Friday, February 16, 2018

NPR on rural students in higher ed--or not

Jon Marcus and Matt Krupnick reported a few days ago out of Iowa under the headline, "Who's Missing from America's Colleges?  Rural High School Graduates."  The story features Dustin Gordon of Sharpsburg, Iowa, population 89.  He graduated from high school in Lenox, Iowa, population 1,407.
In his sparsely settled community in the agricultural countryside of southern Iowa, "there's just no motivation for people to go" to college, says Gordon, who's now a senior at the University of Iowa. 
"When they're ready to be done with high school, they think, 'That's all the school I need, and I'm just going to go and find a job.' " That job, Gordon explains, might be on the family farm or at the egg-packaging plant or the factory that makes pulleys and conveyor belts, or driving trucks that haul grain. 
Variations of this mindset, among many other reasons, have given rise to a reality that has gotten lost in the impassioned debate over who gets to go to college, which often focuses on racial and ethnic minorities and students from low-income families: The high school graduates who head off to campus in the lowest proportions in America are the ones from rural places.
Here are some sobering data points to provide context for the profile.  While 62% of urban high school graduates and 67% of suburban high school graduates go to college, just 59% of rural ones do--that's all races, at every income level. Nationally, 42% of those aged 18 to 24 are enrolled in higher education, but the figure is just 29% of rural folks, compared to 48% from cities. 

I've noticed the media paying more attention to the rural education gap since Election 2016.  That's got to be a good thing.  

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Update on rural voting patterns, and a bit about the Bustos report on the "heartland"

This overview paragraph is from Dave Weigel's piece in the Washington Post on Democrat Margaret Good's win in the race for Florida's 72d congressional race yesterday, a seat based in Sarasota: 
But for years, Democrats had been spending little, and losing more — nearly 1,000 state legislative seats, many gerrymandered further out of reach after the party was routed in 2010. Starting last year, they’ve seen money and volunteers flood the sort of local races where the party had been wiped out during Barack Obama’s presidency. In many of the races they’ve lost, they’ve erased most of Republicans’ margins, often with the same pattern — strong Democratic turnout in suburbs and a Republican fade in rural voting. In an average of legislative races, Democrats have seen a 11.9 percent swing since 2016 results.
I've not yet posted about the extensive coverage given to Representative Cheri Bustos's (Democrat-IL) report with recommendations on how the Democrats can take back seats in the Midwest.  Read more about that report here (In These Times), here (Politico), and here (NPR).  In These Times coverage by John Collins includes this description of the report:
Hope From the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington compiles interviews with 72 current or former Democratic officials who, in recent years, won over their rural constituents despite the national popularity of the Republican opposition. According to the report, these were candidates who “bucked the trend and succeeded in the rural Midwest, now dominated by Republicans.”
In the interview with Bustos on NPR, she was asked if she was "suggesting that Democrats went too far in their backing on issues like gay marriage or transgender rights" and whether "that has been part of the [Democrats'] problem." She responded: 
Well, I don't think we should ever lose sight of fighting for the people who need us to fight for them, whether it's, you know, the LGBTQ community or whether it's communities of color. You know, we're Democrats, and we fight for people and for better lives for families. 
But what I'm saying is that we need to stay relentlessly and I - you know, just keep our eyes on the ball for economic recovery in areas that have yet to see it. You know, when we say that we're the big-tent party, you know, that doesn't mean that you leave one group outside pounding the stakes and you let other people - you let them in the tent. When we say we're the big-tent party, we've got to be inclusive, and we've got to fight for everybody. And that includes people in the heartland who have gone through some tough times.
This Bustos-led report was also mentioned in a podcast on This American Life.   One striking thing about that episode was Bustos coaching a female candidate for office not to play up her college education given that many voters in the district were not similarly educated.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Changes to SNAP program may have impact on rural economies

By now, most of you are probably familiar with President Donald Trump's proposal to at least partially replace the SNAP program with a food delivery service that OMB Director Mick Mulvaney has compared to "Blue Apron." There have already been many criticisms of this proposal and the fact that it will take away the right of SNAP recipients to choose their own meals and subject them to eating whatever food the government sees fit to provide them. After all, Mulvaney defended the proposal by saying that one of its benefits is that the government will be able to negotiate prices on the wholesale market. What Trump however is proposing is not an entirely new program. The federal government already delivers pre-boxed food to families on tribal reservations all over the country. Consider that the federal government has not conducted a nationally representative study of that program since 1989, a fact that is quite troubling.

One of the most overlooked aspects of this proposal is the impact that it will have on low-income economies, particularly in isolated rural communities. With the federal government at least partially assuming responsibility for delivering food to SNAP recipients, money will be lost from local economies. As I covered in a previous post, SNAP has a measurable economic impact. A SNAP recipient is likely going to spend their dollars in local stores, which employ local people. Even those who spend their dollars at big box retailers are still contributing to keeping an employer in the local community, which helps to keep people employed.

According to the Center on Budgeting and Policy Priorities, over 80 percent of SNAP authorized retailers are small businesses. For many of these small businesses, revenue generated from sales to SNAP recipients may be quite significant. In fact, we already have examples of towns whose economies have been significantly boosted by revenue generated from SNAP. According to a study published by the United States Department of Agriculture, each $5 of SNAP generated approximately $9 of community spending. After all, when a person buys something at a store, their dollars continue to work its way through the economy.  If you want a more detailed explanation, feel free to visit this link.

By fundamentally changing a program that generates positive economic outcomes for impoverished communities, the Trump Administration is setting many communities up for failure. The impact of this proposal goes beyond the people who are receiving SNAP. Consider the economic impacts of the SNAP program and how it helps local business owners employ people in the community. If SNAP is cut and fewer dollars flow into a business then the business owner may have to lay people off or even close his business. The quality of life then also goes down for people in the surrounding community, especially in rural communities. Many rural communities are not exactly awash with options so losing a neighborhood grocery store could result in substantially longer drives to do simple things like grocery shopping, which can represent an additional hurdle for low-income people. The lack of a grocery store in the community may also affect their ability to attract new businesses, which often want access to basic amenities. Further, if a retailer is thinking of expanding into a community and sees examples of prior failures, they may be more reluctant to open up a location there. The end result of all of this is a weaker rural economy and a worsening of the rural:urban gap.

As you can see, changing SNAP is akin to knocking down a domino, it starts a chain reaction that can have a potentially disastrous effect on a local economy. It is my hope that President Trump and Director Mulvaney reconsider this project but if they do not, I hope that Congress decides to not pursue it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Rural minded governors can make a difference

Yesterday, the Roanoke Times published an op-ed written by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. In the op-ed, Northam discusses a lot of themes that are frequently discussed here. He talks about people growing up in rural Virginia and then having to settle elsewhere because of the lack of economic opportunity available to them. He relates his own upbringing on Virginia's Eastern Shore and his decision to settle in Hampton Roads, which as he notes is close to home "but not the same." He then goes on to talk about the need to invest in infrastructure, including broadband, in order to ensure the future economic viability of rural Virginia. He notes the duty of the governor to represent all of Virginia and that he represents "people in Russell County just as much as ... people in Alexandria."

Northam's dedication to rural issues is admirable and reminiscent of the governor of the state to his immediate south, North Carolina's Roy Cooper. Now in his second year as governor, Cooper recently announced the beginning of the "Hometown Strong" initiative, which will see the state government work with local officials and non-profit leaders to develop and complete projects as well as identify their long term needs. Like Northam, Cooper also mentioned the need to develop and improve rural infrastructure, including broadband. Cooper, a native of Nashville, also noted the personal impact of this initiative.

North Carolina and Virginia are similar in many ways. Both are coastal states in the Upper South, have growing urban centers, world-class flagship public universities (UNC and UVa), world class land grant universities (NC State and Virginia Tech), booming tech centers (based in Northern Virginia and Research Triangle Park), and--along with Florida--are the only true electoral battleground states in the South. They also share a common historical link. North Carolina's predecessor government, the Albemarle Settlements saw its first governor appointed by the Colonial Governor of Virginia. In fact, many early North Carolina settlers were Virginians who were migrating to the south.

North Carolina and Virginia have also been leaders in forging a New South, a South that is defined by its brains and not its manufacturing or agricultural might. The evidence of this is fairly obvious. In Durham, I have seen old tobacco warehouses filled with office space. In Charlotte, glistening skyscrapers now fill spaces that were once hubs of shipping agricultural goods on the railroad. In Northern Virginia, tech companies and government contractors drive the growth that has turned old farming towns into suburban sprawl. However, as Northern Virginia, Charlotte or the Triangle grow, it is important that we do not forget the people who are still in those rural spaces and are being left behind. In the old economy, the rural spaces supported the urban spaces; farms in rural North Carolina provided the tobacco that sat in the warehouses in Durham and the agricultural goods that were shipped out of Charlotte. For many rural spaces in North Carolina and Virginia, the economic successes of the state at large have done little to help them partially because the symbiotic relationship between rural and urban appears to be lost. This phenomena isn't limited to North Carolina and Virginia however. As I noted here back in November, the link between rural and urban also helped rural New England grow during the Industrial Revolution. Based on their words, it seems that Northam and Cooper are well aware of that and are working to solve it.

The future of rural America is going to depend on leaders who have a personal investment in rural communities and are willing to work to ensure that they remain viable. I am cautiously optimistic about the futures of rural North Carolina and Virginia and hope that Cooper and Northam can deliver on their promises to their home communities.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Rural broadband - its expansion and the various approaches and challenges

Broadband internet is a necessity for participation in the modern economy. Much of our business is conducted online, schools are increasingly offering online courses and entire degree programs, and the social networking opportunities available are unparalleled. There are entire portions of the country that are however cut off from being able to participate in the broadband world. The federal government has largely tried to address this issue by offering grants to private entities. However, is this the best approach? Would the federal government be better served to model the expansion of broadband on their own expansion of electricity in the 1930s? 

There seems to be little disagreement that broadband is an essential part of any modern economy and that it is essential for any community to have access to it in order to grow. However, there has been remarkably little progress on the national level to address this issue.  In 2011, the "Connect America Fund" was created to expand broadband by giving subsidies to private companies to expand into rural communities. Despite these efforts however, a 2016 Congressional Research report found that 55% of rural Americans have access to internet with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and only 32% have access to download speeds of 100 Mbps. 

The federal government currently defines "broadband" as internet with download speeds that exceed 25 Mbps, though there is a pending FCC proposal to reclassify access to cell phone data through a smartphone as having "access" to broadband. Since the Connect America Fund allocates funding based on need, this reclassification could result in areas that need to be served going unserved and the inflation of the number of people who have access to broadband. There are also questions about the accuracy of current FCC reports on broadband access and its affect on the ability of high need areas to be adequately served. Rob Hinton, chairman of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council, recently alleged that a recent FCC report greatly inflated the number of West Virginians who have access to broadband, an allegation that the FCC even admitted was possible due to its reporting mechanism. 

The states could try to take action to address the issue. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo's office announced a couple of weeks ago that it was entering into the final phase of a three phase program that was designed to ensure that all New Yorkers have access to broadband internet by the end of 2018. This program, titled "New NY Broadband," operates similarly to other programs with the same intention, it expands broadband to rural areas by providing grants to private companies in order to make that possible. The program has seen a reasonable amount of success. According to the governor's office, when the program started in 2015, thirty percent of New Yorkers lacked access to broadband internet. Today, only two percent lack access. However, New York is a high wealth state with a bustling economic center that provides massive amounts of tax revenue that allows it to pursue such ventures. A state like West Virginia or even North Carolina would struggle to afford such a venture. 

I have always been a proponent of treating rural broadband expansion similarly to how the expansion of electricity was treated in the 1930s. In 1936, the Rural Electrification Act was signed and it created a mechanism for providing low-interest loans to locally owned coops to expand the electrical grid into rural communities. Many of these coops even still exist. That approach, which eschewed the idea of giving subsidies to private actors, empowered local communities and provided money to local people who were then able to invest it in their community and start a locally owned utility. 

There have been pockets of rural America that have tried to take this approach in regards to broadband. In 2010, Wilson, North Carolina was able to create a city-owned broadband network, the first gigabit network in the state. A year after its deployment however, the state legislature passed a law that banned municipalities from expanding their broadband networks outside of its borders. In 2015, the FCC voted to block these laws, which had also been passed in other states. After the vote, Wilson expanded access to their network to a nearby small town. However, a court ruling invalidated the FCC vote resulting in 200 people losing access to Wilson's network, including a family farm that employed 250 people. 

New York's approach has yielded results so far. However, we have to look at New York as an anomaly. Most states do not have the wealth that New York has and cannot afford to fund a three phase multimillion dollar expansion project. There are also questions of sustainability. Will private actors maintain service in rural spaces? Is there a way to stop Verizon or FairPoint or Comcast from simply leaving if the venture proves unprofitable (even with the subsidies)? In an ideal world, we would empower cities like Wilson to create and develop broadband networks for their local communities.

The expansion of broadband is a necessity and a sustainable approach is needed to ensure that the service remains in place over the long term.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Rural Vermont town is an incubator for Olympic athletes

This post deviates a bit from my usual coverage, but I saw this today and could not resist posting and sharing. In December, The New York Times ran a story about Norwich, Vermont, a small town in the Upper Valley region of New Hampshire and Vermont. Despite being a small town, Norwich has produced a disproportionately high number of Olympic athletes.

The article's strength lies in the underlining of the Norwich values that have helped it nurture athletes and helped them remain grounded as they become successful. The article notes Norwich's strong commitment to community service and the involvement of the community in ensuring that children have the resources and encouragement needed to reach their goals. The article highlights the ideal small town, a place where the word "community" is at the center of everything that they do. One of the most interesting subtexts of the article is the relative lack of anonymity that you would have in a town like Norwich, which is not always as ideal as this article makes it sound.  In this case, however, community appears to be a means through which people empower each other.

The articles does briefly note Norwich's proximity to Dartmouth College, which is no small connection. Hanover, NH, home of Dartmouth, and Norwich are separated only by the Connecticut River and have deep historical ties. In fact, one of the final acts signed into law by President John F. Kennedy created a bi-state school district, the first of its kind, that the two towns share. Norwich even sends its high schoolers to Hanover High School.

The article discusses Norwich's roots as a farming community, which has used its proximity to Dartmouth to transform itself into a bedroom community for people employed either at the College or Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH. The growth of Dartmouth and the fact that it has allowed Norwich to successfully transition away from agriculture and into a more stable economy has been a tremendous boon for the town. What is perhaps most striking is that Norwich made this transition without sacrificing their commitment to creating a strong community. As small towns across the country begin to re-invent themselves, they would be wise to look to places like Norwich to see how they can preserve their commitment to community while still ensuring that their residents (and any potential newcomers) have access to economic opportunity.

I will also admit that the article brought back some feelings of nostalgia for me, having spent four years at Dartmouth and within walking distance of Norwich. One of my favorite memories at Dartmouth was walking across the Ledyard Bridge, which connects Hanover to Norwich and happening upon a carnival on the Norwich town common.  I also have memories of going to Dan and Whit's, driving down those 25 MPH roads that the article mentions, and exploring the beautiful area that envelops Hanover and Norwich.

The Upper Valley is an incredibly special place for me and I always love to see it receive attention on the national level.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Progress on telehealth part of two-year budget deal (plus, saving a rural Virginia hospital)

I noticed that Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii was touting today on Twitter a new law, the CHRONIC Care Act, that will facilitate telehealth.  The law, which was passed as part of the agreement to keep the federal government functioning, had bi-partisan support.  Senators from Mississippi to South Dakota to Maryland and Virginia to Hawaii sponsored it.  I am cutting and pasting here from Senator Schatz's website, dated today:
Today, the Senate voted to pass a two-year budget deal that includes the CHRONIC Care Act, legislation with key provisions authored by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that will improve access and quality of care for Medicare patients and save taxpayer money. 
“Almost every other part of our health system uses technology to improve health and save costs. It’s long past time for Medicare to catch up,” Senator Schatz said. “This legislation will improve health outcomes for Medicare patients, especially those who live in rural areas or have to make a big effort to get to the doctor’s office, and will make sure that Medicare is ready for the future, when telehealth plays an even bigger role in health care. I’m glad that Congress is making a bipartisan effort to make sure no one gets left behind from the promises and benefits telehealth has to offer.” 
“Mississippi is a leader in the field of telehealth – increasing access to quality care and cutting costs to reach some of our state’s most rural and vulnerable patients,” Senator Wicker said. “If enacted, the provisions Senator Schatz and I have authored will help many Americans receive the health care they need.” 
According to studies, telehealth has been shown to improve care and patient satisfaction while reducing costs. The CHRONIC Care Act lifts outdated restrictions that limit Medicare from reimbursing for telehealth. The telehealth provisions of the CHRONIC Care Act will expand the use of telehealth in accountable care organizations and Medicare Advantage, as well as for home dialysis patients and the evaluation of an acute stroke. In addition to Senators Schatz and Wicker, the telehealth provisions of the CHRONIC Care Act were cosponsored in the CONNECT for Health Act by U.S. Senators Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), John Thune (R-S.D.), and Mark Warner (D-Va.).
When I Googled "telehealth" to find more information about the federal bill, I came across this Washington Post story from late January about the failed effort at Medicaid expansion in Virginia.  Here's the lede, dateline Richmond:
Senate Democrats on Tuesday backed off a threat to hold a bill related to a rural hospital hostage because its Republican sponsor wouldn’t agree to expand Medicaid, abandoning their hardball tactic at the urging of Gov. Ralph Northam (D). 
One week after a bloc of Democrats killed a bill intended to help the shuttered Patrick County hospital in Southwest Virginia, the Senate voted unanimously for an identical measure, which Sen. William Stanley (R-Franklin) filed just hours after the original had died. 
The about-face came after Northam urged Democrats to work with Stanley, perhaps signaling how seriously the new governor intends to make good on promises of cooperation on Capitol Square.
Hmmm.  Not sure whether to cheer or boo.  So, a state senator gets what he wants for his rural community, while so many others (including poor-ish rural folks) are hurt by the failure to expand Medicaid. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

High Country News on "rural white scorn" (or, we are all angry, rural whites)

I rarely see the High Country News in print, but this month was an exception.  They sent me a hard copy of the January 22 issue because I'm quoted in the story about the "State of Jefferson," a feature I wrote about here on Legal Ruralism and here on Working Class Whites and the Law.

What I noticed in that hard copy that I might otherwise have missed is this editorial:  the movements produced by white scorn.  It draws parallels between the Bundys (of Malheur and Sagebrush Rebellion-esque fame in Nevada) and the State of Jefferson movement, but then goes beyond those more obvious commonalities.

I'll excerpt part of the editorial here, a part that cleverly challenges liberal elites (the sort who support the High Country News and generally assume they are a world away from rural white folk)  to think about what they have in common with disgruntled rural white folk:
Both of these stories, which took place more than 700 miles apart, reflect a dangerous undercurrent: the simmering scorn of rural white America, which is feeling increasingly disempowered in this cultural moment. The Bundys, the Jefferson separatists, and a wide swath of working-class whites feel left out of the conversation, as national policies, cultural changes and global markets leave them behind. Their resentment helped bring Donald Trump to power, gave the Bundys a form of legitimacy and coincides with the more dangerous movements of white supremacy and white nationalism.

However, rather than dismiss the Bundyites and Jeffersonians out of hand, we might be better served, one year into the Trump presidency, by asking whether or not we are all in the same boat after all. If you are not one of the elite 1 percent that holds 40 percent of U.S. wealth, and if you are not represented by the corporate interests that dominate our politics, is it possible you have more in common with these folks than you think?
I think these comments are pretty clever from an ally-ship, political coalition building standpoint.  It challenges us to think what we liberal elites have in common with the disgruntled, rural and white movement.

Cross Posted to Working Class Whites.

"Rural Surprise" in the Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register ran the headline "Rural Surprise" on the front page of its print edition, but when I sought the story online, I found most prominently a series of videos featuring six millennial business owners in New Providence, population 228, in the central part of the state.   The businesses include a flower shop, hardware store, photography studio, a cabinet maker, a trucking company, and district manager for a seed company, all started by men and women in their 20s and 30s.  

The accompanying story reads, in part:
But this isn’t a column about rural neglect and decay. It’s about the new — the surprisingly vibrant business community in this tiny town of 230 people whose downtown anchor is a 154-year-old retail store.

Speck can step outside his front door, glance in every direction and see a business district full of young talent: Ali in her flower shop, Blake with sawdust billowing out of his wood shop and a roadside sign down the street for Slade’s seed dealership. 
Believe it or not, Speck is one of a half-dozen entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s who in recent years have forged a millennial business backbone for New Providence.

It takes the combined ages of all six — 174 total years — to surpass the length of time Speck’s hardware store has stood in New Providence.
 New Providence Hardware is said to be the oldest hardware store in Iowa. 

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Stunning feature on the Rio Grande Valley's colonias in Washington Post

Don't miss this story by Maria Sacchetti, with photos by Salwan Georges, in yesterday's Washington Post.  The dateline is La Presa, Texas, population 319, in Webb County.   Here's an excerpt:
A ragged American flag flutters outside Rosa Castro’s trailer near the U.S.-Mexico border. She has no electricity, no running water, and little hope that she ever will. 
Castro is one of about 500,000 people residing in hundreds of unincorporated towns in south Texas, places with quirky names such as Little Mexico, Radar Base, Betty Acres and Mike’s that were created when developers carved up ranchland that was unprepared for human habitation and sold the parcels at bargain prices, mostly to low-income immigrants and Mexican Americans. 
* * *  
The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas says the enclaves, known in Spanish as colonias, represent one of the largest concentrations of poverty in the United States. Texas outlawed their creation and expansion in 1989. The state and federal government have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve some of the outposts, but have done little in others, for reasons that include the high costs and questions about who owns which land.

Critics of colonias say people frustrated by the lack of services should move to established cities and towns, but residents refuse to abandon their land after years of trying to make it work. They are irked that the state government recently cut funding for health care, water and other services for colonias, and that President Trump is pushing a $25 billion border wall and security upgrades at a time when illegal border crossings are low and colonias could use a federal boost. 
“We can’t move away from here. We want Washington to do something,” said Castro, a 70-year-old grandmother. “We’re in the United States after all.”
A prior New York Times story on the colonias is featured in this blog post.   A post about the persistent poverty Hispanic vote--essentially the colonia vote--is here