Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Wildfire in the rural West

A few weeks ago I heard a short news story on NPR on a Sunday evening about the residents of  Missoula, Montana lining up along the roads by which the vehicle carrying the body of a fallen firefighter would travel.  The body of Brent Witham, who had died when a falling tree hit him as he fought the Lolo Peak fire, was being returned to his southern home, via air transport from Missoula.  The corresponding story from The Missourian newspaper reads in part:
The body of California Hotshot Brent Witham will be transported to the Missoula Airport Monday morning in a procession that begins at 9 a.m. in Missoula.

The route will start at Garden City Funeral Home, 1705 West Broadway St., and head west along Broadway to the Aerial Fire Depot.

The Forest Service organizers are asking people to line Broadway between the funeral home and the Reserve Street overpass by 8:30 a.m. For safety reasons, the public is asked not to line or park on Broadway west of the overpass.
I thought when I heard the NPR story:  what a "rural thing to do."  Maybe, in particular, it is a western rural thing to do--honoring a fallen firefighter who was doing a very risky job to protect people he didn't even know.  Montanans understand that risk and sacrifice, as do so many other rural folks.

Witham was with the Vista Grande Hotshot crew based in Riverside County, California, part of the San Jacinto Ranger District of the San Bernardino National Forest.  When his body returned to California, he was not similarly honored by the people in his community.  Instead, fire vehicles  joined a vehicular procession to remember and honor him.  

I wonder what to make of this difference between Montana (where Missoula is actually "urban") and California, especially given the rural base of the Vista Grande Hotshots, near Idyllwild.  

I'm in Montana now, the southwestern part, en route to Yellowstone National Park.  A cover story in  yesterday's Bozeman Daily Chronicle was about a recent small fire north of Three Forks, a bit west of Bozeman.   Two youth were being charged with setting the fire, which burned about 250 acres.  A heading on the Chronicle's website is "Fire Line," and another story there is "Western Montana Full of Fire Activity."  Folks in the lovely shops on Main Street yesterday mentioned that the air in Bozeman had only just cleared, thanks to rain, from the smoke of a nearby fire.  

Monday, August 14, 2017

Poignant tale of a return to Mexico, from rural Iowa

This is from Jack Healy's NY Times piece, dateline Hampton, Iowa, titled "Stay, Hide or Leave?  Hard Choices for Immigrants in the Heartland." 
Now, at this tense juncture for immigrants and their adoptive hometowns across the conservative swaths of rural America, Ms. Rivera planned to sever one last tie. She was returning to Mexico — and to her husband — with Steven, 13 years old and American-born. 
Some politicians call it “self-deportation.” She called it her family’s only hope of being together. 
Edith Rivera's husband was deported in 2015.
The heartland is freckled with Hamptons and Ediths. In small agricultural towns that supported President Trump by 20-point margins, residents are now seeing an immigration crackdown ripple through the families that have helped revive their downtown squares and transform their economies.
The story also features the role of the local Franklin County sheriff, Linn Larson, who was elected on promises to crack down on undocumented immigrants.  Previously, the county was on national lists of immigrant safe havens.  Franklin County's population is just over 10,000, and it is northwest of Cedar Rapids.

While the paragraph above refers to "conservative swaths of rural America," it also depicts Edith Rivera's strong connections to the community, including to non-Hispanic whites.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On "barefoot lawyers" (a/k/a paralegals) serving rural India

The New York Times ran this fascinating little piece last week about Namati, an organization that trains paralegals in rural communities in India, (villages, I suppose they would say) to help fight for rights, including clean air and other environmental rights.   Tina Rosenberg's story, part of the Fixes series, describes an environmental injustice in Bogribail, a village in India, where IRB Infrastructure Developers is the culprit.  But the reason to read this story is to learn about India's "barefoot lawyers," paralegals who are also community organizers who teach residents to press administrative agencies for relief.   Here's an excerpt about what happens next in Bogribailt, after, that is, villagers asked the government for compensation were denied:
 Villagers did not ask IRB or the government to stop or diminish the pollution, because they didn’t know that the factory’s practices violated numerous regulations. 
Then Maruti Gouda took the case. 
He’s the opposite of a superlawyer.  He is 29 and not a lawyer at all, actually — he attended college but didn’t graduate. Like his father and most of the people in his nearby village, he’s a clam harvester. 
Gouda is employed by Namati, a nonprofit organization that works in a number of countries in Asia and Africa, as well as in the United States, "to democratize law."  Vivek Maru, an American lawyer, founded the group in 2011.  Here's a quote from Namati's home page:
More than four billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. They are driven from their land, denied basic services, and intimidated by violence.

We advance justice by helping people to understand, use, and shape the laws that affect them.
The Namati website also has this description of these paralegals:
they are trained in basic law and in skills like mediation, organizing, education, and advocacy. They form a dynamic, creative frontline that can engage formal and traditional institutions alike.
The term "barefoot lawyers" is a play on "barefoot doctors," the term sometimes used for Chinese rural peasants who were trained to dispense health advice and health care during the cultural revolution.

The absolute best line of the NYT story is from Maruti Gouda's boss about the role of Gouda and his "paralegal"colleagues' key roles on their home turf:
We can always teach them the law.  We can’t teach them to be from here.
I can't help wonder about the ways in which this model might work in the United States to empower rural residents who are afflicted with environmental and other injustices.  A little cultural competency from locals, who will also be able to cultivate trust from community members, seems critical.  Unfortunately, I could not find any examples of Namati's work in the United States on the organization's website, though a search for "United States" on the website did bring up a number of institutional connections, including, for example, to the Environmental Law Institute and to studies of access-to-justice issues in the domestic context.

On Sears Roebuck and its demise

The New York Times has a big feature today on Sears, "The Incredible Shrinking Sears."  Of course, the entity used to be Sears Roebuck and Company, and it was associated with the massive catalog that showed up one a year in your mailbox, in late summer, with a smaller follow-up for the Christmas season.  The focus of Julie Creswell's story is how a "financial wizard took over" Sears and "presided over its epic decline."  But I want to take a moment to be sentimental about what Sears used to mean in rural America.  Here's a salient except:
At the turn of the 20th century, as Americans established roots across the nation, they turned to Sears. Through its robust mail-order business — some catalogs were more than 500 pages — Sears shipped groceries, rifles, corsets, cream separators, davenports, stoves and entire prefab houses to some of the most remote regions of the country.
As Americans moved from rural communities to larger cities, many no longer needed to shop by thumbing through the catalog; they preferred to visit dazzling department stores. Sears began opening hundreds of stand-alone retail stores, some with soda fountains, dentist’s offices and pet shops alongside tombstones and farm tractors.
The comparison to amazon.com is inevitable, of course.  Sears was the amazon of its day.  The rest of the story is, quite frankly, too depressing to describe--read for yourself what Edward S. Lampert, that Wall Street wiz kid, has done to Sears Holding Company, all while essentially telecommuting from his home in Miami, rarely setting foot in a Sears store.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Eclipse visitors expected to overwhelm pockets of rural America

Eclipse craze has hit the nation, and in the West, where I live, I'm starting to hear a lot about the impact that eclipse tourism is going to have on rural communities.  One data point I heard is that the population of Wyoming is expected to double on August 21, eclipse day.  Of course, that's not saying a lot, one might say, given that the state's population is only about 585,000, and it's a big state (the 10th largest in land area) with lots of eclipse territory, so it won't take a lot for visitors to overwhelm residents.  

This piece on The Outline is datelined Glendo, Wyoming, population 205, a town that has run a crowdfunding campaign to help defray expenses (e.g., portable toilets, extra trash cans) associated with the anticipated tourism overload.  Here's an excerpt that highlights the rural angle on the eclipse.
The total solar eclipse, the first visible in the U.S. since 1918, has been named the “Great American Eclipse” and could shape up to be the country’s biggest temporary mass migration to see a natural event ever. And it is bringing rare economic opportunity and attention to small towns along the eclipse’s path of totality, or the area where the full eclipse will be viewable. 
Along with the potential to rake in significant tourist dollars comes the fear that small, rural communities do not have the infrastructure to accommodate an influx of visitors. At least one town, Glendo, Wyoming, is looking to crowdfunding for help. The town is home to 202 people and takes up less than half a square mile of land. But thanks to its prime solar eclipse viewing location, it is expecting 70,000 to 100,000 visitors. Town clerk Brenda Hagen has launched a GoFundMe campaign on behalf of Glendo to raise $20,000 to pay for sanitation expenses like portable toilets and trash cans. 
Like other rural eclipse hotspots Driggs, Idaho; Madras, Oregon; and Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Glendo residents have the opportunity to earn good money renting rooms, homes, and temporary campgrounds the night of the eclipse. What’s less sure for Glendo and communities like it is what the cleanup will look like and how many strangers will be willing to help. As of this writing, the town’s campaign has raised just over $3,000.
I've also seen/heard a few stories featuring Carhenge, in rural Alliance, Nebraska, population 8,491.   Here's a story in the Denver Post, and here's one from NPR.  This is from the Denver Post:
Townspeople here in western Nebraska’s sandhills have been toiling for three years to get ready — right down to the logistics of diesel backup power and baking cookies for foreigners. 
They’re bracing for a potentially chaotic rush of people converging on the eclipse’s 67 mile-wide “path of totality,” which runs from Oregon beaches to South Carolina, spanning Wyoming and Nebraska. This ranks among the most accessible total eclipses ever, with an estimated 47 million Americans living within an hour of the shadow. Suddenly humans, whose ancestors feared eclipses as harbingers of disruption, are flocking like crazy to be in them. 
But no matter how much planning towns and cities do, the unexpected and irrational loom.
* * *
But for residents of Alliance, with its brick streets and 1880s buildings, the eclipse is emerging as a tangible and overwhelming reality requiring wide preparations. And, in an isolated rural town, mobilizing for a deluge of unknown guests is done with a sense of duty. 
The crowd will include visitors who think nothing of paying as much as $10 for a hamburger, Solar Eclipse Task Force co-chairperson Becci Thomas told residents last week at a final prep session. But merchants must not gouge, she said, repeating a civic warning leaders have been repeating for months. 
“This is your chance to shine,” she said. “You’re having company. Be as nice as you can.”
As for the piece on NPR, it said some of the same things, but particularly encouraged tourists to take advantage of the spreads of food that the churches in Alliance would no doubt have on offer.   Kevin Howard of the town's visitors bureau is quoted:
Howard says the town is planning concerts, a 30-team softball tournament, a Native American powwow, plus all the churches will put out their best spreads. "There's nothing better than a meal at the church," he says. "Those ladies put out the good stuff."
Like the Post reporter said, the folks in Alliance realize it's best to hope you can entice visitors back again, not to treat them as one-time prey.

Space, time and maternal mortality in rural America

That is the subject of the Wall Street Journal's latest installment in its series, "One Nation, Divisible."  The story by Betsy McKay and Paul Overberg is titled, "Rural America's Childbirth Crisis:  The Fight to Save Whitney Brown."  An excerpt follows, with a focus on time, distance and--implicitly--how distance is time.  Certainly that was the case for Whitney Brown, the woman whose death in childbirth was featured to illustrate the perils.
Since the start of the century, it has become more dangerous to have a baby in rural America. Pregnancy-related complications are rising across the U.S., and many require specialized care. For some women, the time and distance from hospitals with the resources and specialists to handle an obstetric emergency can be fatal. 
In 2015, women in rural areas died from pregnancy-related complications at a rate 64% higher than the rate in large cities, a reversal from 2000, when cities suffered a higher rate of such maternal deaths.
The reasons reflect shrinking resources, worsening health and social ills. Most rural hospitals don’t have high-risk pregnancy specialists who can treat sudden complications. Many don’t have cardiologists or anesthesiologists on staff. Making matters worse, rates of obesity, a major risk factor for pregnancy complications, are higher in rural than urban areas. 
Many rural hospitals have eliminated labor and delivery services, creating maternity deserts where women must travel, sometimes hours, for prenatal care and to give birth.
Over the decade between 2004 and 2014, the number of rural hospitals offering such services declined by 15%, compared to a 5% decline among suburban and urban facilities.  Among the reasons for the decline:  the closure of hospitals, a decline in birthrates, and challenges securing malpractice insurance.  The story notes that some women in rural Tennessee get no pre-natal care whatsoever.

The personal face of this story is Whitney Brown, a young woman who died after giving birth by emergency C-section.  She died, at least in part, because she could not be transported quickly enough from the rural hospital in McMinnville, Tennessee, population 13,605, to Chattanooga for specialist care.  One reason:  only two of Warren County's five ambulances were allowed out of the county at any given time, leading to a 3-hour delay in the transfer of Brown, whose heart stopped shortly before she reached Chattanooga.

Incidentally, The Economist has a story this week about the high U.S. maternal mortality rate, compared to other developed countries.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

John Ikerd on "Economic Colonialism" in rural America

John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, delivered a stirring key note address at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society in Columbus Ohio on July 29.  That lecture has now been reprinted in Rural America In These Times.  Here's an excerpt:
I think “a growing sense of impotence and dread” accurately describes the prevailing mood of people in rural America. Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished scholar at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University, has observed that the “predominant attitude toward rural communities is that they have no future. In fact, this attitude seems to prevail even within rural communities.”

He quoted from a 1991 survey conducted in several Midwestern rural communities indicating that people in most rural towns harbored one of two visions for their communities. “One vision sees their town’s death as inevitable due to economic decline.” The other vision is also of “a dying town” with only a fading hope that “they can keep the town alive by attracting industry.” The widening rural-urban divide since the early 1990s seems to confirm a transition in rural attitudes from impotence and dread to desperation and anger.
That was Ikerd's first point in agreement with Margaret Wheatley.  Read the whole piece to learn more about the other two points with which he agrees with her:
1) “A growing sense of impotence and dread about the state of the nation,”
2) “The realization that information doesn’t change minds anymore.”
3) “The clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action—that there is no power for change greater than a community taking its future into its own hands.”
Number three, as you might imagine, is the most hopeful.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Trump's trade policies hard on farmers (or at least on agribusiness)

While some political commentary suggested that many rural Americans were drawn to Donald Trump's candidacy because of his tough stance on trade, it turns out that some rural areas--or more precisely, some types of farmers--may be badly hurt by the ditching of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade pact negotiated by the Obama administration.  Politico Magazine ran this big feature a few days ago, "Trump's Trade Pullout Roils Rural America."  The dateline is Eagle Grove, Iowa, where a massive new meat processing plant is being built.  But the story illustrates the risks from the current trade environment to rural America and/or to farmers by reference to an agribusiness enterprise--the one building the Iowa facility, but which is based in North Carolina.  There's actually not much emphasis on individual producers.  Here's an excerpt:  
The gleaming new factory is both the great hope of Wright County, [Iowa] which voted by a 2-1 margin for Donald Trump, and the victim of one of Trump’s first policy moves, his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

For much of industrial America, the TPP was a suspect deal, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which some argue led to a massive offshoring of U.S. jobs to Mexico. But for the already struggling agricultural sector, the sprawling 12-nation TPP, covering 40 percent of the world’s economy, was a lifeline. It was a chance to erase punishing tariffs that restricted the United States—the onetime “breadbasket of the world”—from selling its meats, grains and dairy products to massive importers of foodstuffs such as Japan and Vietnam.

The decision to pull out of the trade deal has become a double hit on places like Eagle Grove. The promised bump of $10 billion in agricultural output over 15 years, based on estimates by the U.S. International Trade Commission, won’t materialize. But Trump’s decision to withdraw from the pact also cleared the way for rival exporters such as Australia, New Zealand and the European Union to negotiate even lower tariffs with importing nations, creating potentially greater competitive advantages over U.S. exports.

A POLITICO analysis found that the 11 other TPP countries are now involved in a whopping 27 separate trade negotiations with each other, other major trading powers in the region like China and massive blocs like the EU. Those efforts range from exploratory conversations to deals already signed and awaiting ratification. Seven of the most significant deals for U.S. farmers were either launched or concluded in the five months since the United States withdrew from the TPP.
Here's a piece on Trump and NAFTA from the AgLaw Blog back in March, 2017.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Rural Virginia as sanctuary from the city, and from fame

This is a major theme in a piece that ran this weekend in the New York Times about Jeanette Walls, former NYC gossip columnist at New York Magazine made rich and (more) famous about a decade ago from the sale of her memoir. The Glass Castle, which spent seven years on the NYT Bestseller List.  Now that a film based on the book will be released this week (starring Brie Larson as Walls and Woody Harrelson as her father), Walls is getting renewed attention, including this piece by Ruth La Ferla.  Here's a nice summary of the book and movie, which also serve to foreshadow Walls' rural retreat from NYC to Orange, Virginia, population 4,721.  
Hasty retreats are a theme in the film, as they are in Ms. Walls’s 2005 bookof the same title. It is an alternately wrenching and exhilarating yarn of a childhood spent shuttling with her willfully shiftless parents from one parched Southwestern locale to another, and finally, when the family’s resources dry out, settling in Welch, the dilapidated West Virginia mining town that was her father’s childhood home.
La Ferla also writes of Walls' parallel adult decision to retreat from the city after her book became a bestseller:
She had few qualms about abandoning the cocktail-fueled chatter and red-carpet extravaganzas for the verdant seclusion of a 205-acre horse farm in Virginia.
And then she quotes Walls at some length, too, about what the move to rural Virginia means to her:
I know I’ll be O.K. here.  In New York, I’m not so sure. A lot of those gossip columnists, they lose their platform. Walter Winchell spent the last part of his life hanging out on street corners and handing out mimeographed columns. That was just an eye-opener for me. 
I wanted a place where I could go broke and still grow vegetables, bail water out of the creek and shoot deer.  If worse comes to worst, I’ll survive.
As for the city she left behind, Walls explains:
The city is like an old boyfriend with whom I amicably split.  
I read The Glass Castle back when it was released and seemed to have a love-hate relationship with it.  It was powerful indeed, though also uncomfortable  at many turns.  For me, it was a real tear-jerker, some of the characters a bit to close to the bone, too close to some folks from my own childhood.

This feature about Walls reminds me of this piece about Robert Duvall's Virginia retreat, from the Wall Street Journal a few months ago.  The Duvall story focused more on seclusion than survival, but also evoked the rural idyll.  Duvall calls Byrnley Farms, his property, "choice land."
The air is clean, which he appreciates. Mostly what he likes about it, though, is that it’s not the city. “The great Texas playwright Horton Foote once said a lot of people in New York don’t know what goes on beyond the south Jersey Shore, which is true,” Mr. Duvall says. “I mean, New York is a wonderful place. But it’s not the beginning and end of America. Nor is L.A.” 
The Duvall farm, is in The Plains, Virginia (population 217), in Fauquier County (population 65,203), but part of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area.  It is one of the fastest growing and highest income counties in the United States.  Orange, Walls' home, is in the more central part of the state, not far from Charlottesville.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

My Rural Travelogue (Part XVII): The Lost Sierra

Sierraville, California, July 16, 2017
A few weeks ago I had occasion to re-visit the Sierra Valley, a massive valley that straddles Sierra and Plumas counties in California.  Head up Hwy 89 from Truckee, and about 25 miles ahead you'll descend into it, an area some have called the lost Sierras because it's relatively little known.  As you pull into Sierraville at the southern edge of the Valley (coming from Truckee), one of the first things you'll see is this sign, Eat Beef.  Sierra and Plumas County Cattle Women.  When I first drove through the valley about four years ago, on a business trip to Plumas County, I was too rushed to stop and take a photo, a mistake I did not repeat this time around.  In fact, running ahead of schedule to drop my son off at a camp in Graeagle--another 21 miles north--I stopped at Sierraville Service and Country Store, a well stocked establishment (with immaculate public toilets...but no Perrier or other fizzy water for sale, at least that I could find).  As is often the case on scenic northern California's highways, lots of motorcyclists were hanging around, taking advantage of the facilities, the store, and the opportunity for a break from the winding roads.  A "pop-up" display of rocks and geodes and such were for sale next to the store's picnic area (you can see just the edge of a table to the right of the sign in the photo), which was beautifully accented with blooming plants and a rickety old wooden wagon.
Sierraville Elementary School, July 16, 2017
Out behind the grocery/service station I spotted the "Report Agricultural Crime" sign offering a reward of up to $2,500 for anonymous information.  It was the first like this I had ever seen, even as I have traversed some of the state's most rural reaches.  Of course it resembles other signs encouraging people to report crime, signs you often see in metropolitan areas, but I note that this one specifies "agricultural" crime and that the hat the silhouette image of the "bad guy" is wearing appears to be a cowboy hat--as opposed to the fedora one sees on the standard sign.
Behind Sierraville Service and Country Store,
July 16, 2017

Sierraville boasts Sierra County's only stoplight--according to wikipedia.  At that stop sign, Highway 89 joins Hwy 49 to head north and east to Loyalton or north and west to Graeagle.  Not far from Sierraville Service and Country Store--and right across from the post office--is the elementary school shown above.  I wonder if there was ever  high school in Sierraville and where high school age students are bussed?  Probably Loyalton's Sierra Pass High School, which I see has a total of 109 students, 9-12 grades.

Before you leave Sierra County along the latter road you hit Sattley, population 49, and the memorable Sattley Cash Store pictured below (does "cash" mean they don't grant credit?).  Some beautiful old homes--not all still inhabited--punctuate the valley's sprawling pastures.  

Sierra County's population is just 3,240, the second least populous in the state.  I'm going to return with another post soon about the rest of my drive through the county.  On the return journey from Graeagle, I descended down Highway 49 (south), from near Sierraville, over the Yuba Pass, into Sierra City, Downieville (the county seat), North San Juan, Nevada City and down to Auburn where 49 meets Interstate 80.
Sattley Cash Store, July 22, 2017

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Closing up shop in rural America (Part I)

The New York Times ran a story last week, dateline San Luis, Colorado, about a "mom and pop" grocery store--the oldest in Colorado (because San Luis is the oldest town in the state).  The long-time owners of the story are in their 70s and want to retire, but no one has stepped up to buy the store, to take over its operation.  Here's an excerpt from the story, "Who Wants to Run that Mom-and-Pop Market?  Almost No One" that puts it in national perspective.  
Across the country, mom-and-pop markets are among the most endangered of small-town businesses, with competition from corporations and the hurdles of timeworn infrastructure pricing owners out. In Minnesota, 14 percent of nonmetropolitan groceries have closed since 2000. In Kansas, more than 20 percent of rural markets have disappeared in the past decade. Iowa lost half of its groceries between 1995 and 2005.
* * *
The phenomenon is a “crisis” that is turning America’s breadbaskets into food deserts, said David E. Procter, a Kansas State University professor whose work has focused on rural food access, erasing a bedrock of local economies just as rural communities face a host of other problems.
* * * 
[I]n this ranch town, where the closest reliably stocked market is 40 miles away, the threat to R & R Market raises questions about the community’s very survival.
This matter of community survival is a topic of prior blog posts, some of which are here, here and here.  The Center for Rural Affairs wrote about the issue here, with links to earlier related entries and sources on their website.

Julie Turkewitz, the journalist who wrote the story, quotes Bob Rael, director of the county's economic development council, 
If that little store closes, it’s going to be catastrophic. Reality is going to set in. Who let this happen?
That's an interesting quote, not least because I'm not sure what any private individual has the power to do about the closure.  So who might/will be to blame if it does come to pass?

The population of Costilla County, the ninth least populous in Colorado, is 3,524, and it lies on the border with New Mexico. Turkewitz makes this poignant observation about the place:
To visit San Luis is to enter a world that has persisted despite, or perhaps because of, the most extreme of circumstances.
* * *  
In town, residents still speak the Spanish of their ancestors. And on the outskirts, fields of alfalfa sip from an irrigation ditch that those settlers dug by hand. 
This is high desert country, where a few inches of rain fall in a year, winters dip far below zero and the big city nearby is Alamosa, population 9,918. There is no bank, no gas line, and the electricity sometimes goes out for hours.
Turkewitz also explains that taking on a business like a grocery store is a high risk venture, especially with the Trump administration proposing major cuts to programs that support rural America, including SNAP (food stamps) and small-business loans.  Thirty percent of the county's residents receive SNAP.

This is a beautifully written story with lots of historical, economic and political context.  The photographs are exquisite, some quite poignant.  

I'm going to return soon to the topic of business closures--or at least businesses for sale--in rural America.  In that future post I'm going to draw on a recent drive through California's Gold Rush country (Hwy 49--named for the forty-niners--through the northern Sierra) and the many for-sale signs I saw there.  

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why don't you just move to the city?

That is the implicit message (sometimes explicit!) to rural folks when they complain about what they don't have service-wise, when they complain about their crummy labor markets, when they point out what it's like to be on the crappy end of the digital divide.  Rather than attempt to alleviate inequities across the rural-urban axis, many think rural residents should just move to the city if they are unhappy with what the government is not providing in rural places.

I have argued elsewhere that one problem with this posture is that it assumes mobility--it assumes that people can just pick up and move.  And that's not really a fair assumption, especially for low-income folks.  Moving is expensive, and it can be risky.  (Of course, this advice also ignores rural attachment to place, but that's another issue).

Now, the Wall Street Journal has published the third installment in its "One Nation, Divisible" series, and it's all about rural lack of mobility.  Here are some key excerpts from "Struggling Americans Once Sought Greener Pastures.  Now They're Stuck" by  Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg.
[O]verall mobility of the U.S. population is at its lowest level since measurements were first taken at the end of World War II, falling by almost half since its most recent peak in 1985. 
In rural America, which is coping with the onset of socioeconomic problems that were once reserved for inner cities, the rate of people who moved across a county line in 2015 was just 4.1%, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. That’s down from 7.7% in the late 1970s. It has fallen faster than the mobility rate in metropolitan areas, which the rural rate is now slightly below. 
This drop in mobility is not only keeping rural residents from climbing a ladder to better livelihoods, it is choking off the labor supply for employers in areas where jobs are plentiful. This limits the economic growth that naturally occurs when people and capital cluster together, says David Schleicher, a professor at Yale Law School who has studied the issue.
* * * 
Economists say there are several practical reasons for the declining rural mobility—the first being the cost of housing. While small-town home prices have only modestly recovered from the housing market meltdown, years of restrictive land-use regulations have driven up prices in metropolitan areas to the point where it is difficult for all but the most highly educated professionals to move.
The story's dateline is West Branch, Michigan (population 2,139), which is in Ogemaw County (population 21,699) in the northern part of the state, more than three hours from Detroit.  Adamy and Overberg also touch on the rural vote and how the inability to migrate to cities is fueling the nation's burgeoning inequality gap.  And they acknowledge that "cultural" issues, as well as economic ones, may lead rural folks to stay put.  
Civic leaders here say extended networks of friends and family and a tradition of church groups that will cover heating bills, car repairs and septic services—often with no questions asked—also dissuade the jobless and underemployed from leaving.

Tom Quinn, president of the local Kirtland Community College, says the rationale boils down to: “I’ve got good social services. I’m stuck in one big rut. If you ask me to go to Indianapolis, I can’t—even if there’s a job there.” 
“People can’t move,” says Mandi Chasey, county economic development director.
I have written about the significance of these small-town and rural networks of kith and kin--and of informal economies--here and here.  

Another aspect of the "cultural" barrier to relocation relates to trust, or the lack thereof:
Economists have tried to measure whether Americans’ eroding trust in one another is damping mobility—such confidence helps ease the transition to a new town—and found signs that this sliding trust may be keeping people from uprooting.
According to the GSS, the share of Americans who agree with the statement “Most people can be trusted” has fallen over the past four decades to 31% in 2016 from 46% in 1972.
The story provides some interesting anecdotes illustrating this trust/distrust point, and some of the are decidedly raced, e.g., rural northern Michigan vs. Detroit. 

The economic slice of this feature reminds me of a comment Assemblyman Brian Dahle made when he visited my Law and Rural Livelihoods course in the spring semester of this year.  Dahle represents California's 1st District (stretching from north Lake Tahoe to the Oregon line) in the state legislature, and he lives and farms in tiny Bieber, in the northern part of Lassen County.  Talking about the State of Jefferson movement and why so many far northern Californians are so agitated, Dahle said, "I think a lot of people are angry because they own a house in Bieber."  From this I understood him to say that some folks are stuck in a rural place with/by home ownership (and a housing market without a lot of churn and perhaps declining property values)--but without a good job. 

This WSJ piece also reminds me of the "just transitions" literature, which considers what we owe people who are left behind as local economies, e.g., coal extraction, shift.  Does the government owe the folks of West Branch government assistance so that, if they desire to do so, they can "move to town"?

Post script on August 12, 2017.   Here is a piece from Dame Magazine titled, "Can't Find Work.  Trump Says Just Move to Wisconsin."  As that headline suggests, it's apropos to this blog post.  The piece is by Megan Carpentier, who writes from an unidentified "village" in upstate New York.  An excerpt follows, quoting a then-recent Wall Street Journal interview with President Trump:
I still don't want to live there, but I do understand better that where you live is, for many people, much, much more than what you do and where you can do it. Someone, though, perhaps should've told President Donald Trump, who in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday explained that the people still living where I grew up should simply abandoned their homes and their communities and move to Wisconsin. 
"I'm going to start explaining to people, when you have an area that just isn't working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you'll have another area 500 miles away where you can't get people, I'm going to explain, you can leave," he told the [Wall Street Journal's] editors and reporters. "It's OK. Don't worry about your house." 
Now, maybe it's hard for people that didn't grow up upstate to understand the dynamic of a downstate businessman-president city-splaining to us rubes that we're foolish to hold on to something as meaningless as real estate when there's a $54,000/year job to be had 864 miles away in Kenosha, Wisconsin**, but let me try. 
Fuck. You. 
The just-abandon-your-property-for-greener-pastures plan has been a complete disaster for Detroit. It drives down property values overall, decimating what financial legacy those low-income and middle-income workers can provide to their heirs in order to influencetheir social mobility (and the lack of inherited wealth is a significant cause of continuing racialized economic inequality), reduces the tax base, undermines the provision to remaining residents of necessary services and rips established communities asunder. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Hunting as a (multi-dimensional) rural livelihood

Blake Farmer of Public Radio's Marketplace reports today from Tennessee about hunting, which he says once was a way to feed your family but now is more a sport for the affluent.  This is interesting --and I would suggest, "wrong"--because I am convinced that many rural folks --especially low-to-modest means folks--still use hunting and fishing to feed their families, not merely for recreation.  (This was a significant theme of my article here, as it explored the disconnect b/w working class and middle class/professional/managerial class --or b/w rural and urban).   Here is a salient except from Farmer's story, "Amid Urbanization and Expense, Hunting Declines as a Hobby":
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife data, the number of licensed hunters is down from a high point of nearly 17 million in the early 1980s to roughly 15 million today. The national drop has come over a period that the country has grown by nearly 100 million people, meaning the percentage of Americans who hunt is down considerably. 
Still, Konyndyk's state of Tennessee is near its all-time high with 717,000 permitted hunters, and the participation rates vary widely by region. Census data from 2010 finds that hunting is most popular in the East South Central region, which includes Tennessee and Kentucky, where 11 percent of the population claims to hunt. In the Pacific region, however, just 3 percent told Census takers that they hunt.
* * *
The headwinds against hunting are pretty simple: An industry analysis from IBISWorld published this year says that as the country continues to urbanize, exposure to hunting becomes more limited, and more people see the activity in a negative light.
As this excerpt highlights, Farmer arguably misses an important point.  Hobby be damned.  Hunting is still very much about livelihoods for many people in this country.  Sadly, those folks remains invisible, forgotten, unseen, so that Farmer is only talking about "hobbies" and hobbyists.

This reminds me of how commentators like Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd ridiculed Sarah Palin for hunting, one of them commenting that she "eviscerat[ed] animals for fun."  These New York Times columnists were oblivious to the fact--or simply didn't care--that they were also ridiculing folks who hunt to feed their families, who hunt as a livelihood/provision strategy.   Read more here on that theme.

See one of my former student's posts about how hunting regulations evince metro centrism here and another's posts on children and guns here. Some other former posts about hunting are here and here.  

Monday, July 31, 2017

Optimism, out of (and about) rural Minnesota

The President of the University of Minnesota, Eric Kaler, published this in The Hill today, asserting that the rural brain drain is being stemmed, to at least some extent, in Minnesota. The lede and a further excerpt follow:
The challenge of the “brain drain” from rural America to the big city, in some parts of the country, is very real. But the Pew Charitable Trust’s recent report provides proof that it doesn’t have to be. 
The reality is that rural America can continue to prosper and grow, but only by using all of the tools and techniques available to rural communities. Higher education, particularly land-grant institutions, must be part of the equation. 
* * *  
Years ago the county extension agent, typically focused on agricultural issues, was a mainstay in states across the Midwest. In Minnesota, our University of Minnesota Extension, a college-like entity within the University of Minnesota, served all 87 counties (and still does) but again, with a focused effort to improve the productivity, efficiency and safety of agricultural producers. Today the focus remains, but with a multi-layered effort, using resources across the university to support entire communities toward their shared success.
* * *
University of Minnesota research quantifiably demonstrates, using the 2010 Census data as a benchmark, that some rural communities are actually growing their population of 30- to 49-year-olds. This cohort is not moving back to a dismal future at the peak of their earning potential. They are moving back to vibrant, exciting opportunities that enrich their lives, their families, and their communities.
Then there is this column/post from a few weeks ago on the blog Minnesota Brown, by Aaron Brown who writes from the state's Iron Range--we're talking Hibbing, Virginia and Chisholm.  (If you don't know anything about the Iron Range, an entertaining--and gripping--two-hour introduction is Charlize Theron's 2005 movie "North Country.")  Brown's bottom line is that his community needs to think more about the future and spend less time lamenting the passage of the good ol' days.   Here's an excerpt, starting with the lede:
On the Mesabi Iron Range, our society rests upon the achievements of this region’s fading youth. We speak of our ancestors’ hungry demand for better working conditions and pay. We memorialize their desire to build schools and small towns to elevate humans from the morass. Yes, we call this history and print it on our signs. 
But what are we doing to improve the working conditions and pay of a majority of the people who live here now? How will we raise people from the maw of an economy that chews them up?
And speaking of people, his focus is young people:
Listen to our young people. Not just your kid, but other kids. Poor kids. Kids without connections. Kids like I was, growing up on the junkyard out in Zim. If you listen, they talk about a future beyond what they see around them. They want more than the same job mom or dad had. They want a world that provides options and opportunity.
As illustrations of a different, robust, appealing future, Brown touts a new Iron Range Makerspace, Hibbing's Dylan Project, and the Borealis Art Guild (also in Hibbing).

Brown also takes up the pervasive rural-urban tension, associating federal regulation with the urban enemy (not in his mind, but he suggests it is part of the ethos of his region)
If some find pleasure in pitting our future against that of our state’s metropolitan region, so be it. I too have chosen to live here, not there, for reasons familiar to most reading this column. And if your ideology leads you to despise regulation, the Clean Air Act, or anything so much as whispered by a self-described “environmentalist,” well, our country allows you to hold and even shout those beliefs. 
But do not be fooled. Regulation kills far fewer jobs than apathy, shrinking demographics and opposition to market and cultural change. 
One of his overarching messages is that rural northern Minnesota will be just fine, thank you very much, and that it will be able to compete in the future.  In fact he seems to anticipate a rural gentrification of sorts, an influx of city folk who will come, whether the region actually welcomes and encourages them or not.
The cold fact is that our region needs people: workers, customers, students and entrepreneurs. We need more people than we can produce. Hardly our enemies, people who live elsewhere will one day enrich this region by becoming part of it. We can invite them. Or we can wait for our fresh water, cheap real estate, and drought-free environment to attract them independently. They will come. We might be in rough shape. We might be dead. But they will come. The only thing we can resist is our ability to accept and influence the inevitable change.
That passage reminds me of the story of Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post, a story now well known to Minnesotans.  Read more here.  (To be clear, Red Lake County is not in the Iron Range, but it is in northern Minnesota and, by many accounts, quite scenic).

But back to Brown's post.  One of his closing lines is the best, most uplifting, and inspiring of all (pithy, too!).
We must expand the meaning of the honorable title, Iron Ranger.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Retrospective out of southwest Oregon

Jeff Brady, a journalist with National Public Radio, filed this story out of his home town, Gold Beach, Oregon (population 2,253), a week or so ago.  Brady grew in Curry County (population 22,364), and he's returned as part of an NPR series where journalists visit their hometowns to see and talk about what has changed since they left.  Gold Beach's story is not uncommon in that part of the world.  It is one of a transition from commercial fishing, logging and timber-based economy to one based largely on tourism.  You see, the Rogue River meets the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach. 

Here's an excerpt, but the story is well worth a listen in its entirety. 
Most of my classmate's parents worked in jobs connected to logging. My dad, for example, worked for the U.S. Forest Service where he helped manage the two-thirds of Curry County that is federal land.

Back then, timber was king and it seemed like the industry always would be at the center of Gold Beach's economic life.
"It was our number one employer at the time. People came from everywhere to work at the mill," says Gold Beach City Councilor Tamie Kaufman. She's a friend and former classmate of mine. 
Recently Kaufman and I walked around an old plywood mill site, a few miles up the Rogue River from Gold Beach. The mill closed after logging slowed down in nearby federal forests. One factor was environmental concerns and efforts to preserve the spotted owl. 
The mill burned in 1991 and never re-opened. Now the site has, ironically, been taken over by trees. 
Without the wages and regular overtime the mill paid, Tamie says the region has struggled economically. Poverty is a persistent problem.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

NYT Coverage of Remote Area Medical site in Appalachian Virginia

The New York Times' Trip Gabriel reported in Monday's paper on the Remote Area Medical Clinic that had run in Wise, Virginia over the weekend.  A photo of the clinic appeared on the front page, with the full story on page 9.  The headline is, "When Health Law Isn't Enough, the Desperate Line up at Tents." Here's the lede:
Anthony Marino, 54, reached into his car trunk to show a pair of needle-nosed pliers like the ones he used to yank out a rotting tooth. 
Shirley Akers, 58, clutched a list of 20 medications she takes, before settling down to a sleepless night in the cab of a pickup truck. 
Robin Neal, 40, tried to inject herself with a used-up insulin pen, but it broke, and her blood sugar began to skyrocket. 
As the sun set in the mountains of southwest Virginia, hundreds of hurting souls were camped out or huddled in vehicles, eager for an early place in line when the gates swung open at 5 a.m. for the nation’s largest pop-up free clinic.
I first learned of this RAM clinic in Wise on Saturday when Ralph Northam, Democratic Party nominee for Governor of Virginia and a physician, Tweeted that he was volunteering at the clinic.

Wise is quite near Grundy, Virginia,  the dateline for this Washington Post piece, which appeared in print on Sunday.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Chuck Shumer's big idea for the Democratic Party (and its explicit attention to rural America)

Chuck Schumer, Senate Minority Leader, has an op-ed in today's New York Times, and it makes several references to rural America.  The title is "A Better Deal for American Workers."  Here's an excerpt about the over-arching plan Schumer says Democrats have for the country:
First, we’re going to increase people’s pay. Second, we’re going to reduce their everyday expenses. And third, we’re going to provide workers with the tools they need for the 21st-century economy. 
Over the next several months, Democrats will lay out a series of policies that, if enacted, will make these three things a reality. We’ve already proposed creating jobs with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan; increasing workers’ incomes by lifting the minimum wage to $15; and lowering household costs by providing paid family and sick leave.
Here's an excerpt that acknowledges the economic needs of rural people and places:
Right now millions of unemployed or underemployed people, particularly those without a college degree, could be brought back into the labor force or retrained to secure full-time, higher-paying work. We propose giving employers, particularly small businesses, a large tax credit to train workers for unfilled jobs. This will have particular resonance in smaller cities and rural areas, which have experienced an exodus of young people who aren’t trained for the jobs in those areas
In the coming months, we’ll offer additional ideas, from rebuilding rural America to fundamentally changing our trade laws to benefit workers, not multinational corporations.
A couple of thoughts:  (1) I wonder what "rebuilding rural America" means.  (2)  I have become a skeptic of public-private partnerships, which seem to enrich the private at the expense of the commonwealth.   I also wonder about what sorts of small businesses in truly rural or very rural places might be available to engage in these partnerships.  (3) I doubt Schumer is going to reach many rural voters by publishing this piece in the New York Times.  But at least he can say he mentioned them--twice!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Maine Governor (and mini-Trump) Paul LePage's expensive taste exposed

Don't miss this piece in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald on the recent spending habits of Governor Paul LePage and his entourage, particularly in DC.

With his imprudent and loose-lipped communication style, I have often thought of LePage as a little Trump, a Trump wannabe, or a Trump minion in any event.  Indeed, LePage was in Washington, DC, for meetings with the Trump administration.  Turns out, LePage is also fond of Trump's International Hotel in DC.  Those are pricey digs for public servants in a state in perennial financial straits.  I'm glad to see the state newspaper digging into this story.  

Meanwhile, Susan Collins (R) in the U.S. Senate looks as sensible and pragmatic as ever--and at least pays lip service to rural Maine.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

New Netflix series set in my part of the country: Ozark

The Atlantic magazine reports this week on Netflix's "Ozark" under the headline:  "Ozark: Netflix's Grim Foray Into Flyover Country" and the subhead, "The new 10-hour drama follows a Chicago financial adviser forced to move to Missouri to launder money for a cartel."  Here's an interesting excerpt:
Ozark has the potential to be many interesting things, and the fact that it commits to none of them feels like overextension. With America’s rural and coastal divide sharper than ever, a premise that drops a tony Chicago family into flyover country is full of promise, particularly because Bill Dubuque, the show’s creator, worked in the area during college, and still lives in Missouri. Even if you’re as hell-bent on dourness as Ozark is, the environment is rich with narrative potential, as the stories of Daniel Woodrell and the 2010 film Winter’s Bone would attest. And yet Ozark can’t get into it. It wants to unpack this intriguing rural community, but it also wants to be a drama about an unlikely criminal, like Breaking Bad, and a show about a boring marriage revived by a shared mission, like The Americans, and a fable about how everyone’s trying to make a living the best way they know how, just like The Wire.
 The link embedded there is to a New York Times review of the series.
Elsewhere on the lake, assumptions about families and class are similarly subverted. An extended clan of petty crooks is overseen by one of its youngest members, a teenage girl. Perhaps the warmest relationship on the show is a marriage between two other local criminals, a pair of murderous heroin dealers.
That story also makes this statement, which reminds me of the series "Justified," specifically where matriarch of the local crime family Mags Bennet gets the best of the Harvard-educated lawyer trying to do a land deal with her on behalf of "Big Energy."  Here's the NYT excerpt about the "Ozark" equivalent.  
Marty, the arrogant Chicago financial expert, is consistently thwarted by locals who are smarter than he assumes, with schemes of their own. “He makes a really bad miscalculation in what he perceives that environment’s going to be, and his ability to manipulate it,” Mr. Bateman said.
By the way, the lake referred to is the manmade Lake of the Ozarks, a section (Party Cove) of which the NYTimes referred to in a 2005 story as “'the oldest established permanent floating bacchanal in the country'”— where expansive waterfront mansions sit within a few miles of trailer parks."

For some of my posts on Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone --or, more precisely, Debra Granik's film based on it--see here, here, here, and here.  A post on another Woodrell book set in the region, The Maid's Tale, is here.

As a 6th generation Ozarkian myself--albeit from the Arkansas side of the state line--I'll be keeping an eye out for "Ozark."

Friday, July 21, 2017

On arson (and love?) in rural, coastal Virginia

A student emailed me this NPR story a few days ago; it's actually a review of a new book, American Fire:  Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land, by Monica Hesse, a Washington Post journalist.  The book tells the fuller version of a story Hesse reported for the Post in 2014, that of 86 fires that besieged Accomack County, Virginia, on the DelMarVa peninsula, over the course of just a few months in 2012-13.  Here's how Hesse describes her attraction to the story:
This story had everything. It had 86 fires ... over the course of five months; it had a community that was in a panic; it had the setting of a place that used to be the richest rural county in all of the United States and has now fallen into disrepair, which is the reason they had all of these abandoned buildings to begin with. And then it had a love story. And so you couldn't ask for a more epic human experience than everything that was wrapped up in this story for me.
Here's another absolutely priceless part of Michele Martin's interview with Hesse--priceless, I think, for what it captures about rural America--or at least some slices of it--right now (and, I suppose, for what it captures about human nature):
There was one person who I didn't quote in the book, who said to me, "Don't put this in your book, but I kind of miss the arsons because I really felt like my life meant something at that time; because I really felt like I knew what my community needed from me and I could do that in a really tangible way." And so one of the things that I hadn't expected to find was how, while the community was being burned down, the community was also knitting itself together in really close and unexpected and kind of lovely ways, too.
One of the most interesting aspects of my dig into this story and the book it spawned was the comments readers left on the initial Washington Post story, once they were drawn back to it by the book's publicity.  That is, these comments were left in July, 2017, not in 2014 when the story initially ran.  The point I want to make about the story (and presumably the book) is the defensive posture they put Eastern shore residents in.  Here is one comment:
Hesse is spinning a fantasy to promote her forthcoming book. The Eastern Shore is gorgeous - not the Dogpatch she depicts. She makes it sound like all the residents are uncouth white trash. In reality, the Eastern Shore is like most places, only more beautiful - the affluent residents have a wonderful lifestyle while the poor people, unemployed people, and living-on-the-dole people have it not so great. She has taken two miscreants who would generally be considered white trash and tried to romanticize them into something more compelling and glamorous. Hesse has attempted to make sense in a sensationalist way of an irrational act while idealizing a petty crook and his attention-seeking moll - but, hey, she is now marketing a basically uninteresting crime in the vehicle of a non-fiction best seller. Please leave that to Joseph Wambaugh who had a really compelling arsonist as well as writing talent. Sorry, but reading about this is about as interesting as shopping at Walmart and getting coffee at McDonalds.
Here's another:
I am stunned and frankly angered by the reckless hyperbole of this writer in describing the Eastern Shore of Virginia as a "vanishing land," "decimated" and "half gutted before the fires even began." That's complete nonsense. It's true we have many economic challenges, like most of rural America, but we chose to live here, run a business and never regretted it. I've never had such good friends and neighbors who look out for each other, and any day of the week and I can experience pristine nature, see myriad bird life, and get out kayaking on the water within minutes (no traffic!). We have the longest undeveloped seaside left on the East Coast, 70+ miles of it. We haven't wrecked our barrier islands like other places. We have the Chesapeake Bay on the other side, a booming aquaculture industry and some of the best sea kayaking on the East Coast. Come and stay longer, going kayaking or get out on a fishing boat and see what life is really about here. We work hard, play hard enjoying unspoiled Nature and are very proud of our Shore. I'm disappointed that the antics of two disturbed individuals of 5 years ago somehow makes this a sad and forlorn place in anyone's eyes. Believe me, we have moved on.
I'm not saying whose depiction of the Eastern Shore is accurate--just that it's interesting to see how the folks who've chosen to live in a place can be so sensitive about its depiction--and vigorous in their defense of it. I first noticed that when I started to write about my own hometown.  In some ways, bad-mouthing someone's home town is tantamount to bad-mouthing their mother.  The stuff can be pretty close to the heart.

As for the descriptions of Accomack County, they remind me of time I've spent in the northern neck of Virginia.  Read more here.

And back to the book for a moment:  I see it is on the NYTimes list of 10 books they recommend this  week.  

Part III of Washington Post series on rural disability: Disabled and Disdained

The third part of Terrence McCoy's series on rurality and disability was posted this morning to the Washington Post website, and this one focuses on the disdain that rural community members often feel and express towards their neighbors who are receiving disability benefits.  I blogged about the earlier installments of the series here.

The dateline for this story is Grundy, Virginia, population 1,021, in the southwestern part of the state, coal country, Appalachia.  McCoy features the McGlothlin family, the matriarch of which receives disability--a $500 check each month for her anxiety and depression.  Her 19-year-old son Tyler is the family member who panhandles at a busy intersection 30 miles away from their home.  He does that when the cupboards are bare, as on one of the days when McCoy follows him:
Tyler would hold a sign on the side of the road and beg for money. He would go to a town 30 miles down the road and stand at one of the region’s busiest intersections, where he prayed no one would recognize him, to plead for help from people whose lives seemed so far removed from his own. 
To Tyler, the collapse of the coal industry had left two kinds of people in these mountains. There are those who work. And there are those who don’t: the unemployed, the disabled, the addicted, and the people who, like his family, belonged to all three groups. Those who work rarely mix with those who don’t, except in brief encounters at the grocery store, at the schools or, for Tyler, along the side of the road, where he knew he was likely to encounter acts of generosity as well as outbursts of resentment.
The other person featured prominently in the story is Dennis Hess, who had previously confronted Tyler's dad, Dale, for panhandling.  (Dale is now in jail for selling drugs).  After the elder McGlothlin, who also received disability benefits after working for 30 years as a coal miner, declined Hess's offer of employment, Hess stood by McGlothlin with a sign that said, "I offered him a job.  And he refused."  Hess also posted about McGlothlin on Facebook and soon many were criticizing him, with comments such as:
  • He is a lazy bum.  Im sorry if he can stand there outside and hold a sign he could work in some capacity..I have cancer and I’m ill but I work yet. 
  • Why don’t his wife get off her butt and get a job?  
  • I’M JUST TIRED OF BEING RIPPED OFF BY PEOPLE!
McCoy provides some context: 
Nearly two-thirds of rural Americans say it’s more common for irresponsible people to receive government help they don’t deserve than for needy people to go without assistance, compared with 48 percent of city residents, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Rural Americans are also more apt to say poverty is the result of laziness (emphasis added).
McCoy also quotes me, along with Jennifer Sherman, author of Those Who Work, Those Who Don't:  Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America, about which I wrote extensively here.  Indeed, the sub-head for the Washington Post piece is "In rural America, some towns are divided between those who work and those who don’t."

Media treatment of work, industry, and laziness is so important in this era when liberal elites frequently focus on "privilege" and downplay the importance of work, which might be seen as synonymous with "merit."  As for me, well, I see more "merit" in work and industry  than I do in being born into the right family, the family that can afford for its children to do an unpaid externship rather than get a paid job, the family that can afford an SAT prep course but then see their child's academic success as the product of discipline and merit.  When elites poo poo the importance of work and tell whites that they don't get ahead because they work hard but rather because of the color of their skin, they are running seriously afoul of an ethos that sees work as king.

McCoy's story is a powerful one of the potent, even vitriolic clash between those who work and those who don't in rural America, and it's one in which the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities looms large.  Here are some telling quotes of Sheila McGlothlin, Tyler's mother, about her place in the community and the role of reputation:
“Once you get a name, you always got a name,” she had said the day before to a relative who also draws disability. “You can never disappear.” 
“The only way something dies on you around here is if the people dies out,” the relative had said. “I worked in the coal mines, and my nephews won’t even give me the damn time of day. Act like I’m going to steal something off them all the time because I ain’t got much.”
The piece is well worth a read in its entirety.   As usual, McCoy lets his subjects do most of the talking for themselves, using many direct quotes.  The photos, by Linda Davidson, are searing.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Rural healthcare in the news (Part II)

It's the day after Mitch McConnell pulled BCRA (the Budget Care Reconciliation Act) from consideration, a decision prompted by the announcement of Senators Mike Lee of Utah (R) and Jerry Moran  (R) of Kansas that they would not support the bill.  Some pundits have noted that both Lee and Moran were elected in 2016 with comfortable margins, suggesting that they are lending cover to other more vulnerable Republicans who would be more reluctant to stand up to McConnell and Trump.  Others have noted that Moran was rare among Republican Senators in that he held town hall meetings with constituents during the recent summer recess.  I have not, however, seen folks talk about the rurality or urbanicity of Utah and Kansas.  I suspect that most are like me in that they think of Utah and Kansas as largely rural states.  In fact, both are highly urbanized, especially Utah, which is the 8th most urbanized state in the nation, with 90.58% of the population living in "urban" places, as that term is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (population clusters of 2,500 or more).  As for Kansas, 74.2% of the population live in urban areas.  (Compare these figures with Maine, which is the least urbanized state, with 38.7% of the population living in cities, and with Mississippi, where just under half of the state's population are urban; ditto Montana).  I wonder, nevertheless, if a certain rural ethos or understanding or concern still dominates (or at least survives, persists) in states like Kansas and Utah--if the urban residents of these states still know lots of rural folks and care about the likely closure of rural hospitals that would have been wrought by the BCRA.  Might this have influenced Moran and Lee and even their urban constituents?

While I was in the midst of drafting the paragraph above, I got the push notification from the New York Times that three Senators have already declared that they will vote against McConnell's Plan C:  Repeal Obamacare now, but make the repeal effective only two years from now, which would give the Senate time to develop a replacement.  Those three Senators are all from states popularly thought of as rural:  Alaska, Maine and West Virginia.  Here's an excerpt from the story:
Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, all Republicans, immediately declared they could not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act without a replacement — enough to doom the effort before it could get any momentum.
For the record, 66% of Alaskans live in urban areas, but just 48.72% of West Virginia residents do.  Maine is the state with the highest percentage of rural residents, at nearly 39%, as noted above.

Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakoa), Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) (see image below from July 16) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) are among those I've seen expressing concerns about rural folks and rural hospitals as the vote on the BCRA has loomed.

As the headline for this post suggests, it is Part II of a short series on the attention rural people and places--and especially rural hospitals--have been getting since the U.S. House passed the AHCA and the U.S. Senate responded with the BCRA.  Part I is here.   Another such story is focused more on the rural doctor shortage, which it notes has not been part of the health care reform discussion.   Like the stories featured in my prior posts, this one is also from NPR, this time out of Bisbee, Arizona, a remote community (population 5,575) that lies some 70 miles south of Tucson and just about five miles north of the Mexican border.  The headline is especially interesting to me because it invokes a theme we've seen a lot post election--the fact (or at least assertion) that rural American has been forgotten.  It is "Doctor Shortage in Rural Arizona Provokes Another Crisis in 'Forgotten America.'"  The story provides some data that isn't very surprising for those of us who study rural:  By 2020, rural areas could be short 45,000 doctors by 2020, and those are conservative estimates according to some trade groups.  More than 70 rural hospitals have closed since 2010.

I find the story heavy on nostalgia as a reason we should care about places like Bisbee.  Kirk Siegler of NPR quotes the town's mayor, David Smith, who says many Bisbee residents are uninsured or rely on Medicaid.  He also says it's hard to recruit doctors because of the lack of amenities:
Among other things, this summer, the public pool is finally reopening. 
Still, there is no movie theater. There is only one grocery store left in town and no soccer fields. Little things like these can be a deal-breaker when it comes to recruiting new doctors and other professionals.
Siegler notes that this rural physician shortage isn't "even part of the health care debate in Washington right now." Smith sees the shortage as "part of a broader story of rural neglect" commenting that "Rural America is forgotten America."  And that leads into the nostalgic bit, again quoting Smith:  
Copper from Bisbee, Ariz., is what helped win World War I.  And yet, when we are in need, we are forgotten because it's not convenient — and because it's not a whole bunch of people here that are voters.
The CEO of the 14-bed Copper Queen Community Hospital notes the negative feedback loop in communities like his who are looking for physicians--physicians don't want to come because the pay is low, but the pay isn't going to get better and the amenities are not going to increase unless the local economy rebounds.  That's unlikely to happen because it wasn't diversified to begin with, hence the hard hit when copper ceased to be mined.  It's also hard to revitalize the economy in such a remote place.  The principal economic driver now is tourism, but that is largely seasonal.  Siegler also touches on the role of caps on visas for foreign-trained doctors, a source of physicians that communities like Bisbee have relied on in the past.  For now, the hospital is relying increasingly on telemedicine, including through the Mayo Clinic's Phoenix outpost.

All of this reminds me of another truth in relation to rural health care--well, rural services generally:  consolidation seems to be the name of the game.  Here's a June story from the Washington Post about how Planned Parenthood is closing clinics as services are increasingly consolidated.  With the most recent round of closures, Wyoming joins North Dakota as the only two states without a Planned Parenthood clinic.  

It'll be interesting to see, in the coming weeks, whether the GOP tries once more to repeal the Affordable Care Act and, if they do, what role rural people and their health care will play in this important policy discussion and decision making.  

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On crime, policing and addiction in small-town New Hampshire

This feature appeared in today's New York Times Magazine, "A Small Town Police Officer's War on Drugs," dateline Laconia, New Hampshire, population 15,951:
In September 2014, Eric Adams became the first person in New England — to his knowledge, the only person in the country — whose job title is prevention, enforcement and treatment coordinator. ‘‘I never thought I’d be doing something like this,’’ he told me. ‘‘I learned fast.’’ The department printed him new business cards: ‘‘The Laconia Police Department recognizes that substance misuse is a disease,’’ they read. ‘‘We understand you can’t fight this alone.’’ On the reverse, Adams’s cellphone number and email address were listed. He distributed these to every officer on patrol and answered his phone any time it rang, seven days a week. Strangers called him at 3 a.m., and Adams spoke with them for hours.
And here's a June story from the New Yorker on what communities in West Virginia are doing to protect their neighbors from opioid addiction. The headline is "The Addicts Next Door," and the subhead is "West Virginia has the highest overdose death rate in the country. Locals are fighting to save their neighbors—and their towns—from destruction."

Friday, July 14, 2017

Location, location, location: rural law schools and their role in the rural lawyer shortage

Location, Location, Location - a familiar mantra to most of us. It refers to the idea that location is a very important determining factor in the success of a given project or initiative. In this post, I will explore the role that rural law schools play in addressing the rural lawyer shortage. I will admit that my analysis of this issue will be focused on the eastern United States and I apologize in advance to any readers who may feel that I am ignoring great initiatives in the West.

Rural law schools are a relatively rare thing and understandably so. Law schools want to be in locations where internships, externships, and clerkships are easily accessible. Students, after all, expect a return on their law school investment and think that attending a law school where there are plethora of job opportunities will give them the best opportunity to make this happen. Even law schools associated with rural colleges are often placed in urban areas. We see this is in North Carolina with Elon and Campbell Universities, whose law schools are located in Greensboro and Raleigh respectively. In fact, when Campbell University moved their law school from their campus in Buies Creek in Harnett County, NC to downtown Raleigh in 2007, the move was justified by school administrators as a move designed to give students greater access to judges and law firms. The board chairman even said that the "world is changing" and that the move to Raleigh was in the best interests of the school.

There is the understandable idea that we have too many law schools. Much like lawyers, law schools are increasingly concentrated in just a handful of urban centers. For example:

  • The City of New York and Long Island, NY have 10 ABA accredited law schools (11, if you count Pace just to the north in White Plains). There are only 4 (Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany, and Cornell) in the rest of the state and only Cornell is located in what may be considered a rural community (but even that is stretching the definition of rural). 
  • 7 out of the 9 law schools in Massachusetts are located in the Boston metropolitan area and only 1 out of the 9 is located west of I-495.  
  • In the rest of New England, only Vermont Law School in South Royalton would qualify as particularly rural.
  • North Carolina has 8 law schools, not a single one is located in a rural part of the state and all are clustered along the I-40 and I-85 corridor in Central North Carolina. 
  • Virginia also has 8 law schools, and two are located in rural communities, Washington and Lee in Lexington and Appalachian Law in Grundy. 
With only ~50% of law graduates getting long-term legal jobs, it may seem obvious that reducing the number of law schools would result in a favorable outcome. However, is it possible that law schools, like lawyers, are distributed in a manner that encourages economically inefficient clustering in urban centers?

Lawyering - an urban profession

Data from the Occupational Employment Statistics within the Bureau of Labor Statistics bears out the idea that lawyers are disproportionately urban and that rural areas are facing a dramatic shortage. As mentioned in an earlier post, only one non-metropolitan area has a location quotient of >1.0, Southwestern Montana. In fact, looking at the maps embedded in the link I just provided, you can pinpoint metropolitan areas by looking for the darkly shaded regions on the location quotient map. Even in historically predominantly rural states like West Virginia, lawyers tend to congregate in urban centers like Charleston, which has a concentration of lawyers that is almost twice the national average.

What about rural students? Wouldn't they be good candidates for rural practice?

The best analysis of this that I have seen came from this piece, co-authored by our own Lisa Pruitt, that examined Arkansas and students at the University of Arkansas. I do not want to duplicate their work but I do want to mention one takeaway, there are relatively few students from rural communities attending law school.

The University of Nebraska is attending to address this and recently announced the creation of the Rural Law Opportunities Program, which will give high school graduates from rural Nebraska scholarships to attend one of three state universities and provided they meet certain criteria, admission into the University of Nebraska School of Law. As their website notes, 11 out of Nebraska's 93 counties have no lawyers at all. This is one approach to addressing this shortage.

Rural students are underrepresented in higher education more broadly. According to the New York Times, only 29 percent of rural 18-24 year olds are enrolled in higher education, a figure which pales in comparison to 47 percent of their urban and suburban peers. Further, undergraduate institutions are only now starting to actively recruit rural students. Even if law schools try to recruit rural students, absent a pipeline program like what the University of Nebraska has pioneered, they are going to find the pool a bit shallower than they may want.

The role of the rural law school

There is perhaps no more better exposure to an issue than being immersed in it. A student, attending a law school in an urban center, can go through their entire law school career without being exposed to any rural issues and never be provided with a reason to consider practicing there.

A student attending a law school in a rural community, such as South Royalton, Vermont or Grundy, Virginia, has the opportunity to be immersed in the local environment and have contact with local attorneys, local courts, and the problems of rural people. Rural schools can facilitate this exposure by offering legal clinics, as Vermont Law School does. Prolonged first hand exposure is perhaps the best way to help someone decide whether or not they want to practice in a given area.

The onus is on the rural law school however to make sure that these opportunities are available. It is possible to attend school in a rural community and learn little about rural practice, especially if a person leaves to extern in a larger city during the summer. The law school existing in a rural space is not enough, it has to try to integrate the students into their surroundings and it has to create partnerships with local attorneys and government agencies to make this possible.

Even if a person decides not to stay in a rural area after attending law school however, being in the area and working with the local legal system will make them more aware of the issue and the fact that the shortage needs to be addressed. Many of my friends, including those who attended law school, are unaware that there is even a shortage. Many of them, believing the news reports about the lawyer surplus, assume that the market is universally oversaturated with lawyers. Someone with first hand experience learning the law and working in a rural community would be able to see this for themselves and it would increase awareness of this issue. The hope is that these people will advocate for policies, such as increasing legal aid funding, that will lead to an increase in the supply of lawyers in a rural community.

I will admit a limitation to this idea. In my own research of the quantitative data behind the rural lawyer shortage, I have not seen any correlation between non-metropolitan areas where law schools are located and an increase in local lawyers but I concede that getting access to county level data may help me understand this better. Right now, my answer to this is inconclusive.

Would more rural law schools be a net positive?

There is little empirical data that could definitely answer this question. We certainly do not need more law schools more generally. However, relocation of some law schools out of urban centers and into rural communities could have favorable outcomes. For example, if Campbell University were to move back to Buies Creek, North Carolina, it may increase the number of people interested in working in rural North Carolina and alleviate the glut of law schools in the Research Triangle area. On a bigger stage, if a law school in Boston or New York were to move to a surrounding rural community, it would lessen the amount of law schools in these cities and also be a benefit to the rural communities that they would relocate to. It would also provide people interested in rural practice with a place to study and work and a place for people who may never have considered rural practice to live and learn.

There is little question however that the current distribution of law schools is overwhelmingly urban and that prospective lawyers are gaining little exposure to rural practice and rural problems. We also know that rural students are not attending law school (or college for that matter) at a comparable rate to their urban and suburban peers. These factors limit the ability to train and recruit people to work in rural communities.