Wednesday, February 24, 2021

California Rural Legal Assistance submits powerful amici brief to the Supreme Court supporting union access for farmworkers

Cedar Point Nursery, an Oregon corporation, has brought a case to the U.S. Supreme Court that will test whether the access regulation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (“ALRA”) constitutes a per se taking of farmer’s property under the Fifth Amendment.

The access regulation of the ALRA, established in 1975, grants union organizers the ability to access farmworkers on farms for the purposes of sharing information about various employee rights and helping with union organization. However, the access is limited. Union organizers must provide the employer with prior written notice of their intent to access farmworkers. They may only access farmworkers before or after work or during the farmworker’s lunch break. Furthermore, the time the organizers spend with the farmworkers on the farm must not exceed one hour per meeting or three hours total. The access regulation also sets rules governing the secrecy, timeframe, and procedure of union elections. In addition, the access regulation is strictly enforced and organizers who violate the rule are subject to sanctions.

The case at hand, Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid arose in 2015, when organizers from the United Farm Workers (“UFW”) union entered Cedar Point’s California nursery to speak with its farmworkers. At the time of entry, UFW had not provided Cedar Point with any notice of their intent to take access in violation of the regulation’s requirements. Cedar Point then filed suit against the Agricultural Labor Relations Board arguing “that the access regulation, as applied to them, amounted to a taking without compensation . . . and an illegal seizure” in violation of both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (“CRLA”) submitted an amici brief arguing in favor of the access regulation requirement and explaining why the regulation is still needed, forty-five years later. An amici brief also known as a “friends of the court” brief is a written document put forward by a group of people (not a party to the lawsuit) who have a strong interest in the matter and submit this document "with the intent of influencing the court's decision.” Here, through its amici brief, CRLA attempts to influence the Court to uphold the access regulation.

CRLA argues that unlike regular employees, farmworkers are inaccessible outside the workplace. Thus, the usual methods of communication are not effective and the need to access the farmworkers on the farm remains the most effective way to reach them. CRLA mentions housing, access to technology, and lack of education of farmworkers as reasons why the access regulation is needed.

In its brief, CRLA touches on the fact that farmworkers often have inadequate or no housing at all, making it difficult to reach them at their place of residence. They explain that many farmworkers are homeless, living in cars, tents, or garages as a result of the cost and lack of available housing. CRLA refers to Lisa Pruitt and Zach Newman’s article on the rural housing crisis to show that following Los Angeles, “the next four highest cost-burden counties in California are rural.” Those who have employer-provided housing are not much better off. In fact, they’re often subject to “unofficial oversight and control.” For example, when employers provide the housing, they can refuse to provide farmworkers with internet access. They may also impose strict rules, as described by the following quote:
Most employer-provided housing at motels, in labor camps, or even in single family homes, have rules establishing curfews, requiring visitors to sign-in, and even require permission from foremen who live on-site before visitors can enter the housing or common areas.
Challenging the assumption that farmworkers can be reached through the usual methods of communication such as written materials, CRLA refers to a 2015 Agricultural Labor Relations Board Memo which found that “many [farmworkers] are also ‘functionally illiterate’ (reading at between fourth and seventh grade levels) or ‘totally illiterate’ (reading below fourth grade level), struggling or unable to acquire information through print. Thus, CRLA argues, print communication is futile.

Like print communication, information communicated via technology may also be difficult for farmworkers to navigate. CRLA argues that “what may generally be considered simple tasks, like joining a conference or video call, are immensely difficult tasks for farmworkers.” In addition to the fact that “only about one-third of California rural households subscribe to internet service,” farmworkers in particular are less likely to have access to internet. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board found that when confronted with expenses, internet is the first expense that farmworkers cut when money is short. More on the broadband gap in rural areas can be found here.

CRLA emphasizes that the access regulation is critical in reaching farmworkers, who tend to move from field to field instead of working at one particular farm. Thus, aside from the access regulation, there is no easy way to reach the workers as they move frequently and are often scattered throughout the state. Further, there is no place where organizers can meet with the workers. CRLA describes that there are no coffee shops or multi-purpose rooms where they can meet with the farmworkers. Instead, they remind the Court that where the “highway ends, the growers land begins,” leaving union organizers reliant on this access if they wish to reach farmworkers.

CRLA also argues that aside from the fact that the access regulation remains necessary and is constitutional, Cedar Point has not proven an injury nor is the issue ripe for adjudication. Thus, CRLA argues, Cedar Point has no viable claims, and the access regulation should stand.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on this case on March 22, 2021. During oral arguments, both parties will present the evidence and law that supports their position. Cedar Point Nursery will likely argue that the access regulation is unconstitutional and should be struck down because it allows union organizers to enter their private property. The lawyers for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board will argue that the access regulation should stand and will probably make many of the same arguments that were covered in the CRLA brief regarding the difficulty of accessing farmworkers outside the workplace.

Following oral arguments, the Supreme Court justices will debate the issue and form coalitions reflecting their stance on the case. The task of writing the opinion will then be assigned to one of the nine Justices. It is hard to say when exactly an opinion on this case will be released. At the latest, we can expect it to be released sometime this summer.

It will be interesting to see how the Court comes out on this issue of private property rights versus union access. Will they uphold this limited access for the sake of unionization, or will they find that the access regulation unconstitutionally infringes on the rights of private property owners?

Monday, February 22, 2021

Does illegal immigration affect rural Americans?

As you may have guessed, rural Americans oppose illegal immigration. A recent survey conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Washington Post found that 42 percent of rural residents feel that immigrants are a "burden to the United States," while just 16 percent of those living in or near big cities believe the same. Additionally, this study found that 63 percent of rural residents believe stricter immigration laws will help bring back jobs to their communities.

Are rural Americans' calls for stricter border security warranted? Are their jobs actually in danger? Are immigrants an economic burden to the United States?

A review of the literature on illegal immigration paints a pretty clear picture: immigration (both legal and illegal) likely is a net-positive for the American economy, but a net-negative for low-skilled American workers.

George Borjas, an economics professor at Harvard who has studied immigration for 30 years, claims that liberals and conservatives don't tell the full story about the effects of immigration. Mr. Borjas claims that President Trump overlooks findings that suggest "immigrants can potentially be a net good for the nation, increasing the total wealth of the population." However, Mr. Borjas notes that liberals ignore that certain groups bear the brunt of the negative effects of immigration:
[A]nyone who tells you that immigration doesn’t have any negative effects doesn’t understand how it really works. Because a disproportionate percentage of immigrants have few skills, it is low-skilled American workers, including many blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered most from this wage dip. The monetary loss is sizable. When the supply of workers goes up, the price that firms have to pay to hire workers goes down. Wage trends over the past half-century suggest that a 10 percent increase in the number of workers with a particular set of skills probably lowers the wage of that group by at least 3 percent. 
Immigration redistributes wealth from those who compete with immigrants to those who use immigrants—from the employee to the employer. And the additional profits are so large that the economic pie accruing to all [Americans] actually grows.

 In sum: immigration financially hurts low-skilled Americans (those with a high-school degree or less), but that economic loss is outweighed by the financial benefits to employers (from having cheaper labor sources) and the immigrants themselves (who now have a job).

The United States incorporates the idea that increasing the number of people in a particular "skill class" (i.e. low-skilled workers) will lower the wages for that skill class, into their immigration policies. The United States purposefully factors in an applying migrant's level of skill when deciding whether to grant a visa. The United States is more likely to approve a visa for a high-skilled immigrant than a low-skilled immigrant because there are many more low-skilled applicants than high-skilled ones. They wouldn't want the few negative economic effects of immigration to disproportionately impact one skill class over another.

Obviously, when it comes to illegal immigration there is no screening process to limit certain skill classes from entering. A majority of undocumented immigrants are low-skill laborers. So low-skilled Americans are hit harder by illegal immigration than legal immigration because of the increased competition in their skill class.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report titled: "The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of Black workers." This report found that "[I]llegal Immigration to the United States in recent decades has tended to depress both wages and employment rates for low-skilled American citizens, a disproportionate number of whom are black men." The commission came to the same conclusion as Mr. Borjas: immigration depresses the wages of low-skilled Americans, and yet might still be a net positive for the U.S. economy as a whole due to the benefits accrued to more wealthy Americans.

Rural Americans are more likely to rely on low-skilled jobs than urban Americans. Thus rural Americans tend to suffer more economic consequences from illegal immigration than their urban counterparts. So are rural Americans correct to believe immigration is a burden on America? Not really; the data suggests that the economy is benefitted on the whole. Are rural Americans correct to believe that illegal immigration hurts their wages? The science would suggest yes, so long as you are a low-skilled American.

On August 7, 2019, ICE raided six chicken factories operating in Mississippi, arresting 680 undocumented workers. Crider Inc., a separate chicken factory, lost 75% of its 900-member workforce after an ICE raid in 2007. These aren't isolated incidents either. The liberal in me is saddened by the pain that these raids must cause for the undocumented workers caught up in them, but another part of me remembers all the times I've told conservatives that illegal immigrants don't take the jobs that Americans are willing to do. Can I really look in the face of an unemployed American living in the rust belt, or in the south, and tell them they wouldn't work a factory job when that was the last job they had before becoming permanently unemployed?

After the ICE raid on Crider Inc, the corporation immediately hired 200 locals from the rural community, most of whom were black, whilst simultaneously raising wages for those positions.

Immigration is what makes America the special country we are. No nation in the history of mankind has cultivated the racial diversity that America has currently, and I believe that's a badge of honor for this country. But it's important to note that the effects of unemployment and lower wages are painful: increased addiction rates, increased depression, increased deaths of despair, increased domestic abuse, poorer health results, and more. Rural Americans aren't necessarily xenophobic for wanting to alleviate these ailments by limiting illegal immigration as much as possible. For many struggling rural economies, no potential economic stimulus can be taken off the table.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Is Josh Hawley rural?

Josh Hawley is the junior senator from Missouri; he defeated Claire McCaskill (D) in 2018.  Hawley has attracted attention most recently for his role in disputing the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election.  On January 6, just before insurrectionists entered the U.S. Capitol, Hawley famously raised his fist in an apparent show of strength and solidarity with them.   So, Hawley has aligned himself with populists and often plays the anti-urban, heartland card.  Since elected, Hawley has lived in suburban northern Virginia while using the Missouri address of his sister in Ozark.  

But is Hawley rural and can he authentically play the "rural card"?  Well, Frank Morris of Missouri Public Radio considered that issue in this story for NPR.  For that story, Morris visited Hawley's hometown.  Here are some excerpts: 

Josh Hawley sets himself up as an antidote to cosmopolitan elites who he says are ruining America. Hawley draws his rural credibility from growing up in Lexington, an old Missouri River town of about 4,500 people. Hawley's family moved to Lexington in the early '80s when Josh was a toddler.

JIM KENNEY: His mother and father were salt of the Earth, widely respected, beloved.

MORRIS: Jim Kenney is a fifth-generation Lexington resident. He says young Hawley stood out.

KENNEY: I can remember my kids coming home one time and saying, Josh Hawley told us all he's going to be president someday. And that was probably - he was in the sixth - fifth or sixth grade at the time. So people remember that around here.

MORRIS: Another thing people remember - when Hawley finished eighth grade, his parents sent him off to a Catholic school an hour away in Kansas City. For many in Lexington, that was the last they saw of Josh Hawley. He went on to Stanford and Yale and eventually came back to town to launch his political career.

* * *

MORRIS: In [a] campaign ad for his 2018 Senate race, Hawley is strolling by the picturesque old courthouse downtown. It's beautiful imagery, but it did not sit well with everyone here. Tim and Allyson Crosson, music teachers who worked with Hawley, say the ad was disingenuous.

TIM CROSSON: He tries to portray himself as a good old boy from rural Missouri and my constituents are all these rural people. And they don't buy into it at all.

Another story about Hawley and his relationship to Lexington and its residents is here.  

Friday, February 19, 2021

Rurality in "Ted Lasso" series

I just finished watching Season 1 of "Ted Lasso" with my family.  We started it a few weeks ago and paced ourselves.  (Ok, maybe we didn't really pace ourselves given that we watched the last three episodes tonight).  I'm motivated to write about the show now because in the third from last episode, a British soccer fan called Ted Lasso a "hillbilly."  As you will gather, Lasso is the central character in the series, and in case you haven't seen it, let me explain that Lasso was a coach of American football (the Wichita State Shockers) who is recruited to coach the AFC Richmond soccer team, in southwest London.  

This moniker, used as an insult, led me to contemplate on what basis Lasso could be considered a "hillbilly"?  And the only basis I can think of is a broad definition of middle America, including Kansas, as a land of hillbillies.  Perhaps it is a synonym for "red neck."  But it still rings odd to me given that  Kansas is not known for its hills (let alone mountains).  

Other cultural references in "Ted Lasso" to that broad swath of middle America sometimes called the "flyover" states include Willie Nelson and the Marlboro Man.  There's also a more specific reference to a Kansas institution, the Westboro Baptist Church. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Oak Flat mine project looms in Arizona despite Apache legal efforts

On Friday February 12, a federal judge ruled against an Apache activist group ("Apache Stronghold") fighting to protect sacred Oak Flat lands in rural Arizona from development into a copper mine. Wendsler Nosie Sr., leader of Apache stronghold, has been advocating against the project for decades.

Thursday, before Judge Logan ruled against the motion, Apache Stronghold posted a statement.
[W]e have been saying that Oak Flat or Chi’chil Bildagoteel cannot be replaced, and that its destruction and the destruction of our religion cannot be mitigated…We need Chi’chil Bildagoteel to survive as it is so central to our religion as provided by the Creator.
Located about an hour east of Phoenix, the Oak Flat area is in the Tonto National Forest. It is widely loved for its camping and trails, but to the Apache people the connection is deeper. To the tribe, the land is ‘Chi’chil Bildagoteel’ and it has been sacred for years. Both the Apaches and other Native American tribes have used the land for burials, ceremonies, and other culturally significant traditions for generations.

Nosie’s granddaughter, Naelyn Pike, had her Sunrise Ceremony on the land. This tradition is a rite of passage for young Apache women. The copper mine would prevent the continuation of this ceremony. Pike has spoken fervently against the mine.
“How can we practice our ceremonies at Oak Flat when it is destroyed?,” Pike asked. “How will the future Apache girls and boys know what it is to be Apache, to know our home when it is gone?”
The mine proposed would be one of the largest copper mines in the country, and the estimated impact would be devastating to the area. Estimated impacts of the mine predict a two-mile wide, 1,000 ft deep crater in the Oak Flat area as a result of Resolution Copper’s practices. 

Oak Flat, located in Pinal County, is closest to Superior, Arizona (population est. 3,178 in 2019 according to the U.S. Census). The mine has also raised concerns with water use. Massive groundwater pumping could drain the regional aquifer, and place disproportionate environmental harms on rural and indigenous communities.

In 2014, as part of the obligatory 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, a midnight rider was added by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. It included a land transfer: the 2,422-acre Oak Flat area was to be transferred from the National Forest to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,300 acres in private lands owned by the mining giant.

In Trump’s final days in office, the Forest Service published a final environmental impact statement almost a year ahead of schedule. This initiated a 60-day countdown for the land swap and created the impending March 16 transfer date.

Last Friday, Judge Steven Logan (an Obama-appointee) denied the Apache Stronghold's motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent the transfer and held that the group did not show that it was likely to prevail on its claims. Because Apache Stronghold was not a federally recognized tribe, the court found that the group did not have standing. The court rejected the argument that the land was reserved to the Apaches pursuant to an 1852 treaty. 
Even read liberally, Logan said “the court cannot infer an enforceable trust duty as to any individual Indians.”
Despite the loss on the injunctive motion, the case may still go to trial. In addition to Apache Stronghold’s pending suit to block the project, the San Carlos Apache Tribe filed its own suit against the mine, and a third suit was filed by a coalition of Native American and conservation groups.

The result of this upcoming litigation is unclear, but it is less hopeful after Judge Logan's recent decision. For more readings on the blog regarding environmental justice and native lands, check here, and here (discusses Biden Admin's prioritization of environmental justice).

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The enigmatic monoliths bringing people outside

The stay-at-home and social distancing orders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have brought new found hobbies to many, from sourdough baking to watercolor painting. For some, the discovery of mysterious monoliths throughout the world provided the perfect starting point for a wave of outdoor, sculpture hunting hobbyists.

The monolith movement sweeping across the globe began in November 2020. Wildlife biologists, while surveying vast deserts in Utah, discovered a never-before-seen metal sculpture deep within a canyon on vast, untouched land. Dubbed a monolith by the Utah Department of Public Safety, an image of the rectangular pillar was posted online without an exact location. Intrigued by the mysterious object, particularly its similarity to the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, many individuals set out on a hunt for the monolith in the Utah desert.

Within days, someone managed to locate the monolith and subsequently send out the GPS coordinates for others to do the same. This treasure hunt seemed harmless enough: one could drive out to a remote Utah location, with little risk of viral spread, to view a sculpture with an unknown origin. People enjoyed speculating on the mysterious arrival of the monolith and visiting the object together, with one hiker describing it as a “positive escape from today’s world.” However, as the hunt for the monolith grew, it sparked concerns.

The beloved Utah monolith vanished one night about two weeks after it was discovered. The individuals responsible for its removal eventually came forward, revealing their reasons:
We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources, and human impacts upon them. The mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here— we are losing our public lands— things like this don’t help.
The monolith removers went on to emphasize the trash and human feces left in the desert surrounding the monolith, along with the use of vehicles across the unpaved landscape. Although the removers faced backlash online, their actions raised important issues concerning public land in the United States.

The Utah monolith existed on land that was part of the Bears Ears National Monument until 2017, when former President Trump reduced the national monument land by 85%. Public lands were particularly targeted during the Trump administration, with development valued over environmental and indigenous land preservation. As public lands, especially in the West, are reduced by the government, individuals pose a threat to the destruction of the remaining lands.

The sudden flock of humans to the outdoors is further evidenced in various corners of the nation. A blog post last week highlighted the consequences of re-opening a California state beach to recreational drivers after endangered birds expanded their habitat while visitors were away. Similarly, trees in Joshua Tree National Park were vandalized during the government shutdown at the beginning of 2019. Consumption of rural public lands was discussed further in blog posts here and here.

Even though the Utah monolith is gone, its legacy lives on. Since November 2020, more than one hundred and ninety monoliths emulating the original one in Utah have sprung up internationally, with the most recent monolith discovered in rural Turkey last week. Some of the monoliths, like the one in Utah, appeared in rural and remote areas where a human footprint was small. Yet others arose in easily accessible cityscapes. And much like the Utah monolith, many have disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

We may never know how the Utah monolith arrived, whether it was placed by aliens or is the work of an unacknowledged artist, but its continued emulation serves as a reminder of the fragility of the natural environment and the importance of its continued protection.

Florida breach signals why state and local cybersecurity infrastructure matters

Many infrastructure and national security experts, and most likely your organization’s IT department, have long warned about growing cybersecurity risks (see the New York Times reporter David Sanger’s 2018 book and Brookings podcast). Last December, cyber experts discovered the SolarWinds operation, uncovering a massive, sophisticated hack by Russian spies that targeted the U.S. federal government and affected 18,000 computer networks. Shortly after, President Biden committed to making cybersecurity a top priority.

Generally, only the more sensational cyber breaches implicating national security, like SolarWinds, or those resulting in expensive losses, make headlines. Other infrastructure breaches do not always capture the same attention, which is one reason the story surrounding the breach of a water treatment plant in Oldsmar, Florida is so noteworthy. This event shows the significant risks associated with weak state and local cyber infrastructure and suggests Washington shouldn’t be the only level of government concerned about cybersecurity. 

On February 9, hackers remotely accessed a major water treatment plant in Oldsmar, FL and manipulated the level of sodium hydroxide — “you’re basically talking about lye” — to unsafe levels that would have seriously sickened residents. Fortunately, an employee realized in the nick of time that an external force was controlling his computer, and no one was harmed. 

Oldsmar, a town of 15,000 and a suburb of Tampa, is not a rural area according to the USDA. However, this incident shines light on threats posed by weak cybersecurity infrastructures across geographies, including in rural areas. As the New York Times reported: 

“[Smaller systems] are the targets we worry about,” said Eric Chien, a security researcher at Symantec. “This is a small municipality that is likely small-budgeted and under-resourced, which purposely set up remote access so employees and outside contractors can remote in.”

Cybersecurity experts like to divide the world into two categories: those who have been hacked, and those who have been hacked but don’t know it. 

This is a fascinating feature of cyber-attacks. Hackers do not always target the deepest pockets. Malware technology enables hackers to go indiscriminately after a wide swath of devices at once via phishing or ransomware, enabling hackers to get smaller amounts of money from lots of different sources. Some ways hackers make a profit include holding data at ransom, selling huge quantities of personal identifiable information for tiny amounts on the dark web, or adding an innocuous line item on a credit card statement. 

Hackers frequently target weak security systems like small businesses, local governments, or independent medical providers and clinics. For example, in 2019, 23 town governments in Texas were hit by a coordinated hack. Also that year, non-metro Archuleta County in southwest Colorado was hacked and a $300k ransom was demanded. This kept the network down for weeks with a various costs. The county purchased more laptops and technical equipment, personnel spent weeks manually inputting records, and law enforcement operations were reduced. 

Additionally, some experts say that the pandemic has led to increased attacks because of our national reliance on digital infrastructure. Covid has underscored cybersecurity gaps in the education system. A December 2020 FBI report notes a significant increase in attacks on schools

In August and September, 57% of ransomware incidents reported . . . involved K-12 schools, compared to 28% of all reported ransomware incidents from January through July.

These examples (hacks on schools, water systems, and medical centers) are not specific to rural communities, but they do show that cybersecurity is very much a rural threat too. Authorities have not identified the culprit of the Oldsmar breach yet. Frankly, it sounds a little alarmist to think that a foreign adversary might be hacking a water system, but maybe not. Regardless of who the hacker is, however, incidents like the one in Florida give more credence to the warnings of cybersecurity Cassandras.

As previously discussed on this blog and in Prof. Lisa Pruitt's op-ed, increasing access to broadband should be an immediate priority for American policymakers. Accessing the internet implicates cybersecurity interests because users, whether they be individuals, local governments, or public utilities, rely on secure access. As policymakers consider proposals to expand broadband, breaches like the one in Florida or Archuleta County suggest it is not worth skimping on cybersecurity measures.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The right to water in the San Joaquin Valley

It has been widely reported by the news and by Governor Newsom that over one million Californians do not have access to clean drinking water in their homes. The good news is that the state has taken serious legislative action to address the issue over the past decade. Beginning in 2012, California became the first state to recognize a human right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water. At that time, the state was in the middle of a drought that would ultimately be its driest three consecutive years on record. As everyone in the state was called on to use less water, divisions grew about its proper allocation. Indeed, the San Joaquin Valley remains starkly divided on the issue: potable water is primarily diverted to agricultural use while many of its residents and labor force still lack safe drinking water. Within the Valley, those living in unincorporated communities are the most vulnerable to this public health crisis.

A recent article from the Hastings Environmental Law Journal notes:

The majority of those [one million] Californians [lacking safe drinking water] are Latinx and live in disadvantaged unincorporated communities (DUCs) throughout the state’s rural agricultural belts. The greatest number of noncompliant public water systems is located in the San Joaquin Valley, where approximately forty percent of DUCs with noncompliant systems are located within a mile of a city’s borders, while one-third are too far from a city’s borders to extend drinking water service. These dire spatial and racial inequalities suggest that California must explore new strategies to augment current efforts to implement the human right to water.

Unincorporated communities are residences located outside any municipality. They can be directly adjacent to one or miles away, as stated in the quote above.  Unincorporated in the rural context has been discussed before in this blog here. Their proximity to towns aside, these communities are often disconnected from public water systems that could provide safe drinking water, and they are left to their own devices to figure out their water needs. Historically, these communities have relied on groundwater basins, which have become polluted after decades of chemicals from pesticides and fertilizer seeping into the ground, as discussed here.

To address this issue, the California legislature enacted a plan to consolidate these communities with compliant water districts. The protocol calls for the State to identify noncompliant systems in unincorporated areas for consolidation, encourage the nearby compliant water system to consolidate voluntarily, and if unsuccessful, make consolidation mandatory. According to the state, nineteen systems have received notices asking to consolidate voluntarily. Two actions have ceased because they did not involve disadvantaged communities. Eight resolved to voluntarily consolidate; one is completed. Four mandatory orders have been issued; one is completed.

At this rate, the problem likely will not be fixed any time soon for the thousands of San Joaquin Valley residents in unincorporated communities. Furthermore, the Hastings article points out that the plan is targeting communities in close proximity to existing water systems. There has not been any progress for remote unincorporated communities in the Valley.

This short documentary follows the community of Tooleville’s effort to join the town of Exeter’s water system. Being unincorporated, Tooleville’s 80 homes do not have clean water, and the community has suffered because of it. Despite residents pleading with Exeter city council, and the state offering them $10 million interest-free loan as an incentive, Exeter refuses to consolidate voluntarily.

A lack of trust between the parties appears to flow upstream: Tooleville does not trust Exeter to extend their services willingly, and Exeter does not trust the state to fulfill their promises to subsidize and maintain the expansion. There is also an underlying racial tension in the meetings between Tooleville’s Latinx, Spanish-speaking residents and the white council. One Tooleville resident read a prepared statement in Spanish, but nobody translated her message to the city. Then, a man from the city took the Tooleville residents outside and made empty promises to their representative. Between the meeting not having a translator and a man making off-the-record statements, there was ultimately no reason to hold the meeting in the first place.

Although the state’s plan is fairly new, it’s become clear that it is not effectively fulfilling the promise that people have a right to safe drinking water. After five years, only two systems have consolidated, and they were bordering. More funding or a new strategy will be needed to expedite the process, especially for the remote communities that remain a blindspot to the state.


Amazon’s newest home in rural California

A new Woodland Daily Democrat article highlights Amazon’s venture to open a 75,000-square-foot fulfillment center outside of Orland, California. This is a large enterprise for rural Glenn County, which has a little over 28,000 residents and is designated as nonmetro by the USDA.

Residents and business leaders are hopeful that the new business center, located in unincorporated Glenn County, will boost the local economy and bring much-needed jobs. Although the City of Orland will not benefit from any direct taxes, the potential ripple effect from the influx of employees in the area could still help the city’s economy, with an anticipated increase in spending at local restaurants and more housing projects for the new Amazon employees.

Young residents are also looking forward to the job opportunities; the article notes that one high school student “said the idea of unloading and moving packages inside an Amazon facility would be a better job than the farm and construction work he’s been doing for comparable pay.” This student’s answer struck me in particular, as it hints at a shift in the younger generation's appeal from the rural agriculture background that envelops Glenn County to the corporate world that seems so unfamiliar to many rural communities.

Still, some residents have voiced concern about the secrecy surrounding the project. There have not been many opportunities for public comment, and the Board of Supervisors authorized a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon. Unfortunately, depending on when the facility opens, residents may not have much time to learn more about the project—although Amazon stated the location would open within the next year, Glenn County officials stated the opening could happen in the next 60 to 90 days. Some see this secrecy and expediency as evidence of the “imbalance of power between big companies and small communities.” Stacy Mitchell, who is part of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a national organization focused on helping local communities stand-up to large corporations, stated:
There is a huge asymmetry between the personnel and expertise and strategy and knowledge on the side of Amazon, versus any of the local communities, especially small ones, that are on the receiving end of the strategy… Instead of bargaining with the knowledge of the full worth and value of the community, they’re going in with a subordinate, subservient posture towards the developers and the corporations.
This is not the first time that large companies have decided to settle in small communities. Due to the increase in online shopping, companies are moving to unexpected rural areas to keep up with distribution, as many of these communities are located close to highway systems that can connect companies to a greater number of people. For example, California’s Central Valley has become a hotspot for fulfillment centers for companies like Costco, Safeway, FedEx, and Amazon. The Central Valley is close to the Bay Area and is home to many of the state's major roadways. Additionally, just north of Orland off of I5 in Red Bluff is a Walmart distribution center. Tehama County, where Red Bluff is located, has around 65,000 residents and is also a USDA designated nonmetro county. The Tehama County Economic Development department has designated the distribution center as one of the county's leading employers. Further, in 2020, Walmart's property taxes for the City of Red Bluff were over $28 million, which is a large increase from the $10.2 million they paid just nine years earlier.

One example of a rural state with a large distribution center is Alabama, where an Amazon warehouse is making headlines this week because employees are voting on whether to become the first unionized Amazon warehouse. These rural areas and states are not places one ordinarily imagines massive corporate fulfillment centers to be located. Yet, they are slowly becoming a more conventional part of rural communities because companies like Amazon and Walmart can use their capital and resources, which are largely absent in these communities, to bargain their way into rural America. While these centers do provide additional jobs and taxes, these large corporations will likely always have the upper hand.

Though the demand for these fulfillment or distribution centers has increased, companies are still not moving their headquarters to rural America. This blog discusses Amazon’s decision to locate HQ2 in Virginia and why companies stray from placing major headquarters in rural areas. Some reasons for avoiding rural communities or states include problems with broadband Internet and concerns with recruiting the best employees. Though a company’s headquarters could serve as a large economic stimulator for rural areas, as the blog points out, companies are looking for “superstar employees” coming from “superstar cities,” and do not see rural communities as capable of supplying them. Instead, companies have increasingly relied on the human capital in rural areas for distribution centers.

Companies may view these fulfillment or distribution centers in rural areas as more feasible for rural populations, which are seeing fewer students attending college and high unemployment rates. As stated in the Woodland Daily Democrat piece, not only is unemployment in Glenn County “consistently among the highest in the state,” starting wages in the facility will be at Amazon’s national minimum wage of $15/hour. Thus, fulfillment centers, while not recruiting from “superstar cities,” can hire employees in communities with high unemployment rates and low college attendance rates.

I am interested in seeing how this fulfillment center unfolds in Glenn County. I will continue to research the various attitudes toward the center and its impact on the local economy. I hope the center will alleviate the economic distress the pandemic has caused this small community.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXIV): Rural seniors struggle to receive COVID-19 vaccine

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, those aged 65 and older have been given priority to receive the vaccine as a result of their increased risk of both developing severe COVID-19 symptoms and requiring hospitalization. However, this process has been easier said than done.

Although, individuals aged 65 and older qualify to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, in many states such as Massachusetts, California, Tennessee, and others, some elderly residents have passed on the opportunity to get vaccinated. Some cite fear of the newly created vaccine and its potential side effects, while others’ hesitancy stems from misinformation that has surrounded the vaccine, as discussed in more detail here.

While some decline receiving the vaccine, others are desperate for their turn to arrive. As discussed in this blog entry, the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has been difficult for a variety of reasons, including, among other things, its unique temperature requirement, lack of appropriate storage, and batch quantities. However, this rollout has proven even more difficult for elderly residents in rural areas, given some of the obstacles they face, such as a lack of access to transportation and internet.

First, the method for signing up to obtain a vaccine can be quite complicated for an older person to navigate, given that many counties and states have asked individuals to request an appointment via the internet. Thus, in order for elderly residents to request an appointment, they need to have internet access and be sufficiently tech-savvy to work their way around the state/county’s website.

This presents a problem considering that 16.5% or roughly 9.5 million seniors, many of these in rural areas, lack internet access. More information regarding the broadband gap can be found here. To make matters more difficult, the process for obtaining an appointment can be complicated. Getting an appointment often requires “fast fingers, constant website refreshing, printing out confirmations, or access to a smartphone for text alerts.”

In an effort to address some of these concerns, some counties have gotten creative. Knowing that seniors tend to be more comfortable with using the telephone as opposed to the internet, county officials in Morgantown, West Virginia put up a “large road construction sign” with the number seniors could call and request an appointment. However, this hasn’t helped the fact that many seniors, especially those in rural areas, are unable to travel to the vaccination hubs due to a lack of transportation.

Seniors in rural areas face the additional obstacle of transportation. Unlike their urban counterparts, rural seniors often “live far away from major chain pharmacies like CVC and RiteAid, and may not have…a means of transportation.” This, taken in conjunction with the fact that rural areas have a larger population of elderly residents, paints a grim picture for those seniors in rural areas trying to get the vaccine.

In addition to the unique struggles that the senior population faces, they are still subject to the same issues affecting the nationwide vaccine rollout. The high demand for the vaccine contrasted with the low number of doses, leaves seniors competing with each other to receive a vaccine. The process may be tricky to navigate and many seniors may require the assistance of family and/or friends if they hope to get vaccinated.

The challenge that seniors are encountering trying to get vaccinated has led to frustration and, as a result, some seniors have abandoned all efforts to get vaccinated in the near future. Some seniors have complained that the process is not only difficult but competitive. Many seniors have resorted to forming lines outside clinics or pharmacies hoping to gain some information about when and how they can make an appointment.

In sum, the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has led to a number of problems for rural seniors. In addition to the supply shortages, seniors in rural areas have the added burden of navigating the appointment process which is not only competitive, but also requires access to both internet and transportation. Something that can be scarce in rural America. Given the numerous obstacles, it is no wonder that many seniors in rural America have given up hopes of getting vaccinated any time soon.

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Salton Sea: California’s accidental inland sea is both an environmental and public health crisis

The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California and sits at 227 feet below sea level. It was accidentally formed in a dry lakebed in 1905 when an engineering mistake led to the Colorado River breaching canal gates and flooding the area. The water flowing uncontrolled into the valley was finally stopped in 1907–– leaving the Salton Sea about 45 miles by 20 miles wide.

In the 1950s and 1960s the area became a resort destination, and vacation communities sprung up around it such as Bombay Beach. People were able to boat and fish on the lake. It was also a major stop for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.

By the 1980s, it became clear that farm runoff of chemicals and nitrates into the sea was creating issues. Both the farm chemicals and salt leaching out of the soil raised the salinity of the lake and led to algae blooms. There were massive die-offs of birds and several species of fish in the sea. The lake also began to recede as less agricultural water was channeled into it. 

As the lake shrank, the salinity increased, making it saltier than the ocean. Many of the resorts and tourism infrastructure around the lake was abandoned. It is considered to be one of the largest environmental disasters in California’s history.

The Salton Sea is home to several small communities. These include Salton City, a census-designated place with a population of about 5,600, and Bombay Beach which is home to about 415 people. These communities have a significant number of trailers, vacant lots, and abandoned residences, leading to them to be referred to as “modern ruins.” 

However, while many buildings are in disrepair, the small Salton Sea communities are also home to a vibrant art community that includes Salvation Mountain, East Jesus, and Bombay Beach Literary Week.

The air quality in Salton City is often dangerous. Dust blown up from the dry parts of the lakebed contains “a century’s worth of agricultural runoff, including DDT, ammonia, possibly carcinogenic herbicides like trifluralin and other chemicals.” Many nearby communities where Latinx residents live receive the largest impact.

California signed an agreement in 2003 committing to mitigating the health and environmental impacts of the receding lake. The high water mark has fallen and the salinity continues to rise, but little mitigation has been done. Necessary projects include tamping down the dust and rebuilding wetland habitats. According to High Country News, “By late 2020, the California Natural Resources Agency had completed one dust-suppression project covering a mere 112 acres; the goal for the end of that year was 3,800 acres.”

As a result of the dust and chemicals, there are high rates of respiratory illness in the area, making it an urgent public health crisis as well as an environmental one. 

 Much of the previous research into poor air quality and its impacts has been done in cities. Many people may assume poor air quality is primarily a metro issue, coming from smog formed by industrial and vehicle pollution. However, the air quality issues faced by the residents around the Salton Sea make clear that it is a rural and racial justice issue as well. 

A team at USC wants to understand what is contributing to poor air quality in rural areas like the Imperial Valley, where the Salton Sea is located. They hope to collaborate with the community to understand the health impacts and identify approaches to raise awareness and provide tools that help the community protect itself.

The Salton Sea has been neglected, perhaps because it is mostly poor, rural residents who suffer the impact. Lawmakers like Rep. Raul Ruiz are calling on California and the federal government to recommit to efforts to resolve the twin environmental and public health crises caused by this ongoing neglect.

The broadband gap

A common complaint amongst rural Americans is the disparity in upkeep that urban roads receive relative to rural roads. And it's not just roads; other infrastructure systems are also relatively lacking. Wastewater systems are less prevalent in rural communities than in urban ones, and the rural systems often receive less maintenance. The most important infrastructure gap, however, might be internet access.

Nearly a quarter of rural Americans describe access to high-speed internet as a "major problem." Rural Americans are 16% less likely to have broadband internet in their home than their suburban counterparts. These discrepancies in access to the internet may be a contributing factor to rural America's stuttering economy.

The pandemic has shown that increasing internet access can have unforeseen positive side effects. For some rural American families, virtual schooling has been more arduous than in-person schooling due to poor or nonexistent internet connections. Having a stable internet connection would have provided these families with the ability to quarantine without disrupting their children's education.

Additionally, there are likely many employers who have noticed that they could save money by having their employees work from home rather than an office space. Having an internet connection thus opens you up to a host of employment options that were previously unforeseen. I doubt we have seen the entirety of what the internet is capable of yet, so it's time to make a real effort to put the power of the internet into every American's hands.

Obviously, the internet is of no use to someone who owns no devices that can connect to it. Rural Americans are about 12% less likely to own a smart phone or a laptop than suburban Americans. Additionally, rural families are less likely to own multiple devices that can connect to the internet, which limits the number of family members that can use the internet at any one time.

Solving the hardware gap is a little trickier than increasing internet access. Expenditures on broadband can be justified as infrastructure building, whereas buying laptops and smart phones for certain impoverished Americans will be seen as a form of welfare. This doesn't mean that the hardware gap can't be solved legislatively, but it will likely be a tougher battle.

The hardware gap may have to be solved indirectly, by focusing on reducing poverty (especially within rural communities) and strengthening the economy. Hopefully the broadband gap will be addressed more directly.

President Joe Biden has promised to expand wireless broadband, via 5G, to every American. I hope President Biden is able to keep this promise and give rural Americans the plethora of advantages that the internet has already given us urban folk.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXIII): the impact in rural California

Phillip Reese reports for Kaiser Health News under the headline, "California’s Rural Counties Endure a Deadly Covid Winter."  Here's an excerpt: 

Covid-19’s fierce winter resurgence in California is notable not only for the explosion in overall cases and deaths in the state’s sprawling urban centers. This latest surge spilled across a far greater geographic footprint, scarring remote corners of the state that went largely unscathed for much of 2020. (emphasis added; I thought the verb choice was noteworthy)

In the past two months, covid-related infection and death rates have jumped exponentially in California’s least populated counties.

* * *

For months, residents of the state’s remotest counties were able to move about more freely — and with less fear — than their urban peers. The covid death rate in the state’s 25 least populated counties was 90% lower from March through June than the rate in the rest of the state.

That began to shift in summer and changed dramatically during a third covid surge that exploded in late fall. In December, the 25 least populous counties collectively reported about 24,600 new covid infections — a 141% increase from November. In December, the death rate in those 25 counties roughly matched the rate in the state’s urban centers.
The rural death rate plateaued in January while the urban death rate continued to swell. Even so, the rural death rate in January was more than six times as high as in November.

The part of this story about how the virus spreads in rural communities is of particular interest to me because it reflects both the lack of anonymity in rural communities, the importance of ecotourism, and the related embeddedness of rural with urban. 

Epidemiologists point to several reasons for the shift. While these counties are remote, they are not walled off. Many rural residents regularly drive to urban areas for goods and services. They get tourists. Several of California’s rural counties are home to large state prisons, teeming facilities that have experienced some of the worst covid outbreaks in the nation. Those outbreaks infect not only inmates housed in close quarters, but also guards and other staffers who live and shop in the surrounding communities and carry the virus out with them.

Reese quotes Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association:   

“In very small towns, you’ve got Dollar General, the coffee store, Walmart, church. ...You get the entire community going into three or four chokepoints, you’re going to infect the whole town.
The story is accompanied by great maps; don't miss them! Also, lots of details here about rural demographics and the struggle of rural health care providers.  

Postscript:  Here's Hailey Branson-Potts' latest for the Los Angeles Times on a family in Corning, California who all contracted COVID-19.  The headline is, "For a rural family, COVID-19 felt like a distant threat. Until it devastated them." 

Rural legal scholarship: "On Shared Suffering: Judicial Intimacy in the Rural Northland"

Quoting here from Law and Society Association's Press Release about the lead article in Volume 55, Issue 1 of the Law and Society Review.  The article is by Michele Statz of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth:   

Drawing from four years of ethnographic fieldwork, Professor Statz’s study places its readers inside the “Northland” courtrooms of rural Wisconsin and Minnesota. Her research displays the intimate relationship that judges from these communities share with their litigants and demonstrates the hardships endured by both judges and their litigants due to the consequences of rural “legal deserts,” absent health and social services, and depressed local economies.

Judges from these areas uniquely offer space, clarity and support for their litigants because available civil access to justice initiatives largely fail these rural communities. This occurs within the courtroom but also beyond it, namely via informal, creative and often very productive collaborations between tribal and state court judges. Statz’s fieldwork systematically considers the social and emotional toll that these efforts hold over the judges themselves in providing access to justice for their litigants.

“Through collaborative long-term research, my work explores the often overlooked efforts of rural judges and the broader context in which they work,” noted Statz. “As I show in the article, this context is incredibly complicated—one in which tribal and state court judges navigate rural lawyer shortages, under-resourced infrastructure and prevailing (but rurally-irrelevant) access to justice initiatives. The meaningful, intimate form of "access" that judges offer in response deserves careful attention—but so also does the heartbreaking toll of these efforts on judges themselves.”

Statz, an Assistant Professor for the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota and affiliated faculty with the University of Minnesota Law School, is an anthropologist of law specializing in rural access to justice. Her scholarship examines how socio-spatial dimensions of rurality influence legal advocacy, rights mobilization, and individual and community health.

Her article describes the tough decisions that rural judges in these tight-knit communities are burdened with, since their cases often feature individuals with civil legal needs or criminal defendants who they know on a personal level. They commonly see their litigants in local social settings like children’s sporting events, ceremony or church, grocery stores, or even in line at the local cinema. Many of these litigants are living in poverty and are frequently forced to represent themselves in court, due to the limited availability of reduced-fee legal services, which seldomly exists in rural places. These litigants are often the victims of state and federal neoliberal labor market reforms that leave affordable legal services out of reach.

In rural communities around the U.S., nearly 10,000,000 Americans live well below the federal poverty line, and three-quarters of these face at least one civil legal problem in a year. However, only 14 percent of rural residents—a rate less than half the national average—receive adequate assistance for civil legal problems. In Wisconsin, for instance, rural criminal defendants may wait up to four months before receiving a public defender, due to low salaries provided for court-appointed attorneys and a shortage of rural lawyers in these geographic areas.

These factors contribute to the inequality in civil legal aid services that are available in these regions—many of which require rural telecommunication and digital infrastructure. In Minnesota, for example, recent access to justice initiatives have included self-help forms, helplines and online advice systems that many of these low-income rural residents render as “barriers to justice.” These legal services typically fail to acknowledge limited or absent rural digital infrastructure—let alone the fact that many low-income residents simply cannot afford smart phones, personal computers and/or reliable transportation. As a result of these limitations, coupled with the high-density and social acquaintanceship characteristics of these rural communities, Statz finds, “what makes a rural courtroom accessible is the judge.”

The complex needs of these low-income residents largely remain unaddressed, given the spatial isolation, economically unstable conditions and local social services networks that are too widely dispersed to be implemented. Judges from these areas also experience the complex socio-spatial and legal needs of these low-income pro se litigants and are compelled to provide more leeway, support and clarity in the courtrooms.

As Statz puts it, “It means that many judges effectively self-identify not only as decision-makers, but as the eventual, if not only, source of respect, time, and ultimately, access for a growing wave of pro se litigants whom they often already know.” Similar to their litigants, Statz indicates that the judges also endure profound social and emotional trauma from the lack of resources dismally available across these rural communities.

Statz’s research is comprised of interviews conducted with low-income Northland residents, attorneys, and judges. In conducting her fieldwork, Statz was surprised to discover many rural judges wanted to discuss the substantial toll of the negotiations regarding judicial and administrative requirements, litigants’ needs and expectations and diminishing or tenuous funding. She finds that rural tribal and state court judges not only regularly encounter the complex socio-spatial and legal needs of low-income litigants but also live (and in a sense, endure) this complicated context themselves. She concludes that active judging of rural judges is uniquely inflected by place, which deserves further attention.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Nuclear waste in rural communities & the demise of Yucca Mountain

In 2020, President Trump signaled he had switched his position on the hot-button issue of whether to establish a permanent nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. In a uncommon turn of events given today’s polarized political landscape, Trump’s decision to abort the Yucca Mountain plan aligned with then-candidate Biden’s view. The termination of the plan caps more than three decades of contentious debate on the topic and illustrates how nuclear waste issues especially affect rural and indigenous communities. 

In 1987, Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the most recent federal legislation on the issue to-date. The legislation named Yucca Mountain as the sole repository for disposal of the country's used nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive wastes. As a general matter, storage of nuclear materials is usually quite safe. However, storage systems are subject to “leaks, failures, and attack,” which can lead to significant environmental, economic, and public safety issues. So, it is unsurprising that the Yucca Mountain proposal faced swift backlash from local groups and Nevada lawmakers that persisted for decades. 

Yucca Mountain is located on federal lands in Nye County, Nevada, a rural county according to the USDA. Opponents of the project cited technical and logistical issues, including how to transport waste and other engineering problems. In addition, the native Western Shoshone tribe objected to the project, expressing concerns about dumping waste on sacred lands as well as long-term safety concerns. 

The Las Vegas Sun reported on protests against the project in 2019 and interviewed Ian Zabarte, Principal Man for the Western Shoshone Nation. 

“Our land’s bleeding,” Zabarte said . . . . Zabarte worries about the long-term commitment of the federal government to keeping Yucca safe—and if nuclear waste is stored there, it would require a long-term commitment.

Last week, President Biden’s energy secretary nominee confirmed the Biden administration's opposition to the Yucca Mountain project. Without any political momentum, the Yucca Mountain project is effectively dead. 

Yet, the issue of where to put nuclear waste is very much alive, and the current problem of managing radioactive nuclear waste remains overwhelmingly rural. No one wants radioactive waste in their backyard. NPR reports, “No state seems to want it. So instead, dozens of states are stuck with it.” 

Getting stuck with radioactive waste is not the result of just drawing the short straw though. In 1992, in New York v. United States, the Supreme Court held that coercive federal incentives to encourage states to take on radioactive waste exceeded Congress’s Commerce Clause power. Put differently, Congress could not commandeer states to take nuclear waste, but many other incentives are still permitted. These other tools include tax revenues, jobs, and long-term stable income. An earlier post in this blog noted that some rural communities opt to have a nuclear waste sites because of the economic incentives, in the same way rural town might compete for the site of a new prison and the jobs it provides. 

Allegany and Cortland counties in western New York, the subjects of New York v. United States, are both rural counties. Many other commercial and federal radioactive waste sites are also in rural locations, depicted in the Department of Energy map below. 

Now, a new nuclear waste repository project proposed for outside Carlsbad, New Mexico raises familiar problems. NPR reports one local resident’s feedback.

"Why should we be the ones to take this negative project on and put up with the consequences?" says Rose Gardner, a florist who lives 35 miles from the proposed site. "We didn't get any of the nuclear generated electricity. We're not even involved."

The project is still pending approval from federal regulators, but other locals are supportive of the project because of the economic growth it promises. The Carlsbad Current-Argus estimates 150 jobs will be created for a support facility, in addition to employment at the repository itself. 

So, the cycle seems to be repeating itself, and with a record number of nuclear power plant closures  slated for 2021, the question about what to do with radioactive materials from those sites only looms larger. One atomic energy expert recommends the urgent appointment of a senior negotiator or czar to facilitate federal, local, and tribal negotiations. Maybe this would be a good start. 

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXII): Folk music traditions being lost in the Ozarks because musicians can't get together

Jennifer Moore reports for the New York Times today out of McClurg, Missouri in the Missouri, Ozarks.  Here's an excerpt: 

In an abandoned general store along a nearly deserted country road, Alvie Dooms, 90, and Gordon McCann, 89, played rhythm guitar. Nearly a dozen more musicians, many of them also older adults, joined in on fiddle, mandolin, banjo and upright bass. Their tunes had names like “Last Train Home,” “Pig Ankle Rag” and “Arkansas Traveler.”

The old-time dance music — merry and sweet, or slower and wistful — evoked the lively jigs and reels of the Scots-Irish pioneers who settled in these rugged hills generations ago. A precursor to bluegrass, their sound was unique to this particular corner of Missouri.

The McClurg jam, as the Monday night music and potluck fest was known, endured for decades, the last gathering of its kind in the rural Ozarks. But the coronavirus pandemic has silenced the instruments, at least temporarily. And the suspension has led to worry: What will become of this singular musical tradition?

McClurg is not even a Census Designated Place and no population is provided on wikipedia, which does note that it is part of the Branson Micropolitan Statistical Area.  McClurg is in far northeastern Taney County, population 51,000.  That happens to be where "Winter's Bone," the 2010 indie breakout film took place, and I was reminded of that film when reading this story because the film featured a music party or jam of the sort featured in this story.  Read more about "Winter's Bone" in myriad posts here.  Another story about the importance of old-time music --including its importance to rural economies--is here. A related story out of Mountain View, Arkansas, also in the Ozarks, is here

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Accentuating the rural in the Secretary of Transportation's job

A few weeks ago, Pete Buttigieg appeared before the Senate for hearings on his nomination to be the Biden administration's Secretary of Transportation, and yesterday he was confirmed for that role by a vote of 86-13.  This nomination and confirmation have been most discussed because Buttigieg is the first openly LGBTQ cabinet member in U.S. history--and that is pretty remarkable.   

Twitter thread on 
Senator Tester's 
comments re: Buttigieg 
nomination and
confirmation as
of Transportation

But there are ruralist reasons to focus on this nomination.  I think that when most people think of the Department of Transportation, they are thinking of airports and train stations--think of the film "planes, trains [but less] automobiles."  Most people are focused on transportation infrastructure that is visible to metropolitan folks--or to those driving across the country, e.g., interstate highways.  But transportation infrastructure is also critical to rural folks--especially roads and the links that rural folks enjoy to airports and rail.  Some representative stories are here and here.  

So I thought it was interesting that when Pete Buttigieg appeared on January 21, 2021 before the U.S. Senate, Jon Tester, the senior Senator from Montana, commented on what is at stake for rural residents when it comes to federal transportation policy.  

Here's a transcript of some of Tester's comments:

Your intellect has preceded you into the room. You have put on a clinic on how a nominee should work and act. You haven’t avoided the questions. You’ve been straightforward. And you know what the hell you’re talking about. And that’s really pretty damn refreshing. 
Infrastructure in rural America is as important as it is anywhere in the country. And making sure that rural America has access to the dollars, even though we don’t have as many people per square mile, is critically important – and let me give you an example: There’s a little highway that runs south of my farm. It’s about twenty miles long. It was built when I was in grade school and extended out when I was in high school. That little highway saves every farmer that lives out in my community, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars every year. Why? Less flat tires, front ends aren’t knocked out of align, less wear and tear on vehicles so you can run ‘em longer. That is why we need to make sure rural America is taken care of.
This part at the end is just so practical, so concrete that I can hear my father saying it.  He was always fretting about whether we were optimally taking care of our vehicles so that their lives were preserved.  The cost of new tires, of re-aligning a front end ... these are meaningful expenses for many rural Americans.  May sound little small potatoes for city folks, but that just shows their disconnectedness from rural livelihoods and rural household budgets.  

So who voted against Buttigieg?  lots of senators from lots states with significant rural populations:  Cotton (R-AR); Rubio (R-FL); Hawley (R-MO); Cruz (R-TX); Cassidy (R-LA); Blackburn (R-TN); Shelby (R-AL): Tuberville (R-AL); Scott (R-SC); Marshall (R-KS); Scott (R-FL); and Hagerty (R-TN).  Of course, regardless of the amount of rural territory, surely all of these senators have the ability to see how an intelligent technocratic Secretary of Transportation can be a benefit to their states.