Thursday, June 28, 2018

New Book: For-Profit Democracy: Why the Government is Losing the Trust of Rural America

Loka Ashwood's first book has just been published by Yale University Press's Agrarian series.  A description follows:
A fascinating sociological assessment of the damaging effects of the for-profit partnership between government and corporation on rural Americans
Why is government distrust rampant, especially in the rural United States? This book offers a simple explanation: corporations and the government together dispossess rural people of their prosperity, and even their property. Based on four years of fieldwork, this eye-opening assessment by sociologist Loka Ashwood plays out in a mixed-race Georgia community that hosted the first nuclear power reactors sanctioned by the government in three decades. This work serves as an explanatory mirror of prominent trends in current American politics. Churches become havens for redemption, poaching a means of retribution, guns a tool of self-defense, and nuclear power a faltering solution to global warming as governance strays from democratic principles. In the absence of hope or trust in rulers, rural racial tensions fester and divide. The book tells of the rebellion that unfolds as the rights of corporations supersede the rights of humans.
I reviewed the book and have a blurb on the jacket cover:
Loka Ashwood turns the conventional story of American reverence for private property on its head by revealing ways in which property rights are undermined when they conflict with the interests of the 'corporate-state,' an increasingly present and powerful player in the neoliberal era.
John Gaventa and David Pellow also endorse the book.
Ashwood is a rural sociologist at Auburn University

Saturday, June 23, 2018

On opioid addiction treatment in small-town Iowa

Abby Goodnough reports today from Marshalltown, Iowa, population 27,552, on one how one young physician is responding to the opioid crisis.  The headline is "When an Iowa Family Doctor Takes on the Opioid Epidemic."

Goodnough explains what Dr. Nicole Gastala, 33, is doing in Marshalltown:
She is one of a small cadre of primary care doctors who regularly prescribe buprenorphine, a medication that helps suppress the cravings and withdrawal symptoms that plague people addicted to opioids. If the country is really going to curb the opioid epidemic, many public health experts say, it will need a lot more Dr. Gastalas.
Just 43,109 physicians--about 5% of those in the nation--are licensed to prescribe buprenorphine, though science says it is effective. With the license to prescribe comes more oversight from the DEA. Half of U.S. counties have no buprenorphine prescriber.
Gastala, is not from Marshalltown, but her trusty companion--nurse case manager Andrea Storjohann--is:
Ms. Storjohann keeps the buprenorphine program running while the doctor multitasks. She gauges each patient’s progress, asking about their highs and lows since their last appointment. She also tests their urine to check for other drugs and that they’re not misusing or diverting the medication. And she makes sure they’re going to therapy, which the program requires. 
Goodnough observes the lack of judgment in Storjohann's manner, even as she asks how many times in the last year a patient has used drugs for nonmedical reasons.  This helps her win patients' trust.

This story features several profiles of Gastala's patients, those succeeding and those failing, all struggling. 

Also of interest:  Gastala is in Marshalltown as a beneficiary of a federal program that helps pay off her student loans from medical school.  The small city qualifies as an underserved community.

Marshalltown is also one of this places that figured in this fall, 2015 op-ed by Alec McGillis, which I blogged about here.

A two-part NPR series from this spring regarding opioid addiction and overdose deaths in Indiana is here and here.  The angle there is the devastating toll on families of addicts, as well as on their financial situation. 

Here is a story from last fall about meth's resurgence in rural Iowa. 

Friday, June 22, 2018

Rural trend of natural decrease among whites spreads across the nation

The New York Times reported a few days ago on demographic changes in the United States.  The story, by Sabrina Tavernise, reports a natural decrease--more deaths than births--among whites in a majority of states.  Part of the story focuses on rural places:
The Census Bureau has projected that whites could drop below 50 percent of the population around 2045, a relatively slow-moving change that has been years in the making. But a new report this week found that whites are dying faster than they are being born now in 26 states, up from 17 just two years earlier, and demographers say that shift might come even sooner. 
“It’s happening a lot faster than we thought,” said Rogelio Sáenz, a demographer at the University of Texas at San Antonio and a co-author of the report. It examines the period from 1999 to 2016 using data from the National Center for Health Statistics, the federal agency that tracks births and deaths. He said he was so surprised at the finding that at first he thought it was a mistake.

* * *

The aging of the white population began in rural counties long before it ever took hold in an entire state. Martin County, a bear-shaped patch of eastern North Carolina, first experienced it in the late 1970s.
Black deaths also exceed black births in Martin County, and the Latinx population are just 4%.

Tavernise puts the trend in political context, too:
The change has broad implications for identity and for the country’s political and economic life, transforming a mostly white baby boomer society into a multiethnic and racial patchwork.
Other states subject to this trend include several won by Donald Trump in 2016: Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Michigan ... as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and the Carolinas. Georgia, Virginia, Louisiana and Texas are exceptions among southern states.

Of interest elsewhere in the country is the fact that all of New England is experiencing more white deaths than births.  Indeed, among states in the northeast, only New York defies this trend.  The Midwest--broadly defined--appears most persistently resistant to it.

The New York Times published this op-ed last month which analyzes the trend from a global perspective.  The piece, by Philip Auerswald and Joon Yun, also discusses the political correlations to this demographic trend, in countries from Italy to Japan.
In the past decade people in rural, remote places have been disproportionately losing not just jobs and opportunities, but people, elementary schools and confidence in the future. ... Against such a backdrop of general decline, populists’ promises to revive dead or dying local industries are understandably welcome. 
As youth have continued to migrate from rural areas to cities, their movement has widened not only the median age gap between rural places and cities, but also gaps in attitude, since the young, regardless of where they live, tend to associate more with urban outlooks.
* * *
Election data from the past two years plainly describe the consequences of these demographic dynamics: Most advanced industrialized countries are dominated by two competing political movements that either awkwardly inhabit the bodies of existing political parties or create new ones more to their liking. One movement extols the values that are a practical necessity in dense, interconnected cities: interdependence, internationalism and the embrace of “diversity” (defined along multiple dimensions). 
Another movement extols the equally necessary virtues of people in rural areas: self-reliance, autonomy and the embrace of immediate community and place.
Cross-posted to Working-Class Whites and the Law.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A damning commentary on how northern elites/academics see rural, white southerners

Adam Kirk Edgerton published a powerful essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week.  The title nicely sums up his points--and speaks volumes in doing so: 

In short, northern academics (and I would say northern elites more broadly) exhibit enormous know-it-all type hubris that casts the South as not only monolithic, but monolithically toxic.

Like Edgerton, I grew up in the rural South.  I left nearly three decades ago and for 19 of the intervening years have been an academic in the West.  Based on my experience as one in whom both southern accent and southern identity linger, I'd say the word "West" could well be substituted for "North" in that Chronicle headline.  I've written some about the phenomenon and my experiences here.  I hold myself out as an ally for progressive causes, but progressives are typically (at least) a little suspect of me.

Edgerton, now a PhD student at Harvard, writes of his journey through academia, beginning as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina.  A gay man who dressed in pastels and white linen, a favorite teacher summed him up favorably and then asked how he had "escpae[d]" the rural community where he grew up.  His professors judged not so much him as they judged his community of origin; he was viewed as an anomaly by those who assume the worst of his prior neighbors and friends.  Things got worse when he headed north, into more elitist territory.  Edgerton writes:
In the well-educated Northern imagination, the rural South is a vast, forbidding wasteland of poverty, prejudice, and despair.

That kind of crass regionalism creates well-earned suspicion of ivory-tower elites. The stereotyping works in both directions. Each sustains the other, leading to electoral results that help neither the professors up north nor the pig farmers where I grew up. Regionalism creates openings for populists to exploit and worsen these divides. These attitudes pit rural against urban, college-educated against non-college-educated. If those of us in academe are truly so smart, we ought to be the ones taking the first step toward bridging this divide.

Unfortunately, the opposite is occurring. In the age of Trump, anti-Southern attitudes seem to have crystallized and worsened throughout higher education. Any Trump-voting area, in fact, seems to be fair game for ridicule. These attitudes undercut the efforts of those seeking to advance the rights of marginalized groups in regions of the country where evidence-based scholarship might be needed the most.
* * * 
It is strange to me that so many academics cannot see when they show prejudice against the rural, the religious, and the less formally educated. We are trained to recognize systematic bias in terms of race and gender — but we remain too often unaware of our geographic prejudices. These prejudices are casual and rampant, and undercut the credibility of much good work. Too often I find myself in academic settings where the white working-class phenomenon—the Trump-voter stereotype—is taken as fact at the expense of more evidence-based conversations about the suburban affluent, where many academics grew up and Trump voters are also concentrated.
Edgerton's entire column, beautifully written, is well worth a read in its entirety. My current law review article, which makes many similar points, is here.

Edgerton's focus on this North-South divide brings to mind the words of Prof. Arnold Weinstein who does a series of Great Courses lectures on American literature. Weinstein, of Brown University, says this (which I've had transcribed) about a scene from Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!, a scene between a "Northerner" and a "Southerner" in a Harvard dormitory:
Now Shreve, you may remember, is Canadian, which is another way of saying, he’s a Northerner. And like many Northerners, I can speak to this teaching from a Northern university, coming from the south, having taught Faulkner to audiences of students who were predominantly from the North. For the North, the South is one grotesque place – it certainly was, at least, at the time Faulkner was writing – it’s a circus! And uh, you’ll have phrases like “it’s better than Ben Hur,” which is what Shreve will tell Quentin. Or there will be other references as well, to the South as a kind of, a really odd place. “Tell me about the South,” Quentin says, what he keeps hearing up in Cambridge: “Tell me about the South.” “What’s it like there?” “What do they do there?” “Why do they live there?” “Why do they live at all?”

Uh, the South is exotic, unreal, like Mars – and, some of the oddness, the quaintness, the extravagance, the quirkiness, of the South – is in the narrative framework, is in Shreve’s questions, it doubtless comes from Faulkner’s own experience living up in the Northeast, and, the beauty of the book is, Faulkner puts this squarely in the middle – he deals with it. So that, whatever you as a reader, particularly a Northern reader, an incredulous reader, as a reader that wants to guffaw and say “this doesn’t make any sense, what kind of crazy people are these?” it’s already happening in the book, it’s right in front of your eyes.

So this story of Sutpen, who is Faulkner’s central figure from the Civil War, a plantation owner who was the novel’s tragic hero, or tragic center, I should say, he’s a pretty weird type, for Shreve, as I said Shreve says “it’s better than Ben-Hur!” Shreve can’t get over the way that everybody is related to everybody in the South, everybody is Aunt this, Uncle that.

Now what I want to say is, this conversation between Shreve and Quentin, between a Northerner and a Southerner, is more than just a kind of clever frame for containing the story, for getting the story out. Because you could say that, you could say that, “well it’s just a device, let’s get to the real stuff,” for example, this is during the Civil War. It’s much, much more than that. It’s more intricate, and it’s more interesting than that. Think the way I represented it – the conversation between a Northerner and a Southerner – can you see that at the dialogue level – at the storytelling level – Faulkner sets out to replay the Civil War. He’s going to once again, test what kind of understanding, what kind of relationship, what kind of conflict, takes place between Northerners and Southerners. So that the telling of the story is constantly to be thought of as in subsets, a kind of commentary on the story, or is a way of re-imagining the story, as a way of perhaps getting out of the tragic determinism of the story.

And so, in this Harvard dormitory, something very important is going to take place. We’re going to see a paradigm of Northern/Southern relationships.
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Edgerton's essay also brought to mind this op-ed, published in the New York Times earlier this month, by Alabama native Alexis Okeowo.  The headline is "No One Really Understands the South," and she opens with an anecdote of a black friend from Chicago who who asked her "Why do black people still live in the South"?  :
My friend was viewing the Deep South through the lens that popular culture and most of the country outside the South also use — the same stereotypes I heard when I left Alabama to go to college in the Northeast.
I also liked Okeowo's attention to attachment to place and the power of home:
I’ve long seen a strain of thinking that residents of rural areas, with their failing infrastructure, closing health centers and diminishing jobs, should simply leave, pick up and move to cities for more opportunities and a higher standard of living. Why stay in a place that is falling apart? Or that has a history of oppressing people who look like you? But over a family’s generations in one place, the idea of home solidifies, becomes unshakable.
I cannot help wonder if Edgerton and Okeowo can be apologists for the South in ways I cannot because of their other identity characteristics.  Do Edgerton's gayness and Okeowo's blackness insulate them from some of the suspicion that I, a straight white woman, evoke among progressives?

Lastly, Edgerton's comment also brings to mind a comment by Helen Gurley Brown, long-time editor of Cosmpolitan magazine, who once said of her Arkansas upbringing, "I must go home periodically to renew my sense of horror." Gurley Brown had apparently crossed over to the other side--that of northern elites.  Maybe her emotional and cultural migration was entirely voluntary, or maybe Gurley Brown felt social pressure to disown the South, in the same way class migrants often feel pressure to disown their families of origin.

Cross posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

Getting more rural students into better colleges and universities

The Atlanta Journal Constitution ran this story recently about Georgia universities efforts to recruit and retain more rural students.  Here's an excerpt:
Many of the nation’s most prominent colleges and universities recognize, particularly after the 2016 presidential election, that they don’t have enough rural students, and their viewpoints aren’t adequately represented on their campuses. Leaders at several Georgia universities with the toughest admissions standards are trying to improve their numbers. 
Among the recruitment strategies discussed: 
Georgia Tech started a program last year that offers a guaranteed spot to any high school student who graduates first or second in their class. UGA in January announced the ALL Georgia Program, a five-year, $300,000 privately-funded initiative to offer additional academic and other support to rural students. Emory offers scholarships to rural students to attend Oxford College, its smaller, two-year college whose students finish at the main campus, and is expanding outreach efforts.
I note the Georgia Tech plan is reminiscent of Texas's 10% plan, which guarantees admission at the University of Texas's flagship campus in Austin to any student graduating in the top 10% of his/her class.  Journalist Eric Stirgus also links the recruitment of rural students to the health of Georgia's rural economies:
Their success could be critical for Georgia’s overall economy. The state of small-town and rural Georgia was a big concern for many state lawmakers during the recent legislative session. Several rural hospitals have closed in recent years, and access to high-speed internet has often been lacking. Lawmakers pumped more than $40 million into new or expanded programs aimed specifically at helping the economy of small-town Georgia. 
Rick Clark, director of Georgia Tech's undergraduate admissions, cites data showing that "rural students are more likely to return to their communities upon graduation." 

The rate of college enrollment of rural students lags slightly behind the rate of enrollment of students from suburban and urban districts. 

The availability of higher education for rural students has been a frequent topic on this blog (here, here, and here), as well as in my scholarship.  (Read more here).   Recent national media coverage of the shortage of rural students in our colleges and universities is here and here.

The Washington Post ran this story last fall on how "top public universities are shutting out poor students," which are not necessarily synonymous with rural students, though clearly there is some overlap.  Such "top public universities" in Georgia would include the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech.  The WaPo story, by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, names the University of Alabama as a culprit illustrative of the trend, a school that increasingly awards "merit" scholarships in lieu of needs-based scholarships.  In the good news column, the WaPo story observes that Georgia State University, which it characterizes as a "selective public institution," "boosted its share of low-income students by 7.5 percentage points, to almost one-third, while decreasing the number of wealthy students by 8.5 percentage points to about one-fourth of the student body."

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

With rural broadband expansion, the accuracy of federal government data is important.

Last month, Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Jerry Moran of Kansas, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced the "MAP Broadband Act," a piece of bipartisan legislation that aims to address perceived inaccuracies in the FCC's data regarding existing access to mobile broadband. This legislation is important because inaccuracies in the data can result in communities being denied funding from the FCC's Mobility Fund Phase II, which will total $4.53 billion over the next ten years. Senator Wicker's office contends that the inaccuracies in the maps will result in communities that need funding to expand broadband being denied. The legislation introduces some additional steps that the FCC must follow in order to ensure that the data is being collected effectively and to introduce more transparency in the ability to challenge the data. As the bill continues to work its way through the legislative process, FCC chairman Ajit Pai has agreed to extend the window for challenges to the map for state, local, and tribal governments, giving them until November 27th to do so.

Given the amount of money at stake and the potential economic impact that it could have, accuracy of the maps is important. The federal government has a responsibility to ensure that communities that could actually use the funding are not unfairly excluded from the process. It is especially important since, as I covered yesterday, $4.53 billion is only 1.28% of the $350 billion (as estimated by Christopher Mitchell of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative) needed to fully expand broadband to every home in this country. When you have every rural community fighting over 1.28% of the funding needed to adequately address this concern, it is important that every possible actor is able to compete for the funding. 

Chairman Pai has said that closing the digital divide is his number one priority. Currently, federal grants to expand broadband are small and scattered among a few agencies, sometimes making them to difficult to actually find. Some rural representatives have championed alternative proposals to solve the problem. For example, Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia's 1st Congressional District has championed the idea that states could take advantage of the provision in President Donald Trump's infrastructure proposal that allows states to spend the infrastructure funding as they see fit in order to expand their state's broadband networks. President Trump's idea is not terrible but rural areas also have other pressing infrastructure needs that would dilute the amount of money available for broadband. 

Before the federal government can decide how to adequately spend its money, it must first know how deep and pervasive the problem actually is. If Senators Wicker, Moran, and Hassan (among others)
are correct then the problem is even more pervasive than we currently think. In the past, I have covered the efforts of New York to expand its broadband network to the rural reaches of their state. However, as I noted then, not every state has the deep tax base and coffers needed to fund such an ambitious infrastructure project. In order to supplement the efforts of the states, the federal government will have to step in, much like it did with the Rural Electrification Act in the 1930s, and supplement the efforts of state and local governments to carry forth with this effort.

The federal government has a tremendous role in the expansion of rural broadband so it is extremely important that they consult closely with the state, local, and tribal communities in order to ensure that their data is accurate and that the communities that need funding actually receive it. The pool of money currently available to address this issue is such a small percentage of what is actually needed that everyone who is eligible to compete for it should be able to do so. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Good news for rural America? or pablum propaganda by coastal elites?

This BBC headline surprised me yesterday:

The untold good news story of America today

Well, what really surprised me was the fact that the good news story is about small-town America--or at least features a limited number of America's small towns.  The story is by Tim Geoghegan, reporting from Blue Earth, Minnesota, population 3,353.  Blue Earth is just one of the towns visited by James Fallows and Deborah Fallows, who write for The Atlantic and who have just published their most recent book Our Towns:  A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America.

Geoghegan writes of the book:
Fallows is convinced the country at a local level is in a state of renewal that defies the predominant narrative of political dysfunction and inaction. 
His book reveals a proliferation of experiments and adaptations in cities like Holland in Michigan and Sioux Falls in South Dakota that cause him to think America has become "more like itself again". 
Serious though the country's problems are, he says, the future is brighter than you would ever guess from national news coverage which fixates on the "trench warfare" of politics.
It's exciting to hear that good things are happening in rural and small-town America--at least in some locales--and it is also isn't surprising to those of us who follow rural and "flyover state" trends.  (Here's a recent post about an Iowa town that would likely have been eligible to be featured in the Fallows book -- good, local-driven things are happening there).  But the whole book sounds a bit pollyanna-ish--like the Fallows set out to tell a certain type of story and then found the facts to back it up.  I'm also guessing the authors were pretty selective about which towns they visited (and subsequently featured) as they flew across the country, presumably making many stops.  Are there some places they visited but then did not include in the book because the town did not fit the desired narrative?  Yes, great things are happening in rural America, but I hate for the nostalgia to overwhelm or mask the (perhaps?) more widespread reality of rural decline and despair. I'm recalling  this old-ish Carsey publication that sets up a taxonomy of four rural Americas and reminds us of the diversity of among rural places.

The book has been reviewed positively by various folks on, but I am going to cut and paste here three negative reviews--if only to be provocative. Here is the first:
I had high hopes for this book, having spent time in various locations in the Rust Belt. But the book was a real disappointment. These authors come off as elite coastal dwellers looking around "flyover country" aghast, and very surprised that there are schools and pools. 
One central theme is that all immigrants are good, no matter how they arrived here, because native born Americans do not like to work, except for entrepreneurs clever enough to own coffee shops or other such vital businesses. They are constantly trying to justify how people could actually live somewhere that they themselves only want to fly in and out of. 
Their political views are very apparent. They will describe someone and state that he did not say his political affiliation, but obviously was a Trump voter. I think these two writers need to go back to Slate and The Atlantic, where they comfortably worked for many years. I never regret buying many books, but this is one of the few that I wish could be returned for a refund.
Here is the second:
This could have been a great story. It turned a good idea into a boring slog. The authors brought no originality nor feeling to the places they visited. It should have been correctly described as a journey to interview various schools across the US. Such a disappointment. The writers are too wrapped up in themselves and wasted their opportunity.
Here is the third: 
I wanted to love this book. I really did. After seeing the authors on the Today Show, I immediate downloaded this book, and jumped right in hoping that it would create a desire to visit each and every one of these American gems. But,alas, it did not happen. I had hoped to choose one from Column A and one from Column B and have the feast of a lifetime. However, in reality all I got was a cup of hot tea and a fortune cookie. I wish that the authors had created a laundry list of characteristics that were instrumental in causing a reborn in each town they visited. Instead, I felt that I often had trouble trying to make sense of a disjointed narrative. If each town had been judged for progressive thinking, innovative programs, schools that actually prepared their students to join the working world with an actual skill that is in demand in our modern society. I thought it interesting that recent immigrant were assimilated into the local economy because they were willing to work in places like slaughter houses because Americans refused to do those. Is it the social safety net that gives people free this and free that to the point that it did not make to give up the freebies and go to work at a job they did not enjoy. A pilot must have excellent navigational skills, but it seemed that the authors often lost their way in a quest to arrive at a comprehensive conclusion as to what makes each of these towns tick. Finally, I think that the authors and the readers would have been better served if the authors had not injected their own political bias into a book that wanted to be a travel guide but instead became a bully pulpit.
There is enough negativity there--though some of it is clearly politically motivated--to deter me from reading the book.  Regardless of the politics, I just find myself skeptical of the message the Fallows' are peddling--or fearful that it will permit readers to say, "oh, everything is ok in the flyover states."  Yes, lots of things are ok, but government assistance and investment are needed too. 

Further, the Fallows lose credibility with me when they consider Sioux Falls, South Dakota, population 153,000, a small town--or even a "town" among the "our towns" of the book's title.  Sioux Falls is the largest city in South Dakota and the 145th largest city in the nation.  It's also the 47th fast growing, according to wikipedia.  It is simply not a small town.

Veterinarians, like other professionals, in short supply in rural America

NPR's Esther Honig reports from Brush, Colorado, population 5,463, in a story featuring veterinarian Karen Chandler: 
Large-animal veterinarians such as Chandler inspect livestock before they can legally be sold for slaughter. If an illness spreads among a herd or flock, it's Chandler's responsibility to diagnose and report the problem to public health officials. Early detection is key to preventing devastating outbreaks, like the 2015 bird flu in the Midwest that led to the deaths of 50 million turkeys and chickens
But there's been a shortage of large-animal vets in rural areas since 2003. Experts say that's because of a combination of low wages, long hours and fewer new graduates wanting to live outside a major city. 
Without vets, farmers and the nation's food supply are more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
The story goes on to discuss the reasons for the shortage.   The USDA has identified 187 areas--mostly rural places--that lack sufficient access to a veterinarian.  Not surprisingly, the vet shortage is a lot like the rural physician and rural lawyer shortage--partly about the high cost of education in professional schools and partly because newly-minted professionals are less attracted to rural living.  (I documented some of the reasons for this re the legal profession here). 

Another reason for diminishing interest in rural is a massive rural-urban wage gap. 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians in rural areas earn between $61,470 and $73,540 a year—roughly half of what they could make in a city. And the vet-school loans are hefty: an average of $143,757, according to the American Association of Veterinary Medicine.
Still, Dean Mark Stetter of Colorado State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, says many more students do come into vet school interested in rural practice (30%) than wind up going into rural practice at the end of their programs (less than 10%). 

Karen Chandler, the veterinarian featured in the story, is benefitting from a USDA loan forgiveness program which, after three years of service in an underserved area, lightens her debt load by $75,000.   

Rural broadband: Can the private sector play a role?

It was announced yesterday that Microsoft plans to invest $1 million-2 million to aid with the expansion of broadband in rural West Virginia. The initiative will be apart of Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative, which hopes to expand broadband to 2 million rural residents by 2022. Much like the federal government, Microsoft will seek to use its funding to connect with existing internet service providers.

Lawmakers from rural communities have struggled to find ways to expand broadband into their communities and are increasingly looking to private companies to invest in the infrastructure needed. When Mark Zuckerberg, funder of rural broadband expansion initiatives abroad, appeared on Capitol Hill to discuss data privacy concerns, rural lawmakers reached out to him to see if he would be willing to duplicate those efforts in the United States. The lawmakers ranged from places like West Virginia to Ohio to Iowa and were all seeking a solution to a problem that universally plagues rural economies. Zuckerberg responded by noting the prohibitively high cost of deploying the infrastructure needed to adequately provide internet to rural spaces but said that Facebook was working to develop technology to bring that cost down. Using current technology, the cost of fully developing this infrastructure is not insignificant and would be a significant lift for any private entity. In March, Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative in Minnesota, estimated that it would cost $350 billion to connect every home in America to broadband internet. This is a rather significant cost for the private sector to bear.

In the past, I have also suggested that we treat rural broadband expansion similarly to rural electrification and create a sustained national effort to get this done as quickly and universally as possible. After all, the economic returns of investing in broadband technology can be tremendous. Just last week, NBC News profile Lake County, Minnesota, which used $80 million from President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus to create and grow broadband infrastructure. The story discusses a saw mill worker who saw a new market open up for his wood, a great example of the ability of the internet to make the world smaller.

Just yesterday, I discussed Vermont's decision to pay workers to work remotely in their state. This is yet another example of how rural communities can adapt to the changing economy to benefit their communities. However, the current state of broadband infrastructure makes this decision prohibitively difficult and even impossible for some rural communities.

As I have said before, the only way that this issue will be adequately addressed is through substantial investment in rural broadband expansion, in much the same way that we brought electricity to rural communities.

New report on opioid crisis in rural and small-town America

The Carsey Institute has just published this policy brief by Shannon Monnat and Khary Rigg.  An excerpt follows:
Over the last two decades, opioid overdose deaths have increased over 400 percent, reaching 45,838 in 2016.  Although the crisis is not disproportionately worse in rural than in urban America, opioid mortality rates have grown faster in rural areas, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Rural areas also face unique challenges in dealing with the crisis, including a smaller health care infrastructure than is available in more densely populated areas, community and family factors, and labor market stressors.
* * * 
Among nonmetro counties, those in the Northeast have the highest opioid mortality rates by far (21.1), nearly double the rates in nonmetro counties in each of the other regions.
Although overall rates are higher in urban than in rural counties, rates increased more in rural than in urban counties across all regions over the last two decades (Figure 2). Between 1999 and 2016, the rate increased by 158 percent in large central metro counties, 507 percent in large fringe metro counties, 429 percent in medium/small metro counties, and 740 percent in nonmetro counties. The largest increases occurred in the rural Midwest (1,600 percent) and rural Northeast (1,141 percent).
I have blogged previously about Monnat's work regarding deaths of despair here.

P.S.  On June 20, NPR ran a comprehensive story on how some communities--the one featured is in Appalachian Ohio--are seeing a shift from opioids back to meth.  Now, however, the meth is being supplied by Mexican cartels, not home-cooked. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Vermont wants an economy based around remote workers, but can its infrastructure handle it?

The Vermont legislature recently passed and Governor Phil Scott signed legislation that would pay $10,000 to qualified individuals who can work remotely for an employer and want to live in Vermont. The program, entitled the "Remote Worker Grant Program", provides each recipient with $5,000 per year for 2 years and will be awarded on a first come, first serve basis.

The legislature has allocated $125,000 for FY 2019, $250,000 for FY 2020, $125,000 for FY 2021, and then $100,000 thereafter with no specification on how many grants can be awarded each year. It is not clear how much of the funding will be used for the administration of the program, which will reduce the amount available for awards.

According to a WBUR (NPR affiliate in Boston) interview with Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the Vermont Office of Economic Development, there have been many inquiries into the program and many are certainly interested. There was however one question that she sidestepped that I feel merits further inquiry.

The question of whether or not Vermont's infrastructure can support an economy based around remote workers is important. Right now, much of the state lacks access to high-speed internet. Ms. Goldstein contends that most downtowns in the state have access to high speed internet, as do many of the co-working stations. It seems to be assumed that if a worker moves to an area without high-speed internet, they will be forced to commute to a downtown office in order to work, thus removing one of the advantages of being able to work from a home office.

She acknowledges that work needs to be done in order to help the more rural parts of the state and there is evidence that Vermont is working to address this issue. In 2015, Vermont was the largest recipient, per capita, of federal funding to help ease the digital divide and, in an attempt to expedite the process, the state has enacted legislation that allows broadband providers to bypass local review when building broadband infrastructure.

Despite the state's best efforts, the challenges of getting universal broadband in Vermont remain. Last year, Michael Schirling, Vermont's Commerce and Community Development Secretary, estimated that it would cost "about a half a billion dollars" to get broadband throughout the state. In fact, Schirling expressed concern about whether or not Vermont's telecommunications infrastructure could handle an influx of people moving into the state while town officials throughout the state felt that the lack of communications infrastructure has contributed to the population decline that much of the state is seeing.

For this program to be successful, workers have to be able to successfully work remotely from almost any portion of the state. The current state of broadband infrastructure in Vermont excludes some of the most economically disadvantaged communities from being able to reap the potential benefits that this plan may have. This plan does little to help disadvantaged rural Vermont communities if its recipients are congregated in the few communities that offer high speed internet.  While this legislation is a step in the right direction, it should also serve as a reminder of what is possible in a rural economy, if we adequately invest in infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Rural school issues in the national news

Yesterday, the New York Times ran this story about the closure of the public school in Arena, Wisconsin, population 834.  A few weeks ago, the paper ran this story about what budget cuts mean for a school in rural Snow Hill, North Carolina, population 1,595.  I'm always glad to see the national attention to rural schools and rural communities. 

Here's an excerpt from Julie Bosman's story about the Arena school, with a focus on the implications of the closure for the entire community:
People worry about losing not just their schools but their town’s future — that the closing will prompt the remaining residents and businesses to drift away and leave the place a ghost town. 
Rural schools have been closing in waves for decades, but the debate has taken on sharp urgency this year, particularly in communities in the Midwest and New England that have grown smaller and older since the recession.
Arena is part of the River Valley School District, which closed another of its elementary schools last year, leaving just one in the district.  Just over 100 seniors graduated from the district this year, while only 66 kindergartners are expected to start in the fall.

Bosman writes of the toll the decision to close the school--and all that happened in the run up to it--took on the community:
Friendships soured. Co-workers took sides. Elected officials held long and emotional hearings. Residents voted on a referendum attempting to raise money and save the school. School board officials faced a recall election, and after the vote last year, one member was told by friends that it might be best if he didn’t show up at the Fourth of July celebration in Lone Rock. He stayed away.
Incidentally, Arena is within the Madison Metropolitan Statistical Area.  This locale worked against it because it was not remote enough to qualify for special funding available to assist the most sparsely populated districts.  (Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin is just 10 miles away.  The village of Arena also features "a gas station, a cheese outlet, a cafe called Grandma Mary’s, beloved for its Friday fish fry and beef stroganoff.)

Bosman quotes Ronald Saari, the district administrator in Potosi, in western Wisconsin, who links the school closure crisis to big ag and the consolidation of small farms:

We’re an agricultural area.  At one point, they tell me, back in the ’80s there were 600-some kids in this district. But the smaller farms have consolidated into bigger company farms. Sometimes you sit back at the end of the day and reflect on how touch-and-go things are from year to year. When is that going to end?
Potosi's 320 students, K-12, are housed in a single building.

The story out of North Carolina, while using "rural" in the headline, is not that focused on rural issues. Here's an excerpt focusing on a student named Preston:
Preston, 8, goes to West Greene Elementary School in Snow Hill, a town of 1,500 in rural Greene County, N.C. Of the 100 counties in the state, Greene is one of the poorest. About four out of five public school students come from low-income families. Only three counties in North Carolina spend less on public education. 
All around Preston were signs of how little money his district has. West Greene is one of many schools across the country dealing with the effects of funding cuts, from broken-down buses to donated supplies to teachers who work second jobs. 
The story indicates that teachers from this district are unlikely to join state-wide protests about poor funding and low teacher salaries.
Teachers here said they felt they could address their needs locally, without getting involved in state politics, even though many said they were unhappy about their salaries and the school’s tight budget. Their detachment from the protests suggested that there were limits to the walkout movement, whose organizers are trying to mobilize voters ahead of midterm elections.
I wish journalist Dana Goldstein had said more about how the problems could be solved at the local level.  Is thinking they can be solved locally feasible?  or pie-in-the-sky thinking?  In any event, the decision by these rural teachers not to join state-wide pro-teacher movements saddens me.   Stories about the teacher strikes out of West Virginia did feature some teachers from towns in the 10,000 population range, though I don't recall reading about any very rural teachers.
As in Bosman's story out of Wisconsin, Goldstein gives a nod to shifting rural demographics:
There are more Latino immigrants who work in agriculture and food processing, and some of their children enroll in school. “We don’t care if they’re black, white, Mexican,” said Ms. Canada [Preston's grandmother], who is white and works as a home health aide.
I note that Greene County, of which Snow Hill is the seat, is quite racially diverse.  Those who are white only make up only 54% of the population, and African Americans are more than 37%.  Those who identify as Hispanic or Latino are about 15%.  Those who are white alone, not Hispanic or Latino, are 47%.  The county's population is about 21,000.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Dividing California into three, but not (necessarily) to serve rural interests

Here's the lede from the Los Angeles Times story today:
California’s 168-year run as a single entity, hugging the continent’s edge for hundreds of miles and sprawling east across mountains and desert, could come to an end next year — as a controversial plan to split the Golden State into three new jurisdictions qualified Tuesday for the Nov. 6 ballot.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper is behind the initiative, and journalist John Myers' story quotes him:
Three states will get us better infrastructure, better education and lower taxes. States will be more accountable to us and can cooperate and compete for citizens.
Myers describes how the current proposal would divvy up the state's 58 counties, with a nod to the state's rural-urban divide:  
Northern California would consist of 40 counties stretching from Oregon south to Santa Cruz County, then east to Merced and Mariposa counties. Southern California would begin with Madera County in the Central Valley and then wind its way along the existing state’s eastern and southern spine, comprising 12 counties and ultimately curving up the Pacific coast to grab San Diego and Orange counties.
Under the longshot proposal, Los Angeles County would anchor the six counties that retained the name California, a state that would extend northward along the coast to Monterey County. Draper’s campaign website argues the three states would have reasonably similar household incomes and enough industries to produce their own viable economies.  (emphasis added)
It was that issue — economic sustainability — that helped fell two of Draper’s previous efforts in 2012 and 2014 to create six California states. Critics said some of the more rural regions would suffer from extraordinary rates of poverty as individual states, while coastal communities would flourish in new, smaller states where the lion’s share of California tax revenue is generated.
Myers also provides historical context, noting that more than 200 attempts have been made to "either reconfigure [California's] boundaries, split it into pieces or even have the state secede and become an independent country" since California was admitted to the Union in 1850. I have written about some proposals for secession, most prominently the State of Jefferson, here, here, herehere, and here.  And here is a post about the State of Jefferson that has a decidedly international angle.  Here is a post about Draper's earlier effort to divide California into six states.

While the State of Jefferson movement has been aimed at garnering more political power for rural interests in the far northern part of California,  the current Draper proposal does not seem to share that goal.  While the vast majority of "rural" areas and metropolitan counties would wind up in northern California, those counties would be dominated economically--and probably culturally and otherwise--by the Greater Bay Area.  Ditto the Central Valley counties by San Diego and Orange counties, and ditto (again) the scenic (and somewhat agricultural) central coast by Los Angeles and environs.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

A story about cross-ethnicity solidarity in rural America

Most of the news out of rural America that implicates racial or ethnic difference suggests bigotry among rural and small-town whites.  That makes this New York Times story an exception, with its headline proclaiming:  "ICE Came for a Tennessee Town's Immigrants.  The Town Fought Back."  Morristown, Tennessee, population 29,663, is the dateline. This small city in northeast Tennessee has attracted workers from Mexico and Central America for three decades, with many settling there over the years, raising families now present across generations.  As context for her story, journalist Miriam Jordan plays up the politics of Tennessee, where 61% of voters supported Trump in 2016.  An excerpt follows:
So the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Southeastern Provision plant outside the city and sent dozens of workers to out-of-state detention centers was the day people in Morristown began to ask questions many hadn’t thought through before — to the federal government, to the police, to their church leaders, to each other.
Jordan tells the story partly through excerpts from interviews with folks in the Morristown area.  Needless to say, Morristown's residents are not all supportive of the immigrants, but I note that many of those who are parents and those who teach and interact with immigrant children are among the most supportive of the immigrant families.  They tend to see the immigrants as connected to, part of the fabric of the community. 

The details Jordan  provides of the raid and the detentions are chilling.  Indeed, the actions of ICE agents and the response of the community remind me of accounts of the 2008 immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, which is the subject of this film

Also, an Anne Lewis film about Morristown, "Morristown:  In the Air and Sun," was released by Appalshop in 2007.  That documentary, too, tells the story of cross-racial coalition building among workers in Morristown, a coalition that led to the unionization of a Koch Industries owned poultry processing plant there. 

I wrote in 2009 in the Harvard Latino Law Review about the integration (or lack thereof) of immigrants into the rural South here, with some particular attention to Morristown.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Why use a rural image in a policy brief about "the American middle class"?

That's what the Brookings Institute did here

But I can't find any significant rural angle in Brookings analysis of the "seven reasons to worry about the American middle class."  They do use the word "rural" twice under the heading "Place Matters More than Ever."  Here's an excerpt (emphasis added): 
Alongside the diverging destinies of individuals is a great divergence in the prosperity of whole communities and regions of the country. Employment and economic growth is far from consistent from one metropolitan or rural area to the next. Because various parts of the country are home to different industries and occupations, trade and technology have had differential impacts by region. Employment rates have, for example, fallen most dramatically in the nation’s rural areas, though there are still more non-working men in cities than in the heartland. 
Our Brookings colleagues Mark Muro and Jacob Whiton find that the largest metropolitan areas have accounted for the vast majority of the nation’s population, employment, and output growth since 2010. For the first time, the rural population is actually shrinking. This, alongside the declining role of manufacturing and mining, means that employment growth, an important contributor to overall economic growth, is waning in many parts of the country.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Another missive about how helping rural populations vis a vis work requirements is racist -- and a modest rebuttal

The New York Times op-ed headline proclaims:

Bryce Covert explains: 
Ignore the platitudes. Work requirements have never been about helping the poor or unemployed. They’ve always been about punishing black people. 
I do not agree.  As I have argued in detail elsewhere, "middle class" and "working class" whites don't like poor whites any more than they like poor Blacks.  In short, the "upper classes" have little tolerance for the poor--especially those they see as the undeserving poor--which includes plenty of poor whites. 

Covert continues, regarding the exemptions:
These carve-outs would, in effect, spare white, rural residents from work requirements but not black ones in urban areas. These proposals have turned the subtext that was there all along into legible text. 
Kentucky, Ohio and Virginia are seeking waivers from the Department of Health and Human Services that would allow them to impose work requirements on some Medicaid recipients, but not all of them. They all included exemptions for counties with the highest unemployment levels, which are rural, mostly white areas. Urban centers where lots of black people are unemployed, but whose county-level unemployment rates are lower, would be subject to the work requirement.
As I have noted in earlier blog posts, the county may not be the optimal scale for granting these sorts of exemptions from work requirements.  Of course, I must also note that work requirements seem unwise generally in the current era of low unemployment.  That is, folks everywhere will have trouble finding jobs--assuming that those receiving SNAP and Medicaid are able to work, and some budget analyses suggest they are not.

But another point bears making here:  I wonder what critics of the Michigan proposal would say if a similar proposal were made in a state with a more significant population of rural African Americans and/or rural Latinx residents.  I am looking at this document--now more than five years old, but it is not easy to find super current data on this topic--which suggests that more than 17% of Virginia's rural and small-town population is African-American. So the Virginia proposal to exempt rural residents would benefit a significant number of African-Americans.

Other states with significant percentages of African-Americans dwelling in rural areas and small-towns are:

Mississippi           39.2%
South Carolina     36.4%
Louisiana              31.0%
Georgia                 25.8%
Alabama               21.9%
North Carolina     20.4%
New Jersey           18.2%
Virginia                 17.1%
Maryland              14.7%
Arkansas              13.9%
Delaware             13.8%
Florida                 12.9%

States with significant rural and small-town Latinx populations include:

New Mexico          42.7%
California               36.4%
Texas                      31.8%
Arizona                  23.5%
Colorado                18.9%
New Jersey             18.0%
Washington             16.9%
Nevada                   16.1%
Florida                    14.7%
Idaho                      12.4%
Hawaii                    10.5%
Oregon                   10.1%
Utah                         8.5%
Wyoming                 8.2%

I bet some of those figures are surprising to readers.  Did you know that Idaho has a significant Latinx population who work on dairy farms?  That Latinx workers keep rural Wyoming's hospitality industry humming?  Who knew New Jersey's rural areas were so racially/ethnically diverse? Who knew New Jersey had rural areas? 

For a variety of reasons, I wish legislators in these states with more diverse rural populations would offer work exemptions.  Rural is not always synonymous with white, and it would be nice if critics--as well as policymakers--would acknowledge that fact.