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?." 

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