Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reflections on a hillbilly upbringing

I just came across a newspaper clipping a friend sent me about 18 mos. ago. It is about Helen Gurley Brown's (then) new autobiography, Bad Girls Go Everywhere. The book review, from the New York Times, notes that Brown was
born in Green Forest, Arkansas, a tiny town in the Ozark Mountains. Her father died when she was 10; her sister had polio, her family was "hillbilly," she wrote, and poor. Once she got out, she looked back only by force of will. She liked to quote a line from Carson McCullers: 'I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror.'
The review goes on to comment that Brown's background "allowed her to speak effortlessly, later in her life, to the fears and aspirations of America's often ignored working class women." I admit that this is not exactly how I see Brown--as concerned or "in touch" with working class women.

I also admit that I don't see my "hillbilly" upbringing in the same way she sees hers. My hometown, Jasper, is less than 50 miles from Green Forest, population 2,717, and I know the town well because we played against Green Forest in sports when I was in high school. But my recollections of the Ozarks have, apparently unlike Brown's, softened over the years. What may once have been something akin to horror when I reflected on my hometown has evolved into something quite nostalgic--much more understanding and compassionate.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Maine school responds to declining enrollment by recruiting Chinese students

The dateline for Abby Goodenough's story in today's New York Times is Millinocket, Maine, population 5,203. Here's the story's lede:
Faced with dropping enrollment and revenue, the high school in this remote Maine town has fixed on an unlikely source of salvation: Chinese teenagers.

Never mind that Millinocket is an hour’s drive from the nearest mall or movie theater, or that it gets an average 93 inches of snow a year. Kenneth Smith, the schools superintendent, is so certain that Chinese students will eventually arrive by the dozen — paying $27,000 a year in tuition, room and board — that he is scouting vacant properties to convert to dormitories.

Millinocket is a mill town in Penobscot County, population 149,419.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Navajo consider a turn away from coal, to renewable energy

Read Mireya Navarro's report in today's New York Times. The lede follows:
For decades, coal has been an economic lifeline for the Navajos, even as mining and power plant emissions dulled the blue skies and sullied the waters of their sprawling reservation.

But today there are stirrings of rebellion. Seeking to reverse years of environmental degradation and return to their traditional values, many Navajos are calling for a future built instead on solar farms, ecotourism and microbusinesses.
This debate about the future of the Navajo Nation is occurring in the context of a leadership election to be decided on Nov. 2.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Disputing the proper use of a two-lane highway in rural Idaho

Tom Zeller, Jr., reported a few days in the New York Times about a dispute in Idaho over the use of a two-lane road, Highway 12, in the vicinity of the Idaho/Montana state line, to transport massive equipment to Alberta, Canada, where it will be used in oil extraction from the tar sands.
[I]nternational oil companies see this meandering, backcountry route as a road to riches. They are angling to use U.S. 12 to ship gargantuan loads of equipment from Vancouver, Wash., to Montana and the tar sands of Alberta in Canada. The companies say the route would save time and money and provide a vital economic boost to Montana and Idaho.
* * *
According to plans submitted to state regulators, some of the shipments would weigh more than 600,000 pounds, stand as tall as a three-story building, stretch nearly two-thirds the length of a football field and occupy 24 feet side-to-side — the full width of U.S. 12’s two lanes for much of its course through Idaho.
Husband and wife, Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, who live along Highway 12, have sued Conoco Phillips and Imperial Oil to stop this use of Highway 12. They argue that "the loads would threaten the integrity of Idaho’s historic portion of U.S. 12, as well as the safety of communities that depend on it as the main road in and out of the area." Environmentalist groups, seeing this as an effort to stop oil extraction from the sands, are supporting the couple's efforts.

Defining "rural states" in the context of political polarization

In his op-ed piece in today's New York Times Ari Berman refers to "small rural states" in relation to so-called Blue Dog Democrats. In "Boot the Blue Dogs," Berman writes of the early promise of the Obama administration, paired with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Berman then asks what went wrong and proceeds to answer that question:
One important explanation is that divisions inside the Democratic coalition, which held together during the 2008 campaign, have come spilling out into the open. Conservative Democrats have opposed key elements of the president’s agenda, while liberal Democrats have howled that their majority is being hijacked by a rogue group of predominantly white men from small rural states. President Obama himself appears caught in the middle, unable to satisfy the many factions inside his party’s big tent.
I suppose the reference to "small rural states" is a reference to states with relatively small populations because the states that Berman presumably has in mind are rarely small in terms of territory. These states probably include Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee, for example, none of which is particularly diminutive population-wise. This is especially true when the Southern states from which the Blue Dogs tend to hail are compared to states in the West and the Great Plains that are popularly thought of as rural, e.g., Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, but whose Democratic members of Congress are less likely to be labeled "Blue Dog."

I regret Berman's alignment of the Blue Dog Democrats with "rural states," in part because there are very, very few rural states in this country--at least as measured by population and the U.S. government's definition of "rural" (those living in a population cluster of less than 2,500 or in open territory). Among the states in which rural populations exceed urban populations are Montana (50.2% rural) and North Carolina (50.8%). Only 26.1% of Alaska's population is rural; for Wyoming, the figure is just 37.8%. In Utah, only 12.1% of residents live in rural places. As for the Southern states to which Berman appears to refer, only 43% of Alabamans live in rural places, and only 43.6% of Tennessee residents do. The figure for Arkansas is 46.1%.

Indeed, the most rural states--those with the largest percentage of their populations living in rural places--are in New England, not in the South. In Vermont, a whopping 72.3% of the population live in rural places, while the figure for Maine is 59.6% and the figure for New Hampshire is 55.4%. But not all New England states are so rural, of course. In Massachusetts, only 30.6% of the populace live in rural places. Furthermore, while some New England states are rural by this U.S. Census Bureau measure, their populations are not challenged by remoteness and spatial isolation in the way rural residents of the West and, to a lesser extent, the South, are. Rather, in New England, these rural villages butt up against one another, and I suspect relatively few people live in open territory. In any event, somewhat ironically, these New England states that are most rural by some measures are not the problem states with which Berman is concerned. Indeed, New England is known for its more progressive politics.

(California, by the way, is a tiny 9% rural, while New York is just 22.3% rural. Texas is 24.4% rural.)

In any event, what Berman seems to be getting at is the fact that many Blue Dog Democrats represent districts with significant rural populations. Furthermore, these Blue Dogs tend to espouse values that are typically associated with rural populations: tradition, stasis, conservatism. The Blue Dogs as a political phenomenon are yet another way in which the culture wars are increasingly aligned with the rural-urban axis. That is unfortunate, and a topic I've written about elsewhere.

Still, Berman makes a good point re: the need for greater ideological unity among Democrats. I tend to agree with that point and agree that it could benefits the Democrats--especially in the short term. I regret, however, some of the political consequences that would flow from pushing the Blue Dogs out from under the Democratic Party tent. Specifically, I worry about further ostracizing a constituency that the Democrats should be courting--socioeconomically disadvantaged people who would benefit from the Democrats' fiscal agenda.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nebraska's rural counties shake off recession, though they are still far from affluent

This story in the Lincoln (Nebraska) Journal Star last week-end reports that the economic profiles of several of Nebraska's poorest counties--sparsely populated rural ones, of course--have improved in the last decade, at least relative to other counties. Here's an excerpt:
A decade ago, the per capita income in Blaine County ranked second from the bottom among all 3,110 counties in the United States.

It was one of seven Nebraska counties in the bottom 12.

But now Blaine County -- about 150 miles north of Grand Island and home only to Uncle Buck's Lodge at Brewster and a handful of other retail businesses -- has climbed to the top half of the per-capita list at No. 1,384.

All six of the seven Nebraska counties, except McPherson, escaped the dubious, bottom-of-the-barrel distinction in the 2008 rankings, the most recent available from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Blaine County, population 583, is in central/north central Nebraska. McPherson County, population 533, is in the central/west central part of the state. The photos of the respective county courthouses, in Brewster and Tyron, respectively, are shown at the wikipedia links for the counties. The one in Brewster (population 29)looks old; the one in Tyron (population 90), new-ish, but about the size of an average ranch-style home.

For more recent demographic and economic data on Blaine County, click here.

For more recent data on McPherson County, click here.

Read the rest of the Lincoln JournalStar story here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

UC Davis med school trains physicians to serve rural areas

A story on the UC Davis website spotlights "country doctors" and reports on the recently launched Rural-PRIME program at the University's medical school. The program trains medical students for careers in rural primary-care medicine. Here's an excerpt:

“We will have a doctor shortage of 17,000 physicians in five years and a large part of those are in rural areas,” said Donald Hilty, medical director of Rural Medical Education at the UC Davis Health System. “The population is growing and we have a generation of physicians that are about to retire and the ones that do train disproportionally settle in urban areas.”

With training in public health issues, telemedicine and other technologies, students receive a combined medical doctorate and master’s degree in public health, medical informatics or another health field. The training sites in California are located in Truckee, Reedley and Jackson.

Our campus is a partner with six other UC schools, with 250 students at seven UC campuses (Davis, Irvine, UCLA, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley and Riverside). Rural-PRIME is expected to grow to 300 students next year.

See a related video here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

More on Democrats' vulnerability in the rural South

The New York Times has run several stories in the past few days about southern Democrats' struggles in U.S. Congressional and Senate races this fall. Here's one focusing on Senator Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, and here's one focusing more on race, which I blogged about a few days ago. The most recent headline is "Democrats Grip on the South Continues to Slip," and in it journalist Jeff Zeleny's analysis attends briefly to the rural-urban axis. He writes:
The Southern white Democrat, long on the endangered list, is at risk of being pushed one step closer to extinction.

From Virginia to Florida and South Carolina to Texas, nearly two dozen Democratic seats are susceptible to a potential Republican surge in Congressional races on Election Day, leaving the party facing a situation where its only safe presence in the South is in urban and predominantly black districts.

Zeleny briefly profiles a number of Congressional races in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi, and he notes the campaign rhetoric Democrats are using to separate themselves from President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One Democrat candidate, Roy Herron, who is seeking the open seat in Tennessee's Sixth District, "said he was trying to persuade people that he is still 'a Tennessee Democrat, a conservative.'" Zeleny's report indicates that Herron plays the rural card in how he presents himself as a "truck-driving, shotgun shooting, Bible reading, gospel preaching, crime-fighting, family-loving country boy.”

Other posts, from 2008, about politics in the rural South include this, this, and this.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Discussing the "culture of poverty," with nary a mention of the rural

A headline in today's NYT proclaims, "'Culture of Poverty,' Once an Academic Slur, Makes a Comeback." Patricia Cohen writes of a new (or renewed) academic turn to discussions of poverty in relation to culture, and she recalls a time when such discussions became politically incorrect.
The reticence was a legacy of the ugly battles that erupted after Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, introduced the idea of a “culture of poverty” to the public in a startling 1965 report. Although Moynihan didn’t coin the phrase (that distinction belongs to the anthropologist Oscar Lewis), his description of the urban black family as caught in an inescapable “tangle of pathology” of unmarried mothers and welfare dependency was seen as attributing self-perpetuating moral deficiencies to black people, as if blaming them for their own misfortune.
Cohen then goes on to report recent events (e.g., the 2010 meeting of the American Sociological Association and a special issue of The Annals, the journal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science) which suggest an academic turn back to thinking about poverty in relation to culture.

Cohen quotes Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who explains that culture in this context means "shared understandings." He continues:
“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty” ... But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?
I find it interesting (albeit not terribly surprising) that Cohen's story focuses entirely on urban poverty. The photos and textual illustrations--like that of Sampson--are all drawn from urban contexts. Cohen does not use the words "rural" or "nonmetropolitan" even once. She uses the phrase "persistent poverty" several times, yet among counties that the federal government designates as "persistent poverty" (meaning 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years, as measured by the 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 decennial censuses), 340 of 386 such counties are nonmetro. Surely these, too, are places where poverty and culture are intertwined.

Dean Joliffe of USDA ERS wrote in a 2004 issue of the agency's Amber Waves publication:

Persistent poverty is also more pervasive in the most rural areas, as seen in the share of counties that were persistently poor—4 percent of metro counties, 13 percent of micropolitan counties (the more urbanized nonmetro counties), and 18 percent of noncore, nonmetro counties (the most rural of nonmetro counties). (For more information on these classifications, see “Behind the Data” in Amber Waves, September 2003.)

A strong regional pattern of poverty and persistent poverty also emerges. No persistent-poverty counties are found in the Northeast, and only 60 of the nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the Midwest and West. The remaining 280 nonmetro persistent-poverty counties are in the South, comprising 25 percent of the total nonmetro population there. Furthermore, the nonmetro South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. nonmetro population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty. Poverty estimates for 2002 indicate that, in the South, 17.5 percent of nonmetro residents were poor compared with 14.2 percent of all nonmetro residents. Understanding differences in poverty between nonmetro and metro areas of the U.S. is important to understanding differences in well-being across these areas and can help inform the policy dialogue on poverty reduction strategies.
If sociologists and policy makers are re-thinking the role of culture in relation to poverty, they should consider how rural sub-cultures--and not only urban ones--evolve in the context of and in response to entrenched, inter-generational poverty.

Dr. Jennifer Sherman's, Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America (2009) is a book that just does that. Sherman's book is an ethnography of a small logging community in northern California in the wake of economic restructuring associated with the northern spotted owl's designation as an endangered species. While Sherman does not endorse a "culture of poverty" in the sense of suggesting that poverty persists because poor people are lazy (quite the contrary--see pp. 185-86), she does describe a rural culture that is shaped by entrenched economic distress across a community. One aspect of the relationship between poverty and culture in some rural contexts is the turn to morality and the focus on family values as a way of differentiating among people in the context of a largely homogeneous community, where few other bases for distinction exist. We need more work like Sherman's--work that attends to rural difference and observes it with compassion--to inform policy-makers' responses to entrenched poverty and its relationship to place and culture.

Cross posted to SALTLaw Blog and UC Davis Faculty Blog.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Courting the Black vote in the rural South

Kevin Sack reports in today's New York Times on the importance of Black voter turnout in the mid-term election. The story focuses primarily on the South, including a number of counties and electoral districts in the so-called Black Belt. Sack uses the situation in North Carolina's Eighth Congressional District to illustrate the phenomenon. There, Democrat Larry Kissell, a white man, unseated the Republican incumbent in 2008. But Kissell voted against health care reform, which has turned many of the Black electorate against him.

Here's an excerpt from the story that mentions the rural nature of various districts where Democrats are in trouble:
Without Mr. Obama atop the ticket this year, Mr. Kissell and a number of other vulnerable Democrats, mostly in the rural South, face the challenge of reviving the spirit of 2008 for black voters without alienating right-leaning white majorities in their districts.
That is the only use of the word "rural" in the story, and Sack does not explain or analyze any apparent relevance of the rural-urban axis to this political phenomenon. But the story's dateline is Laurinburg, North Carolina, population 15,874, county seat of Scotland County. On the South Carolina line, nonmetropolitan Scotland County is part of the district that Mr. Kissell represents. Scotland County's population is 37.3% Black, 51.5% white, and nearly 9% American Indian/Alaska Native. It is a high-poverty county where 20.6% of individuals and 17.4% of families are living below the poverty line. It is not a persistent poverty county, but it is contiguous to a cluster of three such counties. (See more detail on poverty among North Carolina's counties here).

Other districts where Democratic representatives are in trouble include these six districts, where Blacks comprise more than 10% of voters: Alabama's 2d; South Carolina's 5th; Georgia's 8th; Mississippi's 1st; Florida's 2d; and Maryland's 1st. See an accompanying NYT graphic here.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Home foreclosure freeze had origins in rural Maine

David Streitfeld reports in today's New York Times, "From a Maine House, a National Foreclosure Freeze." The dateline is Denmark, Maine, population 1,004, and the story is one of a legal services volunteer lawyer who discovered flaws in the efforts to foreclose on the $75,000 home of Nicolle Bradbury, 38, who turned to Pine Tree Legal Assistance when GMAC Mortgage began foreclosure proceedings on her modest rural home.

Pine Tree Legal Assistance has several service centers throughout Maine. Denmark is western Maine, in Oxford County, population 56,608. Parts of the county belong to two different metropolitan New England City and Town areas: Lewiston-Auburn and Portland-South Portland-Biddeford.

Friday, October 15, 2010

John Boehner as "small-town" boy

"Boehner's Path to Power Began in Southern Ohio" is the headline of a story in today's New York Times, and it tells of John Boehner's roots in Reading Ohio, population 11,292. The headline on the front page of the print edition is "A Small Town Boy from Ohio, at the Cusp of Power in Washington." Journalists Jennifer Steinhauer and Carl Hulse describe Reading as a small town and assert that "it seems that almost everything about him stems from this spot at the southern tip of Ohio." In fact, what they describe is a working class upbringing, but hardly one in what I consider a "small town." Reading is part of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Statistical area.

I wonder if this characterization of a suburb as a small town is another way in which the mainstream media collapse "working class" with "small-town" and "rural," particularly as the culture wars are increasingly aligned with the rural-urban axis.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Changing times in the West may lead to a change in open grazing laws

Read Marc Lacey's story in the New York Times. The story appears under two headlines, "Arizona Rethinks Open Grazing Laws" and "Uneasy Neighbors on the Open Range." Here is an excerpt:

Free-range cattle roam widely across the West, protected by centuries-old laws that give them the right of way while grazing and force landowners to fence them out. But as urban sprawl has extended into what used to be seemingly endless pasture land, cow-friendly open range laws are under fresh scrutiny, criticized as anachronistic throwbacks to the Wild West days before Interstate highways and tract homes.

“People have been killed in collisions with large cows,” said Daniel Patterson, an Arizona state representative from Tucson who is pushing to scale back the rights given cows and their owners in his state. “We need to get rid of this antiquated law from the 19th century. It’s important for ranchers and other livestock owners to keep their cattle where they belong.”

The story is chock full of anecdotes about havoc wreaked by cattle in New Mexico and Arizona. Lacey notes that California is among states with open-range policies only in rural areas, while in Arizona, the conflicts tend to be limited to the exurbs, which are more likely to abut ranching territory. Cattle are restricted in Arizona's incorporated areas.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More wind turbine woes in rural places

Read a New York Times story here, dateline Vinalhaven, Maine, population 1,235. This is just the latest among a great deal of news coverage in the last year or two about wind turbines as noise nuisances. Related posts are here and here.

Excerpts from Tom Zeller, Jr's story in today's NYT follow:

The wind industry has long been dogged by a vocal minority bearing all manner of complaints about turbines, from routine claims that they ruin the look of pastoral landscapes to more elaborate allegations that they have direct physiological impacts like rapid heart beat, nausea and blurred vision caused by the ultra-low-frequency sound and vibrations from the machines.

* * *

Numerous studies also suggest that not everyone will be bothered by turbine noise, and that much depends on the context into which the noise is introduced. A previously quiet setting like Vinalhaven is more likely to produce irritated neighbors than, say, a mixed-use suburban setting where ambient noise is already the norm.

Of the 250 new wind farms that have come online in the United States over the last two years, about dozen or so have generated significant noise complaints, according to Jim Cummings, the founder of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, an online clearinghouse for information on sound-related environmental issues.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXX): Local school wins National Blue Ribbon Award

This is not law and order news, but the big headline in the Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, 2010 editions of the Newton County Times is that the Kingston, Arkansas School, which consolidated with the Jasper School six years ago, has been named a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School. The list of about 300 winning schools was announced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Sept. 9, and these schools will be honored in Washington, D.C., in mid-November.

Blue Ribbon status honors public and private schools whose students achieve at high levels or have made significant progress and helped close gaps in achievement, especially among disadvantaged and minority students. One of the categories of schools honored is those whose student populations are at least 40% from disadvantaged backgrounds and who "improve student performance to high levels as measured by the school's performance on state assessments or nationally-normed tests."

I assume that Kingston is in this category--rather than the category that recognizes schools where students are consistently high achieving. Kingston is a small school, with a K-12 enrollment I would estimate at under 300, though neither of the news reports provides this detail. The poverty rate in Kingston is not readily available because it is not even a Census Designated Place. In surrounding Madison County, population 14,243, the poverty rate is 18.6%, and the poverty rate for families is 14.7%. The average income in the county is less than $15,000. One of the Newton County Times stories states that 69% of the Kingston School's students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, which is another indicator of socioeconomic disadvantage.

The report does not indicate what the school has done to achieve high test scores for three consecutive years, but it does tell the story of Kingston's decision to consolidate with Jasper and another school, Oark, rather than with the larger school in nearby Huntsville.  Like Kingston, Huntsville is in Madison County. The school's principal, Marsha Shaver, reports that "Our teachers and community wasn't looking for better pay. We definitely would have gotten better pay with Hunstville." (I hope she was misquoted and did not actually use improper grammar).  Shaver states that the questions raised then were, "Could we stay open? Could we keep our community? Could we keep our kids here?" She goes on to state that the Kingston School Board apparently "didn't feel secure in going with Huntsville and they felt more secure about going with Jasper."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Explaining Arkansas politics, with reference to rurality

The headline on Campbell Brown's story in today's New York Times is "Democrats' Fall May be Deepest in Arkansas," and in it she explains Arkansas's political landscape with several references to rurality. Here's an excerpt that describes the current situation:
But Democrats in Arkansas, who have long dominated state and local offices despite the state’s essentially conservative electorate, have not been in this much trouble for as long as anyone can remember, at least anyone who was not around during Reconstruction.
Noting that Arkansas has for several decades been "something of a political outlier," Brown lays out the data. She notes that while Arkansas voters have in recent elections supported Republican presidential candidates, 8 of the state's last 10 governors have been Democrats. Further, Arkansas has sent only one Republican to the Senate in the past 130 years, and three of its four representatives in the U.S. House are Democrats. Ninety-nine of 135 state legislators are also Democrats, as is Governor Mike Beebe, who appears set for re-election. Brown summarizes that, although the state has a "mostly conservative Southern outlook," it does not have "the Southern shade of red." She then speculates about why that is.
There are many reasons that Arkansas stayed loyal to the Democratic Party while other Southern states steadily walked, then ran, from the party.
Students of Arkansas politics point out the state’s long tradition of rural populism, the slow development of its suburbs and a run of uncommonly adept Democratic politicians, a group that includes the former governor and senator Dale Bumpers, the former governor and senator David Pryor and, of course, Bill Clinton. Arkansas also has a smaller percentage of black residents than other Southern states, where Democrats must court black voters and rural white voters with equal zeal, leading to messages that are at times so divergent as to be contradictory.
Yet in spite of this past, the Republican candidate is leading in the race for the U.S. Senate seat that Democrat Blanche Lincoln is trying to retain, and Republicans are also leading in the races for two U.S. House seats--seats long held by Democrats.

Additional posts about Arkansas politics are here, here, here, here, and here.