Saturday, August 25, 2018

Lumbee Tribe of NC featured in Washington Post

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post printed an article that detailed the struggles of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River and based in Robeson County, North Carolina, to obtain recognition from the federal government and the efforts of one tribal member to change that.

The article, which details the history of the Lumbee struggle, is very thorough and does a great job of outlining many of the struggles that the tribe has faced in gaining recognition. The article also does a great job of touching on the unique situation that the tribe faced in Jim Crow era North Carolina where they were neither white or black but rather an "other," a status that was exploited as a means of racial division by local white politicians. I want to highlight a particular quote that I think does a great job of outlining the dilemma of Native people in 19th-early 20th century North Carolina:
In the Jim Crow South, white ancestry was acceptable for indigenous people, but black blood was not. When the United States was dividing up reservations and providing land “allotments” to Indians, a government commission told the Mississippi Choctaw that “where any person held a strain of Negro blood, the servile blood contaminated and polluted the Indian blood.” Many Native Americans internalized these racial politics and adopted them as a means of survival. After North Carolina established a separate school system for Indians in Robeson County in the late 1880s, some Lumbees fought to exclude a child whose mother was Indian and whose father was black. 
In their segregated corner of North Carolina, Lumbees enjoyed more power and privileges than their black neighbors, but this was not the case for Native Americans in every state. In Virginia in the 1920s, Indians were required to classify themselves as “colored,” whereas Oklahoma considered Indians to be white — prompting Creek Indians to reject tribal members with black ancestry.
I have previously covered Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 (referenced in this quote) and its implications for Native people.

In North Carolina, the Lumbee were in a particularly precarious position. After seeing them join with local African Americans to fight the Confederate Home Guard during (and even after) the Civil War, local whites needed to find a way to drive a wedge between the Native and African American communities in order to maintain their own place in the power structure. Historically, whites in Robeson County are a distinct minority, comprising under a third of the population. They were keenly aware of this fact and the fact that they would be relatively defenseless in another violent uprising. By working to divide the minority populations in the county, they lessened the likelihood of another fight and cemented themselves into power.

The phrase "means of survival" is important in this quote and to the strategy of local white politicians. Many tribes, particularly in the South, had to acquiesce to the racial views of white supremacists in order to ensure that their sovereignty and distinct identity were recognized by broader society. The ability of Southeastern tribes to run their own schools and educate their children was often subject to the whims of white politicians and as Virginia showed, recognition of Native identity could often be erased by an act of the state legislature.

Malinda Maynor Lowery's book "Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South" does a fantastic job of discussing this issue and how Lumbees fit into the racial framework of the time period.

This article also serves as another reason for working to solve the rural lawyer shortage.  We need lawyers who are willing to go into these communities and work with tribes to help them assert their rights and the inherent sovereignty that they possess.

Friday, August 24, 2018

"Rural" in two big headlines in today's NYT

Just opening my print edition, and this story is on the front page, below the fold:  "On Eve of Pope's Visit, Rural Irish Rage at Abuse."  The story's dateline is Gortahork, in County Donegal, and the rural angle is here in the lede (though the word "rural" is not used again in the story):
If any place illustrates the depth and depravity of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church — and why the Irish are so angry about it — it is this unlikely corner of the country, where among rolling hills of wild heather, castles and bucolic fishing villages, predatory priests terrorized children with impunity for decades. 
County Donegal, which overlooks the Atlantic in northwestern Ireland, has fewer than 160,000 residents, but it may have the worst record of clerical abuse in the country. According to a watchdog group that monitors the Catholic Church in Ireland, 14 priests have been accused in recent years, four of whom were convicted.
Interestingly (and consistent with this lede, I suppose), the headline in the digital version of the story doesn't mention rurality.  It is "Pope to Visit Ireland, Where Scars of Sex Abuse Are 'Worse than I.R.A.'"  Another digital headline for the story is The story also mentions the recent release of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Report about a week ago, which gave rise to this NYT story focused on a Pennsylvania community's surprise that their beloved priest of many years had been implicated in the scandal.  Ah, but on second look, I see that "Holy Angels Parish" is in Pittsburgh.  Though the photo appears to be that of a rural-ish church, it is apparently close enough to or/within greater Pittsburgh to merit that dateline.  Still, the suggestion of a rural locale reminds me how a parish--especially a small-ish one--is like a rural community:  everyone knows everyone. 

The media focus on rurality in these stories of clerical sexual abuse may suggest a couple of ways in which rurality is salient to what happened in these places, but what are those rural angles?  lack of anonymity, remoteness from checks and balances of higher scale institutions, or something else? 

The second story with "rural" in the headline is on page A10 of today's NYT, about Randolph County, Georgia's proposal to close 7 of 9 polling places.  The print headline reads, "Proposal to Close 7 of 9 Polling Places in Rural County Hits Nerve in Georgia."  The digital headline, perhaps updated after my west coast paper went to press, indicates resolution of the issue:  "Georgia County Rejects Plan to Close 7 Polling Places in Majority-Black Area."  In fact, Randolph County itself is majority African American, 62%.  And in case you haven't heard, an African-American woman is the Democratic Party nominee for governor (though this move would be outrageous even if that were not the case). 
Further, Randolph County has a poverty rate of 22.8%; the rate for families with children is close to 40%, and that for families with a female householder exceeds 40%.  I can't easily find data on the availability of public transit in Randolph County, but suffice to say, closing a majority of polling places in the county would have effectively disenfranchised lots of poor people--many of them African-Americans.  I'm glad to the see the county doing the right thing, even if it took lots of media pressure, which raised awareness to make it happen. 

As for the use of "rural" in the headline, I'm not sure what work it does for the Times headline writers/editors.  Is it  meant to convey political cunning on the part of local government?  naivete of constitutional norms?  out of the mainstream?  Randolph County is certainly rural, with a population under  8,000.  It is worth noting that Georgia counties are very small in terms of land area.  The state is divided into 159 counties with an average size of 374 square miles.  Those are small counties by any state's measure, but they are especially small compared to the typical county in a western state.   

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Opioid deaths spike but treatment gaps remain

The opioid epidemic continues to ravage rural America. According to recently released data from the Center for Disease Control, drug overdose deaths reached a record high of 72,000 in 2017. The increase is largely driven by the increased use of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which are frequently mixed with other drugs, sometimes without the knowledge of the consumer. In 2016, more than half of the opioid overdoses in ten states involved fentanyl and in some states, such as New Hampshire, that number was as high as two-thirds. Similar data is not yet available for 2017 but based on the preliminary data, it appears that this trend may continue. So far this year, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition has distributed 1,296 fentanyl test strips in order to assist users with detecting fentanyl in their drug mix and so far 82% of the strips have tested positive. The danger presented by fentanyl and similar drugs is very real and will only continue to ravage our communities unless we can come up with ways to control the opioid epidemic.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the drug use rate is higher in urban areas while fatal drug overdoses are more prevalent in rural areas. Why is that? To explore this gap, we need to ask ourselves what happens when a rural person becomes addicted to opioids. In some cases, you could seek out treatment. For a lot of people however, that is sadly not an option. According to the National Academy for State Health Policy, 91.1% of drug treatment facilities are located in metro or metro adjacent counties. People in rural spaces also struggle to find transportation and are often unable to consistently make appointments. For people who are able to access treatment however, they may have to work through models that are not designed for members of their community. According to Joy Buck, a nursing professor at West Virginia University, many of our drug abuse response models are modeled on urban areas and do not reflect the realities of rural communities.

There are however a couple of promising steps to finding solutions to the issues above. In New Hampshire, newly released federal funding is being used to create nine regional hubs around the state that will act as "one-stop shops for those seeking help. Individuals entering the system through those hubs will be evaluated for their medical and social service needs, and then connected to relevant resources. That may include not just coordinated addiction treatment or counseling, but also broader social supports like job training and housing assistance that can help maintain a stable recovery." These hubs will collect information for patients over a period of time so officials can improve treatment delivery models. In West Virginia, WVU has been issued a grant to specifically study the issue of rural drug overdoses, work with community leaders and members, and assess outcomes in order to develop a coordinated response to the opioid crisis.

Rural America is struggling with an epidemic that it is ill-equipped to handle. The opioid epidemic, fueled by various causes, is continuing to ravage rural communities. As the usage of more potent, synthetic opioids become more prevalent, the need to respond to this epidemic becomes even greater. While hopefully renewed attention to this issue results increased options for rural residents, we cannot ignore that this is yet another example of the disastrous and often fatal impact of the resource gap that continues to persist.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The need to hold local officials accountable creates a need for rural lawyers

In this space, I often talk about the need for lawyers in rural spaces and how critical it is that we work to solve the power imbalance created by the inability to access justice. Lawyers are great conduits through which we can hold our local officials accountable and ensure that they are unable to take advantage of their constituents. The ability for residents to hold the government accountable when they propose projects that can be potentially dangerous is critically important. It is important that lawyers exist who can stand with residents, especially members of marginalized groups, and advocate for their interests and ensure that the government works for and not against them.

A great example of this comes from Bristol, Vermont where residents are suing their town for failing to seek their input before allowing Vermont Gas to build a pipeline on a public right of way. In their suit, the petitioners are arguing that the town was obligated by state law to consult the citizens of the town before allowing Vermont Gas to build a pipeline. The town however argues that the law only requires town officials to consult the public if they're granting an easement and that this arrangement does not meet the legal definition of an easement.  As the minutes from their July 23rd meeting show, the town selectmen acted on the advice of the town attorney when they agreed to sign the agreement. A local attorney is working with residents of the town to challenge that assertion. Now, the courts will get to weigh in on whether or not the town attorney's advice was correct.

In some cases, a solution to this power imbalance exists and disadvantaged residents do have someone who can assist them with holding their government accountable. A great example of comes from Brunswick County, North Carolina where residents of a predominantly African American neighborhood sued, with the help of the UNC Civil Rights Center, the county after they proposed expanding an existing landfill in their neighborhood to three times its current size. One resident of the neighborhood noted that the current landfill had already resulted in his water being polluted and undrinkable. An expansion of the landfill would surely exacerbate this problem. 

The UNC Civil Rights Center filled the role of helping marginalized populations assert their rights and hold bad actors accountable. However, this solution became a target of the UNC Board of Governors, who voted late last year to ban the Civil Rights Center from engaging in litigation. In citing their reason for banning litigation, board member Steve Long noted the fact that the above mentioned lawsuit cost Brunswick County over $1 million in legal fees and said that "[w]e should be advising cities and counties. If they are doing something wrong, we need to tell them about it. We should not be suing them."

Another perplexing chapter in this saga came a couple of months later when the State Bar of North Carolina found that the UNC Civil Rights Center had been illegally filing lawsuits. Alan Hicks, Chairman of the State Bar's Authorized Practice Committee wrote, "[s]tate law prohibits corporations “other than law firms and certain tax-exempt corporations, from providing legal services to other persons, firms, or corporations ... [t]he university is not a corporation authorized to practice law under those statutes. The center, as a constituent of the university and not a separate entity, is likewise not a corporation authorized to provide legal services.” According to WRAL, the initial complaint alleged that because the Center's director was not a licensed attorney, the Center failed to meet the requirements to exist as a "legal clinic." As Dean Martin Brinkley of UNC Law notes, “[n]one of the basic principles that underlie the authorized practice rules are present here. The center’s clients have always been represented by North Carolina licensed lawyers, and those lawyers have provided supervision for students working in the Center.” Brinkley further alleges that the State Bar knew and approved of the Center's activities in recent years.

What is especially perplexing about Hicks's statement is that he actually acknowledges that the Civil Rights Center had engaged in activities that would qualify it as a legal clinic and even concedes that the students are supervised by licensed attorneys. However, he dismisses these actions by saying they were not conducted "under the auspices of a legal clinic." This is sadly typical of recent North Carolina history, their actions to disenfranchise disadvantaged populations could fill its own post. Last March, I covered the state legislature's decisions to cut legal aid funding and the subsequent closing of rural offices that resulted. This has occurred multiple times over the past decade. 

As I mentioned in my last post, having the tools needed to hold our local governments accountable is important. A grave power imbalance is created when the government is able to act with impunity. It is sad that a promising solution fell into the political weeds and met an untimely death in North Carolina. However, it does show us an example of what we could have and why this work is important. 

Friday, August 17, 2018

A story almost as much about Plains, Georgia, as it is about Jimmy Carter

Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan report today for the Washington Post under the headline, "The un-celebrity president."  The subhead is "Jimmy Carter shuns riches, lives modestly in his hometown." Both Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, were born in Plains more than nine decades ago.  Plains, population 776, is in Sumter County, about 150 miles south of Atlanta.  

When Carter left the presidency, his peanut farm--which had been held in a blind trust--was more than $1 million in debt.  He sold it and has lived over the $200,000 pension former presidents receive, as well as royalties from the 33 books he has written since becoming a former president.  

Sumter County is 42% white, nearly 52% black.  It is 5.2% Hispanic or Latino of any race.  The poverty rate in Sumter County is 33.6%; the poverty rate for children exceeds 50%.  Of those aged 65 or older, 17.9% are living in poverty (thanks, no doubt, to Social Security).  

The story features some fabulous photos of Plains as it does, of course, of President Carter and the former first lady.  The very fact he has chosen to live here rather than somewhere else speaks volumes about who he is as an individual, his values. 

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The death of the small town newspaper

A couple of weeks ago, The Robesonian, the local paper in my home county of Robeson County, North Carolina announced that they were cutting the colorized comics from their Sunday paper. In making their decision, they blamed President Donald Trump's tariffs on Canadian newsprint. The new tariffs have been a particularly large burden on newspapers around the country, prompting a bipartisan response in Congress. Last week, the Trump Administration even announced a small reduction in the tariff. Many small town papers, which already operate on razor thin margins, are being forced to cut back or restructure in order to maintain financial solvency.

President Trump's tariffs threaten to accelerate what has already been a growing trend, the death of the small town newspaper. With the rise of the internet and the increased nationalization of our political culture, smaller news outlets find themselves in a fight to maintain relevance. The value of the small town newspaper cannot be understated. In communities that are often far from population centers, it is often the only source of information about the inner workings of local government and the only outlet that can expose corruption and malfeasance. It is also the only outlet that can spotlight local political candidates, helping to give a voice to people who may not be well known in the community and may struggle to get their message out otherwise.

"Democracy Dies In the Darkness" is not just the slogan for The Washington Post, it can often be the reality in many rural communities. The sad reality is that the local newspaper is often the only source of information on decisions made and actions taken by municipal governments. For example, the small town newspaper is often the only source for information on town meetings. The journalist who attends and documents those meetings is not only able to report on the proceedings of the meetings but can often ask clarifying questions of local officials in order to get more insight into the decisions of local lawmakers. Through this process, the local community becomes better informed about their local government and the reasons behind the decisions that are made.

Local newspapers also work to expose local corruption. In my home county, The Robesonian has frequently exposed corruption on the Robeson County Board of Commissioners. In 2012, they highlighted that, despite Robeson County being among the poorest counties in the entire country, its commissioners were the fourth highest paid in North Carolina. In June of this year, they highlighted that the County had deliberately failed to publish the names of relatives of the county commissioners in a delinquent tax posting. Without a local newspaper, it is unlikely that either of these stories (and others that I am not mentioning) would have ever been uncovered.

While the argument can be made that physical print newspapers are an outdated mode of communication and that these news outlets could survive if they moved online, I find this argument weak. As Professor Pruitt noted in 2012, the move to online publishing would disproportionately hurt the rural and the poor, who are less likely to have access to the internet. By moving to an online-only system, newspapers would be unnecessarily shutting out large portions of their populations.

When we think about the issues that this blog often discusses, namely the growing resource gap between rural and urban communities, it is important that we remember that the local newspaper is the vehicle through which we hold public officials accountable and make sure that they are fighting to bridge this gap. The local newspaper helps to facilitate an informed electorate, who can apply pressure to elected officials to act in a way that benefits the public at large. Without the local paper, local officials may find themselves free to act with limited accountability to voters. In this scenario, democracy may indeed die in darkness.

Friday, August 10, 2018

On wealthy rural places: rural gentrification, exurbia, and politics

A few days ago, Philip Bump of the Washington Post published a piece titled "Where Rural America Defies Economic Stereotypes."  It's one of those cool data-driven pieces with several graphs (and one map) that illustrate where the nation's more affluent rural counties are.  The long and short of it is that wealthier rural counties tend to be those experiencing rural gentrification, either because they are amenity rich (think Colorado's Western slope); exurban and therefore reliant on metropolitan jobs; or because of the energy boom in western North Dakota's Bakken formation or Texas's Permian Basin. 

The map accompanying Bump's story highlights 24 counties with higher median incomes than the national average median income.  Among the surprises for me:  Alpine County, California (population 1,175) in the Eastern Sierra and McMullen County, Texas (population 707).  I know Alpine County is scenic, but I'm having trouble imagining the source of wealth in McMullen County, perhaps wealthy farmers with large holdings. 

Bump then turns to the politics of these counties: 
These 24 counties uphold one stereotype, though: All but three voted for President Trump in 2016. On average, the counties on the map above backed Trump by 48 points. (The three exceptions? Alpine County in California, San Juan County in Washington and San Miguel County in Colorado.)
I've already mentioned Alpine County's economy.  San Miguel County, Colorado (population 7,359) is home to Telluride, an extreme example of rural gentrification which I have written about here and hereSan Juan County, Washington is San Juan Island, population 15,769.  All are natural amenity-driven economies. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

My Rural Travelogue (Part XXI): Maras, Peru and the "Comisaria Rural"

I am traveling in Peru and Ecuador on a family vacation, and a few days ago was in Maras, Peru, a "village" of about 3,000 residents (according to our tour guide) between Cusco city and the Sacred Valley.  The area is best known for its "salinaria" and the nearby Incan ruins at Moray, but I found myself preoccupied with the use of the word "rural" in this sign on the main square:  Comisaria Rural PNP Maras.  I didn't see the word "rural" used elsewhere in my Peruvian travels, so I asked our guide what it was.  He explained that this is the rural police.

I later looked up Comisaria Rural on Google Translate and it produced this:
State institution whose function is to guarantee, maintain and restore internal order, provide protection and assistance to people and the community, ensure compliance with laws and public and private heritage security, prevent, investigate and combat crime; monitor and control borders.
This does not sound rural-specific, but rather seems to refer to the broader Peruvian police and security forces.

After passing through Maras, we were onto the ruins at Moray, where we saw hundreds of Peruvians in costume playing out a festival celebrating the Incan New Year, on August 1.  Our guide told us that these Peruvians came from the village of Maras.  Many uniformed officers were also present to direct traffic and keep order, and a number of them wore uniforms that were marked Comisaria Rural PNP Maras.

By the way, Googling "Comisaria Rural PNP Maras" for photos brings up lots of interesting ones, including an apparent dead body (covered up) right outside the Comisaria office.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

State of New York revokes Spectrum's right to operate in the state

In a victory for rural broadband, the State of New York has revoked the right of Spectrum, the second largest internet provider in the country, to operate in the state because of its failure to expand access to rural communities. The agreement to provide access to rural communities was a condition under which New York allowed Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable in January 2016. According to the New York Public Service Commission, Spectrum's parent company Charter Communications has reneged on this agreement and provided suitable ground for the Commission to revoke their acceptance of that merger, effectively ending the ability of Spectrum to operate in the state.

As originally reported back in April by the Lockport Union Sun and Journal in Niagara County, NY, Charter Communications has repeatedly failed to make adequate progress towards meeting the goals set forth in their agreement with the state. In September 2017, Charter agreed to a $13 million settlement with the state after having failed to reach half its target within the first year of the agreement. Despite the hefty settlement, their inability to comply continued. In June, they were fined an additional $2 million.

As I covered back in February, New York seems to take rural broadband seriously. Under Governor Andrew Cuomo, the state has invested billions into its expansion through the New NY Broadband program. The Governor's office claims to have connected 98% of New Yorkers to broadband internet and had planned to have 100% connected by the end of 2018. However, the governor will allow companies who received funding in Phase III, which launched in January, to apply for a waiver of the deadline and receive funding for an additional year.

Achieving universal coverages has not been without difficulty. In some of the most remote stretches of New York, many rural residents find themselves being offered discounted satellite internet, a solution that many find inadequate. HughesNet, a large satellite internet provider, has been provided with subsidies that will allow it to offer subsidized satellite internet to rural residents of Upstate New York. Many have claimed that they have already had access to HughesNet and the ability to access it at a reduced rate does not represent the expansion of a new service into their communities and that the relative unreliability of satellite internet is problematic. As Matt Stern from Royalton, NY in Niagara County in Western New York said to the Lockport Union-Sun and Journal, "I still wouldn't buy it  ... it's just not real internet." This sentiment was echoed by Pat Buckley of Ellenburg, NY in Clinton County in Northeastern New York who said to the Press-Republican, “[w]e’re frustrated that we’re not being treated the same[.]”

I applaud the State of New York for holding Charter Communications accountable to the terms of the agreement that they signed. However, I also share the concerns of the rural New Yorkers who are concerned about the viability of satellite internet as a long term broadband solution. I do not feel that it would be fair to some of the most remote New Yorkers to have to settle for substandard internet while the state claims to have 100% broadband connectivity. As we near the end of the year and the original deadline for 100% broadband connectivity across the State of New York, I will be keeping an eye on this.

Rural public libraries are essential for bridging the gap - Part II

Welcome back for Part II of my look at rural libraries and how they are essential for helping to bridge the rural-urban resource gap. In Part I, I looked at the history of libraries in rural spaces. In this post, I am going to look at the potential of rural libraries to help bridge the resource gap and some of the challenges that they face today.

A library is a tremendous asset to any community. As I have said before, it is more than just a building of books, it is a portal to the outside world, a window to experiences unknown to us, and the key to the closet that contains unparalleled knowledge. In a public library, you can access, free of charge, resources that can take you to a world beyond your own experiences and open doors that you never knew existed. The public library is truly one of our greatest government programs.

However, not every library is created equally and disparities in availability of materials exist across the various library systems that dot our landscape. According to the American Library Association, rural libraries are often the most underresourced, possessing a median of 1.9 full time librarian and occupying just 2,592 square feet, almost 10,000 square feet smaller than their urban and suburban counterparts. The average salary for a librarian in a rural library is a relatively low $28,508. Attracting top talent is also an issue, a 2014 study found that the average rural library has .9 librarians that hold a master's degree from an ALA accredited school.  In large part due to their staffing issues, rural libraries are also less likely to even be open with the most remote rural libraries only opening for 26 hours per week. To anyone who regularly reads this space, rural spaces being underresourced should perhaps come as little surprise.

Public libraries serve a key role as a connector to the world beyond our own experiences, a role even more pronounced in Rural America. According to the aforementioned 2014 study, the library is often the only free broadband internet resource in 70.3% of rural communities, this is especially important given the state of rural broadband and its relatively low availability in rural homes. As of 2015, only 55 percent of rural households were broadband subscribers.

However, people who rely on the local library as their sole source of broadband access may find themselves sorely disappointed. Internet speed in rural libraries also greatly lags behind that of its urban and suburban peers. According to the previously linked report from the ALA:
Libraries in communities of all sizes have improved their technological capacity in recent years. In 2014, for instance, 14.9 percent of rural libraries had subscribed Internet download speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less, compared with 43 percent that reported this was the case in 2010. Libraries overall have a median subscribed download speed of approximately 16 Mbps, with a high of 40 Mbps for city libraries, 25 Mbps for suburban outlets, and 15 Mbps for town locations. Rural libraries have the weakest capacity at a median of just 10 Mbps, falling well below the FCC’s broadband standard of 25 Mbps for home (not library or school) access, where bandwidth is divided by members of a single household rather than staff and patrons of an entire library. Furthermore, this is a fraction of the 100 Mbps goal set by the FCC for all libraries serving 50,000 people or less. Rural fringe libraries have the best broadband capacity at a median of 13 Mbps for downloads and 8.6 Mbps for uploads, showing that these libraries’ proximity to population centers makes them more likely to be able to take advantage of local infrastructure. Rural distant libraries stand at a median of 7.7 Mbps for downloads and 2.2 Mbps for uploads, while rural remote outlets stand at 6.7 Mbps and 1.0 Mbps, respectively.
For rural residents who rely on the local library for accessing the internet, the availability of internet is not only important because of the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural communities at large but also because of the expense associated with broadband internet subscriptions. Rural communities are largely more impoverished than their urban and suburban peers. An impoverished rural resident is going to be reliant on the public library to access the internet, especially if it's the only access point in their community. With many of our everyday activities being conducted online, not having access to the internet is a significant disadvantage in modern society. For example, a person without internet access may find themselves unable to apply for a job, which has a great impact on their ability to further their economic standing.

The ability to apply for jobs is not the only way that the internet helps to foster economic advancement. The ability to access high speed internet also allows a person to further their education by attending college online. Many colleges now offer online degree programs and courses at brick and mortar schools (such as a community college) are increasingly containing components that require a broadband internet connection to access. The inability to access broadband internet or even the ability to only access substandard broadband internet results in a barrier being erected that could hinder a person's ability to acquire the skills needed to apply for jobs that can help them break the cycle of poverty.

A poorly resourced public library also has a detrimental effect on younger people in the community, who may still be attending the brick and mortar public school system. I will use myself as an example. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on climate change. My high school's library had nothing on climate change so I had to peruse the county library system to find materials that could help me prepare my report.  I also did not have broadband internet access at home, this was the mid-2000s after all, and needed a place to conduct my research. The library branch in the closest town (of approximately 1,000 people) did not have a single book on climate change so I had to drive approximately 20 miles to the county seat to go to the main branch of the county library system. When I arrived there, I again found no books on climate change. As I stated in the Letter to the Editor that I linked to in Part I, this had a detrimental impact on my ability to produce a paper that met the standards that I had set for myself.

How do we address this gap? First we have to consider one possible cause of the problem, the bulk of library funding (approximately 80%, according to the previously linked 2014 report) comes from local governments with relatively little state or federal aid. This obviously puts low-income communities at a disadvantage because of the relatively little tax revenue that they would bring in. However, we can't assume that the local government would fund libraries if they had the means to do so. As Professor Pruitt wrote in September of 2017, Douglas County, Oregon, despite closing every single branch of their county's library system, opted to spend $250,000 in federal money on lobbying videos for the timber industry. There also has to be political will from the local communities to hold elected officials accountable.

You may ask about the federal aid mentioned in Part I. There have been some success stories from rural communities being able to expand services through grant funding through the Library Services and Technology Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a replacement for the Library Construction and Services Act. The LSTA awards grants to individual state library systems, which tend grants them to local library systems. However, these grants are often limited in scope and only cover certain projects. They do not typically cover operating expenses for the broader library.

In many communities, the reservoir of knowledge has run dry.  Right now, rural residents are forced to use libraries with substandard space, internet access, staffing, and hours of operation. This is unfair and creates another situation where people are penalized solely on the basis of where they live. Inequity in access to resources is a major problem in Rural America and it will be important to continue to work to address these issues so communities can move forward and be able to able to fully join the interconnected world of the 21st century.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

A great New York Times infographic on motherhood

Today the New York Times released a map that shows the average age at first birth for women across the United States. Being the data nerd that I am, I dove right in and spent a lot of my day analyzing and looking at the various geographies around the country. Some of the patterns are what you might expect. For example, women have children at younger ages in rural spaces and the differences within states can be quite stark. The average age at first birth for a mother in my home county of Robeson County, North Carolina is 22.1 whereas just an hour and a half away in Wake County (home of Raleigh), the average age at first birth is 28.1. Of note, since I use it frequently as a reference point in this post, the average age nationally is 26.3, I round it down to 26 in subsequent mentions.

Much like the voting map that was also released last week, this map allows us to analyze data about known phenomena at a granular level. According to the CDC, the South and Appalachia have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country and this fact is reflected in the New York Times map. However, the Times map allows us to find patterns within the different states. For example, in Mississippi, Madison County is the only county where the average age is over 26. It is also the only county in Mississippi whose median income exceeds the national average. You can see the same pattern in neighboring Alabama where Shelby County, a relatively affluent suburb of Birmingham, shares the same distinction.

Also of note is the correlation between college attainment and age at first birth, which the article attached to the map notes. In some states, you can even spot relatively rural college areas by looking for areas where the age exceeds 26. This is especially pronounced in North Carolina where rural Watauga County, home of Appalachian State University, stands out. You can also look to Pennsylvania and the fact that Centre County, home of Pennsylvania State University, stands out among its surrounding counties. The same is true in Missouri with Boone County, home of the University of Missouri. This pattern is not always as dramatic as it is in these cases but when it is, it is interesting to see.

I will finish by doing a brief look at New England since it stands out pretty prominently in the map. In Connecticut, there isn't a single county where the average age is younger than 26 (Windham County comes close at 26.1) and in Massachusetts, only Hampden County meets that criteria and that represents something of an outlier since it is home to Springfield, the largest city in Western New England. Its neighbor to the north, Hampshire County, is more in line with the observation made in the previous paragraph. It is home to Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire Colleges, and UMass - Amherst and has an average age of 29.2.

In New Hampshire, rural Grafton County, home to Dartmouth College and Plymouth State University, has a higher average age than its neighbors Sullivan, Coos, Belknap, and Carroll Counties. Vermont represents something of an outlier since most of its rural counties have average ages that exceed those of comparatively rural communities. However, its northern most counties (with the exception of Essex) all have average ages under 26.

Maine lives up to the old adage "as Maine goes, so goes the nation" by being the New England state that is most similar to the rest of the country. Cumberland and York Counties, the two most urban counties in the state, have the highest ages. Hancock County, home to Acadia National Park, also stands out as having a higher than average age. The rest of the state has average ages below 26. There is also less of a "college town" effect in Maine. Penobscot County, home of the University of Maine, has an average age of 25.6, which is the higher than all of its neighbors but only a year and a half older than its lowest neighbor, Washington County.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look at the map. There are of course multiple layers of reasoning that describes the trends noted here. However, I thought that I would bring it to your attention and highlight some areas that I found particularly interesting.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Rural public libraries are essential for bridging the gap - Part I

"A library should be a reservoir of knowledge, not just a building of books. We cannot expect to better our living conditions if we do not have a literate population. In a changing global economy, companies are increasingly looking for workers who can think critically and adapt to ever-changing situations, skills for which there is no greater incubator than a library."

At the risk of committing a social faux pas, I am quoting myself here. In 2013, I wrote a Letter to the Editor to protest the fact that my home county's rural library was the least funded in North Carolina, all while the county commissioners were among the highest compensated. The public library is one of the greatest inventions of our modern civilization. It is a place where everyone, regardless of their social class, has equal access to a litany of resources. A well-funded library can be a great asset for a community. However, rural libraries are often underfunded, underresourced, and unable to fully realize the potential that a great public library can provide.

This is the first of a two part post. Part I will explore the roots of rural libraries in the United States and what has led us to where we are now. Part II will be an exploration into the modern challenges of rural libraries and how they struggle to meet the needs of modern-day rural America.

Public libraries in the United States have their roots in New England. The earliest "public" libraries in the American colonies were supported by religious institutions and were usually only utilized by church parishioners. The idea of an independent, free-standing library didn't come to fruition until 1778 when the town of Franklin, Massachusetts voted to utilize a generous 118 book donation by town namesake Benjamin Franklin and allow residents of the town to check out the books free of charge. This library was not supported directly by taxation however and would not come under the auspices of the Town of Franklin until 1981. The first library to be supported by taxation opened in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The unique governance structure of New England allowed for the easy spread of public libraries into the rural regions of those states. After all, there is very little unincorporated territory in New England and almost every inhabited area of the region is under the governance of some form of municipal government. This structure allowed residents of even the most outlying area to have access to the bountiful resources that a public library can offer. The legacy of this can be seen in the image below (sourced from here).

The concentration of rural public libraries in 2013. Courtesy of The Institute of Library and Museum Services.
It was a different story however for the rest of the country. In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, some states attempted to remedy this issue by having traveling libraries and temporarily housing the collections in general stores, post offices, and other spaces where people tended to congregate. However, this solution proved to be inadequate. In much of the country, which had a significant amount of unincorporated territory, only municipal governments could operate permanent libraries. By 1936, just over a century after the establishment of the first taxpayer supported library, two-thirds of rural counties still lacked a single one.

As time went on, states did loosen their laws to allow counties to open and operate their own library systems. However many counties lacked the ability to raise enough funds to adequately establish and fund a library system that could serve its most outlying communities.

In 1956, Congress recognized this problem when it passed the Library Services Act, which provided funds to states to establish and maintain rural library systems. At the time of the act's passage, the United States Office of Education found that 300 rural counties, representing 26 million Americans, lacked any access to a public library. It also found that an additional 50 million Americans had only "inadequate service." The LSA sought to remedy this issue by providing states with funding to build and maintain library systems in rural communities. In order to ensure that states used the funds for their intended purpose and to hold them accountable, every state that sought funding had to submit a plan to the Office of Education for how the funds would be used and receive approval before the funds could be dispersed.

By 1961, every state except for Indiana, had accepted funds from the program. Indiana rejected funding because its governor feared that residents of the state would be forced to read books selected by "Washington bureaucrats." The act however proved popular and effective. It was re-authorized in 1960 by a unanimous vote in the United States Senate and a wide margin in the House.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy called for an expansion of the LSA to cover non-rural areas and to expand access to disadvantaged groups of all stripes. President Kennedy's call would later lead to the passage of the Library Construction and Service Act of 1964, which replaced the LSA and expanded eligibility for funding to include non-rural spaces. The LCSA has been amended and reauthorized and remains in effect today. It was notably amended in 1984 to allow for tribal communities to receive funding under the Act.

In Part II, I will explore the modern day challenges of rural libraries.

Friday, August 3, 2018

More coverage of Fallows' Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into America

I wrote this blog post about BBC coverage of the book back in June, and now Bloomberg's Noah Smith offers this on the Fallows' 2018 book.  I'm excerpting a portion of the Smith opinion piece that focuses on higher education and immigration.
Universities educate locals, creating a skilled workforce and making a town an attractive destination for companies looking to invest. But actually, as Fallows and Fallows note, this is a function best served by community colleges and specialized public schools. Research universities’ function is different — they draw highly skilled individuals to a town, some of whom then start businesses and do other high-value work. Of course, college students and government research dollars also buoy local demand
Note the distinction between community college and trade schools on the one hand and more elite higher education on the other.  Small cities and towns with elite colleges and universities are typically exemplars of rural gentrification. 
Immigrants, meanwhile, support a declining region’s tax base. As native-born Americans have forsaken small cities and the interior for the glitz and glamour of coastal metropolises, an influx of foreigners has been the only thing keeping many towns’ coffers filled. The authors describe a number of places where immigrants — skilled workers from Asia and elsewhere, laborers from Mexico and Central America, and refugees from war-torn countries in the Middle East and Asia — have started businesses and local civic organizations, boosted tax revenues, provided a local labor force to lure business investment, and provided a shot of energy and cultural vitality to places that would otherwise have become ghost towns.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On how America uses its land, from Bloomberg News

Bloomberg News posted this cool interactive map yesterday, depicting the ways in which land is used in the United States.  Among the findings of greatest interest to ruralists are these:
  • "Cropland takes up more than a fifth of the 48 contiguous states. Pasture and rangeland would cover most of the Western U.S."  This data point reminded me of this sign, which I photographed recently near the Butte-Tehama county line in far northern California.
Hwy 36, Butte County, California, July 2018
  • "Yet the actual land area used to grow the food Americans eat is much smaller—only about the size of Indiana, Illinois and half of Iowa combined. More than a third of the entire corn crop is devoted to ethanol production. Most cropland is used for livestock feed, exports or is left idle to let the land recover."  
    • Of 391.5 million acres of "agricultural land," 77.3 million acres are dedicated to the "food that we eat" while 127.4 million acres are dedicated to growing livestock feed and another 38.1 million acres are dedicated to biofuel/ethanol. 52 million acres are fallow at any given time.  
    • That reminded me of all the hay (alfalfa?) production I saw during my recent trip through (far) northern California.  Vast parts of Siskiyou, Shasta, Lassen and Modoc counties appear to be used for this purpose, which seems to use a great deal of water for irrigation.
      Hay production, Shasta-Lassen-Modoc region of California, July 2018
  • "The USDA categorizes national parks, wildlife areas, highways, railroads and military bases as special-use areas. And another USDA land classification—miscellaneous—includes cemeteries, golf courses, marshes, deserts and other areas of 'low economic value.'"
  • "More than 100 million acres of special-use areas are park and wilderness areas, where most commercial activities, such as logging, mining and grazing, are excluded."
  • "All of the country’s cities and towns would fit neatly in the Northeast." This reminds me of that 1962 Supreme Court decision, Baker v. Carr, where the Court wrote that legislators representing people, not trees or cows or acres.  
Regarding urban dominance in particular, note these findings:
  • "Although urban areas make up just 3.6 percent of the total size of the 48 contiguous states, four in five Americans live, work, and play there." 
  • "The 10 most productive metropolitan areas alone contributed to about 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016." 
  • "The pace of urbanization in the United States is staggering. An average of becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined."