Saturday, October 25, 2014

Are rural and urban counties moving toward partisan extremes?

A recent study done by the Washington Post labeled counties based on how urban versus rural they are. The study did so in order to track partisanship of voting trends over time. By comparing each county’s votes to the national average in subsequent elections, the authors were able to determine how voting trends in different types of counties – urban versus rural – had changed since 1988.

In short, between 1988 and the 2012 election, heavily urban counties became more Democrat by 32 percent; heavily rural counties became more Republican by 11 percent. This shift happened incrementally with each election year. The study also points out that far more counties are considered heavily rural, but fewer over all rural votes, explaining why the national average in all counties in presidential elections has become more Republican. The article concludes by stating:
If you plot every county's urban-versus-rural divide by the per-election average change in the vote, the pattern is clear: more urban areas vote have been voting more Democratic. 
And vice versa. These findings come to life in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. The author, Silas House, describes the idyllic, rural, coal town of Berea, Kentucky where he grew up. The City Council of the ethnically diverse town founded by abolitionists recently voted against a city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The author compares this to larger, more progressive cities, such as Louisville. Once you step outside larger cities, which have passed their own antidiscrimination ordinances, it is perfectly legal to refuse service, employment, and housing to LGBT individuals. While in many places protections vary from place to place, House views this as indicative of where the struggle for equality lays – a struggle not between political parties, but urban and rural localities. Regarding the city vote to strike down the ordinance in Berea, House states:

“The vote illuminates a new reality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans. The equality divide we face is no longer between red and blue states, but between urban and rural America. Even as we celebrate victories like this month’s Supreme Court order on same-sex marriage, the real front in the battle for equality remains the small towns that dot America’s landscape.”

Both the conclusions of the New York Times and Washington Post seem to reinforce each other if you buy into the conclusion that “rural” and “red” have become so inextricably linked that there is no way to differentiate one from the other. At least that’s what these two pieces suggest. If the trend described in the Washington Post continues – that rural counties are becoming more Republican – the battle for LGBT equality in small towns may become even more arduous.

Food deserts: Not just an urban problem

I’ve always viewed rural America in a nostalgic fashion, a view that many Americans likely share. I perceived rural areas as quaint, safe, small towns where everyone knows each other. I imagined people living on sprawling farms and getting up early every morning to tend to the animals and crops. Rural life was a life free from problems. However, over the course of the last few months, I have learned that many of my preconceptions of rural areas have been wrong. Rural America suffers from many problems, including a lack of doctors and teachers, poverty, decreasing populations, and mental health issues, just to name a few. Recently, I learned about yet another problem that rural America faces: food deserts.

Food deserts are areas with limited access to affordable and healthy food, usually due to the absence of grocery stores within a convenient distance. While food deserts exist in both urban and rural communities, their definitions differ due to the different characteristics of each community. A rural food desert is defined as an area where residents must drive more than 10 miles to the closest grocery store or supermarket. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, approximately 25% of Americans living in food deserts are located in rural areas. To find out if you live in a food desert, check out the USDA food desert map locator here.

Food deserts exist in rural areas for several reasons. One of the largest contributing factors is lack of reliable transportation. Driving more than 10 miles may not seem far to those who own vehicles, but for those without a car, getting to a grocery store can be a daunting task. If you live in a rural area, public transportation is likely lacking. That leaves the option of getting a ride from a friend, which can often be difficult, or finding other modes of transportation, such as a taxi. However, assuming taxis are even an option in certain rural areas, this mode of transportation can be expensive. If a grocery store is 10 miles away, assuming an average initial charge of $2.50 and per mile charge of $2, transportation costs alone would cost approximately $45 round trip. When finding transportation to a grocery store becomes prohibitively difficult and expensive, the only option left may be to shop at the local convenience store where fruits and vegetables are likely to be in short supply.

Low population density is also a contributing factor in rural areas. With low populations, supermarkets or grocery chains are less likely to exist. For example, rural counties in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi average only one supermarket per 153.5 square miles. If a rural area is lucky enough to have a supermarket, because populations in rural areas are declining, these markets may close down or relocate to more populous places. According to the Center for Rural Affairs, one in five grocery stores has gone out of business in the last four years in rural areas. For more statistics on grocery store loss in rural areas, see this post. With supermarkets being nonexistent or closing, the prospect of gaining access to healthy food is grim. 

The expense of fruits and vegetables and the inconvenience of cooking is another contributing factor to food deserts in rural areas. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive than unhealthy ones. For example, while the overall price of fruits and vegetables in the United States increased by nearly 75% between 1989 and 2005, the price of fatty foods dropped by more than 26% during the same period. Additionally, the cooking fresh meals can be time consuming, while picking up a fast food meal, a microwave meal, or even a bag of chips and soda is quick and filling due to high fat content. With unhealthful food being cheaper and more convenient than healthy options, people are less likely to purchase these healthy alternatives. Consequently, convenience stores are less likely to carry fruit and vegetables if customers rarely purchase them.

If people in rural areas still have access to food in convenience stores, why should we care that so many rural communities are now considered food deserts? The answer is because food deserts are correlated with high rates of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. This also has a major impact on America’s wallet; according to a nationwide study in 2012, the cost of diagnosed diabetes is approximately $176 billion each year in medical expenses alone.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned how my previously nostalgic views of rural life have changed over the last few months as I’ve become aware of the many problems that rural communities face, such as poverty, decreasing populations, and now, food deserts. I open and close with this thought because I believe it’s important for us to at least recognize that life in rural areas isn't as simple and carefree as shown in the media, but rural communities face many obstacles that are often intertwined. Hopefully, with increased public awareness, people will push policy makers to create policies that help increase access to fresh foods, improve public transportation (for example, options like the Brunswick Explorer as discussed in this post), and help with the myriad of other issues that rural communities face.

How to protect the rights of the farmer: right-to-farm statues vs. constitutional amendments

At the time of the founding of the United States, ours was a nation of small family farmers. Farming was seen as a noble and self-reliant occupation. Farming was a way of life.

However, the founding of the United States was more than 200 years ago, and things have changed. Now, large scale agribusiness produces the food that feeds the nation. The number of actual farmers has considerably decreased as a result of advanced technology. In the late 1880s and early 1890s the substantial number of farmers had a political counterpart in the tremendous amount of power that those farmers yielded in politics. That is to say, many early agricultural programs contained laws that catered to farmers, like the Homestead Act. As the sheer number of farmers has declined, so has the farmers' share of power within the government system. What are farmers doing to protect their legal rights in the face of declining political power?

Recently, Missouri farmers attempted to assert the priority of their prerogatives by raising the rights of farmers to a constitutional level. Following in North Dakota’s footsteps, Missouri farmers aggressively lobbied voters to change the state constitution to include a right to farm amendment. The amendment was approved on August 5, 2014, and added the following to the Missouri constitution:

Section 35. That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri's economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri's economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.

The language of the amendment seems extremely vague and raises doubts over whether the constitutional provision will adequately protect farmers' rights. In fact, it is absolutely possible that the very amendment that farmers thought would protect their right to farm could actually be used to regulate their activities. For example, it is easy to imagine that an environmentalist group would seek an injunctive order against a farm for releasing excessive amounts of methane from cows. This hypothetical environmentalist group could argue in court that the farming practices directly affect the quality of air and rainfall, impairing the ability of future farmers to grow crops. Under the new Missouri amendment, which “forever guaranteed”…“the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching ”, practices that do not conserve the environment so that future generations can farm are unconstitutional and subject to censorship. In short, the constitutional amendment can be used as a weapon against farmers instead of as a shield.

Missouri’s constitutional amendment may have been influenced by right-to-farm statutes, which most states in the nation have enacted to protect farms from non-rural encroachment. Right-to-farm statutes provide a defense from nuisance claims against agricultural activities predating (usually by a year) the nuisance suit. That means that when non-rural folk – either private landowners or large business – move into an area where farming or ranching practices have already been established, the farmers and ranchers are protected from lawsuits complaining about the smell of the animals/degradation of the land/treatment of the cows/ect. The important thing to notice is that the right-to-farm statutes is a defense that farmers and ranchers invoke once a nuisance suit is filed. This is markedly different from a constitutional amendment, which can be used as the basis of an affirmative complaint to challenge farming practices. In effect, right-to-farm statutes provide farmers the shield that they are looking for. The statutes create much less of a risk that they will be used as a sword against farmers, unlike Missouri’s constitutional amendment.

In conclusions, Missouri and any other states looking to enshrine a right to farm in the constitution may be making a big mistake. Right-to-farm statutes already provided for the protection of farmers. Only time will tell if the constitutional amendment will provide the additional protection that farmers sought or if the whole effort completely backfires by giving groups a constitutional basis to challenge farming practices.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Rural Chinese children and foreign adoptions

I recently watched a documentary film named “China’s Lost Girls”. The documentary was filmed in 2005, a special year in the adoption history of China. In this peak year, the number of Chinese children adopted by American families reached over 7900, meaning one out of every three children adopted in the U.S. was from China.

The film showed many American couples who came to China to adopt Chinese children. Many parents saw China for adoptions. Its population-control policy, which limited many families to one child, drove couples to abandon subsequent children or to give up daughters in hopes of bearing sons to inherit their property and take care of them in old age. China had what adoptive parents in America wanted: a supply of healthy children in need of families.

 News reported in 2011 said that at least 16 children were seized by family planning officials between 1999 and late 2006 in Longhui County, an impoverished rural area in the southern Chinese province of Hunan.The family planning officials sent these children to orphanages where the children adopted by foreign families. This became a scandal in the adoption world,especially for those families who have adopted children from China.For some, it raised a nightmarish question: What if my child had been taken forcibly from her parents? Many reports exposed the dark side of overseas adoption and as result, children in rural China have not only been the target of illegal foreign adoptions, but also kidnapping and sexual assaults or harassment.

The number of adoptions from China declined to 2306 in 2013. The rising standard of living, sex-selective abortion, and the rollback of one child policy in most rural places, meant that fewer families were abandoning healthy babies. But the main reason for the decline was Chinese government 's implementation and enforcement of restrictions on foreign adoptions in 2006. Family that wanted to adopt a child from China had to meet many qualifications, such as (1) having a net worth of at least $80,000; (2) having a minimum household income of $30,000, or $10,000 per person living in the home; (3) waiting 12-24 months before a suitable child is found. Usually, the adoption process of a Chinese child costs on average around $31,000.

The restrictions above might prevent foreign adoptions from being seen as the trafficking of rural children. But the most dangerous situation for those children in rural areas is the lack protection and guidance from their parents, especially the so called “left-behind kids.” In the case of Hunan I mentioned in paragraph 3, most of those 16 children who were seized by family planning officials in Hunan were "left-behind kids". They lived in villages with their grandparents or older relatives while their parents were working in cities. Because of the registered household system and the high daily expenses, children could not go to the schools in cities. They lived in the villages with their grand parents who were not educated. When their grandparents were out farming,children often stay at home alone.Around 30 million children under 18 have no parent at home and two million fend for themselves with no adult guardian. These families only reunite a few days each year, usually during the Spring Festival.

China has been recruiting more social workers to provide counseling for the children left behind  in rural areas, according to 2013 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) government spending on social services rose an average of 24% from 2008 to 2012. In addition, earlier this year the government loosed the household restriction on education and established schools for the children of migrant workers. More and more migrant workers choose to bring their children together to cities where they work. The love and guidance from parents are some of the most important things for rural children and their development.

Changes in Iowa's population and economy in the midst of a Senate race

The New York Times published an article yesterday entitled "With Farms Fading and Urban Might Rising, Power Shifts in Iowa." The article discusses how rural life in Iowa is changing as the state's youth and young adults are moving in hordes to bigger cities such as Des Moines. Indeed, between 2000 and 2013, Iowa's urban population grew by 13.3 percent, while the population in non-urban areas fell by 3.6 percent. This population gap between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas in Iowa is larger than other states in the Midwest.

Moreover, as the title of the New York Times article suggests, Iowa's economy is changing. For example, Des Moines is now home to around 20 startup technology companies that have set up shop across a few blocks of Sixth Avenue in the city's downtown area. This particular stretch of Sixth Avenue is now known as "Silicon Sixth," and recently hosted one of four Startup Weekends in Iowa, where businesspeople and technology experts are invited to participate in a conference on business building. Even as Des Moines becomes increasingly "happening," as one young Iowan stated, Iowa's rural areas are struggling to adjust to population losses. For example, Pocahontas is a small town in north-eastern Iowa with a population of 1,757, down from 1,956 in 2000 and 2,144 in 1990. Consistent with this steady decrease in overall population, Pocahontas's public school enrollment has decreased by 32 percent in the last ten years, forcing schools and sports teams to consolidate.

However, despite the population shift from rural to urban areas and the changing nature of Iowa's economy, the current political climate suggests that Iowans still hold rural values dear. One of Iowa's United States Senators, Tom Harkin, announced in January that he would not be running for re-election, leading to a Senate race that has come down to Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley. Ernst has largely appealed to Iowa's conservative base with ads that align with conservative values and a rural way of life. For example, one of her ads states:
I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.
Joni Ernst. Mother. Soldier. Conservative.
Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.
You can read more about Ernst's attention-getting ad and opinions on it here. Meanwhile, Braley, who has been advocating a more urban-focused agenda, appears to have won the disfavor of much of Iowa's rural population by criticizing Iowa's current Republican Senator, Chuck Grassley, as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." Indeed, a poll in September demonstrated that Ernst established a 4-to-1 advantage over Braley among the rural voting population. However, an October poll shows that, among Iowa's overall voting population, Ernst leads Braley by only one percentage point.

Of course, this Senate race is taking place against the backdrop of Iowa's shifting population and changing economic climate. With the significant migration of rural Iowans to metropolitan areas of the state, and the increasingly modern and technological character of cities like Des Moines, it will be interesting to see how the Senate race plays out. The state's current political climate appears to highlight Iowa's rural-urban divide. Will the swing-state elect a more conservative candidate that appeals to rural values, or is Braley's urban-friendly agenda more likely to win out in light of the changes in Iowa's population and economy?

Monday, October 20, 2014

What is Davis, California?

I’ve often been confronted with this question. I mean, I often ask myself this question. What is the city of Davis? Can we correctly classify Davis as rural or urban? More precisely, is Davis suburban or is it simply a rural town?

Obviously, for this post, I take up the task of answering this question. Before I answer it, I have to make clear that my thoughts on the matter will probably be colored by the modes of thinking intrinsic to my urban upbringing. Of course, I hope to keep this ostensible bias from creeping into this post.

To start, I will say that I consider Davis to be rural, at least relative to my place of origin, Los Angeles. However, I believe that Davis is less rural than, say, a town of 5,000 in Idaho. In this regard, Davis is rural lite, to use a humorous phrase.

Towards the beginning of this semester, we explored potential definitions of rurality proffered by various scholars. Yet, we were unable to agree upon the criteria that aptly define rurality. As I see it, rurality can be properly defined by taking into account cultural (including political), economic, and demographic factors.

With that in mind, I believe that a conservative cultural normativity, an extractive economy, and a homogenous population are the most significant characteristics rendering a place rural.

By saying that rural areas possess a conservative cultural normativity, I mean that these areas are typified by a certain social inertia, i.e. increasingly archaic forms of social relations. The phrase “extractive economy” means an economy characterized entirely by the extricating of raw materials from the earth (e.g. coal mining, farming, fishing, forestry, etc.). On the other hand, urban areas possess economies based entirely upon the conversion of these raw materials into manufactured commodities. By stating that rural areas are demographically homogenous, I mean that they are largely white.

Davis seems to fit these criteria. However, there is certainly more to say in that regard. Davis is unique in that it contains a major university, namely UC Davis. With that come certain cultural and economic traits foreign to rurality.

UC Davis maintains a constant influx of thousands of students from all over the country and, for that matter, all over the world. It is important to note, however, that the school largely supplies skilled labor and research for the agricultural industry, which seems to indicate the school is integrated within northern California’s rural (extractive) economy as opposed to simply being a foreign entity superimposed on the city.

I believe that UC Davis’s presence has also produced a degree of anomalous—anomalous within rural America, that is—cultural and political liberalism. Indeed, Davis seems to be famous for its cultural and political eccentricities.

These eccentricities make me wonder if Davis is really just a gentrified island within Central Valley rurality. Davis, a largely middle class community, certainly has its share of luxury, and it seems to share many traits with a typical southern California suburb. Indeed, Davis could be classified as a suburb of Sacramento. However, it is arguable that even Sacramento is a semi-urban island surrounded by agricultural terrain.

In the final analysis, I would categorize Davis as a semi-gentrified rural suburb. Many of its inhabitants enjoy the comfort of middle-class conveniences. However, this avant-garde mode of living is sandwiched amidst a landmass of seemingly endless farmland. As a result, from an urban outsiders perspective, Davis is lite on the amenities of gentrification and lite on the rurality. It really is an odd mixture of both, which makes for an endlessly entertaining spectacle. At times, the juxtaposition of immensely disparate personalities borders on the absurd.

The prison industry and rural development

It seems that the theme for many of the documentaries about rural life involve efforts by the residents to boost the economy in rural areas. In particular, the documentary “Prison Town, USA” tells the story of the rural town of Susanville that attempts to revive its economy and increase job opportunities by building a prison. Normally, a prison is the last thing someone would want in their neighborhood, but as the story of Susanville demonstrates this has changed in many rural towns which are now welcoming prisons with open arms in an effort to address persistent poverty. In the 1980s, as a skyrocketing prison population created a demand for prison expansion and, as a result, prison hosting emerged as a way to stimulate economic growth. Prisons seemed to offer a practical way to address the persistent poverty and out-migration of rural towns.

Calvin Beale, a demographer from the United States Department of Agriculture, has comprehensively documented the rise in rural prison siting. Since 1980, approximately 350 rural counties have sited prisons. From 1992 to 1994 alone 83 prisons were opened in nonmetropolitan counties, constituting sixty percent of new prison construction. And with an average of 35 jobs being created for every 100 inmates being housed, and state prison populations increasing by an annual average of 8.1% from 1985 to 1995, local officials began to consider prisons as an economic development tool.

Prison officials often go to great lengths to convince rural communities of the economic benefits of prisons. In fact, it is common for local officials to sponsor town meetings where prison officials and their supporters are invited to extol the benefits of prisons to communities. Because of these claims, the competition for prison projects has become fierce and political. In order to be considered competitive rural counties give up a lot to gain what they hope will be more: offering financial assistance and concessions such as donated land, upgraded sewer and water systems, housing subsidies, and, in the case of private prisons, property and other tax abatements.

However, a recent report has found that prisons generally appear to have a negligible, or perhaps negative, impact on economic development in rural communities. As this report indicates, many rural stakeholders overlook the fact that in addition to affecting employment and income patterns, the location of a prison in a rural community is likely to affect population distribution, economic infrastructure and quality of life in that community.

“Prison Town, USA” highlighted yet another problem with prison development, namely that often it is difficult to guarantee that the prison will actually yield the promised benefits. The residents of Susanville saw began a campaign to prevent prisons to cancel their contracts with Morning Glory Dairy specifically, and presumably other local businesses. Morning Glory in particular relied on this account for more than a quarter of its business. Unfortunately, the people of Susanville seem to have little power against the vast economic and political power of the corrections industry.

Additionally, as this documentary depicts, the correctional facilities introduce new divisions in an otherwise tight-knit community. These divisions are primarily between those who work for the prisons and those who don't, and between locals and prisoners' family members. The film highlights the struggles of husband and wife, Lonnie and Jen, who are especially affected by this divide. Lonnie spent sixteen months in prison for stealing food worth no more than $40 to feed his family, something that not only seems excessive but expensive for taxpayers. Lonnie and Jen’s story calls into question not only the actual benefits of prison industries to a small community, but the underpinnings of the prison boom itself and the human costs of the nation's criminal justice policies.

The coming out experience of a young male in rural Iowa.

After reading excerpts from Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place and reading the personal narratives of gay individuals in rural America in Bud Jerke’s Queer Ruralism. I was interested in gaining further perspective of the experiences of rural individuals who identify as LGBT.

To gain a personal perspective on the LGBT experience in rural communities, I contacted a friend in rural Iowa.

My friend’s name is Ryan Hayes. He is in his early 20s and was born and raised in Lehigh, IA, a city with a population of 416 in the nonmetropolitan Webster County. Ryan is, currently, attending Buena Vista College, in Storm Lake, IA, where he is double majoring in Psychology and Human Services. He hopes to work for the state’s child protective services department or in a career related to child welfare.

I first met Ryan, while I was working on President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. Ryan was one of the volunteers I had recruited to work on the campaign in Webster County. I have come across few individuals as genuine, well-spoken, and motivated as this young man.

I called Ryan, on Sunday, October, 19, 2014, to gain insight into his experience being open about his sexual identity in rural Iowa.

Q:        When did you know and fully accept that you were gay?

A:        "I have always known I was gay, ever since I was in elementary school. I always gravitated towards being gay, but didn’t fully accept it until high school. In middle school, I told myself I could always try to like girls. So, I’d have girlfriends to show people that I wasn’t gay…"

Q:        Did you seek relationships with girls because you wanted to get a better understanding of whether you were gay, or did you seek relationships with girls because of pressure from others?

A:        "I tried to like girls because of people around me. I always wanted to show people that I wasn’t gay. I conformed to make other people happy."

Q:        Did you feel you could be open about being gay with:

Your family?

A:        "Not right away. I was in my freshman year, when I fully accepted myself being gay. But I didn’t fully come out until 2012. That’s when I first told my family. They were the last people to know. I always knew that they would be accepting of it. They are very accepting now. I just wanted to find the right time."

                        Your Friends?

A:        "Yeah, my friends were the first people I told. All of them were very accepting. They understood. Some of them weren’t surprised. Those that were surprised didn’t make it a big deal. During my sophomore year of high school, I told best friend. She’s bi-sexual, and she was very supportive and helped me unravel it to everyone else… I’ve always had straight friends and almost everyone I’ve told has been straight, and they have been very cool with it."

Your community?

A:        "Yeah, the community has been very good about accepting it. I’ve never been ostracized. If anyone has felt any indifference, I don’t know if they have because they’ve never show it."

Q:        Did you ever experience any discrimination because of your sexual orientation/identity?

A:        "I, honestly, never have. I’ve been in the community forever and know a lot of people. I haven’t really gone through anything. It’s pretty much been a smooth ride."

Q:        What if you had come out in some neighboring counties like Pocahontas County or Calhoun County, do you think you could have been as open?

A:       "No, I don’t think so. Webster County is pretty progressive, pretty liberal. If you get up there in northwest, where it is more conservative, I think I would have a hard time. I would feel more out of place."

Q:        Have you ever felt like an outsider?

A:        "Sometimes, when Ben (Ryan’s partner) and I go out. We went out on Valentine’s day for supper. You feel like all eyes are on you and people are judging you and trying to figure out what we’re doing out on Valentine’s Day. In the back of my head, I always feel out of place and wonder what people are thinking. Also, if we go to the movies on a Friday night, without our friends, I get this feeling of anxiety. I mean I shouldn’t care what people think, but I feel that way. 

Q:        Do you think rural communities are doing enough to be tolerant/supportive of individuals who identify as LGBT?

A:        "Honestly, I feel like it’s kind of ignored. I don’t think people really want to talk about it or face the issue. It’s swept under the rug. I don’t know if that’s because there aren’t that many LGBT people in rural communities, but it’s not a big issue, though it should be. I think it has gotten better, recently, because of the national gay movement, which has set the stage for rural communities to accept the issue."

Q:        What do you think rural communities could do to better address the interests of the LGBT community?

A:        "I think bringing some type of education and awareness to kids in rural communities. One time, we had a speaker come in to our school and talk on LGTB issues. I think it starts with education and awareness."

Ryan closed his interview with this beautifully eloquent statement: "I hope that, 20 years from now, this is an issue we can talk about more openly. It’s an issue that people can be open about and accept, not “tolerate.” I hate the word “tolerate.” I tolerate paying taxes. I don’t think human being should be tolerated. Human beings should be accepted and embraced for who they are."

Ryan’s story provides insight into the experience of individuals in rural America, who identify as LGBT. He has never experienced any direct discrimination in rural communities. He has not migrated to an urban sanctuary, and I don’t think he intends on ever leaving rural Iowa. He has been accepted by his friends, family, and community for what he is--an intelligent, sensible, and compassionate young man, who happens to be gay. I hope that rural communities swiftly move toward building an embracing and accepting environment for those who identify as LGBT.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why are conservatives so angry over immigration?

The United States faced a humanitarian crisis this past summer. There was a sudden increase in the number of immigrants from Central America attempting to cross into the United States. Many of these individuals were women and children. Few, if any, possessed immigration documentation to allow them to enter the United States.
Because of this unexpected surge in immigrants attempting to cross the border without proper documentation, federal authorities decided to take them to processing centers. Some of the centers in Texas did not have enough room, so the government decided to take the immigrants to a U.S. Customs facility in Murrieta, Calif (population: 103,466, located in southwestern Riverside County). 
The buses that carried about 140 immigrants failed to reach their destination because protestors physically blocked roads, forcing buses to go elsewhere.
Protest is patriotic. It’s our constitutional right to speak up and out. We should speak up when we believe the government is doing something wrong.
But when you have folks screaming “Go back home!” and chanting “U-S-A!” at the top of their lungs while fiercely waving American flags, it just looks racist. It’s awful. It’s terrifying. You can hear so much anger and arrogance in their voices.  Illegal immigration is surely an issue, but resolving it requires a civilized dialogue between all stakeholders. I’m not an illegal immigrant, and I already feel unwelcome when I see and hear these protestors. 
These residents were upset because they perceived that federal authorities were “dumping” these children and women in their community. That’s an understandable concern, but it seriously mischaracterizes what’s actually happening. No one is being “dumped” in anyone’s neighborhoods. The border patrol station that was supposed to house these immigrants is located on 25774 Madison Avenue, Murrietta, Calif. Look this up on Google Maps, and take a look at the satellite view. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s surrounded by undeveloped land and some industrial structures. Most of the residents live away from this facility, which is blocked off by Interstate 15. These immigrants are not going to be wandering through anyone's neighborhoods--they are secure behind the bars of a federal law enforcement facility. 
So what do we do about illegal immigration? The United States has 11 million immigrants who lack proper immigration documentation. A couple of months before this incident, the Orange County Register, a newspaper serving a pretty conservative county, published an opinion piece that took a realistic and constructive approach to this issue. The author made logical arguments that made sense. Nevertheless, the comments erupted with remarks that resembled those of the protestors in Murietta.
One commenter said,
LOVE to read the Register's idiot readers blow up about this subject again and again. Wake up and smell the tacos, loser
Another commenter said,
Why are US Citizens who are worse off than the Illegals being so generous with support for Illegals and Immigration Reform? BECAUSE THEY AIN'T PAYING FOR IT!!! THEIR KIDS AND GRANDKIDS WILL PAY INTEREST ON THAT BORROWED MONEY ALL THEIR LIVES!!
Finally, another commenter said,
YEAH, let's get real - ENFORCE OUR LAWS - CLOSE OUR BORDERS - SEND EVERY ILLEGAL HOME - they broke our laws and have no right to be in our sovereign country – . . .
The answer is for government to start SLAMMING THE HORRIBLE COUNTRIES THAT TREAT THEIR PEOPLE SO TERRIBLY THEY HAVE TO LEAVE - yes, THOSE leftist socialist rotten countries just like the one DemoRATS want to make here
So there you have it. Angry conservatives against immigrants without proper documentation.

Rural population decline will exacerbate rural economic problems.

In 2012, I spent six months working in rural Iowa. During my time there, I had the chance to speak with numerous native Iowans about everything from college football to immigration reform. To my surprise, a recurring topic of conversation was regarding the increase of out-migration of rural youth to urban areas and the population of the town I was living in had decreased in recent years.

Iowa is like many other rural states, which have seen a slow or decline in population growth. Iowa’s population is projected to only 1% between 2000 and 2030. By 2030, 22% of Iowa’s population will be over the age of 64 years. The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has found that, across the United States, rural counties have been experiencing an overall decline in population. In-migration to rural areas and natural growth has not been able to keep pace with out-migration and natural death. Approximately 60% of rural counties shrank in population in 2013, up from 50% in 2009.

Loss in population naturally leads to a loss in tax revenue. A loss in population and tax base has prompted Greenwood County, Kansas to raise taxes primarily on agricultural businesses in the county. Population declines will likely force local governments to explore new ways to recover loss tax revenue. However, it remains unclear as to whether new taxing schemes will recover the loss of resulting from the drops in population (I am unsure of the specific fiscal impact the trending rural population declines has had on municipal coffers).

Also, in states, like Iowa, where the average age of the population is increasing due to out-migration and low natural birth rates, there will not be substantial increases in income tax revenue. However, the amount spent on senior programs like Medicaid will consume a larger portion of the state’s budget, leaving less revenue for other programs.

Another problem that rural communities may face with population declines is trouble in attracting businesses to rural areas. Cole Conrad, a businessman and one of Greenwood County’s Commissioners, has stressed,
You can’t draw businesses in because we don’t have people.
Capturing Greenwood County’s overall decline is the decline in the student population in the area's school district. The county's school district once enrolled 1,050 students in 1970. That same district, in 2014, now, enrolls less than 400 students. Businesses need a stable and reliable workforce. It is unlikely that businesses will look to America’s countryside to set up shop, if rural populations decline and work-aged rural people continue to head to urban areas.

Overall, it appears that the decline in rural populations will not favor the livelihoods of rural Americans. If the decline in rural populations continue, it is not only likely that rural tax bases will diminish and that rural economies will struggle to attract businesses, but it is, also, likely that the plights and issues of rural Americans will be subject to even greater neglect and ignorance from mainstream America.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Should Americans turn to rural America for moral guidance?

I’m a fan of country music. It's music I grew up listening to, and it's music I, still, listen to.

After a long day of class, I, usually, unwind by listening to country music on Pandora Internet Radio, during my journey home from campus. Recently, as I trekked home, a Toby Keith song entitled “Beer for My Horses” found its way into my headphones.

Note that—though I am a country music fan—I am not a Toby Keith fan. Still, despite my dislike of Toby Keith, I decided to patiently listen to this particular song of his.

The song was catchy and very much entertaining. However, the message it promulgated did not sit well with me.

The message was one I was one of familiarity. It was a message I had heard in other country music songs and a message I had encountered, generally, in popular culture. 

Keith's song relays the message that the moral fabric of society is decaying and that the hope for restoration of that moral fabric rests in the hands of rural Americans, who never waiver in the maintenance of virtue and who are the beacon of morality and justice for all America.

There is no doubt that the ideal of the yeoman farmer propagated by President Thomas Jefferson is one fundamental to the core of American idealism. This is an ideal found in everything from popular American movies to American political campaign commercials. Rural America is constantly portrayed—as it is in Keith’s song—as being the backbone of all that is good and all that is America.

Though I do believe that this romanticized ideal of rural America does and will always represent a part of America’s core, I am not persuaded that America should turn entirely to its wheat fields and farm towns for moral guidance. I say this because I do not believe that rural America is completely void of all imperfects. To prove this point, I will provide some revealing information of the states with the highest porn subscription rates in the country.

A Harvard University professor by the name of Benjamin Edelman published a study in 2009 examining who buys online adult entertainment. His study exposed that eight of the ten states with the highest percentage of porn subscriptions were rural states (states with a majority of nonmetropolitan counties).

Here is the list of states with the highest number of porn subscriptions per 1,000 broadband users:

1. Utah: 5.47

2. Alaska: 5.03

3. Mississippi: 4.30

4. Hawaii: 3.61

5. Oklahoma: 3.21

6. Arkansas: 3.12

7. North Dakota: 3.05

8. Louisiana: 3.01

9. Florida: 3.01

10. West Virginia: 2.94

(*Rural states are bolded.)

Obviously, this study is not enough to prove that there is nothing of virtue or value worth adopting from rural America. However, it is enough evidence to deflate a bit of the romanticism in which Americans perceive rural America, and enough to caution Americans from accepting unchallenged rural customs and ideals.

Rural communities as well as urban ones play a contributing role in the fabrication of America’s morality and core identity. But the possibility exists that some of America’s most romanticized ideals of rural America are spoiled and even anachronistic.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poverty, education and the future of the ‘Two-Track System’ in rural China

China is a global superpower. The nation is poised to pass United States as the world’s leading economic power as early as this year. However, China's rural population has not kept pace with this growth. Disparity in income and education between rural and urban Chinese increases exponentially as the country generally thrives fiscally.

The Chinese government defines its rural poor as those people who earn a net income of ¥2,300 per year. Converted to the United States dollar, 2,300 Chinese yuan equates to about $375 per year: slightly above $1 a day.  China has made many efforts to reduce poverty in rural China since the late 1970s, including adoption of broad rural economic reform. On the whole these reform has been fruitless.

“Poverty is still a salient problem in China,” stated deputy director of the State Council Poverty Alleviation Office, Zheng Wenkai. “About 200 million Chinese, or 15% of the country’s population, would be considered poor by international poverty measures, set at $1.25 a day.” Zheng Wenkai acknowledged that these rural poor “not only live on low incomes, but also face [the] difficulties of getting education, electricity, medical care, bank loans, and so on.”
He also noted that these people are subject to inadequate infrastructure and are more vulnerable to impacts from natural disasters. Zheng Wenkai did confirm that China plans to use ‘various methods’ of poverty relief this year. China has led a 'war' on rural poverty, and has celebrated that there has been a decrease in rural poverty over the last 40 years. But, do those numbers reflecting an actual reduction in poverty? Or are they simply the product of a misconstrued causation vs. correlation analysis? My opinion is that it could be a little both, as China has certainly not been immune to the global rural-to-urban migration phenomenon that is occurring globally.

Rural-to-urban migration in China has likely been instrumental in reducing the country’s poverty rates. According to the Wall Street Journal, “[a]bout 53.7% of China’s population lived in urban areas by the end of last year, up from 40.5% a decade earlier,”
[as reported by China’s National Bureau of Statistics.] As half of the population lives in rural areas, and a large portion of that community is economically stressed, China must investigate real solutions (that is, solutions other than  migration to urban areas) for its impoverished rural population. One solution that China touts is education reform.

China has a unique education system known as the "Two-Track System". The system developed from shortages in educational resources. The Two-Track System was designed so that rural areas could be supported by local communities and county government, while urban schools were supported by the central government. This led to a separation in that yielded unequal education opportunities and relatively poor quality of education for rural students. To date, urban communities have modernized their education system and content with materials matching the evolving technology, growing economy, and globalization, but the rural schooling system is stagnant.

China has previously attempted educational reform attempts. In December 27, 2005, the government announced that China would spend 218 billion yuan (27.25 billion U.S. dollars) through 2010 to improve rural education. However, it seems that these efforts were somewhat frustrated. During the economic crisis, many migrant and rural children’s schools were actually closed. This displaced many rural students, forcing them to attend a geographically centralized schools. This means that rural students either have to travel great distances to attend school, or wait for another school to be made available to them.

China has vowed to reduce the number of rural people in poverty by 10 million this year, as it celebrates ‘China Poverty Alleviation Day’ this October.
For this to occur, I believe better funding of rural Chinese schools is of critical importance.

China was on the right track with the 2005 yuan pledge to rural schools. For reform to be successful long-term, China must make sure that it delivers primary education to rural China. For primary education in China and rural China to be successful overall, the nation needs to recognize that funding for education must expand beyond that of the local government. In addition to financial aid to the institutions, China could increase teacher salary in these areas, provide scholarships to student’s families, as well as provide for a form of rural affirmative action at the secondary and college level.