Saturday, November 29, 2008

Rural resorts out West take it on the chin as economy slumps, but locals suffer more

Kirk Johnson reports in Sunday's New York Times that the Yellowstone Club, a very exclusive resort outside Big Sky, Montana, population 1,221, has filed for bankruptcy. Johnson characterizes the place as "a cloistered and cosseted mountain retreat for the super-rich." The filing came after the dis-harmonic convergence of the Club founders' divorce and the freezing of credit markets, making it impossible to restructure $399 million in debt.

Johnson explains that the Yellowstone Club, which opened in 1999, is hardly alone among mountain resorts in the West. He notes financial problems at the Tamarack Resort in Idaho and the Promontory Club in Utah. I wrote about another struggling Big Sky resort here, and Johnson mentions it in his story.

Johnson also provides some historic context for the financial woes of the Yellowstone Club, citing what he calls Montana's "history as a sometimes brutal exurb of capitalism, with tensions between rich and poor and labor and capital a theme since the 1800s." He explains that as the wealthy bought "vast swaths of land, spurring the leisure economy," wage stagnation hit the middle and working classes as "Montana sank to 39th in the nation in median family income."

According to 2000 Census, the median family income in Montana was $40, 487; the median household income was $33,024; the per capita income was $17,151 ; and 10.5% of families were living in poverty.

Johnson interviewed residents in Bozeman, an hour north of Big Sky, who "said they were not particularly upset about the club’s plight, given its excesses and presumptions."

But most people also know someone whose fortunes are tied to the financial engines that made this corner of Montana’s economy go in recent years — wealth, vacation housing and tourism.

“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword for a lot of people around here,” said Greg Thomas, a 31-year-old construction worker from Bozeman. “It’s pretty grotesque and ridiculous, but at the same time, a lot of people depend on going up there for jobs.”
Folks interviewed for the story suggest that the sort of "scrambling and getting by" are typical in a seasonal economy, and that residents are accustomed to it. Indeed, while some interviewed have played a part in rural gentrification in Montana have been working hard and not exactly living the high life (except in terms of altitude, I suppose), Montana also has a true underclass that has been suffering for years, indeed, for generations. While the individual poverty rate in the state is a relatively meager 14.6% (meager, that is, in comparison to New Mexico's at 18.4% or Mississippi's at 19.9%), Montana is home to numerous pockets of persistent poverty, including 3 counties in which more than 20% of the population have been living below the poverty line for more than 40 years. (See an earlier post about these counties, which have large American Indian populations). A map here (page 2, Figure 1) shows the pockets of persistent poverty at the block level, revealing that a big chunk of Montana's territory (little of it in the most scenic and therefore most gentrified part of the state) is home to plagued by this inter-generational poverty. The picture of Montana that emerges is one featuring grossly uneven development and vast spatial inequalities.

So, while Johnson reports that some of the Yellowstone Club's 340 members are up in arms about what became of their annual dues, along with the $250K each paid to join, I'm rather less concerned about their fortunes than about those farther down Montana's wealth continuum. By this I refer not only to the working and middle class Montanans who have come to rely on the super-rich for their own livelihoods, but also to those who lack food and basic shelter.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Rurality Then and Now, Here and There (Part V): Women's contributions to food production

Women's agricultural contributions are a common theme of two items that caught my attention this week. The first is the banner image below used to publicize the first International Day of Rural Women, which was just last month. The United Nations explains that the new day, first observed on 15 October 2008, was "established by the General Assembly in its resolution 62/136 of 18 December 2007." The designation recognizes“the critical role and contribution of rural women, including indigenous women, in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating rural poverty.”

The idea of honouring rural women with a special day was put forward by international NGOs at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. It was suggested that 15 October be celebrated as “World Rural Women’s Day,” the eve of World Food Day, in order to highlight the role played by rural women in food production and food security. “World Rural Women’s Day” has been celebrated, primarily by civil society, across the world for over a decade.

And here is another UN excerpt about the contributions of rural women, many of which are agriculture-oriented:

The International Day of Rural Women directs attention to both the contribution that women make in rural areas, and the many challenges that they face. Women play a critical role in the rural economies of both developed and developing countries. In most parts of the developing world they participate in crop production and livestock care, provide food, water and fuel for their families, and engage in off-farm activities to diversify the family income. In addition, they carry out vital functions in caring for children, older persons and the sick. Women make an important contribution to food production. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 428 million women work in the agricultural sector around the world, compared to 608 million men. In many parts of the world, agriculture is the first sector of employment for women, for instance in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia, where respectively 68 per cent and 61 per cent of working women are employed in agriculture.

While I am sure there is no relationship between the actions of the UN and those of the U.S. Mint, it nevertheless struck me as quite a coincidence today to see this image of an indigenous woman engaging in food production. Its similarities to the UN image were striking. This image of an American Indian woman growing corn, squash and beans will appear on a soon-to-be-released $1 coin. The U.S. Mint explains the image in a story by Matthew Healey:

Corn, beans and squash — the “three sisters” of Native American agricultural tradition — will appear on the nation’s one-dollar coins next year, in a design to be announced Friday by the United States Mint.

By the dictates of an act that Congress passed last year, the reverse side of the gold-colored Sacagawea dollars will bear a new design each year starting in 2009, as part of a thematic series showing Native American contributions to the history and development of the United States.

* * *

Adopting Indian farming methods proved crucial to European settlers’ surviving their early years in America.
So, just as the UN celebrates rural women--including indigenous women--and draws attention to their plight, the U.S. commemorates, in a small way, the contributions of American Indian women to food production in North America.

Individuality and privacy take a back seat as landowners jointly bargain with wind companies

A story by Felicity Barringer in today's New York Times tells how ranchers in windy southeastern Wyoming are banding together to negotiate with wind companies seeking right-of-ways across their properties. She reports on new cooperatives of land owners, which represent "a departure from the local culture of privacy and self-reliance." Eight such associations have sprung up in Wyoming. Similar groups exist in neighboring Colorado and Montana, among other states.

Barringer's story explains the benefits of such associations and how they developed:

This allows them to bargain collectively for a better price and ensures that as few as possible succumb to high-pressure tactics or accept low offers. Ranchers share information about the potential value of their wind.

* * *

That has made it easier for wind developers to make individual deals and insist that the terms be kept secret. The developers’ cause has not been hurt by a 10-year drought’s impact on agricultural families’ finances.

One of the richest aspects of the story is a quote from Larry Cundall, a rancher who heads one of the cooperatives. He reports that 126 people came from up to 60 miles away to attend the cooperative's organizational meeting, which Cundall said had, “the feeling of an old country dance. Afterward,” he went on, “everyone stood around and visited like we did before we had TV.”

A map accompanying the story shows the territories covered by several of the cooperatives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Analogizing "flour and coffee" to "education and health"

I heard a segment on NPR tonight about how Obama might achieve the health care reform he desires. Some of the President-Elect's advisers on health care, including David Blumenthal, suggest that lessons may fruitfully be taken from President Lyndon Johnson's experience in pushing Medicare and Medicaid through Congress in 1965. You can listen to the story here.

So what does this have to do with rurality? Well, rural communities are disproportionately poor, and I heard a story last week on the California Report indicating that farmers pay more for health insurance. Many rural residents are self employed, so I would not be surprised if they are disproportionately uninsured. Rural residents have a lot at stake in successful health care reform, even if many of them wouldn't want to admit it (like those in Appalachia and the South; read more here).

But what caught my attention from a rural perspective was Lyndon Johnson's folksy language and his accent. You'll have to listen to the audio clip to experience the latter, but here is a quote that gives you a taste of the former.
In a conversation on March 6, 1965, [Johnson] tells Vice President Hubert Humphrey he could no more limit spending for health care, than tell his wife what groceries to buy.

"I'll go a 100 million or billion on health or education," Johnson said. "I don't argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I'll spend the goddamn money."

Sarah Palin, eat your heart out.

Barack Obama, are you listening?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Rural on the radio

I heard three stories about rural America on the radio today, all on programs of my Sacramento-based public radio station.

The first was on this morning's California Report. It is about the efforts of a Central Valley food bank to get food to needy rural residents. The food bank that has initiated this novel program, which uses church buses to make the rural routes, is in Fresno County. As one woman interviewed for the program noted, more food is grown in Fresno County than in any other county in the country, so no one there should go hungry. The link to the story, by Sasha Khokha, is here.

Two other stories were featured on NPR's "All Things Considered" this evening. The first featured the dateline Bristol, TN (population 24,821)in Sullivan County (population 153,048). From that corner of Appalachia, Adam Hochberg reported "Lessons from Tennessee, a Southern GOP Stronghold." You can listen to it here. This is territory where McCain gained ground over Bush's performance in the past two Presidential elections, and where many acknowledge that Obama's race played a role in the outcome. Among the phrases I jotted down as I listened: "strong Christian values"; "97% white"; "Americana"; race "in the background"; and "very white." One resident quoted in the story also called the place "very rural," though it is actually a metropolitan county. Perhaps it is a good illustration of how a place remains culturally rural, though no longer numerically so by U.S. Census Bureau and OMB definitions.

The last of the three stories today was about Marty Stuart, a musician and photographer who talked about his love of traditional country music and said he's trying to give the "roots end of country music a voice." It's a very rich piece, which you can hear here. At right is Stuart's photo of Johnny Cash, taken just four days before he died in 2003. See the accompanying slide show here.

The last mention of rurality that I heard on the radio today was a implicit one, also related to music: NPR informs us that Peter Orszag, the new White House Budget Director, is said to "follow country music." So, there is another hint of rurality (after Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson) on our "urban President's" team.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XI): Newton County will get a new jail

The Nov. 13, 2008 issue of the Newton County Times reports election results, including news that the 1/2 cent sales tax to finance construction of a new jail was narrowly approved, 2,032 to 1,884. This tax will expire once the facility is built, and the proposal limited the amount of construction funding to $2.7 million. The additional 1/2 cent sales tax that would have financed the maintenance and operation of the jail failed, 1,890 votes in favor, 1,979 against. It appears that a special election may be held to reconsider this second tax.

Meanwile, the current jail, which is more than a century old, may be closed at the beginning of 2009 because of nine major deficiencies that the state regulatory authorities have identified. The jail is "liable to lawsuits" as long as it remains open with these deficiencies. I have written about it here, here (with photos!) and here.

The county is eligible for a 35% matching grant, though the newspaper does not report the source of that grant. I am guessing it may be a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Public Safety grant.

The Committee for a Safer Newton County, which held public meetings about the need for a jail and which placed ads in support of the new tax, argued that the sales tax is better for residents than raising property taxes because out-of-county visitors will contribute to the former. The Committee also argued that building a new jail is less expensive over time than using a neighboring facility, which costs the country $35 to $55/day, in addition to manpower and fuel costs to transport prisoners.

Once the jail is built, it will have 32 beds, and the county will be eligible to house state prisoners, as well as to charge neighboring counties to house their detainees. It can also charge federal agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service to accommodate their detainees. These agencies currently pay $70 per bed, per day to larger jails in the state, whether or not the bed is occupied.

I'm starting to think that the rural prison-building boom has come to Newton County . . . well, not quite, I hope!

I don't spend much time in Newton County any longer, so I was surprised to learn that 9% is the current sales tax paid in the county, with the state collecting 6%, the city of Jasper taking 2%, and the county getting the remaining 1%. ( I am quoting the paper here, but presumably the 2% that goes to the city of Jasper, population 498, is only assessed on purchases in Jasper). The county's 1% is split among the county general fund (35%), the road fund (35%), and the "road matching fund" (35%). I have no idea what the distinction between these two road funds is, but that division certainly conveys a sense of how important roads are to the county's residents. My guess is that only about 20% of county residents live on a paved road, and all of those paved roads are state rather than county roads.

In other county news, there is a run-off in the four-way race for County Judge. Indeed, as of the date of this paper, the incumbent himself was in a regional hospital's coronary care unit in "critical" condition. I guess failure to win election outright was a big stressor for him. There is also the fact that the county (and presumably he as its chief executive) is under investigation for mis-use of federal grant funds. (See an earlier post here).

In other election news, Newton County voters supported John McCain (2,593) over Barack Obama (1,236). The only township to carry Obama was Murray Township, home mostly to newcomers and "hippies." (I wrote a bit about it here). The vote there was 33 for Obama to 5 for McCain.

The first-term U.S. Senator Mark Pryor defeated his only opponent, a Green Party candidate, 2,631 to 950. That tally would suggest some local disgruntlement with Pryor, a Democrat (with whom I went to law school at the University of Arkansas).

On the state initiative to restrict adoption to married couples and to ban those who co-habit from adoption -- a matter that has gotten some attention nationally because it was targeted at preventing LGBT folks from adopting or being foster parents-- Newton County residents supported the ban, 2,378 for and 1,379 against. The vote in Murray: 7 in favor; 28 against.

Compelling stories of braceros' efforts to document their entitlement to settlement funds

Read here Randal C. Archibold's story on what these former guest workers from Mexico are facing as they seek a piece of a settlement recently reached with the Mexican government for benefits earned but not previously paid. The settlement was explained in an earlier post.

The story's dateline is Fresno, California, in the heart of the Great Valley, where lawyers and other advocates for the former braceros are assisting them. Here's an excerpt about the role of these advocates:
Leonel Flores, an advocate for farm workers here, said he doubted that very many former braceros still had the documents to meet the standards of proof. In addition, he said, their documents are rife with erroneous dates and spellings of names, the handiwork of braceros who hardly went to school, if it all, and government bureaucrats on both sides of the border.
* * *
Mr. Flores said local lawyers were documenting the problems in an effort to persuade Mexican authorities to be more flexible.
Archibold's story features several poignant tales of the now elderly workers who are seeking to participate in the settlement but who have no documentation of their employment in the U.S. more than half a century ago. One said, "I remember everything, the fields, the places, the crops . . . But they are not accepting my memories."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Memo to the President: How will an urban president handle farm policy?"

Listen here to Part II of the NPR's Week-end Edition series by Howard Berkes on rural and agricultural issues facing the Obama administration. The gist of today's story is that rural and agricultural interests are often at odds, with those advocating for attention to the "rural" more supportive of small and family farms than are lobbyists for "agriculture," which often means agribusiness. Among those interviewed, however, was a Farm Bureau official who claimed that his organization represents both types of producers.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will Obama remember the nation's rural fifth? NPR reports

Listen to Howard Berkes' story here, which recalls Obama's first primary victory in Iowa, a rural state by many measures. Rural Americans may have voted for McCain by large margins, but Berkes recounts that Obama did make campaign promises to the nearly 20% of Americans who live in rural and/or non-metro places:

But candidate Obama promised to focus attention on rural issues while campaigning in Iowa in October 2007. He pledged to hold a "rural summit" and deliver a package of rural initiatives to Congress in his first 100 days as president.

"What's good for rural America will be good for America. The values that are represented ... are values that built America, and we've got to preserve them," Obama told a crowd in Amana, Iowa.

"He really propelled himself onto the national stage, in part, by campaigning for fundamental change in farm and rural policy in the state of Iowa," notes Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based advocacy group for small towns and small and family farms.

The story goes on to distinguish the rural from agriculture, noting that only about 1% of rural residents make their living with farming or farm-related endeavors. Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies comments on this, as well as the distinct economic woes of rural places, as well as how the federal government might respond:
Many rural Americans are challenged by a rural economy that tanked sooner and deeper than the nation's economy. Thousands of rural manufacturing jobs have gone overseas. High energy prices have made food and long commutes more expensive. And most rural places are losing population.
Several of those whom Berkes interviewed note the need for better transportation and information infrastructure: from roads and bridges to broadband. Davis argued that rural places should "become part of the national economic recovery plan."
Davis foresees rural areas focused on the renewable energy and alternative fuels the nation seeks. He envisions new markets tying local farmers to towns and cities close by. He also proposes a system for rewarding rural areas financially if the market in "pollution credits" results in the construction of power plants that pollute rural skies.
Davis and others associated with the Daily Yonder wrote frequently over the past 18 months about Obama's neglect of rural issues. They noted, for example, that Obama did not show up for The Rural Assembly in June, 2008. Read that story here and more commentary on Obama and the rural vote here.

I remain hopeful that Obama will engage with rural issues. Having Bill Richardson and Tom Daschle in his cabinet may help. Even though Hillary made policy in Arkansas all those years as the state's first lady, her attention and considerable talents will now be directed abroad. But Obama said on election night that he would represent all Americans--even those who didn't support him--and we must hope that he will.

An update on the rural Arizona killings in which an 8-year-old has been charged

Sanity and rationality may prevail after all in Apache County, Arizona. The latest from the New York Times indicates that the 8-year-old who has been charged in two murders is unlikely to be tried as an adult. It also suggests that the boy's "confession," offered without a lawyer or a parent present, is unlikely to be admissible in any case against him.

What I don't understand is why the St. Johns criminal justice authorities are so keen to try this boy as an adult. The details of the statement he gave about the death of his father and another man reveal plenty of uncertainty. Of course, this over zealousness may have nothing to do with the fact this is a rural place; perhaps such attitudes are characteristic of law enforcement and prosecutors everywhere. Still, attempting to try as an adult an 8-year-old for two killings, to which the child confessed under unusual circumstances, strikes me as the work of amateurs.

Read my earlier post about the case here. I regret that this is the story that has attracted most attention to this blog over the past two weeks. Everyone is running searches to learn more about the 8-year-old who allegedly killed his father.

Persistent poverty and the 2008 rural vote (Part II): The Hispanic vote

Another segment of the persistently poor, non-metro vote that supported Obama is the “Hispanic or Latino” vote, to use the U.S. Census Bureau terminology [hereinafter Hispanic]. Persistently poor non-metro counties with majority Hispanic populations overwhelmingly supported Obama. So did counties where Hispanics and American Indians together are a majority. (My earlier post about American Indian voters in persistent poverty counties is here, where you can also see a map showing persistently poor non-metro counties).

Texas. In the non-metro Rio Grande Valley, persistently poor counties are often comprised of colonias, unincorporated settlements that often lack basic infrastructure. Obama and McCain split two such persistently poor counties in far west Texas. Hudspeth County (population 3,344), just east of El Paso, went for McCain with 51% of the vote, while Obama garnered 65% of the vote a bit farther east, in Presidio County (population 7,304). Presidio County is 84% Hispanic, while Hudspeth County is 75% Hispanic. It is difficult to imagine, without knowing more about these places, what led to the differing results. Farther southeast along the Rio Grande Valley, Obama mostly cleaned up. In a 23-county area that extends to the coast and then up it toward Corpus Christi, Obama won all except four counties. Of those 23 counties, about two-thirds are persistently poor and non-metro, and all have significant Hispanic populations.

Colorado. Obama pulled in the Hispanic vote in non-metro, persistently poor counties in New Mexico and Colorado, too. In Colorado, the persistently poor counties are in the south central part of the state, including Costilla (population 3,663), Conejos (population 8,400), Alamosa (population 14,966) and Saguache (population 5,917) counties. These counties’ Hispanic populations are 68%, 59%, 41%, and 45%, respectively. Each county is also roughly 2-3% American Indian. These counties overwhelmingly supported Obama, where he garnered 73% (Costilla), 56% (Conejos), 56% (Alamosa), and 62% (Saguache) of the votes cast. For the most part, this voting pattern did not represent change. While all of these counties supported Clinton in ’92 and ’96, Conejos and Alamosa supported Bush in ’00; Alamosa County persisted in that support of Bush in ’04.

New Mexico. Most persistently poor counties in New Mexico have significant numbers of both Hispanic and American Indian voters, and these counties overwhelmingly supported the Democratic ticket in ‘08. Obama won handily in McKinley and Cibola counties, for example, both west of Albuquerque; in Rio Arriba County (population 41,190) on the Colorado line; and in Socorro County (population 18,078) in the south central part of the state. The most populous of these is McKinley County (population 74,798), whose county seat is micropolitan Gallup. American Indians comprise 75% of the county, and 12% are Hispanic. (For a detailed report on the economy and demographics of McKinley county, read a joint report on enduring poverty by the Federal Reserve and the Brookings Institute here, pp. 101-07). Seventy-one percent of voters in McKinley County favored Obama; Kerry, Gore and Clinton also won McKinley County, albeit by somewhat smaller margins.

In Rio Arriba, which is 73% Hispanic and 14% American Indian, 75% of voters supported Obama. (Read an earlier post about social problems in Rio Arriba County here). Cibola County, with just 25,595 residents, is 40% American Indian and 34% Hispanic. Socorro County is about half Hispanic and a tenth American Indian. Obama garnered 64% in Cibola County and 59% in Socorro County.

In each of these four counties then, the lower the percentage of American Indians, the lower the percentage of Obama voters. This pattern does not hold, however, for San Miguel County (population 30,126), to the east of Santa Fe. There, 78% of residents are Hispanic and just two percent are American Indian, but a whopping 80% of voters supported Obama. The demographics of neighboring (and also persistently poor) Mora (population 5,180) and Guadalupe (population 4,680) counties are similar, as were their degrees of support for Obama, at 78% and 71%, respectively.

As I suggested in an earlier post, the Taos County (population 29,979) vote may be more complicated. Although the county is persistently poor, it is also in the midst of rural gentrification; the actress Julia Roberts, for example, has a home there. The median income in the county is $26,762, while the per capita income is $16,103. Perhaps second-home owners such as Roberts are not counted in the Census there, which shows a populace that is 58% Hispanic and 7% American Indian. Eighty-two percent of Taos County voters chose Obama.

Interesting for its red status among New Mexico’s persistently poor counties is Roosevelt County (population 18,018), which borders Texas. Just one-third of its populace is Hispanic, and Obama got just 34% of the vote there. In fact, Roosevelt County has not supported a Democrat for President in the last five elections (as far back as the NYT website provides data), and probably much longer.

Another persistently poor county in the southwest part of New Mexico, Luna County is a bit less consistent in its voting patterns. Luna County, population 25,016, was notably tepid in its support of Obama, giving him just under 52% of the vote. This county is on the border with Mexico and is 58% Hispanic. Indeed, Luna is the only persistently poor county in New Mexico that is majority non-white that has not consistently voted Democratic in the past five Presidential elections. Voters there supported Bush in ’00 and ’04.

Arizona. Several geographically large but sparsely populated Arizona counties went for Obama. Among these was Apache County, on the New Mexico state line, and Coconino County, a massive county in the north central part of the state (discussed some here). Navajo County, between Coconino and Apache Counties and home to newly gentrified Winslow, went for McCain by a narrow margin. Apache and Navajo Counties are persistently poor, Coconino County is not, but had a 2000 poverty rate of 16.7%. The Navajo Nation comprises large parts of Apache (78%), Navajo (48%) and Coconino (29%) counties. (Their Hispanic populations are 4%, 25%, and 11%, respectively). It appears that in Apache and Coconino counties, these American Indian and Hispanic populations (in addition to the gentrification element in Coconino County) were sufficient to give Obama local victories on McCain’s home turf. The dynamic in persistently poor Navajo County, which supported McCain with 55% of the vote, is a bit harder to figure, though it’s worth noting that voters there also supported Bush in ’00 and ’04.

At the other end of the state, compact and more densely populated Santa Cruz County, on the Mexican border, supported Obama, too. He garnered 65% of the vote in this county of 38,381, where 80% of residents are Hispanic. While Santa Cruz is not a persistently poor county, as of the 2000 Census, almost a quarter of its residents were living in poverty.

Interestingly, most Arizona counties that supported Obama also supported Kerry in ’04 and Gore in ’00. Clinton, however, won several additional counties in ’92 and ’96.

For more analysis of the Hispanic and Latino vote in the ’08 race, visit sites here and here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oklahoma wheat farmers suffer as commodity prices tumble

David Streitfeld reports from Walters, Oklahoma, population 2,657, in today's New York Times. Read the story here, and view the accompanying slide show here. Featured in the story and photos is Jimmy Wayne Kinder, a fourth generation farmer.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

China covets what Colorado has, with implications for two Rocky Mountain towns

Mining has long been an important segment of the Colorado economy. Tourism, too, is a significant slice of the pie, though its history is as such is not as long. Now two towns, Leadville with a mining-based economy, and Crested Butte, 50 miles away with a tourism-based economy, have different views on the prospect of molybdenum mining in their communities. The reason for the possible revival of mining in Leadville (population 2,821) and a new mine in Crested Butte (population 1,529) is China's increasing demand for this exceptionally strong, hard metal. China needs the molybdenum for--among other uses--the construction of a hundred new nuclear reactors.

Public Radio International's "The World" program did a wonderful segment today on the two communities' different attitudes toward mining, attitudes that evince very different views of their respective economic livelihoods. I suspect that Crested Butte's is significantly influenced by gentrification, Leadville's less so. Listen to the PRI story here, and take in the accompanying audio slide show here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Begich drew the rural vote in Alaska

Well, the Democrats have won another seat in the U.S. Senate following the near completion of the Alaska vote count, which gave the victory to Mark Begich, mayor of Anchorage. (Begich, incidentally, was defeated by Sarah Palin in the governor's race a few years ago). Begich defeated Ted Stevens who had served in the Senate for 40 years. About a week before the election, a federal jury convicted Stevens of several counts of failing to report gifts. Read the story here. Nevertheless, as of election night, Stevens led in the race against Begich. Only in these past two weeks, as outstanding and absentee votes have been counted, has Begich pulled ahead and finally been declared the winner. Read the NYT coverage here.

Stevens was known for bringing home the pork to Alaska, which to me suggests funding for projects aimed at rural places. Of course, Alaska is a very rural state by some measures, with a state-wide population density of just 1 person per three square miles. Yet only 26% of the population is rural by U.S. Census Bureau standards, and just 38% is nonmetropolitan by the Office of Management and Budget definition. (See the full USDA ERS report here). That means that most of Alaska's population is in cities. Juneau, the capital, has a population of 30,711, and Fairbanks has 30,224 residents, making both micropolitan. Anchorage, however, is urban, with 260,283 residents. In a state with a population of only 626,932, this means that 41% are living in a single city, which doesn't even take into account surrounding suburbs such as Wasilla, population 5,469, Palmer, population 4,533, and other small cities on the Kenai Penninsula.

All of this helps explain why this map looks so blue. The map shows in blue the state legislative districts Begich won, while those Stevens won are shown in red. Anchorage and environs appear equally split between the candidates (the Anchorage Daily News reports Begich with 49.3% of the city, Stevens with 46.5%) , while the rest of the state went blue. Maybe those in more rural parts of Alaska have a lower tolerance for crooks? Or maybe they didn't get as much benefit from Stevens over the years as his repuation for pork suggests. The Anchorage Daily News indicates that Stevens has historically had great support in rural Alaska, so for whatever reasons, the tide turned there. Interestingly, Ketchikan, home of what would have been the now infamous "bridge to nowhere," did support Stevens.

A political appointment that could benefit rural America?

Word on the street, though not official yet from the Obama transition team, is that former U.S. Senator from South Dakota, Tom Daschle, will be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. One of my first thoughts when I heard this news is that Daschle's a good choice, in part because he understands rural America and the challenge of service delivery to rural places. I hope that his perspective as a South Dakotan--a state where 48% of the population is rural (by the U.S. Census Bureau definition) and 58% is nonmetro (by the Office of Management and Budget definition) (see the full USDA ERS report is here)-- will inform his priorities and decisions in his new role.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New England library--in a barn--seeks benefactor to finance its opening

Gilmanton, New Hampshire, population 3,060, has built and stocked a library in recent years, having raised $675K in grants and donations to do so. Now, according to a story by Abby Goodnough in today's New York Times, Gilmanton, "a rural town of stone walls [and] old farms" is looking for funds that will permit it to open the facility. The library association there is seeking to attract those funds in the form of a $1 million endowment that will pay the salary of a part-time librarian and other basic costs for many years. If no benefactor is found, the association will seek about $75K a year from the town. Such funding is opposed by many in this tax-averse, no income-tax state, where property taxes are already high. Currently, the town spends $3,100/year on three "minilibraries," which are open only seasonally.

Among the many endearing aspects of this tale is that the library building is a post-and-beam barn that was moved from 70 miles away and re-built in Gilmanton to serve this purpose. One of the association's members explains:
“We had hired an architect who designed us a brick building,” Ms. Bedard said, “but it just didn’t fit in the field. We wanted a building that respected our rural landscape, because that’s kind of important here in New England.”

Monday, November 17, 2008

Rural Law Symposium at Montana School of Law

The Montana Law Review has announced that its summer 2009 issue will be devoted to "rural law" issues. The review is currently inviting submissions for this issue. They should be made by February 1, 2009, to A live symposium featuring the authors will be held the week of April 6-10, 2009.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Persistent poverty and the 2008 rural vote (Part I): Indian Country

Having given some attention to the role of rural gentrification and the rural resort phenomenon on the 2008 race for the White House (here), it seems appropriate also to look at how a different cluster of rural counties voted: those which are persistently poor.

The U.S. Census Bureau uses the term “persistent poverty” to refer to those counties whose poverty rates have been 20% or higher in each decennial census since 1970. (See p. 4 of the USDA ERS publication here). Our nation’s 386 persistent poverty counties are home to 4% of our population. Of these counties, 88% are non-metro, and residents of persistent poverty counties comprise 14% of the non-metro population.

The map of persistent poverty counties from the 2000 Census is shown above (non-metro persistent poverty counties in dark purple), and it indicates that pockets of persistent poverty are in the Mississippi Delta and extending across the black belt; in Appalachian Kentucky and West Virginia; in the Rio Grande Valley; on American Indian reservations in the Plains, and in several counties in the Southwest. A few are scattered through Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle, a few more in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and southeast Missouri. Alaska has wide swaths of persistent poverty, sparsely populated, of course. The northeast has none.

Note that these are only the poorest of the non-metro counties; many others have high poverty rates. Indeed, while the 2007 poverty rate for metro counties was 11.9%, it was 15.4% for non-metro counties.

So, who did voters in these pockets of enduring poverty support in the 2008 race for President? One might expect such populations to be supports of the Democratic Party in light of its embrace of some degree of wealth redistribution to provide a baselie of welfare for all. A casual glance indicates that some regions with persistent poverty overwhelmingly supported Obama; others went for McCain. (You can see the 2008 electoral map here; select "county leaders" in upper left hand corner). Obama supporters tended to be in the Misissippi Delta, black belt, Rio Grande Valley, and in Indian Country. In short, the tended to be voters of color. The McCain voters, on the other hand, were in Appalachia and other parts of the Mid-South.

I’m going to look at some of these regions in detail in a series of posts, beginning with Indian County, in the Great Plains and into the Mountain West. While the American Indian population has a history of leaning Democratic, a look back to ’00 shows that many persistently poor counties in Indian Country voted for Bush that year. They’ve been moving back into the Democratic fold since then, and this month they helped sweep Obama to victory. That is, they helped a little bit. Even where these counties overwhelmingly supported the Democratic ticket, their populations are so small as to have relatively little impact on their states’ total vote counts.

I wrote earlier about some Montana counties that supported Obama, suggesting that the vote there was a product of rural gentrification. In fact, the Montana counties that went for Obama featured varied demographic profiles; among them were three persistently poor counties with large American Indian populations. Among the bluest are three sparsely populated counties on the Canadian border: Glacier (population 13,247), Blaine (population 7,009) and Hill County (population 16,673). Fewer than 5,000 votes were cast in Glacier County, where more than two-thirds of the land is Blackfeet Indian Reservation and one-fifth is Glacier National Park. Sixty-five percent of Glacier County voters supported Obama. In Blaine County, where 45% of the population is American Indian (and, notably, another 26% claim either German or Norwegian ancestry), 58% supported Obama. Big Horn County (population 12,671) on the state’s southern border is also persistently poor and heavily American Indian. Voters there went for Obama in a big way, too – 67%. Roosevelt County, population 10,620, on the state’s eastern edge with North Dakota, is dominated by the Fort Peck Indian Reservation but is not persistently poor. Sixty-one percent of voters there supported Obama. It is worth noting that Glacier, Blaine and Big Horn Counties all voted Democratic in ’00 and ’04, too, but they did so by smaller margins.

In the Dakotas, most of the persistently poor counties voted for Obama. In South Dakota, these include Shannon County (population, 12,466) and Todd County (population 9,040) to the south, and Dewey (population 5,972), Ziebach (population 2,519) and Corson (population 4,181) counties to the north. All five lie entirely within one or more American Indian reservation, and all overwhelmingly supported Obama. Indeed, he won almost 89% of the vote in Shannon County. In addition, Buffalo County (population 2,032), South Dakota, where many Crow Creek Sioux live, 73% of voters supported Obama. Buffalo County has the unfortunate distinction of being the poorest county in the United States with a median income of $12,692, and a per capita income of just over $5K. Interstingly, several of these poor American Indian areas supported Bush in ’00, though Bush had lost most of that support by ’04.

In North Dakota, three of five persistently poor counties opted for Obama. Sioux (population 4,044) , Benson (population 6,964) and Rolette (population 13,674) counties all supported the Democractic ticket, while Grant (population 2,841)and Sheridan (population 1,710) counties went for McCain. The populations of Sioux and Rolette counties are primarily American Indian (85% and 73%, respectively), Benson County is roughly half white, half American Indian; and Grant and Sheridan counties are 96% and 99% white, respectively. Not surprising, then, in light of the evident trend with American Indian voters, Sioux and Rolette counties have been most consistent in supporting Democratic candidates over the past two decades. The extreme population sparsity of Sheridan and Grant counties -- fewer than 3 persons/square mile-- suggests large ranching operations, which would be consistent with fiercely independent, small government ideology, although it would not necessarily be consistent with the low median income (under $25K) and the high poverty level.

Outside the Great Plains, American Indians are somewhat more dispersed. While Arizona and New Mexico have significant American Indian populations living in persistent poverty counties, those counties often have large Hispanic populations, too. Because the racial and ethnic mix of these counties differs so greatly from the more concentrated pockets of American Indians in the Great Plains, I will discuss these in a separate post.

A 2007 book, Native Vote, offers an in depth analysis of the burgeoning significance of the American Indian vote, particularly in state and local contests. The authors are Daniel McCool, Susan M. Olson, and Jennifer L. Robinson, all of the University of Utah.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Amish community in Kentucky resists the law!

The law requiring safety emblems on buggies, that is. Read the story on the Rural Blog here.

A new chapter in the Klamath water war

The New York Times reported yesterday on new plan to remove four dams from the Klamath River by 2020. Here are some excerpts from Felicity Barringer's story:
The agreement, which would open more than 300 miles of the Klamath, is not binding but nonetheless provides a formal framework to defuse deeply emotional arguments that have echoed through the region. For decades, warring interests have argued over who should benefit from the water flowing through the riverbanks and whether the need for electric power and agricultural irrigation should trump the needs of salmon.

* * *

All the parties had coped with worst-case situations in the past decade. In 2001, irrigators had their water shut off, crippling agricultural production. In the dry year of 2002, the Interior Department ordered water distributed to irrigators and tens of thousands of salmon in the Klamath died; in 2007, low salmon populations in the Klamath led to sharply curtailed commercial fishing.
The tentative agreement presumptively ends a long-standing struggle "among conservationists, Indian tribes and fishermen in the Klamath basin on one side and farmers and local communities on the other."

My UC Davis colleague Holly Doremus, along with A. Dan Tarlock, have written extensively on the Klamath water wars, including a 2008 book, Water War in the Klamath Basin: Macho Law, Combat Biology and Dirty Politics (Island Press).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reverse migration to the countryside, as China's economy falters

Edward Wong reports in today's New York Times of some of the demographic and migration consequences of the economic downturn for China. Here are some excerpts from Wong's story:

For decades, the steamy Pearl River Delta area of southern Guangdong Province served as a primary engine for China’s astounding economic growth. But an export slowdown that began earlier this year and that has been magnified by the global financial crisis of recent months is contributing to the shutdown of tens of thousands of small and mid-size factories here and in other coastal regions, forcing laborers to scramble for other jobs or return home to the countryside.

* * *

The Pearl River Delta, known as the world’s factory, powered an export industry that pushed China’s annual growth rate into the double digits and provided work for migrants from interior provinces with poor farmland.
As Wong reports, however, things have changed very quickly, and 67,000 factories closed in the first half of 2008. He speculates that workers may not wish to return to the coastal provinces once the economic tide turns again. This is because farming has become more profitable, and recently announced rural land reform could create incentives for farmers to stay in rural areas and make better use of the land.

All this makes me wonder if China will stumble onto a more sustainable population distribution. Having more people remain in the countryside will not be a bad thing if the profits from farming provide them with enough income on which to live, though the consequences of recently announced land reform policies are as yet unknown.