Monday, January 30, 2012

Mendocino Sheriff's Dept. funding up in smoke

Read a story from the San Francisco Chronicle here. An excerpt follows:
[Officials in Mendocino County, California] have calculated the sheriff's department will be losing more than a half-million dollars in revenue after the Board of Supervisors voted last week to end the program of issuing permits to cannabis collectives.

The permits allowed the collectives to grow up to 99 plants at a time, but also required deputies to conduct monthly inspections.
In spite of this significant loss of revenue, the county sheriff has indicated that he does anticipate laying off any deputies. The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California had warned Mendocino County officials that its practice was at odds with federal law.

Mendocino County, a nonmetropolitan county in northern California, covers 3,506 square miles. With a population of just over 87,000, its population density is 25.1 persons/square mile. The low population density and and heavily forested terrain often presents challenges for law enforcement. Read more here.

One-room school, one student, in western Montana

Jim Robbins reports in today's New York Times from Greenough, Montana, a town with no post office or general store, only a one-room school and a bank of mailboxes. That one-room school--one of 62 in Montana--is distinct in that it has only one student. (Montana has closed 20 other single-room schools in the past decade). Greenough was previously known as Sunset, and the school is the only one in the Sunset district, which has an annual budget of $83,000.

While sparsely populated, the area is not impoverished. It is in a ranching district about 35 miles from Missoula, but the amenity-driven prosperity of the area is one reason for the student body's shrinking size. As Robbins writes, "the cost of the scenic landscape here has risen so high that young, aspiring ranchers, the kind who would be likely to have school-age children, cannot afford to buy the land." As recently as 2001, the school had 20 students, but escalating land prices have driven most families away. The single current Sunset student, a sixth grader, commutes to school by snow-mobile, fives miles each way to the high-altitutude ghost town of Garnet, where she lives with her family, off the grid.

The Sunset school's remote and scenic situation create a paradox, of sorts. Here the population loss is driven by rural gentrification--not a lack of amenities as in other rural areas. Indeed, the Sunset school boasts among its school board members a wealthy ecotourism operator--one of the owners of the Resort at Paws Up, a posh guest ranch that owns the land where the one-room school building--built in 1917--sits. Still, tax payers fund the school, but not all of those tax dollars are local, which makes keeping the school open controversial.

Greenough is not a Census Designated Place and doesn't even have a wikipedia entry! Greenough was previously known as Sunset, and so the district is still called Sunset. Sunset was the center for "industrial-scale logging for the copper mines of Butte, but that is long gone."

Read a description of Montana's school funding scheme here.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part VII): Isolated school petitions state Board of Education

I've written a lot lately about the struggles of "isolated schools" in northwest Arkansas's Newton, Madison, and Johnson counties. The most recent posts are here, here and here.

Now some patrons of the the school at Oark, which earlier expressed its desire to leave the Jasper School District and join the Deer-Mt. Judea District, have taken their case to the Arkansas Board of Education. Jamie Willis, whose son is a second grader at Oark School, was spokesman for the group and addressed the board on January 9 in Little Rock. Jasper Superintendent Kerry Saylors responded on behalf of the Jasper School District.

Willis presented each member of the Arkansas Board of Education a book containing photos of the Oark campus and information about it. Willis cited school finances as a major concern because as of the 2011-2012 school year, seven Oark campus positions have been cut, including one elementary teacher, one coach, the construction technology teacher, the principal, the janitor, a cafeteria worker and a paraprofessional. Willis also asserted that the Oark facilities have not been kept in safe condition, and he cited concerns about a heater that doesn't work, mold growing in some rooms, cracked or broken windows, sidewalks in disrepair, and a poorly maintained water supply.

Willis said his group had tried to present the information to the Jasper Board of Education but had been denied an opportunity. (Read more about that here). He told of how members of his group had made phone calls to the Jasper Board, including its Oark representative. Finally, they hired a lawyer to represent them at the meeting before the state Board. Willis claims to have 200 signatures on a petition supporting Oak's desire to join the Deer-Mt. Judea District.

Finally, Willis argued that Oark should join Deer-Mt. Judea because "they share borders, forestlands, socioeconomic student demographics, and remote status."

Jasper Superintendent Kerry Saylors responded by calling some of what Willis said "half truths." He noted that a staff member of the Arkansas Board of Education has recently visited the Oark campus, and he asked that staff member to report to the Board what she saw. (If the staff member did so, it was not reported in the Newton County Times.) Saylors acknowledged that he has cut staff at the Oark campus because when he came into the district, Oark had two full-time principals, two full-time secretaries, and two full-time coaches--all for just 150 students. "We have made some changes in those areas" where he thought the campus was overstaffed, Saylors stated. By way of justification, he said that the $75,000 in salary that the Jasper District pays to principals is too much for a principal over only 75 students--which was the situation when Oark had two principals. Saylors also noted that a number of construction projects are underway on the Oark campus, and he insisted that none of the changes the Jasper District has made have harmed students in any way. If the Arkansas Board of Education is going to make some decision regarding this matter, the newspaper does not indicate what it is.

In other education news, the Arkansas Supreme Court is scheduled to hear in late February the case filed in late 2010 by the Deer-Mt. Judea School District by which is seeks to avoid forced consolidation. A Pulaski County Circuit Judge has already ruled against the Deer-Mt. Judea District. Read more about the District's legal efforts here and here. The District is arguing that the state is knowingly underfunding transportation and that the Deer-Mt. Judea matter is not controlled by a 2007 decision called Lake View School District, even though Deer-Mt. Judea was a party to that lawsuit.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

CEDAW and Rural Development: Empowering Women with Law from the Top Down, Activism from the Bottom Up

My third article on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is forthcoming shortly in the Baltimore Law Review. The focus of this piece, co-authored with a former student (Marta Vanegas, Class of 2011), is Article 14(2)(e) of CEDAW, which requires Member States to support the establishment of rural women's self-help groups and cooperatives. Our article discusses how Article 14(2) has facilitated women's grassroots activism, which effects rural development in a range of ways. A full abstract for the article follows:
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most widely ratified human rights treaties in history, yet many view it as a failure in terms of what it has achieved for women. In spite of the lack of a meaningful enforcement mechanism and various other shortcomings, however, CEDAW has inspired feminist activism around the world and helped raise women’s legal consciousness. While CEDAW itself is widely viewed as a product of feminist activism in the international arena, this essay explores the Convention’s role as a source of — and tool for — grassroots feminist activism. Our focus is on such activism in rural areas of both developed and developing countries, places where law is often functionally absent.

CEDAW recognizes rural women as a particularly disadvantaged group in need of additional rights. Article 14 addresses rural women exclusively and specifically, stipulating that they — like their urban counterparts — should enjoy a panoply of rights: education, health care, and an array of civil and political rights. Moreover, Article 14 enumerates for rural women rights related to participation in agriculture and development more generally. It also includes the right for rural women to organize self-help groups and cooperatives for purposes of obtaining “equal access to economic opportunities through employment or self-employment,” a right not mentioned elsewhere in relation to all women. Finally, Article 14 enumerates for rural women a wider range of socioeconomic rights than CEDAW elsewhere recognizes for all women. These include rights to various types of infrastructure, including water, sanitation, electricity, transport, and housing.

This essay first considers how Article 14 is consistent with contemporary feminism’s greater focus on socioeconomic rights as a reflection of women’s material concerns and lack of economic power. It considers these rights against a rural backdrop, where socioeconomic deprivations tend to be greater and where Member States face spatial and other distinct challenges to economic development, as well as to the provision of basic services such as healthcare and education. We examine Member States’ responses to their Article 14 commitments to empowering rural women, with particular attention to how Member States have encouraged and facilitated self-organization by women, as required by Article 14(2)(e). Member States’ periodic reports to the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women indicate that governments seek to achieve rural women’s empowerment through the women’s grassroots activism, including via local self-help groups (SHGs) and cooperatives as envisioned by 14(2)(e). Indeed, some evidence suggests that Member States benefit directly from rural women’s self-organizing when women’s SHGs and cooperatives go beyond facilitating women’s economic empowerment to become vehicles for delivering health, education, and other services in rural areas. These women’s organizations thus do a range of work under the ambit of rural empowerment.

The essay next considers local women’s organizations in four Member States, two developed nations and two developing ones. We analyze how these organizations draw on and benefit from CEDAW’s Article 14(2)(e) mandate (however weak a mandate it is, practically speaking) to encourage women’s collective mobilization. Thus, the essay sketches a portrait of the potential and actual symbiosis between top-down lawmaking and bottom-up activism to empower women. In short, we focus not on CEDAW’s role as an enforceable human rights treaty, but rather on its function as an expressive document that has fostered and facilitated applied feminism.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCVI): Jail costs suddenly skyrocket

The big above-the-fold headline in the January 11, 2012, issue of the Newton County Times is "Jail cost increased $250,000." The lede states:
The cost of constructing the new Newton County Jail went up $250,000 and uses the maximum amount of money the county has available for the new facility. The quorum court released the funds Tuesday, Jan 3, at is regular monthly meeting.
This represents an increase of more than 30% over the bid price of $840,000, and the story provides little in the way of explanation for the dramatic jump. What it does say is that the project manager for Davis Construction, which won the bid, "told the quorum court ... that the bid price was based on drawings provided to the construction firm at the time of the bidding last September. The project has been expanded and items have been added including a sprinkler system, additional toilets, shower stalls and other facilities to meet state requirements."

Conveniently (though perhaps not coincidentally), the increase raises the total construction price to $1,090,000, which is exactly the amount the county has available through a bond issue funded by a half-cent sales tax dedicated to the facility's construction. How the bid was let with specifications that failed to comply with state requirements is not addressed in the story, but this would seem to be a major oversight by the quorum court (the Arkansas term for the county board of supervisors) and any professionals advising them.

Sheriff Keith Slape indicated that he is counting on state grants to pay for items such as a video system.

In other news, the Dec. 21, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times reported that the County's Quorum Court had adopted an ordinance setting the general operating budget and the separate county road budget for 2012.  The general operating budget for all county offices is $1,451,745, about $10,000 higher than the prior year.  The county road budget "appropriates $1,101,643.20 for maintenance and construction of county roads."  It includes a $500,000 appropriation "into the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Flood Account dedicated to maintenance and construction of country roads."  At this meeting,  members of the Quorum Court "authorized [county elected] officials to give employees in their respective offices a $100 Christmas bonus." 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back to the land: A Greece-U.S. comparison

A front-page feature in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago reported on a trend in Greece--a trend for people to get back to the land, back to agricultural livelihoods. Journalist Rachel Donadio links that trend to Greece's economic crisis and the fiscal austerity with which the government has responded. Of course, it's also become trendy in the United States (though not necessarily a widespread phenomenon) for young(ish) people to get back to the land, to take up farming of certain types, e.,g., organic, boutique. So I thought I would compare and contrast what is happening in Greece with what is happening in the United States. "Apples to apples" data are not available for the two countries, but a partial look at the who, what and why of "new" farmers is possible.

Greece: Donadio writes of an "exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation's rich rural past a guide to the future." With Greek unemployment at 18% and as high as 35% for those between the ages of 15 and 29, the agricultural sector is bucking this trend, having added 32,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010. Significantly, "most of them [have gone to] Greeks, not migrant workers from abroad." While the story features two 30-something couples who have moved to the island of Chios ("closer to Izmir, Turkey than to Athens) to take up smallish agricultural enterprises, Donadio reports that the greatest increase in new farmers has been among those aged 45 to 65.

Donadio doesn't make a big deal of the distinction between agricultural entrepreneurs and farm laborers, though she mentions both in the story. (A Legal Ruralism post about this distinction is here.) Regarding the entrepreneurs, Donadio writes:
In Greece, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, most families have traditionally invested heavily in real estate and land, which are seen as farm more stable than financial investments, and it is common for even low-income Greeks to have inherited family property.
Donadio quotes the president of a farm school in Salonika, where applications have recently tripled: "young people frequently come to him and say, 'I have two acres from my grandfather in such-and-such place. Can I do something with it?'"

Agricultural roots seem to have influenced the decisions of the two couples Donadio features, both of which moved to Chios, where they had family connections. One couple, trained as agriculturalists but working in other sectors in Athens until a few years ago, are growing edible snails for export. They used $50,000 in family savings to get started. The other couple are cultivating mastic from 400 trees in southern Chios. Neither couple has yet to turn a profit, and the mastic farmers have turned to ecotourism to supplement their income. The edible snail farmers will have their first harvest this year. Both couples expressed confidence in their undertakings, and one is quoted:
In big cities, there's no future for ... young people, the only choice is for them to go to the countryside or to go abroad.
The same can hardly be said of the United States, where the fiscal crisis that began unfolding in 2008 has not been as acute as in Greece. I doubt that many young Americans take up farming because they feel they have no choice. Rather, those set to inherit farms still take over from their parents because of attachment to the lifestyle and place. In addition, the newfound popularity of certain types of agricultural undertakings seems attributable to rising attention to where our food comes from--to locavore, vegan, and organic trends. My students and I have discussed these trends here, here here, and here. A story in the Sacramento Bee in April, 2010 suggests that--as in Greece--those starting up small farms in the United States are typically urbanites and suburbanites drawn back to the land. (A related post is here). As in Greece, younger people in the United States are increasingly the ones drawn to these sorts of farming. (I'm reminded of the distinctions between how the working class raise their children and how the professional/managerial class do so. Working class families raise their offspring to work hard, be dependable, keep their noses clean, be reliable laborers--in short to be self-disciplined. The professional/managerial class, on the other hand, raise their children to self-actualize, to follow their dreams, do what is fulfilling--and the professional/managerial class can typically bankroll their childrens' dreams to some extent. Read more here. Something tells me that most young people getting into farming these days--especially trendy, boutique farming--are from relatively affluent families who are, in short, self-actualizing. They can afford the luxury and have been encouraged to take such risks).

While Donadio reports that many Greeks have access to family land, the same cannot be said of the United States. A recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that access to land was a major obstacle to those desiring to farm in the United States, second only to the barrier presented by lack of access to capital.

Based on Donadio's story, it seems that those who have recently started farming in Greece include not only the youngish in their 20s and 30s looking for an out from the economic disaster, but also the middle aged. In the United States, farmers tend also to be an aging group. As of 2007, about 30% of U.S. farmers were 65 or older, and the age of principal farm operators was 57 years. According to a recent publication of the National Young Farmers' Coalition, one in four farmers will retire in the next 20 years. So, even as fresh blood is flowing into farming, the business/vocation remains dominated by the middle aged. What is not clear is the extent to which the middle aged--whether new to farming or not--engage in intensive production agriculture or in smaller-scale boutique and organic farms. Either way, it seems that the demographics of farmer/entrepreneurs in the two nations are similar. Another similarity between Greece and the United States is that agritourism (especially in relation to boutique agriculture) is helping keep farms out of the red. See earlier posts here and here.

One distinction between Greece and the United States, however, may lie in who is doing the agricultural labor--versus the agricultural entrepreneurship. Donadio reports that most farm jobs in Greece are going to Greeks. In the United States, however, little doubt exists that immigrants do the vast majority of agricultural grunt work. Read more here, here and here.

Donadio makes no mention of what, if anything, the Greek government is doing to foster the back-to-the land movement. Of course, the USDA has several programs that seek to assist would-be farmers with obstacles to getting started, though the recent Young Farmers publication suggests that the programs are insufficient.

A final similarity is worth pointing out: what I label the "back to the land" movement is not subsistence farming in either the U.S. or Greece. These farmers are relying on markets for their products--and those markets appear to be very often associated with foodie trends and relatively affluent consumers. What better example of this than edible snails for export?

See another post about Greece that links agriculture to rural self-sufficiency here. Listen to yesterday's NPR story about Arizona farmers reclaiming land sold previously sold to land developers; that story notes that both established and new farmers are taking advantage of the land available--though the new and younger farmers are typically able only to lease, not to buy. A recent story about how the South African government is encouraging a new generation of farmers is here.

Cross posted on Agricultural Law.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Social Security and presidential politics

In many ways, 2012 will be defined by November's presidential election. Primaries, caucuses, conventions, and debates will fill the airwaves. Signs and bumper stickers and t-shirts will fill our neighborhoods. And with presidential politics in the air, we will begin to hear more about domestic issues big and small--the economy, immigration, national security, etc. In rural America, one of those issues will likely be Social Security.

Almost 77 years after Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, over 50 million Americans--1 out of every 7--receive benefits each month, and more than 90 percent of all workers are in jobs covered by Social Security. It has becomes, according to the Social Security Administration's history, "an essential facet of modern life." This is especially true in rural America.

Using data from the Social Security Administration, Daily Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop and Dr. Roberto Gallardo (a research associate with the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University) highlighted the important role that Social Security plays in rural America in their October 2011 article, "Rural Counties More Dependent on Social Security":
In rural counties, 9.3 percent of total personal income came from Social Security payments in 2009, according to an analysis of government data. That is almost twice the rate found in urban counties, where 5 percent of total income came from monthly Social Security payments.

In counties with small cities (under 50,000 population), Social Security is also a larger part of the local economy. In these so-called 'micropolitan' counties, Social Security accounted for 8.2 percent of total personal income.

Nationally, Social Security makes up 5.5 percent of total personal income.
Using the same data, the National Academy of Social Insurance created a visual representation of the facts: a map illustrating the percentage of total income coming from Social Security by county in 2009. And in a November 2011 article, Bishop and Gallardo looked at the state-by-state impact of potential cuts. For example,
In West Virginia, 24 percent of the total population receives a monthly check from Social Security. In Washington, D.C.--where decisions are made about this program--only 12 percent of the population are Social Security recipients.
On its web site, the League of Rural Voters offers further "sobering" statistics:
  • Over 90 percent of counties in America with high senior populations are rural.
  • 13 percent of rural seniors live in poverty, compared with 9 percent of metropolitan seniors.
  • 15 percent of rural women over aged 60 are poor compared to 11 percent of men.
  • 80 percent of rural seniors over aged 85 with incomes of less than $10,000 are women.
Social Security is not just important to rural individuals, but also to the rural counties where inhabitants could lose hundreds of millions of dollars in income if Social Security were to undergo significant cuts or changes.

Congressional budget crises aside, Social Security seems to be an issue that is only debated with any real intensity during an election year. Even now, in the thick of the Republican primary season, there does not seem to be significant discussion on the subject. The four candidates still vying for the Republican Party nomination (New Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum) make no substantial mention of Social Security in the informational materials on their web sites. And although his views on Social Secuirty are available on the White House web site, President Obama's campaign web site doesn't mention Social Security.

By contrast, Social Security is one of only ten "issues" listed on the League of Rural Voters web site. Still, the subject does come up, and the candidates' opinions are across the board.

According to CBS News, Ron Paul thinks Social Security is "technically unconstitutional, a mess and a failure" and as president, he would begin a transition out of the program into privatized options. The Washington Post reports that Newt Gingrich would keep the current system but also offer a private market option that would be backed up by the U.S. government. Mitt Romney has advocated for overhauling the program by raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for wealthy individuals, but has stopped short of advocating for privatization. Rick Santorum's plan is perhaps the most drastic, calling for "immediate" cuts to Social Security, according to Huffington Post. President Obama is opposed to privatization and advocates instead for "protecting & strengthening" Social Security.

In this economy, many voters may be more concerned with finding a job now than with having security in the future. Nevertheless, as The Washington Times points out, seniors (both rural and urban) are a key voting block and are looking for "commitment" to the program from the candidates. And as the race narrows and heats up this fall, both candidates will speak more and more about the big issues facing the country, including the health of Social Security. And they can bet that rural Americans--who stand to gain or lose so much from potential changes--will be listening.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Call for Papers: Rural Sociological Society's 75th Annual Meeting

I plan to attend the Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) for the fifth time this year--and to participate in the organization's celebration of its 75th anniversary. The meeting will be July 26-29 in Chicago, right back at the Palmer House Hotel where the inaugural meeting was held in 1937. Ag law folks may know that 2012 just happens also to be the 150th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Participating in RSS meetings has proved an important source of ideas, inspiration and contacts in relation to my scholarship about the intersection of law with rural livelihoods. In fact, I often declare RSS my "favorite meeting of the year" because everyone there cares about rural people and places. Taking rural livelihoods seriously is the shared foundation. As readers of the Ag Law Blog will appreciate, such is hardly the case at most law prof conferences. Rather, attending law prof meetings (even warm and fuzzy ones like Law and Society's Annual Meeting) often reinforces the sense that I am writing my way into the very obscurity associated with rural people and places. "Rural people, you say ... how interesting, even exotic, but that has nothing to do with me and my scholarship." By extension, the message seems to be that rural people and places have nothing to do with anything that matters. And so the legal academy steams forward, oblivious to its metro-centrism.

With that endorsement of RSS, I am hoping to attract some ag law scholars to this year's meeting. I'm getting lonely being the only lawyer at RSS, but that's not the only reason you should attend. Like me, I suspect ag law folks have a lot to learn from rural sociologists. In particular, ag law profs may find of special interest sessions organized by the Sociology of Food and Agriculture Research Interest Group. I have presented my work at RSS every year I have attended, and I have found that it fits nicely on the panels of mostly rural sociologists. Plus, the meeting has become more cross-disciplinary in recent years, with scholars from geography, anthropology, and various branches of the humanities also participating.

My final endorsement is based on my attendance of last year's "pre-conference" of the RSS annual meeting in Boise. I participated in one of many field trips on offer, traveling with other scholars to Idaho's Magic Valley to visit a dairy farm. (Photos top and left of field trip, Jerome, Idaho. Yes, those are rural sociologists in a milking parlor). Did you know that Idaho is now the third largest milk-producing state in the nation? Field trip participants considered a number of aspects of the growth of the dairy industry in the Magic Valley: environmental, labor, immigration. Ag law scholars would have felt right at home.

Here's the call for the 75th meeting, with a February 15, 2012 deadline for abstracts and proposals:
Increasing inequality of wealth and income in the United States is a symptom of a deeper problem of increasingly concentrated power wielded by distant actors with no sense of commitment to place. Corporate consolidation and the federal government's commitment to the fetish of free trade have created an economic system disembedded from social life as lived by most citizens. The twin processes of consolidation and separation threaten the social contract upon which our society is based. This contemporary legitimacy crisis has spawned a curious ideological consensus between Tea Party advocates and Progressives who share a common fear of the big and distant.

Inequalities exist within and between communities and regions, and of course between nations. Everywhere we simultaneously see conspicuous displays of wealth and landscapes of despair. Over the past half century and more, rural sociologists have chronicled the steady decline experienced by many parts of rural America due to decisions made far away in corporate boardrooms and legislative bodies. Parallel changes have affected urban industrial centers through government acquiescence to or even encouragement of corporate disinvestment.

Reform of this economic system is made difficult by the mutual dependence that big corporations and big government have upon each other.

Resistance to distant forces is increasingly visible as each neighborhood fights a big box development, as each community invests in a local food system, and each time a group of citizens bands together to fight threats to environmental and public health which governments are happy to permit as the price of economic growth. Higher energy prices and technological developments are likely to create new opportunities to build local economies around local needs and resources.

The movement towards localism is inspired by the idea that the economy is something we participate in, not something that is done to us.

In this conference, we encourage participants to explore the potential that localism has to create vibrant economies that offer not only a market alternative but a values-alternative to our contemporary economic system.
Go here to submit your abstract.
If you plan to attend RSS in Chicago, please email me offline. I am hoping to organize a round table of legal scholars at this year's meeting (assuming we can get a critical mass to the meeting) to have a discussion about what a "law and rural society" thread of scholarship might look like. After all, Law and Society is a flourishing sub-discipline. By carving out a scholarly space for legal scholars interested in food, agriculture and the rural, we are likely to reveal Law and Society's metronormativity--just like the establishment of the Rural Sociological Society's founding in 1937 highlighted the implicit metro bias of the American Sociological Association.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law Blog.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The geography of the 1%

The New York Times ran a lengthy feature yesterday that profiled the 1% (wealth-wise). The headline was "Among the Wealthiest One Percent, Many Variations," and the point was that the top earners in this country followed a variety of paths to get to that lofty 1% and that they live in a variety of places. Still, some trends among this group are discernible. First, they work long hours, and while married 1 percenters are as likely as other married folks to have a spouse who works, men in these couples tend to be the big breadwinners.

Not surprisingly, the one percent are also more likely to live in cities than in rural places, though I suspect quite a few of them have second (and even third) homes in amenity-rich rural locales.

The authors of the story, Shaila Dewan and Robert Gebeloff, also note that being in the "local 1%" takes a lot less income in some places than in others. This, of course, also reflects uneven development and the fact that wealthy people (and some of the best jobs) tend to be clustered in certain places. Here's an excerpt:
Aspen's 1 percent is very different from Akron's. In some areas there are so many 1 per centers that the whole income hierarchy can shift. It can take $380,000 to be in the national 1 percent, but it takes $900,000 to be among the top 1 percent of earners in Stamford, Conn. Compared with that, the price of admission to the 1 percent in Clarksville, Tenn., is a bargain at $200,000.
The story reports the income level required to be in the top 1% is lowest in Jamestown, New York, at just $176,000. Here's where that 1% threshold falls in other cities:

Dover, DE: $266,000
Boulder, CO: $463,000
Boise, ID: 306,000
Tacoma, WA: $287,000
Eugene, OR: $301,000
Des Moines, IA: $350,000
Pueblo, CO: $258,000
Las Cruces, NM: $242,000
El Paso, TX: $257,000
Shreveport, LA: $326,000
Biloxi, MS: $313,000
Daytona Beach, FL: $312,000
Louisville, KY: $320,000
Kenosha, WI: 356,000
Chicago, IL: $480,000
Peoria, IL: $388,000
Fort Smith, AR: $301,000
Duluth, MN: $362,000

The story features this interactive map, which readers can use to see in what percentage their income lands them in different parts of the country.

I note where an income of $100,000 places an earner in each of these places:

Nonmetropolitan West Virginia: top 11%
Nonmetropolitan Montana: top 14%
Billings, Montana: top 17%
Nonmetropolitan Utah: top 16%
Salt Lake City, Utah: top 22%
Nonmetropolitan Arkansas: top 9%
Metropolitan Arkansas: top 17%
Nonmetropolitan Idaho: top 12%
Albuquerque, New Mexico: top 18%
Nonmetropolitan, New Mexico: top 12%
Sacramento, California: top 25%
Nonmetropolitan California: top 17%
Nassau County, New York: top 44%
San Francisco/Oakland, California: top 40%
Portland, Maine: top 23%
Nonmetropolitan Maine: top 14%
Flint, Michigan: top 7%
Kansas City, Missouri/Kansas: top 23%
Nonmetropolitan Kansas: top 12%

In general, then, cities dilute the power of one's wealth vis a vis others because people in cities tend to earn more than their nonmetropolitan counterparts.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCV): Ground broken on new county jail

I've written a lot over the past four years about Newton County's jail travails. Some of the earlier posts are here (May, 2009), here (November, 2008), here (January, 2009) and here (March, 2009). My first post about the jail dilemma is here (June, 2008), and some decent photos of the old jail are here. That old building, a historic structure, is currently serving as the county's Christian Food Room.

Well, after about four years of fiscal wrangling and hand wringing, the county has finally broken ground on a new jail, the jail its residents agreed to pay for with a tax increase in November 2008. To be more precise, though, the jail is not truly new. In fact, the county will be working to convert an existing structure--a metal building that the story refers to as a "well-appointed residence"--into a jail. That existing structure, which ironically sits right next to the old jail, is shown in the photo above, which was taken in mid-November, 2011. The then owner of the building is pictured moving some things out, perhaps in preparation for turning it over to the County.

The December 7, 2011 issue of the Newton County Times shows a number of officials at the ground breaking ceremony, among them County office holders (including Justices of the Peace), several sheriffs deputies, the Newton County District Judge, officials with the construction company that won the bid to do the renovation, and a staffer from the office of U.S. Senator John Boozman. Each is holding a gold-painted shovel, though the significance of the gold paint escapes me.

The structure that will house the jail measures 57 feet by 80 feet, and it sits at 105 Elm Street. According to the specifications of the bid, it will feature five felon men cells with two beds each, two felon women cells with two beds each, a male dormitory with six beds, a woman's dormitory with six beds, a holding cell, a cell that meets the American Disability Act, and a control room. In addition, the jail will include a dormitory for eight state inmates under the Act 309 program, an ADA-compliant public restroom, an industrial kitchen, two inmate visitation rooms, two exercise areas, a laundry room, an inmate property room, a booking room, a record room, two men's showers and two women's showers.

Davis Construction of nearby Harrison won the bid to renovate the structure. Many of the home's fixtures will be "carefully removed and put up for public auction," with proceeds going toward construction costs. The county sheriff joked, "I don't think the judge wants to send a convicted criminal to a five-star hotel." Davis Construction's winning bid was $840,000, well below the $1.5 million to be raised by the tax increase passed more than three years ago to finance the jail's construction. I do not recall seeing any notice in the newspaper of how much the county paid the building's prior owner for the land and structure.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rural Iowa: waste-toids, meth-addicts, and elderly people waiting to die

How’s that for a sensational headline? I would take the credit for the creativity, but these are not my words. These are the words of Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa in an article that he published in The Atlantic in December.

Bloom, a New Jersey native, reflects on the twenty years he has spent as an Iowa resident in an attempt to educate readers about the state as the Iowa Caucuses approach. Page three of the article focuses on rural Iowa. Bloom brings the idealistic and mythical view that he claims that outsiders have of Iowa- the one where:

The fairytale rendering is pastoral and bucolic; sandy-haired children romping through fecund, shoulder-high corn with Lassie at their side. It's Field of Dreams meets Carousel with The Waltons thrown in for good measure. The ruddy, wooden Bridges of Madison County (where John Wayne was born) may be in the background as the camera pans wide.

Bloom spends the next several paragraphs with a harsh rebut to this myth. He cites a faltering economy, loss of jobs, and a surge of undocumented immigrants being mistreated while working dangerous factory jobs as characteristic of rural Iowa. While many of these points appear to be well-taken, he seems to go pretty extreme when describing the inhabitants of rural Iowa:

Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that "The sun'll come out tomorrow.”

The article, particularly the description of the inhabitants of rural Iowa, has unsurprisingly offended many Iowans. Bloom, who is a visiting professor at the University of Michigan this year, has reportedly received many threats and fears for the safety of his family. The reaction hasn’t been limited to angry citizens and commenters, - many of his peers in Iowa have been blasting Bloom as well.

Bloom certainly has the right to his opinion, but one can’t help but point out the irony in Bloom’s attempt to dispel one stereotypical view of rural life (the idealistic version of “the country”) while promoting another (residents are all lazy, drug-addict, white-trash wastes of space). It is terrible if Bloom’s family is receiving threats, but at the same time, he might have realized that people would be highly offended by those remarks.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Child labor and US farms

That’s right, in the United States, children as young as twelve can legally work in the fields. They can pick your berries and even drive a tractor. But recently, a slew of articles have been published about new child labor regulations in the U.S.; you can find them here, here, here and here. Even The Daily Yonder featured the story in one of their Tuesday Roundups.

The media interest in this issue has been triggered by new rules from the U.S. Department of Labor, rules aimed at improving safety for children in the fields. The new rules include a ban on farm workers under the age of 16 handling most “power-driven equipment” (such as tractors) and from contributing to the “cultivation, harvesting and curing of tobacco.” Further, it would prohibit children under the age of 18 from working “in the storing, marketing and transporting of farm product raw materials.” According to a report called "Occupational injuries among young workers," most youth work fatalities occurred in agriculture and about two thirds of these fatalities were attributed to transportation accidents, particularly accidents, which occurred either by truck or by tractor.

In fact between 1993 and 2002, tractor accident counted for a quarter of all youth worker fatalities. The proponents of the legislation say these changes are in response to these shocking statistics and insist that they are “not talking about the children of growers, but children employed as farm workers.” Secretory of Labor Hilda Solis insisted this would not apply to children who work on farms operated or owned by parents but rather is to protect “Children employed in agriculture [who] are some of the most vulnerable workers in America. Ensuring their welfare is a priority of the department, and this proposal is another element of our comprehensive approach.” Many farmer groups and rural-state politicians disagree. They are up in arms about these proposed changes as they feel it will stop many farming families from employing their underage children.

Rachel Leven’s piece in The Hill takes a refreshing rural-urban perspective on the situation. A group of more than 70 House representatives sent a letter to DOL indicating the rule “challenges the conventional wisdom of what defines a family farm in the United States.” In response to the law, Representative Denny Rehberg states
You’ve got a president of the United States … from Chicago, you’ve got a director for secretary of Labor who’s pushing this from Los Angeles, and you have to think to yourself, do you have any idea what it’s like not just to run an agricultural business in a rural state … but to raise a family in one?
Leven summarizes this quote as mean that Rehberg feels these “proposals are coming from officials who do not understand rural life.” While there are exemptions for family run farms, these exemptions would not apply if parents did not full ownership (which is a common situation today). Further, many feel the necessary precautions are already in place. For example, current regulations allow children to operate heavy equipment if they have taken a safety. A letter written opposing this regulation and signed by more than 30 Nebraska state senators further insisted that "[d]oing away with this exemption will not only reduce the number of youth getting proper training on operating power equipment, but will deny them the experience and responsibility associated with learning to operate the equipment safely and effectively." Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard however insists these farm regulations are not a rural-versus-urban issue. Rather, she feels the “focus needs to be that there are an estimated 400,000 children working on farms that are not owned by family members and those children are not being protected by our current labor laws.”

I am personally conflicted. On the one hand, I support farmers, their sustainability, and their unique understanding of how best to live and thrive. However, I cannot get over the BPL analysis (weighing the burden of taking a precaution against the probability times the gravity of loss if the precaution is not taken) that I learned in my first year law school torts class. The statistics make me believe that the risk is simply too high, and the farming communities need to find alternative ways to teach the next generation of farmers that does not put our nation's youth at fatal risk.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The challenges of serving an acutely remote (and very cold) place

Those challenges are highlighted in a drama playing out now in the Bering Sea, as reported here in today's New York Times. There, a Russian tanker carrying fuel, the Renda, accompanied by a Coast Guard icebreaker, the Healy, are 140 miles south of Nome, Alaska. Nome, in far northwest Alaska, is running out of fuel because its final shipment of the year, typically made in early fall, was waylaid by bad weather. Now, the 4,000 residents of Nome (included in the 9,492 residents of the Nome Census Area)--along with the various oil exploration interests in the area--are anxiously awaiting the arrival of fuel reinforcements.

An excerpt from William Yardley's story follows. It compares the current drama to a 1925 one in which diphtheria swept through Nome. "No roads led [to Nome], flight was ruled out and Norton Sound was frozen solid." The life-saving treatment was ultimately delivered by sled dogs in what became known as the Great Race of Mercy, and that journey is still commemorated by the Iditarod each year. Yardley writes:
The tanker is slogging through sea ice behind a Coast Guard icebreaker, trying to bring not medicine but another commodity increasingly precious in remote parts of Alaska: fuel, 1.3 million gallons of emergency gasoline and diesel to heat snow-cloaked homes and power the growing number of trucks, sport utility vehicles, and snow machines that have long since replaced dogsleds.

For the moment, this latest tale appears less likely to produce a warm children's book than an embarrassing memo, and maybe a few lawsuits, about how it all could have been avoided
The story includes lots of interesting detail about the effort, including the distinction in capabilities between a medium-duty icebreaker like the Healy and its "heavy-duty polar" counterparts, which were not available for the effort. But it might all be summarized with the old adage, two steps forward, one step back. In short, no one is sure the Renda is going to make it to Nome this winter, in part because ice closes in around the Healy before the Renda can follow through the path cut open.

The drama of getting fuel to Nome aside, who's to blame for the failed autumn shipment? Who will be suing whom? And what is the role of the government in solving the problem? According to Yardley, many blame Bonanza Fuel, "one of two local companies that barge in fuel and the one that failed to ensure its fall delivery made it. But the fuel company's owner blamed the barge company for delaying shipments." Flying fuel in would add about $3/gallon to the cost, which is already $6/gallon in Nome.

As for the government's role, some ask whether "tiny Nome [is] worth all the effort"? But the situation has highlighted issues (such as Coast Guard capacity) that are likely to arise as Arctic exploration and Arctic shipping burgeon. Nome Mayor Denise Michels picks up on this theme in discussing the government's role (here, primarily in the form of the Coast Guard assistance) in getting Nome out of this pickle:
Why should we be treated any differently than the Lower 48? ... We keep saying we are an Arctic nation.
Michels notes that the Coast Guard provides escort for commercial shipments through ice and difficult conditions in the Great Lakes and elsewhere.

The story reminds me of the isolated, "fly in, fly out" mining communities I heard so much about when I was in Australia last year. It also reminds me of the Australian designation of "remote" communities, which are distinct from -- perhaps a subset of-- rural ones. Certainly, Nome would qualify as remote. Indeed, it may be sui generis in the U.S. context.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the coastal city of Cordova is snowed in See NPR coverage of both Alaskan events here. Another report on the record snow fall in Cordova, and what's being done about it, is here.