Monday, December 23, 2019

Two sobering stories out of far northern, coastal California

Tsunami Hazard Zone sign along Highway 1 in Sonoma County, California
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
The first of the stories I want to highlight here is from today's Los Angeles Times by Hailey Branson-Potts, dateline Crescent City, California, population 7,643, county seat of Del Norte County, population 28,610.  The headline is "Tsunamis tourism: By marketing disaster, a struggling California town hopes to recover economically," and here's the lede:  
Three years into his job as a city councilman, [Alex] Fallman’s take on this Northern California harbor town was not that of a civic booster. His words unspooled like a dirge. 
“Cool, worldly things don’t happen here,” the 23-year-old said. 
Del Norte County Fairgrounds, July, 2019 (c) Lisa R. Pruitt
Crescent City is a land of wild beauty, where towering redwoods meet quiet, foggy beaches. It’s also a place of economic despair. As with many small California towns, its downtown is marked by empty storefronts. Homeless men shoot methamphetamine in the beachfront park.
To push back against these trends, some in the city are embracing tsunami tourism.  After all, 41 tsunamis have crashed into Crescent City since 1933, the most damaging of which killed 11 people and destroyed 29 city blocks in 1964.  As the story notes, these repeated disasters have stunted the city's growth, leaving many city blocks empty. 

Branson-Potts provides important socioeconomic context for Crescent City's seemingly odd approach to economic development, including the fact that nearly a third of Del Norte County residents live below the poverty line--about twice the state and national rates.  The median annual income is just over $27K, about half the state median.  The story also includes information about recent economic development investments in Del Norte County, including its designation as an opportunity zone and upgrades to the airport, which now features more flights to and from Oakland. 

Veterans Memorial Hall, Crescent City, July 2019
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
The last time I wrote about Crescent City/Del Norte County was here (and other posts mentioning it are here, herehere, and here). Another recent Los Angeles Times story about the area--specifically its majestic redwoods--is here.

This LA Times report on tsunami-oriented tourism reminded me of this October story out of neighboring Humboldt County (population 132,646), specifically the county seat, Eureka.  The story was reported in the Eureka Times-Standard by Sonia Waraich.  Here's the lede:  
Eureka has a self-esteem problem, according to the survey results of marketing firm Eddy Alexander. 
More than 3,425 city’s residents, workers, business owners and past residents out of 25,529 who were sent a survey completed the survey. The majority responded with a negative view of the city and are more likely to discourage visitors from coming to Eureka than they are to recommend it, said Jennifer Eddy, founder of the Virginia-based marketing firm. 
At the meeting revealing the results Tuesday night at the Wharfinger Building, Eddy also showed homeless, drug, dirty and crime were the words that people said first came to mind when they think of Eureka. 
“Lots and lots of cities are dealing with homelessness as a challenge,” Eddy said. “It is not unique to this community. It’s not even necessarily a detractor for tourists.” 
The respondents were most likely to be proud to be affiliated with Northern California, the redwood coast and Humboldt County, but weren’t as proud of the city and had less and less pride when it came to their specific neighborhood, Eddy said. About 10% responded “none of the above” to having pride in any of the area’s features and attractions.
As with the Del Norte County story, two themes of this Humboldt County story are homelessness and drug use.  A 2018 post on Eureka's drug and homelessness problem is here.  It's more than a little sad to see a region as beautiful as this section of far northern California have its natural beauty and amenities so eclipsed by man-made problems, though I note the negativity more associated with the city than the county and coast. 

Other somewhat more upbeat LA Times stories out of rural northern California are here and here, the first from January 2019 about a local newspaper in Sierra County (population 3,240), and the second about a "fraternal order," E Clampus Vitus, associated with the gold rush era. That latter story out of Plumas County (population 20,007), just north of Sierra County, is a few years old now but also by Branson-Potts, a talented feature writer.  Reading these stories once again leads me to appreciate the very good job the Los Angeles Times does of covering a region of the Golden State that is so very far away--in physical distance and culture--from the Los Angeles metroplex.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Poignant feature on rural aging and health care

Eli Saslow reports for the Washington Post from Broken Bow (population 3,559) and Cozad, Nebraska (population 3,997).  Broken Bow is the long-time home of Marlene and Earl Kennedy, octogenarians who raised their four children there, where Earl worked 47 years stocking shelves at the grocery store.  Now, however, Earl lives an hour away in Cozad, at the closest nursing home where Marlene could find a bed for Earl after the one in Broken Bow closed earlier this year.  There were limitations on finding a replacement nursing home because Earl relies on Medicare, and Nebraska reimbursement rates for those patients are $40 lower than the cost of care.  On the day Saslow describes, bad weather and dangerous roads had kept Marlene from driving the 50 miles to visit Earl for 10 days, and she was being driven by her 51-year old daughter.  Even the depiction of the drive through cornfields, on two-lane, icy roads is vivid.

The story features not only a poignant depiction aging in rural America, it provides several startling data points about the rural health care crisis, in particular as it impacts the elderly.
  • 260 rural nursing facilities across the country have closed for financial reasons over the past three years
  • In the past decade, rural America has lost 250 maternity wards, 115 hospitals, 3,500 primary care docs, and 2000 medical specialists.  
  • The Cozad nursing home receives $152 per day for each Medicaid resident, far short of the $200-per-day cost of providing care. To make up for that loss, nursing homes typically charged much higher rates for people paying with their own money, but this strategy wasn't working in a rural area where the percentage of people who pay for their own care is much lower, 20% compared to the typical urban percentage of 35%.  
I found it particularly interesting that the Kennedys had rarely traveled outside Nebraska and had never flown on an airplane, but they had "traveled together to Lincoln for a heart operation, Kearney for an ankle, Grand Island for a hip, Omaha for corneal transplants."  Earl Kennedy has Parkinson's disease.  He can no longer walk or eat solid food, and he has difficulty talking.  

Then there's this about the Kennedys' life before aging; Earl had retired from the grocery strore, where he'd started out making $60/week, at age 76:  
He’d raised four successful children, taught Sunday school, worked at the store six days each week, and come home most afternoons to eat lunch with Marlene. Their family had never earned more than $35,000 in a year, but somehow they had managed to send the children to college, stay out of debt, pay off their house, and even build up some savings — most of which had vanished in less than two years to pay for Earl’s nursing care in Broken Bow.
Other recent stories on rural health care are here (about the Mayo Clinic's closure of rural hospitals it owns in southern Minnesota) and here (also by Eli Saslow, out of Van Horn, Texas, in September).  And here's another by Saslow in November, about physicians remotely--as by video connection/conferencing--staffing emergency rooms. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Rural jail boom surges back into the news

Two Bridges Regional Jail, near Wiscasset, Maine, May, 2019 (c) Lisa R. Pruitt
I've written previously about the nation's rural jail boom here and here (including many embedded links about the decade-long jail saga in my hometown, about which I write more at the end of this post).  Over the past few days, the issue has seen renewed interest from various quarters, including a NY Times feature, a USA Today op-ed, a local news report by WyoFile (a non profit reporting out of Wyoming), an op-ed by Vera Institute of Justice researchers, published in The Guardian, and another op-ed out of a small Kentucky city.  This surge in coverage of the rural jail boom appears to be primarily attributable to the release yesterday by the Vera Institute of Justice, of a new report on the increase in rural jail populations.  The data headlines from that report (as summarized by the New York Times):  Since 2013, jail populations in urban areas dropped 18%, but rural jail populations climbed 27% during that same period.

Two Bridges Regional Jail serves Lincoln and Sagadahoc counties in Maine's mid-coast region.
Let's begin with the most prominent piece among this cluster of stories and op-eds, the feature from the New York Times today, dateline Morristown, Tennessee, population 29,137.  Its headline is certainly provocative, "'A Cesspool of a Dungeon':  The Surging Population of Rural Jails."  The story links what is happening in east Tennessee to meth and opioid use in the region:
Like a lot of Appalachia, Morristown, Tenn., about an hour east of Knoxville, has been devastated by methamphetamine and opioid use. Residents who commit crimes to support their addiction pack the 255-bed jail, which had 439 inmates at the end of October, according to the latest state data.
The story quotes Jacob Kang-Brown, senior research associate for the Vera Institute and lead author of the new report, contrasting rural and urban:
In the big city, you get a ticket and a trip to the clinic.  But in a smaller area, you might get three months in jail.
According to the new Vera report, rural jails house a total of 184,000 inmates, while urban jails now hold 167,000.  More notable, perhaps, is that rural jails are now locking people up at a rate more than double that of urban areas.  Suburban jail populations have remained more stable, while small and mid-size cities have seen a 7% increase.  Also, the number of female inmates has risen sharply.  This story also references Tennessee's own jail summary report, dated October 2019. 

Morristown is the county seat of Hamblen County, population 62,544, in East Tennessee.  It is the topic of some earlier posts here and here.

The USA Today op-ed is by Professor Pamela Metzger of SMU's Dedman School of Law, and its dateline is Wood County, Wisconsin, from which Metzger highlights the suicide of 18-year-old Trequelle Vann-Marcouex, accused of robbery.  He repeatedly asked the judge for a lawyer, but after 11 days he still hadn't gotten one.  That's when he hanged himself in his cell.  Being a nonmetro county (population 74,749) probably influenced why the young man didn't get a lawyer in a timely fashion because there's an attorney shortage in many rural areas of the United States.   Here's an excerpt from the op-ed:
If Vann-Marcouex had been arrested in a big city — like Milwaukee or Chicago — things may have played out differently. Instead, Vann-Marcouex fell victim to our national criminal justice blind spot: rural communities where people can wait days, weeks or months for basic services — initial court appearances, attorneys — that city dwellers take for granted. 
And the problem isn’t just with defense attorneys. It pervades every aspect of rural justice systems.
I'm surprised that neither of these stories addresses the rural lawyer shortage in much detail, though Metzger's op-ed mentions it in passing as a key factor explaining the rural jail incarceration trends.  That is, one reason people are held in jails is because they have no lawyer to appear with them, before a judge, to negotiate their release.  I have written extensively about the rural lawyer shortage here, here, and here.

Another factor fueling the rural jail boom is the use of jails to house detained immigrants, and that's what's driving the next story, which is out of Wyoming.  The WyoFile piece, headlined "Evanston meets its would-be economic savior, CoreCivic," also references the economic realities behind rural jail growth:  local governments' need for revenue.  CoreCivic is proposing to build a massive jail in Uinta County, Wyoming, in the western part of the state, south of Grand Teton/Jackson Hole.  Evanston, population 12,359, is the Uinta County seat.  Here's the story's lede:
Wyoming’s first private jail could resemble a warehouse or big box store, according to drawings corporate giant CoreCivic presented at a charged public meeting in Uinta County last week.

If built, it will have nearly 150,000 square feet of housing to hold up to 1,000 immigrants detained by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement from Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Montana. There will be a 2,500-square-foot chapel, a 2,300-square-foot library and a 3,500-square-foot courthouse where federal immigration judges will determine who may stay in the U.S. and who will be deported.

Two 16-foot-high fences topped with razor wire will surround the facility.
The presentation to a room of more than 200 local residents came as the jail proposal appears to be picking up steam after a long lull. CoreCivic has submitted an environmental assessment to the Department of Homeland Security, officials said at the meeting, and is waiting now for the green light to submit a project proposal.
This jail would presumably also serve as a typical county jail, housing local inmates and not only those being held on behalf of the federal government. 

The Danville, Kentucky paper's editorial is titled "Rural Communities can Tackle Kentucky's Incarceration Epidemic" and it is based on and links to a Vera Institute Policy Brief that shows Kentucky first (worst!) among seven states in the region when it comes to incarceration rates.  Here's an excerpt:
Who are we locking up? More and more, it’s people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. While the the population in Kentucky’s prisons (where sentenced individuals serve their time) has risen by 168% since 1983, it’s actually remained fairly flat more recently—it’s up by just 13% since 2000, according to the report. 
Where Kentucky is seeing the lion’s share of increases is in county jails, where many inmates are being held pre-trial, meaning they have been charged but not convicted of a crime. Of the approximately 21,000 population of jails in 2015, around 9,100 (about 43%) of inmates were being held pre-trial. That represents a huge chunk of jail population growth since 1970 and amounts to almost three-fourths of the state’s entire prison population of 12,437, according to the report. 
Kentucky is disproportionately locking up black individuals, and the increase in the number of women incarcerated is truly staggering.
Danville is in central Kentucky, and its population is 16,128.

The Guardian op-ed is authored by two Vera Institute researchers, Jasmine Heiss and Jack Norton.  The headline is "The hidden scandal of US criminal justice?  Rural incarceration has boomed."
An excerpt that puts the rural jail boom in economic context follows:
Rising incarceration rates must be understood in the context of declining industry, and dwindling state dollars sent to counties. Take Monroe county, Ohio, which recently invested $15.1m in a new jail. Monroe county has one of the highest unemployment rates in Ohio and has suffered the closure of two major aluminum plants. Meanwhile state aid to localities declined nearly 20% in Ohio between 2008 and 2016. In Monroe county and across the country, decades of disinvestment have created a vacuum that jails now fill. 
In many communities, the only institutions that have seen increased or sustained investment are the local police force and the county jail.
Finally, I note that my own hometown paper, the Newton County Times, also has a story about its jail in the latest, December 11 issue.  The headline is "Future of old jail questioned."  Here's the lede:
The over century-old Newton county Jail sits just off the Jasper square.  It was closed in 2009 and the new jail was opened next door in 2012.  It was used briefly as a community food pantry, but now it sits unused and is falling into disrepair.  May Jan Larson approached the quorum court Monday night, December 2, and inquired about the historic building's future. 
A lot of people think the jail is owned by the city, Larson said, but it continues to be under county ownership.  There are some glass panes missing from some windows and there are reports of mold on the inside.  She said the city is working on a long range economic development study and the town's historic business district is an important asset.  Except for the jail which if allowed to decline could become a liability for both the city and county.   
The problem is that neither the city nor the county has the money to operate and maintain the building. 
Newton County Jail, Jasper Arkansas, October 2019 (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 
Meanwhile, under another front-page headline, "JPs accept sheriff's budget," the paper reports a 2020 sheriff's budget of $776,765.50, of which $615,265 is for "personal services," and $92,400 is for supplies.  The remainder, $69,100, is for "other services."  Nothing explains what "personal services" and "other services" are, but the story does list the compensation amounts for sheriff's deputies and jailers.  The beginning salary for a sheriff's deputy is $23,400, and the starting salary for a full-time jailer is $20,800.  The sheriff's office and jail employ a total of 29 people.

I have written extensively about the Newton County jail, particularly during the years when the century-old county jail was condemned and county leaders were seeking funding to build a new one.  You can find those posts collected here.  Interestingly, Vera data show that incarceration in my county has held roughly even between 2005 and 2015.  I guess that was inevitable because the new jail's capacity is hardly bigger than the one it replaced.  Older photos of the "new" jail, pictured above in 2019, when it was someone's home and as it evolved to look like it does now, are here and here.  The latter post also includes a photo of the old, condemned jail, after it was closed and while in use as a community food bank.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Outsourcing policing to cameras and lay folk, in rural southern Oregon

I've written in the past about the challenges of rural policing (read more here from 2013), and I've also written about the fiscal challenges facing rural southern Oregon--timber country (read more here (with embedded links) and here).  This Washington Post report brings the two themes together under the headline, "A small town can’t afford cops at night. So it’s turning to cameras watched by citizen patrols."  Antonia Noori Farzan writes:
For the residents of Cave Junction, a community of nearly 2,000 people near the rainy, forested California border, that means no law enforcement officers patrol the streets at night. The city doesn’t have its own police force, and deputies from the understaffed Josephine County Sheriff’s Office only patrol the area during daytime hours on weekdays, according to the Oregonian. Placing a call to 911 at night can mean waiting 45 minutes or more for someone to show up, and the area has experienced robberies and thefts tied to the local legal marijuana-growing industry.

So, last month, members of the Cave Junction City Council voted unanimously to try a new experiment in policing: Installing security cameras that will be monitored by a volunteer citizen patrol.
Needless to say, this raises some constitutional concerns, which are made fairly clear in the piece.  Here's a quote from the Cave Junction city recorder, Rebecca Patton, who said "hardcore criminals" can be identified easily just by looking.
They can identify them by the way that they dress, because they have a certain apparel that they wear all the time, or the way they walk. Sometimes they carry things all the time, it could be something as simple as a skateboard. They have learned how to identify these people very, very quickly, then they know how to respond.
Patton indicated that the volunteers have not received formal training though she said they may undergo background checks before they get access to the security camera footage.  The Oregon Justice Resource Center wrote on Twitter, “Civil rights violation incoming in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …".  I'm reminded of the lack of checks and balances often characteristic of local governments with few resources. As Patton comments elsewhere in the story, “Until we start paying a little bit more for our services, we’re going to get what we pay for."

I visited Cave Junction in 2018 en route to Oregon Caves National Monument, and you can see some photos from that trip here (the ones of the town, including marijuana dispensaries, are at the end of the post).  I have also written about the lack of policing outside daytime hours in my own hometown, and consequent crime, herehere and here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

On college fairs in rural America (where they are rare, special, valued, and highly valuable)

I loved this piece from Eric Hoover in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week.  It's set in northern Arizona, with the college fair actually taking place in Flagstaff and the featured student from Holbrook, population 5,053, county seat of Navajo County, population 107,449.  

The only blurb you get for free from the Chronicle is this:
This regional gathering attracts teenagers from small-town high schools that few admissions officers ever visit. Here’s how it changed one student’s perspective on college.
But here's a bit more from the story:
Someone had to get everything ready for tomorrow night’s big college fair, hosted by Flagstaff High School. Each fall, the event attracts about 100 institutions of all kinds. Teenagers from far-flung towns — towns that few, if any, admissions officers ever visit — travel many miles to grab some brochures, shake some hands, and, if they’re lucky, learn something that helps them reach the right campus. Or any campus at all.

A college fair might seem superfluous in places where colleges abound. But in this mostly rural swath of the Southwest, where many families don’t live close to a single four-year campus, the Northern Arizona Region College Night spans the distance between higher education and a realm it often overlooks. For some lucky students, applying to college is routine; in outposts such as Lake Havasu City, Prescott, and Winslow, it can feel like tackling a riddle in a foreign tongue.

* * *
Whether you live amid Northern Arizona’s pine-rich forests, or in its sprawling deserts, or at the far corner of one of its many Indian reservations, you’re welcome to come join the bustling pre-college spectacle.

But first you have to find a ride.
That featured student, Jade Knight, who barely overcame transport obstacles to make it to the fair, learned there that she could study biomedical engineering at the University of New Mexico and pay less there than she would in Arizona.  It was truly a win-win--and one that she seemingly would not have learned about had she been left to rely on resources in Navajo County, where she lives in a community called Woodruff, population 191.  Just reading the Holbrook students' banter about the Flagstaff school's swimming pool is interesting because it illustrates the difference between schools the size of Holbrook and that in a regional center like Flagstaff, which has no doubt experienced rural gentrification in recent years, thanks to migration to Grand Canyon ecotourism and such.  Yet urban folks have no idea about such distinctions, seeing all of "rural" northern Arizona as homogeneous and--sadly--also somewhat boring.

As someone who went to a public school so small that we had no counselor and did not attract college recruiters, this story really spoke to me.  As an adult--and especially because I move (which is really to say I subsist) in elite academic circles--I have found many folks who just can't understand why I didn't go to a "good college."  What they don't understand is that I went to the best--and best value for money--college in my region/for me.  And as one of two students in my high school class who went to college right away and earned a four-year degree, I'm darn proud of what I did. Indeed,  I was valedictorian of the entire University of Arkansas as a graduating B.A. student in 1986.  It's depressing to be viewed by folks in my current world as a failure for making lemonade from lemons, all while asking why I didn't instead make a princess torte.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

From The Atlantic, on the rural mental health crisis

See James Burns' short documentary here, out of Cochise County, Arizona, population 131,346 and covering an area the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

And here's more coverage of the rural health care crisis--in particular the closure of rural hospitals.  This is out of Appalachian Virginia, from In These Times.  The November, 2019, issue of that publication was dedicated to the "High Cost of Living Rural."  Of course, this blog features many posts over the years on rural health care issues, which you'll find under the "mental health" and "health care" tags.

Friday, December 6, 2019

More on Dollar General's expansion (which is putting rural grocery stores out of business)

A shuttered grocery store in Smith River, California (Del Norte County). 
A Dollar General Store is in business a few hundred yards away
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019
This story from CNN reports that Dollar General is going to open 1000 stores in 2020.  Here's a quote from the story, which notes Dollar General's focus on rural and suburban markets, in particular those where the customers are low-to-middle income or, as the company's CEO expresses it, a "little stretched."
Dollar General's core customers make around $40,000 a year. 
"We see her about where we have the last couple of quarters," Dollar General chief executive Todd Vasos said on a call with analysts Thursday. "She still has a little bit of extra money in her pocket, continues to be employed at a pretty high rate. But, always remember, our core customer is always a little stretched."

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The difference broadband makes in one Appalachian town

Don't miss The New Yorker's story out of McKee, Kentucky, population 800, on the impact of superior broadband on one rural community's job opportunities.  You gotta' love the headline for Sue Halperin's feature, "The One-Traffic Light Town with Some of the Fastest Internet in the U.S."   Other themes include substance abuse and those indicated by selected tabs/labels.

McKee is the county seat of Jackson County, population 13,494, in eastern Kentucky, historically the most economically depressed part of the state. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Two big features on how small rural farms are no longer financially viable

One is from Alana Semuels in this week's Time Magazine, and the other is from the New York Times Sunday paper, compliments of journalist Corey Kilgannon.  Semuels' headline is, "'They're Trying to Wipe Us Off the Map':  Small American Farmers are Nearing Extinction," and Kilgannon's is "After 240 Years and 7 Generations, Forced to Sell the Family Farm."  I'm providing a short excerpt from each here, starting with the Time piece, which features Mary and John Rieckmann, aged 79 and 80 respectively, who farm 45 dairy cattle in central Wisconsin:
The Rieckmanns are about $300,000 in debt, and bill collectors are hounding them about the feed bill and a repayment for a used tractor they bought to keep the farm going. But it’s harder than ever to make any money, much less pay the debt, Mary Rieckmann says, in the yellow-wallpapered kitchen of the sagging farmhouse where she lives with her husband, John, and two of their seven children. The Rieckmanns receive about $16 for every 100 pounds of milk they sell, a 40 percent decrease from six years back. There are weeks where the entire milk check goes towards the $2,100 monthly mortgage payment. Two bill collectors have taken out liens against the farm. “What do you do when you you’re up against the wall and you just don’t know which way to turn?” Rieckmann says, as her ancient fridge begins to hum.
A compelling data point:
John recently brought two calves to the stock market and got $20 for one and $30 for another—two years ago, those calves would have brought in $300 to $400 each.
Semuels also takes up the issue of farmer suicide, which is the topic of this recent story and some prior posts here on Legal Ruralism (with parallels to Australia).

Here's the lede from the New York Times feature, dateline Durham, New York, population, 2,725:
Farmer Frank hobbled into the house, cane in hand. 
“Sow got out of her pen, had to chase her down,” said Farmer Frank — Frank Hull, 71 — whose body, ravaged from decades of heavy manual work, is no longer built for chasing sows. 
For half a century, he and his wife, Sherry, 67, have run their 260-acre farm here in the upper Catskills, some two hours north of New York City. 
Known as Hull-O Farms, it has been in Mr. Hull’s family since his forebear, John Hull, founded it some 240 years and seven generations ago. 
It is one of the oldest farms in the country continuously owned and run by the same family. But that lineage is about to end.
Both stories are chock full of interesting and compelling data points about the trends, including the sale of farm land for housing developments and so forth.  The New York Times story also talks about the Hulls' engagement in agri-tourism.

And coastal elites wonder why rural folks are angry enough to support the likes of Trump.