Monday, February 27, 2017

CBP: A controversial presence at the rural border

Donald Trump broke any of a number of molds in his improbable path toward the presidency, including his capture of three union endorsements: the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the National Border Patrol Council (NBPC), and the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council (NICEC). The FOP stayed out of the 2012 contest, and the NBPC and NICEC endorsements were historic firsts. As Trump has launched an aggressive and chaotic immigration policy that involves build-ups of both the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), new attention is being paid to the culture within CBP.

A recent piece in The New Yorker describes ties between influential members of the NBPC and anti-immigrant groups. On its webpage, the NBPC neither confirms nor denies most of these linkages, and it challenges the description of groups calling for reduced immigration as "anti-immigrant." The NBPC also emphasizes the danger CBP officers face, the "humanitarian mission" they fulfill when encountering stranded border crossers, and a collective desire to promote "rule of law."

In addition to the ties between NBPC and immigration-restrictionist groups, there are other reasons to suspect CBP agents may harbor anti-immigrant sentiment. Sources in the New Yorker piece describe "creeping hostility toward immigrants" among CBP officers that includes an "us against the world" mentality. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counts more than 50 deaths and dozens of excessive-force incidents involving CBP officers over a six-year period. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a wrongful-death case brought by the family of a 15-year-old Mexican national who was shot and killed on Mexican soil by a CBP officer.

Critics have alleged that post-9/11 growth of the force has included "unfit" officers and fostered a culture of impunity and violence. (Note: while the growth rate immediately after 9/11 was lower than in the period prior, the Border Patrol force doubled in the decade after.) The challenges CBP faces are not merely exogenous: a former CBP commissioner acknowledges that the force was infiltrated by members of criminal cartels.

Unsurprisingly, the CBP's field officers are clustered around the country's perimeter, mostly along the southern border. (Perhaps surprising: in 2015 the share, 86 percent, of Border Patrol agents at the southern border was as low as it was in 1989.) While Border Patrol conducts its operations mostly in extremely rural places, most unauthorized immigrants ultimately concentrate in urban areas. Thus, the communities where CBP makes its presence felt are only affected by the temporary transit of unauthorized immigrants. (This is not to say that migration has no effect on these communities: see here for a discussion of some of the local impacts.)

These combined trends make CBP's presence in rural communities a strange phenomenon. On the one hand, CBP's budget roughly tripled since 9/11 and increased by about half under President Obama. This influx of spending power, much of it accruing to Border Patrol officers in rural areas, brings potential for economic renewal in rural places. On the other hand, CBP drew flak for spending more than six times the market rate to build new homes for Border Patrol agents in a town of 4,400 with a 30 percent vacancy rate. And while the border area is described by Trump and other "law and order" advocates as a frighteningly dangerous place, crime statistics actually show that border communities are safer than major cities and even comparable non-border towns. This may be due in part to invasive CBP practices, which vex local residents despite the lack of anonymity expected in rural places.

Whether in bustling airports or at the remote frontier, CBP officers are our green-shirted proxies when visitors first arrive from abroad. Recent events suggest that agents' loyalty to Trump may exceed their avowed fidelity to the rule of law. The agency's power and resources will likely grow in the coming years, affecting the lives of rural people as well as a growing demand from Americans across the country that we put our values ahead of our fears. By keeping a watchful eye on these trends, we can ensure that CBP represents the country we want to be.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Living with a disability in rural America (Part I): children

In this series of blog posts, I will highlight a few of the many challenges faced by individuals with disabilities who live in rural areas. This post will focus on children with disabilities.

A Brief History of Disability in Schools
Prior to 1975, children with disabilities were often absent from public school settings. In 1970, schools educated only 1 in 5 children with disabilities and many states had laws preventing children with specific types of disabilities - like deafness, blindness, cognitive, and emotional disabilities - from attending public schools.

In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was the first federal statute enacted to ensure that children with disabilities had access to education and due process rights. Today, federal laws like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (although not without their own flaws) provide children with disabilities important rights, including the right to receive a free and appropriate education and the opportunity to physically access and participate in a school setting.

But even though the United States has come a long way in providing civil rights for children with disabilities, these children still face many challenges, some of which are unique to rural areas.

Access to Treatment and Intervention
Recently, The Atlantic touched on some of the challenges that families of children with autism face in small towns. In the article, reporter Ann Griswold focuses on a family who lives in rural Madrid, Iowa. The family's daughter, Izzy, was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and has behavioral difficulties both at school and at home. Because Izzy's family lives in central Iowa, they have fewer options for services like therapy, school, and pediatricians. For example, applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy is often recommended to improve behavior for children with autism. But ABA therapy requires frequent contact between the therapist and child, and these providers may be located hours away, as they are for Izzy's family.

Under the IDEA, schools are responsible for providing the educational services and supports that children with disabilities need. But in reality, this may not be possible if there aren't any service providers (like speech therapists, occupational therapists, or psychologists) available.

Some universities, like the University of Iowa, are researching the effects of telehealth services (interactive video conferencing) to deliver therapy services to children and families with autism. The results are promising, but it is too early to tell whether this will prove to be a truly rural option over time.

Funding for Medical Services
Even though children with disabilities may be able to access some therapies and medical services through their local schools, these services alone may not be enough, or the child may be too young to receive the services through their district. So many families rely on in-home intervention services for their infants and toddlers with disabilities. Some states cover the costs of these treatments through Medicaid, but when these programs are cut - like they recently were in Texas - rural families are often left without alternatives.

Facilities like the North Texas Rehabilitation Center, which serviced 10 north Texas counties for 30 years, have been forced to close their early childhood intervention programs because they cannot continue to operate without Medicaid reimbursements. Moreover, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the children with disabilities who live in states where home therapies and early interventions are currently covered may also be left without alternatives.

Community and Social Support
Even though children with disabilities are likely to attend their local school district and often have the opportunity to participate in community activities, these families and their children may still feel like outsiders in their own community. As Griswold writes:
[a]lthough getting a diagnosis [of autism] has helped, it does not change one brutal fact of geography: People in the small town have little experience with autism....Izzy's erratic behavior has left the family feeling emotionally disconnected from their community.

A rural child with a disability, like autism, may be the only one in her grade or even in her school. Izzy's mother says that sometimes she thinks about moving to a place where there are more opportunities for her daughter and chances to meet other families in similar situations. But Izzy's father likes the fact that in Madrid, people know who they are and the family feels safe in their surroundings.

And it does not help families like Izzy's when national political leaders like Jeff Sessions publicly attack the federal law that affords children with disabilities these civil rights, or when Besty DeVos reveals that she does not fully understand what the IDEA is. These statements do not set an example of inclusion, tolerance, or understanding for people with disabilities.

This discussion leads me to my next question: given the challenges that rural children with disabilities face, what kinds of opportunities will be available to them when they become adults? My next blog post will examine the historical treatment of adults with disabilities in rural areas and the challenges they face today.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The FCC's (continued) plan to expand broadband service

Internet access is essential in today's world. If you want to conduct an effective job search, apply to an educational program, find a good doctor, access quality news, or learn anything about the modern world, having access to the internet is imperative. Maybe saying it is essential across the board is too strong, but in today's world, lack of internet access is a high barrier to economic progress.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began a plan to expand broadband access across the country in 2010. (This is not the first time that such a plan has come down from the White House.) Now, their Connect America Fund (CAF), created in 2011, is in "Phase II." The FCC uses the fund to subsidize the costs of expanding broadband coverage to areas that are underserved. Service providers must accept the monetary support in order to receive the subsidy during the six-year implementation of the program. "The FCC has focused on areas that are clearly unserved or underserved by unsubsidized service providers." This means rural America. (In the past, the FCC has also expressed heightened awareness of Native American's need for broadband access.) Service providers in some areas have not accepted the funding and thus are not required to provide broadband in their locale, at least not at FCC standards. Here's a map of "Accepted Areas," where CAF funds are being put to use as of September, 2015.

The broadband service provided under the fund has certain minimum requirements to ensure that access to internet in participating areas is not minimum quality and maximum price. There are requirements for speed, latency, usage allowance, and even pricing. The pricing requirement reads, "Service providers must offer service at rates reasonably comparable to rates in urban areas." This seems like a high bar; it is much more expensive for a provider to bring coverage to sparsely populated areas than to urban centers.

The FCC boldly claims that "Consumers everywhere – both urban and rural – will benefit." I read that as a goal, not a reflection of reality. There is a long way to go before all consumers are benefitting from the program.

On their "Progress Portal" for the CAF, the FCC website links to data reflecting the progress of their five main goals:
  • Preserve and advance voice service
  • Ensure universal availability of voice and broadband to homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions
  • Ensure universal availability of mobile voice and broadband where Americans live, work, or travel
  • Ensure reasonably comparable rates for broadband and voice services
  • Minimize universal service contribution burden on consumers and businesses.
This spreadsheet shows "High-Speed Internet Penetration by State" between 2014 and 2015. New Mexico was the only state to actually decrease on their metric. Alaska showed the next worse progress, an increase of only .3%, where the margin of error is about 1%. Arkansas, Iowa, and New Jersey also showed less than a 1% increase. World Atlas reports Alaska and New Mexico among the six least densely populated states. Internet access is improving, but the improvements may be slow and disproportionate. That is not surprising.

As far as ensuring "reasonably comparable rates," the Progress Portal says that only 120 service areas are not in compliance. Meaning there are 120 areas where service providers are charging rates incomparable with rates in urban areas.

The Daily Gazette, based out of Schenectady, New York, recently reported that the fund is providing $170 million to support broadband access in Upstate NY. Democratic Senators Schumer and Gillibrand praised the move, expressing hope that it would address a widespread problem of lack of broadband access in rural areas. The article cites that as of December of 2015, 239,000 households did not have access to the benchmark internet speeds set by the FCC. Time will tell how big of an impact this funding will have in rural areas.

In 2020, Phase II will reach its six year mark and the FCC plans to do an evaluation of the program. They plan for a "competitive bidding process" in areas that are still "unserved." Some areas receive coverage from what they call "rate-of-return" carriers, which are not eligible for the Phase II funds, but are subsidized nonetheless.

See this blog post on broadband access in India.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Repealing Obamacare (ACA) may exacerbate the opioid epidemic in rural America

The opioid epidemic is a serious public health issue in the U.S. Opioid overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 1999. In 2015, there were over 22,000 overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, equivalent to 62 overdoses a day. Since 2014, overdose deaths have increased by approximately 3,000 deaths a year. Nearly 13,000 people died from heroin overdoses in 2015, a 20.6% increase since 2014. Heroin overdose deaths have quadrupled since 2010. Although all states have experienced increases in nonmedical prescription opioid overdoses, states with large rural populations, like Kentucky, West Virginia, Alaska, and Oklahoma, have experienced disproportionately high increases. The widely acknowledged opioid epidemic in rural areas has been discussed in previous blog posts here, here, and here. However, the government has made strides in tackling this epidemic in recent years by passing new healthcare laws.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare, combined with the 2008 Mental Health Parity and Addition Equity Act (MHPAEA), made major advances in improving and ensuring treatment for people with substance use disorders (SUDs). The ACA increased access to health insurance by expanding Medicaid eligibility, allowing children to stay on their parent’s health plans until age 26, and provided financial subsidies to help people afford health insurance. The Medicaid expansion has had an especially large effect on people with SUDs. In states that expanded Medicaid, the percentage of people with SUDs or mental health disorders who were hospitalized fell from 20% in 2013 to 5% in mid-2015. This expansion has been particularly helpful in states, like West Virginia, that have been hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. In West Virginia, which had the highest drug overdose rate in 2015, the rate of uninsured people who were hospitalized with SUDs or mental health disorders fell from 23% in 2013 to 5% in 2014.

The ACA and MHPAEA also closed gaps in health insurance coverage. These laws eliminated annual and lifetime insurance benefits limit on behavioral health services and ending discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. Moreover, before these laws health plans often didn’t include substance abuse treatment or had very strict limits on what they covered and for how long, so the benefits were rarely used. Roughly a third of individually sold private health insurance plans didn’t cover SUDs treatment before the ACA. The ACA required all health insurance plans in the individual and small-group markets to provide essential healthbenefits (EHBs) and included SUD services as EHBs. The ACA also required individual and small group plans to comply with the MHPAEA. The MHPAEA required the majority of health insurance plans to cover mental and behavior health conditions at the same level they cover physical health conditions. However, this law will be “useless” if the ACA is repealed and there is no insurance coverage for low-income people.

States with large opioid epidemics have benefitted substantially from the ACA and MHPAEA. In Kentucky, 1,500 people received addiction treatment through Medicaid in early 2014 but by mid-2016 that number rose to around 11,000 people. In New Hampshire, over 10,000 people received addiction treatment after the ACA expanded Medicaid in that state. In Pennsylvania, 124,000 people received addiction treatment after the ACA expanded Medicaid. The ACA also provided $5.5 billion in spending on addiction and mental health treatment.If the ACA were repealed, not only would the policies promoting SUDs treatment disappear, 2.8 million people with SUDs may lose the coverage they obtained under the ACA. 220,000 of those people have opioid use disorders. 

Furthermore, the repeal of the ACA will affect rural Americans more than urban Americans. As discussed in a previous blog post, rural America experienced the highest rates of health insurance coverage gains through Obamacare. The Urban Institute's Health Reform Monitoring Survey found that coverage for rural individuals between June 2013 and March 2015 increased by 7.2%.

The ACA also provided grants to many community health centers in rural areas to begin or expand mental health and medication-assisted treatment. As mentioned in a previous blog post, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act in December 2016, which sets aside $1 billion in grants to help states expand drug treatment programs over the next two years. However, if the ACA is repealed and many people with SUDS lose their health insurance, they will likely lose access to the new treatment options provided by the 21st Century Cures Act.

The GOP’s current ACA replacement proposals fall short and could undo many of the gains made in treatment for people with SUDs mentioned above. The plan proposed in January 2017 imposes deep cuts to federal Medicaid funding for states which would eliminate or reduce access to insurance for millions of low-income people. The plan also replaces ACA tax credits with fixed amounts, which would make health insurance less affordable for lower and moderate income families who are the most likely to be uninsured. These changes could make insurance less affordable for millions of Americans who may lose their insurance. But even before the ACA is repealed and replaced, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) could weaken SUD services coverage. They could do so by not enforcing the ACA’s EHB requirements, which require insurance plans to cover SUDs services. The future of EHB requirements looks bleak since Tom Price, the newly confirmed head of HHS, has criticized them in the past.

Any "replacement" plan for the ACA must contain provisions that protect SUDs treatment. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore the opioid epidemic that is plaguing many states in America, especially among rural Americans. If the new health care plan ignores this crisis, thousands of Americans may die a year from opioid overdoses because they will no longer have any access to treatment programs through their health insurance. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people in rural America

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. It is common knowledge that the poor and people of color are disproportionately represented within this astonishingly high number. People may be surprised, however, that rural communities are disproportionately represented as well (see this earlier blog post regarding the rise of mass incarceration in rural areas).

The collateral consequences of a record can make it impossible for someone to find employment or housing because even a minor offense can negatively affect a person’s hiring prospects. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed 1 year after being released. People living in rural areas face an even steeper challenge due to the higher rates of unemployment compared to urban areas.

Furthermore, the lack of affordable housing is already a significant issue for low-income rural residents. Formerly incarcerated individuals must also deal with public housing authorities that have broad discretion to set policies that screen out prospective tenants with criminal convictions. Anecdotally, an organization I worked for saw anyone with two misdemeanor convictions denied housing. And despite new federal guidelines, many landlords discriminate against people with criminal convictions, regardless of the type, circumstances, or age of the conviction.

Fortunately, in many instances, it is possible for formerly incarcerated individuals to clear their records, thereby restoring both housing and economic opportunities. Unfortunately, that process can be complicated and success often depends on the availability of legal assistance. Although non-profit organizations and pro bono legal efforts have started to meet this need, the overwhelming majority of this assistance is located in major urban centers. Without an expansion of legal aid in this area, this access to justice gap will simply continue to grow as more people are released from incarceration.

As an example, let's look at people with criminal records living in rural regions of California’s Central Valley. Yuba, Colusa, Sutter and Stanislaus Counties lie in the heart of the Central Valley. Although Colusa is the only county designated by the USDA as nonmetro, many parts of these counties are very rural. Other than packets of information at courthouse self-help centers, these counties have no legal organizations assisting low-income people with record clearance remedies. According to the US Census Bureau, more than 15% of the residents of these four counties live below the poverty line, with the highest being 21% in Yuba County.

The need for record clearing assistance throughout rural California is massive. Over 5 million Californians live in rural areas, and approximately 1.6 million are eligible for legal aid services, so realistically there are over 500,000 underserved individuals with a criminal history in rural California. Other states, especially those who already face a significant access to justice gap for their rural communities, also have a growing population of underserved individuals. Not only does this keep people in poverty, it also has a drain on the national economy. The Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that there is a loss of $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP.

However, the chances of this need being filled in the next few years are slim. Most of the organizations with the capacity to begin assisting this population are funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation, and the first draft of the Trump budget has completed eliminated the organization. Previous administrations efforts to do this have been unsuccessful, but it is likely there will be some cuts to the program forcing legal aid organizations to decrease, not expand, their efforts.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Where are the Natives?

According to the most recent Census data, gathered in 2010, 19.3 percent of Americans reside in rural areas. In fifteen states, more than fifty percent of the population lives in an area designated “rural” by the U.S. Census Bureau. (Note: “To qualify as an urban area [for census purposes], the territory identified according to criteria must encompass at least 2,500 people, at least 1,500 of which reside outside institutional group quarters. . . . ‘Rural’ encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area.”) While the results of the latest election cycle have sparked a renewed interest in rural America (see, e.g., articles from major news outlets like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post), historical coverage of those outside the urban norm has been decidedly sparse. Often, when attention is paid to rural places and populations, it is demonstrative of “nostalgia for our rural past,” rather than cognizance of rural present. In 2016, Tom Vilsack, the then-Secretary of Agriculture, summed up public and political interest in rural America with the comment: “I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place. . . . because people don’t pay attention to this part of the country.” Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your political affiliations), the 2016 election cycle did nothing if not effectively prove that rural America is not without political influence—as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s loss despite winning nearly 90 percent of the vote in urban cores.

If voting patterns in rural America have signaled a recoup of relevance, it is notable that the population receiving national scrutiny—the population now cashing in on its political capital—represents only a particular segment of the rural electorate. As noted in a recent post on this blog, the most popular question in America over the past month has arguably been: Who voted for Donald Trump? And news media sources have been quick to provide answers: anti-establishment voters, “rural red-county” evangelicals, and—overwhelmingly—the white, working class. Missing from this entire discussion are the roughly 3,432,000 Native American voters registered and eligible to vote in the United States.* Previous blog posts have discussed the Native vote with respect to the 2008 national election and the 2014 Senate races, but aAs I’ve waded through the post-election coverage the past few weeks, I wondered, where was the Native vote in 2016?

*66 percent of the total American Indian and Alaska Natives populations—5.2 million people by 2010 Census measures—are eligible and registered to vote.

Like many other minority groups, “Natives,” the term used by the Carsey Institute to refer to those who self-identify as American Indians or Alaska Natives, are often categorized under broad social and economic labels that fail to account for the diversity of cultural experiences and heritages that color the population. In the case of Natives, “Native voices are often grouped with all rural residents in portrayals of rural places.” To be fair, there is overlap in both the demographic and cultural predilections of Natives and non-Native rural populations.

A comparison between surveys conducted by the Carsey Institute in Native and non-Native rural communities is illustrative:

On community life:
  • A majority of rural residents describe their community as cohesive and neighborly, and local involvement in community groups and organizations is high (i.e., “Rural Americans are joiners”)
  • More than half of Natives consider daily community life integral to their identity, and exhibit “strong family attachment” and deep “familial roots” in their communities
On the natural environment and attachment to place:
  • In rural locales (with exceptions in areas experiencing resource-based decline and in chronically poor communities), natural beauty is considered “very important” with respect to living decisions, and 70 percent of rural respondents participate in hunting
  • Two-thirds of Natives cite natural beauty as a reason to remain in their communities, and 73 percent of Natives indicate hunting, gathering, and harvesting is very important to their way of life
On economics:
  • Most of the rural population (i.e., “[a]lmost everyone”) is concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and only 40 percent of rural respondents work full-time
  • Eighty-five percent of Natives are concerned about a lack of job opportunity, and across regions, a majority of Natives consider it the “most important” concern their community faces
Natives face many hardships that are (sadly) common features of the rural experience. The “vicious cycle” of substance abuse (e.g., soaring heroin use and the opiate epidemic, to name only two examples) in rural communities is mirrored in Native populations. Indeed, Natives are more likely than any other minority group to need treatment for alcohol use and illicit drug use.  Poverty rates have been higher in rural areas for decadesNatives have the highest poverty rate (28.3 percent) of any race group—a percentage that is almost double the national average. Like many rural Americans, Natives living on reservations lack complete plumbing (8.6% versus the national average of .5%) and access to a telephone (18.9% versus the national average of 3.7%) at higher rates. Natives are also more likely to experience overcrowding in the home, Native women are two times more likely to be the victims of rape or attempted rape, and reservation roadways are some of the most underdeveloped in the nation.

But despite their similarities, Natives also face unique challenges that are simply not shared by most of rural America. The most notable is disenfranchisement. Though the Indian Citizenship Act extended voting rights to Natives in 1924, voting restrictions were not eliminated in every state until as late as 1970 (Colorado was one of the last states to remove literacy test requirements for Natives). The combination of historical discrimination and existing access obstacles has meant that Natives continue to have some of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. In the most recent national election, Natives found themselves subject in many places to discriminatory ballot-collection laws, “questionable poll judge behavior,” and a dearth of polling sites. In Arizona, for example, a state with the largest concentrated Navajo population, voters waited over five hours to cast their ballots—and that’s after a commute of four hours to even reach the nearest polling station from the Navajo Nation reservation.

It would seem that Natives have been missing from the 2016 election discourse not (only) because of their negligible impact, but—heartbreakingly—because they continue to be functionally excluded in far too many places.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Child abuse prevention (Part I): one size may not fit all rural communities

Child Welfare Services' work preventing child abuse has a long, complex, and sometimes ugly history.  Constitutional legal issues arise when a state actor intervenes in family matters, and state involvement in such personal matters has sparked heavy debate over the years. 

Child Welfare Services did not begin as a state agency. In the mid 1800s, a man named Charles Brace founded the Children's Aid Society in New York. By the 1900s, this society was established in many cities on the East Coast. Brace believed that poor children living in urban areas should be 'saved' by placing them in christian homes out in rural "country" areas.  Trainloads of poor urban children were removed from their families and shipped to the Midwest and upstate New York in order to learn "morality" and "good work habits." Before long, similar organizations began to crop up, creating a network of "free" foster homes in which children were expected to pay for room and board through their labor. During this time, arrangements for children who were moved "for their safety" and those moved because they were deemed "delinquent" were not differentiated. 

Throughout the 1900s, more formalized institutions began to appear, and the goals and policies continued to evolve and change.

In 1958, congress amended the Social Securities Act, mandating that states provide funds to child abuse prevention. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act as well as the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act. These laws required the nation's child welfare organizations to prevent child abuse by offering family support services and reunification services to families who are struggling. Both urban and rural families face stressors that can impact the wellness of children, including: addiction, mental health challenges, alcohol dependency, and family violence. Rural families are more likely to experience one or more of these stressors. If the harm or threat to the child is deemed too severe for the child to remain in the home,  reunification service, designed to support families as they cope with these stressors, are offered.  The goal is to allow children to grow up in the care of their parents, if possible.

Child Protective Services' (CPS) involvement with a family begins with a report, generally from a community member, or someone who is required by law to report any suspicion of child abuse. Then, a social worker investigates that report to see if the harm or abuse is substantiated. If substantiated (the meaning of "substantiated" could vary depending on state law or county practice), CPS will intervene. This means that they will ask the caregiver(s) to get involved in community services (such as parenting classes, substance abuse meetings, etc). Sometimes CPS will remove the child and place him or her in foster care.  

Today, child welfare organizations exist in every state, with services in every county. The majority of families involved with CPS continue to be poor, and rural families are affected differently than urban ones. In rural areas, wealthier families (those with incomes at 200% of the poverty level and above) are much more likely to have a report substantiated than urban families of the same income level. Families in rural areas who have caregivers that are experiencing domestic violence or have cognitive impairments are more likely to have a report substantiated than similarly situated urban children. Perhaps this is because rural families are more likely to experience the pressures of poverty and other stressors. Indeed, 10% more rural caregivers than urban caregivers involved in CPS report experiencingn some kind of family stress. Further, more rural parents report trouble paying for basic necessities rural areas than urban parents do.  The Carsey Institute attributes these numbers to the chronic stressors that many rural families face, paired with isolation and a lack of services in rural areas. It is also important to note that the implementation of family support services and guidelines for what  "substantiation" means vary between child welfare organizations. It is certainly not clear that these statistics reflect more abuse and neglect occurring in rural areas. What is clear is that rural families face difficult stressors, namely poverty, which can greatly impact children.

This leaves us with an open question: are child welfare organizations catering their services to the unique needs of rural communities? Stay tuned.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

School choice without choices

After much opposition, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary on Tuesday, February 7, 2017. Chris Loss, an education-policy professor at Vanderbilt, points to the nation-wide reaction to DeVos as "evidence of just how mainstream education has become--unlike more arcane policy issues like housing and energy, issues that seem kind of abstract to the average voter. Education is pretty immediate, it's pretty visceral."

As education policy becomes more mainstream, so too does attention to parts of public education that have been often overlooked--including rural schools. (For previous blog posts on this issue, see this, this, and this.) While DeVos's appointment concerns a number of Americans throughout all settings in the country, advocates are especially worried about what her appointment will mean for rural schools. DeVos is notoriously a proponent of "school choice," which, as this blog hopes to further develop, may not amount to much of a choice for rural students.

Rural schools serve over 40% of U.S. students, but only receive 22% of federal funding. Further, rural schools have a critical shortage of teachers and often employ teachers who are not licensed in the subjects they teach. It is difficult to recruit and retain teachers because the pay is low, housing is sparse, and working conditions are difficult. Rural students are "likelier than their peers to live in poverty" and only 27% go on to college. Yet when students do go on to college, rural schools have been called "engines of exodus." The "brain drain" phenomenon leads not only to educated students leaving rural areas (see other posts here), but also exhausts rural resources. "If high school graduates or college graduates leave the local community to work and pay taxes elsewhere, then the community does not derive a benefit from its investment."

During DeVos's confirmation hearing, two Republican Senators questioned how changes would affect rural states where there are "distance issues students in frontier areas combat to physically get to non-public schools," concerns about when there is no way to get to an alternate option, and the issues that there are "simply fewer students to populate new schools" resulting in an "unequal demand for charter schools." DeVos responded vaguely, saying that individual states would design polices for the rural communities, but she envisions more distance learning and online courses. However, the National Education Policy Center has referenced the outcomes of online learning as negative "across the board" (See the full policy report here.) Further, rural areas often struggle with access to the internet, making this proposal impossible to introduce.

In rural settings, there are few charter or private school alternatives. Karen Eppley, editor of the Journal in Rural Research and Educationexplains that a large portion of rural charter schools were formed by community members in responds to school closures and consolidations. This is a very different set-up than the urban and suburban charters that are run by large-scale management companies, such as KIPP. Accordingly, it seems that rural charter schools are generally created out of necessity, not because of competition or to offer an alternative "choice" to the public schools in the area. The private schools in rural areas are often deeply religious, which, according to the Rural School and Community Trust, means they aren't an option for everyone.

Eric Steeves, a superintendent of a rural school in Maine, insists, "If you shut down schools, you destroy a town." As is common in rural schools, Steeves wears may hats. Other than superintendent, he is also the school's guidance counselor, works on the curriculum, and teachers remedial social studies. He is married to the school principal, who is also the library media specialist and the food services director. In small towns or rural areas, the public school can be the "social anchor" of the community. In addition to being a major employer, the school can provide services unavailable anywhere else, such as sports, summer lunch programs, and food pantries.

The school choice and voucher programs would "siphon away critical funding" from rural schools as parents opt out of public school take their taxpayer dollars with them. Steeves believes that DeVos's policies would be "disastrous" and "catastrophic" for schools like his. The impact is well illustrated by the nearest town's school superintendent: "Every time I lose a student somewhere it's five or six thousand dollars," and when "you lose seven students, that's a teaching position." Not only would his school lose tuition money, but Steeves fears they would have to bus students over an hour away to other schools in rough weather conditions. These changes could lead to many school closures in rural states with few options left over for the students living in rural communities.