Friday, January 26, 2018

LIterary Ruralism (Part XII): Beartown

Beartown is Fredrik Backman's latest offering.  He's the Swedish novelist who hit the big time a few years ago with A Man Called Ove.  His Britt-Marie Was Here was also a best seller.  Beartown is set in a small town in Sweden, though it's a town that's big enough to have boys' and men's hockey teams--and to have a factory.  Here are some excerpts about the place, which is very much a character in the story: 
Beartown isn’t close to anything. Even on a map the place looks unnatural. “As if a drunk giant tried to piss his name in the snow,” some might say. “As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,” more high-minded souls might suggest. Either way, the town is losing. It has been a very long time since it won at anything. More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season. Back in the days when there were still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: “Beartown – Leaves You Wanting More!” The wind and snow took a few years to wipe out the word “More.” Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?  (pp. 10-11)
And then there's this: 
But we’re a town in the middle of the forest. We’ve got no tourism, no mine, no high-tech industry. We’ve got darkness, cold, and unemployment. If we can make this town excited again, about anything at all, that has to be a good thing. I know you’re not from round here, love, and this isn’t your town, but look around: the jobs are going, the council’s cutting back. The people who live here are tough, we’ve got the bear in us, but we’ve taken blow after blow for a long time now. This town needs to win at something. We need to feel, just once, that we’re best. I know it’s a game. But that’s not all it is. Not always.  (p. 26).
But this is perhaps my favorite excerpt. It regards the relationship between Beartown and the nation's capital, and I like it because it reflects that "chip on the shoulder"/inferiority complex that so many small-ish cities/rural areas and their residents feel:
Naturally, everyone in Beartown hates the capital, and they’ve developed a permanent sense of resentment at the fact that the forest contains all the natural resources but all the money ends up somewhere else. Sometimes it feels as if the people of Beartown love the fact that the climate is so inhospitable, because not everyone can handle it: that reminds them of their own strength and resilience. The first local saying Peter taught Kira was: “Bears shit in the woods, but everyone else shits on Beartown, so forest people have learned to take care of themselves!”  (p. 55)
I'm only about half way through the book, but at this point I can say that the forest is like a character in the novel, albeit a minor one.

Though this story is set in Europe, it could well be in the United States or Canada--and the sport could well be one other than hockey, e.g, football in small-town Texas.  Indeed, I'm reminded of the importance of football to this town in Missouri--how the school's football team gives the town identity and meaning, especially in the wake of economic devastation. 

Other themes in the book are gender and crime. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Speaking of rural disgruntlement...High Country News goes inside State of Jefferson

The High Country News feature by Tay Wiles was published a few days ago.  It appears under the headline, "A Separatist State of Mind," with the sub-head "In the era of Trump, rural discontent settles in the State of Jefferson."  The story is Wiles' behind-the-scenes look at the State of Jefferson movement, and she focuses a great deal on 27-year-old Kayla Brown, a native of Redding, who has been involved off and on in the movement.  Wiles notes that Brown is one of very few young people involved in the movement and that this has led to some conflict between her and the movement's leadership.  Here's an excerpt that plays up race, regional identity, and attachment to place:
The region is largely rural and white (though the Latino population has risen in recent years and there are several Native American tribes), and its politics are mostly red (only four counties went for Hillary Clinton in 2016). But the Northstate is also an idea that encompasses a shared regional identity for people like Brown, who has lived here her whole life and never wants to leave. “You have a lot of rural folk, people who have been here for three, four, sometimes even five generations,” she told me at the [Civl War] re-enactment. “We’re literally tied to the land.”
Another interesting passage about Brown--and State of Jefferson politics--is here:
Brown and her compatriots feel trapped behind enemy lines — rural conservatives in a state led by liberal urban Democrats. The election of Donald Trump and the rise of the California progressive “resistance” have riled conservatives anew. Libertarian-tinged sentiments are deeply rooted here. Poor policy is squandering natural resources, such as agriculture, timber and minerals, Brown said, making rural life increasingly difficult. And now, more people from coastal, urban parts of the state are moving in, bringing liberal values that chafe local sensibilities.
This coastal v. inland divide is also a theme in the recently announced effort to divide the Golden State into California and New California, discussed here.

Another big theme of the article is economics--in particular the lack of economic opportunity in the State of Jefferson.  Wiles tells us that Brown and her husband were thinking of leaving the state about five years ago, when her husband was looking at job opportunities in Wyoming and Idaho.  She talked him into giving northern California another shot--five years based on her hope that, within that time frame, the State of Jefferson might have become a reality.  Now that five years is nearly up and the couple have two young children, complicating their circumstances.

In any event, don't miss this fascinating piece, a great read in its entirety (and, am I quoted regarding the relative political powerlessness of rural Californians and proposing the practice of rural proofing to elevate rural visibility in politics).

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Wall Street Journal piece on rural poverty in North Carolina

The North Carolina Rural Center shared this interesting Wall Street Journal piece on poverty in rural North Carolina this morning on their Facebook page.

The article focuses on the divide between urban and rural North Carolina, a topic that I have spoken about frequently. North Carolina's economy appears to be doing fine on the macro level due to growth in the Raleigh and Charlotte areas but when you examine micro level data, you see the gross inequality that exists within the state. The article makes mention of a couple of failed attempts to bring automobile manufacturers to rural North Carolina but does note a couple of recent successes in Edgecombe and Davidson Counties.

North Carolina is certainly not alone in having a stark divide between its rural and urban areas. As this map from The Daily Yonder shows, job growth has been anemic in many rural spaces around the country. In North Carolina, job losses have been centered around the historically impoverished eastern region of the state.

As someone who grew up in rural North Carolina, I certainly agree with the central point of the article. If you can, I encourage you to give it a read.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Big feature in NYT Magazine on the Malheur occupation, two years on

Jennifer Piercy's feature in yesterday's New York Times Magazine appears under the headline, "Fear of the Government in the Ranchlands of Oregon."  This is a retrospective on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge seizure two years ago this month, but it reflects very current local views on federal land management.

Of great interest to me was the ranchers' sense of entitlement to the land, along with their penchant for conspiracy theories.  Piercy asks:
After only a few generations living here, what made them feel the land so completely belonged to them? 
Robin Olson [a member of Central Oregon Patriots, who lives in Powell Butte] told me that a lot of the region’s thinking about politics in the West originated from a publication called Range magazine. “What you will find,” she told me, “is that it was never about the sage grouse, never about the spotted owl and never about the wolf. It was about getting people off the land.” I asked Robin about the sage grouse, whose population had plummeted from 16 million to a few hundred thousand, and she told me, “I don’t think they are really endangered.” The sage grouse “just happened to live in almost every Western state” and that’s why “the government chose it.”
Also, here's a fabulous and fascinating quote by geographer Paul Starrs, from his essay “An Inescapable Range, or the Ranch as Everywhere.”
Ranching’s realm is really, then, definable as being where most people are absent.
This is one way of saying that ranching requires lots of territory, a fact detailed with this information about the ranch of Joe and Gay Cronin:
This was Cronin’s “home ranch,” where he housed his cattle in the winter and provided shelter for their newborns. In the spring, he gathered the cattle in trailers the size of semis and hauled them north, into the Malheur National Forest, where he owned 320 acres of land. He also had a permit that allowed him to graze his cattle for five and a half months of the year, usually June to October, on lands in the Malheur managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Every year he and Gay attended a required meeting to discuss the terms of their permit. Usually, the Forest Service decided how many cattle he could let out on the range and for how long. If an endangered species lived on the federal land, the terms of the permit were subject to change.
That excerpt also notes the procedure that ranchers who use any public lands are required to go through each year.  I found this detail about the ways the federal government engages ranchers to be very interesting and found myself wanting to know more about this interface--and what it is that the federal government does--other than protect endangered species and wildlife--that the ranchers find so annoying.  Or is that protection sufficient to drive the annoyance?  Well, here are the closing paragraphs of the story, with Piercy writing in the first person, which seems to answer that question:
I tried to suggest a lack of understanding between rural and urban people, but Robin stopped me. “No,” she said. “We just want different things.” The statement was cold and clear. It suggested the end of reconciliation. “We don’t want you breathing down our back,” she said. “Bottom line is we don’t trust you. We don’t trust you to look out for our best interests. And in truth we don’t even know that you know how to. A lot of people were saying this was about saving the bunnies and butterflies, but that’s not what this is about.”
Robin sat over her empty plate. “It’s about getting people off the land,” she said. “It’s dark.”

Rural maternal health draws the attention of none other than Samantha Bee

See the segment of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee here

I am not surprised that Samantha Bee is taking up the cause of maternal health, but I am surprised she's advocating for rural women in particular.  They're the sort of constituency she's usually poking fun at. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is a major victory for east coast tribes

"Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among several states, and with the Indian tribes."
- Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution

The underpinning of our understanding of the role of tribes in the national framework comes from the above quote. Tribes are listed separately in the Constitution, separate from the states and from foreign nations. The Framers intended for tribes to occupy a separate sphere of the geopolitical world of the new United States government, a decision that seemed to be of little consequence to the Framers. At that point in history, it was thought that Indian tribes were on the way out and some, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, argued that the path forward for Native peoples was to adopt the customs and traditions of mainstream American society. This thought process would be a recurring theme throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

An affirmation of tribal sovereignty and the codification of the idea of tribes as separate, but not equal, nations came when Chief Justice John Marshall referred to them as "domestic, dependent nations" and described their relationship with the United States government as being like a ward to its guardian. In what is known as the "Marshall trilogy" of cases, Marshall also re-affirmed that the federal government has exclusive right to regulate tribes and that tribes exist separately from the states in which they reside. 

For many tribes however, their sovereignty and right to exist in this framework were not immediately recognized. Many tribes, including my own ancestors, had seen their numbers dwindle and cultures erased by the encroachment of British settlers prior to the American Revolution. For tribes along the east coast, the settlement of the British was devastating. In many cases, our nations were thought to be extinct, our legal rights to our land were not recognized, and the American government would have rather pretended that we did not exist. As I detailed in a previous post, many Native Americans were marked as "free persons of color" or "mulatto" in the United States Census and some legislatures, namely Virginia, went the extra mile and passed legislation that created a racial binary between white and "colored," thus legislatively erasing Native identity.

For many tribes on the east coast, the recognition of our sovereignty has only come about in the latter half of the 20th century, hundreds of years after our first contact with the British. The Mohegan, Narragansett, Catawba, Pequot, Shinnecock, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Pamunkey and many others have only relatively begun to enjoy the sovereignty that should have been recognized at First Contact.

Last week, the United States Senate passed legislation, previously passed in the House, that will add six more tribes to that list. The tribes, all based in Virginia, can trace their lineages back to first contact and include descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy, who remain well-known due to their connection with the Jamestown settlements and their role in American lore. This is an important victory. While tribes in the coastal Northeast have had a reasonable amount of luck in getting their sovereignty recognized, the states in the Southeast have been less fortunate. There is perhaps no better example of this than the tribes in Virginia's neighbor to the south.  

In North Carolina, there are seven state recognized tribes (one federal, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western NC). Most of them are relatively close to the coast and all of them occupy rural spaces. Many of them also occupy spaces that are incredibly economically disadvantaged. In fact, my tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, exists in one of the poorest and most crime ridden counties in the entire United States. While the tribe was granted partial recognition in the Lumbee Act of 1956, our sovereignty was not recognized and the bill had little practical effect. Seeing six Virginia tribes be recognized in one piece of legislation represents a beacon of hope to the tribes in North Carolina who eagerly await for the same fate. 

I will not pretend that federal recognition is not a cure-all for all economic ills. In fact, some of the more dire poverty in the United States exists on reservations where tribes are recognized. However, federal recognition brings with it a few key benefits, the most important of which is a recognition of the existence of sovereignty that predates the existence of the United States.  It also provides tribes with the right to independently pursue economic development without relying on the states, enhanced protection of the rights to their artifacts and history, the right to run their own educational systems, and a litany of other items that come with being a distinct sovereign entity. The benefits of economic development for a tribe extend beyond just creating wealth in the community, it also allows for the raising of funds to assist with cultural preservation and the creation of scholarships and tribal schools to educate youth, both of which are essential for the perpetuation of culture and the expression of sovereignty. 

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is an incredible victory for eastern Native people. We were among the first to encounter the British and seemingly among the last to have our sovereignty and rights to our ancestral land recognized by the United States government. I celebrate the passage of this act and applaud Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine for their work on getting it through the Senate. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Maine rural lawyer bill set for public hearing

Back in November, I wrote a post on Maine's rural lawyer shortage and noted that a bill had been introduced into the Maine legislature that would provide tax credits to those who choose to practice in rural communities. This bill is set for its public hearing before the Committee on Taxation in the Maine legislature. The hearing will be held at 1 pm on January 22nd at the Maine State House in Augusta.

Before the bill goes to a hearing however, I wanted to analyze it and see how it stands up. The bill has some interesting provisions that I will analyze below:
  • The attorney must commit to five years in the underserved community. 
I am a huge proponent of this provision because it discourages turnover and encourages people to commit to and put down ties in a community. Five years is also an incredibly long time, long enough to someone to put down roots, start a family and become an integrated part of a community, as often happens in small towns. There is also tremendous value in minimizing turnover because it allows rural clients to have access to attorneys with experience, as opposed to a steady supply of novice attorneys. I am hopeful that this provision eventually leads to people remaining in their community beyond the five year required period

  • In 2024, eligibility to enroll in the tax credit will expire and a report will be commissioned on the success of the program before a renewal bill is introduced. 
I have mixed feelings about this one. I understand the need to evaluate a program's success and make sure that it is achieving its mission. I also think that the report will be a useful source of data for future research on the rural lawyer shortage. The bill does provide that based on the effectiveness of the program, the joint standing committee responsible for reviewing the report may introduce a bill that continues the program. However, I am not a fan of an automatic sunset for a program like this even with the option to renew it. My fear is that it may get lost in the legislative shuffle in 2024. 

The bill provides that attorneys can be "certified" from 2019 through 2024 to begin their five year commitment so it seems as through the final attorney to receive the credit will not be fully out of the program until 2029. I worry that the abbreviated data that would be available in 2024 will not paint a full and accurate picture of the program's success and may jeopardize its renewal. This is especially problematic since only one group of people will have gone the entire five years. 

  • There lacks an actual enforcement mechanism to ensure that an attorney honors his/her five year commitment. 
The bill does not provide any way to hold an attorney to the five year commitment that they are required to make to be eligible for the program. As the bill provides: "[t]he board shall monitor certified attorneys to ensure that they continue to be eligible for the credit under this section and shall decertify any attorney who ceases to meet the conditions of eligibility" There is no mention of the bill of any consequences of decertification, no mention of paying back the taxes saved because of the tax credit or any way to ensure that a person actually honors the commitment that the bill says that they have to make. A person is just simply "decertified" if they no longer meet the requirements of the program. 

  • There is a limit of only five attorneys per year. 
Five attorneys per year is a relatively small number and only gets you twenty-five new rural attorneys through the life cycle of the bill. Since each attorney is limited to only five years of receiving the credit, this also establishes a defacto limit of twenty-five attorneys being a recipient of the credit at any given time. Given the severity of the rural lawyer shortage, this seems like a small number. 

In South Dakota, which has also provided financial incentives to practice in rural communities, there is a limit of thirty-two attorneys being apart of that program at any given time. Unlike Maine, there does not seem to be a limit on how many you can certify per year. However, South Dakota's limit was initially sixteen and it was doubled after the program had existed for two years so it is entirely possible that the same could happen in Maine. I theorize that the low initial ask is due to political pragmatism. 


The bill, while it has its flaws, is an important step forward for addressing this critical issue. Maine seems to be leading the way, on the East Coast at least, in actually attempting addressing this. I am especially impressed by the work that Maine is doing and the work that has been put into studying this issue by entities throughout the state. I will be keeping an eye on this and will try to make sure to update you all on its progress. 

New push for two Californias

A group called "New California" announced on Monday a desire to split the state of California into two, with the part carved off to the north and east to be called "New California."  The divide between what would remain California and so-called New California is roughly the rural-urban divide within the state, though coupled with the new, mostly rural state would be San Diego and Orange counties.  I am assuming these counties get included because, even though they are highly urbanized, they are historically also Republican leaning. 

Read more here.  I'm including the proposed map. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Why calling South Dakota a sh*#hole is unhelpful (or, an illustration of why two wrongs don't make a right)

Twitter sent me a push notification overnight.  It wanted me to see a Tweet by Andrew Kaczynski      to Tomi Lahren.  Here it is:

The clear implication is that South Dakota, which is apparently Lahren's home state, is a sh*#hole. 

Oh no, here we go again, I thought... And why did the Twitter algorithm want to ensure I saw this?  Does it know I'm a ruralist? Does it know there is such a thing as ruralists?  Is there such a thing as a ruralist?  Or is it just

I don't know much about either of these people, just that Tomi Lahren is some sort of quasi-celebrity by virtue of having been a political commentator and that she's quite far to the right, even supports Trump.  Indeed, wikipedia tells me she is "an American conservative, political commentator, and former television host, currently working for Great America Alliance, an advocacy organization that supports Donald Trump

Andrew Kaczynski describes himself on his Twitter page as
Reporter at CNN's KFile. Challenged to a duel by @RandPaul. “Flex Cam” winner at a @BrooklynNets game. Likes cats.
I know Kaczynski as a Twitter regular, a lefty who often criticizes Trump (as do I, I might add).  Like many (most?) political commentators on Twitter these days, he's willing to get edgy to draw attention and accumulate followers. 

And, of course, Kaczynski is responding to Lahren's defense of Trump's use of the term sh*#hole to refer to Haiti, El Salvador, and the entire African continent.  What Lahren wrote, in case you cannot read it, is
If they aren't sh*#hole countries, why don't their citizens stay there? Let's be honest. Call it like it is. 
Make no mistake: Trump's trash talk about these countries is wrong, and it is deeply embarrassing that he would use such profanity to refer to other human beings and other sovereign nations.  Trump seems to reveal his racism at every turn.  Similarly, I make no apologies for Tomi Lahren. 

But isn't Kaczynski also wrong?  Or at least unhelpful in ridiculing a "flyover state"?  Yes, what will be seen as a clever wit, a getting back at the rubes, is likely to garner him a few more Twitter followers.  But make no mistake he is ridiculing residents of South Dakota. 

My mother always taught me that "two wrongs don't make a right." And I don't think that Twitterverse kudos are a sufficient reward for over-riding that principle--especially not in these extremely politically polarized times. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

On Puerto Rican migration into rural South Dakota

The Washington Post reported last week on a South Dakota poultry producer's recruitment of labor from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, noting that it is part of a "new answer in their ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs." The story, by Chico Harlan, is datelined Huron, South Dakota, population 12,592.  The story begins with a vignette of weather shock and a hint of culture shock:
The airport terminal doors slid open and out came 22 people from Puerto Rico, walking a few weeks ago into the whipping South Dakota wind, not quite ready for what was ahead. One person still wore shorts. Another zipped up a hoodie. The group climbed into three waiting vans. 
“You guys good?” asked one of the drivers who would be taking them to their new home. “Does anybody speak English?” 
“No,” one person said, and the driver let the van go silent before turning up some country music. 
Through the windows, there were miles of emptiness, and Gretchen Velez, 21, looked at the others in the van and was quiet. She’d started the day on an island that was desperately short on electricity and clean water and jobs because of Hurricane Maria. Now, 10 hours later, she was in South Dakota — a place she knew almost nothing about, other than what a job recruiter had told her, that he had a position for her at a turkey processing plant in a rural town nearly 3,000 miles away.
Before Hurricane Maria, Velez was a college student. But when the hurricane hit, her classes were canceled and she lost her job due to the infrastructure and economic conditions on the island.

As for Dakota Provisions, her new employer, it introduces itself on its website thusly:
Dakota Provisions is a state-of-the-art turkey processing plant that produces homegrown, world-class products. Dakota Provisions manufactures and produces poultry and protein products that are specially designed for retail and food service partners. Located just east of the James River, Dakota Provisions was founded by a co-op of growers, most of whom are members of Hutterite communities.
Journalist Harlan explains that its been operating for some dozen years and a thousand people work there, making it one of the largest employers in the state.

Harlan puts what is happening at Dakota Provisions in wider economic and labor market context--particularly as it relates to immigration in rural locales.
[Dakota Provisions] transformed the character of Huron: The starting-level jobs — breast-pullers, carcass-loaders, bird-hangers — rarely attracted anyone from the local workforce, so instead the plant filled with people from all over the world. Soon, a town that had been 97 percent white had four Asian grocery stores and a school district where half the students were learning English as a second language, and at the center of it was a plant in constant need of workers — people who would be ready every morning as trucks dropped off 19,000 live turkeys that would be killed, deboned, sectioned and sliced, and wrapped for restaurants and grocery stores. 
Later Harlan notes:
Only a handful seemed to be local. The people hanging the birds were from Burma. Some of the people trimming the breasts were from Puerto Rico. Deeper in the factory, cutting skin, removing organs, there were people from Cuba and Guatemala and Vietnam. More than a dozen were from Chuuk, an island chain in Micronesia.
As for Velez, she says she hopes eventually to get back to Puerto Rico, but for now Huron, South Dakota and Dakota Provisions represent opportunity.  I felt empathy and sympathy for Velez as I read the story, but as I ponder the extremely difficult work she is doing for $10/hour, I find myself hoping Velez makes it home to Puerto Rico or can otherwise continue her education. 

My academic article about immigration into rural locales of non-gateway states is here.  I have written another post based largely on this same WaPo story for my new White Working Class and the Law Blog, for a class that kicks off Thursday.   That post springboards from this line of the story:  "ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs."

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wisconsin bill seeks to address lack of legal representation for low-income rural citizens

It always makes me happy to read news about states taking substantive action to address the rural lawyer shortage. It especially makes me happy when the action has bipartisan support. In Wisconsin, there is a bill, pending before both houses of the state legislature, that would provide up to $20,000 in student loan relief for attorneys who practice in rural communities and take at least fifty public defender cases per year.

As I have mentioned before in this space, there is a shortage of attorneys in almost every rural space in the country, a fact that leaves rural people without the ability to access the legal system and often exacerbates social inequalities that already exist. The distribution of attorneys in every state, even predominantly rural states, is defined by a clustering in urban centers and a shortage in rural spaces.  As the linked article notes regarding Wisconsin: 64% of attorneys practice in just three urban counties while twenty-three counties have twenty or fewer practicing attorneys and fifteen have ten or fewer practicing attorneys.

Contrary to popular wisdom, there is not an attorney surplus. The fact is that too many people have clustered into areas that are perceived to have more jobs and too few are going to where the work is actually needed. However, it is not as simple as asking someone to just move to a rural community and start working. There is also relatively little funding to actually pay people to do work that serves low-income rural populations. A legal services office is a resource and possible employer but in many states, when legal aid funding is cut, the rural offices are the first to close. There are also few programs and grants that help provide seed funding to help young lawyers start their own firms in rural spaces. Even if a person wanted to move to a rural space and start working, there may also be seemingly insurmountable barriers in the way. This bill seeks to remove one of the barriers, student loan debt.

This bill is also important because it helps to ensure that the Constitutional rights of rural people are actually respected. The right to counsel is a fundamental right for anyone who interacts with our legal system and when there is a lawyer shortage, that right is imperiled. It is important that we ensure that anyone who is accused of a crime has access to competent counsel and an attorney that is overburdened with cases may not be able to offer that. A person's access to competent counsel should not be restricted by their income or geographic location.

Friday, January 5, 2018

So much rural news (much about economics, work, mobility), so little time to blog (Part I)

Happy New Year!  For my first post of 2018, I am going to try to catch up by summarizing quickly a number of recent mainstream, high-profile news stories about rural America--most of them quite depressing.  They feature tales of shrinking amenities and store closures, population loss and migration, shifting rural economies, failing job training and such.

Several of these stories are by the Washington Post, including this one from Hermitage, Pennsylvania, population 16,220, in the western part of the state, about a mall (and a town) that lost its Macy's, then its Sears and which now fears it will lose its JCPenney.  Here's an excerpt from Jessica Contrera's story:
Headlines have called the shrinking of these American staples the “retail apocalypse.” In Hermitage, employees called it “the funeral,” because of the way it sounded as customers lined up to make their final purchases. “I’m so sorry,” they said. “I’m in shock.” “What are you going to do?” “What am I going to do?” 
What might have been just a sign of the times in a bigger city was a life-changing and economy-altering loss for Hermitage, the kind of place too far from anywhere to be considered a suburb, but too developed to be considered rural or to attract visitors with small-town charm. The closest thing Hermitage has to a downtown is the intersection where its mall sits, surrounded by McDonald’s, Walgreens and Dunkin’ Donuts. The biggest buildings down the road are Kohl’s, Kmart and Walmart. The retail industry is the third-largest employer in town, just behind health care and manufacturing.
A WonkBlog piece in the Post a few days later asks a question prompted by the Contrera story:  "America's Forgotten Towns:  Should They Be Saved or Should People Just Leave?"  Heather Long, an economics correspondent, puts the failure of Americans to move for better economic opportunities into historical context:
But the reality is Americans have become homebodies. People in the United States are moving at about half the rate that they did in the 1970s and '80s, according to census data, and no one really understands why. There are obvious economic barriers to moving. It's expensive and risky to leave a place your family has been living in for generations, and there's no guarantee the job you move for will still exist in a few years. But there seems to be something deeper holding people in place.
A high school vocational tech teacher in central Ohio — who asked not to be named, to speak freely — told me: “Most of our students will not give the slightest thought to relocating should they not be able to find good employment here. They cite all the [usual reasons], but a big one is just plain fear of the unknown. My students think Columbus is a big, scary city. Many have never even been out of the county.” 
Among economists, a major rethink is underway about how to help people in forgotten towns, and it's starting to filter into policy debates in Washington. The mentality is shifting from “let's get these people to move” to “let's get new jobs to these towns.”  
Her attention to attachment to place really resonates with me because it's a feature of rural life I've been writing about (and trying to assess the significance of) for more than a decade now.  Long draws heavily on the thinking of Joseph Stiglitz, which she contrasts somewhat with that of Trump.

And that reminds me of this story from The Atlantic about the rights and wrongs of job retraining and how we do it in the United States.  See also this and this from Sweden.   Read more about migration (or lack thereof) for jobs from Alana Semuels in The Atlantic here.  And the Wall Street Journal reported on this issue last summer, and a blog post from earlier in 2017 is here.

I'm going to try to get back to Part II of this post in the next few days, but in case I don't, I'll at least  tease you with this link from the Denver Post on urban-to-rural migration in Colorado (it's about gentrification, cost-of-living and retirement ...) and this one on Puerto Rico-to-South Dakota migration, post-Hurricane Maria (it's about a labor shortage in the meat processing biz). The Georgia legislature is considering the sorts of investments that will be adequate incentives to stem population loss from its rural counties, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports here.  Finally, this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education links lack of education to public health; it features extreme rural poverty in the Missouri bootheel.  

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Maine Governor tells concerned rural teenager to "read a book" when asked to support net neutrality.

Perhaps the greatest thing about American democracy is the ability to write our lawmakers and representatives and make our voices heard. We send our letters off, hoping that they will be read and considered by their recipient. We also hope for a response, which often comes in the form of a canned letter written by a staffer. What happens however when the elected official sends a personalized response? As a Camden, Maine teenager learned, it's not always a positive experience. 

Governor Paul LePage has a reputation for being a bit of a firebrand, known for leaving a vulgar voicemail for a lawmaker, insinuating that racial minorities are responsible for the drug epidemic, and other things, LePage is not known for self-censorship or obeying etiquette norms. During the recent debate on net neutrality, 16 year old Hope Osgood decided to write the governor to express her views on the subject. LePage returned a copy of the letter and wrote, "Hope! Pick up a book and read!" and signed it "Governor." 

There is of course little context behind LePage's comments and we don't know what he actually meant by them. It is possible that he was trying to minimize the role of the internet in modern day education by insinuating that Osgood would be just as well to read a book. As someone who grew up in a rural community, without broadband, and who had to rely on an underfunded public library for research while in high school, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the internet is a great equalizer in regards to access to information. As Osgood herself notes in the linked article, many of the books in her classrooms are old, outdated, and damaged. If the governor had intended to tell Osgood that the internet was not as important as she thinks because she could "pick up a book and read" then he appears to have missed the target. 

Hidden in the background of this entire situation is the question of rural broadband and its expansion in Maine. With more and more resources becoming available online, including a seemingly endless supply of academic journals, access to the internet is essential for honing your skills as a researcher and accessing a wealth of knowledge. Denying rural students this resource is detrimental to their intellectual growth and development. As the ability to utilize online resources becomes a necessity in the modern workplace, it also puts them as an economic disadvantage. 

A 2015 report found that 80% of Mainers lacked access to download and upload speeds of at least 10Mbps. As LePage said at the time of this report's issuance, "[h]igh-speed Internet is critical to moving Maine forward. It has become increasingly evident that many industries simply cannot prosper in our state without this service ... limited or very basic Internet service can be a barrier to attracting business to our state or moving our existing employers into a digital economy." Governor LePage's office even said that he spoke to President Trump about expanding broadband into rural areas during a visit to Washington in April of last year.

However, LePage has typically favored solutions that lean heavily on the private sector and that require minimal to no funding from the state government. In June 2015, LePage vetoed a bill that would have created a fund (with an initial appropriation of $500) to facilitate the creation of open-source municipal fiber networks in rural Maine. The bill had passed with strong support in the State Senate and with unanimous support in the State House. In his veto letter, LePage noted that he had "attended a launch event for a company whose goal is to ultimately deliver this type of service to 90 percent of Maine by the end of the year. That is just one company. It should come as no surprise; the private sector is already way ahead of Augusta politicians in identifying a business opportunity and implementing a strategy to deliver a needed product and service." By the end of 2015, 90% of Maine did not have access to broadband internet.

Governor LePage would be well-served to consider the words of young people like Ms. Osgood. Minimizing the role of the internet in the modern world is dangerous and a severe disservice to rural residents. As Philip Alston's recent report for the United Nations (see my post on it here) noted, governments, even in predominantly rural states, seem to be lagging behind on addressing this issue. As I have noted in this space many times, there is a huge resource gap between urban and rural communities and that will only continue to get worse as lawmakers refuse to adequately address the lack of access to broadband in rural communities.

Perhaps Governor LePage and his ideological compatriots would also be well-served to consider how President Franklin Roosevelt handled a situation in which an essential utility was not being adequately provided by the private sector.......