Thursday, June 30, 2022

More on Democrats' neglect of rural voters, this time in the Missouri Senate race

This is from the Missouri Times, an opinion editorial by Wes Shoemyer, a former Missouri state senator, writing about Democratic Senate Candidate Trudy Busch Valentine's failure to commit to campaigning for the rural vote: 
“Valentine, who owns farmland in Montgomery County, said she will spend much of the primary election focusing on Democratic voters in the state’s major population areas. But, she pledged to make more forays into the rural, red part of the state if she wins.” –St. Louis Post Dispatch

Reading Trudy Busch Valentine’s plan to abandon people like me made my blood boil. There’s a reason rural America thinks elitist Democrats like her are entitled — it’s because they are.

When I was in the state Senate, I represented my rural community in northeast Missouri. I know what it takes for Democrats to win in tough parts. Believe me, it’s not easy. But you have to have the guts to try. At the very least, you have to be brave enough to show up and meet with us.

It’s been well documented how our party last lost touch with rural voters. I attribute a big part of that to an unwillingness to show up and listen to us. Heck, how could you ever fight for us if you don’t know a thing about us?

And nowadays, despite Democrats regularly losing by double digits statewide, in no small part due to this rural collapse, we’ve got Democratic candidates like Trudy Busch Valentine who don’t even think we’re worth their time. She’s even cut out the middle man — instead of getting ignored by politicians who are bought off by out-of-touch megadonors, we’ve moved on to just throwing the megadonor on the ballot instead.

I live on a farm with my family here in northeast Missouri. Let me tell you something about Missouri farm families — we don’t trust someone who shows up on our doorstep a week before an election with a lame message after ignoring us for months. Why should we?

(emphasis mine). 

It's a powerful column about an issue I've spent a lot of time and energy thinking about in recent years:  what does it take to cultivate the rural vote?  

By the way, Montgomery County, where Busch Valentine owns farmland, is exurban St. Louis, but has a population of just 11,322.  It includes Hermann, Missouri, which I visited in the fall of 2019, between a talk at the University of Missouri and a flight out of STl.  

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

On the sad state of Texas' Democratic Party, including its neglect of rural places

This gist of this Texas Monthly piece, "Ten Years of Magical Thinking" by Michael Hardy, is that the Democratic Party has been failing in Texas, in spite of the magical thinking of the man who has been its chair for a decade, Gilberto Hinojosa.  Hinojosa now has two opponents in his bid to remain the party's leader. These are Carroll Robinson, a Houston law professor and chair of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, and Kim Olson, a 64-year-old retired Air Force pilot who now lives on a ranch in Palo Pinto County, an hour west of Fort Worth.
Olson said she’s challenging Hinojosa because he has systematically neglected rural counties such as hers. She told me that 40 of Texas’s 254 counties don’t have a party chair, and in 170 countries Democrats are fielding just a single candidate in this year’s local elections. (A spokesperson for Hinojosa disputed those numbers, but when asked for the correct ones said he didn’t have them.) “It is the county parties that get voters out the door,” she said. “It is the county parties that understand who should run. There’s not a soul in the bubble of Austin that gets anybody in Palo Pinto County to vote.”

* * *  

The problem, as Olson and Robinson see it, is that in much of Texas the Democratic party has no infrastructure. “You ask any rural county chair out there—no one visits them,” Olson told me. “The party does little to help them. The idea is, that population is red and they’re always going to vote red. And I think that’s a mistake.” Robinson told me that he’s been traveling the state for months, meeting local Democratic candidates who have no connection to the state party in Austin. “There are Democratic nominees who were nominated in March that have never been talked to by the Texas Democratic Party,” he said, incredulously. “I cannot express to you my level of frustration that we don’t even reach out to our candidates.”

The conventional wisdom in the party—and part of Hinojosa’s strategy to turn out more liberal voters rather than winning back conservative ones—has long been to focus on the state’s booming urban areas and the fast-growing population of the Valley. But by ignoring rural counties, Olson and Robinson say, the party is effectively surrendering much of the state to the Republican party. Even a small Democratic shift in the rural vote might well have handed Beto O’Rourke the 2018 Senate seat, which he lost by fewer than three percentage points. To his credit, O’Rourke campaigned vigorously in rural counties—and with a centrist message. But with virtually no party footprint in much of the state, there was nobody to turn out the vote for O’Rourke on Election Day. 

* * *  

In Hinojosa’s view, the decision to neglect rural areas comes down to funding. “It’s easy to say, well, we should have put more money into rural counties. But when you’re working with limited resources, you have to put it where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.” But this familiar complaint rings hollow when you consider that Texas Democrats raised and spent a record $200 million in the 2020 campaign. Do Democrats suffer from a lack of money? Or from a fundamentally flawed strategy?   (emphasis mine)

This is a familiar excuse for why the Democrats generally are investing in rural areas--can't achieve economies of scale.  

Here's an interesting paragraph about the Rio Grande Valley in particular, a ruralish and Hispanic region, and why Joe Biden didn't fare well there in 2020: 

Biden’s criticism of the fossil-fuel industry, which powers the Texas economy, also didn’t help, Hinojosa said. Neither did the anti-police backlash after the murder of George Floyd, particularly in South Texas. “There are something like 20,000 Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hinojosa noted. “They’ve married into the Valley, they have family members in the Valley, they have friends. So when you start talking about defunding the police, people freaked out.”

 

Always going to bat for rural America--and making sure his rural constituents know it

This was going to be a post about Senator Jon Tester's (D-Montana) advocacy on behalf of a rural post office in northwestern Montana, so I had written this:  

Don't know the story behind the Corum, Montana Post Office--why it, specifically, was threatened with closure--but U.S. Senator Jon Tester was tweeting about it a few days ago, so I figure it really matters to folks in Flathead County.   Corum is a Census Designated Place with a population of 539.  

Tweet sent June 27, 2022

As he often does when talking about how important the U.S. Post Office is to rural folks, Tester mentions how it facilitates rural residents' access to prescription drugs and Social Security benefits. 

Threatened closure to U.S. Post Office locations has been a preoccupation of rural communities for a decade.  You'll find many posts here.  

I always appreciate the details in how Senator Tester communicates with his constituents--naming specifics, here tiny Corum, elsewhere the roads, bridges, water projects and so forth that are getting the benefits of Build Back Better.  

* * * 

Then, before I got that posted, Tester sent two other tweets, in quick succession, about how he is helping rural folks.  One is about keeping Veterans Administration (VA) clinics open in Montana, and the other is about policies that will keep skilled nursing facilities open.  

Tweets sent June 28, 2022 mid afternoon EST

I wish other senators paid as much attention to their rural constituents--and communicated with them as effectively.  I don't know of any other senator who uses the word "rural" as frequently in tweets as Tester does.  

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

On Democrats' political neglect of the rural South and, as a related matter, how they fail the rural poor

I'm old enough to remember when Democrats counted on Southerners, including rural residents, to win presidencies and control the U.S. Congress.  Lately, of course, that has not been the case.  Most attribute that to the racism of Southerners.  The conventional wisdom is that Southerners moved toward the Republican Party during and after the Civil Rights era, alienated by the Democrats' concern for and assistance to people of color.  Republicans efforts to leverage the Democrats' assistance to Black folks is referred to as The Southern Strategy (though Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields have written a more nuanced analysis in a book called The Long Southern Strategy).  

But what role does Democrats' neglect of Southern voters play in Republicans' recent dominance in that region?  That is, how hard has the Democratic Party worked over the past few decades at attracting these voters?  I was struck by this from a recent New York Times guest column by a woman who lives in Alabama: 
The South has flaws, but so does every place. Every time I write an essay about my home, I get hate mail. It’s less directed at me and more directed at the South — a place that I am sometimes told should no longer exist. It’s easy to write off an entire region from afar, less easy when you live here.

There’s so much beauty in rural Alabama, and it often abuts terrible poverty. A brilliantly hued hydrangea next to a trailer with blacked-out windows. A row of abandoned old houses next to a field of unmown wildflowers. I do believe that Democratic policies are friendlier to the poor, but how would you know that if you live in a trailer without running water or internet in the middle of a state that has long been out of play for Democratic candidates in national elections? (The victory by a Democrat, Doug Jones, in the U.S. Senate special election in 2017 was anomalous; three years later, he was beaten by a Republican former college football coach with no political experience.)

I understand why Democratic presidential candidates wouldn’t want to waste time and money campaigning here; Alabama feels as if it belongs to Republicans. This is a state with three abortion clinics. As of 2017, there were 113 of them in New York.
* * *
I can believe in the ideals of the Democratic Party while believing that the party has, in certain respects, lost its way; I can become enraged at its recent, hollow attempt to codify abortion rights into federal law. The party’s leadership seems to be looking at this moment as a way to improve its chances in the midterms.

* * *

I look at this moment quite differently. I think of all the poor women who live in this state, the women who will disproportionately be forced to carry pregnancies they do not want, who cannot afford to travel to the nearest clinic that legally provides abortion. Is it naïve to wonder why Democrats at the national level didn’t try harder to provide easier access to abortion in red states when they could have? Why don’t elected officials truly serve both the people who vote for them and the people who don’t? That these questions seem naïve, that I already know the answers, doesn’t make them any less pressing.  

Monday, June 27, 2022

On the burden of high gas prices for rural schools--and the Supreme Court's decision that (Part II)

This follows up on my post from a few days ago about how school transportation is poorly funded in California, even in rural areas.  Interestingly, a Supreme Court case from 1988 held that school districts don't have to provide bus service/transportation.  I wrote about the case here in relation to how the U.S. Supreme Court had a history of overlooking rural realities and thus being urban-normative, in particular regarding restrictions on abortion and state laws that required women to make multiple trips to abortion providers.  The salient excerpt follows: 

In holding that school bus services are not constitutionally required ... the Court in 1988 in Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools demonstrated a lack of understanding of the burden of distance on rural families were not required under the U.S. Constitution to provide bus services to their students. Although Justice O'Connor noted the law's disparate impact in relation to wealth, she did not recognize the disparate impact the law would have on rural families. On the one hand, the Court recognized a spatial phenomenon, that population density necessarily affected school district structure. prompting school districts with small populations to reorganize into larger districts in order to be more efficient. On the other, the Court overlooked the spatial inequality that resulted from requiring families to bear the cost of school bus transportation. The Court’s failure to take seriously rural difference and the disadvantages it created for rural families suggests that the lived realities and fiscal costs associated with rural spatiality are not readily cognizable to the Justices, even when those Justices pay lip service to economic inequality.
Justice O'Connor wrote:    
“The Constitution does not require that such a service be provided at all, and it is difficult to imagine why choosing to offer the service should entail a constitutional obligation to offer it for free.” 
I observed then:    
The fact that Justice O’Connor grew up in the West, on a ranch, might have endowed her with greater spatial realism. The fact she grew up in relative affluence, however, may undermine her ability to relate to the intersection of rural spatiality and socioeconomic disadvantage.
I also noted the dissent of Justice Thurgood Marshall, regularly the Court's most ardent advocate for the poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged.  
In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall notes that the Court failed to adequately address all residents’ needs. He focused on the needs of poor families, stating, “This case involves state action that places a special burden on poor families in their pursuit of education.” Kadrmas v. Dickinson Public Schools, 487 U.S. 450, 467 (1988).

I noted that these concerns could be extended to rural communities.

Finally, regarding the bigger picture--urban-normative courts' inability to recognize and credit rural realities:  
Tacit neglect or misunderstanding of the rural milieu in other legal contexts similarly reveals the urbanormativity of the U.S. Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. In considering the constitutionality of school bus service fees, voter identification laws, and prayer at town hall meetings, the Court has disregarded the needs of rural residents or simply overlooked how rural livelihoods differ from an implicit urban norm.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

On Dobbs: More women must now travel (to states where abortion is legal), but rural women have been burdened by travel all along

In Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health decided a few days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade (1983). This means abortion will now only be available in some states, and the laws of other states prohibiting abortion will be respected--not trumped by a federal right.  This turn of events means the pro-choice community is once again talking about the burden of travel--travel from jurisdictions without abortion rights to those where abortion is legal.  

This focus on travel is a bit ironic to me because I have been writing about rural women in relation to abortion access for 15 years.  Yet that work--focusing on the distances rural women must travel to access abortion--has rarely gotten traction among mainline abortion scholars.  (My earlier work is here, here, here and here). 

Here's an excerpt from my first article on the topic, Toward a Feminist Theory of the Rural (2007), in which I sought to demonstrate that burden by reference to a woman living in Boulder, Utah, though which I'd travelled a few years earlier while visiting Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  Leavitt refers to Utah Women’s Clinic v. Leavitt, 844 F. Supp. 1482 (D. Utah 1994); Casey refers to Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Supreme Court's 1996 decision holding that no state could pass a law that imposed an"undue burden" on the abortion right:
The geography of Utah may be referenced to illustrate th[e] point [that Casey's 'undue burden" standard, and the ways in which it has been interpreted, has particular consequences for rural women]. Consider first a working-class woman in Salt Lake City who enjoys little work schedule flexibility. She would likely have difficulty securing time off both to go through the informed consent meeting and to have the abortion. Depending on her schedule, she could arrange the two different appointments on different days of the same week or on consecutive weeks. If she were without a vehicle but lived in the Salt Lake City metro area, she would have some public transportation options to facilitate her journeys. Making two trips would likely be inconvenient, even burdensome to her. Multiple journeys might, for example, significantly increase the cost of the abortion if a lack of work flexibility or the existence of other duties forced her to schedule her second appointment during her second trimester. Still, the burden of the waiting period on her is unlikely to be as great as that on a woman living in rural southern Utah, as far as 300 miles from Salt Lake City.

Imagine a woman living in Boulder, Utah, for example, in the shadow of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and fifteen miles from Utah Highway 12. She would be 327 miles (seven hours) from Las Vegas, (seven hours and fifty-five minutes) from Flagstaff, Arizona, hours and fifty-eight minutes) from Aspen, Colorado, 367 miles 381 miles (seven and 261 miles (five hours and twenty-nine minutes) from Salt Lake City, the locations of the four nearest abortion providers. These one-way travel times assume the woman has access to private transportation. If she does not and must rely on public transportation, her situation is even more dire. Boulder, Utah, has no public transportation services.

The nearest Greyhound bus stop is 143 miles (three hours and forty minutes) away in Parowan, Utah. Only two buses a day serve the Parowan-Salt Lake City route, and the journey each way is four hours. A woman without a car, living in Boulder would thus have to borrow a car or hitch-hike to Parowan, and then make a four-hour bus journey to Salt Lake City, the site of the nearest abortion clinic.

A working-class woman with little work schedule flexibility, but this time in rural Utah, will face considerable practical and financial obstacles to terminating her pregnancy. If, as Leavitt assumes, she is able to secure consecutive days off from work, her burden may nevertheless be greater than an overnight hotel stay. If she must travel several hours to reach the bus station and several more by bus to reach the abortion provider (and again to return home) the woman may need three or more consecutive days off work—and several nights’ hotel stay—to accomplish the termination. If, contrary to the Leavitt court’s assumption, she is unable to take several consecutive days off work, the obstacles are much greater. A woman in such a situation will not only have to make two return journeys to Salt Lake City by whatever means are available, each of those journeys may require several days. Contrary to Leavitt’s conclusion, then, the worst-case scenario may not be merely an overnight stay. It may be several days’ stay. It may, in fact, require two journeys, each lasting multiple days, with attendant impacts on the woman’s employment, family and financial circumstances.   
An even more dramatic example could be generated from the geography of Alaska, with its dearth of abortion services, which the Leavitt court used to illustrate its point that there is no constitutional right to convenience in procuring an abortion. But Casey made accessibility relevant by burden standard, and at some point—even the Leavitt court might concede if it acknowledged detailed facts—waiting periods constitute an undue burden for the most isolated, most disadvantaged women.

My aim here is not to identify the most extreme example of hardship created by waiting periods. Rather, it is to demonstrate that courts have not seriously considered the practical obstacles confronting rural women. As Judge Wood wrote in A Woman’s Choice, the undue burden question “is whether an Indiana woman living 60 miles away from a clinic in Indiana who cannot afford (either financially, socially, or psychologically) to make two visits” will be deterred from exercising her fundamental right. The undue burden standard is not only about the woman who is worst-situated for getting an abortion; it is about all those who will be deterred by the obstacle that the waiting period presents.

Certainly, some women in rural areas will be better situated to secure abortions than others, even in states with mandatory waiting periods. Women with job flexibility and security, and access to a car, child care, and—of course— money, will more easily overcome the obstacles. But the Casey Court said that, for the purposes of analyzing any regulation, “[t]he proper focus of constitutional inquiry is the group for whom the law is a restriction, not the group for whom the law is irrelevant.”  (emphasis mine)
One purpose of this article was to make as real or identifiable as possible, for judges and scholars, the burden of distance.  I was trying to put them in the shoes of rural women. This approach--specifying just how great the practical burden would be on some women, was not one I'd then seen in briefs or court opinions; the closest to it was the NAACP brief in Casey, which mentioned rural women. 

By the time the Supreme Court decided Hellerstedt v. Whole Woman's Health (2016), the Court was paying much more attention to the burden of distance and even used the word "rural."  That explicit mention of rural women felt like a victory to me.  Here's what I wrote elsewhere (with Ezera Miller-Walfish) detailing the Hellerstedt Court's handling of the burden associated with rurality and distance more generally: 
In Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, Justice Breyer, writing for the majority...used the word “rural” only once, though he used the word “miles” 19 times.

Specifically, Breyer quoted the trial (federal district) court opinion, which acknowledged the added burden the clinic closures were causing “poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.” The disadvantaged group most focused on in that litigation were Latinas living in the Rio Grande Valley, who tended to be “poor, rural and disadvantaged.” Interestingly, the Court did not again use the word “poor” or “poverty” in the majority opinion, which is bit unusual–and disappointing–given that poor women disproportionately seek abortions compared to their more affluent counterparts. The Court did, however, use the term “Rio Grande Valley” twice, which suggests that population drew particular solicitude.

The Hellerstedt Court’s use of “miles” also mostly tracked the district court’s findings, here about the specific impact of the law on women’s abortion access. Because the challenged law had the effect of closing abortion providers across Texas, the geographical distribution of abortion providers shifted, with these consequences:
[T]he number of women of reproductive age living more than 50 miles from a clinic has doubled, the number living more than 100 miles away has increased by 150%, the number living more than 150 miles away by more than 350%, and the number living more than 200 miles away by about 2,800%.
Also looming was the fact that if another pending restriction went into effect, Texas would have abortion providers “only in five metropolitan areas.” Finally, Breyer used “miles” when quoting the federal district court for the proposition that Texas is big–specifically, that it covers nearly 280,000 square miles and that 25 million people–5.4 million of them women of reproductive age–live on that vast land area.
Ultimately, Breyer’s opinion concluded:
We recognize that increased driving distances do not always constitute an “undue burden.” See Casey, 505 U. S., at 885–887 (joint opinion of O’Connor, KENNEDY, and Souter, JJ.). But here, those increases are but one additional burden, which, when taken together with others that the closings brought about, and when viewed in light of the virtual absence of any health benefit [from the Texas law], lead us to conclude that the record adequately supports the District Court’s “undue burden” conclusion.
That was a real victory for rural women, however defined, though the focus was much more on the distance–really increased distance–that any woman might have to travel to reach an abortion provider. Though this did not explicitly focus on rural women, the Hellerstedt majority went much further than any prior opinion in taking seriously material distance, expressed as miles traveled.
I thought, after Hellerstedt, that abortion rights were safe for a while.  And I was thrilled that the Court finally acknowledged the burden of distance.  But alas, we have seen now that the abortion right is entirely gone, leaving abortion access a patchwork among states. 

Somewhat ironically, this means many more women will be traveling for abortions--but they will be traveling between states--between those where abortion is illegal and those where it is legal.   Suddenly, it seems, the pro-choice community is thinking about the burden of travel again--just as they were before Roe v. Wade.  

My earlier musings here on Legal Ruralism about the struggle to get our urbannormative nation to see rural distance are here.  This story in the New York Times was especially urban-centric, focusing on the consequences when clinics in more remote parts of state (especially the Rio Grande Valley) closed, sending those rural women to the larger urban clinics that remained open and impeding urban women's access to services.  Of course, something similar will happen now, as women from "red" states will clog the abortion clinics in "blue" states, impeding the latter's access to services.    

Hannah Haksgaard of the University of South Dakota has also written about these issues here and here, the latter commenting on an international collection on the need to travel for abortion services, Abortion Across Borders: Transnational Travel and Access to Abortion Services by Christabell Sethna and Gayle Davis (2019).

Here is a related post from May, 2022, on the Daily Yonder.  Recent postings to that website also feature a useful map.  

Friday, June 24, 2022

On rural and working-class whites--and Democrats' cluelessness about them--in Politico

I published this today in Politico.  The headline is "There Is a Major Rift Dividing the White Working Class — And Democrats Are Clueless." Here's an excerpt: 
Ever since J.D. Vance became the Republican Senate nominee in Ohio, journalists and pundits have been preoccupied with how Vance’s politics have shifted since the 2016 publication of his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. The book brought Vance fame and a platform that he used, among other things, to criticize Donald Trump. Since then, Vance’s positions on polarizing issues like immigration have lurched to the right and he sought — and won — Trump’s endorsement. Vance now also dabbles in conspiracy theories and has taken on a belligerent, Trump-like tone.

What the pundit class isn’t talking about, however, is an important consistency between 2016 author Vance and 2022 politician Vance. In his memoir, Vance pitted two groups of low-status whites against each other—those who work versus those who don’t. In academic circles, these two groups are sometimes labeled the “settled” working class versus the “hard living.” A broad and fuzzy line divides these two groups, but generally speaking, settled folks work consistently while the hard living do not. The latter are thus more likely to fall into destructive habits like substance abuse that lead to further destabilization and, importantly, to reliance on government benefits.

Vance has not renounced that divisive message. He no doubt hopes to garner the support of the slightly more upmarket of the two factions—which, probably not coincidentally, is also the group more likely to go to the polls. While elite progressives tend to see the white working class as monolithic, Vance’s competitiveness in the Ohio Senate race can be explained in no small part by his ability to politically exploit this cleavage.

As a scholar studying working-class and rural whites, I have written about this subtle but consequential divide. I have also lived it. I grew up working-class white, and I watched my truck driver father and teacher’s aide mother struggle mightily to stay on the “settled” side of the ledger. They worked to pay the bills, yes, but also because work set them apart from those in their community who were willing to accept public benefits. Work represented the moral high ground. Work was their religion.

* * * 

Democrats can fruitfully borrow a page from how Trump communicated with workers. First and foremost, tell workers that they and their labor are seen and appreciated. A key theme of 2016 election coverage was that many working-class white and rural voters felt overlooked. Tracie St. Martin, a union member and heavy construction worker who supported Trump, summed up the disgruntlement, “I wanted people like me to be cared about. People don’t realize there’s nothing without a blue-collar worker.” (St. Martin, of Miamisburg, Ohio, was quoted in a ProPublica story reported by MacGillis aptly titled “Revenge of the Forgotten Class.”)

Don't miss the rest.   

Cross-posted to Working-Class Whites and the Law.  

Thursday, June 23, 2022

On the burden of the hike in gas prices for rural schools--and California's under-investment in student transportation (Part I)

McKenzie Mays reports today from Sacramento for the Los Angeles Times:  "California is richer than ever. Why is it last in the nation for school bus access?"  Here's the gist of the article as it implicates rural places: 

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down rural Del Norte County schools, it was the buses that brought students a shred of normalcy.

Teachers and staff boarded the yellow buses and helped deliver brown bags of free meals and school supplies. They drove along winding, dilapidated back roads known for landslides, as concerns grew about students who had been shut out of classrooms.

“That school bus is a lifeline,” said Jeff Harris, superintendent of schools in Del Norte County, the northwestern corner of California. Del Norte, flush with redwood forests, is home to more than 4,000 K-12 students, a majority of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

When district finances were tight in 2019, school officials considered making cuts to transportation services. But they ultimately backed off as community sentiment became clear: Buses are a necessity.

“If we do not provide transportation services, then our students’ ability to access education just becomes critically endangered,” Harris said. “There is no way that a rural school district is able to decrease chronic absenteeism and support families who are in financial stress without running transportation services.”

Unlike some other states, California does not require school districts to provide buses, even if a student lives far from campus. The state pays a fraction of transportation costs for schools — the same amount since 1981 — despite soaring inflation, increased demand, a sharp jump in gas prices and a projected record-high state budget surplus.
Some students with disabilities or those experiencing homelessness are guaranteed free transportation under federal law, but otherwise, it’s up to local districts to provide buses.

Mays goes on to talk about the impacts on suburban districts, like the one where I live in greater Sacramento (San Juan Unified).  Here are some of the statewide data points for context: 

California buses a smaller share of its public school students than any other state, fewer than 9% of students compared with 33% nationwide, according to the most recent National Household Travel Survey by the Federal Highway Administration in 2017.

More than two-thirds of California’s students got a private ride to school each day while 18% walked and 2% took a city bus or other public transit, according to the survey.

Those numbers fail to measure the strain placed on families as California’s vast wealth gap widens and concerns grow about students who do not have parents able to provide a daily ride.
But going back to the rural angle, I could not help be reminded of this Hailey Branson-Potts LA Times story from nearly two years ago, out of Trinity County, southeast of Del Norte.  This story makes clear  how important it is for free school buses to be available to transport rural kids.  Here's a poignant excerpt: 

After schools closed in March, many isolated students here battled apathy and anxiety, witnessed increased drug and alcohol abuse by their parents, and fought more with their stressed-out families, the county noted in its school reopening plan. As in other rural areas, the district struggled to teach far-flung students who have less access to the internet and bad cellphone service and who rely on schools to feed them.

“There’s a lot of despair,” said Sheree Beans, the school nurse for the Trinity County Office of Education who helped write the schools’ reopening plan. “I feel like COVID took away hope, and that lack of hope, it spans generations.”

* * *

The first day of school started at 5:06 a.m. Monday for bus driver Carl Treece, who drives a 104-mile round-trip mountain route on State Highway 299 — one of the longest in the state.

Treece left the Weaverville bus barn before sunrise in his own car, coasting around hairpin turns and narrowly missing two deer. In the past, his route has been obstructed by boulders and black bears.

Treece picked up Bus No. 6 at Burnt Ranch Elementary School, which recently rebuilt after it, too, was found to have toxic mold. Treece sprayed the bus seats with a bottle of pink-colored disinfectant before finishing the drive to his farthest stop.

After schools closed, Treece kept driving this route to deliver meals and homework packets. He worries about the students keeping on their masks — required for all students third grade and older, recommended for those younger — when it gets hot. There is no air conditioning onboard.

At 6:47 a.m., he made his first bus stop at a boarded-up restaurant called The Whole Enchilada in the minuscule town of Salyer, and picked up three high school boys.

Billy Atkission, a 17-year-old senior from Willow Creek, got up at 5:30 for his mom to drive him to the bus stop. He’ll have to get used to waking up early again, he said from behind a black cloth mask.

“I finally get to see these dudes after five months,” he said, nodding at the other boys. “I haven’t seen anybody at all, just because everybody I’m friends with lives so far away. I miss my friends a lot.”

He added: “I’m not really worried about the corona. Not that much.”

As the bus pulled into Trinity High School at 8:06 a.m., Treece said: “Do your part to prevent the spread. Right? Wear your masks at all times on the bus. Do your social distancing. ... Anybody wanna place any bets on how long we’ll be able to stay open?”

“A month!” one boy shouted.

“Better be forever,” yelled another.

It's worth nothing that some states do provide additional funding to rural school districts to help them defray the cost  of providing transportation to students.  Last I checked, Arkansas was one of those states, as was Montana (in form of a supplement in the state funding formula for rural students). 

Tomorrow, I'll write about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes providing bus service/transportation optional.  

How the built environments of small towns adapt to changing needs--and lessons for cities

Here's the feature from NPR, about the Rural Indexing Project, which features more than 50,000 photos from nearly 1,500 municipalities in 28 states.

The creators of the project are Zach Huelsing and Jon Lehman.  They started taking photos in 2007 of the places they drove through in rural Illinois and eventually expanded to other states.  Soon, they started to see patterns, which are a "central part" of the project. 
Because when they upload each photo to the catalog, they don't just list it as "grocery store, North Dakota" — they assign keywords like the materials used, the institution type, the architectural elements, and words on buildings. Basically, any kind of social marker they find relevant.
That meticulous indexing allows them to then compare images over time and location; like how a post office looks in, say, Douglas, Nebraska versus Ophir, Colorado.

It's also allowed them to bust a few myths and maybe even their own misconceptions about modern rural America.

"It's been interesting to have been working on this project over the course of ... so many politically divergent presidential administrations, for instance," Jon said. "We started out in the Obama years, sort of with the idea that, was this going to be rural America's last hurrah? And that's clearly not proven to be the case."

Still, the data does show rural America is slowly shrinking. Folks are leaving small towns, and cities are expanding with new homes and shops to accommodate surging populations.

In the face of this, Jon and Zach's project has picked up on a trend: there aren't many new buildings in the smallest towns. Instead, the old ones find a new purpose.

* * * 

"So many of the images that are propagated from rural parts of the country focus on decay or on destruction or abandonment, and we're very interested in the ways that buildings, in particular, continue to serve and continue to be adapted in ways that meet the needs of communities," [Jon] said.

"I think we can actually learn some lessons ... the stories that our photographs tell are stories of adaptive reuse."

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Latino immigration a demographic lifeline to rural America

Eminent demographers Dan Lichter and Kenneth Johnson have written a chapter for a publication of the St. Louis Fed.  Their chapter is titled "A Demographic Lifeline to Rural America: Latino Population Growth in New Destinations, 1990-2019."  Here's an excerpt:  

America’s rural and small towns have experienced substantial racial and ethnic change since 1990. This reflects rapid in-migration of racial and ethnic minority populations, including Latinos and other immigrant and refugee populations. Perhaps paradoxically, growing racial and ethnic diversity is also due to white population declines from net out-migration and natural decrease. In 2019, 78% of the nonmetro population was identified as non-Hispanic white (see Figure 1). Between 1990 and 2019, the nonmetro Hispanic population nearly doubled in size. Hispanics are now the largest minority population, representing 9% of the rural population compared with 8% of the African American population. Asian, Native and multiracial peoples represent the remaining 5% of the nonmetro population. 
The outsized demographic footprint of Latinos is also revealed in their share of all nonmetro growth since 1990 (Figure 1). Latinos accounted for 58% of overall nonmetro growth between 1990 and 2019, compared to only 7% among the non-Hispanic white population. African Americans contributed only 3% of overall rural growth since 1990. Other minority populations (including Asians, Native peoples and multiracial populations) accounted for almost one-third of all nonmetro growth since 1990. 

* * * 

Over the entire 1990-2019 period (top panel, Table 2), more than 10% of all nonmetro counties grew in population size, but only because Hispanic growth offset non-Hispanic population declines. This represents 200 counties, distributed widely but unevenly across the United States (the light blue counties in Figure 3). In the Midwest, overall county population losses since 1990 occurred mostly in tandem with Hispanic population growth (shown in pink ). This pattern also characterizes Appalachia and historical Black Belt counties, spread in an arc from the Ozarks (in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas), to the Piedmont region (straddling the North Carolina and Virginia border), as well as various parts of the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. The Hispanic population has been an engine of nonmetro growth over the 1990-2019 period, even as Hispanic population growth slowed considerably after 2010 in the wake of the Great Recession (bottom panel, Table 2).  

* * * 

Revitalizing rural and small-town America requires new approaches that incentivize job growth, attract new migrants and retain young adults. Economic development efforts arguably must target those rural regions and communities that are sustainable in the longer term. Investments are most likely to reap success in rural communities with the most potential for growth—those of sufficient population size, with an infrastructure suited to an information-based economy and having a viable civic culture (e.g., with good schools, hospitals and cultural amenities), and located in close proximity to urban employment centers or natural amenities. Federal, state and local restrictions on legal immigration or on the number of refugees or asylum-seekers will not save rural America, rather those restrictions will limit potential sources of rural population and economic growth. That is why some civic and nonprofit organizations are now calling for heartland visas that could provide immigrants with opportunities to live and work in rural areas. Of course, this strategy has its own challenges. At a minimum, it requires greater tolerance and acceptance of racial and cultural diversity in rural communities with limited previous exposure to diverse populations. Hispanic growth is integral to the future well-being of rural America—to ongoing economic development efforts that promote thriving rural people and sustainable communities.

My 2009 article on Latina/os in new immigrant destinations in the South is here.  

Small-town government run amok (Part X): NM county officials certify election only after state supreme court instructs them to do so

Here's an excerpt from the Associated Press story out of Otero County, New Mexico, population 63,797.   
A standoff over the security of voting machines between a Republican-leaning county in New Mexico and Democratic state officials that threatened to erupt into a wider political crisis was defused Friday after local commissioners voted to certify their election results.

The move by the Otero County commission reversed an earlier decision against certifying results of the June 7 primary because of unspecified concerns with Dominion voting systems, a target of widespread conspiracy theories since the 2020 presidential election.

The two commissioners who voted in favor said they had been threatened with prosecution by the state attorney general and had no choice under the law — but criticized their position as being little more than rubber stamps.

Commissioner Couy Griffin was the lone dissenting vote, but acknowledged that he had no basis for questioning the results of the election. He dialed in to the meeting because he was in Washington, D.C., where hours before he had been sentenced for entering restricted U.S. Capitol grounds during the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

* * * 

The Otero elections clerk earlier told The Associated Press that the primary had gone off without a hitch and that the results had been confirmed afterward: “It was a great election,” said Robyn Holmes, a Republican.

Democratic Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, who had appealed to the state Supreme Court to intervene, expressed relief at the Otero County decision and called it a “shame that the commission pushed our state to the brink of a crisis by their actions.”

The showdown provided a stark example of the chaos that election experts across the U.S. have warned about as those who promote the lie that former President Donald Trump was cheated out of reelection seek to populate election offices across the country and the usually low-profile boards that certify the results. Conspiracy theories mixing with misinformation has produced a volatile stew that has reduced confidence in elections, led to threats against election officials and created fears of violence in future elections.

The passions were on full display Friday, the final day for New Mexico’s 33 counties to certify their primary results. The last six counties to certify all voted to do so, but it was not without outbursts of fury from some of those attending the meetings.

Here's a CBS story from last week about the court's order that the officials certify the election.  

Another post about recent election shenanigans in rural and rural-ish places is here.