Thursday, December 31, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXIII): Indian country

Two stories from the last few days have focused on the particular impacts of coronavirus in Indian Country.  The first is this NPR story out of the Colville Reservation in Washington State.  Ellis O'Neill reports, and the headline is, "'Last Little Hurrah' Thwarts Tribe's Effort To Keep COVID-19 Off Reservation."  The dateline is Nespelem, population 236, in Okanogan County. 

The second story is a feature in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, by Chris Serres, dateline, Wakpala, South Dakota, an unincorporated community on the west side of the Missouri River.  It's not far from Mobridge, population 3,465.  Here's an excerpt:

The 3,625-square-mile reservation, which avoided the worst of the pandemic during the spring and summer, has rapidly devolved into one of the most alarming hot zones in the Midwest. Coronavirus infections at Standing Rock have surged more than 400% since the summer, from 106 cases in early August to 550 cases in late November, according to data from the tribe.

Burial ceremonies have become an almost daily ritual at the hilltop cemeteries on the reservation. Many families have had two, three or more relatives die from the virus. COVID-related deaths are now so frequent that the Teton Times, a local newspaper, is running five pages of obituaries a week.

Crowded housing conditions and poor access to health care have left many families feeling viscerally unsafe as the virus has tightened its clench on the small towns that lie low in the reservation's deep river valleys.

"Never did I imagine that this virus would affect us so deeply," said Virgil Taken Alive, a Lakota elder who has lost three close relatives, including a brother, to the virus.

Standing Rock is better known, of course, for the show down over the Keystone XL pipeline dispute.  Here's just one prior post about it.  

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXII): Health care workers getting out of the field in rural Kansas

Frank Morris reported for National Public Radio reported yesterday under the headline, "'Toxic Individualism': Pandemic Politics Driving Health Care Workers From Small Towns."  The gist is that public health and other health care workers in rural Kansas are being harassed into resignation, into leaving their posts.  Here's an excerpt:

The virus infecting thousands of Americans a day is also attacking the country's social fabric. The coronavirus has exposed a weakness in many rural communities, where divisive pandemic politics are alienating some of their most critical residents — health care workers.

A wave of departing medical professionals would leave gaping holes in the rural health care system, and small-town economies, triggering a death spiral in some of these areas that may be hard to stop.

Ten years ago, Dr. Kristina Darnauer and her husband, Jeff, moved to tiny Sterling, Kan., to raise their kids steeped in small-town values.

"The values of hard work, the value of community, taking care of your neighbor, that's what small towns shout from the rooftops, this is what we're good at. We are salt of the earth people who care about each other," Darnauer says. "And here I am saying, then wear a mask because that protects your precious neighbor."

But Darnauer's medical advice and moral admonition were met with contempt from some of her friends, neighbors and patients. People who had routinely buttonholed her for quick medical advice at church and kids' ballgames were suddenly treating her as the enemy and regarding her professional opinion as suspect and offensive.

Don't miss this entire story for a sense of how the culture wars have infiltrated the public health sphere in the age of Trump and coronavirus.  

Monday, December 28, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXI): Three big NYT stories out of New Mexico, Pennsylviania and Kentucky

Adam Ferguson reports with photos and text from micropolitan Gallup, New Mexico, population 21,605, in the northwest corner of the state.   The headline is, "The Place Hit Hardest by the Virus."  This is the part of New Mexico with the greatest concentration of American Indians, Navajo in particular.  Here's an interesting quote about the economics of what's happening there now:
Bill Lee, the head of Gallup’s Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a growing economic divide because of the restrictions put in place by local and state officials. Smaller businesses often have to operate with stricter guidelines, including rules preventing in-store shopping, while bigger box stores, especially those deemed essential, could operate with fewer limits. “The governor has chosen winners and losers,” Mr. Lee told me.
The second story is Matt Richtel's "How the Pandemic is Imperiling a Working-Class College," dateline, Indiana, Pennsylvania, population 13,975. The story notes that the 10,000 students who typically enroll annually at this publicly supported university don't have access to professional networks (as via their parents) because many are first-generation.  Now, during the pandemic, the university is facing budget cuts that are hurting students and threatening the jobs of faculty and staff.  There's a lot of data on the rural-urban higher education gap suggesting that the rate of BA attainment would be greater if colleges and universities themselves were more accessible.  This story seems to support that thesis. 

The third is out of Perry County, Kentucky, population 28,712, from whence Ben Casselman and Will Wright report under the headline, "Kentucky Is Hurting as Its Senators Limit or Oppose Federal Aid."  The subhead focuses on rural-urban difference: "Urban and rural fortunes diverge in the state, with the pandemic compounding troubles that predated it."  Perry County is in the impoverished Appalachian (Eastern) part of the state.  

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Literary Ruralism (Part XXIX): I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou published this memoir in 1969, and the portion I'm excerpting here is about 8-year-old Maya (then called Marguerite) returning to rural southern Arkansas, the town of Stamps, where she'd previously lived with her grandmother, Uncle Willie, and Maya's older brother Bailey Junior.  The grandmother is known as "Momma," and she owns a store serving the black population in a segregated Stamps, where the 2010 population is 1,693.  

Now Maya and Bailey are migrating back to Stamps after time with their mother in St. Louis.  During that time in St. Louis, Maya was raped by her mother's friend, and she is being sent away as an act of avoidance by the adults.  

I selected this excerpt for what it says about rural-urban difference, including in relation to race and perception.  It's perhaps worth noting that Maya had not wanted to leave Momma and Stamps to begin with. 

* * * 

The barrenness of Stamps was exactly what I wanted, without will or consciousness. After St. Louis, with its noise and activity, its trucks and buses, and loud family gatherings, I welcomed the obscure lanes and lonely bungalows set back deep in dirt yards. The resignation of its inhabitants encouraged me to relax. They showed me a contentment based on the belief that nothing more was coming to them, although a great deal more was due. Their decision to be satisfied with life's inequities was a lesson for me. Entering Stamps, I had the feeling that I was stepping over the border lines of the map and would fall, without fear, right off the end of the world. Nothing more could happen, for in Stamps nothing happened.

Into this cocoon I crept.

For an indeterminate time, nothing was demanded of me or of Bailey. We were, after all, Mrs. Henderson's California grandchildren, and had been away on a glamorous trip way up North to the fabulous St. Louis. Our father had come the year before, driving a big, shiny automobile and speaking the King’s English with a big city accent, so all we had to do was lie quiet for months and rake in the profits of our adventures.

Farmers and maids, cooks and handymen, carpenters and all the children in town, made regular pilgrimages to the Store. “Just to see the travelers.”

They stood around like cutout cardboard figures and asked, “Well, how is it up North?”

“See any of them big buildings?”

“Ever ride in one of them elevators?’

“Was you scared?”

“Whitefolks any different, like they say?”

Bailey took it upon himself to answer every question, and from a corner of his lively imagination wove a tapestry of entertainment for them that I was sure was as foreign to him as it was to me.

He, as usual, spoke precisely. “They have, in the North, buildings so high that for months, in the winter, you can't see the top floors.”

“Tell the truth.”

“They've got watermelons twice the size of a cow's head and sweeter than syrup.” I distinctly remember his intent face and the fascinated faces of his listeners. “And if you can count the watermelon’s seeds, before it’s cut open, you can win five zillion dollars and a new car.”

Momma, knowing Bailey, warned, “Now Ju, be careful you don't slip up on a not true” (Nice people didn’t say ‘lie”)

“Everybody wears new clothes and have inside toilets. If you fall down in one of them, you get flushed away into the Mississippi River. Some people have iceboxes, only the Proper name is Cold Spot or Frigidaire. The snow is so deep you can get buried right outside your door and people won't find you for a year. We made ice cream out of the snow: That was the only fact that I could have supported. During the winter, we had collected a bowl of snow and poured Pet milk over it, and sprinkled it with sugar and called it ice cream.

Momma beamed and Uncle Willie was proud when Bailey regaled the customers with our exploits. We were drawing cards for the Store and objects of the town’s adoration. Our journey to magical places alone was a spot of color on the town’s drab canvas, and our return made us even more the most enviable of people.

High spots in Stamps were usually negative: droughts, floods, lynchings and deaths.

Bailey played on the country folks’ need for diversion. Just after our return he had taken to sarcasm, picked it up as one might pick up a stone, and put it snufflike under his lip. The double entendres, the two-pronged sentences, slid over his tongue to dart rapier-like into anything that happened to be in the way. Our customers, though, generally were so straight thinking and speaking that they were never hurt by his attacks. They didn’t comprehend them.

“Bailey Junior sound just like Big Bailey. Got a silver tongue. Just like his daddy.”

“I hear tell they don’t Pick cotton up there. How the people live then?”

Bailey said that the cotton up North was so tall, if ordinary people tried to pick it they'd have to get up on ladders, so the cotton farmers had their cotton picked by machines.

For a while I was the only recipient of Bailey's kindness. It was not that he pitied me but that he felt we were in the same boat for different reasons, and that I could understand his frustration just as he could countenance my withdrawal.

I never knew if Uncle Willie had been told about the incident in St. Louis, but sometimes I caught him watching me with a far-off look in his big eyes. Then he would quickly send me on some errand that would take me out of his presence. When that happened I was both relieved and ashamed. I certainly didn’t want a cripple’s sympathy (that would have been a case of the blind leading the blind), nor did I want Uncle Willie, whom I loved in my fashion, to think of me as being sinful and dirty. If he thought so, at least I didn't want to know it.

Sounds came to me dully, as if people were speaking through their handkerchiefs or with their hands over their mouths. Colors weren't true either, but rather a vague assortment of shaded pastels that indicated not so much color as faded familiarities, people's names escaped me and I began to worry over my sanity. After all, we had been away less than a year, and Customers whose accounts I had formerly remembered without consulting the ledger were now complete strangers.

People, except Momma and Uncle Willie, accepted my unwillingness to talk as a natural outgrowth of a reluctant return to the South. And an indication that I was pining for the high times we had had in the big city. Then, too, I was well known for being “tender-hearted” Southern Negroes used that term to mean sensitive and tended to look upon a person with that affliction as being a little sick or in delicate health. So I was not so much forgiven as I was understood.

Illinois State Bar Association announces new fellowships to attract lawyers to rural areas

The 2Civility website, a feature of the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Professionalism, announced this week that the Illinois State Bar Association Special Committee on the Rural Practice Initiative has just launched two fellowship programs aimed at supporting attorneys in exploring rural practice. 

In particular, these programs respond to the aging of the legal profession in rural Illinois.  More than half of Illinois counties have fewer than 0.7 lawyers in private practice per 1,000 residents, and growing student loan debt is leading many young lawyers to practices in higher-paying urban areas.  The consequences are predictable:  Rural residents must travel long distances to get legal help. 

The most recent data indicate these “legal deserts” are worsening: 76 Illinois counties have five or fewer new attorneys (or those who were admitted in the last four years) and 39 counties (one-third of Illinois counties) have no new attorneys.

  • The Rural Practice Summer Fellows program connects law students with rural practitioners before they leave law school. The program includes a $5,000 fellowship grant. 

  • The Rural Practice Associate Fellows program places graduating law students and new attorneys as permanent associates with rural practitioners. The program includes a $5,000 stipend at the beginning of employment and an additional $5,000 stipend if the associate is still working for the same firm after one year. 
The chair of the Illinois State Bar Association, Dennis Orsey, stated in a video released to publicize the new opportunities: 
I look at this as part of succession planning.  We know in a number of the counties in the state of Illinois we have an aging lawyer population. A number of these practicing attorneys have good viable practices; they have a built-in client base. What they’re looking for are young attorneys who are willing to settle in that rural community and eventually take over their practices.

More from the release:  

Fellows will participate in mentorship programs geared specifically toward law students and young attorneys in rural practice. Participants will also obtain CLE in connection with the program and be provided with opportunities to network with the local legal and business community.

Employers will receive assistance in identifying and hiring qualified summer clerks and associates and subsidized salaries that can help firms attract employees.

Applications for fellows and employer firms can be found on the ISBA’s website. The deadline for submission is February 12, 2021.
A video released to promote the programs includes these comments from rural practitioners: 
"I turn away work, that’s the reality,” said Dustin Clark, an attorney in Rushville, Ill, ...  “I need somebody, and I know I’m not the only rural and small practitioner who’s in that position.”
* * * 
“It’s great practicing in a rural area,” said Letitia Wiggins, an attorney in McLeansboro, Ill. ..... “You can cover as many counties as you want, you can work on the types of cases that you want to work on, and ultimately you’re in control to shape that.”

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CX): College applications by rural students fall

Farm-to-fork restaurant, Bucksport, Maine
April, 2019
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2019

Jon Marcus reports for NPR and the Hechinger Report, dateline Bucksport, Maine, population 4,924.  Marcus reports that the online learning environment the coronavirus has compelled is driving a drop in enrollment, but the biggest factor is cost.  

At the flagship campus of the University of Maine, the number of entering in-state students was down 11% this fall, a spokeswoman said. Maine is the nation's most rural state, with more than 60% of its population considered rural.

Until this year, there were indications that rural college-going was increasing. The proportion of rural students going to college rose from 51% in 2011 to 61% in 2016, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, though it has stalled since then. That's the same proportion as urban students, if still fewer than the 67% of suburban high school graduates who go to college.

Now there's worry that this progress may reverse, thanks in large part to Covid-19.

By far the biggest single barrier to college-going among students in rural schools is the price, according to a survey released in September by researchers at universities in Maine, Oregon, Georgia and Alaska. Average household earnings in rural areas are nearly 20% lower than incomes elsewhere, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) says. This has also gotten worse as a result of the pandemic, which has shuttered businesses and cost jobs in rural communities already suffering from declines in agriculture and industry.

All of this threatens to widen "the already precarious economies of rural areas and widening their socioeconomic drift from urban and suburban America."

This story is chock full of data from states across the country, but it also features lots of rich local color from Maine.  That local color includes the town's last paper mill, shuttered in 2014, and how its presence--then absence--has driven local youth aspirations.  It also includes "FAFSA parties," where families come together to learn how to complete the financial aid paperwork for college assistance.  

Here's a quote from Bucksport High School Principal Josh Tripp, 

Their overall feeling toward education right now is that they've just been beaten down.  Everything about this year has been harder. Certainly being an election year and seeing so much negativity around forecasts of our future, regardless of what political side you're on — there's just a lot of dim and dreary outlooks.

Here's a recent story from Eric Hoover in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the trends in enrollment along low-income students generally.  And here's a story by him from a year ago regarding college advising (specifically college fairs) for rural students, which reminds me of this op-ed by Claire Vaye Watkins from about sevn years ago, which makes the same big point.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CIX): New Yorker magazine reports from California's San Joaquin Valley

James Ross Gardner reports under the headline, "As the Vaccine Arrives, Death and Denial Rage in a California Coronavirus Epicenter."  There's nothing new here--nothing we Californians don't already know.   But I was very taken with Gardner's description of California's Central Valley so I'm featuring it here: 

The San Joaquin Valley is an emerald gash shaped like a fist in the middle of the state. It abuts the Sierra Nevada mountains and drinks in the rivers that zag from the foothills. Looked upon from an airplane cabin window at thirty thousand feet, the valley appears as a medley of pixels in every shade of green; irrigated fields collide at improbable angles. On the ground, viewed from a speeding car on Highway 99, it’s a blur of corduroy—rows of garlic, tomatoes, and fruit trees sprouting from the rich, dark loam. The San Joaquin Valley is California’s bread basket, the source of the state’s bounty, the source of much of the country’s bounty.  [emphasis original] Even the names of towns that dot this verdant blanket sound fecund: Chowchilla, Planada, Ripon.

These townships orbit midsize cities with populations exceeding three hundred thousand—Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton—but the region is mostly rural and agricultural. Its demographics reflect that. Of the more than four million people in the valley, many are migrant workers. A hundred and twelve thousand are believed to be undocumented.

Full disclosure:  I live in the Valley, also known as California's Great Valley, toward it's northern end, in greater Sacramento, 45 minutes north of the Lodi-Stockton area, which is where Gardner begins his tale.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Coronavirus in Rural America (Part CVIII): USDA ERS publishes 2020 "Rural America at a Glance," all about COVID-19

You can find it here, published just a couple of days ago.  It takes a tried and true standard of the USDA Economic Research Service, "Rural America at a Glance," typically refreshed every 3 years or so and focused on economic metrics, and dedicates it entirely to the impacts of the coronavirus on rural America.  That means data on coronavirus cases and deaths, but also on the economic consequences of the pandemic.  Here's a sobering takeaway from the report:

The rural share of COVID-19 cases and deaths increased markedly during the fall of 2020. Rural areas have 14 percent of the population but accounted for 27 percent of COVID-19 deaths during the last 3 weeks of October 2020. Factors likely contributing to this higher rural share include an older population with underlying health issues, living farther away from hospitals, and who are less likely to have health insurance.

The report also includes a section on rural unemployment (mining counties have been hit worst, farming counties least impacted) and another on outbreaks in meatpacking plants, a topic that has drawn a lot of media coverage, most recently here.  (Earlier blog posts on the topic are here, here, here, and here

Here are two graphs about infection rates and deaths in non-metro counties:

Here's one about rural vulnerabilities, including distance to a hospital with an ICU:  

Another recent piece, this one from Reid Wilson for The Hill, is also about coronavirus devastation in rural America.  

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Applications down at Cal State University's "rural" campuses in northern California

story in today's Los Angeles Time reports that applications to University of California campuses are up this fall, while applications to California State University (CSU) campuses are generally down, but especially at locations like Dominguez Hills, which serves many low income students, and at CSU's northern California campuses, several of which are rural by some measure.  

The change in volume of applications varied by campus, dropping by as much as 26% among first-time freshmen at Sonoma State and increasing by as much as 9% at Cal Poly Pomona. In part, the numbers reflected some ongoing trends: the recent struggle of several Northern California campuses to attract students from outside their areas because of competition from Southern California, wildfires, limited housing availability and the high cost of housing.

In addition to Sonoma State, there are CSU campuses in Chico, which was badly impacted by the Camp Fire in 2018 and another major fire in Butte County this year, and in Arcata (Humboldt State).  Sonoma State is in Rohnert Park, near Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County.  

The story is reported by Teresa Watanabe and Nina Agrawal.  

Friday, December 18, 2020

Deb Haaland named Secretary of the Interior designate

Many stories have been written about this in the past day or so, but I'll just highlight this one from the Washington Post.  Haaland is a Native American and second-term U..S. Congresswoman from New Mexico. Juliet Eilperin, Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis report; here is an excerpt from the story:

President-elect Joe Biden chose Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) Thursday to serve as the first Native American Cabinet secretary and head the Interior Department, a historic pick that marks a turning point for the U.S. government’s relationship with the nation’s Indigenous peoples.

The story then quotes Haaland's Tweet from last night: 
A voice like mine has never been a Cabinet secretary or at the head of the Department of Interior.  ... I’ll be fierce for all of us, our planet, and all of our protected land.

The story includes this biographical material about Haaland:

Born in Arizona to a Native American mother who served in the Navy and a Norwegian American father who was an active-duty Marine, Haaland bounced between 13 public schools as the family changed military bases. At 15, she worked at a bakery, and later attended law school with the help of student loans and food stamps, occasionally experiencing homelessness as a single mother.

The headline for this Washington Post story links Haaland's appointment, and that of Michael S. Regan as EPA chief, to environmental justice: "With historic picks, Biden puts environmental justice front and center."  

Speaking of environmental justice, this Politico story suggests that Biden's choice of Regan for EPA head--he is an African American man who has served in the equivalent role in North Carolina--has displaced the woman who many considered a favorite for the job:  Mary Nichols, former head of California's Air Resources Board.  The reason, according to this report, is that Nichols was not adequately attuned to racial/ethnic disadvantage--that is, not sufficiently attuned to environmental injustice as having a disparate impact on people of color.  

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CVII): Idaho school and community rolling with coronavirus punches

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR today from Bruneau, Idaho, population 552, under the headline, "A Rural School Under Pressure To Stay Open: 'People Are Just Rough And Tough.'"  The "rough and tough" is pretty much the gist of the story, reflecting a frontier mentality associated with the West.  In this community--not far from Boise--many folks don't wear masks, and they don't want their kids to have to wear masks.  Siegler quotes one mom of a kindergartner and second grader, Cassandra Folkman:  

I don't make them wear 'em anywhere we go.  I don't wear one and they don't.  ...  I'm not scared of the virus, I guess.  It seems like it's just another string of the flu.

But a teacher at the school who caught the virus and was out of commission for six weeks this fall has a different perspective.  Sariah Pearson comments, 

Most people don't really want to hear about it.  Even though they care about me, it does not translate over.

Pearson now frequently keeps her windows open to keep air circulating, and she paid $300 for an air filtration system.  

Recently, cases among teachers and students have been numerous enough to force some classes to move online temporarily.  Still, the school board voted 3-2 against requiring masks.  Eventually, the schools had to close a few weeks ago because so many substitute teachers had been exposed to infected students that there weren't enough teachers.  

Still, most teachers and students don't wear masks.  The superintendent, Ryan Cantrell, does.  He sees it as modeling for the faculty and students, though he estimated that only about a dozen of 180 junior-high and school students wear them.  The rate of teachers wearing masks isn't much better.  

The quote on which the story's headline is based is from another parent, Brooklyn Kunsky, who thinks the school district is managing the virus pretty well.  She is opting to have her children in school.    

Our kids don't want to wear masks, our kids want to have a somewhat normal [life], if that's even, you know, a realistic word in the midst of all this, educational experience.

I think when you live in a rural community, people are just ... I don't know, rough and tough, I don't know if that's the right word, but, we just make it through.
Kunsky is a native of Bruneau and graduated from high school there, so she's probably pretty in touch with the culture.  

Siegler also reported from this school in mid-August, and I wrote about it here.  

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Thomas Friedman tries to play matchmaker between VP Kamala Harris and rural America

Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column yesterday

Harris is too smart and energetic to be just the vice president, a position with few official responsibilities. I’d love to see President-elect Joe Biden give her a more important job: his de facto secretary of rural development, in charge of closing the opportunity gap, the connectivity gap, the learning gap, the start-up gap — and the anger and alienation gap — between rural America and the rest of the country.

President Trump feasted off those gaps in our last two presidential elections to dominate Democrats in rural America. Putting Harris in charge of fixing them would be a real statement by the Biden team.

Most important, lifting rural America is the right thing to do for all of America and fulfills Biden’s vision of a nation that “grows together” in every way.

* * * 

“I fear the word ‘rural’ connotes a geography that is not my problem,” Beth Ford, president of Land O’Lakes, the influential farmer-owned cooperative headquartered in Minnesota, said to me. But, in fact, spreading connectivity and technology to rural America “is an American issue, an American competitiveness issue and an American national security issue,” she argued.

Persistent “underinvestment in rural America will leave us less secure and less prosperous as a nation” — and less competitive with China, which is rapidly connecting its rural heartland, Ford said. “Some 35 percent of farmers lack enough bandwidth to run the equipment on their farms, ensure their kids get a good education and that Grandma has access to telemedicine.”

What should a Biden-Harris rural strategy look like? It would start with showing up regularly. “Showing up” and “just listening to people” with respect goes a long way in rural America, Duluth’s mayor, Emily Larson, remarked to me. Actually, nothing earns more respect than listening to people respectfully.

“Rural areas have their own social networks,” Larson said, but they’re different from the metropolitan ones. “Here, people will show up for you in the middle of the night, but they don’t post about it on Facebook.”

On policy specifics, the Biden-Harris team should commit that in four years every rural community in America will have access to broadband — the basic infrastructure needed for an inclusive modern economy.

I agree with Friedman that Vice President Harris needs an important and high profile portfolio, and I agree that the Biden administration needs to reach out to rural America and ensure everyone has broadband within the next four years--if not sooner!  (Look what Australia just did!)  But Harris and rural America don't strike me as a match made in heaven, not least because of something Jon Tester said in his interview with Jonathan Martin, also in yesterday's New York Times

You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain't gonna sell. 

This is an instance when I believe the messenger really matters, and Harris has not previously shown any interest in rural America, as far as I know.   

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Jon Tester's Memoir "Grounded" finally gets some national publicity, along with issues of rural alienation

I read U.S. Senator Jon Tester's memoir, Grounded:  A Senator's Lessons on Winning Back Rural America a few weeks ago and liked it very much, so much, in fact, that I'm planning to write a short review of it.  That's my copy of it in the photo above--with lots of Post-It notes marking notable passages.  My "Audible" e-audiobook version is even more heavily book-marked and annotated. 

With that in mind, I looked around for reviews of the book and was surprised that not few media outlets have said anything about it.  I found only this on NPR and this from the Los Angeles Review of Books, both from September, within days of the book's publication.  

Today, however, Tester and the ideas in his book are featured in the New York Times.  Jonathan Martin leads into his interview with Montana's Senior U.S. Senator with some details that the Senator talks about a lot in the book:  Donald Trump pulled out the stops in 2018 to prevent Tester's election to a third term.  Trump was furious that Tester, who has a leadership position in Veterans Affairs, opposed the nomination of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson to lead the department.  And Trump, in Trump style, set out to see Tester defeated, flying to Montana to hold rallies for Tester's opponent.  Trump also deployed Don Jr., to Big Sky Country as his emissary, and Tester refers to the younger Trump repeatedly as the "greasy-haired kid."  Generally speaking, Tester doesn't pull any punches in the book, and his disdain is most evident regarding the two Donald Trumps.  

Tester prevailed anyway.  Since then, however, the fates of Democrats in Montana have taken a serious turn for the worse, as Martin explains:  

But last month Mr. Tester’s Republican colleague from Montana, Senator Steve Daines, rolled to re-election against a formidable and well-funded Democratic rival, Gov. Steve Bullock.

Why did Mr. Tester prevail while Mr. Bullock lost? 

I wrote recently about that shift in Montana politics here.  It's a shift documented, up to a point, in Tester's book, which was published a few months before we knew Daines would so handily beat Bullock.  

But the bigger question is the national one of course, and it's one Tester takes up in his book:  "Why do most Democrats keep faring so poorly in rural America?"

Martin says Tester's book is part memoir, part policy manifesto, but I found it lighter on policy than I expected.  Tester talks about things like schools, which you'd expect any rural politician to talk about, but that's not an area where the federal government plays a great role, though it could.  Tester also talks about infrastructure like roads, though I found his musings very general.

Here's a quote from Martin's interview with Tester, which is well worth a read in its entirety--as is the book.  

Martin:  How do you balance support for law enforcement with accountability for police officers who break the law?

Tester:  You approach it from a standpoint that we’re going to do our level best to make sure we have the best-trained folks that we can on the beat, whether you’re in Big Sandy, or Great Falls, or wherever you’re at in the state of Montana.

And I think the whole idea about defunding police is not just bad messaging, but just insane. And I’ll tell you why. The area where we have the greatest poverty in the state of Montana is Indian Country. And where do we need more police officers than anywhere else? Indian Country. I mean, that’s a fact. Because of poverty, crime is more prevalent. We need more police officers, not less.

Indeed, Tester pays a great deal of attention to Native American issues in the book.  He notes several times that 7% of Montana is Native American, and I count the persistence and nuance with which Tester handles indigenous issues one of the book's many strengths.    

Here's another quote from the interview, this one focused on Trump:  

Martin:  Is the issue for Democrats in rural areas the appeal of President Trump, or is this a longer-term structural problem for the party?

Tester:  There’s no doubt about it, he has an appeal in rural America. I can’t figure it out, but there’s no denying it.

But I will also tell you I think there’s a long-term structural issue. And by the way, I’ve had this conversation with Chuck Schumer [the Senate Democratic leader] several times — that we have to do a better job developing a message so that rural Americans can say, “Yeah, those guys, they think like I do.” Because that’s what Trump has right now.

I can go into the list of things that might be insane about this president, but the truth is that rural people connect more with a millionaire from New York City than they do with the Democrats that are in national positions.

So that tells me our message is really, really flawed, because I certainly don’t see it that way.

We do not have a — what do I want to say — a well-designed way to get our message out utilizing our entire caucus. So we need to do more of that. You cannot have Chuck Schumer talking rural issues to rural people; it ain’t gonna sell. And quite frankly, I don’t know that you can have Jon Tester go talk to a bunch of rich people and tell them what they need to be doing.  (emphasis mine)

I'll also note that it's interesting that Martin is the journalist interviewing Tester for this story because Martin features in Tester's book.  Martin is the reporter who broke the story about plagiarism by Montana's short-term U.S. Senator, John Walsh, a Democrat appointed to finish out the term of Max Baucus when he became U.S. Ambassador to China.  After the revelation about plagiarism of Walsh's war college thesis, Walsh decided not to run for re-election, leaving a clearer path for Republican Steve Daines to take that seat in 2014.  Tester doesn't criticize Martin for exposing Walsh's plagiarism, but he does suggest that Martin should have disclosed that he was acting on opposition research about Walsh, research that (presumably Republican) outsiders furnished to him.   

Still hoping to write my own review of Grounded; certainly I have a lot more to say.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CVI): Out of central Washington from NPR this morning

Anna King reports from Okanogan County, Washington, population 41,120, under the headline, "Rural Health Systems Challenged By COVID-19 Surge."  The story leads with the death of a 66-year-old man suffering from advanced Parkinson's disease, at a long-term care facility in Tonasket, population 1,032.  
The town's health care system is in crisis, a striking example of the perilous state of rural health care.

Rural America has been the site of COVID-19 hotspots this year: prisons, nursing homes and meat packers. But there are few doctors, ICU beds and little backup when health care workers also get sick.
The deceased man's step sister explains, ""When we want to get a COVID test we have to go 30 miles away to Omak (Washington).  So we can't just go to our local hospital. They don't have enough."

Like some other stories I've heard or read, this one refers to the transfers coronavirus is necessitating between rural and urban hospitals.  
Confluence Health is a health system that covers north-central Washington, including Tonasket. It has a dozen clinics across a wide swath of the region. Incoming CEO Dr. Douglas Wilson says as his hospitals fill with COVID-19 patients, they're crowding out victims of car accidents, heart attacks and head injuries.

King quotes Wilson, 

You hate to put someone on a helicopter or in an ambulance and fly them over the mountains in the winter, when they would've done better had they been able to receive care here locally without traveling. That's a difference between life and death sometimes.

Another story about such transfers, this one out of Alaska, is here

I've also heard NPR reports (picked up from local affiliates) the past few days out of Boerne, Texas, Lubbock, Texas, and Durango, Colorado.  The Lubbock story is by Kaysie Ellingson.  The Durango story, featuring an interview with the mayor, is here

Friday, December 11, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CV): agricultural "towns"

Laura Reiley reports for the Washington Post under the headline, "Going it alone in two of America’s agricultural towns."  The two towns are Moorefield, West Virginia and Salinas, California.  Here's an excerpt:  

Moorefield, W.Va., is an Appalachian town of about 2,500 people, changed forever by Pilgrim’s Pride’s three poultry plants clustered at the South Branch of the Potomac River. Nearly 3,000 miles west, Salinas, in Monterey County, Calif., made famous by Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, is an agricultural city of 155,000 that produces a significant portion of the nation’s leaf and head lettuces, celery, broccoli and strawberries.

In these two American breadbasket communities, small farmers and ranchers have been left to improvise as their markets swivel and contract. In its early months considered an urban problem, the coronavirus has been especially brutal in rural agricultural communities, where farmworkers were slow to get personal protective equipment and effective safety protocols.

In both Salinas and Moorefield, the coronavirus has contributed layers of complexity to an already backbreaking professional path. Several years of historically poor planting conditions and retaliatory tariffs under the Trump administration have cut off potential for agricultural exports and left farmers with few reserves before the pandemic began to hopscotch across the country.
In terms of going it alone, I'm reminded of this post about small-town hospitals in the era of COVID, in particular their lack of bargaining power and struggle for PPE.  

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CIV): the Dakotas

Frank Bruni reported a few days ago for the New York Times under the headline "Death Came for the Dakotas."  Here's an excerpt that is quite harsh: 

The Dakotas are a horror story that didn’t have to be, a theater of American disgrace. Want to understand the tendencies — pathologies might be the better word — that made America’s dance with the coronavirus so deadly? Visit the Dakotas.Intellectually, I mean.
* * * 
The truth is that the Dakotas are as emblematic as they are exceptional, the American story — or at least a strain of it — in miniature. In resisting the lockdowns, slowdowns and sacrifices that many other states committed to, they indulged and encouraged a selective (and often warped) reading of scientific evidence, a rebellion against experts and a twisted concept of individual liberty that was obvious all over the country and contributed mightily to our suffering. 
“North Dakotans will come to each other’s aids in a heartbeat, but when asked to give up personal freedom for an amorphous common good — that’s difficult,” Paul Carson, an infectious-diseases doctor and a professor of public health at North Dakota State University, told me. Just recently, Carson said, a lawmaker from the western half of the state — whose denizens regard its eastern half, where Carson lives, as elitist and too liberal — wrote to him to share a famous quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
* * * 
“We maybe believed that our rural nature sheltered us from what cities like yours were experiencing,” Carson said. “Then we found out, very brutally, that was wrong.”

The story mentions the death of elderly loved ones of two Dakota politicians in nursing homes, one the 98-year-old grandmother of South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and the other the 99-year-old mother of a North Dakota Republican legislator.  

The tone of the story is pretty condescending, and it reminds me of this Tweet by Sarah Smarsh, which I caught a screen shot of a few days ago: 

The photos accompanying the story are from a street in Vermillion, population 10,751, in the southeast part of the state, home of the University of South Dakota.  

The second story is by Annie Gowen of the Washington Post, published just yesterday, dateline Mitchell, South Dakota, population 15,524.  The headline is "'God be with us.'  Covid-19 becomes personal in a South Dakota town as neighbors die and the town debates a mask mandate."  She leads here story with details of the death and funeral of a beloved local coach, Buck Timmins.  

As the funeral director tucked blankets over the knees of Timmins’s wife, Nanci, Pastor Rhonda Wellsandt-Zell told the small group of masked mourners that just as there had been seasons in the coach’s life — basketball season, football season, volleyball season — Mitchell was now enduring a phase of its own.

Pandemic season.

In a state where the Republican governor, Kristi L. Noem, has defied calls for a statewide mask mandate even as cases hit record levels, many in this rural community an hour west of Sioux Falls ignored the virus for months, not bothering with masks or social distancing. Restaurants were packed. Big weddings and funerals went on as planned.

Then people started dying. The wife of the former bank president. A state legislator. The guy whose family has owned the bike shop since 1959. Then Timmins, a mild-spoken 72-year-old who had worked with hundreds of local kids during six decades as a Little League and high school coach and referee.

His death shook Mitchell just as its leaders were contemplating something previously denounced and dismissed: a requirement that its staunchly conservative residents wear masks.

As Wellsandt-Zell led those mourning Timmins in the hymn “Jesus Loves Me,” the rumble of an approaching helicopter cut through the sound of the singing and the mourners’ soft tears. In Mitchell, the medical emergency helicopter, once a rare occurrence, now comes nearly every day, ferrying the growing number of people desperately ill with covid-19 to a hospital that might be able to save them. 

And here's a story with a similar them in that it is about how the death of a child, from COVID, transformed a Missouri town's stance on the pandemic.  The dateline is Washington, Missouri, population 13,892.  An earlier story out of that town, which might more accurately be described as exurban, is here.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CIII): The Texas borderlands

The New York Times ran this story today out of the Big Bend area of Texas, dateline Alpine, population 5,905.  Sarah Mervosh reports:  

It is one of the fastest-growing coronavirus hot spots in the nation, but there are no long lines of cars piled up for drive-through testing and no rush of appointments to get swabbed at CVS.

That’s because in the rugged, rural expanse of far West Texas, there is no county health department to conduct daily testing, and no CVS store for more than 100 miles. A handful of clinics offer testing to those who are able to make an appointment.

Out past the seesawing oil pumpjacks of Midland and Odessa, where roadrunners flit across two-lane roads and desert shrubs freckle the long, beige horizon, the Big Bend region of Texas is one of the most remote parts of the mainland United States and one of the least equipped to handle an infectious disease outbreak. There is just one hospital for 12,000 square miles and no heart or lung specialists to treat serious cases of Covid-19.

Here's a related New York Times story, from early August out of Starr County, Texas, population 60,968, which is much farther southeast in the Rio Grande Valley, also Texas's border region.  Edgar Sandoval reports under the headline "'Like a Horror Movie':  A Small Border Hospital Battles the Coronavirus," and the subhead is "The hospital in Starr County, Texas, had no I.C.U. and only one doctor on duty for each shift.  Then the coronavirus began."  It's a story of an under-resourced hospital in a high poverty county with a large LatinX population.  (Read more about that region and its medical resources here and here, along with an Austin-American Statesman op-ed from 2015, which is no longer available).   

A Washington Post story from last month covered the struggle of small health providers to acquire protective equipment.  A quote about what's happening in rural Texas follows:  

The Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals had never bought members any type of supplies until its president, John Henderson, started getting frantic daily calls about PPE from many of the state’s 157 rural hospitals. “We were at the end of the supply chain, and the supply chain was broken,” he said.

TORCH, as the group is known, began developing relationships with vendors and buying and collecting donations of masks, hand sanitizer and other gear. It crammed boxes into its Austin offices and created chains of volunteers to drive, relay-style, across Texas’s expanse for deliveries.

Now, as the pandemic surges in West Texas, stressors are reemerging, and gloves are a particular trouble spot, Henderson said. But most of the state’s rural hospitals are far closer to having what they need, according to Henderson and several hospital chief executives.

And here's a September 2019 Washington Post story by Eli Saslow about the physician shortage in far west Texas.  This was reported, of course, long before the pandemic.  The headline is "‘Out here, it’s just me’: In the medical desert of rural America, one doctor for 11,000 square miles."  The dateline is Van Horn, Texas, population 2,063, about an hour and half drive from Alpine, though just one county separates the two.  

Another big story out of this region from nearly five years ago is here.  It involves Justice Antonin Scalia's death while on a hunting trip to the region--and the bureaucratic consequences of that area's isolation.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CII): "Rural is left out of the conversation"

That's a quote from this 14-minute segment on NPR this afternoon, a segment in which two rural nurses are interviewed.  The statement was made by one of the nurses, but there's no opportunity made/taken to unpack what she means by that.  Does it mean public health messaging has not been culturally sensitive?  that these rural nurses don't have the PPE that they need?  that the sense of rural disenfranchisement associated with how rural folks have been voting recently spills over into the public health arena?  I'm not sure.  

In any event, both nurses lament that so many of those they serve don't believe the coronavirus is "real" and many refuse to wear masks.  One disclosed that her husband, a welder, had expected coronavirus to go away on November 4.  In other words, he thought it was a hoax, even as he sees how she is struggling with work and what she is dealing with there.  

Keep an eye out for when the transcript of this is posted so you can read the entire interview.  

There's lots of other rural COVID 19 news to peruse.  Here's another NPR story, this one out of rural Kansas, about public health officers resigning and retiring because of public hostility.  James McLean reports. 

In July, Nick Baldetti resigned as director of the Reno County [population 64,511] Health Department in Kansas.

But it wasn't the 80-hour workweeks that drove him to quit, it was the hostile political environment and threats to Baldetti's family.

"I had the local police watching my house because my family was home and I was not," said Baldetti, who also served as the department's health officer. "There was a period of time that I had escorts to and from work."

Baldetti spent years preparing to deal with a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. He never imagined that when the moment arrived, he would encounter such antagonism for simply doing his job.

"By the end of the day, you just felt like you were on an island by yourself," he said. "Whatever decision I made, 50% of people were going to be upset because it was too 'restrictive' and the other 50% were going to be upset because it wasn't restrictive enough."

Here's a story from last week about a strained rural women's health clinic in Brownwood, Texas, population 19,288, in the central part of the Lone Star State.  Reporting is by Shannon Najmabadi of the Texas Tribune.  The story is only marginally about the pandemic--the point being that this clinic, unlike urban counterparts, can't "pivot" to telehealth.  An excerpt follows:

Women come from more than one hundred miles away to Building 35 in a red brick public housing project in rural Brown County, a housing unit turned health clinic where virtually every item, even the beige exam tables, is donated.

The clinic is walk-in only — no appointments — a better bet for patients with unreliable transportation or unpredictable schedules. Without federal funds, Midway Family Planning in Central Texas would have shut its doors long ago, its director says, as state budget cuts dried up family planning dollars from the Gulf Coast to the Texas Panhandle.

Instead, the nonprofit clinic has endured as a small health care lifeline, where low-income and uninsured Texans — far from busy cities with many doctors — can get free or low-cost contraceptives, cancer screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. 

* * *  

While clinics in cities like Dallas and Houston easily pivoted to telehealth visits to minimize face-to-face contact when the pandemic hit, that prospect makes Midway’s director, Carole Parker, laugh: Most of her patients don’t have access to stable internet connections.

Hillbilly Elegy as Rorschach test

And if don't believe me, just look at the comments on my recent "op-ed" about the new film, "Hillbilly Elegy." That short essay was published on The Conversation.  

The commentators make the film about rural America, class, politics, identity politics, and drug addiction.  I think the most striking--in the surprising sense--is how many commenters centered rurality, though I didn't even see the film as being about rural and carefully avoided using the word in my essay.  I had written a paragraph explaining why "Hillbilly Elegy," the film, is not about rural America--at least not after you get past the opening scenes in Jackson, Kentucky.  But the comments go even beyond rurality to link that concept--and by extension Hillbilly Elegy--to the family farm. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

A photo essay about women's high school basketball in nonmetro North Carolina

NPR reports from Kinston, North Carolina, population 21,677.  An excerpt follows, but click through to see the photos, which are the real attraction. 

In Kinston, N.C., basketball is king — or queen, as the case may be.

The town has a reputation for producing more NBA players than anywhere else in the country and the boy's team is often in the spotlight. Yet the girls team wins just as often as the boys. The girls often receive top grades — in the spring, two players graduated at the top of their class — and after graduating, many stay in the community, sometimes serving as assistant coaches for the team.

* * * 

Growing up in Kinston isn't always easy. In the 2017-18 school year, more than half the students at Kinston High were economically disadvantaged, according to the most recent state report card — and that was before the pandemic hit. The school also rates below the state average in math and English language arts.

Head Coach Chris Bradshaw understands that basketball can only take the girls so far. "The most important thing is academics," Bradshaw explains. "Athletics come and go, but what you learn in academics you can take with you for your whole life."

Kinston is the county seat of Lenoir County, population 59,495

Friday, December 4, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CI): Impact on state and local governments

The New York Times headline is, "In Blue States and Red, Pandemic Upends Public Services and Jobs," and Patricia Cohen reports.  the subhead is "As a standoff over federal aid persists, state and local governments are making deep budget cuts. “Everything’s going to slow down,” one official said."

What follows are some paragraphs focusing on states popularly thought of as "rural." Long and short of it is that they are suffering mightily, in part b/c of loss of oil and gas extraction, in part because of loss of tourism revenue, and for many other reasons:  
Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota, Republican-led states that depend on energy-related taxes, have been walloped by the sharp decline in oil prices. Places where tourism provides a large infusion of revenues, like Florida and Nevada, face revenue declines of 10 percent or more, as does Louisiana, which relies on both tourism and energy.

Elsewhere, the steep falloff in sales and personal income taxes — which on average account for roughly two-thirds of a state’s tax revenue, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts — is forcing Republican and Democratic officials to consider laying off police officers, reducing childhood vaccinations and closing libraries, parks and drug treatment centers.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

On "Hillbilly Elegy," the film, and cultural and geographical divides in the United States

I published this today in The Conversation, about the new Ron Howard/Netflix film, "Hillbilly Elegy," based on J.D. Vance's book by the same name.  Here's an excerpt:

I admit to delight when I read professional critics trashing the film, which is based on J.D. Vance’s widely praised memoir detailing his dramatic class migration from a midsize city in Ohio to the hallowed halls of Yale Law School. I was expecting the worst based on my dislike of the book, and these reviews confirmed my expectations.

But once I saw the film, I felt it had been harshly judged by the chattering classes – the folks who write the reviews and seek to create meaning for the rest of us. In fact, the film is an earnest depiction of the most dramatic parts of the book: a lower-middle-class family caught in the throes of addiction.

Everyday viewers seem to find the film enjoyable enough – it has solid audience reviews on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes.

So why the big gap between the critical response and audience reaction? Could it be yet another sign of the country’s steadily growing class divide?

I want to be clear that I didn't see the film depicting rural in any sustained or meaningful way.  Middletown, Ohio, Vance's home town is not rural by any measure.  Indeed, it's not even technically Appalachian.  But about the first 10 minutes of the film take place in Jackson, Kentucky, the Vance Family's ancestral home.  That's Vance's real claim to "hillbilliness," and I don't dispute that a certain hillbilly culture followed his family into the Rust Belt.  

Cross-posted to Working-Class Whites and the Law. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

More on the rural vote, this time out of Wisconsin

Bill Hogseth, Chair of the Dunn County Democrats (Dunn County, population 43,857), wrote this opinion piece for Politico, published under the provocative headline, "Why Democrats Keep Losing Rural Counties Like Mine."  Guess what?  It's down to the economy.  Here's a salient excerpt: 

Why did Trump do so well with rural voters? From my experience, it’s not because local Democrats failed to organize in rural areas. Instead, after conversations with dozens of voters, neighbors, friends and family members in Dunn County, I’ve come to believe it is because the national Democratic Party has not offered rural voters a clear vision that speaks to their lived experiences. The pain and struggle in my community is real, yet rural people do not feel it is taken seriously by the Democratic Party.
My fear is that Democrats will continue to blame rural voters for the red-sea electoral map and dismiss these voters as backward. But my hope is for Democrats to listen to and learn from the experiences of rural people.

The signs of desperation are everywhere in communities like mine. A landscape of collapsed barns and crumbling roads. Main Streets with empty storefronts. The distant stare of depression in your neighbor’s eyes. If you live here, it is impossible to ignore the depletion.

Rural people want to share in America’s prosperity, but the economic divide between rural and urban America has widened. Small-business growth has slowed in rural communities since the Great Recession, and it has only worsened with Covid-19. As capital overwhelmingly flows to metro areas, the small-town economy increasingly is dominated by large corporations: low-wage retailers like Dollar General or agribusiness firms that have no connection to the community.

The source of our wealth is in the things we grow. But today, those things get shipped off into a vast global supply chain, where profits are siphoned off and little remains for us to save or invest.
But you really gotta' read the whole piece.  Also, I'll note that many of these themes are reflected in U.S. Senator Jon Tester's (MT) book, Grounded (2020), which I'm reading now.  I'll write more about that in a future post. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The difference between two "rural" counties in Georgia and the 2020 Election

My big takeaway from this story of two Georgia counties is that one remains more truly rural (culturally and economically) while a contiguous county is more exurban/suburban, with much of that shift having come in the past four years.  Halsten Willis and Griff Witte report for the Washington Post under the headline "In neighboring Georgia counties, election revealed a growing divide that mirrors the nation."  The subhead gets into details on the specific counties and contrasting vote counts:  "President-elect Joe Biden won Newton County, Ga., by 11 points. President Trump won neighboring Jasper by 53."  The dateline is Covington, Georgia, population 13,118, and an excerpt follows:  

Not long ago, Elizabeth Allen and Wanda Cummings were on the same side of America’s political divide.

Both were reliable Republican voters in a reliably conservative part of a reliably red state. But Cummings and Allen have changed, and so has their state, Georgia. They just haven’t changed in the same way.

Allen, a nurse, grew up idolizing Ronald Reagan but couldn’t stomach President Trump’s disregard for facts or civility. When she cast a vote for Joe Biden this year — helping him to swell his margins in the fast-growing suburbs of Newton County and claim Georgia’s 16 electoral votes — it was the first time she had ever marked a ballot for a Democrat.

Cummings, a retired antique store owner, moved from Newton and found ideological kinship just across the county line, in rural and ever-redder Jasper. She reluctantly backed Trump in 2016. But after his four years in office, she — and her new county — turned out for the president with gusto.

Allen and Cummings crossed lines that in America today increasingly resemble a chasm. Unlike some previous elections marked by either a blue or a red wave, the 2020 vote featured both. And in many parts of the country, they crested side-by-side, with the turnout and margin for Trump surging next door to areas that boomed for Biden.

And that reminded me of two podcasts I've heard recently, both of which explore the shifting role of exurban voters in the U.S. electorate. The first is the late November episode of the Trillbilly Workers Party and the second is the episode of Densely Speaking, also from late November.  Both are well worth a listen.  

Monday, November 30, 2020

Rural Legal Scholarship: A Low-ball Defense

Maybell Romero of Northern Illinois University College of Law is work-shopping this paper, about privatization of indigent defense, on Wednesday, Dec. 2, on Zoom, sponsored by the SMU Deason Center for Criminal Justice Reform.  You can register here.  The abstract follows: 

Scholars and policymakers have begun to focus on the deleterious effects of the privatization of different functions in both the criminal adjudicative system and criminal legal system on the whole. Much of this attention lately has been directed to privatized police forces, privatized prisons, and even privatized prosecutors. As important as the examination of privatization and outsourcing in these arenas is, the role of the privatized public defender—particularly, the rural public defender—gets lost in the shuffle. This Article highlights such public defenders, especially in the rural context, and the specific ethical conundrums that arise when local governments such as counties and cities decide to privatize their public defense services through the use of competitive bidding. It conducts a case study from a small jurisdiction in Northern Utah to throw these difficulties into stark relief. The Article then discusses the specific perverse incentives that rural public defenders face and the burden under which their services are procured by way of competitive bid, not with the intention of arguing that such services should never be bid out but rather that any jurisdiction using such a system should be fully cognizant of the risks they incur when choosing to do so. The Article then suggests potential interventions that may be employed to mitigate or even eliminate some of the troubling aspects of using competitive bidding to procure rural indigent defense services.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

David Brooks takes up the rural-urban divide in Election 2020

In today's New York Times, David Brooks takes up the influence of the rural-urban divide on the 2020 election.  The headline is "The Rotting of the Republican Mind," and the part highlighting geography's role is here: 

While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.

People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.

And speaking of Wilkinson, he has the second most read piece on the New York Times website right now, "Why Did So Many Americans Vote for Trump?"  Wilkinson's commentary centers mostly on the pandemic and contrasting responses by Democrats and Republicans, and it mentions geography only in passing, the "density" concept not at all.  

The president’s mendacious push to hastily reopen everything was less compelling to college-educated suburbanites, who tend to trust experts and can work from home, watch their kids and spare a laptop for online kindergarten. Mr. Trump lost the election mainly because he lost enough of these voters, including some moderate Republicans who otherwise voted straight Republican tickets.
He contrasts those suburbanites who (presmptively) have white collar jobs with "working-class breadwinners who can’t bus tables, process chickens, sell smoothies or clean hotel rooms over Zoom."

Wilkinson, who's pretty far left, adds: 
Democrats need to rethink the idea that these voters would have put Democratic House and Senate candidates over the top if only Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were less radiantly socialist. They need to accept that they took hits on the economy by failing to escape the trap Republicans set by doggedly refusing to do anything about the uncontained contagion destroying it.

Other ideas on how the rural-urban divide is influencing our nation's political landscape can be found in two podcasts I've listened to in the past few days, from the Trillbilly Workers Party and Densely Speaking.   Among other interesting matters, the former mentions Bill Bishop's The Big Sort as gospel, while the latter suggests that trend is reversing.  

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Pitting food security against rural America?

That pitting is what this New York Times story by Jonathan Martin appears to do in relation to who will be Biden's Secretary of Agriculture: 

An unlikely fight is breaking out over President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice for agriculture secretary, pitting a powerful Black lawmaker who wants to refocus the Agriculture Department on hunger against traditionalists who believe the department should be a voice for rural America.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress and perhaps Mr. Biden’s most important supporter in the Democratic primary, is making an all-out case for Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, an African-American Democrat from Ohio.
* * *
“It’s time for Democrats to treat the Department of Agriculture as the kind of department it purports to be,” he added, noting that much of the budget “deals with consumer issues and nutrition and things that affect people’s day-to-day lives.”

But there are complications. Two of Mr. Biden’s farm-state allies are also being discussed for the job: Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota, and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as agriculture secretary for President Barack Obama.

* * *  

And nowhere did Mr. Biden fare worse than in rural America, particularly the most heavily white parts of the farm belt.
Martin quotes Heitkamp:  
This is a choice that only Joe Biden can make, and he will make it understanding the unique challenges of rural America and what needs to happen in rural America moving forward.

My question is perhaps naive, but I rally don't understand why this agency cannot and should not play both of these important roles.  And I say that as someone who benefited from "commodities" (free food via USDA programs) as a child and who grew up to advocate for more federal investment in rural America.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

An update on Oceano Dunes, on California's Central Coast

I posted this about 16 months ago regarding the use of a part of California's Central Coast for off-roading.  Now, CalMatters has published a piece picked up by the High Country News, about the conflict between those recreational off-roaders and environmentalists.  The High Country News piece is headlined, "The dust-up over California's off-road beach," and Julie Cart reports.  When published in Cal Matters it was headlined, "A 40-year conflict over a state park: Has it finally reached a breaking point?"  Here's an excerpt: 

The park south of San Luis Obispo is the last state beach where visitors can legally race their 4X4s, dirt bikes and monster trucks. At night, thousands of visitors fire up RV generators or pitch tents, creating bustling mini-cities on the sand.

But these same 1,500 acres of dunes and six miles of beachfront are also home to two federally protected birds that build their nests in the sand, making them extraordinarily vulnerable. Every year at Oceano, some of the rare birds are inadvertently squashed under the wheels of off-road vehicles racing across the dunes.

Oceano Dunes is arguably the most contested stretch of sand in California, an unlikely stage for 40 years of broken agreements and laws, governmental infighting, serial lawsuits and charges that the state has prioritized motorized recreation and imperiled endangered species and other beachgoers.

The push and pull of allowing for the enjoyment of nature while ensuring its preservation is an age-old dilemma in California, but nowhere is it more fraught than at Oceano.

Now the decades-long debate over the future of these dunes has reached a climax: The California Coastal Commission has issued an unprecedented cease and desist order to its sister agency, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, signaling that the commission has moved the conflict into uncharted legal territory.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Coronavirus in rural America (Part C): Miscellaneous

Here are a coupla' recent stories touching on geography--including rurality--and the coronavirus pandemic.  

From the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 16, 2020, "Covid-19 is resurging, and this time it's everywhere."  Betsy McKay and Erin Ailworth report.  

From the New York Times on November 12, 2020 (updated Nov. 20. 2020), "What Places Are Hardest Hit by the Coronavirus? It Depends on the Measure."  The story is by Mitch Smith, Amy Harmon, Lucy Tompkins and Thomas Fuller, and its subhead is "By different metrics, all sorts of locations in the United States are deeply troubling, from Minot, N.D., to New York City."  Among the places featured that are rural by some measure, in addition to Minot, North Dakota, is Avenal State Prison in California's San Joaquin Valley.  

Monday, November 23, 2020

On a wastewater crisis in the rural south--and a MacArthur genius grant to a woman trying to solve it

Two stories today reported on the rural South's wastewater crisis today.  The first is from NPR, and it prominently features one of this year's MacArthur genius grant recipients, Catherine Coleman Flowers.  An excerpt from the story follows: 

Hookworm is an intestinal parasite often associated with poor sewage treatment and the developing world. It was long thought to have been eradicated from the United States — until a 2017 study revealed otherwise.

According to the study, more than one in three people in Alabama's Lowndes County tested positive for hookworm infection.

Hookworm spreads when people walk or play in soil contaminated with feces and the larvae of the worms penetrate their skin.

"This is not something that we test for in the U.S. because people don't anticipate that we have it," says activist and author Catherine Coleman Flowers.

It was Flowers' activism that spurred scientists to conduct the hookworm study. For 20 years, she's worked with advocacy organizations, philanthropists, business leaders and elected officials to shed light on the gaps in access to basic sanitation in rural America.

The other story is in the New Yorker, and it features Flowers far less prominently.  Here, the sanitation issue takes center stage.  Alexis Okeowo reports, with this quote from relatively deep in the story:

In Alabama, not having a functioning septic system is a criminal misdemeanor. Residents can be fined as much as five hundred dollars per citation, evicted, and even arrested. Rush’s sister Viola was once arrested for a sewage violation. But installing a new system can cost as much as twenty thousand dollars, which is more than the average person in Lowndes County makes in a year. Instead, Rush, like her neighbors, used a pipe to empty waste into the grass outside—a practice, called straight-piping, that is not uncommon in much of rural America. (At least one in five homes in the U.S. is not on a municipal sewer line.) Floods carry sewage across people’s lawns and into their living areas, bringing with it the risk of viruses, bacteria, and parasites that thrive in feces. Studies have found E. coli and fecal coliform throughout the Black Belt, in wells and in public waters. A United Nations rapporteur on extreme poverty, visiting in 2017, said that the sewage problem was unlike anything else he had encountered in the developed world. “This is not a sight that one normally sees,” he said.

Rush’s situation got so bad that, in 2017, her sister Barbara sent a Facebook message to an environmental activist named Catherine Coleman Flowers. For two decades, Flowers has helped people struggling with sewage problems in Alabama. (She was recently named a MacArthur Fellow.) A petite woman of sixty-two, with a gentle drawl and a no-nonsense demeanor, Flowers is a reassuring presence; she grew up in Lowndes County and is distantly related to Rush, as she is to many people in the area. Still, she was shocked when she saw the trailer. “She showed me how they were living, and I cried,” Flowers told me.

I think (hope!) we'll be hearing more about these events and the attention that needs to brought to bear on this developing world problem in the (U.S.) American south.

Finally, here is the New York Times review of Coleman Flowers bookWaste:  One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret. Anna Smith writes under the headline, "How the Problem of 'Waste' Affects the Rural Poor."  Here's an excerpt: 

In Lowndes County, a swath of rural land between Selma and Montgomery, as many as 90 percent of households have failing or inadequate systems for managing wastewater. This is structural poverty, Flowers writes, and it’s hardly a localized problem. From rural Appalachia to the suburbs of St. Louis to Allensworth, the California town that was the state’s first to be founded by African-Americans, “Waste” follows Flowers as she discovers that the failure to invest in infrastructure is pervasive nationwide. The consequences are life-threatening, but often invisible to those who live and work in communities with more political clout. 

* * * 

On top of all that, it’s not uncommon for people to face eviction and even arrest because of this scarcity of resources. Not having a septic system puts [poor rural folks] at risk.

It can also cause them to face criminal charges.  

The title “Waste,” then, has a double meaning. It signifies both the literal fact of waste and the loss of so much time, energy, money and even lives. What potential might be unleashed in a world where people have their needs met?

And that seems to be the $6 million question everywhere I look these days.  In any event, Waste sounds like a powerful read.