Friday, May 26, 2017

Wall Street Journal: "Rural America Is the New 'Inner City'"

Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report in today's Wall Street Journal under that very sobering headline.  Further, here's the most sobering excerpt from the story (in bold below), IMHO, in some historical perspective:  
For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times.

Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places.

Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). 
In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years.
The story quotes--well, paraphrases--me:
Although federal and state antipoverty programs were not limited to urban areas, they often failed to address the realities of the rural poor. The 1996 welfare overhaul put more city dwellers back to work, for example, but didn’t take into account the lack of public transportation and child care that made it difficult for people in small towns to hold down jobs, said Lisa Pruitt, a professor at the University of California, Davis School of Law.
To some extent, I'm referring to my 2007 article on how welfare reform was not a good fit for rural America because of poor transportation infrastructure and lack of child care, in addition to limited labor markets that leave few places for would-be welfare recipients to "work" (or even volunteer) to earn their TANF.

On the decline of the family (high divorce rates) in rural America, see this report from the NY Times in 2011.  

One other quote/nugget I gave journalist Adamy that she didn't use:  there has always been a rural underclass (think in terms of those widely thought of as "white trash"), and in this era of downward mobility, that underclass has drawn many more victims (a term I use advisedly) into its net.

And if you are not feeling empathetic and think it's those rural folks' own darn fault, consider this question:   How do you think you would fare if what you were facing were downward prospects for yourself and your children, less than you or your parents had?  It's not a situation most liberal/coastal elites face, and we have a hard time empathizing.  Indeed, we have a hard time responding with anything other than disdain.

(This story by Terrence McCoy in the Washington Post is something of a post-script to this WSJ story, coming one week after the latter and focusing on disability benefits).

Monday, May 22, 2017

New tack for getting rural kids to (better) colleges

Today's New York Times features this story, "Bringing the Dream of an Elite College to Rural Students."   It highlights College Advising Corps, a program that places recent college grads in public high schools to work full time for two years as college counselors, aiming to give "low-income rural students...a shot at the elite range of the American dream."

One of the counselors featured in Anemona Hartocollis's story is Emily Hadley, who is working in Hobbton High School in Newton Grove, North Carolina, population 569 (Sampson County, population 63,431).    Hadley, the story reports, seemed to one student "bizarrely interested in his future and pressed him to think beyond the confines of the sweet potato and hog farms."
Ms. Hadley, 23, a 2015 Duke graduate, said it was hard to make students see the value of a college degree when their parents relied on odd jobs, food stamps or disability benefits and they could improve the situation immediately by making $500 a week as field workers. “What happens in 10 years when your back gives out?” she tells them.
Hadley grew up in New Hampshire, and the story notes that she initially stood out because she did not speak "with the same Southern accent" nor "share[]an easygoing familiarity that [came] from having gone to the same schools and having spent their lives in the same county."  In short, she was an outsider, from "up North."

The story also features Nyreke Peters, a high school senior at Hobbton whom Hadley coaxed (and coached) into applying to Middlebury College in Vermont.  That's where Mr. Peters will be come this fall.  Previously, he had set his sights on the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.   Peters wrote his college essay about "what it would feel like to" return to his high school a decade on, as a Middlebury graduate.
He would tell the future Hobbton students that he used to worry that his friends would find out he had spent a summer “living in a hotel paid for by some government program that helped families who could not afford to pay rent.” 
Then he would add: “All I can say is look at where I stand. I am a college-educated man of color. I am a musician who composes music for high school bands because that’s where it all begins.”
For more on the rural-urban gap in the elite college sector, see here and here.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

On "boosting" rural Colorado, apparently as a compromise

This from the Denver Post came across my Twitter feed about five minutes ago:

But when I clicked on the story, it took me several minutes to find the first mention of "rural" Colorado.  I found it when I got to this paragraph, the 14th paragraph of the story (OK, the paragraphs in newspapers tend to be brief ones):
The House passed the bill with wide bipartisan support on a 49-16 vote that sent the measure to Gov. John Hickenlooper, despite objections of a split Republican caucus torn between ideological objections and a desire to help members’ predominantly rural districts.
That paragraph was preceded by this one, which provides helpful context:
Earlier in the day, much of the debate in the House focused on Senate Bill 267, the far-reaching spending measure to boost payments to hospitals and schools; mortgage state buildings to generate $1.9 billion for transportation; increase pot taxes to the maximum 15 percent; give business owners a tax break; and increase Medicaid co-pays for the poor.
And it was followed by these:
The Republican opponents railed against the growth of Medicaid spending made possible through the hospital provider fee program and blasted the sheer reach of a bill, which they said violated a state requirement that legislation be tailored narrowly to a single subject. 
“I think we’re setting a pretty bad precedent, that we’re going to use words like ‘concerning Colorado’ in bills so that we can put everything and the kitchen sink in,” said Rep. Tim Leonard, R-Evergreen, a reference to the bill’s broad title, “Concerning the Sustainability of Rural Colorado.”
But the bill’s something-for-everyone scope was precisely what allowed it to pass the divided legislature, uniting rural Republicans with urban Democrats who said the benefits outweighed any misgivings they had about the measure.
Sounds like some purple state horse trading going on there at the close of the session.

In any event, labels and framing matter--or sometimes do.  So will "Concerning the Sustainability of Rural Colorado" appease rural voters.  And precisely what are the benefits to rural Colorado vis a vis urban Colorado?  Are rural folks merely getting a pro rata share or what?

Sunday, May 7, 2017

On abortion as "a free trip to the city" ... and having the last word

Last week, Alaska state representative David Eastman of Wasilla (a suburb of Anchorage, home of Sarah Palin), commented that some women "try to get pregnant to get a 'free trip to the city' for abortions."  He said this in the context of legislative debate about "abortions being covered by state funds and Medicaid."  Interesting because I'm not aware of any federal funds, which would include Medicaid, being available for abortion, as dictated by the Hyde Amendment.  In Alaska, however, state funds are apparently available, as this additional detail from the AP report explains.
The Alaska Supreme Court has held that the state must fund medically necessary abortions if it funds medically necessary services for others with financial needs.
How progressive of that high court.  This reminds me of one of the most knuckle-headed things a judge ever said about abortion access.
A woman in Alaska, for example, could be required to travel 800 miles to get to an abortion clinic merely because she lives in one place and the nearest abortion clinic is on the other side of the state. But that certainly doesn’t constitute anything even approaching an undue burden.
Interestingly, the judge who said this was Dee Benson (now a senior judge), and the case was Utah Women's Clinic v. Leavitt, 844 F. Supp. 1482 (D. Utah 1994) (discussed here).  Why the Utah judge thought it appropriate or necessary to use an example from Alaska is beyond me, but maybe he was looking for the most extreme example of distance he could find.  Given that Alaska is the largest state in terms of land area, Judge Benson necessarily turned to "The Last Frontier." In light of that point, it is perhaps significant that the second largest state, Texas, became the subject of the latest round of litigation over abortion restrictions, and that distance ultimately loomed so large in relation to the Supreme Court's assessment of the undue burden standard. Read more here and here.   

Speaking of distance and undue burdens also reminds me of a recent exchange between Prof. Carol Sanger of  Columbia Law and me regarding abortion and the significance of spatiality/geography/rurality regarding abortion access.  This is, of course, a topic I've been writing about for nearly a decade.  In the end, Sanger agrees that my plea for attention to rural women should be "the last word" in the exchange over Sanger's new book, About Abortion:  Terminating Pregnancy in the 21st Century, which says very little about the geography issue  (Sanger's "last word" phrasing is especially pleasing to me because my mother's nickname for me was "last word Lisa," an identity that may well have put me on the path to law school).

Sanger also includes some really interesting data on military women, who don't choose to be "rural," but who are assigned to bases in nonmetropolitan (or small metropolitan) places without ready access to abortion.  Sanger writes:
An amici brief,filed in Whole Woman’s Health on behalf of the Service Service Women’s Action Network And Retired Or Former Military Officers, explained that “the entire western half of the [Texas], covering over 130,000 square miles—in which five large military bases are located—would lack any abortion care providers at all.” If HB2 had remained in effect, the brief noted that service women at Goodfellow Air Force Base [San Angelo] would have a three hour drive to San Antonio, 199 miles away, and this is without the added difficulties of obtaining a pass, arranging a timely appointment, and finding the funds.
It's a sub-issue I had not not thought about amidst the many pages of my writing about spatiality in relation to abortion access.  But then I don't tend to think of military bases as "rural," located as they often are in small cities, in smaller metropolitan areas.  But when we look at what happened under Texas H.B. 2, women in places like Killeen (population about 150K)/Fort Hood certainly suffered serious detriments.  The sole abortion provider in Killeen closed after the Texas H.B. 2 admitting privileges requirement went into effect, a few months after the law's passage in 2013.  That closure left women on that massive Army base--the largest in the world in land area--forced to travel to either Austin or Dallas for abortion services.

But let me return to the issues raised by Eastman in Alaska, which are less about the burden of distance--which the state of Alaska has pragmatically taken care of--and more about the character of women.  The AP story, by Becky Bohrer, includes more helpful background for us on abortion availability in Alaska and--for late-term abortions--in Seattle, Washington.

First, here is more of what Eastman said:
We have folks who try to get pregnant in this state so that they can get a free trip to the city, and we have folks who want to carry their baby past the point of being able to have an abortion in this state so that they can have a free trip to Seattle.
Then Bohrer tells us more about the furor Eastman's comments have generated:
Eastman, who is a member of the House minority, made similar comments to another media outlet later.

In a speech on the House floor Friday, Democratic Rep. Neal Foster of Nome said Eastman’s comments were unacceptable and said he hoped Eastman would apologize.

“It shocks the conscience to think that a female in a village would want to endure the physical and the emotional pain of getting an abortion just so that they could get a free trip to Anchorage,” Foster said.

Most of the women who live in villages that Foster represents are Alaska Native and feel Eastman’s comments were directed toward them, Foster said. Many Alaska communities are not connected to a road system and smaller communities often have limited health services that necessitate travel to larger communities for care.

When asked if he felt he had anything he need to apologize for, Eastman said he would be glad to speak with Foster and “understand exactly what he’s getting at.”

Following the floor session, the House majority caucus distributed a letter to Eastman signed by Foster, House Speaker Bryce Edgmon and two other rural lawmakers, demanding a public apology. Rep. Geran Tarr, an Anchorage Democrat, said she may seek a motion to censure Eastman. She called Eastman’s comments “deeply offensive, racist in nature and misogynistic.”
Great to see other state legislators standing up for Alaska Natives and other rural populations.  That is encouraging.  And it also brings me to the really outrageous part of what Eastman said--that women might purposefully get pregnant so that they can have a day out on the town, a freebie trip to a place where they can get an abortion ... and then tie on some shopping or a fancy meal, maybe even a jaunt up the Space Needle.

This brings me back to Sanger's over-arching point in her new book:  women take abortion seriously--and we should presume they can make good decisions about it for themselves.  We should therefore not presume--as Eastman suggests--that they will get pregnant willy-nilly to "earn" a frolic in the city.  Insulting, misogynist and racist, indeed.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Literary Ruralism (Part XI): The Outsiders

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, a coming-of-age novel set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where two gangs, the Greasers (poor kids) and Socs (rich kids) have an ongoing rivalry.  The book was adapted for the big screen by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983, starring a number of heart throbs of the time, including Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Leif Garrett, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, and C. Thomas Howell as Pony Boy.

The anniversary publicity prompted me to re-read the book--a staple of my own literary upbringing--with my own 'tween son.  In doing so, I was struck by a passage idealizing the rural.  Here, the book's central character, Ponyboy, is conversing with another "Greaser," Johnny about the nature of their lives when Pony boy lapses into a daydream about what his and his brothers' lives (Sodapop the middle son, Darry the eldest) would be like had their parents not perished prematurely:
"It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain ordinary people.”

“Out of the big towns,” I said, lying back down. “In the country…”

In the country… I loved the country. I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense. The country would be like that, I thought dreamily. I would have yeller cur dog, like I used to, and Sodapop could get Mickey Mouse back and ride in all the rodeos he wanted to, and Darry would lose that cold, hard look and be like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed. 
Since I was dreaming I brought Mom and Dad back to life… Mom could bake some more chocolate cakes and Dad would drive the pickup out early to feed the cattle. He would slap Darry on the back and tell him he was getting to be a man, a regular chip off the block, and they would be as close as they use to be. Maybe Johnny could come and live with us, and the gang could come out on weekends, and maybe Dallas would see that there was some good in the world after all, and Mom would talk to him and make him grin in spite of himself. “You’ve got quite a mom,” Dally use to say. “She knows the score.” She could talk to Dallas and kept him from getting into a lot of trouble. My mother was golden and beautiful …
It is interesting how this passage associates rurality and farm life with all things wholesome and good--and even a beautiful, golden mother.  But the book also includes a subsequent scene where Ponyboy basically acknowledges the downsides to country living, acknowledges that he was idealizing it.

Part of The Outsiders takes place outside Tulsa, in rural Windrixville, near Jay Mountain--both apparently fictitious place names.  Pony Boy and Johnny take refuge there in an abandoned church while evading law enforcement.  Some of the Windrixville residents they meet also arguably represent rural difference.   One Windrixville man focuses on the courage and goodness of  Pony Boy and Johnny after they risk their lives to rescue children from the burning church; he doesn't see the boys first as Greasers; he sees them first as heroes.  This surprises Pony Boy, who is accustomed to having adults pre-judge him based on class, generally seeing little worth in him as a consequence.

Very interesting to see this treatment of class from half a century ago, and to ponder how the ways in which we talk about class has changed--but also to know that class is still such an important organizing feature of our society, whether rural or urban.