Sunday, March 24, 2019

Another rural item in the NYT, this time from David Brooks

Brooks' column on March 21 was titled "What Rural America Has to Teach Us," and it's the fourth big rural "piece" in the New York Times in recent days.  

For the most part, the column is rosy and nostalgic, as Brooks tends to be when talking about this milieu, about people who go to church.  He mostly uses the small cities of McCook (population 7,698) and Grand Island, Nebraska (48,520), to illustrate his points about community, trust, low-crime, church going, and the sort of lack of anonymity that is beneficial to kids.  Here's an excerpt that gets at many of those themes, again with Nebraska held up as the poster child for the concept of "weaving" that Brooks is touting these days.  In short, people in McCook make time for civic life, with many wearing "multiple hats."  People also work (low-unemployment), go to church and stay married.  (Some) schools have very high graduation rates, and the state has the 12th longest life expectancy in the nation.   

Here's an excerpt from the piece in which Brooks muses about the "why":  Why are these Nebraskans so community minded?  
Farm life inculcates an insane work ethic, which gets carried into community life. The weavers are deeply rooted in place. Many said their main goal in life is to make their small town better at their death than it was at their birth. 
There are also 93 counties in Nebraska, several with populations below 1,000. That means there are a ton of local government functions and not that many people to fill them, so everybody has to chip in. 
The word I heard most was “intentionality” — especially about community.
As for that intentionality, among other things it means supporting local businesses rather than shopping on  

And to be fair, Brooks is not a complete pollyanna about rural America.  He does acknowledge that not everything is rosy, specifically poverty (as reflected, for example, in the rate of children who receive free- and reduced-price lunches), the struggle for self-reliance (at least the appearance of it), and the challenge of authentic racial/ethnic integration where some places have LatinX populations as high as 30%.   

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Charging for public defenders presents a major barrier in access to justice.

Imagine being found indigent, unable to afford your own defense, getting an attorney appointed for you because of this fact, and then getting charged anyway. This reality, which seems inherently unfair, is the reality that many litigants face. New Hampshire Public Radio recently highlighted the story of a Keene, NH man who was billed $750 by the State of New Hampshire after using the services of a public defender in a case where he was found not guilty.

This story is not unique. According to an NPR chart, the majority of states charge for criminal defense for indigent clients. In 2010, reports by the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union found that many states charge fees to indigent defendants, some of which can get as high as thousands of dollars. 

An interesting note from the Brennan Center report is that these fees have, in Michigan at least, increased the rate at which people decline representation. This is a substantial barrier to justice. Unlike civil legal aid, which is provided entirely free of charge, indigent defendants often face a situation where they would be liable for the cost of their counsel. Because of this, when faced with the possibility of paying out of pocket for an attorney, a criminal defendant might think that it's better to go for it on their own. After all, if a person is found not guilty, then they've incurred an expense because of a crime that they may not have even committed. The can often result in a cascading waterfall of negative consequences.

Since the debtor is often the state, the consequences of not being able to pay can often be greater. As the linked USA Today article notes, people can even lose tax refunds when the state comes to collect the debt. For low-income litigants, this results in lost money that they could use for food, clothing, rent, utilities, and other essential items. When you're in poverty, you're often living on the financial margins, every little bit helps and every little bit that you lose can hurt severely.

Are these programs even successful? In at least one state, no. The Argus Leader in South Dakota discussed the low collection rate for these fees from indigent defendants. The states are needlessly creating burdens on low-income people for money that they will likely never see again. Many low income people simply cannot afford to pay and by choosing to exercise a fundamental right that has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court, they may be imperiling their financial future. However, by denying counsel in order to avoid this outcome, they are also imperiling their freedom and their future. After all a criminal record can often preclude a person from employment. The result of this peculiar predicament is a no-win situation for those who find themselves unfortunate enough to be in it.

The exercise of a fundamental right should not come with unnecessary risks.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

"Rural" in NYTimes opinion pages on three consecutive days

It's been striking to see three opinion-page pieces prominently mentioning rural issues in the past few days.  I'm just going to briefly mention the three here, though I don't have much time for analysis. 

The first piece was by the novelist Robert Gipe, which ran in the print version on Saturday.  The headline is, "Appalachia is More Diverse Than you Think."  An excerpt follows: 
Appalachia has been going through rapid, often painful changes for the past hundred years, and our communities have been working hard to rebuild our economies. Over the past decade, many of us have put aside partisan politics to work together to do what’s best for the places we live in, the places we love. But the 2016 election has strained the bonds we’ve forged — and has led to deep reflection and conversation within the region.
He talks economics, coal, poverty, infrastructure, politics, racism, sexism and hope, ending with this:
We all crave honorable work at a living wage. We want success tied to the success of the community. We want to be safe. We are weary of fear. We are exhausted by hate. We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?
Gipe has an essay in the collection Appalchian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy, to which I am also a contributor.  I had the pleasure of hearing him read from that essay in Asheville, North Carolina, on Saturday night, at an event coinciding with the Appalachian Studies Association meeting.  I was delighted by, among other things, his remembrances of the 1974 film, "Where the Lilies Bloom," and I promptly came home and ordered it, though it cost $75 on

On Sunday, the New York Times ran Robert Leonard and Matt Russell's piece, "What Democrats Need to Do to Win in Rural America."  Here's an excerpt:
The Iowa caucus offers Democrats an opportunity to hone their pitch to rural America. 
Some of the biggest problems around here are in agriculture and trade — yet in those areas, several candidates seem clueless. One appears to know so little it would make a sixth grader in 4-H roll her eyes. Another was smart enough to speak to a small gathering of progressive farmers but not thoughtful enough to take questions or engage. Bernie Sanders came pretty close last week by going after multinationals’ near-monopolies.
A strong Democratic platform with realistic plans for rural America would focus on four themes: demography, infrastructure, farm sustainability and environmental practices that can help combat climate change. 
Up to about 30 percent of Iowa’s economy is tied directly to agriculture and related industries. The lucky farmer is in limbo; the unlucky one is itemizing inventory for the farm auction. Years of low commodity prices were a nightmare, and President Trump’s tariffs made a bad situation worse. Farmers — particularly young ones — are losing their land, and older ones are simply hanging it up. As one farmer here told us, “It’s too much work to lose money at it.”
And on Monday, columnist Paul Krugman's column, "Getting Real About Rural America" ran.  Like so many urban and coastal elites, he marvels at the power of agglomeration (think Brookings Institute's "Miracle Mets" from a few years ago: 
Things clump together; the periphery cannot hold. 
As you read this, Democratic presidential hopefuls are crisscrossing Iowa, trying to assure farmers that they share their concerns. Commentators are publishing opinion pieces about how Democrats can win back rural voters. Think tanks are issuing manifestoes about reviving heartland economies. 
There’s nothing wrong with discussing these issues. Rural lives matter — we’re all Americans, and deserve to share in the nation’s wealth. Rural votes matter even more; like it or not, our political system gives hugely disproportionate weight to less populous states, which are also generally states with relatively rural populations.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Local media struggle in rural America, just like everywhere else

I'm going to collect here various recent stories about the impact that media/newspaper consolidation  is having on small towns and rural communities around the country. 

Here's a Washington Post story from January on the gutting of local newsrooms.  The story focuses, however, on Gannett's reductions, with anecdotes from cities like Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.  It doesn't really attend to smaller markets, though Gannett (a/k/a USA Today network) also owns papers in places like Redding, California (population 90,000) home of the Record Searchlight.  That paper serves the northern third of the massive Golden State. 

High Country News links the decline in local media to perils for public health.  An excerpt follows:
In rural areas that already struggle with doctor shortages, the loss of rural news also cuts into readers’ knowledge of important health issues. “When you talk about outbreaks, it’s crucial local journalists get the information out,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at John Hopkins University Center for Health Security. 
Without a local paper, more people are relying on social media. “There’s no information vacuum in today’s media world, because it’s been filled with social media,” said Yotam Ophir, a health communication researcher at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. But that can be one of the biggest problems during disease outbreaks, because “social media during epidemics is full of misinformation and rumors.” On the other hand, he said, “A responsible news reporter, who has dedicated her life to health reporting, can weed out misinformation.”
And here's the High Country News from December, 2018, "What You Lose When you Lose Local News."  An excerpt from Emily Benson's story follows:
new research suggests America’s increasing partisanship may be related to a monumental shift in the nation’s media landscape over the past three decades. As local newspapers shrink and close, people interested in the news are left more reliant on national outlets. As a result, they become more disconnected from their own communities and elected officials, less interested in voting — and more politically polarized. Without a revival of support for local journalism, experts say, that trend may be difficult to turn around.
The story reports on a recent empirical study in the Journal of Communication that linked the presence of local media to civic participation:
When local print news coverage drops, residents are less likely to participate in civic activities, like contacting public officials or joining a community association; less knowledgeable about the candidates for their U.S. House district; less able to hold municipal officials accountable, leading to economic inefficiencies; and, ultimately, less likely to vote.
One finding was "nearly 2 percent more straight-ticket voting in such counties compared to similar ones that hadn’t lost newspapers."  Straight ticket voting is a measure of political polarization. 

Here's a story on Sinclair media, a dominant broadcast force in smaller markets. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

Taking your social capital back home to rural America

In a narrative that runs contrary to the standard rural brain drain, Michele Anderson wrote in the New York Times last week of her decision to return to her hometown, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, population 13,138.  The opinion piece is titled "Go Home to Your 'Dying' Hometown."  Anderson describes what it was like to make the reverse migration, in her thirties, from city (Portland, Oregon, where she moved to go to college and then stayed) back to the small town where she had family roots.  As the headline suggests, the phenomenon is full of greater nuance than we tend to credit, in part because of the dominant media narratives about rural America these days. 
I feel conflicted about my role here. Rural places like this one are facing countless questions about the economy, about identity and about the environment. It’s hard to know what we need to be stewards of and sustain, and what we need to let go or confront, to build a strong future.
* * * 
 [Rural life] can be stimulating and rewarding, a place for bold creativity. I am more involved in politics, and more outspoken about social and racial justice, economic development and feminism than I ever was in Portland. 
* * *
I’m ready for a new kind of attention, one directed somewhere between bleak landscapes of ignorance and bigotry, and Pollyanna illusions of the pastoral life. This is where most rural Americans actually live and where some of the most important work is being done.
Another important issue on which Anderson touches:  the struggle to get the old guard to share power with "homecomers" like her.

I wrote about Michele Anderson and a fellow resident of Fergus Falls last year when they took on a Der Spiegel story about their home town, debunking a number of inaccuracies in it.  Read that here

Tolerance, across the rural-urban divide

The Atlantic ran this story a few days ago, and I would have missed it and its implications for California without the California Sun's mini-feature on both.  The story is titled "The Geography of Partisan Politics," and it measures tolerance for one's political opponents at the county level.  It also features a nifty inter-active map. 

Here's the lede from The Atlantic's story, written by Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla and Angela Y. He:   
We know that Americans have become more biased against one another based on partisan affiliation over the past several decades. Most of us now discriminate against members of the other political side explicitly and implicitly—in hiring, dating, and marriage, as well as judgments of patriotism, compassion, and even physical 
attractiveness, according to recent research.

But we don’t know how this kind of stereotyping varies from place to place. Are there communities in America that are more or less politically forgiving than average? And if so, what can we learn from the outliers?
* * * 
In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. This finding aligns in some ways with previous research by the University of Pennsylvania professor Diana Mutz, who has found that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. (In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives, as Mutz describes in her book Hearing the Other Side.) By contrast, many nonwhite Americans routinely encounter political disagreement. They have more diverse social networks, politically speaking, and therefore tend to have more complicated views of the other side, whatever side that may be.
(emphasis mine).

As Mike McPhate of the California Sun noted, this trend plays out similarly in the Golden State, with folks on the coasts--including rural-ish coastal counties like Humboldt--being more politically intolerant than their Republican-leaning, inland neighbors, like folks from Lassen County, population   31,163, in the state's far northeast. 

Here's what Callifornia Sun wrote in their daily newsletter on March 6: 
In California, communities along the coastal stretch from Humboldt to Santa Cruz were among the most politically prejudiced. Interior parts of the state — including Lassen, Tulare, and Riverside counties — were among the least prejudiced.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

National Cowboy Poet Festival, Elko, NV

The New York Times feature, complete with gorgeous photos, is hereElko's population is 18,297.  It is in northeastern Nevada. 

It reminds me of this New York Times feature last month focusing on the attire of the "Wild West," as worn at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On private healthcare and jails, in the New Yorker

Steve Coll's piece in the New Yorker a few days ago, "The Jail Health Care Crisis," includes this excerpt acknowledging the fiscal limitations of rural jails:
Many jails are in rural or poor counties, where administrators complain that they have neither the resources nor the expertise to hire, train, and supervise doctors and nurses in the particular demands that their facilities require. Increasingly, they have turned to for-profit companies operating in the field known as “correctional health care,” which pledge to deliver quality care while containing costs.

Monday, March 4, 2019

NYT feature on rural nursing home closure

Jack Healy reports from Mobridge, South Dakota, population 3,465 under the headline, "Nursing Homes are Closing Across Rural America, Scattering Residents."  Here's an excerpt: 
More than 440 rural nursing homes have closed or merged over the last decade, according to the Cowles Research Group, which tracks long-term care, and each closure scattered patients like seeds in the wind. Instead of finding new care in their homes and communities, many end up at different nursing homes far from their families.
And there aren't many options for those who can't age in place, as home health aides are often "scarce and unaffordable," and adult children have often departed for metropolitan areas. There are often waiting lists for senior-citizen apartments.  The consequences:  traumatic relocations for older residents and fewer visits from family members, who must "spend hours on the road to see their spouses and parents."  

South Dakota chips in less than any state in that nation to pay for long-term care for those on Medicaid, but it's not the only state losing rural nursing homes.  Nebraska has seen five close in the last year, Maine, six.  Thirty-six have closed in the last decade because they couldn't meet safety standards.  

Other rural health care stories of the week are here (Tennessee) and here (Alabama).   

Sunday, March 3, 2019

On rural matchmaking--online--in Iowa

The Des Moines Register ran this feature today on rural matchmaking via the website.  The headline is "These Iowans met on Farmers Only. But finding love in rural America is harder than a swipe."

I love this description of farm living from Katie Vaske, one half of the couple featured in the story, who live in Manchester, Iowa, population 5,179.
For much of her adulthood, Katie wasn’t sure she would find anyone who understood the particularities of rural existence. The idea that when you work in agriculture, every hour is a business hour. Or that when you have animals, your life revolves around feedings. 
Or that farmers are rarely bogged down by the boredom or malaise felt by their cubicle counterparts because, really, this is so much more than a job.
Courtney Crowder's story includes this quantitative data about what is going on and people's attitudes about their marital (or, at least, long-term relationship) prospects:
Take heed, though, because pastoral love does exist. In rural Iowa, 26 percent of men and 18 percent of women have never married, compared with 28 percent of men in the rest of rural America and 22 percent of women, according to Census data.

Hope for love exists, too. In a July 2017 Iowa Poll, more than 75 percent of rural respondents said they believed their ability to find or keep a life partner would get better in the next year.