Monday, March 29, 2021

The gun divide

Two recent mass shootings in America have propelled the issue of gun control back to the forefront of the zeitgeist. President Biden has called on Congress to implement a universal background-check requirement and an assault-rifle ban

Where do rural Americans stand on these gun control proposals? What motivates their views on gun-related issues?

It is no secret that rural Americans have differing views on guns than their urban or suburban counterparts. A Pew research poll from 2017, found that only 59% of urban gun-owners see the right to own guns as an "essential freedom," whereas 82% of rural gun-owners see this right as "essential." So even amongst rural and urban gun-owners there are differing cultural values.
The greater reverence that rural Americans have for the right to own guns has led to a rural-urban divide on views towards gun-control legislation. Only 46% of rural Americans believe we need stricter gun control laws, whereas 65% of urban Americans do. 

What causes this difference in opinion? I think some of this cultural divide can be explained by the difference in gun-ownership rates. Fifty-eight percent of rural Americans live in a household containing a gun, while only 29% of urban Americans live with a gun in their home. Thus an American born into a rural family is more likely to have grown with a gun-owning parent. This could have a cultural impact on rural Americans, who may see firearms as less terrifying than their urban counterparts due to that increased exposure to them.
Another reason rural Americans may not see stricter gun control measures as necessary, is due to the fact that gun violence affects urban Americans more. Urban counties produce five times the level of gun violence that rural counties experience. In addition, a recent study found that universal background checks produced a 13% decrease in firearm homicides in big cities, but had no discernible effect on firearm homicide rates in smaller localities.

Perhaps rural Americans don't see a need for stricter gun control laws because the effects of our current laws are felt most distinctly in the major cities. It's also unclear how much these gun control laws would reduce gun violence in rural communities, which could also lead to rural indifference towards them.

I discovered an interesting proposal to help solve this dilemma: let cities and rural areas pass different gun laws. There are obvious flaws with such an idea. The first being that urban Americans could just drive to the nearest "rural area" to circumvent their stricter urban gun laws. It's important to note that this flaw is present in our current system as well; since Americans can drive to neighboring states to circumvent gun laws.

Another concern is whether it'd be legal for a state to apply its laws differently to its own citizens depending on where they live. Arizona once attempted to pass a gun law that only applied to counties with populations greater than 500,000.  This law was then struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court, who ruled that the population requirement violated a provision in Arizona's state constitution that prohibits the  enactment of local laws concerning crimes or misdemeanors.

A statutory scheme that treats Americans differently based upon the population totals of their county of residence seems ripe for an equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus this proposal may be unconstitutional, and its merits needn't even be discussed.

Rural Americans often have a different set of experiences regarding firearms than urban Americans do, and these experiences may bleed into their opinions on gun control. This may necessitate gun laws that vary upon locality, or perhaps a federal approach that's more moderate to appease rural Americans. Or perhaps rural America's love for firearms is irrelevant when compared to the public health crisis that guns have created. Regardless, rural Americans have a reverence for firearms that needs to be addressed if you wish to change their mind on gun control.

The potential impact of the House's newly passed immigration bills in California

The House recently passed two immigration bills. The first, H.R. 6, The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 is aimed at Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. The recently passed bill would, among other things, create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

The House also passed H.R. 1603, the Farmworkers Modernization Act, which would allow farmworkers and their immediate family members to obtain permanent resident status if they remain working in the agriculture industry.

Although the bills are set to face an uphill battle in the Senate, it is important to note that if passed, these immigration bills could have a significant impact on California.

California is home to more than two million undocumented immigrants. This is “nearly a quarter of the nation’s undocumented immigrants.” More than half reside in counties like Orange, Los Angeles and Santa Clara. However, a sizable share of those undocumented immigrants lives in the Central Valley. It’s estimated that close to 70,000 live in Fresno county, another 37,000 live in Tulare county, 50,000 in San Joaquin county and the list continues. More on immigration in rural areas can be found here

Many of these undocumented immigrants have significant ties to the state. Not only are they working and studying in California (California has more than 200,000 DACA recipients), but they’re also getting married and having children. It is estimated that more than five million U.S. children have an undocumented parent.

So, what impact would these immigration bills have on California?

The first bill, the American Dream and Promise Act would benefit the younger generation(s) of undocumented immigrants. It is estimated that there are more than 200,000 DACA recipients living in California so, assuming they meet the requirements, about a quarter million immigrants in California could earn legal status through this bill.

Moving on to the second bill, The Farmworkers Modernization Act has the potential to reach many more undocumented immigrants than the American Dream and Promise Act. For starters, it is important to note that in 2016, undocumented immigrants made up nine percent of California’s workforce. Although undocumented immigrants work in a variety of industries, there is a concentration of undocumented workers in crop-related jobs. Immigrants make up 90% of California’s crop-workers and half of those crop-workers are undocumented. Crop-related jobs encompass those that are performed on “farms, orchards, groves, greenhouses, and nurseries [and] that are primarily engaged in growing crops, plants, vines, or trees and their seeds.”

Thus, under The Farmworkers Modernization Act, California’s agricultural industry would see the most benefit, as many of its undocumented workers could earn permanent legal status under this bill. According to some, allowing undocumented workers to obtain legal status could serve as “an economic stimulus.” Legalization of undocumented immigrants has the potential to expand the economy given that “the legalized will pay more taxes, and immigrants will add tax revenue and economic activity.

The Central Valley in particular would stand to gain from The Farmworkers Modernization Act given its considerable number of undocumented immigrants, most of which work in the agriculture industry. This likely explains why one of the few Republicans who supported the bill was David Valadao, representative of the 21st congressional district which covers a large chunk of the Central Valley including all of Kings county and parts of of Tulare, Kern, and Fresno counties.

There has been a mixed response to these bills. While some Republicans are working on immigration legislation of their own, others have said the immigration bills will be set aside until the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, namely the surge of unaccompanied minors, are under control. Finally, some politicians have opposed the bills on the basis that they are too broad in scope. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell argues that the bills are “a massive proposal for blanket amnesty.”

Again, the bills are predicted to stall in the Senate so there are no guarantees that these bills will become law. However, if they did, it’s possible that California, being the state with the most undocumented immigrants, could see the most benefits. Thus, it is worthwhile to track the progress of these bills as they move through the legislative process.

Siskiyou County’s mental health court

The California Report Magazine recently reported on how one woman’s cycle of incarceration and mental illness encouraged a rural county to change it’s system. A resident of Siskiyou County, Marlene Baker’s untreated mental illness led her to have frequent contact with law enforcement for minor offenses associated with homelessness, and be repeatedly booked into and released from their overcrowded jail.

Siskiyou County is in far Northern California and spans 6,000 square miles, but is home to just 44,000 people. Many common rural disadvantages intersect for the residents there, such as a lack of public transportation or community healthcare resources.

According to the California Report,
Mental illness plays a role in a high number of criminal cases here. What to do once those people enter the system, said Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus, is a vexing question.

“You've got a community that wants to be protected,” he said. “But you also have a person who needs intervention and not necessarily the kind of intervention that we have to offer. It's a massive problem.”

In Baker’s case, though, despite those rural challenges — in some ways because of them — a number of key people took some risks and bent some rules to help her heal in the community, with her freedom intact. And her success is helping to bring about some bold changes in the way Siskiyou County confronts its mental health crisis.
When Baker was charged with a felony, she became a test case for a new way of addressing the intersection of crime and mental illness in the county. The judge, the public defender, county mental health officials, and prosecutor, came to an agreement that instead of returning her to jail or sending her to a state hospital, they would try to help her on the outside. Her case worker found her housing, which she credits as the key to her success. She was able to continue showing up to her court dates, a challenge without public transportation, and ultimately had her record cleared and legal competence restored.

Siskiyou County now has what they call a behavioral health court. It wipes the criminal charges off the records of participants who complete mental health treatment, and keeps them in the community while they do it.

Siskiyou County’s approach to a mental health court can potentially be a model for other counties in California, rural or urban. Studies have proven that mental health courts are effective. Specifically, “participants are significantly more likely to utilize treatment services, less likely to be rearrested, and spent fewer days in jail as opposed to nonparticipants.

People with mental health disabilities are overrepresented in jail and prison. In a moment where much of our national conversation is centering on how to move away from our carceral system and integrate a nuanced understanding of mental health, it seems appropriate to include in our community court systems. Perhaps Siskiyou County can be one model for keeping people in their rural communities while also finding a way to get them the mental health supports they need.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

On small town bank closures

Here's a story from NPR's Scott Horsley headlined "'What Are We Going To Do?': Towns Reel As Banks Close Branches At Record Pace."  An excerpt follows: 

George Holland, the mayor of Moorhead, Miss., remembers the feeling when he heard that Regions Bank was closing its branch in his small, rural town a few years ago.

"That was actually the only bank in our community and the next-closest bank was probably 8, 9 miles to Indianola," Holland said. "I was thinking, 'What are we going to do?' "

Banks have been permanently shuttering branches for years, but the number of closures hit a record in 2020 as the pandemic accelerated the move by many customers to online banking.

Banks closed 3,324 branches last year, according to a tally by S&P Global Market Intelligence.

It makes financial sense for banks given the cost of operating branches.

"The reality is, the vast majority of the activity that happens in a branch is not revenue generating," said Steven Reider, who as president of the consulting firm Bancography advises banks on branch locations. "In fact, it's cost-carrying activity."

This reminds me of the upsides to postal banking, which is common in Europe, and which Prof. Mehrsa Baradaran has championed, though not with a focus on rural communities.  

Monday, March 22, 2021

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXVII): Rural areas feeling left behind in White House vaccine distribution push

President Joe Biden has emphasized getting the Covid-19 vaccine to those most affected by the pandemic, with a focus on racial and ethnic minority groups, such as Blacks and Latinos, who have been dying at higher rates than whites and have thus far been less likely to receive the vaccination. However, in that push, it has become evident that many of the steps the White House has taken so far disproportionally benefit urban areas and do not take into consideration the unique challenges rural areas have been struggling with.

On a related note, NPR has a great 3-minute listen on how more Black And Latinx Americans are embracing the COVID-19 vaccination. 

Rural communities have been some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic. The death rate for rural areas was 48 percent higher in December than that of urban areas. In North Dakota, about 1 in 500 residents has died from the virus. Rural areas have borne a greater brunt from the virus in part because they tend to have older populations and a high prevalence of underlying medical conditions. People in rural areas may also be more vulnerable because of a lack of nearby medical care or health insurance.

The struggle to secure adequate vaccines is evidenced at the Heart of Texas Healthcare System, located in the rural town of Brady, Texas. Each Friday afternoon, the staff at the Healthcare System have rehearsed what they will do when their shipment of Covid-19 vaccines arrive: they have a plan in place for how they will let the public know when they can sign up for an appointment, they have the space at the town civic center to administer the vaccines, and they have staff trained to dole out the shots. However, each week that they put in their request for the Covid-19 vaccine from the state, the doses never arrive.

Tim Jones, CEO of Heart of Texas Healthcare System — the only hospital serving a four-county region two hours west of Austin — said last week:

We have been ready for two months. The only missing piece in the equation is the vaccine. This story is ubiquitous with every little town of 2,500 to 5,000 people. From Amarillo to Brownsville, it is a carbon copy.

Bill Finerfrock, the executive director of the National Association of Rural Health Clinics also noted:

There needs to be some initiative to get vaccines out to those communities and an acknowledgement that we need to not forget about those rural underserved areas. Our concern is that it doesn’t seem to be part of the conversation.

To make the determination about where to set up mass vaccination centers and which retail pharmacies should get the vaccine, the White House has been using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which measures how susceptible a community is by looking at metrics like poverty, lack of vehicle access and crowded housing. However, those metrics often overlook the unique needs of rural areas.

Moreover, the Biden administration has, in addition to emphasizing the use of mass vaccination centers and retail pharmacies to administer the vaccine, been shipping doses directly to federally funded community clinics, which serve 1 in 5 rural residents. However, the focus of the community clinics has primarily been to serve the homeless population, public housing residents, migrant agricultural workers, and people with limited English language skills. About a third of vaccine doses that have been sent through that federal program have gone to rural clinics.

While the Biden administration has talked about deploying mobile vaccination units to rural areas, the effort hasn’t been fully rolled out so far. Rural providers said they were hoping they would get a large share of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which doesn’t require the special refrigeration capacity many rural clinics lack. But White House officials said last week it will be distributing that vaccine evenly across the country and not targeting it at any specific areas.

Alan Morgan, CEO for the National Rural Health Association said:

This vaccine distribution isn’t equitable when it comes to urban and rural, that is the perception. These communities are also most at risk. There are hundreds of these small towns with a greater percentage of elderly, people with multiple chronic health issues and chronic workforce shortages. Some of these communities aren’t adhering to public health measures like wearing masks, and now you have an unequal distribution of vaccines. What more could possibly go wrong here? It is the worst possible public health setup.

In the coming months, it is very likely that the federal government will need to take action to increase the number of doses sent to rural areas, as well as address both the shortage of health care workers to administer the vaccination and the needs of older populations who lack the ability to travel far distances and have limited access to the internet.

NPR has a wonderful 3-minute listen on the vaccine rollout in rural areas.

More posts of the COVID-19 vaccine in rural America can be found here, here, and here.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Rural California’s connection to the recall campaign (Part II)

This week, Hailey Branson-Potts wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times on the recall campaign against Governor Gavin Newsom and its connection to rural California. There is another blog post here discussing the same article. The piece opens with a focus on Debbie and Guy Scott, the owners of Zephyr Books & Coffee in Yreka—a small town near the border of Oregon with just over 7,000 residents. In addition to its assortment of coffee and pastries, the shop provides customers with recall petitions to remove Governor Gavin Newsom from office. As the owners discuss, although they’ve lost a few customers due to the petitions, they feel the recall movement resonates particularly with residents in conservative Northern California counties. Debbie feels that “Sacramento has a different priority” than these rural communities. Rather than being family, ranch, ag, and small-business-oriented, she sees Sacramento as being “politically oriented.” Accordingly, the recall effort has become a rallying point for many rural Californians who feel the same way.

For context on the recall movement, California is one of just 19 other states that gives voters the power to remove elected officials from office before the end of their term. To have a recall election, organizers must collect enough valid petition signatures to equal 12% of the voters that voted in the election for that position. The last and only California governor to be recalled was Governor Gray Davis in 2003. Davis was recalled due to a substantial state deficit, high vehicle license fees, his handling of the historic electricity crisis, and the popularity of his opponent—former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The current recall movement against Governor Newsom started picking up speed last year amid the pandemic. The RecallGavin2020 Committee, the group organizing the recall, has collected more than 2 million signatures as of last week. For the special election to occur, state officials must confirm 1.5 million of those signatures by April 29.

As the Los Angeles Times article discusses, the popularity of this recall movement in rural California counties is not shocking considering tensions regarding Governor Newsom’s COVID policies. Small counties with fewer COVID cases are particularly upset with the state-wide nature of the governor’s policies, pointing out “that one size does not fit all” when it comes to the impacts they have on small businesses and rural communities. Local disapproval of these policies is evident in decisions to defy the governor’s orders; last summer, Yuba, Sutter, and Modoc Counties openly defied Governor Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order and allowed businesses to re-open due to low case numbers. For more context, here is a blog from last July on Modoc County, which had yet to record a single case among its 9,000 residents.

Conversely, Governor Newsom feels the support for the recall movement is not motivated by the pandemic, but rather by partisan politics. He notes that Northern California in particular overwhelmingly supported former President Trump, who won over 6 million votes in the state as a whole. Republican State Assemblyman Kevin Kiley disagrees and speaks sentiment that mimics the concerns of Debbie Scott. Kiley believes “a very diverse group of people” are supporting the movement, potentially as a result of the political system in this state leaving “people feeling powerless and disenfranchised with so much of our lives and governance dictated from afar.”

A good portion of residents in Colusa County, where I have lived throughout the course of the pandemic, share Kiley’s views. Colusa is a USDA designated nonmetro county with a population of roughly 21,000 people. As a conservative agriculture community with fewer COVID cases than other California counties, the general statement here is that Sacramento’s decisions over the pandemic do not reflect the needs of this area. Many small businesses were already struggling before the pandemic. The added stress of major lockdowns have forced a number of them to close their doors for good. It has been hard to see friends and community members struggle, especially when case numbers in our area were relatively low. Most of the community has been willing to deal with the health implications of the virus in order to keep business as usual and everyday life as normal as possible.

Additionally, residents feel that the county was purposely put in more restrictive COVID tiers for long periods of time due to the county’s decision not to follow Governor Newsom’s orders. Last May, the County Board of Supervisors voted not to enforce state coronavirus policies. At the time, the county had only five reported cases. In the months that followed, some residents felt that the Newsom Administration placed the county in the state’s more restrictive tiers simply to respond to the county’s defiance. Consequently, even though the county was unwilling to enforce the restrictions, state entities like the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control could still impose penalties on businesses with state licenses.

In my experience, there is no question that this angst in rural communities toward the state’s approach to the pandemic has increased local support for the recall movement. The movement is certainly popular in my county, as the committee collected over 2,000 signatures here. Just this month, Assemblyman Kiley held a book and petition signing event for the recall campaign at a local restaurant in Colusa.

While the pandemic context has made the dispute more acute, rural communities have long felt that Sacramento is detached from their way of life. The pandemic policies have only added fuel to this fire. For many of these residents, this recall is a way to reestablish freedom from what they see as government overreach. To me, the popularity of the recall in little towns like mine emphasizes the need for our state to recognize and act on the unique and important distinctions between rural and urban communities.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Wool insulation factory nears opening in rural West Virginia, less than two miles from elementary school

Denmark manufacturing company Rockwool has almost completed construction of an insulation manufacturing factory in Ranson, West Virginia. In Jefferson County, the wealthiest county in the state, Ranson has a population of approximately 5,100. Nearby Kearnesyville, closer to the site, has a similar population of about 6,000. 

This project comes with a $150 million dollar price tag and will be located just north of the nearby North Jefferson Elementary school, an estimated 10,000 feet away. Just behind the elementary school, in the poorest part of the county, lies a residential complex with small one-story homes and mobile homes. 

Rural areas are pictured as clean and sprawling, but rural communities are uniquely vulnerable to groundwater and air pollution threats from developing industries looking to site new construction. An earlier post on the blog, here, discusses a dichotomy between health and financial security for rural residents who are forced to contemplate leaving polluted hometowns.

The plant, though its from a environmentally progressive European country, will run exclusively on coal and natural gas. Citizens in the area are very concerned about new industry designed to run on fossil fuels, bringing infrastructure and jobs that may be based on technology that is not future-proof. They also fear air pollution from particulate matter, sulfates, and water pollution from formaldehyde. 

Members of the community are worried what these pollutants could do to their children. Another key concern of the citizens is the local topography. Originally, the site was an orchard, and the land has yet to be developed at all. 

The area is underlain by Karst formations, which is prone to sinkholes. This is a persistent concern of Jefferson County residents, and according to reports from the State, 21 sinkholes had already been reported on the site as of November 2020.

These sinkholes present a unique threat to the area. Residents that rely on private wells for their water supply are at risk of contamination, as these sinkholes break the fragile barrier between surface and groundwater. Mitigation techniques are possible, of course, but similar to houses built in areas with frequent hurricanes, wildfires, or other natural disasters, there is a certain inevitability to these events that mitigation cannot prevent.

Activists and locals from West Virginia have been campaigning against the factory since its infancy, but their efforts are more optimistic now that the Biden administration is heading the EPA. Initially, residents were not told about the new plant but instead 'found out'. At a Jefferson County Commission meeting in 2018, citizens aired their frustrations without success. Citizens Concerned About Rockwool was one of those groups.
Details regarding the nature of the operation and opportunities for public input were minimal and framed in a manner that would not reasonably consider public opinion…
In Feb of 2019, eleven protestors opposing Rockwool's development in Ranson were arrested in D.C. after sitting in Senator Joe Manchin’s office (R-WV). Senator Manchin had previously cancelled a town hall to discuss the insulation plant with his constituents. 

The protestors occupied the Senator’s office, livestreaming the event to popular anti-Rockwool Facebook groups. The group even sang John Denver’s “Country Roads”, which seems to be a recurring favorite of those at anti-Rockwool protests.

At another protest a few months later, twenty-four West Virginians were arrested for obstructing a roadway and an officer while protesting in front of the Rockwool construction site.

Despite extensive protests and collective organization by those who will be most impacted by an insulation factory in their backyards, the efforts to stop Rockwool have not yet succeeded. However, rural communities and organizers have achieved some victories. Most recently, a petition successfully pushed Rockwool to fund their own sewer lines for the property. Previously, the sewage lines were publicly funded.

The factory is set to open in a few months according to Rockwool, and rural citizens of Jefferson County have pleaded with local officials, state officials, federal officials, the corporation itself, and even the home country of the corporation for help. 

Now, with a new EPA, they hope reviewing decisions of the previous administration will allow for some hope. At the very least, concerned citizens want the corporation to obtain a new permit that reflects their plan to phase out coal power.

We hope there’s a calmer, more straightforward approach…[b]ecause we really need the EPA to step in here and tell the [West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection] that they have to follow the rules and make R[ockwool] get a new (air quality) permit.

 * * *

New OMB metropolitan designation proposal could harm micropolitan and rural areas

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is considering a new proposal that would redefine the population threshold for metropolitan areas. Today, cities with 50,000 residents or more qualify as metropolitan areas. Under the new definition, cities must have 100,000 residents in order to be classified as metropolitan. This proposal would downgrade 144 municipalities from metropolitan to micropolitan areas, including: Auburn, Alabama; Joplin, Missouri; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Morristown, Tennessee.

Measured another way, this proposal would also affect county designations. The Daily Yonder map below highlights 255 metropolitan counties that would now be considered non-metropolitan, “enlarging non-metropolitan American by 18 million residents.”

Some statisticians say the change was bound to happen because of increased urbanization and overall population growth. Although the OMB’s definition of metropolitan has evolved, including changes to factor in suburban sprawl, the 50,000 population number has not been altered since 1950

However, for many communities this change is not just an innocuous administrative update. As law professor Amanda L. Kool says, “these definitions have real-world consequences that go beyond my irritation when someone . . . map-splains my town.” Kool lives in a town of 8,000 that is classified as part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area due to “commuting patterns.”

The foremost concern for cities facing the micropolitan downgrade is funding. Although the OMB states its definitions are not for “nonstatistical activities or for use in program funding formulas,” there are some federal programs that depend on these designations. For example, Niles, Michigan, received a $278,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which the city used for a “park clean-up, a summer camp for children from low-income households, a school resource officer’s salary, [and] homeless services and code enforcement,” according to the South Bend Tribune. In addition, a representative from Hinesville, Georgia’s metropolitan planning organization opposes the proposal because some state transportation improvement programs are tied to federal designations used by the Department of Transportation. 

Many rural communities also strongly oppose this change because they worry it will increase competition for rural-specific funding. Fred Ullrich with the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis told Daily Yonder
We’ve introduced this really bizarre imbalance now, because now I have nonmetropolitan counties with [urban areas of] 95,000 people in them and they’re competing for the same bit of pie that the nonmetropolitan county with 5,000 people.
Jerry Merrill, the mayor of Rexburg, Idaho (population 29,000 in non-metro Madison County) expressed a similar concern in his comment to the OMB. He notes the proposal will “make it harder for Idaho communities to access the federal funds necessary to pay for the education, transportation, sewer systems, sidewalks and social services."

Consequently, the new classification scheme reduces competition for metro-specific federal funds. This favors urbanized areas, like the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization, which unsurprisingly says full steam ahead with the new metro designation proposal.

Aside from funding concerns, some experts are concerned this designation may obscure or inflate statistical data about rural communities used by policymakers and businesses. According to Tony Glover at the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services
Data users of all kinds often request localized data, and this proposal will negatively affect them. Small, predominantly rural states like Wyoming need all the data they can get, and this proposal does not serve them well.
Glover’s comment illustrates an overarching problem: obtaining good statistics about rural places. A prior post on this blog discussed this challenge in the context of the 2020 Census. Without good data, it is difficult to enact sound policy solutions. 

The OMB is accepting comments until Friday, March 19 on this matter. While it will be difficult to predict and measure the full impact of this proposal, hopefully this comment period at least provides a better sense of all the stakeholders. 

On top of this critical issue about population designations, the OMB also faces a political problem as it is currently without a leader. President Biden’s nominee, Neera Tanden, withdrew after it became clear she was unlikely to be confirmed by the Senate. 

One name under consideration for the top spot is Shalanda Young, who is a native of Clinton, Louisiana, a town of 2,000 located 40 miles away from Baton Rouge on the fringe of the metropolitan area. Young’s hometown is situated similarly to Professor Kool’s, and it may be interesting to see her response to this metropolitan designation question.

Update on Mar. 22: The Brookings Institution recently published a preliminary analysis of the OMB proposal. The report concluded that new non-metro counties would be more prosperous and have lower poverty rates than the old non-metro counties, indicating that the realignment potentially masks distressed communities. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Home ownership more widespread in rural America

A recent report by the Housing Assistance Council reveals home ownership rates are higher in rural America, with 71.4% of rural Americans owning homes as compared to 65.1% nationally. More specifically, 48% of rural and small-town Americans own homes mortgage-free, in comparison to only 37% of the rest of the country. Utilizing U.S. Census Bureau data between 2014 and 2018, the report further elucidates home ownership divides across geographic location, race, and age.

The report emphasizes the generally low cost of housing in rural areas. Almost 38% of rural houses are valued under $100,000, with less than 15% valued at over $300,000. For comparison, the median price for a house in the Bay Area is $1.06 million. More rural home ownership without mortgages and debts is attributed to both the prominence of mobile homes, which can be financed with shorter term property loans, and the generally higher age of rural residents: “With a median age for the adult population of 51 in rural areas compared to 45 in urban areas, the adult population in rural areas tend to be older and naturally in stages of life in which owning a house is more likely.” When homeowner’s age, mortgage debt declines, evidenced by more than 75% of rural homeowners over the age of 65 owning their homes mortgage-free.

Geographically, rural home ownership is lowest in the West, which may be unsurprising to many Californians. In the Golden State, housing affordability and availability is a continual problem in urban and rural areas alike, and “wildfires are aggravating the situation by destroying housing stock.” The lack of housing in rural Northern California is discussed in a blog post here. However, at 68.7%, rural home ownership in the West is only marginally lower than 73.4% in the Midwest and 73.2% in the Northeast.

But high rates of rural home ownership are not equal across the board. There is a large gap between rates of white homeownership and that among people of color:
Approximately 75 percent of rural and small town white non-Hispanics own their homes while only 55 percent of minority households own their homes. Rural and small town African-American households (51 percent) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (49 percent) are the least likely groups to own their homes. But rural and small town minorities are nearly 8 percent more likely to own their homes than minorities in the nation as a whole.
Many Americans today view home ownership as a quintessential part of achieving the “American Dream” and a “cornerstone of middle class life.” The benefits of owning a home are numerous: tax deductions, investment building, and individual control over one’s home. But the benefits do not stem only from obvious advantages. Researchers Alexandra Killewald and Brielle Bryan found, “In 2012, each year of homeownership between 1986 and 2008 is associated with about $4,400 more in midlife wealth.” To a modest degree, homeownership is thus a vehicle for wealth accumulation.

Yet barriers to home ownership are high and are felt most acutely by people of color. Housing availability, lack of affordability, credit requirements, and the high cost of down-payments, closing costs, and loans all serve to make home ownership out of reach for many. Black Americans in particular are still impacted by discriminatory housing policies in place before the 1968 Fair Housing Act and are also frequently subject to higher tax assessments.

The Urban Institute suggests a five-point framework for reducing the racial homeownership gap: advance policy solutions at the local level, tackle housing supply constraints and affordability, promote an equitable and accessible housing finance system, accelerate outreach and counseling for renters and mortgage ready millennials, and focus on sustainable homeownership and preservation. Although an implied urban slant may come from the organization’s name, such solutions may be just as effective in rural areas.

The Biden Administration has already taken action to “end policies that enable discrimination in housing and lending, and acknowledging the federal government’s role in erecting systemic barriers to fair housing.” As the country works to decrease the racial homeownership gap, hopefully rural Americans are not left out of the discussion.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Total recall: Governor Gavin Newsom

California Governor Gavin Newsom finally spoke out against the campaign to force him into a recall election. His statement that the campaign is a partisan effort came just two days before the deadline to submit the 1.5 million signatures required to trigger a recall bid. The timing suggests that although Governor Newsom rather ignore the campaign that has been building for months, he believes the RecallGavin2020 Committee statement released last week that it already had more than 2 million signatures. Since the Governor cannot ignore the recall election any longer, his message is that the movement is an illegitimate effort by Republicans, and not actually a denunciation of his leadership by the electorate at large.

On the other hand, a recent article by Hailey Branson-Potts of the Los Angeles Times posits that the recall bid might be backlash from disgruntled residents in rural Northern California. The thrust of the article suggests that the Governor's decision to enact statewide shutdowns to combat the spread of COVID-19 is motivating Northern California conservatives to challenge his seat.

However, the sources cited in the article suggest that the movement is more of a mixed bag: the Chairman of the RecallGavin2020 Committee, Orrin Heatlie, hails from Yolo County; a poll from UC Berkeley shows that support for the recall breaks along party lines; the mask mandate was objectionable but also went unenforced in Northern California; some Trump supporters see the recall as a second chance at beating a Democrat; finally, the French Laundry scandal supplied enough ammo to tip many ambivalent voters in favor of the recall.

These grievances track with my observations of life in Redding under quarantine from May-July 2020. Cases in Shasta County never surged like they did in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That makes sense considering the area is remote, it is not a major tourist destination for foreigners, and it is not as densely populated as other hard-hit cities. Nevertheless, places that could host large public gatherings were closed. Although most people wore masks in most stores, some shoppers and shop-owners were a little more lax about the rules. On the road, there were trucks with writing on the windows calling COVID-19 a "hoax." 

Due to social-distancing, I only had the opportunity to speak with the workers and owners of businesses I frequented. The owner of a "steakburger" establishment told me during lunch that the first statewide shutdown cost him $30,000. That was money he and his wife had saved for retirement, but the costs of business without any income and retrofitting the restaurant to make it safe meant they had to empty their savings. 

He did not wear a mask, and he liked to chat up his customers. That aspect of his business seemed almost as vital as serving food. He made it clear that he was not an anti-government radical as he would follow any safety precaution that was mandated, but the costs associated with those measures already buried him a few weeks into the shutdown.

The lack of proportionality in response to the pandemic supported the sentiment that Northern California is neglected by the government. It is impossible to say that the shutdown was not the cause for keeping their cases down. However, since no serious outbreak occurred, the prolonged shutdown became perceived as increasingly unnecessary and an overreach of government attempting to stop the spread in distant cities.

In the LA Times article, that belief is voiced from an unlikely source, a liberal 18 year-old named Ceiba Cummings. She wrote a letter to the Governor explaining that rural regions have been treated unfairly during the pandemic. In Siskiyou County, where Ms. Cummings lives, there have been less than 2,000 cases and only 14 deaths from COVID-19 over the last year. Still, her senior year of high school has been upended by hybrid learning. Furthermore, she sees local shops struggling, while major chains remain unchanged. 

These circumstances leave little wonder as to why pictures of Governor Newsom dining at French Laundry caused an uproar. On March 17, we will know whether the recall will happen. I am unfamiliar with how the Secretary of State reviews and reports signatures, but I am more interested in learning if the signatures show a schism between the North and the South, too.

Coronavirus in rural America (Part CXXVI): Could Dollar General be the key to widespread vaccination in rural America?

On Thursday, while addressing the nation, President Joe Biden announced that all adults in the U.S. will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine beginning on May 1. This statement has been met with some serious doubt given how difficult the vaccine rollout has been up until now. As discussed here, the COVID-19 vaccine requires special refrigeration given its unique temperature requirement. Until now, the temperature requirement has made it difficult to distribute vaccines to rural areas as many rural clinics “are less likely to have expensive freezers that can accommodate” the storage of these vaccines.

Although pharmacies such as CVS and RiteAid have been vaccinating rural America, it is often difficult for rural Americans to find transportation to these pharmacies or other vaccination hubs. The difficulty of the situation has prompted creative solutions and ideas. The most recent one? Using Dollar General as a vaccination site.

Dollar General Corporation is a chain of general stores which boasts over 17,000 locations nationwide. This is more than triple Walmart’s roughly 5,000 U.S. stores. Dollar General also has more stores than Walgreens, CVS, and Target. What’s more is that Dollar General places stores in areas where other big-box stores refuse to do so, such as in rural areas. In fact, Dollar General claims that “75 percent of all Americans live within five miles of a Dollar General store.” Dollar General’s significant presence in rural areas coupled with its capability to both transport and refrigerate the vaccine in its stores, make it a smart way to reach rural Americans.

According to the Daily Yonder, the CDC “was in talks with the discount retail stores to serve as a vaccination site.” Although no official decision has been made, it is possible that a potential collaboration could soon be forthcoming. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky issued the following statement on the matter:
In rural areas, residents often don’t have access to big-box stores. We’re exploring a promising collaboration with Dollar General stores, which have locations that include refrigeration capacity within 10 or 15 miles of our rural communities in all but four states.
It is difficult to find issue with this proposed distribution method, as any method that results in the vaccination of Americans is welcomed. However, it is important to note that Dollar General’s presence in rural areas has raised some issues in the past. As has been covered here and here, Dollar General’s rural expansion has put local rural grocery stores out of business. Furthermore, opponents of Dollar General and similar dollar stores argue that their presence in rural areas further aggravate the existing food deserts given the fact that these stores “don’t offer fresh produce” and they deter grocery stores from setting up shop there.

Although using Dollar General as a vaccination site could address the distribution and transportation issues, there is still much work to be done in rural America if President Biden hopes to vaccinate the majority of Americans. As discussed in this blog post, rural residents are hesitant of the vaccine. Furthermore, in some areas, vaccinators are in short supply. Thus, this potential collaboration between the CDC and Dollar General wouldn’t be the solution to all the rollout problems, but it would likely address some of the most difficult ones: refrigeration and transportation.

It will be interesting to see whether the CDC and Dollar General end up reaching a deal on this matter. Not only would the collaboration remove some barriers to getting vaccinated, but it may also serve as an encouragement for rural residents to get the vaccine. As odd as it may sound, could Dollar General be the key to speedy widespread vaccination in rural America?

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Cesar Chavez: a conservative icon?

I recently wrote a blog post on illegal immigration's potential effect on rural America. Research suggests that rural Americans with high school degrees or less may financially benefit from greater border security. I conclude the post by positing that Americans concerned with reducing illegal immigration aren't always motivated by xenophobia.

So what does this have to do with Cesar Chavez? Well, Cesar Chavez represents one such individual who opposes illegal immigration on non-xenophobic grounds.

Mr. Chavez's views on illegal immigration, however, are less well known. One of Cesar Chavez's first acts as leader of the UFW was to protest the government's use of the "Bracero Program." The Bracero Program was a government program that granted temporary work visas to Mexican citizens to provide farm labor during harvesting season. Mr. Chavez saw the braceros as stealing the jobs of his union members, and once said: "[i]t looks almost impossible to start some effective program to get [my members] their jobs back from the braceros." Mr. Chavez and UFW were able to successfully pressure the U.S. Government to end the Bracero Program in 1964.

"[T]he illegal aliens are doubly exploited, first because they are farm workers, and second because they are powerless to defend their own interests," he wrote. "But if there were no illegals being used to break our strikes, we could win those strikes overnight and then be in a position to improve the living and working conditions of all farm workers."

Mr. Chavez spent his life fighting for legislative gains on behalf of his union members. He believed his legislative work was undercut by undocumented immigrants, whom employers could hire in the stead of Mexican-Americans to circumvent labor laws. Mr. Chavez also believed that undocumented immigrants undercut the efficacy of his labor strikes by providing employers with alternate labor sources.

In 1974, Mr. Chavez began his "Illegals Campaign" to deal with these issues by reducing the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States. This plan had two components: (1) UFW members would report any undocumented workers they uncovered to the INS, the government agency in charge of deportations; (2) hundreds of other UFW members would personally patrol the Rio Grande to stop undocumented immigrants from crossing, using violence on the immigrants if persuasion failed. Mr. Chavez essentially created his own paramilitary patrol group--of Mexican-Americans--to guard the border; an action that only far-right conservative groups in contemporary America would make.

I don't bring this up to suggest Cesar Chavez deserves to be cancelled. His reasons for opposing illegal immigration aren't hateful or racist; he seems to hold these views because he believes reducing illegal immigration will benefit his union members. 

The modern conservative viewpoint on illegal immigration is inseparable from Cesar Chavez's beliefs on the matter. Given the racist taint that President Trump gave to all conservative stances on immigration issues, it would behoove Republicans to make Cesar Chavez their immigration icon. This could help center the illegal immigration debate as an economic issue rather than a race one. The claim that all anti-immigration Americans are secretly--or blatantly--xenophobic loses potency when that claim requires declaring Cesar Chavez hated Mexicans to work.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The role of rurality in school re-openings amidst the pandemic

Sawsan Morrar and Phillip Reese reported for the Sacramento Bee on Friday that, in California, schools that re-opened sooner rather than later in the middle of the pandemic tended to be in districts where voters supported Donald Trump.  The headline is, "Which districts in California are most likely to have open schools? Here’s what the data shows."  Here's a provocative excerpt: 


The 10 school districts in the Sacramento region where voters most heavily favored Trump are mostly in rural or exurban areas. They cover much of El Dorado and Placer counties.

Read more here:

Morrar, interviewed me about this, and I'm including just the rural-urban "why" of the article here, though the piece is well worth a read in its entirety:  


Dr. Lisa Pruitt, a UC Davis Law professor who is an expert in the urban/rural divide and income inequality, said partisan school reopenings are no surprise when the pandemic became so polarized along party lines to begin with.

“The red and blue camps have chosen to take different risks, and interpret the scientific data consistent with political polarization,” she said.

Republican states like Texas and Florida lifted many of their COVID-19 safety protocols.

“People do decide what risks they are willing to take, based on their political leanings,” she said. “It’s a matter of which risks you choose to live with.”

But those political leanings can stem from cultural and generational attitudes, and don’t respect salient lines between urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Some people from rural communities tend to be less receptive toward government intervention, Pruitt said, leaning in on a proud history of self-sufficiency.

“Rural places are more static and more traditional,” Pruitt said, adding that people outside of cities have a better sense of their vulnerabilities, accepting hardships — informing their attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic. “When something like the pandemic comes along, some people may say: life is tough, people will die, but we are doing the best we can. In urban places, we are more convinced that we can control our destiny.”

It wasn’t too long ago that places like Folsom were considered exurbs, just further out from suburban neighborhoods. Many people who live outside of the city are just one generation removed from farm life.

“They are more likely to have a rural mindset,” she said. “And that plays out in Folsom, Elk Grove, and Placerville.”

In many school districts, voters were relatively divided between Trump and Biden. Of these 10 districts, eight are back to face-to-face learning and two are distance learning only.

What can rural America offer clean energy?

A recent op-ed in The Hill argues that public policy should reflect the fact that rural Americans are an integral part of the nation’s clean energy economy. The author of the piece is Chitra Kumar, a Senior Fellow for the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group, a nonprofit aimed at improving the social, health and economic wellbeing of rural America. Kumar contends that the political reaction to the recent wave of outages in Texas is evidence that public policy views rural Americans as an afterthought on issues like environmental sustainability. Texan politicians are currently blaming renewable energy for the energy disaster as a way to resonate with Texas residents “who prize their state’s culture of rugged self-reliance.” This predisposition of self-reliance and independence are seemingly emblematic of rural culture. However, as the op-ed points out, many rural leaders are open to energy alternatives, as current practices are fraught with high energy, internet, and water costs.

In light of this political tension surrounding renewable energy, it is promising to see what the new Administration is doing for rural Americans regarding energy and the climate crisis. Recently, President Biden signed an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The order includes goals to create new energy jobs in rural communities, while also revitalizing the energy sector by “reducing methane emissions, oil and brine leaks, and other environmental harms.” I support these goals in the Executive Order and think the federal government should focus on local projects that create jobs if they are to both revitalize the energy sector and reconnect with rural Americans.

In addition to the federal government’s response to renewable energy in rural America, The Hill op-ed discusses interesting innovations for expanding clean energy in rural communities. One idea focuses on “small-scale renewable energy microgrid technology,” which allows users to control their energy supply and reduce overall operating costs. Not only can microgrid technology help with climate mitigation, it also is fairly resilient. Unlike large electrical grids failures—which is what happened in Texas—if a microgrid in a rural community failed, “lives could be saved because communities would have the option to maintain their own backups.” Thus, if public policy shifts to focus on similar innovative projects, rural communities could better cope with changing weather patterns and help the country move toward a carbon-neutral future.

Interestingly, another op-ed in Business Insider this week discussed the need for Democrats to invest in local clean energy projects in order to connect with rural voters. The authors are optimistic that Democrats can better prioritize rural counties through renewable energy because of its potential to create new jobs, increase economic activity, and lower health costs. One example of how renewable energy can help rural communities is the Samson Solar Energy Center. Located in Franklin, Red River, and Lamar counties in east Texas, the Center will create 600 jobs during its construction, “promises more than $250 million in payments to local landowners,” and will contribute more than $200 million in taxes to the surrounding local communities. The authors point out that scaling this massive rural clean energy project down to make similar smaller projects across rural America is a viable clean energy investment that has a lot of potential for success. They end the op-ed by stating:
Energy, like politics, is local. To best succeed, and reestablish a long lost connection with rural voters, lawmakers must harness the work and innovation in America’s rural communities, and empower them to lead the way.
This particular statement exhibits some of the authors’ hesitation regarding the Biden Administration’s pledge to “Build Back Better,” a plan that includes a 2 trillion-dollar clean energy roadmap. The plan would use the money to reach a carbon pollution-free energy sector by the year 2035 through projects such as upgrading the structure of millions of buildings, weatherizing millions of homes, and pushing for more public transportation. This plan is very different than the localized and job-focused goals in the Executive Order on Tackling Climate Change at Home and Abroad - rather than making long-term investments in communities and their energy sectors, the plan invests money in short-term projects. 

Thus, I can’t help but agree with the authors’ hesitation toward the Build Better Back plan. In reading these op-eds, I am drawn to investment in localized energy projects that can both improve economies and provide clean, reliable energy to rural communities. Thus, I find the Executive Order more appealing, as it is the type of political response that is necessary to connect with rural America. The plan focuses more on weaving these rural communities into clean energy by creating jobs and opportunities, and less on pouring money into quick energy-efficient fixes like weatherized homes.

Rural America has the manpower to support energy projects like microgrid technology and small-scale solar energy. Even better, these kinds of projects can create jobs, reduce energy costs, and help the environment. I think rural communities can become a cornerstone for clean energy and help America move toward its carbon reduction goals. However, in order to do so, there needs to be a shift in public policy reflecting rural America’s clean energy potential. I look forward to following this development.

Friday, March 5, 2021

Senators Collins re-introduces American Broadband Buildout Act to benefit internet infrastructure in rural communities

On the Senate floor this week, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) introduced the American Broadband Buildout Act of 2021. This bill would create a loan matching program to fund projects that bridge the “digital divide” in America’s rural locales. Up to $15 billion in matching grants would be available for state entities to build the last stretches of infrastructure needed to bring internet to rural Americans.

The bill contains five components emphasized by Collins and Rosen’s press statements. It would: 
(1) Require that loans fund “unserved” areas that are below the FCC’s internet speed standard (more on that later);
(2) Require partnerships between public and private entities in funding and project development;
(3) Require project designs to include capacity for increased broadband speeds in the future as technology accelerates;
(4) Require funds for broadband public service campaigns; and
(5) Require the FCC to prioritize areas that lack broadband access and subscribers.

Worthy of note, this is not the bills first form. In 2019, a 2020 version of the ABBA was introduced by Collins and former Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) proposing $5 billion in loan matching; unfortunately, as is frequently the case, the bill died in committee.

Reading this announcement, I thought of a profile on rural Americans struggling with broadband access I read a few nights prior. Americans from rural Ohio and Kentucky lamented the difficulty of transporting their urban and suburban careers to their hometowns for remote work.

These rural communities do not have enough economic opportunity for service providers. The American Broadband Buildout Act seeks to incentivize communities like Barkley Hughes’ hometown of Tolu, Kentucky. Barkley had to contact AT&T directly for distribution boxes and fiber optic cables he pays for with a neighbor. Their services, 50 megabits per second download and uploads (50/50 Mbps), cost each neighbor $604 monthly. These distribution boxes could extend to others in the area with proper infrastructure, but right now the incentives for these developments do not exist for providers.

Hughes echoed this frustration:
It’s aggravating because you know what’s in here, and you know internet to every home in this community could come right through this box, but nothing happens. It’s frustrating.
In related broadband news this week, Senators Bennet (D-CO), Manchin (D-WV), King (I-ME), and Portman (R-OH) co-authored a letter to the FCC and other government leaders requesting a new standard for internet speeds. The letter called for 100 megabits per second download and upload (100/100 Mbps) speeds as a federal standard. The letter specifically emphasized rural community’s divide in broadband access.
There is no reason federal funding to rural areas should not support the type of speeds used by households in typically well-served urban and suburban areas.
Currently, the FCC estimates that 14.5 million Americans lack access to broadband internet and defines high-speed internet as 25/3 Mbps. These speeds do not reflect the capacity needed for modern American families conducting school, work, and entertainment simultaneously on one internet connection every day. If the FCC updated broadband benchmarks, bills like the American Broadband Buildout Act would suddenly have more teeth. 

The bill is still in its infancy and far from passing, but it shows more broadly a call to action for closing the “digital divide” in rural America. There has been significant writing already on this blog about rural broadband access: here, here, and here.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Covid stimulus bill includes $4 billion debt relief program for Black farmers

Most experts expect the Democratic-controlled Senate to pass President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill in the coming days, although negotiations will continue as Republicans use various procedural levers to amend some aspects of the bill. 

This will be the third stimulus package passed by the United States Congress since the start of the pandemic, and like the previous two, this bill (the American Rescue Plan) will also include funding for agricultural programs (see agriculture provisions in the March 2020 CARES Act and the December 2020 stimulus package). 

However, one new centerpiece of this round of agriculture funding is a $4 billion program of debt relief for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. More precisely, the program would provide farmers of color with direct payment to pay off U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loans and USDA-guaranteed loans and provide an additionally 20% in funding to cover related taxes. 

Today, 98% of agricultural land is owned by white people. Slavery and the Homestead Act of 1862 primarily benefitted white men and disadvantaged women. Further, outdated tenancy-in-common laws (sometimes called heirs’ property) that trigger land partition persist in many states, leading to widespread land loss for many racial and ethnic groups, particularly African American families in the South. Despite these giant obstacles, law professor Jessica Shoemaker notes, “[B]y 1890, African Americans represented 14 percent of all farmers and owned roughly 15 million acres.”

Yet, over the past century, Black land ownership plummeted dramatically. Black land owners lost 12 million acres of farmland, which has especially impacted people in Southern states as illustrated in the below graph from the New York Times. For example, Black farmers in Mississippi lost 800,000 acres of land from 1950-1964, which researchers have calculated would be a $6.6 billion loss today

This bill merges a 2020 proposal by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker with a proposal by newly-elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock

Despite the bill’s likely passage, there is still plenty of pushback. Former Republican New York lieutenant governor, Betsy McCaughey, argues in an op-ed that the bill won’t solve any problems “because the restaurants that accounted for half the demand for . . . [farmers’] products aren’t buying.” What is noteworthy about this reasoning is its focus on the plight of New York restaurants—an urban-centered argument. 

Additionally, Georgia Republican Rep. Austin Scott argues that the allocations are unjustified because there is no proof of discrimination against Black farmers. He offered as a better model the 1997 Pigford v. Glickman class action, which resulted in large settlements paid out by the USDA for discriminating in its allocation of farm loans. (For more background on the history of civil rights and the USDA, including Pigford, see this prior blog post.)

However, Scott’s argument only underscores the need for legislative action here because it shows Black farmers’ reasonable distrust in the USDA as an institution due to its historic discriminatory practices. As journalist Mark Bittman writes in an op-ed for the New York Times:

Black farmers understandably have called the USDA “the last plantation.” 

Moreover, this bill reflects an important public policy interest in preserving Black agricultural land ownership, which is already at such low numbers. Many Black-operated farms are smaller and have less income, which can be precarious in an industry where farmers regularly rely on credit to finance operations. As a result, the USDA recently suspended debt collections for distressed borrowers, but this may not be enough wiggle room for some farmers. 

Senator Booker believes this is only the start if the aim is to increase the number of Black farmers. Shoemaker observes that “10 percent of U.S. agricultural land— or roughly 100 million acres—will change hands over the next five years based on natural aging events,” which creates opportunities for meaningful intervention for the next administration. Bittman proposes the U.S. federal government can buy out “buy land from farmers cashing out for retirement so that rather than being absorbed by existing large landholders, the land can be redistributed to smaller or beginning farmers of color.” Additionally, law professor Thomas W. Mitchell recommends state legislatures adopt the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act to stave off Black land loss by updating tenancy-in-common and partition laws—a proposal that recently passed in Florida, Mississippi, and Virginia. Hopefully, this bill signifies potential political momentum.