Sunday, September 30, 2007

Immigration into rural America

Migrant workers comprise a large portion of the unskilled labor force in the U.S.. Although it is widely believed that an unskilled immigrant labor force in rural areas will lead to the lower market prices and greater stability, it appears from the reading that this is a common and dangerous misconception. Indeed, the presence of migrant workers in rural areas enables employers to offer few if any benefits and perpetuates wage stagnation. Such poor treatment of employees is inevitably detrimental to the national labor force overall – (having harrowing ramifications which affect housing, education, health care and community stability). Yet, the reading also suggests that many of these nomadic workers eventually stop drifting and settle down in rural areas. This appears to be the case as evidenced by the statistics regarding the increasing number of Hispanics settling in rural areas. The reading also noted that although these new residents are working for minimum wage, they are upwardly mobile and integrating quite well into white middle class communities.

Thus, in the one instance, migrant workers are depicted as disruptive to community stability, yet the trend is toward a more stable and settled minority workforce. The reading further explains that the presence of minority workers has protected some rural areas from losing the bedrock or foundational elements of community. Indeed many communities lose a large portion of the native workforce to surrounding areas, and the presence of immigrant workers re-stabilizes the populations, permitting the community to keep its churches and its schools open (education is perhaps a subject for a separate entry). This apparent discrepancy is the source of much debate and makes a solution almost impossible. In other words, if racial/religious/cultural discrimination is the primary force behind local opposition to new minority groups, how could one possibly justify the exclusion of the victims of such discrimination with economic or market concerns. Even arguing from the vantage point of labor conditions and wages poses significant obstacles. Regardless of whether there was a valid and non discriminatory reason for the exclusion of migrant works – it would still be perceived as a mere pretense for discrimination. In areas where racial bias is prevalent the community may win an economic battle and make significant progress in pushing employers to improve labor conditions and raise wages however, they will lose an even larger battle. Communities which seek to exclude will inevitably be the most affected by the gradual transformation taking place all across rural America. Indeed, such exclusion will only make worse an already deeply rooted problem.

In light of this dichotomy how can one reconcile the blatant discrimination that many minorities experience with the economic justifications (i.e. increased wages, safer working conditions etc) for exclusion of many migrant workers?

Yet all the dilemmas mentioned above seem to be questions for an ideal world (i.e. one in which an employer would be forced to provide migrant workers benefits associated with a stable and more permanent work force) This issue is difficult to articulate in writing – but just a thought for a later class discussion.

If it is the case that migrant workers are keeping some rural communities afloat, where is the line between exclusion for the betterment of the working conditions and inclusion for the betterment of the community to be drawn?

The oxymoron of "Appalachian Urbanity"

The headline in the print copy of the NYT referred to Asheville, NC as "Appalachian urbanity," which struck me as an oxymoron, especially in light of Ching and Creed's comments about "rustics" and cultural influence. Ching and Creed argue that once urbanites claim rural items (they use the example of a butter churn) as valued, even "art," those items becomes so, while rural residents themselves have little or no equivalent power to dictate what is considered aesthetically pleasing or otherwise in "good taste." Is it urbanites who have "cleaned up" Asheville and made it the attractive place it is known to be? Or was it ever actually culturally Appalachian (as opposed to Appalachian in physical geography)?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

An extreme example of rural frugality?

The town of Fair Haven, Vermont, with a population of about 3K, is not quite rural by U.S. Census Bureau standards, but it nevertheless seems to reflect a value associated with rural America: frugality. According to this NYT story, the town's coffers have a $1 million surplus after more than a decade of "under-spending."

Sen. Craig down, environmentalists up

I couldn't help but think of the introduction to This Soveriegn Land when I came across this article about how the fall of Sen. Craig is creating opportunities for environmentalists. Maybe the grizzly will follow the Snake River Salmon to recovery?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rural Gangs and Splitville

I start this piece with a Disclaimer: It is extremely difficult to conduct a discussion on rural gangs given the lack of information and the complexity of the issues at stake (race, class, gender, hazing rituals, poverty, education, prisons, urban planning, my own lack of knowledge on urban gangs, prevention/punishment, etc.) Regardless, this is my attempt at a formation of the discussion using one small town in California as a starting point.

Goshen, CA, a US census population of approximately 2,394 (C-SET, a non-profit in Goshen, estimates around 3,000 due to the undocumented immigrant population) makes for a telling case study of rural gang issues.

According to some of the common definitions of "rural," this unincorporated area would not classify as "rural." This is due to its proximity, 6 miles from approximately 100,00 people (Visalia, CA), in a county of 419,000. Additionally, the presence of the CA 99 bisects the small town, which would give less credence to its rural definition. Despite common definitions, people living in Tulare County have frequently referred to the County as having "more cows than people and pews than people." Also noteworthy, residents of Goshen still face many of the challenges that rural areas face such as access to health care, transportation, stores, and schools. However, these "challenges" are also attributable to socio-economic status, given that 28% of individuals fall below the poverty level.

Goshen is one of the many towns that the California Highway system profoundly and systematically changed. Much like the towns described in Sonya Salomon's Newcomers to Old Places. Goshen closely resembles the town of Splitville, also bisected by the highway. Although the presence of a major highway system would seem to alleviate transportation problems that are common to such areas, in a town of such high levels of poverty, it does not.

For the purposes of this discussion, I focus on rural gangs. Given the proximity of the highway, Goshen has become a major "claiming territory" for the Norteño and Sureño gangs. Goshen is not alone, as the U.S. saw a systematic increase of gangs in 41 percent of more cities with populations between 1,000 to 2,500 by 1998.

What I see in Goshen is a large population of Latin@ youth (approximately 3/4 of the population of Goshen identifies as Latin@) who become "easy targets" for gang related activity. However, what I also observed was the intergenerational aspect of gangs in the area. The majority of youth who associated with a gang had parents who were also affiliated with that gang. Often these families lived on small subsistence farms with a small garden and generally goats. Youth would get up around 5am in the morning to do "farming" related activities, and then some would go to school. Perhaps these "farming" activities make them “rural” gangs?

The U.S. Department of Justice has found that poverty is less of an indicator of gangs in rural areas compared to urban areas. Instead, data has shown that economic growth is what "moves gangs into an area" that has not previously seen gang activity. Perhaps the ever expanding city of Visalia, so close to Goshen would explain the gang presence. [In fact annexation has been a hot topic between these two cities, which the local militia is ready to bear arms in case that occurs... stay tuned for that discussion.]

Attitudes from the militia as well as “old timers” (often referred to as “Okies” and Portuguese Americans) reflect outrage towards vandalism and other gang related activity that occurs in Goshen. This supports the Judicial observation that “rural communities respond with greater outrage than urban ones to crimes that occur in their midst, apparently because crime is rare and thus more shocking in rural areas than in metropolitan ones. (Rural Rhetoric 232). However, it is hard for law enforcement and social workers to pinpoint whether gang related activity is occurring from members from within the community as much as it occurs from passersby on the CA 99.

Monday, September 24, 2007

3 issues starting with "Probably those boots"

Reading the Engel article reminded me of one my favorite moments when I lived in Madison in the mid 1990s. This was before September 11, and airport security was much more lax than it is today. At the Dane County Regional Airport, I walked through security and the metal detector went off. The guard didn't even get up. He looked at me, said "Probably those boots" and waived me through. I was wearing steel-toed workboots, and a guard working at a regional airport in a rural state probably had many pairs of workboots set off the metal detector every week. Engel talks about how locals settle disputes out of court when other locals are involved. I also have the anecdotal impression that how people in rural areas choose to enforce laws is based at least partially on whether they believe that the laws have value to the local community. This would mean that federal laws are given the weight the local communities feel they deserve. The idea that I might have been smuggling a weapon on a plane as well as wearing farm boots did not seem to cross the guard's mind at that time. It may have been that it was (at least in his mind) out of the realm of possibility for locals.

During Morning Edition on NPR this morning, they were discussing Dell's announcement that they have created a PC to market specifically in rural China as part of their overall strategy to increase sales in China past their current 10% market share. Lenovo (a Chinese company which includes the former PC division of IBM) has announced their own low cost computer for the rural market that will use a person's TV as a monitor. Back to the anecdotal: when I was last in Wisconsin, the July 4th barbecue (all the brats cooked in beer that you can eat) included a teacher who was excited about the new iMac she had bought, but frustrated because it came without a modem and her area only had dialup access. She found that her old modem was not USB and could not be used with the new machine. As a rural customer, she was frustrated that she would have to pay extra to buy an additional modem just to get lower quality Internet service than everyone at the party. Clearly, the computer industry is not as focused on the needs of rural America as they are on the needs of rural China.

Finally, on the subject of abortion, the great state of Missouri has passed a law that requires locations that perform 5 or more abortions per year to register as ambulatory surgical centers, which requires them to meet a higher set of safety standards. NPR's Morning Edition discussed the impact of this law and the lawsuit to enjoin it. If not enjoined, the law could force the closure of all but one of Missouri's available clinics which perform abortions. One clinic claims that it would cost over a million dollars to bring the clinic into compliance with the new law. For those who are interested in the fair and balanced approach, Operation Rescue has a different take on the new law.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The latest on the tragic tale of Oxycontin in rural America

Oxycontin and other opioid analgesics have been making news in relation to rural America for several years now, and a few states have responded (or attempted to) to the problem. This story from the Daily Yonder summarizes the most recent, devastating statistics on deaths caused by overdoses of Oxycontin (and related drugs) not only in Appalachia, with which the drug has been most closely associated, but also with rural parts of New England and elsewhere in the South.

But why is this happening mostly in rural America? A Maine reporter quoted in the Daily Yonder speculated: “Maine's rural nature and relatively homogenous culture make residents more susceptible to prescription drug addictions.” He concluded that "tight-knit, static communities make it easy for prescription drugs to change hands between friends and relatives.” But he also observed that some places are at greater risk than others, noting in particular a county "positioned along common routes for drug trafficking between New York and the Downeast portion of the state.” I am not sure I am entirely convinced by this speculation, though it rings at least partly true.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The (nearly) lost art of the sheep dog

Here's another story of urban intrusion into the rural -- well, into a formerly rural practice or art. What an irony that an architect and an accountant, who appear to be in the category of those who "have sheep to entertain our dogs," are taking top prizes in an institution like the Mendocino County Fair's sheep dog finals. Only two sheep ranchers (one from Yolo County) actually competed this year. Note also the Mendocino County Native, Dr. Colfax, who says of the competition, “It’s what everyone wants America to look like. It’s an illusion we all collectively embrace.” This piece is also worth reading for the history of sheep ranching in the U.S. in the last century -- which is part of the history of California agriculture.

The Perennial Question: What (or where) is "Rural"?

This discussion of yet another definition of rurality, this one for purposes of the farm bill, touches on one of the issues that has come up in class: wealthy resort areas with small year-round populations that qualify them as "rural" for some purposes. (Be sure to see the list of such communities -- Telluride, CO among them! -- at the end of the piece.) The example highlighted here is Provincetown, Massachusetts, on ritzy Cape Cod, which received a $1.95 million loan from USDA to construct a dock (to ship the peninsula's surplus produce?) and $3 million in grants and loans to build an art gallery. Not exactly what I think of when I contemplate rural America and the challenges facing rural places.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Obama garners more in donations from rural areas than other candidates, blue or red

This analysis from The Daily Yonder shows Barak Obama leading other candidates in contributions from rural counties, with Mitt Romney running a close second.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A different approach to Native American land

The preceding post about the Rumsey Band of the Wintum Indians and their casino development touched on the how some Native American communities are tied to specific land for economic development. In Alaska, most Native communities are organized differently than most in the lower 48. In the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (conveniently summarized in the fact statement in Alaska v. Village of Venetie), the federal government transitioned Native communities from reservations into regional and village corporations in which individuals own shares. The corporations were assigned land and a monetary settlement of $963 million from the federal government and anticipated oil revenues. Different corporations have met with different levels of economic success and some yield healthy dividends to shareholders. One of the effects has been an interesting, albeit complicated, interaction between Native communities and municipal and state government.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A conflict between differing rural interests, right here in Yolo County

This story tells of the conflict between two rural interest groups: the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians who own Cache Creek Casino and the long-timers (including agricultural interests) among Capay Valley residents where the casino is situated. As outlined in the article, the former have stepped on the toes of the latter by building and operating the casino, which they are in the process of expanding with a 10-story, 450-room hotel and event/conference center -- all in the midst of some of Yolo County California's best orchards and fields.

Is it fair to say that the Rumsey Band have imposed an urban phenomenon upon their rural neighbors? The reporter refers to the casino's "Las Vegas-like footprint," and even the manager of the casino says, "If I could put this in the middle of San Francisco, I would in a second, but the trust land is here."

More crime in rural America

This story, first published with more detail in the New York Times on Wednesday, 12 September, tells of the kidnapping and torture of a woman in rural West Virginia. I assume that the NYT saw this as worthy of space because of the race angle: the victim is black and her six assailants are white. The earlier version of the story, no longer available on line, told in detail the background of intergenerational poverty and crime associated with two of the suspects, the mother and son Brewster, each of whom has served time for killing another.

Like the story I posted yesterday about vigilante justice in Tennessee, this one reports on a rural "good Samaritan" neighbor who assisted the victim.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A lot of media attention for an isolated incident of rural "vigilante justice"

I found interesting in this Associated Press news item the reporter's attention to the details of the rural setting. The story stops short of indicating how or why the rural setting is relevant to what happened, but the details of the rural locale could be intended to suggest that this sort of vigilante behavior is associated with rural places because of the level of poverty, the limited of law enforcement resources, and the lack of anonymity (as of the target, who was known to have been charged with acquiring child pornography). A quick search found that major newspapers all over the country -- from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Sacramento Bee -- picked up this story.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

U.S. subsidies and its impact on the rural poor in developing countries

It is important to keep in mind the role of agriculture in international trade and the impact of U.S. agricultural subsidies on rural areas in developing countries. Although subsidies play an important role in supporting a stable income for domestic farmers (putting aside those questions of whether subsidies are really only benefiting large farms), it also potentially/does promote poverty in developing countries by driving down global crop prices. The U.S. has played a particularly significant role in this aspect of global affairs and in the WTO.

One argument is that by providing subsidies, the U.S. “dumps”, or floods, the global market with crops that growers in developing countries (as well as domestic small farms) cannot compete with. The staples that are being sold are often sold at lower prices than it costs to produce them.

For example, the five crops that are subsidized now and with the upcoming bill, corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans are already overproduced (hence why we have corn syrup in almost everything we eat/drink). They often sell on global markets below production costs, which means that farmers growing those products in developing countries cannot compete, and are being driven from the market and their livelihoods.

“[R]ice, one of the world’s most universal staple crops and a major US export, is sold on the world market at 20 to 34 percent less than what it costs the average US farmer to grow it—devastating competition for farmers who need to recoup their full production costs to survive.[9] In 2004, Indonesia banned rice imports to protect the livelihoods of its farmers, who produce enough rice to feed Indonesia’s population.[10]”

By providing subsidies to domestic agriculture, this flies in the face of the trade liberalization ideals they are promoting, requiring, and enforcing in developing countries.

Developing and developed countries are now completely polarized on this issue. This has caused a huge amount of protest, against the U.S. and WTO, as well as the almost complete stalling of negotiations during the recent WTO meetings in Seattle, Cancun, and Hong Kong.

It's a complicated issue, but I think it relevant to our discussions on the current farm bill.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Regional coverage of farm bill

As I learn more about the 2007 Farm Bill, which the Senate will consider later this month, I can't help but marvel at the range of journalists' coverage of the impact of the Bill.

For example, a July 26 SF Chronicle article portrays the existing -- and future -- farm subsidies as assisting people other than salt-of-the-earth farmers. The lede of that story explains that San Francisco heiress Constance Bowles collected $1.2 million in cotton subsidies from 2003 to 2005. In fact, five crops typically receive 92 percent of federal farm subsidies and this practice will likely continue if the Farm Bill passes. A subsidy monopoly seems unfair to the "little guys" who were the intended recipients of farm subsidies in the 1930s. Another piece, this Sept. 6 column in the San Jose Mercury News, also shows the skepticism of California journalists writing for urban papers. So, according to these articles, the Farm Bill appears to deliver more of the same by giving the biggest payments to the biggest farms.

But wait--articles from newspapers located in rural (or at least "less urban") areas tell a different story. A July 28 (Minnesota) Star Tribune article explains that the subsidies are not just helping the wealthy, and that most of the payments "'go to people making between $50,000 and $100,000.'" Furthermore, the Star Tribune article states that the reforms in the 2007 version of the Farm Bill are "reasonable." This Sept. 8 article from a small Wisconsin paper suggests that subsidies are a necessary part of farmers' incomes. According to these articles, the Farm Bill maintains the status quo, which DOES include helping the small, nonmillionaire farmer. In other words, the "little guys" need the subsidies and the Farm Bill provides aid to those who need it.

I understand that a regional angle is a necessary part of every story, but I am concerned that I'm not getting a clear picture of all of the benefits and drawbacks to the 2007 version of the Farm Bill. This link, from the USDA website, seems helpful, but I wonder how many people will actually take the time to click through the various documents and do their own research. In understanding the Farm Bill, relying upon journalists' views alone will not provide a complete picture.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Farm Aid in NYC?

As the New York Times reporter writes, for New Yorkers, the family farm might as well be a potted plant, but NYC is full of people who eat. So, in a turn that reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between city and county, the Farm Aid concert will be in New York City for the first time in its 22-year history. We've been talking about urban use of the rural. Is this a rural use of the urban?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Rural Poverty on the Rise

The U.S. Census Bureau released its 2006 poverty data last week, and it revealed that the number of children living in poverty continues to rise -- up to 22%, from 19% in 2000. Meanwhile, the national poverty rate fell between 2005 to 2006, marking a decline for the first time this decade. More news and analysis of the trend is available here.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Rural livelihoods in the news

Three articles in the Sunday New York Times pick up on rural themes and phenomena that we discussed in our first class: lack of anonymity, lack of economic opportunity, and urban use (and abuse) of the rural.

The first story, about a small-town newspaper in western Nebraska, describes a situation similar to the one I described regarding my own home town: complete listings of calls to law enforcement authorities, reported verbatim in the local newspaper. The Nebraska editor is quoted as saying that these reports rival the obituaries in popularity among readers. A look at the reported items indicate that residents of this Nebraska town not only report petty thefts and minor happenings unrelated to law (e.g., squirrel down the chimney), which might go unreported in urban places, but that they also officiously report their neighbors’ activities. One caller told police that a 9-year-old boy was being endangered by mowing his lawn when the child’s mother was “perfectly capable of doing it herself.” In light of limited law enforcement resources in rural areas, what are we to make of such uses of those resources? Do stories such as this effectively refute the familiar images of rural folk as self-sufficient, close-knit and looking out for one another in helpful ways?

The other two articles reflect the lack of opportunity associated with rural areas and discuss two different communities’ debates about how to respond to it. One reports on the 5,000-member Yurok tribe in northern California. Situated along the once salmon-rich Klamath River, the tribe is deciding how to spend $92.6 million in logging proceeds – a figure six times the tribe’s annual budget. Some favor a lump sum distribution to members, while others support investment in programs to address high unemployment, flagging fishing, and the drug and alcohol problems with which the tribe has struggled. Meanwhile, development is afoot: a new gas station and 99 slot machines.

The third article similarly considers the economic struggles of rural folk. Once a thriving paper mill town in northern New Hampshire, Berlin (population 10,000) is trying both to revive its economy -- and to diversify it, “not to put all our eggs in one basket” as the mayor reports. Construction of a federal prison will begin this fall, and the town is developing a 7,500 acre A.T.V. park which it hopes will generate $700,000 in revenue each year.

While developments in both Klamath, California and Berlin, New Hampshire, are generating hope among residents, the extent to which those residents have considered the downsides to such developments are unclear.