Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Making stuff up to fulfill a distant appetite for rural tropes

Medium published this story a week ago, dateline Fergus, Falls, Minnesota, population 13,138 and the county seat of Otter Tail County, population 57,303.  Fergus Falls was the subject of a Der Spiegel (German magazine) story--the Trump country journalism variety--that was subsequently revealed as a fraud.  That is, the journalist, Claas Relotius, made up a lot of stuff about Fergus Falls and its denizens.  Michele Anderson and Jake Krohn report for Medium.  Anderson and Krohn are both residents of Fergus Falls, and they list the 11 most important things Relotius got wrong (to put is charitably) or just manufactured (to put it less charitably).  Here are just a few, from the sublime to the ridiculous, starting with the latter--oops, nix that.  All of them are fairly ridiculous and all of them confirm rural stereotypes suggesting that rural people have had limited life experiences (e.g., have never been anywhere) and are focused on the military, as manifest in a very long and successful run of the movie "American Sniper" at the Fergus Falls cinema.  Relotius wrote:
At the entrance, just before the station, there is a sign with the American stars and stripes banner, which reads: “Welcome to Fergus Falls, home of damn good folks.”
In fact, the real-life sign just offers a bland, "Welcome to Fergus Falls." 

A few of the inaccuracies involve how locals were depicted.  Here's the most outrageous (to my mind):  
2. The gun-toting, virgin City Administrator 
Der Spiegel wrote:
Andrew Bremseth would like to marry soon, he says, but he was never together with a woman. He has also never seen the ocean. 
The Medium expose comments: 
Relotius chose to put the spotlight on Fergus Falls city administrator, Andrew Bremseth, as the main character in his article. We have spoken to Bremseth at length regarding the parts of the story that feature him, and Relotius got three facts right:
  • Bremseth’s age (27) 
  • That he grew up in Fergus Falls 
  • That he went to university in South Dakota 
Everything else, from the claim that Bremseth carries a Beretta 9mm on his person while at work (“I would never ever wear a gun to work, and I don’t even own a Beretta.”), his disdain for a potential female president, his comment that Trump would “kick ass” (“Never said that”), and even his college-era preference for 18th century French philosophers (“Never read them”) and the New England Patriots (“I’m not a fan of them at all”), is complete fiction. Says Bremseth, “Anyone who knows anything about me, this [portrayal] is the furthest from what I stand for.” 
Perhaps the oddest fiction in a list of many is Relotius’ depiction of Bremseth as someone who “would like to marry soon…but he has not yet been in a serious relationship with a woman. He has also never been to the ocean.” 
We can attest that Bremseth has indeed been to the ocean, by his account, “many times” and is currently happily involved in a multi-year, cohabitational relationship with a woman named Amber. In fact, here’s a picture of the two of them in front of, all things, an ocean.
Anderson and Krohn write near the end of their story: 
[I]t seems to me that Relotius’ overseas readers might appreciate knowing that small American towns are more complex than they imagine — that die-hard liberals like me can still magically live alongside conservative Republicans — that sometimes we even find some common ground and share a meal together, and take the time to try to understand each other’s viewpoints. You see, we’re definitely not perfect here in Fergus Falls, and many of us feel a lot of responsibility right now, considering that our friends, family and neighbors voted against their own interests in 2016. But we also know how it feels to be ignored in policy and media for decades only to be lectured by ignorant articles such as this after so much silence about our challenges.
Don't  miss this story in its entirety.  It's a fun read, and helps establish that diversity of thought is alive and well in rural America, while also suggesting a bit about how those diverse political perspectives mesh in the flyover states  (hint:  it requires tolerance, civility and mutual respect).  The story also provides insights into the significant failures of even the main-stream media (think fact-checking!).

Post script:  The New York Times has just published this story about the matter under the headline, "Minnesota Town Defamed by German Reporter Ready to Forgive."  Matt Furber and Mitch Smith characterize what Relotius did thusly:
Relotius portrayed Fergus Falls as a backward, racist place whose residents blindly supported President Trump and rarely ventured beyond city limits. He made up details about a young city official. He concocted characters, roadside signs and racially tinged plotlines.
They also note that Der Spiegel has recently fired Relotius, who was recently found to have fabricated other stories from the around the world.   The New York Times also notes some of the more positive things about Fergus Falls that Relotius might have chosen to report:
about the many residents who maintain friendships across partisan lines, about the efforts to lure former residents back to west-central Minnesota or about how a city of roughly 14,000 people maintains a robust arts scene. 
To give a sense of the place, he could have described local landmarks like the giant statue of Otto the Otter. Or the Minnesota-shaped welcome sign next to the Applebee’s. Or the expansive prairie that surrounds the town.
Postscript:  From the Washington Post about journalists reporting what they think we want to hear, and how this practice persists in the era of easy fact checking. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"What's the Matter with Kansas?" redux, and more discouraging news out of rural America

Eduardo Porter reports in today's New York Times from Harlan County, Kentucky, a famously impoverished place in the eastern part of the state, coal country.  (Other posts featuring Harlan County are here, here, here and here).  The headline suggests a topic familiar to many of us--especially those who study rural America and rural politics:  "Where Government is a Dirty Word, but Its Checks Pay the Bills."  It's the old, "why do these people vote against their own interests?" question.  That is, why do so many people who rely on government programs in one form or anther vote Republican and therefore in favor of politicians who would cut the very programs that often (barely) sustain these people, which isn't necessarily the same as sustaining these places/their communities?

(The most persuasive article I've ever read on this topic, by the way, is from Alec MacGillis three years ago, also in the NYT; the most persuasive book I've read about it is Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus (2008).  For a counter-narrative, see Frank Morris's reporting out of central Missouri this fall.  In short, )

Porter helpfully includes lots of national, regional and local data in this story:
Harlan County is the nation’s fifth most dependent on federal programs, according to the government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
That means that Social Security and Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and the EITC (earned-income tax credit) made up some 54% of the residents' income in 2016.  That figure has nearly doubled, from 28%, in 1990.  People here draw between a fifth and a third of their income from the "public purse," a figure that excludes health insurance.

And about the nation more broadly, seven of the ten states where government transfers make up the largest share of income are states Trump carried.
Research by Dean Lacy at Dartmouth College on the presidential elections in 2004, 2008 and 2012 found that states receiving more federal spending for every tax dollar they contributed were more likely to go Republican.
Porter also notes Suzanne Mettler's new book, The Government-Citizen Disconnect, which talks not only about what voters don't seem to take on about where benefits come from, but also the fact that so many low-income folks don't vote.  Just 31% of Kentuckians voted in 2015, and only 16% voted for Matt Bevin, the second Republican to be elected governor since the 1970s.  (This "poor people don't vote phenomenon was a big part of MacGillis's 2015 analysis).

But there is more to Porter's Sunday feature than the perennial hand wringing over (white) low-income folks ostensibly voting against their own economic interests, and there is more, too, than the persistent question regarding whether voters like those in Harlan County are more motivated by racism or economics (though the story also features some of that).  Porter gives a nod to a theme that gets more attention in the Trump era, that folks in rural America tend to feel overlooked by government, and so they've lost trust in it.  (More on that here and in about everything I've ever written about the would-be State of Jefferson).

As he did in a related feature in last Sunday's NYTimes, Porter acknowledges the desire of folks like those in Harlan County for decent jobs that pay a living wage.  That implicates critical regional economic context:  the decline of coal and the "vague but powerful resentment across the county toward a political system that people here blame for allowing, encouraging even, the decline of coal, its economic backbone."  To this day, coal provides some of the best jobs in the county, paying more than twice the average wage there.  But the number of coal jobs has dropped below 600, a small fraction of the number in the early days of the Obama administration.  Only about a third of Harlan County's working-age adults are employed.

Porter articulates an interesting rural-urban comparison, which many would read as a white-black comparison.  
Many people blame Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan for killing coal and credit their vote for Mr. Trump to his promise that he would revitalize the industry. Some are skeptical of a government that saved Detroit’s automakers but not Appalachia’s lifeline.  
Is Porter hinting (or should I say dog-whistling?) at something akin to Arlie Hochshild's "standing in line" and "cutting in line" metaphors?  That disgruntled low-income and working-class whites see immigrants, racial minorities, women, and even environmental concerns cutting in line ahead of them so that working class whites never get their due?

Porter closes with this discouraging thought:
As small towns lag behind prosperous urban centers along the coasts, as rural communities shed businesses and jobs, and as their residents turn to welfare as a last line of sustenance, the more they will resent Washington’s inability, or unwillingness, to stem the decline.
That thought echoes Porter's column from last week, "The Hard Truths of Trying to 'Save' the Rural Economy." That column features lots of useful and interesting charts and graphs conveying a lot of bad news (akin to this WSJ feature in May 2017:  "Rural America is the New Inner City").  Rural America is aging; brain drain is a problem.  Economic woes abound.  This, too, has become a familiar 21st century narrative about the rural.  Porter observes:
One thing seems clear to me: nobody — not experts or policymakers or people in these communities — seems to know quite how to pick rural America up.
That may be true, but many rural sociologists and economists at least have some ideas about what might work.  Porter breaks down the sources of rural employment, with attention to what links rural economies to urban ones.  Here are some key data points on rural labor markets:
  • In the nation's 704 entirely rural counties, manufacturing employs just one in eight workers, still more than all extractive industries (including farming) combined. 
  • Education, health care and social assistance are the sources of the greatest number of jobs in these counties, and most of those jobs are government funded.   
But America has just 13 million manufacturing jobs, so that sector is unlikely to save rural America, especially in light of the rising use of robots.  (Read more here and here; for a more upbeat vignette on manufacturing in rural America, there's this out of Ludington, Michigan).  On the issue of technology, broadband deficits continue to be an issue.

Regarding the public sector v. private sector debate, a recent report of the Brookings Institute suggests that government intervention should be used judiciously, with targets carefully selected.   
Better to focus on middle-sized places that are near big tech hubs and have some critical infrastructure, rather than scatter assistance all over the landscape.
That said, it's important to acknowledge that even medium-sized cities struggle to compete in an era that rewards agglomeration (read here for a great example).

Porter does identify some rural bright spots:  Sioux County, Nebraska (population 1,311 in the far northwest corner of the state) and Southeast Fairbanks Census Area, Alaska (population 7,029).  Both have high per capita earnings because, interestingly, both rely heavily on technology in sectors not traditionally associated with it:  agriculture and extraction.  Otherwise, he basically concludes that some 50 million people live in a rural America that has little to offer them economically.  Porter also ponders the political consequences of that fact, quoting William Galston of the Brookings Institute:
Think through the political consequences of saying to a substantial portion of Americans, which is even more substantial in political terms, ‘We think you’re toast.’                                                          
Plus, Porter notes the consequences of rural America's flailing and failures for the entire nation (think:  cost of opioid epidemic).  This rural-urban interdependence is a point too often overlooked by commentators, though it is one that rural advocates often make.
                                      
Don't miss the NYTimes curated reader comments on last week's story, "Small Town America is Dying?  How Can We Save It?." 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

More on the demise of the small dairy farm

Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer in Wonewoc, Wisconsin (population 816) published this op-ed/guest piece in the Washington Post yesterday, "Dairy Farming is Dying.  After 40 years, I'm done."  The headline sums up well what he has to say, but here's one of the most compelling excerpts:
Unlike many dairy farmers, I didn’t retire bankrupt. But for my wife and me, having to sell our herd was a sign — of the economic death not just of rural America but also of a way of life. It is nothing short of heartbreaking to walk through our barn and know that those stalls will remain empty. Knowing that our losses reflect the greater damage inflicted on entire regions is worse.
Writing about the farm crisis of the 1980s, Goodman observed its knock-on effects:
Farmers felt the impact most directly, but there were few in rural communities who were untouched. All the businesses that depended on farm dollars watched as their incomes dried up and the tax base shrank. Farm foreclosures meant fewer families and fewer kids, so schools were forced to close . The Main Street cafes and coffee shops — where farmers talked prices, the weather and politics — shut down as well.
He also notes the link between the current farm crisis and the mental health crisis among farmers, writing:
This year, Wisconsin, where I live, had lost 382 dairy farms by August; last year, the number at the same point was 283. The despair is palpable; suicide is a fact of life, though many farm suicides are listed as accidents.
Earlier posts on this topic are here and here

As for the subsidies available to larger dairy farms in the just-signed Farm Bill, those he calls a "PR stunt."  What farmers want, he says, is a fair price for their product. 

Other topics addressed in this piece include going organic, agribusiness, and the collapse of the family farm. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Stripping, pheasant hunting and the (relative absence of) law in rural South Dakota

A friend drew my attention to this story in South Dakota's Argus-Leader last month.  The headline is "Stripping, sex-trafficking, and small towns looking the other way," and it seems to support my long-standing argument that law and legal institutions are less present, less effective in rural areas, in part for socio-spatial reasons.  That is, material spatiality disables law because of the challenge and cost of policing vast, sparsely populated places.  Further, material spatiality reinforces (and is reinforced by) social expectations of law's anemic presence and role.

Here's an excerpt from Jeremy Fugleberg's story in the Argus-Leader.
Pheasant hunting season was once a homespun South Dakota tradition. But increasingly it is a commercial enterprise, one that comes with a dark side: sex trafficking and pop-up strip clubs that cater to hunters here for a good time.

The hunting season's dark side stands in stark contrast to South Dakota’s friendly, clean-cut image. It can be easy to overlook by small farm towns that increasingly rely on hosting a flood of rich pheasant hunters to offset losses from troubled agricultural markets. 
Pop-up strip clubs, while legal, have their own place in the shadow. They can trap freelance dancers in a web of exorbitant fees, throwing them into debt and making them vulnerable to being illegally exploited by traffickers and hunters. 

 * * * 
South Dakota is dawning to the realization that human trafficking isn’t just a big-city problem. It’s essentially modern slavery that does happen in the state, as (usually) men, control and manipulate (usually) women and sell their bodies for sex.
It’s a shocking practice, one that can be masked as simply providing entertainment for hunters in remote communities. 
The story quotes Tifanie Petro, co-chair of the South Dakota West River Human Trafficking Task Force:
These small towns allow this to happen because it’s a social norm, right? 'Boys will be boys,' that’s what we tell ourselves.  There’s this social acceptance because, ‘that’s just what happens here, that’s just what goes on during the rally, or during the pheasant season.’
The story uses Frank Day's Bar in Dallas, in Gregory County (population 4,271) to illustrate the phenomenon.  The establishment has "become legendary as a South Dakota destination for groups of hunters, mostly male, sometimes wealthy, looking for after-dark entertainment."  Fugleberg suggests that Gregory County authorities turn a blind eye to exploitation of strippers by establishments like Frank Day's, which becomes "No Wives Ranch" during pheasant season.  Fascinating.

So, what is the onus on local government to protect the women who come to work as strippers?  What would government protection look like in that context?  Is the exploitation mostly economic?  or is it something else? Or can you ever separate the economic incentives from the "something else"?

Fugelberg suggests certain "secret ingredients" to sex trafficking, which are present here:
South Dakota’s two largest tourist events, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and pheasant hunting season, both have the ingredients that attract sex traffickers: lots of men a long way from home, looking for a good time, with money to spend.  (emphasis added)
Interesting.  Maybe so.  I always assumed there was a pimp or profiteer or clear-cut criminal who was making a lot of $$$.  Is Frank Day's Bar making a lot of money during the period it is the "No Wives Ranch"?

How about the widespread "ingredient" of women not earning what they deserve?  Looks like another feature of a patriarchal society to me. 
 
I noticed a few years ago at conferences that what we previously called prostitution is now widely labeled "sex trafficking."  Hmmm.  Is all prostitution sex-trafficking?  To be more precise, is all sale of sex for $$$ sex-trafficking?  or only when a man or men are involved and are making the profit?

I ask these questions with great appreciation for Fugelberg's reporting, but also just trying to sort things out here.

Cross-posted to Feminist Legal Theory and Working Class Whites and the Law.

California's wildland-urban interface

Doug Smith and Ben Walsh report in today's Los Angeles Times:
A Times analysis of wildfire hazard across California found that hundreds of communities from Redding to San Diego are at high risk of deadly wildfires like those in Paradise and Malibu last month. 
More than 1.1 million structures, or roughly 1 in 10 buildings in California, lie within the highest-risk fire zones in maps drawn by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the analysis showed.
Don't miss the maps accompanying this story, where you can "drill down" and see where you own home lies. 
Nearly 60% of the state’s at-risk structures are in incorporated cities or counties, placing the burden of preparing them on local fire departments, overwhelmingly in Southern California. 
* * * 
Large clusters are found where cities run up against rocky terrain, such as where the Santa Monica Mountains bisect Los Angeles.
I first learned of the term "wildland-urban interface" in 2013 or 2014 and even used the construct in my 2014 book chapter, "The Rural Lawscape: Space Tames Law Tames Space," where I was grappling with the continuum between remote wilderness and small towns, as two ends of the spectrum that could be considered "rural."  Turns out the idea of the wildland-urban interface disrupts that continuum because it puts the urban right next to wilderness.  

The Los Angeles Times story also notes that Paradise and Malibu are among 174 California communities that are "nearly entirely at risk with 90% or more of its buildings in the red zone."  The story quotes Dave Sapsis, a researcher with the state's Fire and Resource Assessment Program:  
It’s not a good feeling to look back on how we mapped Paradise — it’s almost all red — and then having this event come through that validates the map. We’ve really got to address this trend. These are unacceptable outcomes.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

This story about Paradise (California) High School's Class of 2019 resonates eerily with my last post

Dan Levin reports today in the New York Times under the headline, "After Wildfire, Class of 2019 Faces Uncertain Future."  As a law student and I suggested in posts a few weeks ago on Working Class Whites and the Law (here and here), Paradise, California, the small city destroyed in the so-called Camp Fire in November, was very much a working class town, and its population was predominantly white.  Here's a data point from Levin's story that reinforces the point:  
  • 67 percent of Paradise High School students qualify for free or reduced lunch
The story features many profiles of Paradise High students.  One profile in particular reminds me of my Legal Ruralism post from a few days ago regarding the struggles of rural students in the higher education context:   
[Elie] Wyllie, 17, grew up in Paradise “way below the poverty line,” she said. Problems at home motivated her to get stellar grades. Her zeal for perfection made her Paradise High’s top tennis player and earned her the nickname The Comeback. She dreamed of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, believing that college was the sole path to changing her family’s fortunes.

She was in the midst of applying to a dozen colleges, including Yale, when the inferno reduced her home to ashes. While California state schools extended their application deadlines, she still does not have all the paperwork they require.
Levin quotes Wyllie:
Everything is crashing down.  Now I’ll be the only person in my family to have a future. They’re going to expect me to take care of them when I can barely take care of myself. 
Wyllie has moved in with her now-retired AP history teacher, the only way she could complete homework and her college applications. 

Here's another sobering quote from Ms. Wyllie: 
The Camp Fire tore up more than just my town; it took away my peace of mind.  Everything for the rest of my life is going to be affected by this.
Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.  

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Colleges and universities (including elite ones) paying more attention (in a good way) to rural students

National Public Radio ran a lengthy feature yesterday on rural college students as part of its series, the Changing Face of College.  This piece is chock full of sensitivity to the rural student experience, and it features profiles of students who hail from a range of rural-ish places in Michigan, from the Upper Peninsula to not-that-far from Ann Arbor and close-to Holland, in the western part of the state.

The title of the piece by Alissa Nadworny is "'Going to Office Hours is Terrifying' And Other Tales of Rural Students in College."  Here is the post I wrote for Working Class Whites and the Law, which features some excepts from the story as well as other recent media coverage of socioeconomic class diversity in higher ed.  In this post for Legal Ruralism, I want to focus more on "rural" and less on "working class white" generally, though it seems that the rural students in the Nadworny feature are all white (and seemingly all working-class white). 

The story (as well as my WCW post about it) focuses in part on the culture shock rural students experience when they go to large, urban-ish campuses. The following quote from Alexandra Rammacher of Charlotte, Michigan, population 9,074, highlights the lack of anonymity of rural places in contrast to the the 46,000-student Ann Arbor campus:
There were so many people!
Every day you would see a face you had never seen before — many faces you had never seen before.  I was used to seeing a group of people I already knew. It was just a huge there-are-people-in-the-world revelation.
Keep in mind that her hometown Charlotte, as the crow flies, is not that far from Ann Arbor.  Here is an excerpt regarding Kendra Beaudoin of Lake Linden, population 993, in the storied Upper Peninsula, a 10-hour drive from Ann Arbor:
Beaudoin is the daughter of a single mother, and she helped raise her four younger siblings. Back home, she didn't know a lot of people with a bachelor's degree; fewer than 1 in 5 rural adults aged 25 and older have them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.  
(Here's a really old post on the extent to which people in my home town had college degrees.)
At Michigan, Beaudoin is majoring in biopsychology, cognition and neural science and has co-founded a club for first-generation students to give one another moral support and advice. 
"I'm still intimidated by professors. Going to office hours is terrifying," she says. "There were definitely moments when I was like, 'I'm only going here to fill a diversity quota and I don't really belong here and everybody else is so much smarter than me.' "
* * *  
Other obstacles are more mundane. Take crosswalks. "Those don't exist where I lived," Beaudoin says. She stops and waits for the light to change while other pedestrians brush past her. When her phone broke, leaving her without one for several months, she used a paper map to find her way around campus. She still has trouble figuring out the bus system. Yet, as someone from a rural place where self-sufficiency is valued, "The idea of going to someone and asking how this works ... it was almost like I felt bad for not knowing."
Beaudoin also offers a comment that goes to students' different attitudes stemming from class:
It's almost like a sense of entitlement.  Some students, they're comfortable, they're relaxed, they're OK with talking back to the teachers or arguing a grade.
Speaking of entitlement, the story also comments on the shock to some students of seeing others wearing designer labels.  A student from Au Gres, Michigan, population 889, observes:
Everybody else has got the coin that I don't have. Those Canada Goose jackets? You're kidding.  I'm walking down the road and I see people with Gucci or Versace.
Canada Goose parkas can cost up to $1500.  (Here's a recent story out of England about a high school that banned Canada Goose coats by way of "poverty proofing" the school and making it less alienating for students whose families cannot afford ht pricey jackets).

NPR reports that some colleges and universities are doing more to attract and support rural students qua rural students--because they are rural and not merely working-class white.  (Note the contrast between this news and recent rhetoric regarding the Harvard affirmative action litigation, which implied that rural students don't represent diversity or bring perspectives that would be valuable in higher education).  Nadworny quotes Naomi Norman, associate vice president for instruction at the University of Georgia, which recently launched a program to provide scholarships and mentors to support rural students:
We never really came to terms with the fact that they needed extra support.
The story continues by noting what the the University of Georgia is on the vanguard of four-year institutions that is providing financial and academic support to rural students, just as they do urban ones. 
The Georgia program came about after a task force found that rural students have higher dropout rates than their classmates and couldn't afford the $1,500 fee for the existing summer program for incoming freshmen. The University of North Carolina system plans to increase rural enrollment by 11 percent by 2021, and several Pennsylvania universities and colleges have started scholarships for students from rural Schuylkill County, a onetime coal-producing area.
It is exciting to see colleges and universities, both small and large, public and private, setting rural-specific goals like these.  Most such initiatives are recent.  Kent Trachte, president of Lycoming College, where 20% of students hail from rural Pennsylvania, says: 
It's fair to say that until fairly recently, we just took our rural students for granted.           
That's an interesting way of expressing things for a few reasons, not least because it draws attention to the fact that enrollment of rural students has been declining nationally. 
   
Lycoming College recently received "the second half of a $1 million grant to go toward scholarships for residents of two such counties."

Nadworny notes that the University of Michigan is now being intentional about extending to more rural students the range of academic and financial support it provides to others in the first-generation category.  When its Kessler Presidential Scholarship Program was founded a decade ago, 90% of participants came from nearby Detroit and other urban areas, but "nearly a third of this year's 36 Kessler Scholars are from rural places."

Michigan is adding scholarships and academic support for as many as 20 students from the Upper Peninsula next fall, and Cornell University is launching its own program, modeled on Michigan's.

The NPR story also touches, importantly, on the (in)visibility of the "rural" student and the optics of diversity:
One challenge faculty and staff face in helping rural students: They often don't realize that rural students, who are predominantly white, need the extra help. "If you are an instructor in a class looking out, you cannot identify [a first-generation rural student] in the way you might say, 'Well, I have an African-American student in this class,' or, 'I have a student of Muslim identity in this class.' So we start there," Gibson says. "What the student is experiencing in a classroom situation or in a dorm situation may or may not be visible."
I wrote some about that here and here.

One really exciting aspect of this piece is that it suggests that some universities are beginning to see  rural as a desirable characteristic because it broadens political diversity, even as it also (at least partly) re-affirms stereotypes of rural as conservative and Republican. 

Check out this quote from a University of Michigan student from rural (or at least exurban) Louisiana:
They expect a yee-haw.  They expect me to be some extreme bigot.
The student from Au Gres, Michigan, one of 55 students in his high school class, notes that people in Ann Arbor often assume he is "Republican. And poor. And a farmer."

Another rural University of Michigan student states:
It's right that a lot of people from rural towns are conservative, and that's not me so I don't love going home and butting heads with people who never leave and never open themselves up to something different. They're just going to stay on the same farm their whole life with the same values and do the same thing. I'm just trying to experience everything.
And here is an excerpt that suggests appreciation for what rural students bring to the broader discourse, especially in this extremely polarized political moment:
"If we want to increase conversations across party lines and ideologies, we have to be exposed to one another," says Sonja Ardoin, assistant professor for student affairs administration at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and a onetime rural student herself.
Kent Trachte of Lycoming College notes, in a similar vein,
We in higher education had better be thinking about how do we bring together young people from these different backgrounds to a place where they can hopefully have civil discourse.
Again, contrast that constructive view with the scoffing at rural perspectives we saw in commentary about the trial over Harvard's affirmative action program this fall.

And all of this leads me to the big question I've been asking for several years:  What are scholars doing to ensure that the sorts of knowledge and cultural capital that rural students bring to college are appreciated?  Are we conveying to our rural students (however defined?) that they are valued?  (A very provocative piece of scholarship related to that question is here).  Are we doing what it takes to retain them in higher education?

These questions are near to my heart (and mind) right now because I've just finished teaching a seminar to first-gen, first-year (formerly freshman) students at UC Davis--undergrads, not law students.  I created the seminar, called "The First-Gen Experience in Scholarly and Popular Literature," and in it, my students reflected on and told their own stories of how they got to college.  Who were the key mentors?  What were the primary obstacles? They also reflected on the support they need to succeed at UC Davis.  Almost all of the students were urban, but a few had some claim to knowing something about rurality.  One was from Sonoma, an example of rural gentrification, and one was from Stockton, in the great Central Valley.  Some of the students' parents had worked as agricultural laborers.   By and large, the students weren't rural--and they also were not white, but I felt like a lot of the obstacles they are facing cross color lines and geographic lines.

All of this takes me back to what I wrote here.  Don't we want the greatest talent from all of America, rural or urban, whatever skin color, in our best colleges?  Don't we want--indeed, need--to develop it for the common good?

For more posts on rural students and higher education, check out the ones here (2008, the first year of this blog!, which shows how long this issue has been on my mind), here (2017), here (2010), here (suggesting elite admissions bias against rural students, 2013), or here (back to 2008) or just search Legal Ruralism for "college degree."

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

On the rural housing shortage and how California's wildfires have drawn attention to it

I've already blogged recently about how the California wildfires have drawn attention not only to California's housing shortage generally, but even more so its rural housing crisis.  I'm coming back to that topic because the national (and state) media continue to attend to it and because the media are also talking about the wildfires in relation to income inequality and poverty. 

The Los Angeles Times' Liam Dillon wrote a few days ago under the headline, "How Northern California's Destructive Wildfires Could Exacerbate the State's Housing Crisis."  Here's an excerpt:
Five large wildfires over the past 14 months, with November’s Camp fire the most devastating, have destroyed nearly 21,000 homes across six counties. That total is equivalent to more than 85% of all the new housing built in those counties over the past decade, according to Construction Industry Research Board building permit statistics.
Dillon quotes Bob Rymer of the California Building Industry Association. 
We had a housing crisis prior to the fires.  This exacerbated the crisis. I can’t even put a measure on it. Just wow.
The story profiles a low-income apartment complex that was destroyed in the Camp Fire, Paradise Community Village.  Its three dozen apartment homes were among 14,000 housing units destroyed by the the fire.  The apartment complex is owned by the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), which owns or manages 17 properties in Butte, Shasta and five surrounding counties.  Even before the fire, CHIP had a wait list of 1800 families. 

Dillon also considers what's been going on around other California communities that have suffered wildfires: 
This summer’s Carr fire in Shasta and Trinity counties destroyed more than 1,000 homes. After the fire, officials in Redding, the largest city in Shasta County, heard from their counterparts in Sonoma County that a shortage of builders was pushing up costs there, Redding City Councilwoman Kristen Schreder said. She fears the effects could be even worse in her community and Butte County as rebuilding efforts get off the ground.
Schreder pointed to $6 billion in new funding for low-income and homeless housing developments approved by California voters in November as a potential source of money to help the neediest residents find permanent homes.
An earlier Los Angeles Times story by Anna M. Phillips provides more helpful context regarding the Butte County housing market: 
Across Butte County — a primarily agricultural area known for its walnut, almond and rice farms — towns are struggling to absorb the roughly 50,000 people displaced by the Camp fire. Through no fault of their own, the evacuees’ arrival has worsened the state’s housing crisis and raised the possibility that they could be evicted from the region again, not by fire but by a scarcity of suitable dwellings.

Hotels and motels from Sacramento to Redding are full. The vacancy rate in the rental market, which hovered around 3% before the fire, has fallen to near zero. Unable to find single-family homes in the area, evacuees have resorted to renting individual bedrooms, buying recreational vehicles and purchasing travel trailers. Others are simply leaving California for other western states with a lower cost of living.
* * *
Butte County Housing Authority Executive Director Ed Mayer said that nearly 14,000 homes burned to the ground on Nov. 8, a loss of about 14% of Butte’s housing stock. Before the fire, the county’s homeless population numbered about 2,000. Now, it is expected to grow.
* * *
On the day before the fire broke out, the city of Chico had 243 homes for sale, said Adam Pearce, president of the North Valley group. About a week later, less than a third of them were still on the market.
Needless to say, demand is driving up housing prices.

Here's some of last year's coverage of the impact of the Tubbs fire on Sonoma County area housing. The dateline is Santa Rosa, the largest population cluster affected by that fire.  Some 5,700 structures, mostly homes, were destroyed in that fire.  Here's a data-dense excerpt from that story:
California already had a housing crisis long before the fires started. With strict environmental rules and local politics that can discourage new housing development, the state’s pace of new construction has fallen far short of the state’s population growth. 
In the five-year period ending in 2014, California added 544,000 households, but only 467,000 housing units, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, and the deficit is only expected to grow over the next decade. Napa and Sonoma Counties, where the fires did some of the most extensive damage, are among the furthest behind, building less than half the number of units in recent years that the state reckons were needed to keep up with the population.
As a somewhat related matter, here's coverage of the disparate impact the Camp Fire had on elderly folks in Butte County, where many lived in manufactured housing. 

At the other end of the housing spectrum--the luxury end--is new high-end accommodation for aging baby boomers--dateline, Santa Rosa.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Legalized marijuana as an engine of rural economic growth in California

That's what this story by Nathaniel Popper in today's New York Times suggests.  The headline is, "A Struggling Desert Town Bets Its Future on Pot," and the story's dateline is Needles, California, population 4,844.  Popper's story features Jeff Williams, a former county sheriff who is now the incoming mayor of this small city.  Williams voted against legalizing marijuana in the California referendum in 2016, but now he seems to be pot's biggest proponent--at least as a tool of economic development.  Popper quotes Williams:  
If a small community like this isn’t growing, it’s dying — and that’s what we were doing.  We needed to do something.
Turns out Mr. Williams grew up in Needles, and he was there for some of its better days, when the railroad was thriving and people stopped here, on fabled Route 66. (It was also the Joad family's first stop in California as they traveled West in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.)

Now, however, cannabis seems to be turning Needles' economic tide.  Williams was behind a move to attract medical marijuana dispensaries to Needles back in 2012, and he's also helped lead the community's effort to become a cannabis hub.
Mr. Williams, who said he still had not smoked marijuana himself, worked with the city manager and a lawyer to put together a ballot measure in 2012 that imposed a 10 percent tax on cannabis businesses. It passed with 81 percent of the vote.
* * * 
If all the projects pan out, local officials hope they will generate more jobs — an estimated 2,100 — than Needles has altogether right now.
The Needles city manager states:  
This industry is so critical to this community’s future — we just cannot afford to screw it up.
This means all city employees take regular drug tests to ensure they don't use pot, and they are forbidden from taking so much as a cup of coffee from those in the biz. 

The town isn't just authorizing the selling marijuana (81 permits since 2015 and four stores selling to the public--about 100 times the number of dispensaries per person as is the state average), it's attracted Los Angeles-based Vertical Companies, a large cannabis producer that recently purchased 30 acres in Needles.  It has built three buildings on the outskirts of Needles, with plans for three more.  Pot is being grown in two of the buildings and the other is used to house machines that extract "potent parts of the plant."  And you gotta' love this: 
Vertical is also turning an old Kentucky Fried Chicken on Route 66 into a kitchen for candies and baked goods made with marijuana oils.
Meanwhile, property prices are up, and the pot business is expected to be the town's biggest tax revenue generator.  Furthermore, Starbucks recently decided to open a branch in Needles; it'll be the company's first.

Two things that make Needles especially attractive to growers:  cheap electricity (it owns its own generation plant) and water from the nearby Colorado River. 

What do locals think?  Well, the churches aren't crazy about this turn of events.  Popper quotes Lyn Parker, a former teacher who is secretary of the Needles Chamber of Commerce:   
I don’t think cannabis is going to drive anything away because it wasn’t coming anyway.  Would we like a small industry here instead? Sure. But we’ll take anything to help our town.
I'm reminded of the attitude many rural communities have taken toward the rural prison building boom.  They saw the jobs created as "good, clean jobs," and better than nothing.  I can't help wonder what will be the negative externalities, if any, of these developments in Needles. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

More conflation of the rural-urban divide with the racial divide--and more divisive language about what constitutes the "real" America

The headline in the New York Times Upshot feature is "Are Rural Voters the 'Real' Voters?  Wisconsin Republicans Seem to Think So."  I worry that it is one more feature from the progressive media, no doubt well intentioned, that drives a further wedge between rural and urban people.  The story does this primarily by conflating whiteness with rurality, by suggesting that rural interests (broadly defined) are synonymous with white interests and therefore necessarily racist.

Here's the background:  Since Tony Evers beat Scott Walker in the Wisconsin governor's race last month, the Wisconsin legislature has moved to limit the governor's power.  Make no mistake:  I see this as a huge problem and, as many media outlets have labeled it, anti-democratic (with a small "d").  Here's what the Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin Statehouse said after the 2018 election in which Evers defeated Walker:
If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, [Republicans] would have a clear majority.  We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.
Now this is obviously a silly thing to say because Madison and Milwaukee are, in fact, part of Wisconsin, and the votes of people there count for just as much as those in rural places, which I understand are often called "outstate" in the Wisconsin context.

Here's how Emily Badger responds to this current controversy in her Upshot story for the New York Times:
In much of Wisconsin, “Madison and Milwaukee” are code words (to some, dog whistles) for the parts of the state that are nonwhite, elite, different: The cities are where people don’t have to work hard with their hands, because they’re collecting welfare or public-sector paychecks. 
The debate over whether Trump voters, and by extension Scott Walker voters, were motivated by racism v. economic woes has been dominant theme of news reporting and opinion pieces since the 2016 Presidential Election.  I have a file folder inches thick collecting stories debating the issue, and the vast majority conclude "racism."  Most liberal elites seem to have concluded that rural voters, as well as working-class white voters, are motivated more by racism than by economic woes.  Indeed, I've seem some pretty dramatic expressions of that, such as a Tweet by Amy Siskind stating that the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, 2017, proves that support for Trump was racially motivated, "Jobs my ass," she wrote. "The truth is marching in Charlottesville." I thought this was a problematic thing to say because it conflated all Trump voters with those marching in Charlottesville, thus rendering all who voted for Trump white nationalists.  It was also a problem because it dismissed the economic distress that many Trump voters are in fact facing.

In any event, Badger's story continues:
That stereotype updates a very old idea in American politics, one pervading Wisconsin’s bitter Statehouse fights today and increasingly those in other states: Urban voters are an exception. If you discount them, you get a truer picture of the politics — and the will of voters — in a state. 
I don't think I agree with Badger on the point that urban voters are being framed as the exception.  I think rural voters are struggling to be heard at all, to have their concerns taken seriously.  Republicans may leverage that concern into an anti-urban message, and that anti-urban message will resonate with many rural voters because they don't feel they are getting their fair share of the commonweal or that they are getting the government support they need.   In short, I'm not convinced that rural voters are hearing the dog whistle or, perhaps more precisely, if they are that it is disconnected from their own sense of not having gotten a fair shake in recent decades.  Plus, I've often observed a feedback loop between economic concerns and racism; I don't believe the two are mutually exclusive. The more excluded and neglected rural and white working-class voters feel, the more likely they are to resent people they feel are getting more from the government than they are.  Many of those people are going to be urban, and some of them are going to be non-white.  Recall Arlie Hochschild's metaphor of the white man waiting in line for his turn, for economic opportunity and economic stability, only to see (or at least perceive) others cutting in line ahead of him.  Those "others" include women, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and--in the context of Louisiana--the brown pelican, which was protected by environmental laws. 

Badger's column continues: 
Thomas Jefferson believed as much — “the mobs of great cities add just so much to support of pure government,” he wrote, “as sores do to the strength of the human body.” 
Wisconsin Republicans amplified that idea this week, arguing that the legislature is the more representative branch of government, and then voting to limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor. The legislature speaks for the people in all corners of the state, they seemed to be saying, and statewide offices like governor merely reflect the will of those urban mobs.
For more on the rural-urban divide--and rural Wisconsin as "outstate"--see Kathy Cramer's book, The Politics of Resentment, which I blogged about here.  I don't recall Cramer, who did extensive field work for her book by holding focus groups all over the state, calling out the racial divide that Badger's piece would have us believe lies along the rural-urban axis.  But my memory might fail me on this point.  Another example of conflating rurality with whiteness in the midwest is here.

It's also worth noting that Sarah Palin surfaced the "rural America is the real America" argument back in 2008.  Remember Joe Six Pack?  Palin was to represent Main Street while Obama, the uber urban cosmopolite, represented Wall Street.  (Read more here on how the culture wars got construed as straddling the rural-urban divide during that election cycle.) That was just about 10 years ago, yet the extent to which we are now assuming all rural voters are white--and racist--has shifted dramatically in the course of a decade.

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.  Another recent post about the conflation of rurality with whiteness is here.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Election fraud in rural North Carolina has historic echoes

"History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme," this quote, which is often attributed to Mark Twain, has particular relevance in today's world. By now many of you are familiar with the election fraud allegations against Republican candidate Mark Harris in North Carolina's Ninth Congressional District. The scandal, which centers around Bladen County, involves absentee ballots and whether or not they were properly handled. There are a couple of red flags here. First of all, when compared to both the political demographics of the county and his performance in the rest of the district, Harris received a disproportionate percentage of absentee votes. Second of all, Bladen County had an incredibly high percentage of absentee ballots that were requested but yet never actually returned. Harris's campaign is accused of tampering with the electoral process by paying an operative to collect absentee ballots, which is illegal under North Carolina law. What happened to the ballots afterward is at the heart of the investigation and the allegations are pretty serious. This election however has echoes to the 1894 midterm elections when Democrats found themselves challenged by a fusion ticket of Populists and Republicans. In that election, the Democrats attempted to maintain power in the same communities as the current Ninth by engaging in voter suppression and manipulation at the ballot box. In this post, I will discuss the 1894 election and its similarities to the current situation.

North Carolina is in a political transition phase. Like its northern neighbor, Virginia, North Carolina is increasingly becoming more of a political battleground and entrenched power structures are being increasingly threatened. There is a history lesson here about how North Carolina politicians react to their power structure being threatened and the lengths that they will go to maintain it. After Reconstruction, North Carolina found itself in a unique situation. With a substantially smaller large planter class than its neighbors and an economy that depended more on small scale agriculture, North Carolina was more of a political background than many of the other Southern states. While Democrats were able to hold power for much of this period, they often won by smaller margins than Democrats throughout the rest of the South. In fact, between 1876 and 1892, they never received more than 54% of the vote in a gubernatorial election. This relatively narrow margin left Democrats in North Carolina vulnerable to a political wave, which is exactly what hit in the 1890s. Buoyed by frustrated rural Democrats who were unhappy with President Grover Cleveland's economic policies and the recession that followed, the Populist movement in North Carolina took hold and became a real threat. In fact, in 1892, the Democratic nominee for governor, Elias Carr, was elected with just 48.3% of the vote. The Republicans and Populist ran separate candidates and split the remaining vote. They would not repeat that mistake two years later and would decide to run their candidates as a fusion ticket.

In 1894, Bladen County was in North Carolina's Third Congressional District. My home county, Robeson, which borders Bladen, was in North Carolina's Sixth. Both are now in the current Ninth District. Much of the below information comes from James Beeby's 2001 writing, "Equal Rights to All, Special Privileges to None:" Grassroots Populism in North Carolina. It was published by the North Carolina Historical Review and is available on JSTOR and if you would like a more in-depth recounting of the 1894 election, I highly recommend you check it out.

In 1894, the Fusion ticket enjoyed great success statewide, winning the state legislature and at least six of the state's nine congressional districts. After election night, the Democrats thought that that they had held onto the third and sixth districts but the Populists would challenge the results in both districts. At the heart of their allegations was that the Democrats had engaged in a variety of election fraud tactics, including stuffing the ballot box and intimidating Fusionist voters into simply not voting. In Robeson County, a hotbed for electoral corruption, it was recorded that many Populist voters did not vote because they feared that the local Democrats would simply count their vote for the Democrat and ignore their actual vote. As you might imagine, oversight was incredibly lax in those days. Many of those who did show up to vote had their ballots challenged anyway and were unable to actually have their vote recorded. The same tactics were taking place in the Third. Much like Harris's campaign, the Democrats saw manipulation of the ballot box as their path to victory. The Populists were luckily able to record many of these happenings by placing volunteers at polling stations and this would prove to be incredibly helpful for their challenge of the election results.

A couple of days ago, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland said that Mark Harris would not be seated until these allegations are resolved. This is the exact opposite of what happened in 1895 when James Lockhart and John Shaw, the Democrats from the Sixth and Third Districts respectively, were allowed to be seated in the House while their elections were being disputed. This effectively meant that these districts were represented by Congressmen that could not even prove that they were legitimately elected. In the end, the Populists prevailed in the Sixth District and Populist Charles Martin was seated in the House of Representatives on June 5, 1896, over a year and a half after the election.  In the Third, the Democrats prevailed but only because, unlike in the Sixth, there was also a Republican candidate on the ballot (against the wishes of the local Republican Party) and it was difficult to prove whether or not disenfranchised voters would have voted for the Republican or the Populist. In the 1896 elections, the Populists and Republicans were more effective at creating a fusion ticket in the Third District and were able to easily secure both the Third and Sixth Congressional seats.

In the current election, the road map ahead appears unclear. The North Carolina Board of Elections has refused to certify the results and the State Bureau of Investigations is currently investigating potential criminal activity. Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia is even calling for a Congressional probe into the election. It seems unlikely that Harris will be seated until this is fully resolved and it is entirely possible that North Carolina's 9th will not have a Congressman when Congress convenes on January 3rd. It is also entirely possible that we could have a new election, which the Board of Elections has the power to call in order to fully settle the matter.

At the end of the day, voter suppression and electoral fraud in the face of changing power structures is a sad reality for the communities that now constitute North Carolina's 9th Congressional District. The idea of suppressing votes and manipulating vote totals to remain in power is sadly not a new idea for politicians in that area. As North Carolina continues to change, it is important that we do not ignore history and remember the lessons learned.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Does rural culture travel? the lingering influence of "Dust Bowl" migrants on California politics

I have often pondered when national media refer to states like South Dakota or Arkansas as "rural"--implying they are rural in their entirety--how this might be so.  Mostly, I think media like the New York Times are just very sloppy about this sort of labeling, but as I have thought about it, I have concluded that states like Arkansas and South Dakota are probably more rural culturally than many other states because, even though their populations are now largely concentrated in cities, these cities' residents are more likely than those in, say, New York, California, or even Texas, to have tries to rural parts of their respective states.  My sense is that this is because more residents of cities like Little Rock and Sioux Falls have migrated from the country to the city in the recent past; the state's population has shifted urban only relatively recently. Thus city dwellers in these "rural states" still have ties to the rural, perhaps grandparents still living on a family farm.  

That earlier train of thought may be why I read this Wonkblog piece from the Washington Post as suggesting that rural culture travels--in particular, that it traveled from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Texas all the way to California during the early decades of the 20th century.  This essay by Andrew Van Dam can further be read as suggesting that an Okie/Arkie culture persists--that it is alive and well in the counties of California where most Dust Bowl migrants settled.  He further asserts that the descendants of these migrants form the core of what's left of the Republican Party in the Golden State.  Here's an excerpt: 
[Dust Bowl migrants] made up a huge segment of the population in Central Valley counties such as Kern, Tulare and Madera. You can still hear their legacy in the country music known as the Bakersfield Sound and what researchers say are the remnants of Dust Bowl speech patterns. You can also see it in the area’s politics. Even after you account for its agrarian heritage, that part of the Central Valley remains more Republican than you’d expect.

You can thank the Dust Bowl for that, according to a new working paperfrom New York University Abu Dhabi political scientist Adam Ramey. Ramey found a strong relationship between the share of a county’s population that hailed from Dust Bowl states as of 1940 and support for Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms.
Van Dam quotes Ramey: 
No matter how I sliced it, I kept finding those results.
Van Dam continues: 
There’s a popular misconception of those California migrants as windburned dirt farmers — think the cotton-growing Joad family of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” and Dorothea Lange’s famed photo of a migrant mother. But there were fewer farmers than you’d expect, according to a comprehensive analysis by Wheaton College economist Jason Long and his University of British Columbia colleague Henry Siu. 
Ramey had explained: 
If you actually look in the Census data from 1940 you find that agricultural employment is actually a low proportion of Okies.
Rather, Van Dam explains, "many of the migrants were white-collar and oil-and-gas workers, and they settled well beyond farming country. Bakersfield became a hot spot of Okie culture because of its oil wells, not because of its farms."

* * *

The divide between urban and rural counties remains decisive in California, as it does in the nation as a whole. An area’s Dust Bowl heritage looms almost as large. Hispanic voters have displaced Okies as the largest group in many areas, yet Republicans have held on in counties with a strong Dust Bowl heritage even as they get “shellacked” in places like Orange County, Ramey said.
All else being equal, the share of the vote earned by Republican candidates fell almost a percentage point a year in the least Okie parts of California between 1980 and 2016. 
In the places that accepted the most Okie refugees, the Republican share rose a few points over that time, Ramey found, even when other factors have been accounted for.
This analysis suggests that folks coming to California as part of the Dust Bowl migration were conservative, Republican leaning.  But I'm not sure that's an accurate representation of the early 20th century politics of Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and, of course, Oklahoma.  Indeed, these states turned "red" only relatively recently.  That said, I wonder if there was something in the attitudes/culture they brought with them to California that made them lean Republican, as the party evolved over the course of the last century.  If so, does that something make them more sympathetic to the current iteration of the party?

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.  More coverage of the 2018 mid-term elections is here.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The (rural?) yellow vests and Macron's working-class problem

National Public Radio's most recent coverage of the three-weeks of "yellow vest" protests in France puts elites/elitism v. working class concerns/realities squarely at the center of the conflict.  Most obviously at stake is a gas-tax hike that was set to go into effect on January 1.  Macron's government announced today that the tax increase has been put on hold.  Here's a quote from this morning's story:
"Originally, the yellow vest protesters were people from rural areas who have to drive long distances as part of their daily life. They said they couldn't afford the hike in fuel prices. Protests appeared in pockets around France to denounce Macron's green tax and then quickly grew into a larger movement that includes members of the working and middle classes who are expressing their frustration about slipping standards of living. They say their incomes are too high to qualify for social welfare benefits but too low to make ends meet. The movement has no official leadership and was organized initially through social media groups." 
The protests' initial target was the fuel tax — but they quickly homed in on Macron as the man behind the hike. 
"Macron faced down the unions when he passed his labor market overhaul last year," NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris. "So he wasn't worried about the grassroots, leaderless yellow vest movement when it first appeared. But three weeks on, the movement is turning out to be the biggest challenge of Macron's presidency." 
The movement is channeling the anger of working-class people across France who are struggling, Eleanor says, adding, "They perceive Macron as arrogant and deaf to their suffering."
In the version of this (or another) story aired this morning (but for which a transcript is not available online), some French political scientists were quoted, including one who used the word "hatred" to describe how French workers feel about Macron, who represents the elites and has no ability to understand or empathize with worker struggles. Here is some prior reporting on the protests (Nov. 23 and Dec. 3), which have turned quite violent and destructive of property in recent days.

This quote from yesterday's story by Eleanor Beardsley is vivid and illustrative, with many references to geography: small towns, heartland, etc:
Well, they rose up three weeks ago - and they all put these yellow vests that you have to keep - every French motorist keeps in their car - against a new gas tax that's supposed to begin in January. But it's a very different movement. It's not backed by the unions. It has no leaders, so there's - we haven't seen anything like this before. Basically, it's being described as a revolt from the other France - not the France of the big cities, you know, the rich France, but the - from the France that can't make ends meet every month, from the rural areas, the small towns, you know, blue-collar workers, farmers. You know, it's just showing - this movement - how split France is, really, between rich and poor. And these protesters - they also accuse French President Emmanuel Macron of being arrogant and completely out of touch with their problems, the problems of the working and underclass.
* * * 
Now, they're saying Macron loves the powerful, the rich, the CEOs, but he has complete disdain for the people. And this - the woman says, "we're governed by mafia bankers, and Macron is a pawn of Rothschild's bank and JPMorgan."
* * * 
Well, up to now, about 80 percent of the French say they support the demands because they say a lot of people can't make ends meet and they're ignored.
And the New York Times coverage from December 2, under the headline, "'Yellow Vests' Riot in Paris, but Their Anger is Rooted Deep in France," includes this vignette of a poor town in central France:
But if it was the shattered glass and burned cars along Rue de Rivoli or Boulevard Haussmann in Paris that finally got Mr. Macron’s attention, the movement — named for the roadside safety vests worn by demonstrators — has in fact welled up from silent towns like GuĂ©ret, an administrative center of 13,000 people, lost in the small valleys of central France. 
Far from any big city, it sits in one of the poorest departments of France, where the public hospital is the biggest employer. The cafe in the main square is empty by midafternoon. The hulks of burned-out cars dot the moribund train station’s tiny parking lot, abandoned by citizens too poor to maintain them. 
In places like these, a quiet fear gnaws at households: What happens when the money runs out around the 20th? What do I put in the refrigerator with nothing left in the account and the electricity bill to pay? Which meal should I skip today? How do I tell my wife again there is no going out this weekend?
Can't help note how interestingly patriarchal that last line/question from Adam Nossiter's NYT story is.  Nossiter continues:
It is not deep poverty, but ever-present unease in the small cities, towns and villages over what is becoming known as “the other France,” away from the glitzy Parisian boulevards that were the scene of rioting this weekend.
So, again, the agitation began in a rural place but had to migrate to the city to get people's attention.  Further, the unrest does transcend the rural-urban divide because what underlies it is profound income inequality; that income inequality is perhaps more evident in rural areas because--as with the "flyover states" in the United States and far northern California within the Golden State, these populations feel unseen.  They don't feel that overwhelming urban and elite decision-makers see their plight, and they certainly don't feel that their pain is prioritized.

I'm showing here some screen shots of Twitter activity about the protests, some of which speak to that sense of feeling overlooked:





Speaking of those involved in the protests, Alissa Rubin wrote in the New York Times on December 3 that protestors are
men and women who rely on their cars to get to work and take care of their families [including] small-business owners, independent contractors, farmers, home aides, nurses and truck drivers [who] live and work primarily in rural towns and in the suburbs or exurbs of France’s big cities, many earning just enough to get by.
Rubin also helpfully details precisely how the movement emerged, starting with a petition seeking support for lower gasoline taxes. That petition was initiated by a woman who has an Internet cosmetics business in an exurb south of Paris, and it eventually went viral with the help of social media.

France is a very diverse country, and a significant percentage of its population is of north African descent.  Many immigrants also come to France from other parts of Africa--and the world.  It is thus interesting that I've seen nothing in reporting on the "yellow vest" protests about race.  I wonder if immigrant communities tend to be on one side or the other of this political divide?  Reporting on such phenomena (politics, protests, income inequality) in the United States inevitably centers race and immigration?  We don't permit whiteness to be transparent, the unspoken default.  Why are journalists not doing the same regarding France?

I also can't help think of the parallel to California, where the recent gas tax increase caused particular agitation in the state's rural communities, in part because people in rural California are more likely to be on fixed incomes, financially strapped, and driving longer distances.  I'm also thinking about how this arguably parallels unrest in the Catalan region of Spain, where rural folks have been (and are?) the primary agitators regarding the secession movement--so much so that the tractor became the symbol of the movement.  On that, read more here.

I also can't help think of the role that Europe's recent policy of austerity has played in all of this.

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

Monday, December 3, 2018

On frontier self-sufficiency in the face of Alaska earthquake

The New York Times reports here under the headline, "In Unfazed Alaska, a Major Quake is Just a Bump in the Road." Here's a quote:
The state is called the Last Frontier for a reason, and residents pride themselves on their rugged endurance. That entrenched attitude may seem hokey in the Lower 48, but it is etched into the very skin of Alaska residents, winter after winter. Daily life in the state can be harsh, but there is also much dignity to be found in resilience.  

Saturday, December 1, 2018

McCaskill calls out Democrats' failure to connect with rural Americans

NPR ran this "exit interview" with Claire McCaskill, U.S. Senator for Missouri, yesterday.  The headline is "McCaskill Blames Senate Defeat on Democratic 'Failure" with Rural America."  The full transcript is here.  Some of the more rural-related quotes follow (block quotes are from McCaskill and Rachel Martin is interviewing): 
I think this demand for purity, this looking down your nose at people who want to compromise, is a recipe for disaster for the Democrats. Will we ever get to a majority in the Senate again, much less to 60, if we do not have some moderates in our party? People want to say, oh, if you were just, you know, more single-payer, Claire, if you were just more to the left, well, a lot more people would have turned out to vote - wrong. Believe me. I know them all.
I love that McCaskill says, "I know them all" and I wonder who "all" is.  All the people in Missouri?  That would suggest quite the "lack of anonymity" associated with rural places.

 MARTIN: So then how does a self-described moderate Democrat win in Missouri?
I think a self-described Democrat can win in Missouri after the Trump era. I believe the pendulum will swing back. And we'll get back to the place where we can cut those margins in rural Missouri and do well in other parts of the state and still prevail statewide. I don't think this state is gone.
MARTIN:  Who's your best Republican friend in the Senate?
Susan Collins. It's not close.
MARTIN:  That friendship makes sense in that you are both in the middle. Is there someone who is more squarely on the conservative end of the spectrum?
I get along with everybody. You know, Rob Portman and I have worked well together. Pat Toomey and I have done some good work together. So I would say that, you know, there's just a handful. I mean, you know, I mean, I just think Tom Cotton's kind of rude. You know, he just is not very friendly. You know, Ted Cruz has gotten more friendly. You know, I think he's kind of figured out that trying to be the lonely pure soldier for the Tea Party didn't quite turn out the way he had hoped it would. And he has certainly been much more warm and friendly and funny. There's very few of them. You know, it's probably very rude of me to name names. But, you know, what the hell, right?
Interesting that the "rude" Tom Cotton is from her neighboring state of Arkansas. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Rural Criminal Justice Summit at SMU's Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center


Visual notetaking at Summit by Michael Lagocki (White Board No. 1)
We're winding down Day 2 of this pathbreaking summit at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law.  This event, organized by SMU's Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center, is turning a rural lens on criminal justice reform.  I going to take this opportunity to bullet point some of the issues we've discussed:
  • defining rurality and rurality as a continuum, from exurbia (e.g., Williamson County, Texas) to remote (where you can walk all day and not see another person, e.g., parts of California, Idaho, Montana)
  • county size--typically larger in the west, which can present additional challenges when the county is responsible for service provision; 
  • ditto state size, e.g., Montana is the fourth largest state in land area; Arizona is the sixth largest
  • pretrial detention and appearances, including whether represented by counsel 
    • Texas has three counties that provide representation at first appearance; soon they will have five 
    • Montana is interested in "tele-representation" of clients at first appearance, in part to deal with conflicts of interest 
  • lack of services, including social services, mental health services, drug treatment and many others.  (And, as I sat at the summit, a student emailed me this story about mental health services being provided at a Walmart in Carrollton, Texas, through a contract between Walmart and Boston-based Beacon Health Options, a behavioral health services company.  With a population of 131,000, Carrollton is hardly rural, and it is part of the Dallas-Forth Worth Metro area).
  • lack of justice system resources, including adequately resourced and staffed public defender offices and contract defenders.  (The study Beth Colgan and I did of Arizona's delivery of indigent defense is here).  
  • the challenge of material distance and lack of public transportation, a recurring theme
  • conflicts of interest, including lawyers "wearing multiple hats," e.g., part-time/contract public defenders who may be prosecutors in neighboring counties and judges in still others.  
  • multiplex relationships within the legal community and within the wider social community/environment, e..g, the prosecutor as basketball coach of the team on which the judge's daughter plays; the parent of the teen who has just been arrested for minor in possession as the high school classmate of the prosecuting attorney.   
  • rural homelessness and the rural housing shortage as just one barrier to successful re-entry.
  • the rural jail expansion boom (documented so well by the Vera Institute; see links below)  
  • the pros and cons of lack of anonymity and multi-plex relationships in rural communities, including the "usual suspects" phenomenon.  
I think I've talked about all of these issues at one time or another (typically multiple times) on this blog.  

Some startling data points that I've heard at this summit, not all related to rurality:
  • one in four jail admissions is a woman 
    • Oklahoma is the state with the highest rate of female incarceration, per capita
    • By sheer number, more women are incarcerated in Texas than in any other state, and 81% of the women in Texas prisons are mothers.  
  • USDA rural development grants are being used to build rural jails 
  • "tying the jail to community values" is in the playbook of architects who specialize in building jails; these architectural firms advise counties on how to secure funding for jail expansion or construction; such "values" can include community safety.  
  • building jails is pitched as creating "good, clean jobs"--to contrast them with extraction industry jobs that have disappeared in recent years, often devastating rural economies.  
Don't miss the Vera Institute's work on rural jails and other rural criminal justice issues.  A smattering of those are here.