school should be at least five miles.  I see the school system closing down because of air quality.   (Read more here on the proximity of the hog farm to the Mount Judea school).

Earlier on the day of the ADEQ meeting, the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance held a public meeting at the Buffalo Theater on the Jasper square.  They presented a film about commercial hog farming to a packed house and had a panel discussion about the health risks, economic impact on property values, inadequacies of the permit process, and the lack of transparency regarding the CAFO permit process.

Photos of C & H Hog Farm and neighboring area by Lisa Pruitt, April, 2013.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Yet Another Defense of Honey Boo Boo

Yesterday, Legal Ruralism discussed Eric Deggans' condemnation of "hicksploitation. Deggans astutely points to the lack of outrage to the "truckload of reality shows that make fun of working-class, white Southern culture." We do not fight mockery of working white class individuals the same way we do the negative depiction of African-American and Latinos on television. This is not to say that we should not be outraged about the portrayal of minorities. Aisha Harris recently wrote a poignant article on Slate.com about the troubling viral trend of the “hilarious” black neighbor, where the "laughter directed at people like Sweet Brown plays into the most basic stereotyping of blacks as simple-minded ramblers living in the “ghetto,” socially out of step with the rest of educated America." However, Deggans' point is to shed light on how redneck, hick, and other epithets directed at (and at the expense of) working class white people persists to be a socially acceptable.

However, I wonder if the TLC show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is actually bad per say. Deggans includes this show as one of "a big pile of the worse stereotypes about white, working-class people." He would classify it is as another opportunity for the television industry to make money off of America laughing at backward "white trash" folks. But not everyone feels that way - including the very individuals who are on the show. In an interview with Anderson Cooper (a professed Honey Boo Boo fan), June Thomson (Honey Boo Boo's mother) thoughtfully  responded to haters of the show. She said, "in life there is going to be criticism ... There is people who love us and people who hate us. We appreciate the people who support us and all through this and the people who hate us, it's a part of life everyday. We are real, we are not scripted. We are who we are, we are loving and I love being around my family so that's all that matters."

The reaction to the show has been interesting to say the least. There seems to be two camps of individuals. On the one side, you have individuals such as Deggans who believe shows like these perpetuate working white class stereotypes at the expense of the reality tv show subjects. Then there are others who think the show is a new low of reality tv, with individuals such as Maroon 5's front man Adam Levine to cite the new show as "the worst thing that has ever happened" and evidence of "the decay of Western Civilization." All this passionate outcry over an average (yes, I said average) working class small town family. This makes me think the real problem is us.

Last year, Joanna Spataro wrote a pretty brilliant piece in the Huffington Post, entitled "In Defense of Honey Boo Boo." Spataro grew tired of hipster, "intellectual," urban elites derisive reaction to her love of the show. (And she's not the only one! The show had higher ratings than the 2010 Republican National Convention, attracting 2.9 million viewers and tied in the ratings with Bill Clinton's barnburner speech at the Democratic National Convention.) She notes, the "dismissive way [a party goer] said that show perturbed me. He was quick to trumpet his more pretentious than progressive views on equal rights, but even quicker to put down a family he had never watched in action."

The Honey Boo Bo family is both supportive and positive. They spend loads of family time together. While Mike "Sugar Bear" Thompson is the biological father of Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson only, he embraces all of June's children as his own. At June and Sugar Bear's commitment ceremony last weekend, the couple felt it was important to stay "true to [their] roots and made the focus on the family" and their commitment to each other. Unlike other pageant moms, Spataro says "we never see June forcing Honey Boo Boo to practice nine hours a day for her pageant or yelling she's too fat to fit into her frilly dress. When Honey Boo Boo says she looks like a chunky lemon in her yellow life vest at a water park, her mom says she's beautiful." June instills a strong sense of worth in her girls. She tells them to "never settle for a man who doesn't treat you right. If a guy doesn't love everything about you, move on! There are plenty of other fish in the sea." June says, "I give this advice to my daughters because I always want them to be themselves and surround themselves with people who love them for them." To me, it seems that Honey Boo Boo and her siblings have a lot to be thankful for tomorrow on Mother's Day.

Further, the family "seem[s] to embrace the rainbow, as they do each other." Honey Boo Boo's revelation of LGBT tolerance was both profound and adorable. She stated: "Ain't nothin' wrong with bein' a little gay" and "Everybody's a little bit gay." Some cringe at the meals the family makes. For example, they love sketti, the mom's homemade sauce made of ketchup, butter, and a hint of mustard. If I'm honest, I love a dish called tuna fish pasta, which consists of cooked pasta, canned tuna, and copious amounts of mayonnaise. Not exactly an "urban" worthy classy dish to serve at a dinner party. Perhaps we are all not just "a little bit gay," but if we look inside, we are all a little bit country as well. 

Of course, not all shows are the same. So I admit Deggans criticism may very likely ring true for some or many of the shows he mentioned. However, I think Deggans' own criticism can be seen as its own form of intellectual elite perception - one that can be just as damaging and hurtful. I think the Honey Boo Boo family is honest and real. They are most assuredly different from my urban indoctrination of what it means to be "a good white person," but that does not mean that they are bad or that their presence on television is a bad thing. Instead I think we should look within and reexamine our reactions. After finally watching an episode of the show, Ben Bailey summed it up pretty perfectly in his blog:
Now that I have [watched the show], I think we all need to be a little ashamed at how we were all far too ashamed, and what that initial shame says about what complete dicks we are. I say embrace Honey Boo Boo, and learn to be a little less judgmental, especially about s**t that does not directly effect us, or the culture, or anything in any way. Honey Boo Boo's family isn't a new low, and just in terms of reality television, I'd say its a step up to actually have people on TV with actual human souls for once. And they're not the decay of civilization either. They're just a family that, if they were my neighbors, I'd think were pretty fun.

Friday, May 10, 2013

"City Folks Just Don't Get It"

Television is inundated with commercials about dating websites and services. All promise to be better than the others or to satisfy a particular need. Aside from the usual eharmony.com and chemistry.com, there are sites designed specifically for gay individuals, Christians (www.christianmingle.com), and even certain races (such as http://www.blackpeoplemeet.com/). Therefore, I was not surprised when I discovered a dating site for rural folks. What did surprise me is that it has been around since 2005! The creation and success of the concept illuminate some of the various trends rural scholars have observed about rural communities. It touches on lack of anonymity, defining "rural" as a culture, and technological limitations.

Farmersonly.com was founded in 2005 by Jerry Miller. Miller started the site after a farm owner complained about lack of like-minded people in her dating pool. in 2006, Laura Bruno wrote in USA Today about the site achieving the 200,000 subscribers milestone. In his interview, Miller recounted the rural reality of small town lack of anonymity. He said he "kept hearing the same thing: 'I know everybody in my church, everybody at the store, but I go on these big dating sites, and they just don't understand the lifestyle.'" In a rural town, you know everyone, and that is not a lot of people. This leaves individuals such as the divorcee who inspired Miller to be afraid they would not meet anybody new. "Lots of these people are really, really lonely," Miller said. "When you walk outside in New York, there are 10,000 people within three blocks. In some of these rural towns, there are three people within 10 miles. It's a whole different ballgame." Not to mention with everyone knowing everyone and everything, individuals are robbed of the opportunity to learn about each other. Further, you can't escape past mistakes (including those pesky exes).

The site uses the more loose definition of rural. Most define rural through population size or density.  However, others argue that "rural" is a set of values. This latter approach would exclude certain communities that are filled with city folks in a rural space. For example, exurbs are "region or settlement that lies outside a city and usually beyond its suburbs and that often is inhabited chiefly by well-to-do families."  It "is not the same as an outright rural area. It is where the edges of a metropolitan area blend with a rural area, resulting in a semi-rural character." While it's distance and population density may qualify certain exurbs as rural, the culture of the area is closer to urban than rural. Farmersonly.com has but one criteria for membership - individuals who embrace small town values. Because after all, "city folks just don't get it." A person does not need to be farmer. One "could work at a restaurant, or the feed store, but are looking for someone who has those values." In fact, Miller said that he has a few urban users instead. Most often, they are rural transplants in urban concrete jungles. They  "grew up in the country and dream of moving back to country ... Dreamers that want to get out."

Unsurprisingly, technology is the most challenging part. When they launched in 2005, "everybody had phone modems," Miller said. "Connections were slow, so we had to keep it simple." While things have gotten a little better, rural areas continue to struggle with internet infrastructure (see past Legal Ruralism posts on the subject here, here, here and here). Even rural areas that have broadband, individuals are simply not as familiar with how to navigate the internet highway. Miller admits that the most challenging part of the venture is showing people the roles. He noted, "the learning curve is a lot different for us." In fact, he "spent thousands of hours coaching people on how to use the site, send messages—even just teaching them how to upload their photos."

The cost of the service is rather low. Users only pay $15.95 per month, or $49.95 for six months, to find a like-minded match on the service. However, rural areas are more likely to struggle with poverty. In fact, the Carsey Institute finds that "one-half of all rural poor are segregated in high-poverty areas." Therefore, the cost may be prohibitive. But for those that can afford it, Miller reports there have been plenty of success stories of couples who married after they met on the site. The service provides an innovative way for individuals to make a small town a little larger, without loosing the small town values they hold so dear.


"In rural Texas, no one votes for regulation."

That is a quote from the engineer for McLennan County, Stephen T. Hendrick.  It appears in a New York Times story headlined, "After Plant Explosion, Texas Remains Wary of Regulation," by Ian Urbina, Manny Fernandez, and John Schwartz.   The feature, which discusses the aftermath of the fertilizer facility explosion in mid April in the town of West, asserts that "the state’s pro-business, limited-government mantra has been a vital part of its identity." The journalists support that proposition by referring to state and local responses to the West disaster, one of the worst industrial disasters on record.  The mayor of West, like Governor Rick Perry, has asserted that more regulation would not have prevented the explosion.

Also illustrating the state's "free market posture," the authors of the story write:
It is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.
As Prof. Thomas McGarity of the University of Texas Law School asserts, it's a "wild west approach to protecting public health and safety."  

Codeswitch takes up "Hicksploitation"

NPR launched the Codeswitch blog, billed as "frontiers of race, culture and ethnicity," about a month ago.  Today, Eric Deggans, writing for the forum, takes up what he calls "hicksploitation."  Here's the lede:
On cable TV, there's a whole truckload of reality shows that make fun of working-class, white Southern culture. They are some of the most popular and talked about new shows, too, such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. 
MTV tried cashing in on the redneck TV trend with its own hyped-up platform for young Southern kids behaving badly, Buckwild. It played like a Southern-fried version of Jersey Shore. Its stars were a dimwitted crew of young people in West Virginia drinking hard and riding pickup trucks through ditches filled with mud.
And, Deggans notes, "plenty more ... blatant stereotypes of white subcultures" are on display on TV, "a big pile of the worse stereotypes about white, working-class people."  He lists "Mob wives," which he describes as "cliche in-your-face Italian Mafia matriarchs" and "Breaking Amish," which he describes as "backward, barely educated rural kids wandering around New York City."  There is also "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding," which features "barely legal prospective brides brag[ging] about marrying their cousins."  

Not only is Deggans perceptive enough to see how pejorative (and offensive to some) these shows are, he is perceptive enough to note that we no longer see African-Americans or Latinos, "especially if they are working class," depicted so negatively these days--at least not in new shows.  No, he observes, shows about those racial and ethnic groups "show off more lavish lifestyles and have been around longer."  

Deggans also notes that when a show called "All My Babies' Mamas" (featuring a rapper bragging about his 11 children by 10 different women) was proposed by the Oxygen Channel last year, the backlash was "immediate and powerful." Some 30,000 protesters signed a petition opposing it on change.org.  Oxygen responded by dropping development of the series.  

Why no similar outcry against these shows that ridicule working class whites?  Deggans answer:  "too many folks see stereotypes as a problem mostly for people of color."

Deggans summarizes:
We've got lots of practice criticizing degrading images of black and brown people. Activists know how to gather the news stories, book the media appearances and assemble the petitions to press their case. Advertisers get nervous and programmers think twice. 
What many forget is that it can be just as easy to stereotype white, working-class folks, and just as hard to scrub those stereotypes off your TV screen.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Keystone XL grand deal may be in the pipeline ... but what about those who will have the pipeline in their backyard?

Pun intended.

The New York Times reported today on the front page of the business section under the headline, "Foes Suggest a Trade-Off If Pipeline is Approved."  Here's the lede:
President Obama’s first major environmental decision of his second term could be to approve the Keystone XLpipeline, profoundly disappointing environmental advocates who have made the project a symbolic test of the president’s seriousness on climate change
But could some kind of deal be in the offing — a major climate policy announcement on, for example, power plant regulation or renewable energy incentives — to ease the sting of the pipeline approval? 
White House and State Department officials ... say the pipeline is not a fundamental piece of the nation’s climate policy nor is it a political bargaining chip to trade for other measures. 
* * * 
But to many environmentalists, including some of the president’s most active campaign supporters, the issue has huge symbolic and political importance.
So, some are suggesting that if President Obama approves the Keystone pipeline, he use the occasion to announce major new pro-environment policies, like new regulations for coal-fired power plants or a national clean energy standard.

Those sound like great policies for the nation--and the world.  But that sort of "deal making" at the national and global scale leaves me wondering: what about Nebraska? specifically, what about the rural Nebraskans and others living on the plains, along the pipeline's path, who bear different risks from the Keystone XL pipeline--on-the-ground risks, not just the global climate change risk we all share.  Read more here and here.  Is there something more for these folks in a possible grand compromise?