Friday, November 24, 2017

"Border Agent's Death Highlights Growing Risk of Remote Patrols"

That is the headline for Caitlin Dickerson's story about the killing  of a border agent this week, and it draws attention to an issue I have written a great deal about over the years:  the relative lawlessness of rural and remote places.  This is because agents of the state (e.g., law enforcement) are largely not present, and neither are private citizens who could also provide aid to those in peril.  Read more here

The lede for the Texas story follows: 
Along the vast rocky desert that stretches from Mexico into rural West Texas, Border Patrol agents like Rogelio Martinez frequently work alone, miles from civilization and from help.
* * *
Over the weekend, the agents had been patrolling along a remote section of the border near Interstate 10 in Culberson County, Tex., where drug and human trafficking are common. 
[Chris Cabrera, a spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council, the officers’ union] said that according to other officers who were on duty, Agent Martinez went to check out a Border Patrol ground sensor that had been activated. The sensors, concealed devices that remotely alert agents when triggered, can be set off by wild animals, dying batteries or even the wind. Agent Martinez confirmed over his radio that it had been set off by humans, Mr. Cabrera said. 
Agent Martinez called for backup, and when his partner, whose name has not been released, arrived, the partner called out over the radio that Mr. Martinez was unconscious. The officer requested more support, Mr. Cabrera said. 
Mr. Cabrera said that officers who arrived next found both men unconscious, and took them to the hospital.
Rogelio Martinez was 36.  The dead officer's father said "he had often worried about his son’s safety, and that he did not think officers should work alone in an area with so much criminal activity."  Dickerson quotes him:
What I don’t like is at night, there is only one person.
Culberson County, in far West Texas, has a population of just 2,398.  It is, however, just two counties east of El Paso. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Eisenberg on the rural-urban divide in the today's Los Angeles Times

Ann Eisenberg of the University of South Carolina School of Law published an op-ed today in the LA Times, "The Bundys are Poster Boys for America's Rural/Urban Divide."  The first two paragraphs follow:
Cliven, Ammon and Ryan Bundy went on trial in Las Vegas last week over their violent standoff with Bureau of Land Management officials in Nevada in 2014. Cliven had refused to stop grazing cattle on federal land, or to pay grazing fees. BLM agents trying to collect the cattle abandoned the effort when they were met by several hundred militant Bundy supporters. You may also remember Ammon and Ryan, Cliven’s sons, from another “rancher protest,” the occupation of the federal Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016. 
These armed standoffs are indefensible. But they are also symptomatic of bigger problems that weigh on our society. Longstanding tensions over Western federal land and deep conflicts between city “elites” and country “non-elites” help explain why some view Cliven Bundy as a folk hero and others see him as a domestic terrorist. These divisions could also account for a slew of not-guilty verdicts in four earlier trials related to the standoffs.
Don't miss the important and thoughtful contribution in its entirety. 

Is the Uniform Bar Exam an answer to the rural lawyer shortage?

Perhaps one of the largest barriers to solving the rural lawyer shortage is the lack of portability of a law license. While it is possible for someone to move from an urban part of their state to somewhere more rural, it is not currently possible for someone to move across state lines without having to go through the entire licensing process again. In states that are largely rural and lack large urban centers, such as Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont, this can be problematic. It is especially true for those three states because they are in close proximity to states, such as New York and Massachusetts, that have large urban centers. Is the UBE a possible tool to use in this fight?

Source: Pieper Bar Review
The Uniform Bar Exam is, as it sounds, a bar exam that is uniform among the states, pictured to the right, that have adopted it. It consists of three parts, the Multistate Bar Exam, Multistate Performance Test, and the Multistate Essay Examination. Despite the uniformity of the exam however, each jurisdiction formulates its own guidelines for passage and scores can vary from 260-280. Even if you fail in your own jurisdiction, you can still apply to transfer your score to a state where your score would constitute passing.

While the Uniform Bar Exam provides you with a transferable score that would, in theory, solve the conundrum described above, it is not without its flaws. While the UBE gives you a transferable score, there is a sunset provision on those scores that stops one from being able to transfer them after a certain point and this varies by jurisdiction. For example, Maine only allows you to transfer your score for 2 years after it was taken. Of course, Maine also has fairly generous requirements for reciprocity, requiring admission to any state bar and allowing someone to do so after practicing for three years. Its neighbor New Hampshire is more restrictive, requiring practice in five out of the last seven years.

However defaulting to reciprocity requirements and sunsetting UBE scores is dangerous, particularly in this market. These requirements, for example, would exclude people who have not been practicing but who may have obtained a passing score on the UBE and are licensed to practice law. It's not difficult to imagine a Boston area law graduate who, in a tough legal market, is unable to find employment. Let's imagine that he does not find a legal job but works enough to keep himself afloat while looking for something more permanent. If after 2 years, he reads this blog and realizes that he has an opportunity in rural Maine, he is shut out. If he's not practicing that he's irrelevant, even assuming that he has kept up with the CLE requirements of his jurisdiction and has kept himself abreast of legal matters.

Of course, out of luck lawyers are not the only ones affected by this. If a person decides to leave the legal profession to take a non-legal job, such as consulting, management, or any job where a law degree is helpful for advancement but isn't in the realm of "practicing law," they risk being shut out. Imagine a Boston lawyer who practices for a couple of years and then decides to go into consulting. After consulting for 5 years, he marries, has kids, and decides to move out to a more rural community. In the process, he decides to resume the practice of law. At this point, he faces multiple issues. First of all, his UBE score is no longer valid for transfer into any jurisdiction. Secondly, he hasn't practiced in so long that he is no longer eligible for admission by motion. Let's assume that he is in good standing in his jurisdiction and complies with his Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirements so he has maintained his license and is knowledgeable about developments in the law.

To solve the rural lawyer shortage, we also have to solve the problem of maldistribution of lawyers. The fact that no jurisdiction allows for transfer of UBE scores after more than five years, with most allowing only 2-3, is problematic. It forces lawyers who took the bar in more urban jurisdictions to quickly assess their odds of success in their current jurisdiction and then make plans to move and transfer their scores. While 2-3 years is a sizable amount of time, it could result in situations where people are caught in the blackhole of having a score that is not valid for transfer but not enough experience to seek admission through other channels. People in this situation may benefit from moving to a rural community and setting up shop but they are effectively shut out from doing so. In an ideal world, a person with a UBE score, provided they have remained in good standing in their licensing jurisdiction, would be able to transfer their score into perpetuity. It is my opinion that not allowing this defeats the purpose of the UBE, which was to allow mobility between the states.

The issue of maldistribution continues to loom though and while the UBE is a tool, a lot still has to be done. The fact is, lawyers tend to congregate in cities, no matter what state they're in. As you may have read in my recent post, lawyers in Maine have tended to congregate in Cumberland County so even in predominantly rural states, the rural areas are still ignored. The questions that have to be asked include: Why would a Boston area lawyer move to Aroostook County, Maine if a lawyer from Portland wouldn't? Why would a lawyer from New York City move to Rutland, Vermont if he isn't already planning to Plattsburgh, New York? The UBE is a great tool to have because it makes states like Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont more competitive and able to attract out of state talent but it alone does not solve the rural lawyer shortage. It is just one more tool in the ever expanding tool box that will be needed to repair the crumbling house that is the rural legal market.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rural patients in southeast Minnesota hurt by inclusion in Mayo Clinic network

Don't miss this story by Dan Diamond for Politico.   The headline is "Tax-exempt Mayo Clinic Grows, but Rural Patients Pay a Price."  The subhead is equally provocative:
The famed medical center builds a grand main campus while consolidating services elsewhere.
Here's a short excerpt:
Patients from nearly 150 countries travel to Mayo Clinic sites in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida and beyond. Famed filmmaker Ken Burns is making a documentary about Mayo and the story of its founders — Will and Charlie Mayo, a pair of brothers and doctors who have assumed near-mythic status in the health care field. It's the system that lawmakers around the nation cite when pushing health reforms, and that clinical researchers praise as a model for other caregivers.

But in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a small city set among cornfields and lakes about 64 miles from Rochester, Mayo Clinic is something else: the enemy. 
Mayo took over the hospital that serves the 18,000-person city in 1996, and residents have seen services and supports slowly bleed away ever since. In 2012, Mayo merged Albert Lea’s hospital with another Mayo-owned facility 23 miles away, and locals say their control of the hospital's fate went with it.
The story quotes Paul Overgaard, an octogenarian and former state law maker who is a long-time resident of Albert Lea:
The noose tightened imperceptibly at first.  Mayo made all these overtures about, oh, it's going to be so good. I wouldn't say we were stupid, but we believed people when they told us.
Turns out, Mayo has expanded its campus and its reputation at the cost of places like Albert Lea, whose residents now have to travel farther to have babies delivered and for intensive care.

The service area for Albert Lea's hospital includes more than 50,000 people, and the description of Albert Lea makes it sound like a thriving place as small metropolitan areas go.  If things go as Mayo is planning, Albert Lea may soon be "the biggest community in the state and one of the largest in the nation to not have a full-service hospital."  Still, in the hospital biz as in so many others, bigger is seen as better, efficiency--and, economies of scale, it would seem--above all else.

Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith have asked Mayo to pause its consolidation to allow time for more review.

Monday, November 20, 2017

What the Tehama County, California shooting reveals (or confirms) about rural access to social services and health care

A few days ago, I highlighted in this post a Los Angeles Times report about some apparent mistakes made by the Tehama County criminal justice system, mistakes that enabled Kevin Janson Neal to murder six people and injure eight others before Tehama County law enforcement officers killed him last Tuesday.  Today I want to focus on a Sacramento Bee story that highlights the challenges victims and their families will face in attempting to get services they need to help them cope with what has happened to their small community.  The headline is, "Poor and isolated, victims of Tehama shooter turn to internet for help," and the excellent story is by Anita Chabria and Ryan Sabalow.  Here's the lede:
Poor and so rural the bus only runs into town a few times a week, a rambling community southwest of Red Bluff faces a long road to recovery after a disgruntled gunman killed six and wounded at least nine people, many of them children, this week. 
Chabria and Sabalow quote Amanda Sharp, director of Tehama County Social Services and Community Action: 
The poverty rate is very high and that area has needed help before this tragedy.  This is only exacerbating the suffering people are going to experience.
U.S. Census Bureau data indicate a poverty rate for Tehama County close to 20%, the threshold at which it would be a "high poverty" county.  For Rancho Tehama Reserve, however, the poverty rate is more than double that threshold, a shocking 43%.  Whereas the median household income in Tehama County is $41,000--just two-thirds of the state figure, $64,500--in Rancho Tehama, that figure dips to $27,000, about 40% of the statewide median. 

The other striking thing about the story is how those affected by the shooting rampage have turned to gofundme.com to raise money to help defray the cost of their expenses.  They are experiencing varying degrees of success, which appear related to how worthy (hard working) or vulnerable (children) they are.  This seems tome more evidence of the (rural) bias against those who are perceived as lazy.  For more on that topic, see Jennifer Sherman's book, Those Who Work, Those Who Don't:  Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America (2009), the research for which was done in northern California.  My The Geography of the Class Culture Wars is also relevant, as is Terrence McCoy's story in the Washington Post here.

As for where the Tehama County victims are hospitalized, the seriously wounded are in Sacramento, home of UC Davis Medical Center, which is more than two hours away.  That distance puts an added burden on families of the injured.  Those with less serious injuries are in Red Bluff or Redding.  That Sacramento (or even San Francisco) is the location of appropriate medical care for the most severely injured was also highlighted by the Redwood Valley (Mendocino County) fire in early October.  Read more here.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Rhodes Scholar from remote Alaska (sorta')

I was delighted to see in the news this morning that among the United States students selected as Rhodes Scholars for the Class of 2018 is an Alaska Native woman named Samantha Mack.  What I initially read about Mack made me even more excited about her selection--namely that she is from remote King Cove, population 938, in the Aleutian Islands.  (Wikipedia reports that Henry Mack is the town's mayor--perhaps Samantha's father? or her grandfather?).  Indeed, when I "Googled" Samantha Mack, this story from the Green and Gold News (a University of Alaska, Anchorage, newsletter) came up about her work, as an undergraduate at the University of Alaska in a History of English class:
Senior Samantha Mack, a political science and English double major with a minor in Native Studies, is Aleut. She grew up in a fishing family in King Cove. For her linguistic analysis, Mack took a close look at her family’s copy of the 1991 King Cove Women’s Club Cookbook. Practically every household in King Cove owns one; Mack’s aunts contributed recipes. 
What caught her eye was the practice of “code-switching”—swapping between English, Russian and Aleut languages, as well as standard and village English—within recipes. In the classic recipe for fry bread (universal among indigenous cultures worldwide), residents insisted on including the local common name, aladix. Mack isn’t sure if that word is Russian or Aleut, but is definitely preferred among locals. 
Researchers consider “code-switching” in written documents, such as the cookbook, to be “an act of intentional subversion.” Mack called it “a form of resistance” to the overpowering language intrusions in the rural community. She notes that language revitalization projects surged in popularity at the same time the cookbook came together.
Given all that this story conveys about Mack's rural-rootedness--not to mention Mack's Aleut heritage, her gender, and her critical faculties--I was a bit saddened to see the following description of Mack (and the other newly named scholars) released by the Rhodes Trust (emphasis mine):
Samantha M. Mack, Anchorage, received her B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 2016, with majors in Political Science and English, and will receive her M.A. in English with an emphasis on literary theory in May. She has a perfect academic record in each course, and is the first Rhodes Scholar from the University of Alaska Anchorage. An Aleut woman born in a remote village in the Aleutian Islands, her family brought her to Anchorage for better educational opportunities as a young girl. She has excelled across disciplines as she brings the lenses of indigeneity and feminism to issues in the development of Western democratic traditions. Her work in Alaska Native Studies and political theory reflect her strong interests in equity, respect for different patterns of life, and the prevention of the degradation of nature.
I wonder if Mack's family brought her to Anchorage "as a young girl" because of their perception of the educational deficits she might experience in King Cove--or out of concern for others' perceptions of those deficits.  I recall being on the committee to select the first group of Sturgis Fellows at the University of Arkansas back in the late 1980s.  During deliberations, a professor on the selection committee dismissed as unworthy a student from a very rural area because of his assumption that she hadn't been adequately challenged by her rural education to establish her merit and competitiveness for this scholarship.  I pointed out to him my own crummy rural background, as well as the fact I had been the University of Arkansas valedictorian in 1986 and was at that point first in my class at the University of Arkansas law school ....  To no avail.  The rural Arkansan didn't get the prestigious scholarship.

Whatever the reasons for the family's decision, Mack's own first-hand, family-based knowledge of life in an Alaska village seems priceless among the array of newly anointed Rhodes Scholars.  I'm also impressed that the Rhodes Committee selected a student who chose to be educated at the University of Alaska. 

As I perused the other biographies of Rhodes Scholar designees, I noted only a couple of winners with any claim to rurality.  After Mack, surely the "next most rural" Rhodes scholar grew up in Yankton, South Dakota, population 14,454.  Here's the Rhodes Trust description of that student, Joshua Arens:
graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2017 with a B.Sc, in Chemistry, summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA. Joshua researches a wide range of environmental problems and solutions, from reexamining the role of automobiles in society to discovering greener synthetic routes for polymers. Joshua is an evangelist for science-based policymaking. He is both a Truman Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar. During his time at the University of South Dakota, Joshua brought TEDx to campus and led a campaign to name the University a sanctuary campus. A fifth generation South Dakotan, Joshua grew up on a cattle and crop farm.
I love the fact that Arens' roots run so deep in a highly rural state--and the fact that those roots are in agriculture.  Further, his immigration activism defies the reputation of states like South Dakota as conservative.

Another new Rhodes Scholar grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a part of the Knoxville Metropolitan Area; another in Lithonia, Georgia, population 1,924, but part of the Atlanta Metropolitan Area; and yet another in Belden, Mississippi, an unincorporated area within the city of Tupelo, population 35,000.

Maine sees its rural lawyer shortage and sets out to fix it

The east coast of the United States is commonly associated with the bustling megalopolis that spans from Washington, DC to Boston, Massachusetts. Though there are significant pockets of rurality both north and south of that corridor, these places are often ignored in the public imagination. Yesterday, I posted a summary of a study where I were analyzed the rural lawyer shortage in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. Today, I am going to analyze the rural lawyer shortage in a state that is the most rural on the east coast, when measured by population density, Maine.

Maine is a state that holds a special place in my heart. My first job after law school was doing disability rights advocacy in rural Maine and despite being "from away," I could not have encountered a more welcoming and accepting group of people. In fact, the predecessor to my work here was actually hosted by the Bangor Daily News. If not for my time in Maine, I likely would not be writing this today.  

Like much of rural America, rural Maine is currently experiencing a shortage of lawyers and this problem is exacerbated by what is essentially a crisis of demographics. As reported by the Portland Press Herald, here are three key issues that are driving the rural lawyer shortage:
  • When measured by median age, Maine is the oldest state in the country and it ranks second to Florida in percentage of residents over the age of 35.
  • According to the most recent annual report by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers, 44% of resident attorneys are over the age of 60 while just 12% are under the age of 65.
  • 51% of practicing attorneys live in Cumberland County, the home of Portland, the state's largest city. The disparity becomes even more apparent when you count lawyers from Penobscot (home of Bangor), Kennebec (home of the state capital Augusta), and York (south of Cumberland and closer to Boston). 80% of lawyers are located in just 4 of Maine's 16 counties. 
A 2014 report by the Maine Board of Bar Overseers further explains this dramatic disparity:
  • Of the six lawyers in private practice in Piscataquis County, 3 of them are 55 and older and none are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 27 lawyers in private practice in Washington County, 18 of them are 55 and older and only 4 are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 31 lawyers in private practice in Somerset County, 24 of them are 55 and older and only 4 are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 24 lawyers in private practice in Franklin County, 16 of them are 55 and older and only 2 of them are under the age of 40.
  • Of the 54 lawyers in private practice in Aroostook County, 30 of them are 55 and older and only 12 are under the age of 40. I will also add that 13 lawyers are over the age of 70. 
What is apparent is that the rural lawyer shortage in Maine is on the fast track to becoming substantially worse and the detrimental effects that this will have on access to justice in rural Maine cannot be overstated. As lawyers retire and are not replaced, obvious gaps in service will arise and be exacerbated--and people who need help will have nowhere to turn.

A bill was recently introduced in the Maine legislature to combat this problem. The bill, introduced by Rep. Donna Bailey of Saco, would create an income tax credit for those who choose to practice in rural Maine. There is also a legislative committee dedicated to studying the state's method of delivering legal services to indigent residents, a report is expected by December 6. 

The University of Maine School of Law has also piloted a program dedicated to providing funding for students to intern in rural areas, during their summers, while in law school. Since many rural lawyers operate on thin profit margins, having a school funded intern is a mutually beneficial relationship. The lawyer gains extra help and the student gains experience and exposure to rural issues. As I mentioned in this space back in July, exposing students to rural communities while in law school is crucial to developing the next generation of rural lawyers. 

While these measures are steps in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether or not they will have any impact on the supply of lawyers in the more rural parts of the state. I am optimistic that these initiatives will produce some results. Exposure to rural areas is crucial for attracting people to live and work there. With an increasingly urbanizing population, fewer people have experience in rural communities and no frame of reference for what it is like to live there. As the Bangor Daily News noted just a couple of years ago, when students are exposed to rural areas, they often end up staying there. 

However, measures should also be taken to combat the isolation of living a rural community. The aforementioned 2014 study by the Board of Bar Overseers recommended two items that I think are going to be essential for retaining people who choose to start their practice in rural communities. The first is development of central web hub for rural lawyers.  This would provide resources for practice and a list serv that provides rural lawyers a chance to interact with others and obtain answers to their questions. Leveraging the technology of the 21st century to help people feel connected to others and create a community is a great way to help people become acclimated to rural practice and feel supported as they build their practice. 

Combating the rural lawyer shortage is also going to require working with retiring attorneys to help them find successors to take over their firm and their business. A young lawyer, starting from scratch, in a rural area may find it difficult and even financially prohibitive to build his own practice. By working with an attorney who already has clients and connections in the community, a young lawyer will feel more able to jump into practice and will likely be more financially successful in doing so. It is not enough to simply attract young lawyers to rural areas, you must also set them up for success so they remain. 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Quantifying the rural lawyer shortage - a summary and progress report

Anyone who read my previous posts will know that I have stated that there is a rural lawyer shortage in this country. When I began writing for this blog, I was working on a project for my MPA program that analyzed the supply of rural lawyers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. I hoped to find a relationship between the rural lawyer shortage and a number of different variables. My goal was to begin to formulate a policy solution to this problem. I have since finished that project and am happy to discuss my process and the results that I generated.

To start, I compared the location quotient and supply of lawyers per 10,000 residents to the same for family and general physicians, the local supply of lawyers to the median salary for lawyers in that given non-metropolitan area, and the local poverty rate to the supply of lawyers. My eventual ambition is to expand this project to include a more thorough analysis of all fifty states.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one nonmetropolitan area has a location quotient that exceeds 1.0. The lucky winner of that prize is Southwest Montana. This, of course, means that the underemployment of lawyers is a pandemic across rural America. What I found when I compared the supply of lawyers to supply of family and general physicians is that this seems to be a problem that is rather unique to the legal profession. My original hypothesis was that there may be a correlation between the supply of lawyers and doctors. The idea behind this hypothesis was that people in learned professions would tend to cluster together. If this were true, it would point to larger economic development issues in a particular rural community. However, if you look at this link, you would see that this is not true and my own regression analysis confirmed as such.

I also compared the local poverty rate to the supply of lawyers. Again - the idea that I pursued was whether or not local prosperity might be an indicator (or possibly even an attractor) of the supply of lawyers. I once again did not find any correlation.

My final comparison was between the median salary for lawyers and the supply of lawyers. I thought that a higher rate of pay might attract more lawyers to move to a certain area. There also appeared to be no correlation.

At the end of the project, I had all of my hypotheses disproven and was essentially left back at square one in terms of policy formulation. What was perhaps most frustrating however was learning that higher salaries and lower poverty (both indicators of a strong local economy) were not enough to attract lawyers to a given area, at least in the areas that I studied. Addressing the rural lawyer shortage is going to require action that goes beyond simple economic development.

My eventual hope is to further refine and publish this paper because I think that it provides an interesting comparison and illustrates how unique the rural lawyer shortage actually is and why it is something that we cannot simply brush aside. I also hope to expand to all 50 states to see if these patterns are true nationally or if this lack of correlation is unique to the Carolinas and Virginia. I suspect that these patterns are true nationally but I would have to crunch the numbers to say with absolute certainty whether or not this is true.


Friday, November 17, 2017

What the Tehama County, California shooting reveals (or confirms) about small-town law enforcement, justice

The Los Angeles Times has provided impressive coverage of Tuesday's deadly shooting rampage in remote Rancho Tehama Reserve, California, population 1,485.   The shooter, Kevin Janson Neal, killed five and wounded eight others before Tehama County law enforcement killed him, about an hour after his rampage began.  The most recent LA Times story provides information about prior restraining orders against Neal (as well as one against a neighbor with whom he had an ongoing fued).  The piece, by Paige St. John, Joseph Serna, Hailey Branson-Potts and Ruben Vives, makes frequent references to the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities and to the role that this phenomenon played in Tuesday's shooting, as well as the events leading up to it.  Here's the story's lede: 
The screaming and gunfire coming from Kevin Neal’s blue mobile home last week was so disturbing that Jayne Barnes-Vinson called the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office to complain. 
“I heard a man and a woman screaming, like fighting, and the man was shooting off rounds like an automatic gun. So I was scared,” Barnes-Vinson said. 
Deputies arrived, she said, but told her they could not pinpoint the source of the gunfire. 
Neal’s penchant for firing off guns and threatening neighbors was well-known in this rural corner of Northern California even though he was barred from having any guns in his possession.
Because of the numerous restraining orders against him, Neal was required to surrender his firearms.  Records indicate that he had surrendered several guns.  The two handguns he possessed at the time of his rampage were registered to other owners, and the semi-automatic weapon he used was essentially "home-made."

Neal also faced a number felony charges in Tehama County, "including accusations of second-degree robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, negligent firing of a firearm, battery and false imprisonment by violence." Many of the charges stemmed from disputes with his neighbors, including a January 31 assault of a neighbor with a knife.

The LA Times story also provides a great deal of context regarding the challenges facing rural law enforcement officers in situations like this one, including those challenges associated with the remoteness of the place. Indeed, from the earliest accounts of this incident on Tuesday, radio and newspaper coverage mentioned that Rancho Tehama Reserve--apparently known locally as "the Reserve," was half an hour from the county seat, Red Bluff, which would necessarily impact law enforcement response time. Rancho Tehama Reserve is unincorporated and apparently has no more local law enforcement, relying instead on the County Sheriff's staff.

As for whether the Tehama County Sheriff's office should have acted preemptively in the face of numerous neighbors' complaints, the Times quotes Dmitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles County sex crimes prosecutor:
I’m surprised there was not more action done. If the suspect is criminally charged in court, is accused of violence … there’s usually some action by the district attorney or law enforcement.
The Times also quotes Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who recognizes at least implicitly that rural law enforcement are short on resources: 
I’m not going to suggest they’re missing anything. Sometimes there’s a system that’s overwhelmed and they can’t do everything.  It’s just a lack of resources and it’s a matter of prioritization. 
The story closes with a quote from Jayne Barnes-Vinson, the neighbor who reported gunfire at the Neal home last week: 
That’s the thing about out there.  You could kill somebody out there, and nobody would know. It is a good community, don’t get me wrong, but it is remote.
Indeed, law enforcement revealed on Wednesday that Neal's killing spree began on Monday night when he killed his wife, Barbara Gilson, and hid her body beneath the floor of their trailer home.  The next morning, the initial targets of his shooting rampage were his neighbors, two of whom he murdered.  He also attacked the vehicle of a third neighbor, critically wounding the female driver who was taking her three young children to school.

Tehama County, population 63,463, is about two hours north of Sacramento. 

Postscript:  After I wrote this blog post, the Times posted this story by Joseph Serna revealing more information about the breakdown by which the local criminal justice system failed to act more definitely against Neal, even as he frequently fired his guns and threatened his neighbors.  The headline is "Rampage killer's repeated weapons violation were never reported to prosecutors, district attorney says."  Here's a salient quote:
Tehama County Dist. Atty. Gregg Cohen said Friday that had prosecutors known about the complaints, his office could have filed a motion to increase Neal’s $160,000 bond or filed misdemeanor charges for violating the court order that barred him from having weapons.
Serna quotes Cohen:
I wasn’t aware of the fact that he was continuing to shoot.  We would need some kind of report, some kind of proof that it was happening.  Just someone saying he didn’t turn in all his guns. ... That is the first time [I have heard about the neighbors' complaints].  I don’t want to throw the sheriff’s office under the bus.
As for the Tehama County sheriff's office, they seem to be saying that they did not report the weapons violation to the prosecutor because they could not substantiate it, even though they twice placed Neal's trailer under surveillance.  

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Republican congressmen seek rural relief with "simple ideas" and little funding

The Wall Street Journal ran this story yesterday, by Paul Overberg and Janet Adamy, about a group of 11 Republican lawmakers in the U.S. Congress who are calling themselves the "Rural Relief group."  Yesterday, they introduced five bills aimed at "address[ing] worsening economic and social woes in small-town America."  An excerpt follows:
The bills include measures to bolster training for rural emergency medical service squads and rural students in technical education programs. Others would redirect some existing funding to help small towns manage the complex needs of the homeless and to help families whose children are substance abusers. 
Another measure in the package, called the Rural Relief Initiative by the group, would set aside money in matching grants for communities to build and run workshops that let young students use 3-D printing and other new manufacturing techniques. Such “fab labs” have spread to many cities after the concept was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a decade ago.
The lawmakers indicated that they were motivated in part by a WSJ series, "One Nation, Divisible," that has detailed the "socioeconomic decline of rural America."  Legal Ruralism posts about the series are here, here, here, and here

The group noted that they are seeking only $100 million over five years, a modest amount to support the range of programs.  Several of the programs will enhance the technological capacity of rural areas, including cell phone service, 3-D printing in rural "workshops," and enhanced broadband.  The story quotes Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin) who notes that while Milwaukee is building a $128 million streetcar, "we don’t even have broadband in northern Wisconsin.”

Housing and homelessness are also a focus. "One proposal in the package would let rural areas hire case workers with some of the funds they receive to house the homeless," a recognition of the lack of services on offer in rural regions, which are eligible for money . 

David Valadao (R-Cal.) spoke of some problems in his Central Valley district, including the challenge created by counting prison inmates in local populations (something typically considered a benefit to places with prisons).  The downside is that the higher populations make these places "ineligible for rural grants." He also noted the challenge in attracting doctors to his district, and he observed that crime is worsening, "adding that he had caught people stealing fuel from his farm."

In addition to Duffy, the congressmen in this coalition are Rod Blum (R-Iowa), Mike Bost (R-Ill.), John Faso (R-N.Y.), Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.), Richard Hudson, (R-N.C.), Will Hurd (R-Texas), Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine), Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.), and David Young (R-Iowa).  Too bad there are no Democrats trying to get in on this action.  I'd be interested to know why that is.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Roy Moore and small-town barriers to justice

Media accounts often implicate rural issues related to access to justice, though the connection is not always obvious at first blush.  Perhaps no story better illustrates this point than the recent allegations against the candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, Roy Moore.  Moore, a small-town lawyer turned-twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court justice, is now facing multiple allegations of inappropriate conduct with underage women in the 1970s.  Many have asked why the women (girls, some of them, at the time) did not come forward sooner.  I assert that the answer to this question lies in the complex barriers that have long deterred those in rural communities from pursuing legal redress.

By now, we are all familiar with the allegations against Alabama Senate Republican nominee Roy Moore. The salacious accounts, initially published by the Washington Post, paint Moore as an opportunistic predator who used his power and influence in the small city of Gadsden, Alabama as a means to attract and "romance" teenage girls. A report from a former co-worker notes that Moore's affairs with teenage girls were "common knowledge." Moore himself issued a sloppily worded defense on Sean Hannity's program, where he stated that he could not deny that he had dated teenage girls in the past.

Many, including Moore himself, have asked why these women would wait four decades to come forward with their stories. Steve Bannon has even accused Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of engaging in a  conspiracy to destroy Moore's candidacy. The people who ask these questions seem  ignorant of the social dynamics of tight-knit rural communities and the secrecy that can often times be fostered by these communities.

As the WaPo story notes, Moore was seen as a local hero. Like many rural communities, Gadsden (population 37,000), has been in a state of decline that was brought upon it by a loss of manufacturing jobs. With opportunities few and far between, the fact that Moore had managed to gain admission to West Point and then to law school was seen as an inspiration to the people of the town. As is common in many rural communities, being a lawyer also conferred a certain amount of social capital upon Moore. The level of admiration for Moore was such that when Debbie Wesson Gibson asked for her mother's permission to date Moore, her mother told that she would be the "luckiest girl in the world" if Moore, then 34, were interested in her.

To make allegations against Roy Moore in 1970s Alabama would have been a tremendous uphill climb for anyone, much less a teenager. Even his co-workers viewed Moore's tendency to date teenagers as essentially a personality quirk, not anything that warranted investigation and possible prosecution. As Moore himself noted in his interview with Sean Hannity, he never dated a girl without her mother's permission. The WaPo story even notes an instance where Moore stopped dating a girl when her mother did not give permission for the relationship to continue. From the evidence presented, it seems that Moore was careful to target girls whose parents were okay with the age difference and at least, in one case, encouraged the relationship to continue.

In small towns, relationships and social standing are both very important forms of currency. In sociologist Cynthia Duncan's book Worlds Apart, Duncan tells a story about a young man in a small town in Appalachia that is able to secure a bank loan with no questions asked because of a familial relationship with a person with whom the banker had done business.  The young man's relationships and social standing made him inherently trustworthy and conferred upon him a certain amount of credibility. Roy Moore was certainly a beneficiary of being seen as trustworthy because of his social standing as well.

The standing of women in Alabama in this time period also presented a barrier. The most famous illustration of this from Alabama came from 1961 when Alabama First Lady Lurleen Wallace was diagnosed with uterine cancer. As was standard practice at the time, the doctor told only her husband, Governor George Wallace, who then insisted that the diagnosis be kept from his wife. First Lady Wallace did not find out that she had cancer until 1965. Wallace would later die from this cancer during her own term as governor, which she was serving as a surrogate for her term-limited husband.

If the First Lady of Alabama was seen as so lowly that a cancer diagnosis was hidden from her, what hope would a young girl in a small town have of successfully seeking justice against a respected local attorney?  indeed, against the local district attorney/prosecuting attorney?

Another barrier is the lack of general knowledge of how to avail oneself to the protections of the legal system. In 1969, the Duke University Law Review conducted a study on the legal issues of the rural poor. Their focus was an unnamed county in eastern North Carolina. What they found was that a very small percentage of people sought legal action when wronged by either the government or another private party. The study also found that many of them were unaware that they could even do so.

The idea that Roy Moore would have been prosecuted for his actions in 1970s Alabama is laughable at best.  Moore was insulated by a culture that knew of his actions but did not take action to stop them.  He was also enabled by parents who felt that dating Moore was advantageous for their daughters, regardless of the implications of the age difference. In a small city going through economic turmoil, Moore was seen as a shining light, proof that you could escape your circumstances and make something of yourself. The notion that the credibility of the accusers is impeached by their "failure" to come forward 40 years ago is intellectually dishonest.

While Moore's actions are egregious and--we would hope--atypical of any community, they do point to the vulnerability of people who are facing injustices and have nowhere to turn. As the Duke study notes, the issue of justice in rural communities has long been hampered by a lack of resources and knowledge of the legal system. While many communities have access to civil legal aid programs that can help people, particularly victims of domestic violence, seek protective orders and other remedies against abusers, many of those programs are increasingly facing cuts on the state and federal level. In fact, President Donald Trump's proposed budget from earlier this year called for the elimination of the LSC, which provides grants to legal aid programs.

Before asking why these women did not come forward 40 years ago, perhaps we should examine the barriers that made doing so effectively impossible.

Another post about Roy Moore and rurality is here.  Cross-posted to Feminist Legal Theory.

Small-town, high school football "as a way of making it through life"

Amy Ellis Nutt reports for the Washington Post today from Eldon, Missouri, population 4,567, smack dab in the middle of the state.  Nutt notes that, while some high schools (including two dozen in Missouri) have abandoned their football programs in this era of concern for brain injuries and physical devastation to players, small towns like Eldon and nearby Tipton, persist in spite of the fact that local players have experienced those very types of injuries:  

But not here in the rural heart of the state. And not because these players are more willing to gamble crippling injury for gridiron glory. Football is not a religion here, as it is in some parts of the country.  
For the boys and their parents, it’s community and companionship. They trust the worst won’t happen — or can’t happen again. 
“Everybody understands there are freak accidents,” says Shannon Jolley, the head coach of the Eldon High team. “But we have a small family here. Our strength is our people and our community.” 
In Eldon, football is not so much a way of life as a way of making it through life.
Nutt puts all of this in the context of a devastated economy.  During the last recession, three car dealerships in Eldon closed, and its primary manufacturing facility was lost to Mexico.  The poverty rate is 44%, and 60% of students at Eldon High qualify for free lunches.  Among the 50 players on the team, the coach reports, 35 "come from struggling, mostly single-parent homes.  For many, football is a kind of psychological lifeline."  

It's an interesting thesis--connecting the place's economic devastation to its commitment to football.  Which brings me to perhaps the most poignant line in Nutt's article:  
Many small towns live for their football team. In Eldon, the football team lives for its town.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A run down of rural angles and issues in last week's election

In These Times: Rural America edition published its recap of last week's elections today, including this description of Wilmont Collins' election to the mayoral seat in Helena, Montana, population 28,1900.  Collins arrived in Montana as a refugee from Libera 23 years ago, with his wife, who had been a high school exchange student in the state capitol.  In These Times had this to say about Collins' platform:
His mayoral platform included addressing teen and veteran homelessness in Helena, ensuring access to clean water and pushing a return to community policing.
The story also discusses the Medicaid expansion win in Maine, as well as wins for "down ticket" progressives in a number of states, including Minnesota and Pennsylvania.   

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On Roy Moore and rural (and suburban) Alabama women

One of several stories the New York Times ran today about the Roy Moore scandal made references to urban and suburban women perhaps being fed up with the Senate candidate, his scandals and how much money he's cost the state because of them.  Here's an excerpt:
But like many in urban and suburban Alabama, the two women viewed the allegations reported by The Washington Post that Mr. Moore had made sexual overtures to teenagers decades ago not so much as a discrete scandal. Rather, it felt to them like the latest episode in a tawdry political sideshow with seemingly endless chapters
Journalist Richard Fausset quotes one such suburban woman, Sallie Gunter, a freelance court reporter who is 61: 
We’ve spent millions in Alabama on Roy Moore’s antics.  Millions that could have been spent on our kids and schools. I’m just fed up.  He needs to find something to do for people who adore him.
Gunter, who lives in an "upper-middle-class suburb" of Birmingham (which, Fausset describes as the home of moderates/swing voters) is further quoted: 
He’s just embarrassing
So, if Gunter represents such suburban swing voters, what might rural women do? Well, Fausset adds this:
Census statistics show that Alabama’s voting age population is, on balance, whiter, poorer and less educated than the nation’s. Like many other Republican candidates in statewide elections in the South, Mr. Moore draws much of his political strength from rural areas, which still have enormous clout.
Fausset did interview at least one female rural resident for the story:
Then again, Ms. [Gwen] Williams, who lives in rural Chilton County south of Birmingham, had never been a Roy Moore fan. She said she would “absolutely” be voting for Mr. Jones, but she was not so sure about her rural neighbors. “I’ve lived here all my life, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in my fellow voters making that shift,” she said. And at this point, she had no idea whether Mr. Moore could pull out a win. “It depends where the story goes,” she said. “This is the Bible Belt, and a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old is a 14-year-old.”
William is 63 years old, and she expressly labeled what Moore is accused of doing as "statutory rape" ... "even in Alabama."  Chilton County's population is 43,643.  

More on disappearing maternity care in rural America

This op-ed on the subject, by Katy B. Kozhimannil of the University of Minnesota (Rural Health Research Center) and Austin Frakt of the Boston University School of Public Health, was published a few days ago in the Washington Post, and re-printed yesterday in the Duluth News Tribune.  Here's an excerpt:
Life in rural America can be tough, with challenges starting right from birth. Increasingly, rural women lack access to maternity services, jeopardizing their health and that of their newborns at a time when U.S. maternal mortality is rising
Giving birth is hard enough, but racing 100 miles to the nearest hospital down winding country roads is a particularly harrowing way to experience labor. Evidence confirms what common sense suggests: Drive time affects outcomes. A Canadian study shows that the babies of mothers who travel more than an hour to give birth are more likely to require intensive care or to die within their first year of life.
Other posts on the topic are here, here, here, here and here.  Related media coverage is here, herehere, here, and here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

On guns and church in rural Texas

I've been slow in saying anything here on the blog about the shooting last Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, population 600.  But this interview with "Mike the Gun Guy" (Mike Weisser) on WBUR Boston provided irresistible fodder.  Mike had this to say about the prospects of an armed congregant being able to stop a gunman--and on the likely presence of guns at the church that morning:
First of all, the idea that in a small-town Baptist Church in rural Texas, that there weren't people in the church with guns, is absurd. And why nobody jumped up with a gun is because people aren't trained to do that. And if you're sitting in a church and you're praying and, you know, it's a moment of quiet and solitude and everything else, even if you've got a gun, and somebody comes in, opens the front door and starts blasting away, you're going to do what everybody does: You're going to hit the floor. The idea that the average citizen, even if he's had a little bit of — I don't want to call it training, just experience in using a gun, because it's not training — you don't get trained by just a little time at the range and having some guy tell you, 'OK, you know, point the gun here. Bang, bang, bang.' That's not training.
Lots of media accounts have described Sutherland Springs as "rural," and it is, of a sort.  I would say, more precisely, that it is an exurb, just 20 miles from downtown San Antonio.  The reason the assailant targeted this church:  his mother-in-law attended it, though she was not there on the morning of the shooting.

To recount the basics on this enormous and shocking tragedy, a 26-year-old man from New Braunfels, Texas (also in the greater San Antonio metropolitan area) who had been discharged from the Air Force for bad conduct stormed the church on Sunday, November 5, with a semi-automatic weapon.  He killed 26 people who ranged in age from infant to elderly, 24 of them inside the church.  The man had a history of domestic abuse, including having fractured the skull of his infant stepson several years ago when he was in the U.S. Air Force.  He was court martialed for that and for abuse of his wife.  He served 12 months on those charges, part of the time in a psychiatric hospital from which he escaped at one point.  If the Air Force had reported his conviction for domestic abuse to the salient database, the man would not have been able to buy a gun.  More on what we know about the shooter's mental state is here, including this quote from a former Air Force colleague, staff sergeant Jessika Edwards, who worked with the shooter near the end of his military career, in 2011:
“He was a dude on the edge,” Ms. Edwards added, noting that he would appear at informal squadron social functions in all black and a black trench coat. “This is not just in hindsight. He scared me at the time.”

Even after he left the military, he contacted her on Facebook with disturbing posts about his obsession with Dylann S. Roof, the Charleston mass murderer, and his target practices using dogs ordered online.

Ms. Edwards said the military had tried counseling and tough love, but nothing seemed to work. When punished for poor performance, Mr. Kelley would cry, scream and shake with rage, vowing to kill his superiors, she recalled. His temper was so unsettling that she warned others in the squadron to go easy on him or he was likely to come back and “shoot up the place.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

On Ralph Northam's win and rural Virginia

Ralph Northam has been declared the winner of the Virginia gubernatorial race, and the New York Times coverage of that victory includes this regarding Northam's rural origins: 
A native of Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore who bears a Tidewater accent that reveals his rural roots, Mr. Northam, 58, was a perhaps an unlikely vessel for the resistance-era Democratic Party. But the left overlooked the two votes he cast for George W. Bush before he entered politics and his otherwise sterling resume — he is a pediatric neurologist and Gulf War veteran — proved far more appealing to the state’s broad middle than Mr. Gillespie’s background as a corporate lobbyist.
The playing up of rural-urban difference is interesting--and perhaps something that would not have happened before the Election of 2016 made us more acutely aware of this divide (or, what I tend to argue, is really a continuum). 

Here's a story from last week's Washington Post that might have predicted how Virginia counties would vote, based on economic recovery (or relative lack thereof) from the recession of 2008. I see that Northam's home region includes a number of counties that went for him, in spite of their weaker economic recovery. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Lessons from history: New England and the Industrial Revolution


An undated picture of Monadnock Mills in Claremont, New Hampshire. From WikiMedia Commons.

Hi everyone! The post below is a partial repost of a post that I made during my time writing Lone Pine Policy for the Bangor Daily News. Since the post is now offline, I wanted to share it again with some alterations.

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In an age restless and mobile, with family traditions less strong, and transportation exceedingly cheap and inviting, it is hardly strange that so many of the young people are eager to leave the country which they pronounce dead-as it literally is to them-for the lively town or city.” - Ernest R. Groves, "Psychic Causes of Rural Migration", American Journal Of Sociology, March 1916

To begin to understand the current problems facing rural America, it might be helpful to look to the past and the major economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. At the turn of the 19th century, the vast majority of New Englanders lived in small towns and mostly farmed to provide for themselves and their families. Because of this, most farmers were generalists. As the century wore on however, a great change started to occur. The industrial revolution started to take hold in the Northeastern United States and people began to migrate towards urban areas in search of economic opportunity.

According to a 1903 study published by the American Statistical Association, New England’s population increased during their period, in raw numbers, but the rural population actually declined. In 1912, Alexander Cance of the Massachusetts Agriculture College (present-day University of Massachusetts – Amherst) observed in his writing, “The Decline of Rural Population of New England” that many predominantly agricultural towns in Western Massachusetts had just one third the population that they had at their peak. The migration out of rural communities created a great social upheaval that also dramatically altered the economic landscape.

What will follow is a cursory look at the conditions of rural New England during the Industrial Revolution. As you read this however, I want you to ask yourself two questions: How did New England small towns retain their economic relevance during the last major economic upheaval? Are there any lessons to be learned as we navigate towards a post-industrial economy?

The Creation of the Mill Town

Growth however was not limited to pre-existing urban areas such as Boston or Hartford. Mill owners, eager to take advantage of New England’s network of waterways, began to set up mills along rivers. In 1810, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company founded Manchester, New Hampshire, so named because it was thought that it could one day resemble Manchester, England in its manufacturing prowess. Manchester, then a sleepy village named Derryfield, was located along the banks of the Merrimack River, which provided easy access to Boston. Like Manchester, other mill towns popped up along the Merrimack. Lowell, Massachusetts would spring up in the 1820s as a planned company town by the Boston Manufacturing Company and named after its founder Francis Cabot Lowell.

This phenomena was not just limited to towns in southern New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts however. During the Industrial Revolution, Lewiston, Maine went from a sleepy Maine village to a bustling center of industry, largely due to its location along the Androscoggin River. At its peak in the mid 19th century, Lewiston was the wealthiest city in all of Maine. In New Hampshire, entrepreneurs took advantage of the water power generated by the Sugar River to grow Claremont into a bustling center of industry. Cities were also able to take advantage of their proximity to natural resources and access to power generated by water to grow and thrive. In Berlin, situated in New Hampshire’s North Country, they were able to harness, much as Lewiston had already, the power generated by the Androscoggin to run sawmills to process the lumber harvested from the vast woods of the North Country. All across New England, sleepy riverfront towns were transforming into centers of industry.

Agricultural Reorganization


How did rural New England markets, particularly those who were not along navigable waterways or rivers that could easily produce power, adjust to these developments? There was an increased focus on specialization as farmers started to specialize in crops that could be sold to the growing urban centers. Prior to the industrial revolution, there was not much of a nonagricultural population in New England and thus, not much of a market for a farmer to sell his crops to. However, the emergence of these urban centers provided a market for farmers. Due to increasing competition from farmers in the Midwest (due in part to part to the development of the canal and railroad systems), it was particularly advantageous to specialize in items where close distance was essential. For example, according to Percy Bidwell in his 1921 writing, “The Agricultural Revolution in New England,” the production of dairy subsequently became very important in rural New England. Bidwell speculated that the population of cows increased during this time as farmers moved to specialize to meet the growing demand for dairy product. In terms of raw numbers, between the 1870 and 1900 Censuses, New Hampshire increased its production of milk from 2 gallons to 29 gallons. Without the advantage of modern refrigeration, the fast transport of daily products was essential and New England farmers were wise to take advantage of that.

Rural areas also benefited greatly from supplying goods that were needed by the mills. While New England farmers were not able to compete with Southern farmers in cotton production, they were successful at producing the wool that could be used by the emerging mills. Vermont was particularly successful in this endeavor. Between 1824 and 1840, the sheep population of Vermont quadrupled. For Vermont farmers, raising sheep was more cost-effective than trying to grow corn or grain in the rocky soil. The growth in wool production also spurred growth in manufacturing in the state as mills opened there so they could take advantage of the proximity to wool. However, increased competition from the West and the lower wool prices brought about the collapse of Vermont's wool industry. Like their neighbors to the east, Vermont turned to dairy farming to reverse its economic fortunes and started supplying another essential good to the growing industrial centers.

Of course, the rural communities closest to the growing industrial centers saw the greatest benefit. According to the 1889 agricultural census, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively in value per farm acre. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont were 24th , 20th, and 16th respectively.

We Can’t Give Up


“These towns fell away early both in population and productiveness, and in but few stances have they been able to recover. A perusal of the vital statistics shows that the native stock is dying out. There is little or no immigration and the deaths exceed the births.” – Alexander Cance, “The Decline in Rural Population of New England,” Publications of the American Statistical Association, March 1912

As with any economic change, there will be simply be communities that are unable to quickly adapt to the rapid changes. Cance observed that many of the hillier towns, particularly in western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, were unable to adapt to a world where specialized, not subsistence, agriculture was the dominant means of survival. The hillier regions after all had poorer soil quality and harsher weather conditions. Some of these towns turned to granite mining, dairy, wool and other products that did not rely on the ability to grow and cultivate crops. The development of transportation infrastructure also presented an opportunity. Tourism suddenly became a viable economic sector.

As an example of a community that was able to take advantage of this, we can look to the Mount Washington region of New Hampshire. The late 19th century brought about a boom in hotel building as the region became increasingly seen as a refuge for urban dwellers who wanted to escape the chaos of the city. The same patterns were seen along the Maine coast and in the Vermont mountains. Some of the more well-heeled urbanites even began to buy former homesteads to use as summer homes. Resort towns began to spring up around rural New England as people flocked to its picturesque beauty.

The rise in winter sports also provided a new source of income for many of the hillier communities in New England. As the 20th century wore on, ski resorts began popping up. The development of these resorts proved to be an economic boon for the communities that housed them. As with the development of general tourism, the growing popularity of winter sports did not just benefit the industries that directly supported it, it also greatly benefited merchants and others who were able to start businesses that supported the growing winter sports sector.

While these developments did little to nothing to reserve population decline, they provided a means of survival for the people who wanted to remain in rural communities and provided opportunities for investment for people who wished to bring in capital.

The Lesson
New England rural communities increasingly embraced the idea of specialization, the legacy of which is apparent today. In New Hampshire and Vermont, the landscape is dotted with towns that specialize in dairy production and in Maine, we see towns that specialized in potato farming, logging and fishing. The lesson is that modern day rural communities should look to their predecessors and not be afraid to change in order to meet the demands of the modern world.

We can also look to New England for yet another lesson. Claremont, Berlin, Lewiston, and to a lesser extent Lowell all continue to bear the scars of the effects of leaders not planning ahead for a post-industrial economy. These areas have higher than average poverty, abandoned buildings, and high rates of unemployment. Tomorrow, voters in Lewiston and Auburn, Maine will even be considering a merger. What were once bustling centers of industry are now shells of what they once were. This lesson, of course, is not just limited to New England. You can find former mill towns in the Carolinas, former factory towns in Michigan and the Rust Belt, and former mining towns in Appalachia where leaders thought that the boom times would last forever and that planning ahead would be a waste of time and effort.

Just as we saw in the 19th century, rural America is undergoing a great economic shift. Manufacturing is no longer the dominant form of employment and agriculture (as a share of the economy) has been in decline for decades. Much like the Industrial Revolution, people are being drawn to cities in search of economic opportunity and as a result, rural communities are shrinking and getting older. Just like in the past, we have to figure out how to maintain an economic structure that allows rural America to thrive. Two centuries ago, rural citizens were unafraid to adapt to the changing economy, something that we would wise to remember today.

The 21st century provides us with exciting opportunities, much like those that were found in the 19th and 20th centuries. For example, the development of the internet provides an opportunity for white collar workers to work from wherever. We live in a world where a person in Augusta, Maine or Lebanon, New Hampshire can be on a videoconference and chat in real time with someone in New York, Boston or even London and Tokyo. The world has gotten a lot smaller and space is no longer a barrier to communication and the sharing of ideas. There are opportunities to attract businesses to rural America that may not have thrived there a generation ago. There are also opportunities to attract workers who may not have been able to live in rural America a generation ago.

The Challenge

The challenge ahead for rural America is figuring out how to adapt to the changing economy. Much as our predecessors did when we shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society, we must figure out how to make the adjustments necessary to maintain economic relevance. We are currently experiencing a transition away from an industrial economy and our ability to take advantage of the opportunities ahead will determine our role in the post-industrial economy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

On the more rural areas of Northern California hit by the deadly fires in October

A few stories this past weekend in major California newspapers have focused on the consequences of the early October wildfires in Mendocino County, as opposed to more populous Napa and Sonoma counties.  The Los Angeles Times reported under the headline, "Wildfires devastate California pot farmers, who must rebuild without banks or insurance," and the San Francisco Chronicle story was headlined "Deadly Mendocino County Fire under the radar of Wine Country devastation."   This lede from the Chronicle story sums up the rural v. urban angle (or at least degrees of rural ....) between these regions/counties:
Like thousands of other North Bay fire victims, the traumatized residents of the bucolic Redwood Valley are sifting through rubble, negotiating with insurance agents and struggling to figure out how they are going to rebuild their fire-scarred lives. 
The only difference is that the hellish inferno that rolled through their community two weeks ago went virtually unnoticed by a world mesmerized by the flaming disasters closer to San Francisco. 
The Redwood Valley Fire was not exactly ignored, but it was a side note during a historic week of calamity in Northern California — subordinate to the conflagrations that destroyed much of Santa Rosa and ripped through Wine Country towns in Napa and Sonoma counties. 
But the aftermath is no less horrible for the 1,759 farmers, vineyard keepers and pot entrepreneurs who live in this rural community between Ukiah and Willits — a place isolated enough for stagecoach robber Black Bart to use as a hideout and, about a century later, for Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult to set up shop before moving on to bigger things.
It's interesting that journalist Peter Fimrite refers to Mendocino County as the "North Bay." I'd agree with that characterization for Napa and Sonoma, but not once you get as far north as Mendocino.  Nevertheless, his "per capita" point is well taken (by me, at least):
The fire that swept through the community early in the morning on Oct. 9 killed eight people, blackened 36,523 acres and destroyed 545 buildings, about a quarter of the homes there, fire officials said. It was at least as damaging, per capita, as the cataclysmic blazes to the south.
Fimrite quotes George Gonzaelz, the battalion chief for the Mendocino unit of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection:
It’s probably the largest modern disaster here in Mendocino County.  But nobody is paying attention.
And that, it seems, is par for the course when it comes to rural America.  I wrote a post making a similar point after the Butte and Valley fires (in Napa and Lake counties) two years ago.

Here's an excerpt from the LA Times story focused on the pot industry's losses.
Because the marijuana culture of Northern California has survived in secrecy for the last 50 years, and mostly still does, no one can know the exact loss to the industry. 
The threat of losing a year’s crop and cash reserves pushes many growers to take risks a grape farmer neighbor might not. 
When the fires broke, farmers thrashed over four-wheel-drive roads with horse trailers full of hastily cut marijuana. Some defied evacuation orders to save the crops. 
Others left, and lost everything.
Lots of posts about California's pot industry--with a focus on Mendocino, Humboldt, and Lake counties (the so-called Emerald Triangle) can be found in this blog. 

Postscript:  "As deadly fires burned Redwood Valley, delays, confusion about evacuation orders" in the Los Angeles Times on November 5.  An excerpt follows: 
But a Times review of police and fire dispatch calls that morning describe a chaotic scene in which officials debated when to send evacuation orders. The recordings provide an overview of communications that night as the fire swept through the valley but do not provide a full sense of what firefighters and law enforcement were doing on the ground. The county so far has declined to provide additional records. 
The dispatches and interviews show the county issued an evacuation order in Redwood Valley more than an hour after the fire was first reported there. During that time, several Redwood Valley residents phoned 911 dispatchers to say they were trapped by fire.

Firefighters struggled with a lack of manpower and equipment in the rural county, which relies heavily on small fire departments and volunteers. State and local engines, including the Redwood Valley volunteer fire department, were sent to battle fires that had started earlier in the night in the adjacent Potter Valley.