Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rural (in) tolerance for difference and same-sex marriage

The New York Times has run several commentaries and quasi-feature stories about the Iowa Supreme Court's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage. You can read some of them here and here. The news story about the court's ruling is here.

One feature this past week-end by Monica Davey appeared under the headline, "Same-Sex Ruling Belies the Staid Image of Iowa." I think it is the only one of the recent NYT stories to explicitly reference Iowa's character as a rural state, or at least the state's associations with rurality. Rurality is often associated with intolerance of difference, and I have previously speculated here about the extent to which a place's rural character (defined culturally, perhaps, more than ecologically or numerically) may cause its residents to be intolerant of those who are LGBT. (I have also written about rural intolerance for difference in the context of the nonmetropolitan South, in relation to the burgeoning Latina/o population there). Davey's suggestion, however, is that Iowa's rurality in fact cuts in favor of greater tolerance because of rural folks' greater respect for individuality and privacy. She writes:
This reluctance to interlope in the lives of one’s neighbors — “a very Iowa attitude,” in the words of one local political scientist, derived in part from the state’s rural heritage — may help explain how Iowa finds itself in this moment. Add to that individualistic sensibility the state’s current political alignment and its little-known, pioneering legal past on once similarly volatile questions, like segregation and the role of women, and suddenly it seems far less surprising to outsiders that this could happen here in the seemingly endless, rolling acres of cornfields.
But this rural association with privacy and tolerance for individuality is, I think, more typically linked to New England (and perhaps the West) than to other regions with significant rural populations, such as the Midwest. Indeed, rural sociologists such as Sonya Salamon have linked the Midwest, in particular, to social conformity and homogeneity fostered by the "high density of acquaintanceship" in small towns. Such conformity and homogeneity typically lead to an intolerance of difference,which would make the Iowa court's decision more remarkable than recent events on the same-sex marriage front in New England.

Perhaps rural differences (real or perceived) across regions are why recent legislative decisions in Vermont and New Hampshire to legalize same-sex marriage seem to have been met with less media surprise and commentary than that generated by the Iowa court decision.

More (previously) rural activity in urban locales

Read Peter Applebome's story, "Envisioning the end of 'Don't Cluck, Don't Tell,'" in today's New York Times. The dateline is New Haven, Connecticut, and it tells of a city ordinance that dates to the 1950s that prohibits the keeping of livestock--including chickens--within city limits. Now an alderman has introduced a law that would permit residents to keep up to six hens.

I enjoyed the description of one current scofflaw, Rosemarie Morgan, a Yale professor whom Applebome labels representative of a slice of contemporary agriculture: "the vogue for urban farming that has cities around the country updating and tweaking zoning codes." He notes that not many residents of New Haven were keeping chickens until recently, and he offers this explanation:
But some combination of the locavore craze, the growth of immigrant communities with traditions of raising hens and the recession making the idea of free eggs or milk in the backyard attractive, cities and suburbs around the country are reviewing all manner of critter ordinances.
The entire story is worth a read. See related posts here, here and here.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XXII): Public health initiatives take center stage

Recent issues of the Newton County Times (April 16, 2009 and April 9, 2009) report little in the way of crime. They do, however, feature a lot of public health news, including these headlines:
  • "Kids 'Kicking Butts' nationwide" about Arkansas kids rallying aginst tobacco at the 14th annual Kick Butts Day. It is accompanied by a photo of Newton County SWATS (Students Working Against Tobacco) doing educational work over spring break.
  • "'Arkansas Public Health Week' observed in county"
  • "Spook Out drama warns students against DWI" about an educational event organized by North Arkansas Regional Medical Center.
  • "Cancer Support Group offers financial assistance" is about a local effort to help patiends facing financial hardship due to their illness. A "Relay for Life" in Jasper, the county seat, is among the local fund raising efforts.
The only other front page story in the April 16 issue is headlined "Parking lot sale to benefit ParrTI," the shorthand for North Arkansas Regional Medical Center's Claude Parrish Radiation Therapy Institute. So that story, too, is ultimately about health care.

Inside the April 16, 2009 issue is this headline, "Jail holds 14 in March." It reports that fourteen inmates were housed in the condemned jail for a total of 83 inmate days in March, and a total cost of $404.50 for inmate meals. Total miles patrolled were 14,416, and 18 warrants were served with another 116 (with a total value in excess of $112K) outstanding.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chickasaw use gaming and other revenues to provide services in rural context

An NPR story a few days ago about the Chickasaw nation had a rural angle, though it went unexpressed. According to the report of Arun Rath, the Chickasaw nation, which is spread over a 13-county non-metropolitan swath of south central Oklahoma, is thriving. The nation is flourishing in part from gambling revenues; in particular, it benefits from having the closest casino to the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Under the leadership of governor Bill Anoatubby, the Chickasaw have taken their gaming profits and diversified into other enterprises, including a radio station, banks, and the production of high-end chocolates.

Here's an excerpt from the report about how the Chickasaw are using gambling and other revenue to provide for their citizens:

With such deep pockets, the governor has been able to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda. Every member of the tribe has access to extended education benefits and scholarships. For working parents, there is free child care, and even a care center for mildly ill children.

And Anoatubby has been able to achieve something President Obama can currently only dream of — universal health care.

* * *

The Chickasaw Nation is actually adding new health care services. To address high rates of diabetes among the native population, for example, a state of the art comprehensive care facility was recently established.

One remarkable thing about the efforts of the Chickasaw in pursuing this domestic agenda is the sort of rural challenges they face in serving citizens who are spread across such a vast area. These challenges include spatial ones, and presumably also difficulties achieving economies of scale. The report doesn't acknowledge these, however. It describes a marvelous new health care facility and a $147 million hospital under construction, but it doesn't address how people get there given the dearth of public transportation in rural places. Perhaps the Chickasaw are addressing that challenge, too, but Rath's report did not.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Inefficiency, rurality, and county government

Earlier this week, an op-ed piece by Tom Brokaw appeared in the New York Times under the headline, "Small-Town Big Spending." Brokaw's essential argument might be summarized as this: government in rural places and rural states is inefficient and should be reformed, in part because times have changed and distance doesn't present the obstacle it once did to rural residents.

He makes some good points, I suppose. Here's an excerpt focusing on the state of New York as an example:
It’s estimated that New York State has about 10,500 local government entities, from townships to counties to special districts. A year ago a bipartisan state commission said that New Yorkers could save more than a billion dollars a year by consolidating and sharing local government responsibilities like public security, health, roads and education.

One commission member, a county executive, said, “Our system of local government has barely evolved over the past one hundred years and we are still governed by these same archaic institutions formed before the invention of the light bulb, telephone, automobile and computer.”
Brokaw goes on to give further examples of what he sees as wasteful local government which is largely attributable to how county lines happened to be drawn hundreds of years ago. He holds up Iowa's 99 counties as one example, and the 17 colleges and universities spread across North and South Dakota as another. He assumes that it is absurd for Iowa to have some county seats that are only 40 miles apart, and he attributes the fact that the Dakotas have all those tertiary education institutions to an earlier era "when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season." Brokaw notes that with all of these states losing population, the per capita tax burden to maintain government services is rising, and that aging residents of these states (and others) face an increasing burden in this regard.

Brokaw proposes consolidating administrative functions so that not every county courthouse has a full complement of county officials, e.g., assessor, sheriff. He also suggests consolidating all the Dakota colleges and universities so that they share a central administration, which oversees satellite campuses. Brokaw sees a possibility for big savings in such measures.

I can see both sides of this argument. On the one hand, I don't think as much has changed as Brokaw suggests since county lines were drawn in some places, especially in the West. That is, 20 miles is still 20 miles, 40 miles is still 40 miles--and that can be a long way to travel to conduct the sort of business that is done in a county courthouse. So, people may no longer be traversing that 20 (or 40) miles in horse and wagon, but they are still having to traverse it to do what needs to be done, and they are often making the journey on poor, narrow roads. Rural broadband and enhanced technology infrastructure could eliminate the need for some such journeys to the court house, but they have not yet done so on a wide scale--in part because of a lack of funding for that infrastructure.

On the other hand, I was shocked in the course of my recent study of county governments in Montana (for a forthcoming article in the Montana Law Review, "Spatial Inequality as Constitutional Infirmity? The Promise of Montana's Constitution for Poor Children") to learn how many of Montana's 56 counties--perhaps a dozen--have fewer than 10,000 people. Indeed, a handful have populations below 4,000. Needless to say, this make for incredibly inefficient government, and it limits the extent to which counties have funds to do anything other than pay the salaries of their elected officials. Residents of counties like these may have slightly more convenient access to their court house (bearing in mind that Montana is the fourth largest state in the nation in land area), but they sure aren't getting much bang for their county government buck.

Brokaw refers to his proposal to consolidate some of these governing bodies a "heresy," referring to the sentimental attachment people have to these county boundaries. It's a bit like how people respond when their local school closes or is threatened with consolidation. A component of one's identity is lost. So the sentimental reasons for preserving county boundaries are strong, but they may not be sufficient to justify the resulting loss of services to residents.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Rural Law Symposium at University of Montana School of Law

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of participating in the Montana Law Review's 2009 symposium on Rural Law. In addition to presenting my paper about constitutional issues raised by child poverty and spatial inequality in Montana, I had the pleasure of attending the mid-week event called, "True Tales: Practicing Law in Rural Montana." This panel featured one district court (trial) judge, Judge John McKeon from Havre, Montana (population 9,621), in the northeast part of the state, along with the county attorneys (state prosecutor) from Glacier and Lincoln counties, also on the Canadian border. In addition, rural practitioners from Cut Bank (Glacier County, population 13,247) and Plentywood (Sheridan County, population 4,105) spoke of their experiences, as did a Missoula attorney who often deals in Indian law matters. Each panelist has been asked to say how many miles s/he had traveled to participate in the symposium in Missoula, and I believe the Plentywood attorney got the "farthest traveled award," having come almost 600 miles. It was a terrific illustration of the spatial challenges to administration of justice in the 3d least densely populated state in the union. Only Alaska and Wyoming have more sparse populations than Montana's six persons per square mile. Other legal topics the panelists touched on were the ethics issues raised by lack of anonymity in rural communities (including its impact on criminal justice administration and jury selection), the spatial and resource challenges facing law enforcement officials, and tribal jurisdiction.

One highlight of the event for me was meeting two of the drafters of the 1972 Montana Constitution, which I discuss in my forthcoming article. The three of us are pictured above.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A tough choice for rural residents in San Diego County

A story in today's New York Times tells of a plan by San Diego Gas & Electric to shut off electricity to parts of northeastern San Diego County, California when the fire danger is great. The problem is that utility lines are likely to go down when winds are high, sparking wildfires that are further fed by the wind. Three of eight California wildfires in 2007 were caused by downed power lines, including one that devastated this area. As a consequence of that fire, the second biggest in California history, the utility is facing 126 lawsuits.

The dateline for Jennifer Steinhauer's story is Julian, California, population 1,621, and it repeatedly refers to places like Julian as San Diego County's "back country." Residents fear, however, that the absence of power could worsen the situation should a fire break out because there will be no water to fight it.

Here's my favorite part of the story--bascially background that depicts the conflict between old timers and new comers to the area:
Residents generally do not care for former city dwellers who arrive looking to add bright streetlights, or what they see as the imposition of the will of government or utility companies on their rural ways. “This is an old mining town,” said Michael Hart, publisher of The Julian News. “Once or twice a year we get people who want to citify the backcountry. We had someone show up here once who wanted to make us like Santa Barbara. We ran them out on a rail.”
Steinhaur's story also notes the conflict between residents of the areas who would be affected by the shut downs and the San Diego officials who "hold sway over any number of matters affecting the country's unincorporated rural sections."

Murder of a transexual in "rural" Colorado goes to trial

Read the New York Times story here about the murder trial of a man accused of killing a transsexual. The headline is, "Murder trial tests Colorado Hate Crime Statute."

An earlier post discussed the matter.

Rural livelihoods and climate change

A New York Times story today titled "Third-World Stove Soot Is Target in Climate Fight" has a rural angle. First, most such polluting stoves are in the developing world, which is where 90% of the world's rural population live. Second, within the developing world, the stoves are more likely to be in rural locales. Here is a short excerpt from Elisabeth Rosenthal's story, highlighting the rural dateline:
That remote rural villages like Kohlua could play an integral role in tackling the warming crisis is hard to imagine. There are no cars — the village chief’s ancient white Jeep sits highly polished but unused in front of his house, a museum piece. There is no running water and only intermittent electricity, which powers a few light bulbs.
Consider this news feature in the context of the United Nations' recent report, Cities: Blessing or Burden, which can be downloaded here. The report discusses the relative "greenness" or lack thereof of cities vs. rural areas, including in the developing world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Town's viability closely linked to that of school

Read the tale of Goodsprings (NV) Elementary school here. Steve Friess reports in the New York Times. Goodsprings is in Clark County, Nevada, just 35 miles from Las Vegas, population 232. It's elementary school has just six students and, not surprisingly, is under threat of closure.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XXI): Indoor marijuana operation busted

Three issues of the Newton County Times have piled up while I've been involved with other things in recent weeks. I have the March 19 and 26 editions, as well as the one from April 2. There are a few big crime headlines. One is from the April 2 paper: "Indoor marijuana growing operation closed at Lurton." It reports that the Sheriff seized about $100K worth of marijuana at an indoor growing operation in the southern part of Newton County, in the community of Lurton, which is not even a Census Designated Place. The Sheriff's office was supported in the seizure by the State Police, the 14th District Drug Task Force, the Department of Community Corrections, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The investigation is continuing, and the Sheriff expects several arrests will soon be made.

A front-page story in the March 26, 2009, reports on "Adjudicated criminal cases reviewed after fall and winter sessions." One highlight (actually lowlight) includes sentencing of a man to a number felonies for hitting and threatening to kill another person after taking the victim's wallet at the victim's residence.

Another is about two parents sentenced in the abuse of their children. Medical examinations revealed that the children had been struck multiple times with a man's first and open hand. The stepfather, age 27, will serve 10 years in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections after being found guilty of domestic battery of his five-year-old daughter and his stepchildren, age 8 and 10. The children's mother, age 29, pleaded guilty to permitting the abuse, even though she was also a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her husband. She will be on probation for 12 years, half of which will be waived if she makes child support payments and pays court costs.

In a separate matter, a 53-year-old woman was charged with theft of public benfits.

In other news:
  • FEMA has announced that the "debris cost estimate" from the recent ice storm was $1.9 million. This is broken down as 20,817 cubic yards of vegetative debris; 15, 781 trees with hazardous limbs; 17 stumps;4 large hazardous trees; 35 medium hazardous trees; and 1,227 small hazardous trees. The county will create temporary positions for people who will be paid to clear the debris. Apparently, for FEMA funds to be used, the work must be completed within six months.
  • A reorganization meeting for the Newton County Farmers Market is set for April 8.
  • Free mammogram screenings are coming to the Newton County Health Unit on April 15. The Mobile Mammography Unit is from Northwest Hospital in Springdale, Arkansas.
  • "Food Check-out Week marked by Farm Bureau Women" recounts facts about food safety and abundance in the United States. Among other details: "It takes just five weeks for the average American to earn enough disposable income to pay fo rhis or her family's food supply for the entire year." While food costs may be low relative to other costs such as housing and medical insurance, the story does not report on the incidence of food insecurity in the United States.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Marketing "the countryside"

I am on the email marketing list for Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) and just received this, which markets the rural idyll with the slogan "A little bit country, a lot less cost." I guess if you can't buy it, at least you can vacation there.

From Wall Street to small towns, another tale of woe

Don Van Natta Jr. reports in today's New York Times from Lewisburg, Tennessee, population 10,413. (That is in non-metropolitan Marshall County, population 26,767, in the south central part of the state). The headline is "Firm Acted as Tutor in Selling Towns Risky Deals." The tale is one of a small city that has considerably increased its debt by following the the recommendation of its financial adviser, an investment bank called Morgan Keegan, to engage in a complex financial transaction that would lower interest rates on a bond to pay for a new sewers. Now, however, the annual interest rate payment on the bond has quadrupled--to $ 1 million.
Here's an excerpt that puts into national perspective what happened in Lewisburg:
Lewisburg is one of hundreds of small cities and counties across America reeling from their reliance in recent years on risky municipal bond derivatives that went bad. Municipalities that bought the derivatives were like homeowners with fixed-rate mortgages who refinanced by taking out lower-interest, variable-rate mortgages. But some local officials say they were not told, or did not understand, that interest rates could go much higher if economic conditions worsened — which, of course, they did.
I am not sure of the extent to which this is a small-town phenomenon, but it does strike me that such entities are less likely to have or be able to afford the sort of sophisticated legal advice that might head off such disastrous decisions.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Another great rural report by Howard Berkes on NPR

Listen here to Berkes's story about the discontinuation of the last back country U.S. Mail service in the lower 48 states. Following are some excerpts about the service in Idaho, which will end June 30:
[T]here's nothing in the [U.S. mail] slogan [regarding rain, sleet and snow] about continuing high-cost deliveries in the face of a $6 billion deficit. So, the U.S. Postal Service is ending airstrip service to about 20 addresses scattered across hundreds of square miles of Idaho backcountry inside the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
* * *
The flights from Cascade, Idaho, have served ranches, outfitters, lodges and a University of Idaho research station for 50 years. But the $46,000 annual cost is too much for a postal service $6 billion in the red.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

A tragic aspect of rural-urban difference in China

A story by Andrew Jacobs in today's New York Times is headlined, "Rural China's Hunger for Sons Fuels Traffic in Abducted Boys." Part of the story is really "old news," about the Chinese one-child law. What is new is a discussion of some consequences of that law that I had not previously seen discussed: abduction of male children who are then bought by families who have no son.

As the headline suggests, the story is also about rural-urban difference. In fact, it is about the rural-urban divide in several senses. First, the story suggests that the one-child rule is enforced more vigorously in rural places, particularly in some regions. Second, the story suggests that the adverse consequences of not having a son are greater in rural China, in part because custom--which dictates that a daughter move to the home of her in-laws when she marries--is adhered to more closely in the country. This leaves parents who have only a daughter with no one to care for them in their old age. Both of these differences between rural and urban mean that children (mostly male) are kidnapped in the city and sold to families in the country.

Here are some excerpts which express rural-urban difference:
The demand is especially strong in rural areas of south China, where a tradition of favoring boys over girls and the country’s strict family planning policies have turned the sale of stolen children into a thriving business.

* * *

Although many Chinese still cherish male heirs, the Communist Party has largely succeeded in easing age-old attitudes about gender. In major cities, where one-child families have become the norm, many parents say they are happy to have a daughter and no son.

Jacobs reports that male children remain more valued, however, in rural places. He also reports that they can be purchased for about half of the fine parents must pay for violating China's family planning laws. Ironically, unlike with regard to new births, local authorities don't require registration of these purchased children.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cuts to family farms, as well as agribusiness?

Read the New York Times coverage of the Obama administration's proposed farm subsidy cuts here. An excerpt from David Herszenhorn's story follows:

Some of the fiercest critics of farm subsidy programs say the new administration overreached in offering a proposal that could have cut off payment not just to large corporate agribusinesses, but also to medium-sized family farms that might not even be profitable, setting off a huge alarm in the powerful farm lobby.

The White House plan would have prohibited so-called direct payments to farms whose annual gross receipts exceeded $500,000 — a large sum on the surface, but one that did not take account of whether those receipts yielded any real profits.

Within days, the National Farmers Union, which represents roughly 250,000 farm families, forcefully denounced the president’s plan and urged Congress to oppose it.