Friday, October 26, 2018

"Sparse country" at Harvard as derision of rurality and conflation with whiteness

Prof. Jeannie Suk Gersen writes in the New Yorker this week under the headline, "At Trial, Harvard's Asian Problem and a Preference for White Students from Sparse Country."  She is writing about the same landmark affirmative action case I wrote about a few days ago here.  And, as I predicted in that post would soon happen among commentators, Professor Gersen conflates rurality with whiteness.

Prof. Gersen, of Harvard Law, repeatedly uses the phrase "Sparse Country," capitalized even (perhaps for emphasis?  Is there a whiff of disdain--or more than whiff--here?) to refer to the 20 states from which Harvard makes a particular effort to recruit students.  (I want to know what 20 states constitute "sparse country" but Gersen does not list them; elsewhere the New York Times listed a few of them, including Montana and Alabama).
In his testimony, William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions, who has worked in the admissions office since before Bakke, reminisced about his Harvard roommate in the nineteen-sixties, who was “a great ambassador” for South Dakota. He also testified about the letters Harvard sends to high-school students in Sparse Country who have P.S.A.T. scores of at least 1310, encouraging them to apply. The only Sparse Country students with such scores who do not get the letter are Asians; to receive it, an Asian male must score at least 1380. An attorney for the plaintiff asked why a white boy in, say, immigrant-rich Las Vegas with a score of 1310 would get the letter, while his Asian classmate with a 1370 would not. Fitzsimmons responded with generalities about the need to recruit from a broad array of states to achieve diversity.
The quotation marks around "great ambassador" suggest to me Gersen's derision of the rural experience and the notion that kids from rural places might have anything to teach urban kids, who are no doubt the Harvard student body default. 
When asked whether Harvard “put a thumb on the scale for white students” from Sparse Country, Fitzsimmons contrasted students who “have only lived in the Sparse Country state for a year or two” with those who “have lived there for their entire lives under very different settings.” Perhaps he meant that whites are more likely to be “farm boys” or “great ambassadors,” like his South Dakotan roommate. Or perhaps he meant that Asians are more likely than whites to apply to Harvard, less likely to be accepted, and more likely to enroll if accepted, so Harvard saves itself postage costs by reducing its recruiting of Asians. But the exchange highlighted a key question of the trial: whether the Harvard admissions process treats white racial identity as an asset, relative to Asian identity (or treats Asian identity as a drawback, relative to white identity).
This explanation of Harvard's desire to attract students from "Sparse Country" suggests another meaning of the phrase--that the sparseness refers to the dearth of applicants from these places, not necessarily to the low density of the population.

As for Prof. Gersen's conflation of whiteness with rurality, it is arguably supported by Fitzsimmons' distinction between students who have not been in Sparse Country for very long and those who have been there all their lives.  That is, immigrants are moving into "Sparse Country" (as I have written about here and my colleague Michele Statz has written about here), and I would hope that Harvard would not devalue those immigrants simply because they have not lived in rural America for very long.  Indeed, those immigrants are probably valued by Harvard because they represent racial and ethnic groups generally underrepresented at Harvard--regardless of whether they are admitted to Harvard from rural or urban places.

One issue that is not explicit in Prof. Gersen's musings is the distinction between "Sparse Country" as rural and "Sparse Country" as urban.  This gets at the issue of scale:  Is the scale of the "state" helpful if we want rural voices at Harvard and similarly situated institutions?   I have often argued (in conversation, though perhaps not explicitly in my publications) that admitting the children of doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers and such from Billings or Missoula or Bozeman Montana (or, Salt Lake City or Albuquerque or even Rapid City or Sioux City) is really nothing like admitting the real "farm boy"--or, more importantly, farm girl--from one of these states.  So if Harvard sees "Sparse Country" as 20 states, it's missing out on the complexity of the dramatic variations within those states.

The best seller Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, helps to make my point.  Tara was raised by fundamentalist Latter Day Saint parents in southern Idaho--which is NOTHING like being raised by wealthy retirees in, say, Sun Valley, or even as the daughter of physicians in Boise.  Do we really want to look at issues like diversity of lived experience at the level of the state?  Or do we need to look to a lower scale to achieve more authentic diversity?  Doesn't the phenomenally successful Educated help us to see that distinction quite clearly?

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Playing the rural healthcare card in race for governor of Georgia

I was excited to see this piece on Stacy Abrams' campaign for governor on the front page of today's New York Times.  The headline is, "Stacy Abrams Hopes Medicaid Expansion Can be a Winning Issue in Rural Georgia," and the lede of Abby Goodnough's story follows: 
For the upscale urban audience at a campaign town hall here, it would have been enough for Stacey Abrams to pitch Medicaid expansion as a moral issue — the health-care-as-human-right argument that appeals to progressives everywhere. 
Instead, Ms. Abrams, the Democrat in the tossup race for Georgia governor, stuck to the pragmatic line of reasoning she has pushed in making Medicaid expansion a top priority of her campaign: It will help save the state’s struggling rural towns without busting its budget, since the Affordable Care Act requires the federal government to pay 90 percent of the cost. 
Goodnough quotes Abrams talk at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college: 
Raise your hand if you would say no to someone who said, ‘Give me a dollar and I’ll give you $9 back.' It is economically false, a falsehood over all, to say we can’t afford to expand Medicaid.  
The story later continues:
By framing the expansion of government health coverage for the poor as a smart business move that would save teetering small-town hospitals and create thousands of jobs outside metro Atlanta, Ms. Abrams, an unabashed liberal, is hoping to add enough rural votes to her column to beat Brian Kemp, her Republican opponent, a Trump-style conservative who is against expanding Medicaid.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Rural gets mention in lawsuit faulting Harvard's admission (affirmative action) policies

This story has been making big headlines all week, but today was the first day I noticed multiple mentions of rural students--specifically rurality as an aspect of the much sought-after diversity in higher education.  The headline in the NY Times today is "Harvard's Admissions Process, Once Secret, is Unveiled in Federal Court."   One of the secrets, apparently, is that being from a "rural" place still matters.  I say "still" because back when UC Regents v. Bakke was decided 40 years ago, Justice Powell wrote, citing Harvard's admission policy (as a model for what would be appropriate for public universities):
In practice, this new definition of diversity has meant that race has been a factor in some admission decisions. When the Committee on Admissions reviews the large middle group of applicants who are ‘admissible’ and deemed capable of doing good work in their courses, the race of an applicant may tip the balance in his favor just as geographic origin or a life spent on a farm may tip the balance in other candidates’ cases. A farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.  (emphasis added)
Bakke, at 316-17.  While the word "rural" is not used here, "farm" is a proxy for that characteristic, that life experience.  Read more analysis of how rurality plays in college admissions more recently, from my 2015 law review article here.

This quote from today's NYTimes story recounts what happened at the trial in Boston this week:
There is the longtime dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons (Harvard Class of 1967), on the stand, grilled on whether rural students receive a leg up over urban students. They do.
Something tells me that the observers are likely to invoke rurality as a proxy for whiteness, urbanicity for blackness, as happened with another controversy that arose from the favoring of rural folks earlier this year (that one regarding SNAP work requirements).  That conflation of rurality with whiteness is  a pity because, among other reasons, it is misleading:  Many of the poorest rural folks in the nation are Latinx, American Indian, and African American.  Just check out the nation's persistent poverty map.

Back to the NYTimes story, which later features this comparison of Harvard's admissions standards to the secret formula for Coca-Cola:
Some, but not all, of the secrets have buttressed Harvard’s elite reputation. 
It casts a wide net for students, aggressively recruiting those in “sparse country,” predominantly rural areas that yield few applications. It considers a dizzying array of factors, from SAT scores (the higher the better) to athletic ability (recruited athletes receive a big advantage) to interviews (be “effervescent,” “fun,” but “mature”) and more. A lack of deep pockets won’t hinder a hopeful and might even help one’s chances, testimony showed.  (emphasis added)
I can't help wonder if geography--and rurality in particular--will be noted in the outcome of this case--as it was in Bakke--even though rurality was not a characteristic that loomed large in the pleadings by either side. 

Cross-posted to Working Class Whites and the Law.

An update on Spectrum and their dispute with the State of New York

As you may recall back in August, I wrote a story about Spectrum losing their right to operate in the State of New York after they failed to meet their goals for expanding broadband into the rural parts of the state. In July, Charter, the parent company of Spectrum, was given 60 days to come up with a plan to exit the state. That deadline was later extended to November 8 and the New York Public Service Commission voted last week to grant them yet another extension, until December 24, to come up with a plan. In granting the extension, the Commissioners noted that they felt that talks with Charter had been productive and that they hoped to continue negotiating. Charter has said that they will likely pursue legal action if the talks prove unfruitful and Charter is ultimately told to exit the state.

Broadband expansion has certainly been an issue in multiple state legislative races in rural New York (see here and here) so there is clearly a lot of interest. Let's see how this issue plays out in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rural New Hampshire school district considers hiring collection agency for student lunch debt - Lessons in NH school funding

A couple of weeks ago, Claremont, New Hampshire's school district announced that they were considering a plan to hire collection agency to collect nearly $32,000 in delinquent lunch fees.  This move, said by school leaders to be needed due to fiscal concerns, is interesting because it brings to mind the funding issues that Claremont has faced over the years and their attempts to get the State of New Hampshire to remedy them. New Hampshire school funding is a tricky issue. They are the only state to lack both an income and sales tax, which creates an incredible reliance on property tax as a means of financing state and local functions. Within this framework, Claremont finds itself in a precarious situation. It is property poor, meaning that its taxable property is not worth very much. It also has a poverty rate that is almost double that of the State of New Hampshire more broadly. What this means is that Claremont has a relatively small local tax base, so it does not have much money to draw upon to fund its local schools, and an economically vulnerable population, who also live on the margins and for whom bringing in a collection agency may create more problems than it solves. Understanding why this story is significant and why Claremont may opt to attempt to recoup the money requires an understanding of the myriad of challenges that Claremont (and communities like it) have faced in attempting to achieve access to equitable school funding.

Here's some background: In 1989, Claremont's school district found itself in dire straits. Its funding issues had created a cascading waterfall that had a detrimental impact on its ability to provide a quality education for its students. They had been forced to make severe education cutbacks, its school buildings were in a state of disrepair, and their high school had even come close to losing accreditation. Facing these circumstances and with the hopes of compelling them to provide more funding to the district, the school board and its chairman decided to explore a litigation strategy against the State of New Hampshire. In June 1991, the Claremont School District (and various co-petitioners from around the state) filed their lawsuit.

In their initial decision, commonly known as Claremont I, the New Hampshire Supreme Court held that "[The New Hampshire Constitution] imposes a duty on the State to provide a constitutionally adequate education to every educable child in the public schools in New Hampshire and to guarantee adequate funding" and in remanding the case to the lower court placed the onus on the Governor and State Legislature to come up with a means of guaranteeing this.

When the case was reheard by the NH Supreme Court in 1997, it was held that New Hampshire's scheme of school funding violated the state's constitution, in particular the duty outlined in Claremont I. In their holding, the court clarified that the state's duty to provide a "constitutionally adequate education" extended beyond core subjects and had to be mobile to the changing demands of society. In particular, they said:

"[It] is not the needs of the few but the critical requirements of the many that it must address. Mere competence in the basics — reading, writing, and arithmetic — is insufficient in the waning days of the twentieth century to insure that this State’s public school students are fully integrated into the world around them. A broad exposure to the social, economic, scientific, technological, and political realities of today’s society is essential for our students to compete, contribute, and flourish in the twenty-first century." 

The Court also held that the state had to have a role in funding an "adequate" education and could not simply delegate this to towns. Since the Claremont decisions, New Hampshire has toyed with various schemes of supplementing funding local funding for schools with none of them being particularly successful at fully bridging the achievement gap between high income and low income school districts.

To further complicate things, there is also evidence that New Hampshire's school funding scheme is starting to resemble what it was before the Claremont decisions. In the immediate aftermath of Claremont II, state revenues made up the majority of the local school funding. In 2000-2001, for example, local taxes made up only 40.4% of school revenue. However, local tax revenues now make up the majority of local funding for schools in New Hampshire and this is an increasing trend. In 2013-2014, local taxes made up 57.7% of education funding and by 2016-2017, this had increased to 67.5%. This increasing percentage is the result of a series of policy decisions by the New Hampshire legislature. In order to attempt to bridge this gap, property poor districts are having to increase their tax rates in order to attempt to raise sufficient revenue to fund their schools. For example, Lebanon, a more affluent district 20 miles north, has a property tax rate that is 60% that of Claremont's. The people who can least afford to pay higher taxes are being asked to do so.

Given the history of Claremont's issues with school funding, it is perhaps easy to understand why they may feel that they have to take drastic steps recoup thousands of dollars in lost revenue. After all, when you are operating on the margins, every little bit counts. However, Claremont is in its situation because its residents are low-income and largely economically vulnerable, conditions that hiring a collection agency may only serve to exacerbate. After all, having an account in collections may adversely impact their ability to secure a loan to buy a car, a necessity in rural New Hampshire, or result in them paying a substantially higher interest rate than they may otherwise have, which could cost them thousands of dollars. The practical effects of this are obvious. If a person can't get a car, they won't be able to work and if a person has to pay a higher interest rate, they lose money that they could have used to feed their family or provide other essentials. This line of logic also applies if a person needs to access an emergency line of credit for pay for an unexpected repair or any other unforeseen circumstance. This is not an easy situation for anyone involved but getting a collection agency involved seems as though it would create societal problems whose value exceeds the money that the city would recoup.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Rural Americans see financial problems and health care as biggest issues facing them

National Public Radio today reported on a survey of 1300 rural residents' thinking about a number of issues.  The headline is "Drugs and Economy are Biggest Concerns in Rural America,"  and the lede follows:
Opioids and drug abuse and addiction, along with local jobs and the economy, are the top issues facing rural Americans, according to a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. A majority of rural Americans believe outside help will be necessary to solve major community problems in the future, and many believe government will play an important role in solving these problems. 
"For many years, the opioid crisis was seen as affecting only a few states — West Virginia, Kentucky and New Hampshire among others. But it never was just about those states," says poll co-director Robert J. Blendon of Harvard. "It's now at the same level of a very serious economic plight that people are really worried about. It affects elections, and it affects how people elected from rural areas view their priorities." 
However, the poll also finds considerable optimism about community life in rural American – and a confidence that the next generation will have a better life than current and past generations.
Other themes from the poll include the brain drain, upward mobility, and the significance of community.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Supreme Court agrees with federal judge in Sacramento regarding State of Jefferson suit on underrepresentation of rural Californians

The Record-Searchlight of Redding, California reported a few days ago that Citizens for Fair Representation, "a group of rural residents mostly from the North State," have been rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court in their effort to convene a panel of three federal judges to consider their claim that California is too populous to be governed by the current number of State Senators and Assemblymen currently serving in Sacramento.  The lede for Alayna Shulman's story  follows:
Originally just upset with the state political system they say is unfair to rural residents, now "State of Jefferson" proponents are mad at the judge handling their lawsuit on the issue, part of which has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
* * * 
On top of their disillusionment with the state overall, the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 1 shot down a petition the group filed because it was upset U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller didn't convene a three-judge panel to hear their suit.
Shulman explains that three-judge panels can be used to speed up cases that question the size or composition of congressional districts.
In court fillings, Mueller says the case doesn't yet meet legal requirement for a three-judge panel. She wrote that two things are holding up the panel: The Jeffersonians' lawsuit is not suitable for federal court based on its current complaints, and the state filed a motion to dismiss the suit, which needs to be considered before the panel would convene.
Interestingly, the State of California declined to comment for the journalist, and it did so through both the Secretary of State's office and the State's Press Information Officer.   Both punted, referring Shulman to the other.  Maybe they see what they consider to be a frivolous suit to be beneath them in terms of offering commentary.   

A lawyer for the movement, Scott Stafne, remains hopeful, however, stating:
The Supreme Court didn’t say, 'No.' They didn't say, 'Yes.' They just decided not to hear the petition.
Read more about the State of Jefferson here (with many embedded links to other posts). 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

More on hurricanes and rural neglect

Here are two New York Times stories about how rural victims of Hurricane Michael are among the hardest hit but least seen and helped. 

From Panacea, Florida, population 816: I Got Stuck:  In Poor, Rural Communities, Fleeing Hurricane Michael was Tough

From Marianna, Florida, population 7,293:   Far from the Shattered Coast, Hurricane Michael Packed an Unexpected Punch

My earlier post on Hurricane Florence and rural neglect is here

Consuming the rural, this time in West Virginia

This story, "West Virginia's Small-Town Revival," appeared on the front page of the New York Times Travel section today.   Lots of scholars of rurality are now observing that many folks now experience of or value placed in rurality is only as tourists, as those who "consume" the rural.  This story re-inforces that notion.  Here are two salient excerpts:
The American rural experience, as told by Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, is all about becoming immersed in largely unpopulated, natural places. For weary urbanites, such places offer a chance to find solitude and reflect. Too often, it seems, the scattered towns that dot these landscapes are ignored, lost in the shadow of their wild surroundings. 
So it goes for West Virginia. The mountains — and the wilderness that blankets them — are the stuff of American lore: blue forests, trout-filled creeks, pristine backcountry. For many visitors intent on hiking, biking or rock-climbing, the communities of Appalachia, with their rich folk culture and rugged individualism fail to register.
Though the author then goes on to comment on aspects of that culture--at least in its entrepreneurial form.  Then there is this:
That so few of these [West Virginia] places are familiar beyond outdoor recreation circles is a pity, especially when it comes to towns like Davis, Thomas and Fayetteville: three distinctive communities that are thriving because of — and in spite of — their rustic surroundings.
So, the story's angle is essentially that consuming wilderness also creates ecotourism, which leads to opportunities for the places--however small those population clusters are--close to the natural attractions.  I've written about this in other contexts, most recently here.  I am also reminded of Roderick Nash's argument that "wilderness" is a human construct.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Rural Legal Access Summit focuses on needs in California's Central Valley (Part I)

I was pleased to be able to participate in the San Joaquin College of Law's (SJCL) 2nd Rural Legal Access Summit (RLAS) yesterday in Clovis, California.  Clovis is a suburb of Fresno, the state's fifth largest city, in California's vast, agri-centric Great Valley (also known as the Big Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Valley).  This annual event was convened by a student group at SJCL, Law Students for Community Advancement and co-sponsored by Central California Legal Services (CCLS).

The morning kicked off with a panel of the three professors who have convened what I will call the Practice 99 "experiment." These include Mary Louise Frampton from my own law school, UC Davis, as well as Bill Kell from UC Berkeley and SJCL's Andrew Kucera.  They spoke of the distinct but collaborative approaches among the three schools to engage students in what it would look like for lawyers to serve communities up and down California Highway 99, which cuts through the Central Valley, from Marysville/Yuba City north of Sacramento down to Bakersfield in Kern County.  The highway passes through many county seats, including those in Sacramento, San Joaquin County (Stockton), Stanislaus County (Modesto), Merced County (Merced), Madera County (Madera), Fresno County (Fresno), Tulare County (Visalia) and Kern County (Bakersfield).  All of these counties except Sacramento County are underserved in terms of lawyers, especially those serving low-income populations and particularly once you get out of the county seat(s).  Practice 99 is aimed at getting students to think about taking up the challenge of practice that serves low-income and modest-means residents in these areas.

After the professor panel, the legal director of Summit-sponsor Central California Legal Services (CCLS), Emilia Morris, talked about the need to do outreach in their six-county area, all in the Central Valley, including Fresno County.  Morris reported that CCLS has used California State University Fresno students as summer employees to do outreach, traveling the "valley floor" communicating to underserved areas about what CCLS does and how it can help them.  As is typical with Legal Services Funded organizations, all CCLS attorneys also regularly do outreach to the communities in the organization's service area. 

Morris reported that three quarters of CCLS cases are unlawful detainer/eviction/housing related.  She also mentioned the very limited housing stock available in the region, with many people forced to remain in housing that is essentially not habitable, but which is nevertheless seen as preferable to homelessness.  In addition to its work in the housing sector, CCLS also provides naturalization services and helps clients acquire benefits to which they are entitled.  A number of CCLS attorneys are dedicated to helping people get medical insurance coverage and defending those being sued for medical debt collection. 

Morris noted that the State of California requires jurisdictions to plan for development of affordable housing, yet certain local jurisdictions have not complied with these mandates.  Morris reported that CCLS now appears poised to see some attitude changes among jurisdictions, thanks to our "nerdy housing element lawyers/advocates."

CCLS has observed a dip in interest in naturalization among clients because of the current anti-immigrant climate.  Morris explained that this shift has prompted a change in CCLS's approach to outreach.  For example, the Catholic Diocese that runs from Stockton to Bakersfield has vetted CCLS for purposes of permitting the legal aid organization to see clients on Diocese premises.  Morris explained, "We are meeting people in a space where they may feel more comfortable."

Lastly, Morris talked about how direct client work is leading CCLS to take up impact work.  Specifically, she noted that CCLS has been able to negotiate with some hospitals a moratorium on medical debt collection. 

I'll return within a day or two with more information on what happened at the 2nd Annual Rural Legal Access Summit in Fresno County.