Friday, December 29, 2017

On rural homelessness in Arizona

Here is the azcentral.com story (Arizona Republic) from earlier this month, dateline Gila County, population 53,597.  It features Doug Stewart, a one-person homeless outreach employee for Arizona's 13 "rural" counties.  An excerpt from journalist Alden Woods' story follows:
In [Gila] country’s losing effort to house everybody, rural residents are often overlooked. Seven percent of America’s homeless population lives in rural areas. But the safety nets built into big cities often doesn't exist outside the metro areas. Rent prices are lower, but so are incomes. The National Rural Housing Coalition found that almost half of all rural Americans spend more than the recommended 30 percent of their income on rent. 
"Bleak is probably not the right word," Payson Mayor Craig Swartwood said in an interview. "But we’re critically in need of more rentals in the affordable area."
Payson (population 15,000) is the largest city in Gila County, for which the county seat is Globe, population 7,352.  The county's poverty rate is 22%.

On infrastructure for homeless services, Woods explains:
There are too few resources to set up the kind of services found in the cities. The county has no homeless shelters and has no plans to build any. Its housing director doesn't believe a grant could be large enough to justify the time spent applying for them.

But Gila County isn't even eligible to apply.

To seek federal homelessness-prevention grants, a community must set up what's called a Continuum of Care, an organization that brings together housing, service providers and local officials. It’s the first step in fighting homelessness at the local level.
Arizona has three major COCs: one for Maricopa County, one for Pima County and one for the rest of the state. That statewide organization, called the Balance of State COC, spreads about $4 million in grants across Arizona. The board that distributes the money is supposed to include representatives from each of the state’s 13 rural counties. 
Gila County does not have a representative.
It's a familiar story, whether called "upstate" (New York) or "out state" (Minnesota, Wisconsin) or--as here--"balance of state," rural areas don't get a fair share of funding and state support.  The services they are able to deliver thus pale in comparison to urban areas. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

North Carolina makes a promise to rural public universities.

As my regular readers will know, I am a huge proponent of increasing access to higher education for students in rural communities and supporting institutions already located there. Part of addressing the skills mismatch in rural communities involves ensuring that rural citizens can attend college and that rural areas already home to colleges can attract and retain the talent needed to grow their local economy. In July, I wrote about how this concept could apply to law schools and the legal profession.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed legislation that, starting in Fall 2018, would lower tuition at three rural public universities in North Carolina: Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University to $500 per semester for in-state students and $2,500 for out of state students. What makes this notable for me is that all three are also located in rural, impoverished parts of the state and in counties with poverty rates of 19.2%, 31.6%, and 22% respectively. All three also serve economically vulnerable populations:  ECSU has historically served African American students, WCU serves students from Appalachia, and UNCP was founded by the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina in order to help provide for the education of Native students in the segregated South.

On its face, this legislation seems like a net positive, it enhances college affordability while helping attract people to some of the poorest areas of the state (or in UNCP's case, one of the poorest in the country). It serves the dual purpose of helping local students afford college while also providing a price point that may bring people from out of state who might remain after college and help grow the local economy. If this program were successful, it would be an extreme net positive for all of the communities involved. Like all pieces of legislation however, this one warrants a closer bit of scrutiny.

My major question is funding and how the program's sustainability will be ensured going forward. Some of the initial concerns about the legislation centered on the loss of revenue by the schools that participated in the program and how that would be recouped. UNCP Chancellor Robin Cummings estimated that the school could lose as much as $10-$15 million per year in tuition revenue under this bill. Though not addressed initially, it was addressed in the final version of the bill , which allowed for the appropriation of funding, up to $40,000,000 total for all three campuses, to cover any deficit between the statutory tuition and the actual tuition that the school has to set to meet their expenses. A good explanation of how that actually looks can be seen in this article that discusses ECSU's tuition "increase." Of course, that authorization comes with a major caveat as any increases in funding would have to be approved by the "Director of the Budget." There is a provision however that allows the UNC system (the umbrella body that governs all public universities in the state) to take "appropriate action" should any of the three schools find themselves at the point of insolvency.

Assuming that funding remains in place and is adequate to meet the needs of the schools, the program  should be a positive. It is far too early to speculate on how it will play out and whether or not the legislature will honor their commitment to ensure that the program is fully funded. However, the affected schools and municipalities are already preparing for the possible increases in enrollment that will result from the lower tuition rates. The Town of Pembroke recently rezoned land in order to allow for new student housing to be built and WCU is looking for public private partnerships that would allow them to expand their student housing. Both of the linked articles also show the potency of a strong rural university, WCU is also looking for proposals to help expand their power grid in order to facilitate the expansion of broadband internet to surrounding communities while Pembroke was honored as "Small Town of the Year" by the North Carolina Rural Center, in part because of its relationship with UNC Pembroke.

It is too soon to tell how this will turn out. I think that, if the promises (no pun intended) are delivered, this could be a boon for these communities and provide an infusion of talent and resources that will lead to future growth. These schools however are now more reliant on the state legislature than other public universities in the state and may ultimately end up in a precarious situation if the state fails to authorize enough funding to meet the needs of the institutions. Funding for the program looks to be secure, for now however, given the optimistic outlook that the leaders of the three schools (particularly Chancellor Cummings, who had previously said that he would not agree to anything that would decrease funding for UNCP) have provided. There are numerous "what if?" scenarios that you could play out regarding the funding piece, and that is cause for concern. However, I will reserve my concern for now.

As I said back in July, exposure to rural spaces can lead to students deciding to remain there and I think that a $500 per semester price point will almost certainly pull students into rural spaces who may not have otherwise gone there. I am excited to see how this program ultimately turns out and whether and how it drives regional economic development. Given the development already happening, it looks promising. As someone who grew up 15 minutes from UNC Pembroke, I will be watching closely.

Monday, December 25, 2017

In December, it's good to know a plow guy.

A short post from me today but I wanted to highlight something that I have seen pop up in the media a few times over the past couple of years - the shortage of snow plow drivers in rural communities, particularly in Maine. 

Maine, which recently suffered the effects of a massive winter storm, has a severe shortage of plow drivers. As the Wall Street Journal noted today, the Maine Department of Transportation is having trouble finding workers to fill plow driver vacancies. This is exacerbated by the fact that the skills that plow drivers have could result in higher pay in the private sector, a condition that creates a high turnover rate for plow drivers at the Department of Transportation since many will opt to leave the job once they finish their training period. The state's low unemployment rate creates competition for skilled workers, which are often in short supply. Portland, the largest city in the state, is largely able to avoid this issue by using its relative affluence to pay its drivers more. The Department of Transportation however is restrained by the need to obtain legislative approval before raising the wages of workers, an often time consuming process. 

This is at least the second straight winter that Maine has had this issue, which they have decided to address by contracting with a private firm out of Ohio.  It remains to be seen how this solution will ultimately end up panning out. 

I highlight this because it is a great example of how the rural labor shortage can have an adverse impact on services provided to citizens in these communities. I've already highlighted the rural lawyer shortage in Maine and the effects that it has had on the administration of justice in rural communities. There are labor shortages in the other industries as well. 

The role of the legislature in creating the particular problem highlighted in this point also points to the need for state governments to be more proactive in ensuring that the state can remain competitive with private employers in attracting the talent needed to ensure steady delivery of vital services. 

(In case anyone is wondering, the title of this post is a reference to the the 2011 music video "Granite State of Mind 2" by New Hampshire's Super Secret Project, which you can view here. As you might imagine, the actual answer to the song's question, "who's going to plow this town tonight?" is complicated.)  

On California's fires and the rural-urban divide

A Wall Street Journal editorial this morning blames California's fires not on climate change, but on  bad management by the state.  Here's the salient excerpt regarding what the state might have done differently: 
In 2011 Democrats imposed a “fire prevention” fee on rural homeowners, but the money instead went to backfill the budget. They suspended the fee this summer only in return for GOP votes to extend cap and trade, which they promised would help pay for fire prevention. Yet Gov. Brown has proposed spending a mere $200 million of this year’s projected $2.4 billion cap-and-trade revenues on fire prevention. Most would go to high-speed rail, public housing and transit and electric-car subsidies. 
Californians would be better served if the state prioritized resources on clearing deadwood and retrofitting homes in high-risk zones with fire-resistant roofs and vents. Neither electric cars nor a bullet train will save people from a pyrrhic perdition.
I can't help think about the rural-urban divide implicit (well, to some extent, explicit) in all of this--in who is getting what from the state.  Electric cars are unlikely to take hold in rural California unless and until their ranges are greatly increased.  Public housing is rare in rural places, as is public transit.  Yet the fees rural residents paid for "fire prevention" wasn't actually used for that purpose?  Is this just another example of extreme metro-centrism in California?

Saturday, December 23, 2017

United Nations report highlights rural poverty and inequality.

To anyone who has followed my writing and the issues that I highlight, it should come as no surprise that the United States is home to massive inequality and dire poverty. Despite these issues being prevalent and widespread, awareness and action on them has been sparse and almost non-existent. The poor are often framed as "lazy" and their issues are often blamed on a moral failing and not on the systemic issues that work to suppress class mobility and access to basic resources.  While this has often fallen on the deaf issues of our political leaders, they have not gone unnoticed by the United Nations who sent a special envoy, Australian law professor Philip Alston, to investigate. His report is available here.

Before diving into the report, I will share the Alston's characterization of how the impoverished are treated by the United States political system, "[t]he rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success.  The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers.  As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain.  To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough."

The most dire poverty in the United States exists in rural communities. For as long as the American government have tracked poverty rates, rural areas have always been the most impoverished. Living in a rural community also increases the likelihood of being in poverty among every ethnic group and is grossly high among communities of color. No matter which geographic region you happen to live in, you are more likely to be in poverty if you live in a rural community. Rural poverty is also deep and persistent with 85.3% of "persistent poverty counties" being in rural communities.

While Alston's visit did not exclusively focus on rural communities, he did spend time in parts of rural Alabama and West Virginia. While in Alabama, Alston observed homes that "were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems.  The State Health Department had no idea of how many households exist in these conditions, despite the grave health consequences." He also noted that the issue avoided appearing on the political radar because the affected communities were rural and disproportionately African American. UNC Law professor Gene Nichol observed similar neglect in Brunswick County, North Carolina in 2013 where despite economic growth more broadly, the African American population was seeing increases in poverty and a degradation of their own environmental living conditions. In both Alabama and West Virginia, Alston also observed that many rural residents were not connected to public sewage or water supply systems. In my own experience, this is not terribly uncommon in the rural South. In my own upbringing in North Carolina, my childhood home was not connected to a public sewage system and while we did have access to a public water system, there were people within a half of mile who did not.

Alston also discussed access to high speed internet in West Virginia, but regrettably not in Alabama. Here's a shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) statistic from Alston's report- 48% of rural West Virginians lack access to broadband internet, this compares unfavorably to only 10% nationwide. This is a huge impediment in 2017 America. This means that rural West Virginians have a harder time finding and applying for jobs, accessing the massive amount of information that exists, free of charge, on the internet, networking with people all over the world, and the limitless other things that the internet allows you to do. A May 2017 Pew Research Poll sheds a bit more light on this topic. They found that only 58% of rural adults use the internet, high speed or not, on a daily basis while 76% and 80% of suburban and urban adults respectively do so. The Pew study even notes that the lack of ability to access broadband internet is responsible for the discrepancy in those numbers. When Alston asked if there were any plans to improve broadband access, he was pointed to a report from 2010. It was clear that West Virginia had not considered the problem and appeared to not even care. However, in spite of the state government's negligence of the issue, 27 rural counties in West Virginia have actively sought funding to expand their broadband networks.

In West Virginia, Alston noted the lack of voter participation and when he asked a local official why this is so, he was told that poor people had just given up on electoral politics. It is perhaps unsurprising that the rural poor have largely withdrawn from a system that ignores their concerns and does little to help their quality of life.

I will wrap up by noting an observation that Alston made in a later NPR interview. The United States of America has an appalling low rate of social mobility, an embarrassment in the developed world. We live in a country where your ability to succeed in life is largely dependent on your social class of origin and that should give anyone cause for concern. For many, the "American Dream" is as mythical as Santa Claus, something that is nice to believe in but not really there. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The rural vote in Alabama's US Senate election

Readers will by now know that Doug Jones, a Democrat, was elected to be the U.S. Senator from Alabama last week.  In a special election for the seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions, now U.S. Attorney General, Jones pulled off what many consider an upset, defeating Roy Moore, the controversial Republican who was twice removed from his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court for basically refusing to follow the law--specifically to abide by the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.  More recently, Moore was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward teenage women, particularly when he was a young district attorney in his home town, Gadsden, population 36,856 (though presumably smaller in the late 1970s and early 1980s when these alleged events occurred).

In spite (or because) of these allegations, Moore appealed strongly to evangelicals and other conservatives.  (I saw on Twitter a comment by an evangelical pastor explaining that Moore liked young teens because of their "purity," essentially suggesting that the virginity of these young women justified Moore's attraction to them and bolstered--rather than undermined--his godliness). Although some Republicans--most notably Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the senior U.S. Senator from Alabama Richard Shelby--denounced Moore.  Trump had earlier not supported Moore--had supported his opponent Luther Strange in the primary--but later essentially campaigned for Moore, including at a rally in the Florida panhandle on the eve of the election.

In the run up to the election, lots of pundits noted that the rural vote was likely to be important--if not decisive--so I'm checking in with a report on that issue.  The Washington Post provided some easy-to-digest analysis of the election results and how different constituencies voted.  I'm pasting here a screenshot of what they show about the vote in relation to the size of population clusters or what some might call the degree of rurality or urbanicity. 
This shows that voters categorized as "small cities and rural" did vote for Moore in significantly heftier percentages (62%) than voters in suburbs (51%) and cities of more than 50K (14%).

In another rural angle on this story, multiple news outlets have filed stories indicating that Moore was banned from the mall in Gadsden because he was known for hitting on under-age girls there.  (He was also known to be on the prowl at high school football games in Gadsden).  And that, it seems to me, illustrates an issue I talk about a lot on this blog:  the lack of anonymity that marks small towns and rural communities.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How Trump's use of Pocahontas has roots in rural inequality

By now, we are all familiar with President Donald Trump's use of Pocahontas's name as an attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren and her supposed Cherokee heritage. Trump, who most recently invoked her name during a ceremony to honor the Navajo code talkers, made attacks on Senator Warren a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Trump's usage of the Pocahontas's name is deeply problematic. It represents the weaponization of the name of a young girl who experienced unspeakable horrors and disrespect to the many who experienced similar. The story of Pocahontas is also wrapped up in the racial subjugation of the rural South and the near eradication of coastal southeastern Native peoples by European colonization.

The story of Pocahontas is perhaps one of the most famous stories in American lore. As told by Disney and other outlets, we are led to believe that Pocahontas and John Smith helped to bring about the peaceful resolution to conflict between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Confederacy. The Disney story even involves a romance between the two, which has never been corroborated and is highly unlikely given that Pocahontas would have been between ten and thirteen years old when she first met John Smith. The simplistic narrative that we have been taught also obscures the fact that Pocahontas was captured, forcibly removed from her tribe, and married off to John Rolfe before dying at the age of 21. Pocahontas's child was never raised in the culture of his tribe and instead assimilated into English culture. His descendants would later rise to prominence in Virginia culture and include Senator Harry Flood Byrd and First Lady Edith Boling Wilson.

When Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, they only allowed for two racial classifications, white and "colored" (which included Native and African Americans). Virginia State Public Health Officer, Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker justified the inclusion of Natives in the "colored" group by saying that he felt that there were no "pure blood Virginia Indians" and he had to protect against African Americans falsely claiming to be Native. This stance is contradictory to the supposed government to government relationship that the Commonwealth of Virginia had with the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Tribes and was essentially what would later be described by Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown as "paper genocide." In crafting the act, the Virginia legislature failed to consult, or even consider, the actual tribal people who remained in the state. However, due to the social capital gained by claiming to be a descendent of Pocahontas, the Virginia legislature did carve out an exemption in the statute that allowed people with "one-sixteenth or less of American Indian blood" to be designed as "white." The lesson was that it was okay to have Native ancestry, just not too much Native ancestry and you certainly could not be culturally Native.

Virginia's designation of Native people as "colored" though was only the codification of a long standing practice in Southern states. My own Lumbee ancestors were marked by the United States Census as "free persons of color" prior to the Civil War and only received recognition as "Indian" in the 1880s when it proved advantageous for the Southern Democrats in North Carolina, who felt that a unified "colored" population would prove disastrous for white supremacists in Robeson County, North Carolina. Without consulting the actual people involved, North Carolina's politicians would go to the federal government and propose various identities for the Lumbee people, including such absurdities as displaced Cherokees and descendants of the Lost Colony. Even in recognizing a Native "identity," North Carolina's white politicians still disregarded actual Native people.

As an aside, the policy of the United States government more broadly has historically heavily favored the erasure of Native culture and identity. When proposing the creation of boarding schools that would "Christianize" Native people, Captain Richard Henry Pratt said that it was important to "kill the Indian and save the man." As during the era of Pocahontas, the boarding schools took Native children from their homes and forced them into a strange land, away from their families with the intent of erasing their culture. The mortality rate among children in boarding schools was also absurdly high, a continuation of the grotesque legacy that began with Pocahontas.

Tribes in the Southeastern United States also bore the brunt of early colonization. Many tribes in the eastern United States were never fully recognized by the British and later American governments or if they were recognized, they were later thought to be "extinct." The descendants of Pocahontas's tribe, the Pamunkey, were not formally recognized by the United States government until 2015. To survive, many tribes migrated to areas that were thought impassable, such as swamps, to avoid European settlers. The Seminole Tribe of Florida most famously has their roots in being an amalgamation of tribes that sought refuge in the then-unexplored swamps of Florida. Other tribes migrated to different, more in-land parts of the country, such as the Tuscarora who left coastal North Carolina to join the Iroquois Confederacy in Western New York.

The fact that President Trump invoked the name of Pocahontas while standing in front of a portrait of President Andrew Jackson is also deeply problematic. It is impossible to discuss the attempted erasure of Southeastern Native people without discussing the Indian Removal Act, which precipitated the 'Trail of Tears." The Indian Removal Act created the legal justification for the removal of Native peoples from their homelands and to the "Indian Territory" (modern day Oklahoma) and many died while being forcibly removed from their homes by the United States military. In being forcibly removed from their homes, they were also being removed from their cultures, which were often tied to their land.

When Donald Trump slurs Elizabeth Warren by calling her "Pocahontas," he is invoking the name of a young girl who was taken captive by strangers from a strange land and married off into a strange culture before dying a premature death. In her short life, Pocahontas experienced unspeakable horror and incomprehensible isolation. Pocahontas's short life is also deeply symbolic and representative of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of Native people whose names have been lost to history. It is also representative of the erasure of Native identity. The removal of Native peoples from their lands, forcing them into boarding schools, and the resulting death and destruction are all things that started when the English arrived on the shores of Virginia and it all began with the English and their treatment of Pocahontas.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Republican war on civil legal aid: A brief primer

Civil legal aid, a surprisingly controversial idea, has had a contentious history. As mentioned in my last post, it has been routinely attacked and accused of moving away from its mission. For many people however, it is a life raft in the choppy seas of justice. Without access to civil legal aid, many people would walk into the courtroom without representation and thus without equal access to justice. For many, the federal government's involvement in the legal services world has been essential to ensuring that they have access to justice. However, federal funding for legal services has been increasingly imperiled and the history of the Legal Services Corporation, the organization that receives the federal dollars that it gives out to member organizations, has been filled with continual threats to its existence.

The development of a federal legal aid program came as the issue of class consciousness came back to the forefront in the early 1960s. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy boldly campaigned on the idea of venturing into a “New Frontier” and tackling the issue of poverty. After Kennedy’s death, President Lyndon B. Johnson seized upon the “New Frontier” and used it to launch his “War on Poverty.” In 1964, President Johnson created the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which within a year created the Legal Services Program. The program quickly won the support of the American Bar Association and within nine months was able to open and fund 130 offices throughout the country.

The creation of the Legal Services Program saw the creation of what may perhaps be the first successful rural legal services organization, California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). California Rural Legal Assistance quickly proved the potency of an organization that actively advocated for the rights of rural citizens. As one of the first rural legal assistance programs in the country, CRLA sought to change the distrust that many of the rural poor in California had for the legal system. While the vast majority of the cases that CRLA took were service cases, which dealt primarily with only remedying the problems of the individual, they did often take cases that were designed to set precedent and reform the legal system. Often times, the CRLA would directly clash with Governor Ronald Reagan, often taking cases that sought to overturn his policies. In one instance, Reagan had reduced Medicaid funding and in the process, eliminated entire programs. The CRLA successfully represented an injured client who was reliant on one of the programs that had been eliminated. In Morris v. Williams, the court held that Reagan had violated California law by eliminating, instead of simply reducing the funding of several programs. Because of developments such as these, the CRLA quickly drew the ire of the Reagan Administration. As governor, Reagan had the ability to veto funding for the CRLA, but his veto was subject to approval by the director of the OEO. Knowing that he lacked the political will to have his veto upheld, Reagan appointed a new director for the California OEO and commissioned a study into the activities of the CRLA. The study alleged that the CRLA was connected to unions, racial violence and had allegedly exploited the poor by refusing to simply settle their cases. In December of 1970, Ronald Reagan vetoed funding for the CRLA. The federal OEO did not immediately overturn Reagan’s veto, but instead funded CRLA for six months while they investigated the report itself. The OEO found that many of the allegations made in the report were without merit and ultimately overturned Reagan’s veto.

In its early years, the program was dependent upon yearly appropriations from Congress to remain functional. Upon assuming the presidency however, Richard Nixon sought to find ways to make the program permanent. In February of 1971, President Nixon sent a message to Congress advocating for the creation of the Legal Services Corporation, and after years of Congressional negotiation, he was finally able to sign the bill into law on July 25, 1974. One of the LSC’s biggest advocates in its early years was Hillary Clinton, who was appointed to the board of directors by President Jimmy Carter. The selection of Clinton marked a victory for the rural impoverished. As the wife of Arkansas Attorney General Bill Clinton, Hillary was familiar with the legal problems of the rural poor and was able to advocate for the interests of the rural poor and serve as a face for their interests.

The LSC would face its first big challenge when former California governor Ronald Reagan ascended to the presidency in 1981. As you will recall, Reagan had directly clashed with the CRLA years earlier and had no love for legal services organizations. Reagan first tried to eliminate the organization by defunding it completely, but that failed. In his first budget, Reagan proposed that the LSC be dissolved and that block grants be given to states so they could have complete autonomy as to how the money could be spent and how legal services would be structured in their state. The Reagan Administration reasoned that a change in structure would allow legal services to advocate for the poor instead of “promo[ting] social causes.” While Reagan was unsuccessful at entirely eliminating the program, he did achieve a 25 percent cut in his first budget. By 1982, the LSC’s funding had been reduced from $300 million in 1980 to $241 million. The effects of this cut were felt quickly as many offices had to lay off staff and even close entirely. Prior to Reagan’s election in 1980, there were 1,406 field offices funded by the LSC and by 1982, this number had been reduced to 1,12192. In 1980, these offices employed 6,559 attorneys and by 1982, that number had dropped to 4,776. Reagan encountered difficulty getting his appointees to the LSC board approved by the Senate, and as result would often just make recess appointments to the board. In fact, for much of the Reagan Administration, the LSC was governed by a series of hostile recess appointees with little stability in its governance. The Reagan-era LSC often harassed attorneys at local LSC field offices by confronting them in an adversarial manner and demanding records that attorneys could not ethically provide. They also withheld funding from offices for “technical violations” and sought to impose restrictions on them that went beyond the restrictions imposed by statute.

The end of the Reagan Administration and the beginning of the George H.W. Bush administration saw change for the LSC. Bush did not share his predecessor’s hostility towards legal services and actually increased funding for the program throughout his presidency. When Bush left office in 1993, he had increased funding for legal services to $350 million. The election of President Bill Clinton (husband of former board chair Hillary Clinton) saw continued progress for the LSC. President Clinton raised funding for the LSC to $400 million in his first budget. The trajectory for the LSC now looked to be in stark contrast to what it had been in the Reagan years.

1994 was a year of great change in America however. The Republicans took back the House of Representatives for the first time in many years and sought to quickly implement their policy proposals. In regards to the LSC, Republicans sought to return to the Reagan era hostility towards the program. In 1995, the House adopted a budget that would reduce funding for the LSC incrementally before eliminating it entirely after the 1997 fiscal year. Like Reagan, the Republican House delegation was not successful at entirely eliminating the program but they did however achieve significant cuts. They also succeeded at imposing significant restrictions on LSC, such as reducing the ability of local offices to take class action cases that are likely to result in legal change and also eliminating most of their ability to engage in legislative lobbying. Under the Republican House, funding for the LSC fell to $278 million, resulting in 900 fewer attorneys working at LSC funded offices and the closure of 300 local offices.

Like his father, President George W. Bush did not display much hostility towards the LSC and funding for the programs increased incrementally throughout his presidency. By the end of the Bush presidency and beginning of the Barack Obama presidency, the budget for the LSC had increased to $390 million. Obama sought to increase funding for the LSC, and was successful at getting funding increased to $420 million by 2011. Much like Bill Clinton however, Obama was faced with a Republican tidal wave during his first term and had to contend with their calls for cuts to the program. In 2011, the LSC requested that their budget be increased to $516.5 million in order to combat the increased need for legal services for the poor bought on by the economic downturn. The Obama Administration only asked for a modest $30 million increase, while congressional Republicans asked for a $75 million decrease. The two sides ultimately settled on $348 million in funding for FY 2012, its lowest level of funding since 2007. The LSC was once again cut in FY 2013 to $316 million before ultimately rising again to $343 million by FY 2015.

The LSC once again finds itself under attack with President Donald Trump proposing its complete elimination in his most recent budget. The Republican House of Representatives has proposed a decrease to $300 million.

The history of the LSC has been filled with resilience in the face of hostility. The Legal Services Corporation has stood at the forefront of the fight against injustice against the poor and has often found itself having to justify its existence. It is important that we keep its history in mind as it once again enters into hostile waters.

(For a more detailed post on this, see my post from March.)

Monday, December 4, 2017

Investing in solving the rural lawyer shortage can pay economic dividends

One of the biggest questions around solving the rural lawyer shortage is funding. Where is the money going to come from? One possible source of funding to hire rural attorneys is increased funding for civil legal aid. However civil legal aid funding is on the decline and rural areas often bear the brunt of these cuts. In many states, such as North Carolina, reductions in Legal Aid funding have even led to the closure of offices in the rural and often underserved parts of the state.  President Donald Trump's budget even calls for the elimination of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, which would further exacerbate these issues.

Much of the rhetoric around defunding Legal Aid has centered around the idea of waste and that Legal Aid isn't fulfilling its mandate. As Rep. Alex Mooney of West Virginia said in 2015:
To cut Federal waste, my third proposal defunds the Legal Services Corporation, an agency which operates far outside its original mandate after decades absent of any congressional oversight. Defunding the Legal Services Corporation is a proposal supported by both the Congressional Budget Office and The Heritage Foundation. Instead of providing legal services to the poor, as is its mandate, the organization has been used to advance pro-abortion and politically ideological policies, as well as increase spending on welfare.

Defunding this organization would remove a Federal agency operating outside of its mandate and would also save taxpayers millions of dollars.
Without litigating the veracity of his other claims, that will come in a future post, I want to analyze this idea that defunding Legal Aid will actually cut "federal waste" and "save taxpayers millions of dollars."

In 2013, the New Hampshire Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission sponsored a study  that analyzed the impact of civil legal aid on the economy of New Hampshire, a similar study was sponsored in 2016 by Maine's Justice Action Group. Given the fact that these two states are predominantly (if not entirely in Maine's case) rural, I will be using these two studies to inform my analysis of this issue and the potential to legal services to boost a rural economy.

In 2011, assistance provided by New Hampshire's legal services organizations accounted for an $84.4 million dollar boost to the New Hampshire economy. The sources of this money varied from federal programs to child and spousal support to even cost savings associated with avoiding paying for domestic violence shelters. In 2015, these numbers totaled to $37 million in Maine. This is money that is coming into the state that may not have otherwise come into the state. This is also money that goes into the local economy.

What about the idea that these people could just hire an attorney and secure these benefits anyway? As the Maine study notes, 80% of civil legal aid clients are from households with incomes below $25,000, representing the bottom quartile of the state's population. These are simply people who would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney and it is likely that without civil legal services, millions of dollars would be lost from the Maine and New Hampshire economies. For rural citizens, the affordability issue is multiplied by the short supply of attorneys in rural communities. As I noted here, rural Maine is facing a severe lawyer shortage. Without legal services, if you cannot afford one of the local attorneys, who themselves are often underpaid and overworked, you are out of luck. With a robust legal services apparatus however, that issue is at least partially alleviated. This is a direct rebuke of Rep. Mooney's claim that legal services organizations are not providing services to the poor.

Recipients of civil legal aid services are also better able to advance their careers and further their education. For rural communities facing a labor shortage, trained workers are an invaluable asset to the local economy. A student who has to leave school has just lost an opportunity to learn a skill or trade that they could use to contribute to their local economy. Not only did the community lose a future contributor but that person may have also lost the opportunity to provide a stable future for their families.

A student may have to leave school for a variety of reasons, many of which could be fixed if they had competent legal counsel. Here are three examples of how this would look:
  • A student who is facing food insecurity applies for SNAP benefits but is denied. With the help of counsel, they would be able to appeal and possibly get into the program but without counsel, they may have to leave school to work extra hours to make up for the difference. As Maslow's hierarchy of needs dictates, the need for food is one of our most basic needs 
  • A student who is facing eviction from their housing. Without counsel, a student would likely lose their housing and either leave school entirely or watch their grades fall as they struggle with housing insecurity. With counsel however, they may be able to retain their housing and, if applicable, any government benefits that help pay for it. 
  • A student finds themselves in a domestic violence situation and without the assistance of counsel would likely have to deal with harassment and violence.  The stress would almost certainly interfere with their studies. With counsel, they can seek a protective order and other legal remedies that would help keep the person out of their lives. 
There are many other examples, of course, but ponder these three, how they may interfere with a person's studies and how legal services can help remedy their situations. In Maine, increased wages brought about because of education accounted for $2.75 million (calculated over a 10-year period) of the $37 million quoted above. 

You can read the studies for more information, charts, graphs, and more precise quantitative analysis. It is clear from these studies that Rep. Mooney's claim that legal service organizations represent a waste in federal funding is simply preposterous. Rep. Mooney's decision to unfairly attack "welfare" also represents a gross misunderstanding of the benefits that federal programs provide to local communities. As seen above, these programs represent millions of dollars that flow into local economies that help people purchase necessities such as food, housing, and child care. The benefits of these dollars goes beyond the populations that they directly help, they also provide money that helps to keep local businesses open. In an impoverished rural community, these dollars can even represent a substantial chunk of the local economy. As seen in New Hampshire and Maine, cutting legal services would not "save taxpayers millions of dollars," it would instead cost taxpayers millions of dollars in lost economic revenue. A common misconception seems to be that government benefits evaporate as soon as they reach the pockets of the people who receive them. However, these dollars are often reinvested in local businesses and the local economy, a fact confirmed by these studies.

Anyone who is concerned about lifelong dependency on government programs should be heartened by the idea that these services do help people get an education and begin to climb the ladder out of poverty. To take away access to the courts would take away access to these programs and would likely doom a lot of people to a lifetime of poverty.

Legal services organizations provide an invaluable service to a population who would not otherwise have access to the courts and helps them secure benefits that provide funding for the local economy. They also enable students to remain in school and receive the training needed to be valuable contributors to the local economy in their own right. When 80% of the clients are from the bottom 25% of the population, it is clear that legal services organizations are providing a service that may not otherwise be possible.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Foreign doctors loom large in rural healthcare

Rural America is starved for professionals. A rural lawyer shortage is the norm across much of the land, and doctors in rural places have nearly twice as many potential patients to serve as do their urban counterparts. A recent story in the “Struggling For Care” series from Valley Public Radio highlighted another dimension to the scarcity of doctors in California’s Central Valley:
Throughout California, roughly 27 percent of all doctors are international medical graduates (IMGs)…In the San Joaquin Valley, that number is nearly 50 percent. 
When IMGs come to the U.S., no matter how much experience they have, they’re required to complete a residency before they can legally practice. To do this, most get a J-1, or foreign exchange visa. When it expires, they’re required to return home—unless they spend three years working in an underserved area. 
After the J-1, foreign doctors commonly move on to an H-1B visa. That program brings in specialty workers ostensibly for jobs that Americans can’t fill. After a certain number of years on the H-1B, doctors can then apply for permanent residency and a path to citizenship. 
But since taking office, President Trump has made some changes to this pathway and hinted at others.
In a previous post, I questioned whether media accounts were overstating Trump’s potential to affect sectors heavily reliant on immigrant labor. In particular, I challenged reports that Trump’s efforts to enact a “travel ban” would bar potential IMGs or chill them from pursuing work in the United States. If I have been proven right, it has been for the wrong reasons – Trump has been simultaneously impotent in the legislative arena and impressive in the executive realm. Despite unified control of Congress and the White House, Republicans failed to deliver their fabled “repeal and replace” healthcare bill and may yet fail to ram through a tax plan, potentially leaving Trump without a significant legislative accomplishment in his first year.

But in the Executive Branch, a different story unfolds. Although the travel ban has faced repeated setbacks in litigation, most of Trump’s immigration moves have gone unchecked. The mass immigration raids of a decade ago have returned, and so has an environment where chance encounters with ICE are likely to end in removal. Impervious to public outcry, Trump’s deportation force has hunted domestic violence victims in courthouses and tracked parents to their children’s hospital beds. Weeks after taking office, Trump cut off expedited processing of H-1B visas, which allow IMGs to obtain "green cards" and potentially remain in rural clinics and hospitals permanently. As the consequences of this brash move became clear, the administration reversed course. More recently, Trump has imposed a kind of "extreme vetting" to H-1B renewals. .

The Valley Public Radio story also mentions unspecified plans to manipulate the J-1 visa process. Here, again, the president has substantial latitude. While it has been common over the last two decades to waive the return-home requirement for J-1 visa holders who agree to serve in healthcare shortage areas, the policy is more complicated. Federal law states that an application must receive a “favorable recommendation” based on a finding that a waiver is “in the public interest.” As is generally the case, regulations add substance to these vague standards; as always, those rules can be changed in a matter of months by the Executive Branch. Given the Trump Administration’s outsized success in the immigration realm, it is not hard to imagine how it might disrupt the pipeline for IMGs in under-served rural communities.

Although the Valley Public Radio piece alludes to the “San Joaquin Valley’s complicated relationship with international doctors,” it does not specify what the complication is. It may be – as has been explored repeatedly in this blog in contexts such as domestic spending, farm workers, and opioid abuse – that the weight of Trump’s policies falls most heavily in the places most eager to elect him:

CALIFORNIA COUNTY
Kern
53%
53%
Kings
48%
53%
Madera
50%
54%
Merced
49%
41%
San Joaquin
49%
40%
Tulare
51%
52%
California (statewide)
27%
32%

A popular analysis of Trump's moves is that he is more constrained by the limits of what he can achieve than by the breadth of what he will attempt. If true, rural communities that depend heavily on IMGs have reason for concern: Trump's antagonism toward foreign workers is no secret, and he enjoys significant power to reshape their pathway to enter and remain in the United States. People in rural places already suffer from high healthcare costs, limited access to care, and current trends suggest that young people (potential doctors) will continue to leave rural places in droves. Under these conditions, IMGs' role in closing the doctor-patient gap is a matter of life and death.