Thursday, May 31, 2018

On rural crime involving flora and fauna

Two stories about distinctly rural crimes--or more precisely, wilderness crime--have caught my attention in the past few weeks.  The first is about poachers in the Pacific Northwest, covered by The Seattle Times here and the Washington Post here.  A quote from Kyle Swenson's story in the Post highlights the role that technology played in finding the poachers:
It started when state officials wanted answers about the headless deer turning up in the Oregon wilderness east of Mount Hood. 
“Nearly every year, it seems we have deer showing up minus their heads at the end of seasons,” Craig Gunderson, a senior trooper with the Oregon State Patrol, recently told the Seattle Times. Authorities believed the mutilated animals might be the work of poachers, so in November 2016 they fixed motion-triggered cameras in the national forest near The Dalles, Ore., smack on the Washington state line. 
The footage troopers caught would prove to be the first clue to uncovering what officials now say was a loosely linked poaching ring responsible for the illegal brutal slaughter of hundreds of animals in Washington and Oregon. The sheer size of the animal body count involved has shocked wildlife officials, in part because of the wantonness driving the rampant killing.
Also in evidence against the poachers are cell phone videos and photos the poachers took of their illegal activities, including the use of dogs and spotlights to startle the animals, including bears.  That's the fauna story.

The second story involves flora, succulents found on the California coast.  The Voice of Monterey Bay published this story a few weeks ago, "The Case of the Stolen Succulents."   Here's an excerpt that refers to a major bust of plant poachers near Big Sur, reported by Kathryn McKenzie. 
It was the first such incident of large-scale plant poaching reported in Monterey County, but comes hard on the heels of arrests in thefts involving plants in Humboldt and Mendocino counties, specifically involving a species called Dudleya farinosa, commonly known as bluff lettuce or powdery liveforever. Plant thieves were stripping the succulents from the coastal bluffs and smuggling them to Korea and China, where the plants reportedly sell for as much as $50 each.
This story was drawn to my attention by the daily California Sun e-newsletter, which I highly recommend. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

Farmer suicides in Australia, old news down under but now in the New York Times

The New York Times today includes a long-ish feature story on farmer suicides in Australia.  The headline is "A Booming Economy with a Tragic Price," which hints at the story's inequality and globalization angles, but not the mental health/rural services angle which is also a key component of this excellent reporting:
Family farms like Mr. Guy’s [who committed suicide in 2016] have been the producers of Australia’s agricultural bounty, and the bedrock of its self-image as a nation of proudly self-reliant types, carving a living from a vast continent. But as Australia’s rural economy has boomed on the back of growing exports, small farmers have not always shared in the bounty, with many forced into borrowing money or selling their farms.
This is old news "down under," according to my Aussie friends, and I've seen some coverage of similar trends in the United States, as here and here.  (This is also reminiscent of the deaths of despair associated with rural folks in the U.S., though in Australia it is men who are disproportionately dying). One reason, it seems, that this trend is now attracting so much attention in the NYT (this is part I of II in the NYT, on "Regional Australia," a term used to connote "rural" in that nation) is the family murder-suicide that occurred a few weeks ago in Western Australia.

Here's a further sobering, data-dense excerpt from Jacqueline Williams' feature story in the NYT:
Nationwide, people living in remote Australia now take their own lives at twice the rate of those in the city: Every year, there are about 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people in isolated rural areas, compared with 10 in urban communities, according to independent studies of local health figures.
In very remote parts of the country, the figure is closer to 23, the studies say.
Data out of the state of Queensland are even worse, also indicating that the more remote the farmer, the higher the suicide risk.  

Williams then takes up that which differentiates what is happening in Australia from what is happening in other nations where farmers are experiencing higher rates of suicide:
[T]he crisis seems to be worsening at a time when, at least on paper, the [Australian] rural economy is quite robust.
* * * 
There is a painful irony here, they say, since Australia has embraced free trade in farm goods, and even pressed other nations to liberalize their markets, in the belief that agriculture is one of its most competitive industries. 
And Australian farm exports are growing: Last year, they totaled 44.8 billion Australian dollars, or $33.5 billion, up more than a fifth from just six years earlier, according to the National Farmers Federation. 
But many experts say the biggest beneficiaries are larger corporate farms. Family farms are less able to ride out fluctuations in far-flung global markets that can drive down prices of their crops while raising the cost of tractor fuel. 
 So, neoliberalism does a number down under, too.

As I hinted above, this story also includes important information on the dearth of services in rural Australia, and how mental health services are being delivered there--sometimes in innovative fashion.  The story is well worth a read in its entirety.                                                                         

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Failing to see childcare and transportation deficits in rural America

I blogged last week about the high-profile media attention being showered on a proposed Michigan law that would exempt counties with high unemployment (8.5% and above) from work requirements being imposed on Medicaid.  Then a related piece was published in the New York Times Upshot.  In "Which Poor People Shouldn't Have to Work for Aid?" Emily Badger and Margot-Sanger Katz quote Heather Hahn, a senior fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services and Population at the Urban Institute.
The problem, Ms. Hahn and others say, is that geography captures just one kind of barrier to employment. “If you’re taking only the geography as the structure,” Ms. Hahn said, “it’s really overlooking the much more obvious racial structure.” African-Americans who face racial discrimination in the job market are more likely to have a hard time finding work. 
And people who can’t afford cars and live where public transit is inadequate have a harder time. So do the poor with criminal records, or those without a high school diploma, or people with problems securing child care.
Policies that exempt high-unemployment places, but not people who face other obstacles to work, selectively acknowledge barriers for only some of the poor. In effect, they suggest that unemployment is a systemic problem in struggling rural communities — but that in poor urban neighborhoods, it’s a matter of individual decisions.
They then quote David Super of Georgetown Law, who studies public benefits programs.    
The hardships of areas that have seen industry leave are very real; the hardships of rural areas that have had jobs automated away are real.
* * * 
But so are hardships that come from a lack of child care or transportation, he said. “It is troubling that one set of conditions are being taken seriously and another are being scoffed at.”
One thing both Hahn and Super seem not to realize is that public transportation and child care deficits are much more acute in rural communities than urban ones (a point made, with lots of data back up, in my 2007 piece on welfare reform as a mismtach for rural communities."  And the problem of criminal records looms large for the chronically unemployed in rural places, too.  Employers don't want to hire these folks, even when they're white.  (And I do acknowledge that the criminalization of poverty and the war on drugs have had a disproportionate impact on communities of color).

I agree that we should attend to all of these barriers to employment, but the "rural v. urban" and "black v. white" framing is divisive.  It echoes the "who's worse off" or "ranking of oppressions" frame that has become too common amidst the proliferation of identity politics.  It fails to seek common ground.  Which reminds me that today is the second Monday in the 40 days of action invoked by the revival of Martin Luther King, Jr., Poor People's Campaign.

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On the drug scourge in rural northern California--and state and local government responses (or lack thereof)

The New York Times reported recently about a drug scourge (heroin, opioids, fentanyl)  in Humboldt County, part of the state's Emerald Triangle, an area legendary for pot growing more than anything else in recent decades.  Jose A. Del Real reports:
The problem is exacerbated here in Eureka, the county seat, by a sizable homeless population that is growing amid an extreme lack of affordable housing and a changing, weakened economy that relies heavily on tourism. The combined ills have devastated a particularly vulnerable community that is often overlooked in the state. [Read more here and here].  Now those problems are spilling into public view, sparking grievances and anger among the town’s residents.
The opioid death rate here is five times higher than the state's average, and it rivals that of Vermont and Maine, where the issue has garnered far more attention.   

Del Real writes also of a controversial needle exchange program--a controversy driven in part because of appearances problems and the heavy reliance on tourism in the region.  He writes, too, of the struggle to provide services such as drug treatment in this remote and often forgotten part of the state.  Del Real quotes chief deputy coroner Ernie Stewart :
The state is failing miserably, and you can quote me on that.  The state is failing miserably across the board. They are not putting enough funding and resources toward rehabilitation.
Mike McGuire, the region's state senator estimates that between "500 and 700 residents of Humboldt and nearby Trinity and Del Norte counties are on a waiting list for opioid treatment services."  According to Marlies Perez, the chief of the California Department of Health Care Services’ Substance Use Disorder Compliance Division, however, local government officials often oppose treatment options in rural areas because of the stigma. Nevertheless
[t]he treatment provider Aegis is scheduled to assist in opening a center just outside Eureka by early 2019. The hub is meant to treat up to 200 patients and to serve as a center for smaller “spoke” centers in the region, including Del Norte and Trinity counties.
Stewart also observes that the rate of opioid abuse is dramatically underreported in the region--and that meth remains "king" there.   

Del Real paraphrases state senator Mike McGuire, who urges government leaders to expand rural resources, observing that "rural Californians are 'desperate' for more assistance." McGuire states:
Humboldt County is just a few hours up Highway 101, but as an individual travels further north on the highway, it’s like you take a step back in time. We need to step up to the plate and provide rural counties with the tools they need to combat this crisis.
Finally, Del Real's story takes up housing issues, initially quoting Stacy Cobine, who has been homeless in Eureka for decades.   
I don’t know why treatment and rehab and these services always have to come into play first.  If there was just affordable housing, people wouldn’t be using as much.
Again, however, local government and local residents appear to be part of the problem.  According to Sally Hewitt of the Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, the "inability to expand public housing options will make that far more difficult, particularly because of local resistance."  Because of state restrictions on the development of public housing, county officials "must largely deal with private landlords when seeking to house the homeless. Many of the landlords require potential tenants to have references, good credit and an income at least three times the cost of rent."

A somewhat related story was filed a few days ago by Elizabeth Zach with USC Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.  Its dateline is Plumas County, California, and the gist is that some California counties are cooperating to deliver services in response to the opioid crisis--and it's working.  Plumas County has now brought its death rate--previously extremely  high in relation to the rest of the state--down to zero.  Here are some key excerpt from Zach's reporting on how the relatively new program works: 
The California Health Care Foundation started funding Opioid Safety Coalitions four years ago, so counties could combine opioid treatment resources. The nonprofit Center for Health Leadership and Practice, in cooperation with the foundation, has advised public health officials in 32 counties representing 24 coalitions and formed the umbrella group the California Opioid Safety Network.
* * * 
In 2015, health professionals in California’s northern Sierras formed the regional Northern Sierra Opioid Safety Coalition. The group aimed to curb the growing number of opioid-related deaths in four counties — Plumas, Lassen, Sierra and Modoc — and to expand access to treatment for those struggling with addiction. Its objective was three-fold: promote safer prescribing, increase access to naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opioid overdose, and widen treatment options for addiction. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

John Kelly overlooks rural America--and Christopher Ingraham pounces

Christopher Ingraham, the uber urbanite turned rural refugee/transplant who writes for the Washington Post, dug into John Kelly, President Trump's Chief of Staff on Friday after Kelly spoke against the immigration of "overwhelmingly rural people" who would not "easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society."
Kelly also cited immigrants' education levels, English-language ability and general workplace skills as potential barriers to assimilation. But the choice of “rural” as a detriment for integration into modern society is an odd one, given that it applies to nearly 1 in 5 current residents of the United States. 
* * * 
While rural places account for 19.3 percent of the population, they make up 97 percent of the country's land area. Geographically speaking, the country is “overwhelmingly rural.” And in several states, including politically important ones, the rural population is much higher than 19 percent.
Ingraham's story is here.  The Kelly interview with NPR is here; you will see that its focus is not on the rural-urban divide or any rural issues.  Rather, it is on immigration more broadly, along with some other issues du jour.

Nevertheless, Ingraham picks up the rural torch:
More broadly, rurality remains a central part of American identity — wide-open spaces, amber waves of grain, mom and apple pie — in ways that population figures don't fully capture. In many quarters of the national political conversation, rural America still gets conflated with “real America.” 
All of this brings me to an issue I have explored elsewhere:  in what ways is the "rural" part(s) of a developing world country (often with majority of population) similar to the rural parts of America (with a shrinking minority of the population)?  Read some here and here.  In other words, does Ingraham's argument hold water?  Will rural folks from the developing world have an easy time integrating into America because America is roughly (less than!) a fifth rural?  But aren't rural Americans culturally highly marginalized?  Wasn't that a major lesson of the 2016 election?

Also, of what relevance is it if/that rural Americans are less tolerant of immigrants (those other rural people from elsewhere in the world) than are urban Americans?  That intolerance has been a common theme of much of the "race v. economy" speculation over the reasons for the rise of Trump, so is it fair for Ingraham to ignore it? Is it appropriate for Ingraham to invoke America's "rural-ness" in support of an argument for immigration from largely rural countries?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Michigan law waiving safety net work requirement would have disparate impact on urban (blacks), favor rural (whites)

I'm in the process of writing a book chapter about how work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid--the legislative and administrative "flavor of the month" in Trump's America--are a mismatch for rural America, where labor markets are thin and the few jobs available are often mis-matches for local labor forces.  Another problem is that poor public transportation infrastructure makes it difficult for folks to get to jobs or the substitute training requirements imposed by some states.  This book chapter will follow up on a 2007 article I published about how welfare reform's work requirements were a poor fit in rural America.     

That's all background for why a colleague called my attention to this NY Times op-ed this week.  It it titled "Michigan's Discriminatory Work Requirement," and the authors are a pair of University of Michigan law professors, Nicholas Bagley and Eli Savit.  The core argument is reflected in this excerpt:
Last month, the [Michigan] State Senate passed a bill that would require Medicaid beneficiaries to find work or else lose their coverage. The bill, now under consideration in the Michigan House, has come under fire for harming the poor and disabled, as well as for burdening struggling families with needless paperwork. More than 100,000 people may lose health instance if it passes. 
There’s another flaw in the bill, however, one that exposes it to serious legal challenge: It’s racially discriminatory. 
Many of the legislators supporting Michigan’s work requirements come from rural districts with high unemployment. Many of those districts are predominantly white. To protect their constituents, these legislators have included a safety valve in the bill: If you live in a county with a high unemployment rate (over 8.5 percent), you’re exempt from the work requirements. The rationale? When there are no jobs to be had, it doesn’t make sense to punish you for not working.

Yet that safety valve does not apply equally. Specifically, it does little for Michigan’s black residents, who are concentrated in cities like Detroit, Muskegon and Flint. Those cities suffer from chronically high unemployment rates, but they’re all in counties with low rates.
The Washington Post followed up a few days later with this analysis from Jeff Stein and Andrew Van Dam. The headline blares: "Michigan's GOP has a Plan to Shield some People from Medicaid Work Requirements.  They're Overwhelmingly White." 
Medicaid enrollment data provided to The Post by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows that this exemption would overwhelmingly benefit white people while leaving the work requirements in place for all but a sliver of the affected African American population.

Without the exemption, the work requirements are projected to apply primarily to approximately 700,000 Michigan residents enrolled in Medicaid under broader eligibility rules passed under Gov. Rick Snyder (R). 
African Americans make up about 23 percent of that population, but they would make up only 1.2 percent of the people eligible for the unemployment exemption. White people make up 57 percent of the total potential affected population, but they make up 85 percent of the group eligible for the unemployment exemption, according to an analysis of the state's data.
I read both pieces to imply that the proposed law's sponsors intended to discriminate against African Americans living in the state's major cities.  That is entirely possible, but another explanation is also possible:  the legislators were simply trying to do a good turn for rural folks facing crappy labor market opportunities.  Perhaps this is just an illustration that the scale of the county is a poor one for these purposes.  That is, the scale of the county makes some sense in relatively rural areas where the employment rate doesn't vary much across the county.  It's a poor proxy for the robustness of the labor market in a county that includes both core urban and suburban (and even exurban) areas.

Bagley and Savit do at one point acknowledge that discriminatory intent may be absent here, and they also helpfully explain that it doesn't matter under the relevant federal law, where the test is discriminatory impact.  The authors close with reference to bigger picture issues that implicate the ease (or lack thereof) of mobility to places with better job markets.  They also then highlight rural-urban differences and, as I read it, effectively and unhelpfully pit rural and urban against each other:
If work requirements were a good idea, conservative Michigan legislators wouldn’t need to exempt their rural constituents. They’d just offer a tough-love message: If you want health insurance on the public dime, you should move to a place where you can find work. 
That’s not the message, though. The message, instead, is that work requirements are good for people who live in hard-bitten cities and bad for those who live in hard-bitten counties.  
Given the lack of political power I perceive to be held by rural people and places, I'm surprised the Michigan legislators thought of them at all.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The hidden costs of a legal education and what it means for rural America.

A few days ago, Vermont Digger published an article written by a young law school graduate who is living in South Burlington, Vermont and finding the cost of living rather cost prohibitive. While the article clearly wants us to focus on the $200,000 student debt, I believe that it is more important to focus on the substantial amount of consumer debt that he has incurred, much of it due to his time in law school and his bar exam prep afterwards. While there are government programs to help indebted graduates manage federal student loan debt (which the author indicates is the entirety of his debt), there aren't programs that help with consumer debt that you accumulate in association with your studies.

The author is a young law school graduate with a public interest job and spouse attending the University of Vermont. In addition to $200,000 in student debt, he has $30,000 in consumer debt, split between credit cards and a bar study loan. The author attributes his credit card debt to the cost of moving for school and living there. He attended Dartmouth College and Vermont Law school, both rural schools in New England. After graduation, he got married and opted to remain in Vermont, possibly with the intention of raising his family and living there indefinitely. In this space, I have previously covered the role that rural law schools can play in attracting people to rural areas and the author of this piece is a shining example of my desired outcome.  What I find troubling however is his contention that living in Vermont is cost prohibitive and that it may drive him away from the state entirely.

Even if the author lives in a more urban part of Vermont, he is still living in a predominantly rural state that is facing a severe brain drain and aging issue. In fact, Governor Phil Scott has made it a priority to attract and retain young people in Vermont. We can set aside the more nuanced arguments about whether or not Vermont actually as expensive as the author claims. Though, South Burlington is certainly more expensive than Rutland or St. Johnsbury, for example. It is important however to focus on the fact that this person wants to make Vermont his home but feels he may have to move to an urban area where he can command a higher salary in order to pay down his debt.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyer salaries in rural areas are lower than urban areas and this divide can often be very wide. However, these lower salaries are often partially off-set by a lower cost of living. In a situation like the author's however, there may be pressure to find a higher paying job so he can pay the debt off as quickly as possible.

You may wonder how a person could incur $15,000 in credit card debt through three years of law school. It starts before day one. What may surprise you is that there is often no funding for a person to move to law school so students often have to pay the cost of securing an apartment and moving their belongings entirely on their own. While students are typically eligible for federal student aid (often in the form of loans) in order to defray the cost of living, it is often not enough and does not cover relocation. Here is a copy of Vermont Law School's current cost of living estimates. As you can see, the cost of relocation is not included in the budget. This cost increases even more if a student does not stay in the area for the summer since they often have to vacate their properties and move their stuff to a different location, either to their summer destinations or into storage, another expense that is not accounted for in a cost of living budget. For many students, particularly low-income students, this puts them at an immediate deficit.

Further - health insurance is also not apart of the budget so if a student opts to buy health insurance, they'll incur a significant cost there as well. While some students may be eligible for Medicaid or other government subsidized health care, many either do not learn of their eligibility and think that they aren't eligible because of their status as students. Students who are not eligible for Medicaid have to either hope that they do not have a medical emergency or make the decision to incur the costs of health insurance.

Of course, I just discussed predictable costs. Imagine the extra debt that a student could incur if they have an emergency. A law student may, for example, need a car to get to their externships. If the car breaks down, they would likely have to finance the repair on a credit card, which will add to their debt load.

There is also the aforementioned $15,000 in bar study loans, which are used to finance the cost of studying for the bar exam and not being able to work until the results come in. As you might imagine, students who have little to no parental support may need this money in order to pay their bills while they wait for bar results. With graduation in May, the exam in July, and the results coming in at any time between September and December, access to that money may be a lifeline.

Why do I focus on the consumer debt so heavily and not the $200,000 in student debt? The federal government, through the Pay as You Earn program, has already devised a way to deal with the author's situation.  Under current guidelines, the author is able to only pay 10% of his discretionary income (which is calculated as household income minus the poverty line) with forgiveness coming in 25 years. If the author stays in his current state government job, he would qualify to have it forgiven in 10 years under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. What this says is that the federal government has recognized the need for people with high debt loads to be able to serve disadvantaged communities and has provided a way to make high student debt affordable to the debtor. These protections however do not extend to the private consumer debt that one incurs through their law school studies.

For rural communities, which are often unable to offer high salaries, the fact that students are coming out severely indebted is a particularly major issue. Students are going to feel compelled to get rid of the debt and know that they can often find a higher paying job in an urban area, even if it means possibly leaving the legal field. Furthermore, a lot of the jobs in rural spaces are going to carry some amount of risk or at least lack of certainty. Rural legal practice may involve small firm work where your pay will fluctuate based on your case load in a given month or it may even involve hanging up a shingle and going it solo. Both of these options may be unappealing or prohibitive to someone with a high debt load.

Most jurisdictions that have attempted to address the lawyer shortage have included some financial incentives so it is recognized that low wages are an issue. I am not entirely sure what the solution would be to help those with high consumer debt loads. Perhaps we could include a relocation grant in student aid packages, subsidize licensing fees for low-income students, and increase funding for the social safety net so students are less reliant on debt to finance their way through schools. Perhaps schools could also offer financial assistance if a student has an emergency that interferes with their ability to complete their degree requirements or attend opportunities that will increase their marketability after graduation. There are many potential options that could be tried.

It would be a shame if the author of the article were to leave Vermont for a place like New York or Boston. Places like Vermont need the author in order to continue to grow and thrive.