Friday, December 30, 2011

Waxing nostalgic for the community of small-town America

David Brooks' column yesterday focused on the small city of St. Francisville, Louisiana, population 1,712    (which is part of nonmetropolitan West Feliciana Parish, population 15,625). In particular, Brooks told of how native son (and conservative blogger) Rod Dreher had moved back to St. Francisville after living in a number of large cities.  He moved "home" because his sister Ruthie, then aged 40, had fallen ill with a virulent form of cancer.  The main point of Brooks' column seems to be how the town rallied around Ruthie.  Brooks describes how the town declared April 10, 2010, Ruthie Leming Day and how more than half of the town went to a fund-raising concert for her.  Someone even brought a camper-trailer so Ruthie would have a place to rest and take oxygen.  Dreher blogged:
The outpouring--an eruption, really--of goodness and charity from the people of our town has been quite simply stunning.  The acts of aid and comfort have been ceaseless, often reducing our parents to tears of shock and awe.
Ultimately, Dreher and his family decide to stay in St. Francisville rather than return to the Philadelphia area.  Dreher wrote:
Standing in Ruthie's kitchen the day after she died, laughing with all of [her husband] Mike's friends who had surrounded him to hold him up ('We're leaning, but we're leaning on each other,' Mike later said), I thought, 'Even with all the sadness, there's no place else in the world I'd rather be.'
Brooks continues:
They wanted to be enmeshed in a tight community.  They wanted to be around Ruthie's daughters, and they wanted their kids to be abel to go deer hunting with Mike.  They wanted to where the family had been for five generations and to participate in the rituals ....  They decided to accept the limitations of small-town life in exchange for the privilege of being part of a community.
The story of Dreher's family is undeniably very moving, but it leaves me wanting to know a few things.  Did Ruthie and her family have medical insurance?  If not, did the benefit concert raise enough funds to significantly defray the expenses associated with her treatment?  I value family and attachment to place as much as just about anyone, but I sometimes think we make too much of these small-town, communitarian tropes.  Would a family less esteemed in St. Francisville have been so supported by the community?  Where is "class" in this tale?  Where is race--the 46% of the parish who are black?  Where are the cold, hard economic realities of making do in places like West Feliciana Parish?  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New haute cuisine movement focuses on the South

A headline in yesterday's New York Times is "Southern Farmers Vanquish the Cliches," and in it Julia Moskin reports on a trend among Southern farmers and chefs in the region to revive or remake (depending on your perspective) Southern cuisine. Moskin describes a
thriving movement of idealistic Southern food producers who have a grander plan than just farm-to-table cuisine. They want to reclaim the agrarian roots of Southern cooking, restore its lost traditions and dignity, and if all goes according to plan, completely redefine American cuisine for a global audience.

Their work is being encourage, and sponsored by a new generation of chefs who have pushed Southern cooking into the vanguard of world cuisine--and who depend on these small producers to literally flesh out their ambitions.
California readers, hold onto your hats, because Moskin continues thusly:
Like California in the 1970s--when Alice Waters collaborated with farmers, foragers and cheesemakers on the food at Chez Panisse--the South today has just the right combination of climate, culinary skill, regional chic and receptive audience.
That the South is experiencing a time of "regional chic" is news to me, but I did get a kick out of the chefs and purveyors interviewed putting down Paula Deen as representative of all that is wrong--but too often associated with--Southern cooking. I also learned a trendy word to refer to this revival of Southern cooking and its focus on pork, "lardcore." In fact, the latter surprised me because I don't think of pork as a critical component of the food with which I grew up, though one of my sets of grandparents did raise a pig or two at a time for slaughter, along with a cow or two, lots of chickens, and a big garden. Unlike the fine charcuterie products discussed in the NYTimes article, bacon grease (a form of lard, right?) was ubiquitous. In my opinion, however, there was nothing haute about any of it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCIII): Year-end wrap up

In this post, I will catch up on various law and order news for Newton County, Arkansas for 2011.

The really big news is that Newton County finally broke ground on a new jail, but that news is so big that I'll save it for a separate post.

The Oct. 5, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the 14th Judicial Drug Task Force arrested 28-year-old Billy Joe Lewis when a probation/parole visit by the Newton County Sheriff's office revealed 19 grams of meth on Lewis's person, as well as marijuana growing at his Marble Falls residence.

The Oct. 26, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reports that the Jasper City Council passed an animal ordinance, this after twice tabling it. The ordinance was "prepared" by the city's attorney, Dawn Allen, and it is apparently based on a similar ordinance in effect in the city of Eurake Springs. The ordinance notes that the city has no animal shelter, so animal owners must "maintain proper care over them and are encouraged to cooperate and abide by the provisions of the ordinance." Further, "the burden for animal treatment, removal or disposal falls entirely on the owner of the animal or property owner." The ordinance requires both dogs and cats to be vaccinated, and dogs must have both a collar and a tag. The newspaper reports:
Dogs are not allowed to run at large on public property unless the animal is under voice control and would be prohibited to run at large on private property without the owners permission." The ordinance also addressed vicious animals, animal cruelty and the disposal of dead animals' bodies.
Responding apparently to concerns that the ordinance represented "too much law" and insufficient deference to the informal order that has previously prevailed, the mayor announced that he was "not going to be out looking for stuff." He said he didn't expect the city to be getting a call every time a dog crossed onto someone's property. He said if the city gets a call, he will simply call the owner and "tell them to take care of it." The ordinance sets a $50 fine for a violation, and a fee of up to $250 may be assessed if the owner refuses to respond to a violation. An earlier report on this proposed ordinance is here.

The Nov. 9 issue of the Newton County Times reports that a 52-year-old woman was formally charged in September, 2010, with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of permitting abuse of a minor and a single count of battery in the second degree, all Class D felonies. She entered a no contest plea to those charges on Nov. 3 and was ordered to six years of probation and a fine of $3,500. The charges stem in part from the woman's failure to respond to an admission from her 14-year-old son that he had engaged in sexual contact with his two sisters, aged 13 and 11, and that he continued to to have sexual contact with the older sister. In addition, when the 11-year-old girl wrote a letter to her mother detailing the sexual contact, the woman hit the girl in the face, knocking out a tooth. The woman was charged with aggravated assault for sitting on her 13-year-old and pressing the minor's face into a pillow, and also for hitting the child with a board on her buttocks and the back of her legs. The woman also allegedly stuffed socks into the 13-year-old's mouth and "punched her." The story does not indicate whether the woman retains custody of her children.

A 28-year-old man was sentenced to six years of probation and $1000 fine after pleading guilty to to theft of 24 oxycodone-acetaminaophen tablets and possession of marijuana. In exchange for the plea, a charge of residential burglary was dropped.

A 50-year-old man was charged with possession of a firearm, aggravated assault and possession of a controlled substance (marijuana) following an incident at Marble Falls, when the man shot in the direction of law enforcement officers who were investigating a methamphetamine lab. In a plea deal, the man was sentenced to 30 days in jail and payment of $1000 in fines and court costs.

A 35-year-old man was charged with delivery of a controlled substance and related charges after he distributed marijuana he received by Federal Express from California. He was sentenced to three years in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections but given a five-year suspended sentence and fined $1000 plus costs. The man was also ordered to forfeit items seized in the investigation.

A 24-year-old man was charged with stealing a 1985 Chevy Blazer and leading police officers on a high-speed chase through southern and western parts of the county, over many miles, including parts of Highways 16 (Ponca to Mossville), 7 (Deer to Jasper), and 374 (McIlroy Gap toward Vendor). At one point, the man even ran a police roadblock. In a plea agreement, he was sentenced to two years in the Arkansas Dept. of Corrections "with a judicial transfer to a regional punishment facility, followed by a three-year suspended imposition of sentence and a one-year sentence in jail, all concurrent."

The Nov. 30, 2011 issue of the paper reports that a 53-year-old man from Deer, Steven Moore, was charged with aggravated assault after he shot at his brother and swung a machete at him on August 31, 2010. The brother under attack eventually tackled the aggressor brother and pinned him to the ground, which was the situation when Jasper Police Chief Peter DeChant arrived. In a plea deal, the aggressor was sentenced to 12 months probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine plus court costs.

Other reported cases arose from a March, 2011, assault on a Newton County Sheriff's Deputy in the context of an arrest and an incident in which the man came onto another person's property and pointed a firearm at the landowner. The aggressor was charged with terroristic threatening, among other crimes.

Chinese villagers' revolt attracts worldwide attention; will more villages follow suit?

A story
out of Wukan, China has attracted persistent coverage during the past few weeks. I first heard of Wukan (a/k/a Wuhan) on December 15, 201, when this story appeared in the New York Times and NPR also ran a story. Here's the lede from that mid-December story.
A long-running dispute between farmers and local officials in Southern China exploded into open rebellion this week after villagers chased away government leaders, set up road blocks, and began arming themselves with homemade weapons, residents said.

The conflict in Wukan, a coastal settlement of 20,000 in the country's industrial heartland in Guangdong Province, escalated Monday after residents learned that one of the representatives they had selected to negotiate with the local Community Party had died in police custody.

* * *

Spasms of social turmoil in China have become increasingly common, a reflection of the widening income gap and deepening unhappiness with official corruption and an unresponsive legal system. But the clashes in Wukan, which initially erupted in September, are unusual for their longevity--and for the brazenness of the villagers as they call attention to their frustrations.
The story goes on to report that the essential dispute regards whether farmers were adequately compensated for land that went to developers. In fact, the "discontent in Wukan has been simmering for more than a decade" because "land seizures began in the late 1990s, when officials began selling off farmland for industrial parks and apartment complexes."

A second story, which ran about a week ago, credits the Wukan villagers for their success in attracting attention, calling them "canny." It tells of how villagers have grasped the power of the media and bloggers to cover their plight, even as they have asked journalists not to label it an "uprising."
Revolt or not, the protest over land sales here, which began months ago, was sustained in its final and most perilous phase by the villagers' canny interactions with journalists from foreign and Hong Kong news organizations. Mainland Chinese news media were barred from reporting on Wukan, but dozens of reporters for foreign publications arrived here last week after being alerted to the protest by an article in the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. They slipped through a police cordon by traveling on motor rickshaws along winding dirt roads and, in one case, by hiring a boat to reach the harbor.

The villagers threw open their doors. They now had the means to wage a propaganda war.
A retired Chinese professor notes that Guangdong's situation near Hong Kong has been critical to these events because villagers like those in Wukan get their news from Hong Kong rather than from China Central Television. This gives them a "better understanding of civil society and the rule of law."

The most recent story suggests that the problem for the Chinese government goes beyond Wukan. The latest story appeared under the headline, "A Village in Revolt Could be a Harbinger for China."
There are 625,000 potential Wukans across China, all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the sort of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.
One China expert opined that 50-60% of Chinese villages "suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that beset Wukan, albeit not so severe." The story continues with a discussion of local government in China:
On paper, the Wukan protests should never have happened: China's village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves. Moreover, the government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent.

Village self-administration, as the central government calls it, is seen by many foreigners as China's democratic laboratory--and while elections can be rigged and otherwise swayed, many political scientists say they are, on balance, a good development.
Time will tell, of course, whether protests like that in Wukan spread, from country to city, and around the vast nation.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bittersweet homecoming for rural troops

December 17, 2011 marked the last troops to leave Iraq. These soldiers are happy to return home, many to the open arms of their loved ones who have missed them while they were deployed. But after the joy of homecoming dissipates, these men and women will have to face the bleak economy the rest of America has been battling for the past few years.

1% of the people in the nation serve in the military, and within that percent rural communities are overwhelmingly overrepresented. The Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America White House report states: “Although rural residents account for 17% of the population, they make up 44% of the men and women who serve in uniform.” The Daily Yonder has been outspoken about rural over-representation in the army since their inception, but their post earlier this year questioned the veracity of the 44% statistic quoted by the report. Their findings were actually lower, finding that “rural residents were joining the Army at rates 21.5% above the national average.” However, they insist this number is nothing to scoff at and admit that it’s “significant”.

The VHA Office of Rural Health released some astonishing disparity in veteran health in rural areas.
Prior cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses indicate that veterans who live in rural settings have greater healthcare needs than their urban counterparts. Specifically, rural Veterans have lower health-related quality-of-life scores and experience a higher prevalence of physical illness compared to urban Veterans.
Yet despite the greater need, veterans in rural areas are less likely to get the services they need. It is not surprising that spatial isolation plays a large role. Indeed the report mentions, “travel barriers including greater distance to care and lack of public transportation contribute to limited access to care for rural as compared to urban Veterans.” Further, a post in the Huffington Post this summer reported that “five million rural residents live in "shortage areas" defined by the federal government as counties with less than 33 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents. The number is continuing to decrease.” Further, “per capita in rural areas there is less than half the number of surgeons and other specialists.”

The war may be over but the horrors and ghosts of the war will follow these soldiers home. A December 20, 2011 Chicago Tribune article states that “[m]ore than 2,200 Iraq-era cases of PTSD are being treated in Illinois, in addition to more than 400 cases of traumatic brain injury, a medical condition caused by head trauma.” The VHA Office indicates that “[w]hile prevalence of most psychiatric disorders is lower for rural compared to urban Veterans, rural Veterans with psychiatric disorders are sicker as measured by lower health-related quality-of-life compared with urban Veterans.” Rural folks will feel the mental health ramifications hardest due the lack of mental health services and the transportation challenges. One article found that “more than 85 percent of the 1,669 federally designated mental health professional shortage areas are rural. And only in rural America did the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health (1993) find entire counties with no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers.”

This year’s Holiday video from President Obama and his family featured the White House 2011 holiday season theme of "’Shine, Give, Share’ which offers an opportunity to pay tribute to our troops, veterans, and their families.” This is on the heels of the White House new “Joining Forces” campaign, whose ads could be seen on every television channel this past month. Our returning forces will struggle to find a job, and President Obama has “issued a challenge to the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed veterans and their spouses.” But it’s clear that rural Veterans will struggle not only with finding employment, but also accessing much needed physical and mental health services. I hope the White House and Congress will openly discuss this rural-urban disparity and attempt to provide social services to better serve our returning rural soldiers.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The rural purge

Not too long ago I did a post on new television shows featuring rural themes. In that post, I made the point that these shows are not the rural person’s first foray into the spotlight, but that this is another batch of exploitation and stereotyping. I compared new shows such as Hillbilly Handfishin’ (no “g”) and Redneck Riveria to shows like Dukes of Hazard, Beverley Hillbillies, and The Andy Griffith Show. During my research for that post I learned of something called the Rural Purge—or as Pat Buttram of Green Acres called it, “when CBS killed everything with a tree in it.”

The facts of the inquisition look fairly convincing, below is a list of the shows cancelled, their network, and their Nielsen TV Ranking before cancellation.
  • Mayberry RFD, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #15 (in 1969 and 1970 Mayberry RFD ranked #4 in the Nielsen ratings)
  • The Red Skelton Show, CBS, cancellation 1970, rank #7 (The Red Skelton Show moved to NBC the following year, but changed its format to a variety show and the rating fell to 30)
  • Petticoat Junction, CBS, cancellation 1970, rank #35.
  • Green Acres, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank fell below 30, but had a lifetime average of 24.
  • Beverly Hillbillies, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank in 1971 was 33, top 20’s and even #1 prior to that.
  • Hee-Haw, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #16.
  • The Jim Nabors Hour, CBS, cancellation 1971, rank #2
The above is just a sampling, for a full list of the cancelled shows.  Check out the Wikipedia page.

Of course, there can always be other hypotheses for cancellations. One idea might be the actors pursuing other opportunities. But only one show, Gomer Pyle USMC, credits the actor for the cancellation. Or you might think that they were pushed out due to success of other shows. During this time-period, variety shows such as the Mary Tyler Moore Show became immensely popular. However, most of the cancellations took place before variety shows hit their peak after the Purge. You could argue that these variety shows became popular by absorbing rural-TV audiences.

Fred Silverman, the Grand Inquisitor of the Purge, often stated that the need to draw more urban demographics into the networks net combined with the new Prime Time Access Rules by the FCC meant these shows had to go.

The FCC issued the first Prime Time Access Rule in 1970. The rule essentially stated that a network may only have three network programs during prime time hours (a four hour block from 7:00 PM ET until 11:00 PM ET), so something had to give. But the ratings might tell a little different story. Silverman would have people believe that the ratings didn’t warrant a shows renewal, but more urban-friendly shows such as The Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family rarely even cracked the top 30 of the Nielsen ratings.

One theory was that the advertisers demanded urban-centric programming in order to make their ads more effective. And this makes some sense: people with immediate access to your product are more likely to purchase. However, it isn’t clear that content would actually matter.

Ultimately, this is only television and the business-centered explanations make the most sense. Larger sociological concepts are secondary considerations here. But for the sake of reaching something larger than dollars, consider why CBS and advertisers believed rural-centric shows couldn’t sell products. It might be “otherness.” In their book, Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century, Brown and Schaftt talk about how urban people view rural people, the rural mystique, and similar concepts. Apply that to TV and we see that rural shows might have been successful because it was a spectacle—a type of rural voyeurism. You could think that products might not sell as well when people don’t actually relate to the show. More urban shows, that relate to your demographic, could sell products better because they don’t carry the “otherness” aspect.

And maybe that’s the truth for most rural shows. Behold, the rural spectacle.

Policing the rural

The Rapid City Journal recently interviewed several police officers from rural South Dakota to discuss the unique challenges and aspects of police work in a rural town. While a simple newspaper story can’t give a complete picture of what it is like to work as an officer in a small town, the interviews provided some valuable insight into the type of person that it takes to be successful in a position that is of vital importance for rural communities.

The officers interviewed for the story work in small towns across Pennington County, South Dakota. The officers have a wide variety of tasks and patrol a large amount of space. One officer said he will drive over 400 miles on any given night. The officers seemed to agree that the biggest challenge of the job however, is the frequent loneliness- particularly during the night shifts. While some nights are really busy, there are often long nights without any calls. This can make it difficult to stay alert on any given night and the amount of time spent without human interaction tends to wear on the officers.

One challenge that the officers seem to enjoy, however, is the trust-building aspect of the job. Police officers in these small South Dakota towns are around frequently and know most of the people in the areas they patrol. Rather than simply be seen as powerful authority figures, the officers need to maintain positive and amicable relationships with residents while still doing their jobs.

Another positive for the officers is that they typically get more time to handle and investigate assignments. The extra time, combined with their familiarity with the residents and the area often leads to smooth, successful results when trying to solve crimes. This makes the officers feel like they are actually making a big substantive difference in the community and brings a sense of satisfaction that other officers in bigger cities might not have.

While it would not be proper to make sweeping generalizations from the article, it definitely seems like it takes a specific type of person to be successful as a rural police officers. Successful rural officers need to possess nearly all of the virtues that human beings universally tend to agree are positive. They need to be patient, trustworthy, and kind to people while still maintaining vigor and passion for enforcing the law. They also need to be able to deal with the more than occasional day or night with nothing to do and no one to talk to. Being a rural police officer demands a lot of a person, but if the small sample of officers that were interviewed in the article is any indication, some of the officers seem to genuinely enjoy their work.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

My Rural Travelogue (XV): Christmas Eve in Amador County

I drove to neighboring Amador County yesterday to pick up some holiday goodies from my favorite bakery, Andrae's. I came back with lots of yummy stuff, though no photo of Andrae's or of the lovely hamlet where it is located, Amador City. I did, however, take these three photographs:
a vendor selling strawberries and oranges at the very rural intersection of Old Sacramento Road and Latrobe Road, several miles west of Plymouth; the Plymouth City Hall, decked in lights and wreaths; and Cooper Winery on Shennandoah School Road, in the heart of the Amador wine region. Regarding the fruit vendor, I was especially surprised to see him in this rural location, where my impression based on past experience is that not a lot of traffic passes, though vendors like him are common in my suburban Sacramento neighborhood. He told me the strawberries were grown south of Los Angeles. He was charging $10 for a bag of oranges, $15 for the case of strawberries.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cut Down Your Own Christmas Joy

I went to a holiday party recently hosted by a good friend of mine. She is one of those people who has wholeheartedly embraced many rural-type behavior, such as a boasting a bountiful garden which she tends to with seasonal precision, makes her own jams and jellies, and even blows her own glass. I often listen enviously at her stories about exchanging goods with unique crafters and finding small farms with the best produce. Therefore, I was not at all surprised when she told me that she traveled up the California mountains to cut down her own Christmas tree.

Of course, I had heard of people going to a tree lot and cutting down Christmas trees, even while residing in sunny Southern California. In fact, any average Joe can find the nearest location to cut down their own trees on the California Christmas Tree Association website. But my friend had gone beyond the usual urban elite version of the process. Her face beamed with pride as she told me the details of the adventure. She had a particular tree in mind, a Silver Tip Pine (a picture of which can be found here courtesy of Arizona Traveler Blog), which boasts strong branches and needles that shine with pewter at the ends. The tree is long and lean, with a significant amount of space in between the branches. This type of tree could not be found in any old DIY lot, but she and her boyfriend went to great lengths to find the remote location that would allow them to cut down their very own Silver Tip Pine Tree.

Much like a recent Rural Legalism post regarding “Picker Sisters,” I too struggle with whether “rustic chic” derides, elevates, or co-opts rural culture. My friend’s experience feels more authentic to me then going to more commercialized lots that cater to urbanites’ craving to capture a piece of rural America. But I admit, I find that even the more commercialized lots evoke an appreciation and celebration of rural America and carry with it the American individualist spirit.

But even my friends experience can’t compare to the blog post in Rural Revolution featured earlier this month on the blog author’s own Christmas tree adventure. The blog’s tagline boasts that it is a blog containing “[i]n-your-face stuff from an opinionated rural north Idaho housewife.” The family had spotted a tree that was to their liking on past walks through their area. The family members independently (without the help of a Christmas Tree farmer) hiked to the trees location, cut it down themselves, dragged it home, and made any last minute trimming on the tree for it to be the perfect dimension to fit their home.

The experience described by the Rural Revolution post exhibits the self-sufficiency many associate with rural small towns. However, a comment to that particular post served to remind me that not all small towns have the luxury of a forest or other natural resources that support said self-sufficiency. The comment states:
“I'll probably be the dissenting opinion here, but where I live we don't have any forests in which we can cut our own tree. We could pay $30-$60 in a store or at a Christmas tree farm, but that's a lot of money, at least for me. I invested $13 for a fake one at a local thrift store and this is our 4th Christmas using it. In 10 years, I'll have saved enough for a rifle or handgun. Since a gun can last a lifetime, and will often hold its value, that, for me, is the better investment than a purchased "real" tree.”
The comment reminded me that this is a very idealized version of how we see rural America. We (meaning myself and many urban elites) assume that individuals in rural communities can all cut down their own trees and fail to realize that not all of them have access to forests. We say snobby things like “nothing really compares to a live Christmas tree,” and belittle the celebration of those who may not be able to afford the luxury of spending $30-$60 every year to buy a live tree. It takes seemingly little jabs such as this or President Obama reference to Arugula prices that make urban elites appear out of touch with rural America.

Fire Prevention Fee - Vital or Villan?

When it comes to fire safety, rural communities suffer from a combination of spatial isolation, lack of public services, and reliance on volunteer services. Yesterday's San Francisco Gate article reported on yet another burden threatening rural areas: a proposed $150 fire prevention fee that will "apply residential and other habitable structures in rural areas throughout the state, where 90 percent of property owners and residents already pay local taxes for fire protection services."

Many rural residents feel a fee, particularly one this high, will divert funds away from local fire safety endeavors. For example, rural voters self-tax themselves in order to meet their fire safety needs and a fee such as this will make it harder get local voters to pay more. Staci Heaton, lobbyist for the Regional Council of Rural Counties in Sacramento, noted, "[w]hen people get a bill from the state, we worry (they) aren't going to be willing to tax themselves again. So if local fire districts need more revenue, they aren't going to get it."

Rural communities are no strangers to fending for themselves. Some believe locals are most qualified to create tailored solutions to their specific problems. No wonder people like John Hallman, a Napa County resident who has lived in rural Berryess Estates neighborhood for more than two decades, is concerned that the fee might make it hard to continue individualized community fire protection efforts. Until fairly recently, the remote town of Berryess Estates held the "dubious distinction of being one of the most at-risk communities in Napa County for catastrophic wildfire" according to a March 2011 article in the Napa Valley Register. This rural town, home to roughly 600 full-time and part-time residents, faces significant spatial isolation, with "the closest volunteer fire department is more than 20 minutes away in Pope Valley (posts on rural communities' reliance on volunteer firefighters can be found here and here), with Cal Fire in Middletown being the next quickest responders" and transportation into town is limited to a narrow two lane road. In an effort to address this problem, locals like John Hallman banded together and worked quickly to create a unique solution for a local problem. They formed the Fire Safe Council in 2004, met with fire prevention experts from Cal Fire and the Napa County Fire Department in 2005 and by 2007 the council was in full active planning. The group sought and received multiple grants and alternative funding, and with the new revenue was able to remove all the dangerous vegetation and have created a firebreak 200 feet wide and 3 1/2 miles long to protect homes.

The local effort has diminished the threat of future fires. This has not only provided peace of mind to those worried about their homes and possessions but has also had the positive economic effect of lower insurance rates for some residence, new insurance services being offered, and slow improvement on overall property values. However, the firebreak needs to be maintained. There is no guarantee that the state would use the funds to maintain it, which would put the burden of approximately $25 a year on the town members. While it may seem nominal to some, Hallman doubts residents would be willing to pay that on top of the hefty $125 fee. After all rural communities were hit hardest by the Great Recession and face higher rates of poverty and unemployment.

Many rural residents don't think this fee will translate into more effective fire prevention, and many have concerns as to the transparency of how these funds will be distributed. However, Governor Jerry Brown and other proponents insist "[t]his funding is vital to support wildfire prevention efforts, arson investigations and other important Cal Fire programs." Its no secret that California is undergoing a budget crisis, but taking money from rural communities who already face a myriad of economic difficulties does not seem fair to me.

If you would like to see if you live in a "state responsibility area" and will be affected by this fee, go to

Mining interests weigh heavily in Montana Senate race

Montana's sole U.S. Congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg, is running to unseat first-term Senator from Montana, Jon Tester, a Democrat. Today's New York Times includes a feature discussing how mining interests in Montana are weighing in on the rase. Rehberg is in his sixth term, and the story discusses and illustrates the pro-mining reputation he has gained during that time. It notes that Tester has hardly been a foe of the mining industry--but his advocacy of mining interests pales in comparison to Rehberg's.
Mr. Tester and other Montana politicians often support legislation that would benefit the coal and minerals mining industry, a bit employer here, or oppose federal mandates that mine owners find objectionable. But it is Mr. Rehberg who has been the most ardent advocate, presenting a case study in how a lawmaker can build his national profile--and campaign war chest--by championing an industry with deep pockets and political clout.

He has repeatedly criticized federal mine safety officials over the past year, charging that many inspection complaints are job killers or ridiculing others as trivial.
The story is chock full of quotes from both sides of the pro-mining/pro-environment divide. One of the most colorful is an official with the United Mine Workers Union who calls Rehberg "more a spokesperson for the industry than a lawmaker." Needless to say, Rehberg is drawing in significant donations from mining interests.

The story explains mining's significance in Montana's history, as well as its significance to the state's contemporary economy. To a great extent, the story reflects the perennial tension of rural states and regions: jobs v. the environment. (Related posts are here and here). But another angle is jobs v. safety, and the story details Rehberg's criticism of the Mine Safety and Health Agency.

Illustrating well the significance of mining to parts of the Montana economy is Stillwater County, home to Nye, the story's dateline. Nye is an unincorporated community in a county with an economy based nearly entirely on mining, making it one of the most prosperous counties in the state. I detailed the county's economic fortunes in this article, which illustrates spatial inequality in Montana and its impact on health and human services. Stillwater County has a population of just 9,1117, but a high median household income ($53,637) and a very low poverty rate (9.3%). This degree of affluence is unusual for a such a sparsely populated county, and it is no doubt a testament to the good jobs associated with mining, as well as taxes paid by the extraction industry.

But mining is also accompanied by human costs that offset some of its economic benefits, and the New York Times story details these, including black lung disease. (Rehberg, as chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee dealing with mine safety pushed a provision that would block enforcement of a regulation that would have reduced by half the amount of ambient coal dust permitted in a mine. The dust is the cause of black lung disease). Indeed, the reason for the Nye dateline is the October death there, at the Stillwater mine, of a 42-year-old miner when his loader ran into a steel bar protruding from the mine wall.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The wheels on the bus may no longer go round and round in rural California

Riding a yellow bus to school is a rite of passage for many young American students, and it is a necessity for rural students who live on farms, isolated mountain roads, and distant desert properties. In California, approximately 1 million students use bus transportation to travel to school. With upcoming budget cuts, that mode of transportation to schools may soon be limited or nonexistent in California.

According to the Fresno Bee, Governor Jerry Brown announced last week that funding for home-to-school transportation will be cut in half starting in January 2012, a reduction of $248 million. Governor Brown said the reason for the reduction is insufficient state revenues. Funding for bus services has declined dramatically over the years. Around 20 years ago, the state funded 80% of bus services. Now the state funds 35% and soon it will only fund 17%. According to an Associated Press article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the transportation funding reductions are a part of a package of trigger cuts for a variety of state programs. Schools will also see funding reductions in their revenue limit and child development and preschool programs.

The cuts will negatively affect rural areas more than urban metropolises. While a lack of school buses compromises the safety of urban students, there may still be public transportation available to shuttle children to school. Many rural communities do not have public transportation. If school districts can no longer afford to pay for school buses, parents will have to drive their children to school, or the children will have to remain at home.

Donna Linton, a single parent from Santa Ysabel, California, a small, unincorporated community in San Diego County, is one of many rural parents who may suffer if the funding reductions eliminate school buses. According to a San Diego Union-Tribune article, to take her three children to school, she will have to drive 30 minutes one way to Julian, California, population 1,502. Carpooling is not an option as she and her neighbors do not have large enough cars to carry more than their own children. The cost of gas for these trips will also be difficult to bear. Children whose families do not have cars or flexible work schedules will have to rely on neighbors for transportation to school, or they will have to continue their studies at home. Homeschooling may be impossible if the children's parents work and others are unable to care for them.

The amount of funding per student each school district will lose also shows the disproportionate affect the funding cuts will have on rural schools. For example, officials claim that larger school districts in metropolitan areas, like Burbank Unified School District in Burbank, California (population 103,340), will only lose $10 per student with the cuts, while Sierra Unified School District in rural Auberry, California (population 2,369) will lose $355 per student. The areas that will be hardest hit, regarding funding per student, are the ones that need the money most: isolated regions where unemployment is high.

Another issue, which the San Diego Union-Tribune discussed, is that California public schools receive state funding based on attendance. Ramona Unified School District in Ramona, California (population 20,292) buses 1,500 students to school. If only a quarter of those students are no longer able to attend school because of decreased bus transportation, the monetary consequences could be devastating for the small school district.

Rural school districts will have to find other ways to pay for home-to-school transportation. Some may argue it is better to cut transportation funds rather than classroom funds. However, if rural districts have to use their general fund money for transportation, less funding will be going into the classroom. While schools can make cuts in other areas of transportation, according to an article in the Merced Sun-Star, it is difficult to do before this round of cuts because school districts usually hire transportation employees for year-long periods. To continue their transportation services, schools also will likely have to dip into reserve funds, which are supposed to be backup funds for other programs. Once the extra funds are gone, the buses may disappear.

The funding reductions also disproportionately affect low-income and special needs students. Some students take the bus 40 minutes from Ramona, California into the Mission Valley area of San Diego if they are not able to receive proper services in Ramona. Without bus services, these students will not be able to receive the specialized instruction they need. In addition, while public transportation is more accessible in urban areas, families will need to pay for transportation if schools can longer afford bus services. Some may not be able to afford that cost.

The state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified School District, is trying to use the legal system to prevent the funding reductions. Upon news of the reduced funding, the school board decided to file an immediate restraining order to block the transportation cuts. The California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators are considering joining the lawsuit because of the negative impact the cuts will have on low-income and special needs students. According to an article in the Huffington Post, Governor Brown believes the cuts are legal and that a United States Supreme Court case will give the state greater authority to reduce funding to various programs. It is unclear to which case the Governor was referring. One can hope that Los Angeles Unified is successful and that the government will shift the cuts to another program that does not negatively affect education.

When education funding reductions disproportionately affect rural, low-income, and special needs students, Californians need to rethink how the government should use its resources. This funding reduction seems to be another example of the government forgetting about rural people and places. Over the past four years, the state has reduced education funding by approximately $18 billion. Without a well-educated population, California will be ill equipped to deal with the next economic crisis. To ensure children in California receive an education, we first need to make sure they can get to the classroom.