Friday, June 16, 2017

WSJ on the digital divide between rural and urban

The Wall Street Journal's  Jennifer Levitz and Valerie Bauerlein reported yesterday from Caledonia, Missouri on the state of broadband in rural America.  The story, part of the WSJ's "One Nation, Divisible" series, is headlined, "Rural America is Stranded in the Dial-Up Age." The story is chock-full of data points about the consequences of lack of broadband in rural places, including these:
  • Rural counties with more households connected to broadband had higher incomes and lower unemployment than those with fewer (based on a 2015 study)
  • In St. Louis, speeds as fast as 100 Mbps start at about $45 a month, according to BroadbandNow, a data research company. Statewide, an estimated 61% of rural residents lack broadband access.
  • About 39% of the U.S. rural population, or 23 million people, lack access to broadband internet service—defined as “fast” by the Federal Communications Commission—compared with 4% of the urban residents. 
It also features lots of anecdotes about how the lack of broadband is holding rural folks back in the digital era.  Here's one of my favorites, which features an agricultural issue.  Indeed, one Caledonia resident who the authors keep returning to is a goat and sheep farmer named Jeanne Wilson Johnson.  She regularly drives four miles to a gas station for better Internet connectivity:
Counties without modern internet connections can’t attract new firms, and their isolation discourages the enterprises they have: ranchers who want to buy and sell cattle in online auctions or farmers who could use the internet to monitor crops. 
The story also features an anecdote regarding public safety:  
At the county’s 911 center, dispatch director William Goad sometimes loses his connection to the state emergency system. That means dispatchers can’t check license plates for police or relay arrest-warrant information.

As severe thunderstorms approached in late February, Mr. Goad tried to keep watch using an internet connection sputtering at speeds too slow to reliably map a tornado touchdown or track weather patterns.
Other illustrations are about other businesses (a boot factory) and healthcare and hospitals.  Given these illustrations of the need, why--as Mr. Goad asks--we have not solved this problem:
We drill for oil above the Arctic Circle in some of the worst conditions known to man.  Surely we can drop broadband across the rural areas in the Midwest.
The journalists who wrote this story explain what is probably obvious:
Rural America can’t seem to afford broadband: Too few customers are spread over too great a distance. The gold standard is fiber-optic service, but rural internet providers say they can’t invest in door-to-door connections with such a limited number of subscribers.
And this reminds me of a statement by former FCC economist Michael Katz back in 2009:
Other people don't like to say bad things about rural areas. So I will. 
The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided, from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.
At stake then was $7.2 billion investment (as part of Obama's stimulus package) in broadband access for "underserved" and rural areas.

This story is well worth a read in its entirety, and I'm happy to see a national newspaper attending to these issues.

Monday, June 5, 2017

So much rural news (most of it depressing), so little time to blog

National media have featured some big rural headlines in recent weeks, including the one from the Wall Street Journal that I highlighted in my last post.  Since then, the Washington Post published this piece a few days ago on intergenerational disability and intergenerational poverty.  It is part of a series by journalist Terrence McCoy on disability in rural America.  The first installment of the series is here, and in it McCoy observes:
The rise in disability has emerged as yet another indicator of a widening political, cultural and economic chasm between urban and rural America.
The family featured in this most recent piece about the intergenerational nature of the disability designation (for SSI purposes) is in rural southeast Missouri, in Pemiscot County.  The headline is "Generations, Disabled."  One compelling blurb is "a family on the fringes prays for the 'right diagnoses.'"  Indeed, in the family that McCoy depicts, the 10-year-old twins' diagnosis as disabled--or, more precisely, their retention of that diagnosis--is what will permit the family to pay the bills, which McCoy itemizes in excruciating detail (and with an implicit invitation to judgment?).   

I want to note that while McCoy suggests that academics don't pay attention to the intergenerational nature of disability, I would say it often accompanies persistent poverty (as is the case with Pemiscot County), and a number of  rural sociologists, demographers and economists do attend to those places marked by intergenerational poverty as a particular phenomenon--and, of course, a particular challenge for policy makers.  (This blog features lots of entries about persistent poverty counties, not least because my home county is one such place).   I would be interested to see a persistent poverty map overlaid by a map showing the counties with the highest rates of disability.  I suspect it would reveal a great deal of overlap.

Among many observations I might offer about McCoy's Pemiscot County piece is that it reminds me of the character Pennsatucky in "Orange is the New Black," whose childhood was depicted as one in which her mother would get her jacked up on Mountain Dew before taking her into the social services office, with the goal of getting more money for a child "with issues." Indeed, McCoy's earlier installment on disability has a Mountain Dew angle (look for it in one of the photos, as well as in the text).  

This latest disability piece (the one set in the Missouri boot-heel) is classic Terrence McCoy, who last year published this much-read and lauded piece about a child who accidentally shot his sibling in rural Alabama--but also about how the family was getting by in the aftermath.  McCoy's stories typically include lots of dialogue between/among family members (less, if any, of what they say directly to McCoy), which essentially permits them to tell their own story.  In some ways, that's a good thing, but I'm not sure the average reader is well positioned to put the dialogue in context, and I can't help wonder if McCoy's style actually invites harsher judgments from readers than if he synthesized and paraphrased more.  He certainly has an uncanny ability to get the subjects of his stories to trust him with theirs.  The end products are these raw, open books on the lives of people living tragedy, which is akin to what I recently saw referred to as "decline porn." But McCoy's revelations are at the individual and family levels, less at the community level.  Indeed, you could say these stories constitute what I've seen referred to as poverty porn.  Speaking of poverty porn, the photographer who has worked with McCoy on these disability stories, Bonnie Jo Mount, has an incredible eye; her images are nothing short of searing (though, again, I fear also damning).  The combination of McCoy's prose and Mount's photos is like taking in a documentary film.  (Indeed, this piece about inter-generational disability reminded me of the 2014 documentary, Rich Hill, set in Southwest Missouri). 

The details of the Missouri family aside, McCoy provides hard data, too, on disability as a rural phenomenon:
How to visualize the growth in disability in the United States? One way is to think of a map. Rural communities, where on average 9.1 percent of working-age people are on disability—nearly twice the urban rate and 40 percent higher than the national average—are in a brighter shade than cities. An even brighter hue then spreads from Appalachia into the Deep South and out into Missouri, where rates are higher yet, places economists have called “disability belts.” The brightest color of all can be found in 102 counties, mostly within these belts, where a Washington Post analysis of federal statistics estimates that, at minimum, about 1 in 6 working-age residents draw disability checks.
Here is a sharp critique of McCoy's reporting from Talk Poverty, which argues that it gives cover to Trump's proposed budget cuts by depicting a "culture of disability."  Here's an excerpt from Rebecca Vallas' piece, which notes that Annie Lowry, Gene Sperling (formerly of the National Economic Council), and Matthew Yglesias also sharply criticized it. 
Like the first article in The Post’s series, the latest story willfully ignores the reality of Social Security disability benefits, instead relying on flawed data and flowery writing and anecdotes to paint a cartoonish picture of rural America overtaken by a “culture of disability.” As my colleague Kate Gallagher Robbins pointed out on Twitter, the piece reads like a work of fiction. It even opens with a stage-setting mini-story practically ripped from Of Mice and Men, in which a child accidentally drops and nearly kills his new puppy.

Notably, where the piece does introduce evidence beyond richly woven anecdote, what evidence it includes contradicts The Post’s narrative.
Meanwhile, on other rural fronts, I've continued to blog about rural disadvantage and rural poverty (among other issues) as a guest blogger over at Concurring Opinions.  This post over the week-end discusses rural-proofing laws in relation to rural labor markets, with embedded links to stories about proposals in Arkansas and Maine to make receipt of Medicaid contingent on work.  Many states already make the receipt of food stamps (SNAP) contingent on work or job training or volunteerism--at least for able-bodied adults.  As I have highlighted on numerous occasions, such programs do not tend to work well in rural places, where labor markets are typically weak and the lack of economic diversification results in a narrow range of available jobs, and where child care and transportation infrastructure are inadequate to support would-be workers.  See more details in the Concurring Opinions post.  

On a more optimistic note, the New York Times published this piece by Patricia Cohen last week, "Immigrants Keep an Iowa Meatpacking Town Alive and Growing."  The story is about how immigration is remaking--and in so doing, also saving--places like this corner of northwest Iowa. The dateline is Storm Lake, population 11,000, and here's an excerpt:  
The union is long gone, and so are most of the white faces of men who once labored in the broiling heat of the killing floor and the icy chill of the production lines. What hasn’t changed much is Mr. Smith’s hourly wage, which is still about $16 an hour, the same as when he started 37 years ago. 
* * *
Fierce global competition, agricultural automation and plant closures have left many rural towns struggling for survival. In areas stripped of the farm and union jobs that paid middle-class wages and tempted the next generation to stay put and raise a family, young people are more likely to move on to college or urban centers like Des Moines. Left behind are an aging population, abandoned storefronts and shrinking economic prospects.
So, this overview excerpt is not about Storm Lake, but rather about the rural America that is suffering these ills.  Storm Lake has been kept bustling by several generations of migrant streams not only from Latin America, but from around the world. Less than half of Storm Lake's population is non-Hispanic white, though 88% of Iowa's is. 

This story, too, is accompanied by some fabulous photographs, including one of the high school soccer team, a veritable human rainbow.  Cohen notes that 18 different languages are spoken among those who attend Storm Lake High.
Storm Lake, by the way, is the home of the Storm Lake Times and Art Cullen, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Editorial writing.  Read more here.  I wonder if that is how Cohen "found" or identified it as the subject of her story.

These offerings all represent really strong reporting on rural America from some of our most important national media outlets.