Wednesday, January 29, 2014

More on the transformation of once sleepy western North Dakota

NPR is doing a multi-part series on the North Dakota oil boom, kicking off with this story today.  It touches on a lot of issues other coverage of the phenomenon have hit on:  the housing and labor shortage, traffic congestion and other signs of strained infrastructure, and rising crime.  I like this vignette from Kirk Siegler's story, which goes to how the culture of the place (in this case, Watford City) is changing:
From behind the cash register at Larsen Drug, Alicia Deedee has an example she always offers to explain how things have changed. 
"My little sister and I used to be able to walk all over town. Our parents didn't worry," she says. "[Now] I have a daughter of my own, and my husband and I won't let her outside by herself anymore." 
Deedee says a lot of the changes are bittersweet. While she welcomes the money, she doesn't like all the trucks and the traffic and the crime that have come with the boom. 
"At the same time, I'm thankful we have good jobs — and we have jobs. A lot of people in the country don't," she says.
Other posts about the transformation of North Dakota are hereherehere, and here.  And here and here are stories from a few days ago, about new concerns in places like the Dakotas where oil is increasingly being transported by train, with attendant safety and environmental consequences.

P.S. A second story in the NPR series just appeared:  Oil Boom:  A Modern Day Oil Rush in Motion.  This one features mostly photos--very poignant and telling photos of not just the ND phenomenon, but of contemporary working-class America.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

Rurality as a Dimension of Environmental Justice: Call for Papers

2014 Rural Sociological Society Annual Conference: “Equity, Democracy, and the Commons: Counter-Narratives for Rural Transformation.”

Location: New Orleans, Roosevelt Waldorf Astoria Hotel

Date: July 30th to August 3, 2014

Paper Abstracts due: March 3

Submission: Email abstracts (up to 350-words) to Loka Ashwood ( and Kate Mactavish ( in lieu of an online submission.

Changing community and production dynamics in rural America make it a state-sanctioned site for some of the most hazardous and toxic industries of our time.  From its production treadmill, industrial agriculture has cast onto rural America a plethora of negative externalities:  mounting levels of air and water pollution, farm consolidation, and depopulation.   A range of extraction and other risky industries justify the siting of facilities in rural areas because of easy access to ample natural resources, sparse populations that reduce exposure risk, and the possibility of economic revitalization.  State and federal statutes (e.g., right-to-farm laws, the Federal Code of Regulations for Nuclear Operations) often permit these industries to target rural America based on past practice and low population levels.  

On an international level, cities serve as powerful hubs for the global economy, pulling resources away from less prominent urban and rural areas. The growing periphery within core countries, as well as continued resource extraction of rural places abroad, calls for increased attention to the rural facets of injustice in developed and developing countries.

We invite paper submissions that explore facets of rurality that help explain rural places’ vulnerability to environmental injustices from interdisciplinary perspectives, including (but not limited to) sociology, geography, law, anthropology, public health, and the environmental sciences. We are especially keen to receive papers from scholars working broadly on issues of environmental justice in order to foster conversation between those scholars and scholars whose focus is on rurality more generally.

Select papers from the proceedings and a wider call will be reviewed for potential publication in a special issue being considered by the Journal of Rural Studies.

Confirmed Panelist: Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Rural and urban go separate ways on e-cigs, which county jails are selling to inmates to raise revenue

Timothy Williams reports for the New York Times today from Lafayette, Tennessee, under the headline, "In Rural Jails, E-cigarettes are a Calming Vapor."  They are also, according to the study, a money-maker for county law enforcement budges.

Here's a summary of Williams's story:
[A] a growing number of sheriffs say they are selling e-cigarettes to inmates to help control the mood swings of those in need of a smoke, as well as address budget shortfalls, which in some jails have meant that guards are earning little more than fast-food workers. 
The trend stands in contrast to restrictions on e-cigarettes approved in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other big cities. County jails in at least seven states have permitted the sale of a limited selection of flavors of e-cigarettes to inmates. They have quickly become one of the most sought-after items in jail commissaries. And although federal prisons ban e-cigarettes, the inmate market has so much potential that Chinese and American manufacturers now produce “jail-safe” versions made of plastic instead of metal.
Sheriff Mark Gammons of Macon County, Tennessee (where Lafayette is the county seat) reports that an e-cigarette costs the jail $2.75 but can be sold to an inmate for $10.  Each is good for about 500 puffs, or about three and half packs of combustible cigarettes.  Gammons hopes the e-cig sales will add between $20K and $50K to his budget this year.  Sheriff Gammon says he will use the revenue to give jail guards a pay raise.  They currently earn $10.58 an hour, but barely take home minimum wage after taxes, he says.  

Macon County is nonmetropolitan, with a population of just over 22,000.  Lafayette's population is 3,885.

Williams also quotes the sheriff of Millard Gustafson of Gage County, Nebraska, population 21,806.   
They’ve been selling like hot cakes.  I look at this as something to control their moods. And so if they’re not a good boy or girl, I’m going to take them away, just like I do with the TVs.
I note that in Macon County, where the poverty rate is 23.5%, the sheriff articulates more concern about the  money-making potential of the e-cigs, whereas in Gage County, Nebraska, where the poverty rate is just 12%, the sheriff is more concerned about inmates' behavior.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rural hospitals struggle in the age of partial Medicaid expansion

"Rural Regions Lobby for State Medicaid Expansion" is the headline for Susan Capelouto's report on NPR today.  Here are some excerpts:
Hospitals in rural America are adjusting to many new requirements under the Affordable Care Act. For those in states that are not extending their Medicaid roles, that task is even more challenging. Rural lobbies are pushing states for the expansion, saying without it, their hospitals could close.
* * * 
CAPELOUTO: In America, no one gets refused services at an emergency room. And to help rural hospitals cope with taking care of the uninsured, they get what's called Disproportional Share, or DISH payments, from the federal government.
The Affordable Care Act was supposed to reduce that payment under the idea that everyone would have insurance or be on Medicaid. But Georgia is one of 20 or so states that decided to opt out of Medicaid expansion once the Supreme court gave them permission to do so. It's a major worry for the Rural Health Association, which lobbies for the 20 percent of Americans who live in rural areas.
Maggie Elehwany is a lobbyist for the Rural Health Association:
MAGGIE ELEHWANY: The poorest areas in this country in the Deep South, in Appalachia, in certain pockets in the west, boy, a lot of those - really a tremendous amount of those - are the states that are opting not to expand Medicaid. 
CAPELOUTO: Georgia decided against Medicaid expansion, even though the federal government pays 100 percent of the cost for three years and 90 percent thereafter. Governor Nathan Deal argues that it's foolish to believe the feds will keep paying that 90 percent and worries that states will be left to carry the burden in the long run.
For now, DISH payments have recently been extended for two more years.  As Capelouto notes, however, if the failure to expand Medicaid ultimately leads to the closure of rural hospitals, a lot of conservative politicians from rural areas may not look so attractive to their anti-Obamacare constituents.  
P.S.  On a somewhat related note, it was fun to see President Obama's shout out for Kentucky in his State of the Union address on January 28  Here's an excerpt from WKYT's coverage of the speech. 
"And if you want to know the real impact this law is having, just talk to Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky, who's here tonight. Kentucky's not the most liberal part of the country, but he's like a man possessed when it comes to covering his Commonwealth's families," said Obama about [Kentucky Governor Steve ]Beshear and the commonwealth.
As I've noted before on this blog, Kentucky has been a widely acclaimed leader in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, especially in relation to rural populations.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Poverty (or not) in the eye of the beholder

Pam Fessler reports today from Appalachia--from Martin County, Kentucky, population 12,743, to be precise.  Fessler notes that we're seeing a lot of Appalachian poverty in the news this month as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.  The headline for her NPR story is "In Appalachia, Poverty is in the Eye of the Beholder," and the gist of the piece is that many residents living in quintessential rural, (and mostly white) poverty don't see themselves as poor--and they get their backs up at media portrayals of them.  She starts by quoting Lee Mueller who, as a young reporter, covered President Johnson's visit to Martin County.
We became kind of the poster child for the war on poverty, and any time somebody wanted to do a story about poor people, we were the first stop.
Mueller points out what lots of poor people who live among other poor people have discovered once they were out and about among the non-poor:  
We knew the region was poor [before LBJ's visit and the media who followed drew attention to it], but there wasn't a stigma to it — to us.  
* * * 
And we were surprised when we went someplace and found out that other people thought we were. 
Fessler continues: 
That's meant some unwelcome attention over the years. News reports of kids struggling to survive among jobless, drug-addicted adults. Trailer homes, surrounded by trash.
To illustrate the defensiveness that residents feel, Fessler quotes Michelle Harless, a high school guidance counselor:
I just ask when you portray us, please don't portray us as ignorant hill folk, I guess.  Because we are educated. We're poor, but we're educated, and everyone's pretty proud. It's not a desolate place where no hope can be found.
Fessler goes on to observe that poverty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  She describes some other folks whose lives sound pretty grim, but notes that they many say they are rich in "things like family and faith," even if the official poverty rate here is very high-- in fact a whopping 35.7%.  

Fessler quotes Owen Wright of the Christian Appalachian Project, a non profit serving the area.  Wright opines that the perceptions of outsiders "hurt the self esteem" of folks like those in Martin County and throughout Appalachia.  
We're probably one of the last few groups that it's still politically correct to make fun of.  It's still OK to tell, you know, hillbilly, redneck jokes.  Once that's been drilled into them for so long, it's easy for them to start believing that themselves. 
Sounds like the sort of stereotype threat as it applies to poor white folks, which I wrote about here.  

Other recent reporting on the anniversary of the War on Poverty is here (especially as related to Appalachia), here, and here.  New York Times coverage has been plentiful, such as here and here and here.  

This story, also out of Appalachia, tells of the benefits poor residents there are already experiencing from the Affordable Care Act.  Recall that Kentucky is one of the states that embraced the ACA with open arms, including the expansion of Medicaid.  Read more about that here.    

Thursday, January 16, 2014

On the importance of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture (and by implication and association, rural America)

I just posted a post about Tom Vilsack's comments re: promise zones in rural America based on an interview with NPR.  Much as it may be politically motivated rhetoric, I do find compelling Vilsack's comments about why his job matters (my words, not his) and what exactly it is that the USDA does.   
VILSACK: I've got the greatest job in America. An opportunity to help the 15 percent of America that lives in rural communities that provides most of the food that we consume, a good deal of the water that we rely on, most of the energy. Military families disproportionately come from rural areas and so the ability to try to respond to the persistently poor areas in rural America, the ability to work with farmers who provide us so much freedom, the ability to work with people that really cared deeply about their community and their families and their country, it's just a great job. 
And we have so many opportunities within USDA to make a difference because of the broad portfolio. It's not just about farmers. It's about rural development, it's about land-grant universities, it's about food safety, it's about the forests. It's a wonderful, tremendous department and we've done amazing work in the last four years. And I just want to make sure that the work that we do gets institutionalized and cemented as we culturally transform this agency into a 21st century government agency.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Impoverished rural areas in KY, OK designated "promise zones" to get federal attention, resources

NPR reported today on the Obama administration's designation of five "promise zones," two of which are rural.  Here's an excerpt from NPR's report, in which Michel Martin interviewed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.  The headline is "U.S. Agriculture Secretary 'Convinced' Rural Revitalization Plan Will Work."
MARTIN: I want to mention that the first five promise zones include parts of Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And I know that you're particularly excited that a couple of these zones were in rural areas. So wanted to ask if you could just tell us how the idea came about, if you remember? 
VILSACK: Well, we had a conversation at the White House - when I say we, a number of Cabinet members - Kathleen Sebelius, Arne Duncan, Shaun Donovan from HUD, Education, HHS and myself and Tom Perez from Labor - had a conversation about the need for us to sort of layer our resources and to essentially leverage our resources. The thought was that if we all work together in a coordinated fashion, we would get actually more out of our investments. 
This effort was patterned after something that Shaun Donovan and others started with strong cities and what we were doing in rural areas with a thing called StrikeForce, really focusing our resources at USDA on trying to help people get into that middle class, deal with persistent poverty, which is prevalent in many, many rural areas. A lot of folks don't realize how much real poverty there is, which is why I was pleased that the president announced the islands in southeast Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation and tribe in Oklahoma.
Each promise zone will get five AmeriCorps workers, and grants applicants by agencies and entities within those zones will receive extra points in the competitive grant process.  Vilsack provides this illustration of how the program will work:
So the Highlands in southeast Kentucky has a revolving loan fund, which is designed to help small business start. USDA could come in with additional resources to increase that loan fund or can come in with a loan guarantee that can supplement that loan fund or make it easier for that company to get credit. Now the company gets credit, but they can't find skilled workers. 
We contact the Department of Labor and say, look, are there apprenticeship programs, are there worker training programs that would help returning veterans in this area, for example, be able to be employed by this small business to get this business up and going. It's a coordinated effort to try to address the needs of businesses, the needs of communities in a much more comprehensive way than just simply USDA taking a grant in one community and the Department of Transportation having a grant in some completely different community where they don't leverage each other, and they don't, basically, amplify each other.
For those concerned about rural poverty, this interview is worth a read in its entirety.  It acknowledges the problem of persistent poverty--principally a rural phenomenon. Among 703 persistent poverty counties, 571 are non metro.  This promise zone program is the first I have read about that takes seriously the phenomenon of poverty as a localized, place-based phenomenon.  To express it another way, the promise zone concept takes seriously the role of place in creating and perpetuating poverty.    

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Many West Virginians still without water

And the map here suggests that most of them are in nonmetropolitan areas.  In any event, the map makes it appear as if the 35K who have had water restored are in central Charleston.

Here is today's less detailed report on water service restoration, from the New York Times.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Contaminated water crisis continues in WV--both rural and urban

Read the New York Times coverage here, and NPR's latest story here.  The chemical spill into the Elk River occurred just 2.5 miles from where it joins the Kanawha River in Charleston. The coverage I have seen focuses on Charleston, the state's largest city, even though many of the areas impacted are nonmetropolitan.  Among the nine counties declared a disaster area, six are nonmetropolitan:  Clay (population 9,386, poverty rate 26.3%), Jackson (population 29,211; poverty rate 17.8%), Lincoln (population 21,720; poverty rate 26.9%), Logan (population 36,743), Putnam (population 55,486; poverty rate 10.1%) and Roane (population 14,926; poverty rate 25%).  As the data indicate, 5 of these 7 are high poverty counties.  Lincoln and Clay are persistent poverty counties.  Putnam is a high creative class county.  Clay, Lincoln, Logan and Roane are low-education counties.  Lincoln and Logan are high out-miration counties.  All in all, not a pretty economic picture, especially in these non metro areas outside Charleston and Huntington.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

LBJ's own impoverished childhood in rural Texas

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Johnson biographer Robert Caro talks on NPR of LBJ's personal motivation to wage and win that war:
His father failed. He once had been a very respected state legislator and businessman, and he totally failed. And as a result, for the rest of his boyhood, Lyndon lived in a home that they were literally afraid every month that the bank might take away. There was often no food in the house, and neighbors had to bring covered dishes with food. In this little town, to be that poor, there were constant moments of humiliation for him, and insecurity. It was a terrible boyhood.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Vermont governor highlights problem of heroin addition

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin (D) made the growing problem of heroin and opiate addiction the centerpiece of his State of the State address last night.  Katharine Q. Seelye reports for the New York Times under the headline, "In Annual Speech, Vermont Governor Shifts Focus to Drug Abuse."  Seelye quotes Shumlin:
The time has come for us to stop quietly averting our eyes from the growing heroin addiction in our front yards, while we fear and fight treatment facilities in our backyards.
She then seeks to explain why the problem has grown so big in Vermont, and in that regard references the state's rurality (see page 8 of pdf at link, indicating 72.3% of the population is rural if you follow the U.S. Census Bureau's definition of rurality as population clusters below 2,500 or open territory).
Dr. [Harry L.] Chen, [Vermont's health commissioner], said the highest rates of substance abuse were found in New England and the Northeast. No one really knows why, he said, except that the region is a wide-open market for dealers with easy access from New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Law enforcement can be spotty in the rural areas up here, and users are willing to pay top prices. 
A $6 bag of heroin in New York City fetches $10 in southern New England and up to $30 or $40 in northern New England, law enforcement officials said. The dealer gets a tremendous profit margin, while the addict pays half of what he might have to pay for prescription painkillers, which have become harder to obtain.
An earlier post about the heroin problem in New England is here.  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Lack of anonymity a factor in the Wyoming Senate race

It's nearly "old news" now that Liz Cheney this morning dropped her challenge to U.S. Senator Michael Enzi.  Read the New York Times coverage here, in which Jonathan Martin writes of some of the reasons that Cheney had a hard time gaining ground in the campaign again Enzi, now in his third term and also a Republican.  Among other things, Martin refers to a rural characteristic--lack of anonymity--as noted by former Senator Alan Simpson, a long-time friend of both the Cheneys and Enzi:
The former senator said Ms. Cheney was unable to gain ground against Mr. Enzi because he had helped so many people in the sparsely populated state in his nearly 18 years in office and because he was not vulnerable to an ideological challenge.