Sunday, March 31, 2024

"Spotlight on rural California" (Part II): Defying rural stereotypes

I wrote last week about the Public Policy Institute of California's "Spotlight on rural California" event, and I am circling back now to provide more information about what was discussed there.  I want to highlight how the rural politicians who participated in these events defied certain rural stereotypes--in particular the stereotype of buy-in to conspiracy theories, complete antipathy to the federal government, and denial of climate change.  

James Gallagher of Yuba City, the Assembly minority leader who has made himself a vocal foe of Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, was insistent that climate change is "aggravating" environmental challenges facing rural California.  He resisted, however, the notion that climate change is "causing" these environmental challenges, e.g., early snow melt, flooding, and wildfires.  This seems like a minor semantic distinction to me--that is, if climate change is aggravating environmental challenges then it is causing them to a degree.  (As a historical note in support of his position, Gallagher noted that California's worst flood occurred in the late 19th century, before the era of industrialization).  But "aggravating" is something--it's not denial.  And regarding that aggravation, Gallagher talked sensibly about managing forests because they are the fuel for wildfires.  

Gallagher also talked about failing rural hospitals, a problem he said is made worse by the recent increase in the health care minimum wage, from which Newsom has since backed off.  Gallagher also noted that rural hospitals are struggling because of low Medicare reimbursement rates.  At the same time, he praised what can only be called government subsidies for health care delivery, citing in particular Federally Qualified Healthcare Clinics (FQHC) and Indian Health Services as "vital."  Given federal support for both FQHC and Indian Health Services, it's indisputable that Gallagher was crediting the U.S. government--not exactly a position associated with the most extreme anti-government positions.  

I'd put state Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield in the same category as Gallagher.  I've associated her with the right side of the culture wars, but when it came to being an advocate for rural California and her district in particular, she was pragmatic.  Grove gave a brief spiel--I'll stop short of calling it a rant--when asked about the COVID-19 pandemic as setback and opportunity.  She criticized government regulations and the impact they had on businesses and on students' educational progress, both fair critiques to my mind, especially with the aid of hindsight.  She also stated clearly that the pandemic was "real," perhaps specifically aiming to put the cabash on conspiracy theories that the pandemic was a government-generated myth to justify controlling people.  

All of this is to say that the PPIC event on California left me thinking our state is less polarized than I'd previously thought.  

Thursday, March 28, 2024

On spatial inequality in Maine's juvenile justice system

The New York Times today published a second story in a series on Maine's juvenile justice system, this one expressly calling attention to differences in rural and urban:   "For Young Offenders in Maine, Justice Varies by Geography."  Journalist Callie Ferguson reports as part of a year-long investigation into the system, as part of the Times Local Investigations Fellowship.  Here's an excerpt leading with the nature of Aroostook County, the legendary county in the state's far north:   

Aroostook County, in Maine’s far north, is the largest county east of the Mississippi, a sparsely populated region of fields and forests with just two small cities and about 50 smaller towns. Police chiefs describe their jurisdictions as sleepy, with little serious crime.

Even so, the county has sent a disproportionate number of adolescents in recent years to the state’s only youth prison.

The data show that Aroostook sent 20 youth to that juvenile prison between 2017 and 2023, and that's twice the number sent by York County, in the Southern part of the state, which has three times as many residents.  Ferguson describes York County as including "wealthy coastal communities and former mill towns that help make up Maine's largest metropolitan areas."  There, harsh sentences like the ones doled out by Aroostook County are rarely imposed.  Indeed, the story notes that Maine has, in recent years, emphasized rehabilitation in its approach to juvenile offenders, consistent with national trends. And that's where differences show up between rural and urban.

Aroostook was also an outlier for using short prison terms, known as “shock” sentences, to punish young offenders, handing them down at some of the highest rates statewide before the practice began to wane.

But the differences between Aroostook and York Counties show that the effort has played out unevenly, resulting in justice by geography. The disparity appears to stem from philosophical differences over the appropriate response to teenagers who get in trouble, the varying availability of services across the state and the unequal distribution of lawyers and caseloads, according to interviews with defense attorneys, law enforcement officials and former corrections officials.
York stood out even beyond its low commitment rate. Adolescents there were far less likely to end up with a felony record than anywhere except for neighboring Cumberland County, according to a data analysis by The New York Times and The Bangor Daily News. Between 2017 and 2022, those counties reduced 93 percent of felony cases that resulted in a guilty plea to misdemeanors. At the low end, two central Maine counties reduced them only about half the time; in Aroostook, that rate was 64 percent.

Ferguson quotes Sarah Branch, a former juvenile prosecutor who knows directs the Youth Justice Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law:  

Justice should not be defined by where in the state a child lives. What we have right now are barriers for some children that don’t exist for others. 
* * * 

Justice by geography isn’t unique to Maine. Across the United States, the idiosyncrasies of local courts affect case outcomes, and variation is especially likely in the juvenile system with its emphasis on individualized treatment. Last year, a nonprofit advocacy group in Massachusetts identified wide-ranging differences depending on which police department, district attorney and court handled a case. Similarly, a 2005 study of Missouri’s juvenile system found that teenagers’ odds of confinement changed with where they lived.

One issue is the lack of staffing, expertise, and resources in rural counties, which may see only a dozen juvenile cases a year.   One aspect of that shortage is so-called legal deserts:  too few attorneys. 

And while there are not nearly enough lawyers to represent poor defendants in Maine, the problem is acute in rural areas. Last year, the state created a special team of public defenders to combat the shortage in Aroostook, Penobscot and Washington Counties.

An earlier installment in this Maine juvenile justice series is here.  You can read more about Aroostook County and York County, Maine in these prior posts on a wide range of topics, including the rural lawyer shortage in that state and Senator Susan Collins, who hails from Aroostook County.  Here are some photos of a jail in Wiscasset, Maine (also coastal, towards the south of the state), in a post discussing the rural incarceration boom.  And here are some other photos of southern Maine.  Aroostook County features in Elizabeth Strout's novel Oh William!, as summarized here.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Politico reports on California's new legislative leaders, both with rural roots, representing rural districts

The headline is "Rural California can finally claim both legislative leaders as its own," and Camille Von Kaenel reports on the topic I took up here.  She does so, however, with the resources of a journalist who has more time to gather details of the symbolic meaning and possible real-world consequences of Robert Rivas' ascension to chair of the California Assembly and Mike McGuire's recent taking the reins of the California Senate.  For the first time since 1969, both of California's legislative leaders are from rural-ish areas.  Indeed, both also rose from modest means.  Rivas is the son of farmworkers in San Benito County, population 64,000, and McGuire was raised by his mother and grandmother, also engaged in agricultural pursuits, in Sonoma County, population 488,000.  His district, however, is quite sparsely populated as it stretches north along the coast to the Oregon state line.   

Some excerpts from the Politico story follow, elaborating on the possible significance of : 

Sen. Mike McGuire’s sprawling North Coast district encompasses some of the state’s most famous redwood forests, salmon fisheries and Sonoma County wineries. Speaker Robert Rivas represents a Central Coast region known as the salad bowl of America and grew up in farmworker housing. They’re both a far cry from their immediate predecessors, Sen. Toni Atkins of San Diego and Assemblymember Anthony Rendon of south-central Los Angeles.
For Chris Lopez, the current chair of the Rural County Representatives of California [RCRC], which includes 40 of California’s 58 counties, the representation alone is powerful.

“When Robert was sworn in as speaker, having a mariachi on that floor playing music spoke to my heart,” said Lopez, who has close ties with the speaker because both came up through San Benito County politics. “It wasn’t just about having a Latino, but having a Latino who grew up rural in farmworker housing.”
The story provides this example of urbanormativity (my word, not the journalist's) in California lawmaking:
RCRC has long sought an exemption from CA SB1383 (15R), former Sen. Ricardo Lara’s 2016 law requiring counties to reduce the amount of organic waste that goes into landfills and decomposes into methane, a potent global warming gas. Lopez argues that remote areas don’t have enough access to composting facilities and is sponsoring Assemblymember Jim Wood’s CA AB2902 (23R), which would indefinitely extend the exemption for rural jurisdictions.

The law is one instance of how cities’ grip on political power has made some of California’s most iconic climate policies not work as well for rural areas, Lopez said.

Here's a direct quote from Lopez:  

Our communities need longer runways, they need a little bit more assistance on the technical advisory side.  I know we have got folks there now who understand that.

Then there's this bit of California history: 

The last time both leaders hailed from rural districts was in 1969, when Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno County led the Senate and Republican Bob Monagan of San Joaquin County led the Assembly, according to Alex Vassar, California State Library communications manager. The most recent rural Assembly speaker was Cruz Bustamante, a moderate Fresno Democrat who led the Assembly from 1996 to 1998 before becoming lieutenant governor.

In California, rural areas tend to elect Republicans.  That has limited these regions' political influence in a state where Democrats enjoy a super majority.  

McGuire has made wildfire preparedness a priority, and has outlined the most detailed plan of any lawmaker to right the state’s troubled property insurance industry after catastrophic losses, some to fires in his district.
* * *
Rivas, for his part, is one of the Legislature’s biggest champions of the potential climate benefits of landscapes like farms and forests to absorb carbon. He co-authored a bill in 2022 requiring the state to set first-in-the-nation emissions targets for natural and working lands.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

"When you say 'California,' rural is not one of the adjectives that comes readily to mind."

Near the San Bernardino and Kern County line
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
That is one of the most memorable comments from today's Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) event, "Spotlight on Rural California."  It was made by PPIC president and CEO, Tani Cantil-Sakayue, former Chief Justice of the State of California, and it's one I appreciate given how difficult it seems to be to draw attention to rural issues, rural people, rural needs here in the Golden State.  It's an issue I've written about occasionally here on the blog, but more commonly ranted about verbally to friends and anyone who would listen.  One problem with people not thinking about the rural character of big swaths of California is that rural places don't command legislators' and policymakers' attention.  They don't seem important in the scheme of all the other things going on economically and culturally in the Golden State, but if the speakers are today's event are to be believed, rural California is absolutely critical to the success of its more urban counterparts.   
Wind turbines over Tehachapi Pass, Kern County
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
Thus I found this event really helpful and hopeful, a sort of bridge-building affair.  It featured Cantil-Sakayue in conversation with California Assemblyman and Republican leader James Gallagher (R) of Yuba City, one-on-one. Cantil-Sakayue then convened a panel that included California State Senator Shannon Grove (R) of Bakersfield, Chris Lopez of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and Chair of Rural County Representatives of California, and Ashley Swearengen, Executive Director of the Central Valley Community Foundation.  I found all to be excellent and thoughtful speakers and advocates for rural California and what the state's rural reaches need.  All touched in one way or another on how rural places support and prop up urban areas, but in ways that typically go unseen, unacknowledged.     

The themes that came up over and over again were
  • Rural and urban interdependence:  the food, fuel and fiber supplied by rural California, including green energy that comes from places like Kern County and permits urban areas like Los Angeles to claim green designations (see photo above of wind turbines over Tehachapi pass).  Grove asserted that 52% of California's clean energy comes from her district.  She mentioned, for example, a 6,000 acre solar installment, something you "can't put in Santa Monica," she quipped.
  • The closure of rural hospitals and the threat of more closures, as well as other geographic inequities in health care.  As Grove mentioned, for example, the hospital in Ridgecrest recently closed its labor and delivery unit, a move that has national security implications because of nearby Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.  She says that installation won't be able to attract young talent without health care access.  The nearest hospital with labor and delivery is 70 miles away, and those are not an easy 70 miles, Grove noted, with a ravine off to one side and a granite all on the other.  
    The number of Tesla superchargers in Mojave 
    may be the highest per capita in California.  
    (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

  • The cost of living for all California families, including rural families, who tend to face non-negotiable transportation costs--to work, the grocery stores, and such.   They don't have the option of public transportation, and electric vehicle technology and infrastructure are not fully viable there--at least not yet.  The housing shortage was also addressed; Lopez, for example, mentioned thousands of industry-built units for farmworkers near Salinas, behind what he called "the lettuce curtain."  The rising cost of insurance--"if you can get it," Gallagher noted, is another concern.  
  • The significance of green energy infrastructure--such as those thousands of acres of solar panels (noted above) and hydrogen-fueled airplanes being developed in Mojave.  (I wondered why there were so many Tesla chargers in Mojave--dozens of them--when I drove through last month; perhaps energy is especially cheap there and Tesla wants good charging infrastructure en route to Death Valley and other other remote points up Hwy 395 into the Eastern Sierra).
  • The need for regional collaborations between rural and urban places.
  • The struggle to staff rural law enforcement; Grove noted that only one law enforcement officer serves the entire "west side" of her district.  (I'd be interested to know where that officer is based, but I notice that the town of Maricopa, south of Taft, is the western-most point in Grove's district).
  • The importance of rural tourism to California's economy--as well as its unrealized potential, including in the north state. 
I will come back with more details in a future post, but I wanted to provide at least this teaser, for now, about an event I found encouraging, an event that left me optimistic than I typically am about rural California's future and the possibility that state government might invest in it. 

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Right-wing political movement losing ground in California's rural-ish north state

Hailey Branson-Potts and Jessica Garrison report for the Los Angeles Times from Shasta County, California, a recent hotbed of election denialism and similar conspiracy theory madness.   (You can read some related past posts here, herehere, here, and here).  The headline is "One far-right leader ousted. Another barely hangs on. Is Shasta rejecting MAGA politics?, and the gist of yesterday's Times story about the March 5 election results follows:    
Shasta County voters have booted from office a key figure in the county’s hard-right shift, even as the fate of a second far-right crusader on the powerful Board of Supervisors still hangs in the balance.

Patrick Jones, a former chair of the five-member board, was soundly defeated in the Super Tuesday election, according to results released by the county registrar Friday afternoon. With 98% of the vote counted, Jones’ opponent, Matt Plummer, a nonprofit adviser, was winning outright with nearly 60% of the vote.

It marked a stunning turn for Jones, a gun store manager who in his one term in office has emerged as a leading voice in an ultraconservative insurgence that transformed this largely rural Northern California county into a national poster child for hard-right governance and election denialism.
In recent months, Jones led the conspiracy-laden charge to dump Dominion voting machines and return the county to hand-counting its ballots. He helped push through a county resolution pledging fealty to the 2nd Amendment and a measure to allow concealed weapons in local government buildings, in defiance of state law.

More broadly, he worked with militia members and secessionists on campaign efforts that dramatically reshaped governance in a county long run by mainstream Republicans.

In another closely watched primary race, Jones’ political ally, Supervisor Kevin Crye, was surviving a recall election by just 46 votes. Crye made headlines last year when he enlisted support for nixing Dominion machines from Mike Lindell, the MyPillow chief executive and pro-Trump election denier.

Postscript March 30, 2024:  Supervisor Kevin Crye survived the recall effort by 50 votes, out of about 9,300 cast.  

Saturday, March 16, 2024

California's Sacramento and San Joaquin Delta in the national news this week

Earlier this week, an episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily, featured Solano County, California's rural reaches, including an area referred to as the Delta and specifically the town called RioVista.  The podcast is about Silicon Valley investors buying up land to build a new city, an enterprise now called California Forever.  I first wrote about the land purchases here and a student wrote this post a few weeks later.  

A day after that episode of The Daily, Here and Now, the syndicated news program by WBUR in Boston, featured a story about how Bay Area (California) artists and makers are moving to the same Delta region, where they find more affordable housing and a surprisingly welcoming community of locals.  

The Daily podcast is mostly an interview with NYT journalist Connor Doughterty, who broke the story about who was behind the land purchases in rural Solano County.  The reason I want to feature this podcast is to showcase the descriptions of rural people and their lifestyle, including their attachment to place, though that has little to do with what is suggested by the story's headline, "The Billionaires' Secret Plan to Solve California's Housing Crisis."  Here are some examples of what drew me to share the podcast, beginning with this description of the place the billionaires have been buying up: 
[I]magine you’re in San Francisco and you drive north further up into the Bay Area into an area called Solano County. And then you go way east and you end up in this very rural corner of the Bay Area that not a lot of people know about. And it’s over here, in this rural corner of Solano County, where our story takes place.

And it’s these open sort of rolling landscape of yellow hills with almost nothing on it. The largest structures there are wind turbines. And a lot of the families out there are farmers. They farm sheep, feed crops, and cows. And many of the people out there have been there since the 1860s.

This is a place where families stay in the same place for generations and pass the farms down several times. This is a place where not a lot changes, but then, in 2017, something very unusual starts to happen. A company called Flannery Associates, which nobody in the area has ever heard of, starts buying land.
And they buy more the next year, the year after that, the year after that, more and more and more and more, until pretty quickly they’re the biggest landowner in the entire county.  So all these neighbors are at supermarkets, they’re at church, they’re at schools. I mean, this is a place where everyone knows everyone.

They’re all on community boards together. They all talk to each other all the time. They all sort of simultaneously get these offers for their land.

Then there's this: 
[Dougherty:] So they not only want everyone’s farm, they start offering people these incredibly sweetheart deals, which say, OK, well, I’m going to buy your land, but you can stay there for the next decade or two, depending on how old they are. And for all that time, you can collect all the income from this land.

They don’t even want the income of the land. So one thing everyone realizes pretty quickly is, these people are not interested in farming.

Michael Barbaro [host] [LAUGHS]: Because if they wanted to farm, they would kick the farmers off the land they had just bought.

Dougherty:  Or they would want to make money from farming.

Barbaro:  Right.

Dougherty:  They don’t care about the price that reflects the income and they don’t even care about collecting the income. So they very obviously have a plan that has nothing to do with farming. And so the question is, what’s the plan? And who are these people?
The next step is to see if they can pass a local ballot initiative to get approval for California Forever: 
Solano County has a rule that says you can’t build in the rural areas, and that’s because they want to preserve these farms just as they’ve been for generations. So at the start of this year, California Forever filed a proposed ballot initiative that would undo that and pave the way for them to eventually build this city.

California Forever CEO Jan Sramek is now holding town hall meetings to try to convince voters to support the land use change.  Along Interstate 80 from Vallejo to Dixon, both cities in Solano County, one now sees California Forever billboards touting the jobs that will come with the new endeavor--and the annual salaries (in the six figures) associated with those jobs.  

And here's a November, 2023, story by KCRA out of Sacramento touting the first tour of the land Flannery Associates bought.  The report mentions the new community would "include open space, agriculture, solar farms, and habitat conservation." 

Here's another terrific quote from the January story by Doughterty, more appropriately headlined, "The Farmers Had What the Billionaires Wanted":
The truth was that Mr. Sramek wanted to build a city from the ground up, in an agricultural region whose defining feature was how little it had changed.  (emphasis mine)
While the podcast headline suggests that the Silicon Valley billionaires were motivated to help solve the state's housing crisis, I don't think that is accurate.  The plan really comes down to profit--one could even say greed.  The investors would not have gambled, otherwise, on getting the necessary local approval, by referendum, before they are able to begin to execute their plan.  

The images Dougherty shares of the agricultural areas of the California Delta compare and contrast in interesting ways with those in the Jon Kalish story that ran on WBUR's "Here and Now" (initially for KQED in January).  Kalish talks more about the Delta town of Isleton, leading with this: 
The small communities tucked into the San Joaquin River Delta are full of contradictions. Located northeast of the San Francisco Bay Area, much of the area is populated by farmers growing crops like wheat, alfalfa and rice. But, visitors might also stumble upon a circus performed on board a huge boat made to look like an island, a community of free spirits living out of tiny homes plopped down in an RV park, even a woman walking a goose on a leash down the street in town. Needless to say, it can be a quirky place.

Once primarily known for farming, Delta communities are changing as people priced out of the Bay Area discover this relatively close region that still offers land and freedom. It has become particularly attractive to artists and other creatives looking to live in a place where they’re free to create without the pressures of city regulators and rising rents. 
“The big question was, ‘Do I stay in the Bay Area, which is getting unsustainably expensive?’” said Michelle Burke, who used to be involved in running American Steel, a sprawling West Oakland artist collective. “My friends are being displaced. They’re losing their workspaces, their art spaces, their homes. It was just unsustainable.”
In Isleton, where Burke relocated, she’s got enough room on her property for six shipping containers to store materials and DIY projects. She’s one of many who have found the Delta to be a refreshing change.

* * *

While the newcomers are visible because of their aesthetic and creative projects, it’s not like people are flooding into these rural communities, he said. In fact, according to Wells, the population numbers have largely stayed the same for a hundred years. Still, some locals distrust the new people.

“The farmers that I talk to are more concerned about that than anybody else,” Wells said. “I think everybody else enjoys some controlled growth. The farmers are concerned because they have farm equipment, and they claim people are coming and stealing crap out of their farmyards.”

Thursday, March 14, 2024

My Rural Travelogue (Part XXXVII): New Cuyama and California's Hidden Valley of Enchantment

Cuyama Valley from New Cuyama, with interpretive sign about the indigenous Chumash

 I had the opportunity to visit the community of New Cuyama, California (population 542) last month, in northern Santa Barbara County.  The area is known as the Hidden Valley of Enchantment.  

I first learned of the Cuyama Valley about a year ago when a student wrote this post about Harvard University buying up land there.  

Vineyard recently planted Harvard University land

I was excited to be passing through the region (ok, well, it was a bit out of my way on my journey from Los Angeles to Fresno) and to have the opportunity to see the enchanted valley for myself.  While the student had written about a sort of water controversy (really, water hoarding) in which Harvard University's endowment was engaged (see their vineyard in the photo to the left), I quickly learned of another water war--this one by local farmers against corporate agriculture, specifically the entities associated with Grimmway and Bolthouse carrots.  In fact, when you first approach the valley from the east, you see massive fields (brown at this time of year), with signs suggesting an association with Grimmway and/or Bolthouse (see photo below).  

When I arrived at my destination for the night, the Cuyama Buckhorn, a recently renovated 1960s motel and diner, I found signs imploring folks to "BOYCOTT CARROTS" AND STAND WITH CUYAMA AGAINST CORPORATE GREED."  These name Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms by name.  

Naturally, I wanted to know more, and I found two stories about the matter, one in the Los Angeles Times and the other by the Associated Press

For the LA Times, Ian James reported last November with this lede: 
In the Cuyama Valley north of Santa Barbara, lush green fields stretch across the desert. Sprinklers spray thousands of acres to grow a single thirsty crop: carrots.

Wells and pumps pull groundwater from as deep as 680 feet, and the aquifer’s levels are dropping.

As the valley’s only water source shrinks, a bitter legal battle over water rights has arisen between carrot growers and the community. Residents are fighting back with a campaign urging everyone to stop buying carrots.
Grimmway Farms land, eastern end of the valley
[Bolthouse and Grimmway] stirred outrage when they, along with several other allied entities, sued property owners throughout the valley, asking a court to determine how much water everyone can pump.

The lawsuit, filed in 2021, has left small farmers, ranchers and other property owners with staggering legal bills. Residents have accused the companies of going to court to try to secure as much water as possible, while forcing painful cuts on smaller farms.

Amy Taxin had reported for the Associated Press a little over a month earlier, "In a remote, dry patch of California, a battle is raging over carrots," with a lede highlighting one of the small farmers in Cuyama.

In the hills of a dry, remote patch of California farm country, Lee Harrington carefully monitors the drips moistening his pistachio trees to ensure they’re not wasting any of the groundwater at the heart of a vicious fight.

He is one of scores of farmers, ranchers and others living near the tiny town of New Cuyama who have been hauled into court by a lawsuit filed by two of the nation’s biggest carrot growers, Grimmway Farms and Bolthouse Farms, over the right to pump groundwater.

The move has saddled residents in the community 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles with mounting legal bills and prompted them to post large signs along the roadway calling on others to boycott carrots and “Stand with Cuyama.”

“It’s just literally mind-boggling where they’re farming,” Harrington said, adding that his legal fees exceed $50,000. “They want our water. They didn’t want the state telling them how much water they can pump.”

The battle playing out in this stretch of rural California represents a new wave of legal challenges over water, long one of the most precious and contested resources in a state that grows much of the country’s produce.

For years, California didn’t regulate groundwater, allowing farmers and residents alike to drill wells and take what they needed. That changed in 2014 amid a historic drought, and as ever-deeper wells caused land in some places to sink.
Grimmway, which has grown carrots in Cuyama for more than three decades, currently farms less than a third of its 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) there and has installed more efficient sprinklers to save water. Seeing groundwater levels decline and pumping costs rise, the company began growing carrots in other states, but doesn’t plan to uproot from Cuyama, said Jeff Huckaby, the company’s president and chief executive.

“It’s one of the best carrot-growing regions that we’ve come across,” Huckaby said, adding that arid regions are best so carrot roots extend below ground for moisture, growing longer. “The soil up here is ideal, temperatures are ideal, the climate is ideal.”

This water controversy aside, I want to share a few more photos of the town, which has a small grocery story and cafe in addition to the spiffy refubished Cuyama Buckhorn.  There is both an elementary school and a high school, a branch of the Santa Maria (Santa Barbara County) public library, a family resource center, a recreation district, a community service district, a sheriff's substation and fire house, as well as a transfer station (dump). Nearby is the Carrizo Plain National Monument, famous for its spring wildflowers, with the San Andreas Fault running through it.  

All photos are (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

Interpretive sign noting that California 
Condors live in the Valley 

U.S. Post Office, grocery store, and cafe, New Cuyama

Coutny Road Yard

Cuyama Buckhorn motel resort and diner

Cuyama Valley Recreation District Office

New Cuyama Transfer Station

New Cuyama is about 50 miles east of Santa Maria

Santa Barbara County Ballot drop box
Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center
Cuyama Valley High School

United Methodist Church, New Cuyama

Santa Barbara County Sheriff and Fire Station
New Cuyama

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

On "non-rural rural" folks

That's the brain teaser in the title of Kristin Lunz Trujillo's latest paper in Political Behavior.  The full title is "Feeling Out of Place: Who Are the Non‐Rural Rural Identifiers, and Are They Unique Politically?"  Here's the abstract: 

Previous work suggests rural identity often stems from direct experience living in a rural area, and that categorical group membership occurs before social identification. Puzzlingly, however, some U.S. survey takers not living in a rural area indicate that being rural is part of their identity. Using ANES data from 2020 (N=8280) and 2019 (N=3165), as well as original survey data from YouGov (N=2615), I find that these non-rural rural identifiers are similar to rural identifiers in rural areas in terms of group-based affect and values, and are more right-leaning and populist than people who do not identify as rural (regardless of their location). Few consistent demographic differences between rural and non-rural rural identifiers exist. I conclude that: (1) rural identification has similar political, attitudinal, and demo- graphic tendencies regardless of respondent location, and (2) non-rural rural identifiers have either been socialized in a rural area but moved away, or they personally affiliate with values and norms of rural areas despite not categorically being part of the group. This study has implications for the study of urban–rural political behavior, and for our understanding of identity and politics more broadly.

Here's the introduction to the article, which is more illuminating for a lay reader: 

There has been a widening urban–rural political divide over recent decades in the U.S. and elsewhere (Gimpel et al., 2020; Rodden, 2019). One explanation for this divide involves identity-centered considerations, including rural identity and its relationship with place-based grievances (Cramer, 2016; Lunz Trujillo & Crowley, 2022; Lyons & Utych, 2021; Munis, 2020). Recent work has found rural identity to be politically relevant in various ways and is predictive of anti-urban sentiment (Lyons & Utych, 2022), Trump vote (Lunz Trujillo & Crowley, 2022), support for anti-establishment candidates (Cramer, 2016), anti-intellectualism (Lunz Trujillo, 2022), and more.

However, in many of these survey-based studies, a nontrivial number of people indicate that being rural is part of their identity—that is, they say being rural is where they feel they belong or is important to their self-image—yet they are not actually from a rural area (e.g., Lunz Trujillo, 2022; Nemerever & Rogers, 2021). This poses a theoretical puzzle. First, ethnographic work argues that rural identity is a place-based identity stemming directly from lived experience of that place (Bell, 1992; Ching & Creed, 1997), e.g., rural identity comes from having lived and experienced rural life. Second, and relatedly, Social Identity Theory (SIT) suggests one is typically a group member (e.g., a rural resident) before socially identifying with the group (e.g., adopting a rural social identity) (Huddy, 2003; Scheepers & Ellem- ers, 2019; Tajfel, 1970). People who identify as rural but are not rural residents—the “non-rural rural identifiers”—also pose an issue in accounting for the urban–rural divide: if many non-rural people hold rural identities, then how rural is this identity really?

Here, I investigate why some people indicate they are rural identifiers—strong ones even—but also say they do not live or have not grown up in a rural area. In addition, I examine whether rural versus non-rural rural identifiers differ in their political dispositions. This question is related to, but still distinct from, recent work investigating a similar puzzle: why do some non-rural individuals score high on rural resentment measures? (Dawkins et al., 2023). In the case of rural resentment, the survey questions used to measure rural resentment are conducive to “rural empathy” while not necessarily capturing the group identification aspect. For instance, one could think that rural areas do not get their fair share of resources in society while not indicating that rurality is important or central to their self-image. Rather, I examine why people adopt a rural social identity, which goes beyond simply empathizing with rural-based grievances into what constitutes ones’ self-view and identity.

I argue that rural identifiers, regardless of where they live, should psychologically affiliate with the group’s perceived values and intergroup affect, which forms the basis for identification even if group membership is not achieved. Since non-rural rural identifiers should have a shared set of norms and affect, rural identity’s political correlates are similar regardless of current location. Relatedly, I expect most rural identifiers have either grown up in a rural area (e.g., socialized as rural) or currently live in a rural area.

This reminds me of my long-standing theory that people one generation removed from a rural area still identify as rural, in part because they still have extended family like grandparents, even parents there. But, this excerpt suggests, it's also because they embrace what they consider to be rural values.  

Monday, March 11, 2024

Another authoritative rebuttal of Schaller and Waldman's "White Rural Rage"

Kristin Lunz Trujillo, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, writes in Newsweek today under the headline, "'White Rural Rage' Cites my Research.  It Gets Everything about Rural America Wrong."  Here's an excerpt:  

Rural Americans' identity is much more about positive emotions they feel toward rural areas and much less about negative emotions toward others. The idea that white rural Americans in general experience unhinged levels of rage is laughable. If you want to see how ridiculous white rural Americans find the idea that they are enraged, they have been posting about their supposed rage on X with pictures of benign, disarming, or exaggerated images, with the ironic caption: "How do you express your #whiteruralrage?"

The thing is, political anger isn't restricted to white rural America. It's something that's actually a shared experience across different walks of life in the U.S.: Most Americans when prompted to think about politics become angry, hateful, and afraid of the struggles of contemporary America, our current political climate, and people we perceive to be politically dissimilar. Partisan polarization based on strong negative emotions has become a harmful force in society that erodes democracy, and it's found in spades on the Right and the Left, and experts and intellectuals are no exception.
As political scientists and commentators in particular, we should be the most self-aware of this, not the ones who fall prey to it or make it worse. Yet because of White Rural Rage's lack of rigorous evidence that white rural Americans writ large are the greatest threat to U.S. democracy, the book starts to feel less like a carefully considered set of conclusions and more like an attack on a group of people who are the partisan other.

On that note, the authors of White Rural Rage cite my own work examining how people who feel that being rural is a strong part of their identity have a heightened distrust of experts and intellectuals. Why is this the case? There's a myriad of reasons, but White Rural Rage is a prime example of how intellectuals sow distrust by villainizing a group of people who are already disproportionately shut out from science, higher education, and similar opportunities.

Although the authors don't misrepresent my work, they do criticize rural Americans for their anti-intellectualism, building on tired tropes of rural people being backward, dumb, violent, and ignorant, while pushing a narrative that worsens such distrust in the first place.

Nick Jacobs, a political scientist whose work is also cited in the Schaller and Waldman book, made similar points last week on the Daily Yonder about how the authors of White Rural Rage misrepresent his empirical research.  

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Public defender crisis in Washington State afflicts both rural and urban counties

Daniel Beekman reported for the Seattle Times late last month on the indigent defense (aka "public defense") crisis facing Washington State, both its rural and urban sectors.  A few days later, Marcy Stamper reported for the Methow Valley News, out of nonmetro Okanogan County in north central Washington, under the headline "Public defenders struggle under big caseloads."  

Here's an excerpt from the Seattle Times story, which provides the big picture:  

Staffing shortages and burnout-inducing caseloads are squeezing urban areas like King County, rural areas like Asotin County and communities in between. Facing each other across the Columbia River, Benton and Franklin counties are struggling as they compete for attorneys from the same shallow pool.
There are consequences. In some instances, people presumed innocent are languishing in jail without counsel. In others, prosecutions have been delayed or dismissed because defendants lack representation, potentially putting crime victims and others at risk. In still others, defendants are getting shortchanged because their attorneys are too busy. It’s difficult to get a grip on the scale of such problems, because statewide data is lacking.

Meanwhile, cash-strapped counties are watching their expenses soar with minimal support from the Legislature. Some counties are actually suing the state over that reality, and experts say it’s only a matter of time before an unrepresented defendant also sues, alleging their rights have been violated.

As a further illustration of the problem and how it links to jail populations, Beekman writes that the director of the Washington Office of Public Defense (OPD) last year asked the Washington Supreme Court for a moratorium on attorney assignments for defendants who are not in custody so that backlogs of jailed clients could be cleared.  The court denied the request.   It did, however, ask OPD to survey the counties, which revealed that the highest shortages of public defenders are in rural counties.  According to Stamper's story in the Methow Valley News, 

Okanogan County had the third-highest vacancy rate in the state, with 50% of spots unfilled at the time, surpassed only by Asotin County (67%) and Lewis County (56%). (Seven of the 39 counties didn’t respond to the survey.)

The Washington Supreme Court is considering lowering caseload caps, to more aggressively limit how many cases each attorney can handle.  Doing so too quickly, however, will aggravate the situation because too few attorneys are available to absorb the cases that the existing attorney work force would need to shed.  Indeed, Beekman's story also considers the struggle to recruit attorneys to do this work, including in rural areas.  

Washington lawmakers are working on a bill that would establish a state-managed internship program to train law students and graduates as defenders and prosecutors in rural areas. But internships won’t reverse the shortages overnight, and a proposal to repay student loans for new recruits has been cut during the bill’s journey through the current legislative session. A separate bill that would greatly bolster state funding for public defense is likely dead, with no action taken since the session began in January.

* * * 

Fewer people are going to law school; young attorneys are choosing less-intense jobs with better pay; the COVID pandemic created backlogs; policing changes like body-worn cameras are making cases more time-consuming to handle.

Beekman explains some of the consequences for defendants of not having a lawyer advise them:  

Defendants have no one to talk with about their options. To argue for their release so they can keep a job or custody of a child. To interview witnesses. To secure evidence, like surveillance video before a recording gets taped over.

In neighboring Oregon, a federal district court in November ordered the "release anyone haled in jail without an attorney for more than seven days after being arraigned."

Beekman writes about rural areas in particular, and in doing so he references phenomena I and others have written about in other states--including paying attorneys to drive from other counties to provide indigent defense in a county with too few attorneys or where the attorneys in that county have conflicts.  ("Windscreen time" and the need for local governments to pay for it was an issue discussed a decade ago at the University of South Dakota symposium kicking off Project Rural Practice, which became the Rural Attorney Recruitment Program).  

In some of Washington’s smallest counties, officials scramble to hire out-of-town contractors and pay them by the hour to represent defendants because there are so few local attorneys and even fewer who want the work.

Ten counties in the state have no more than 30 residents practicing law of any sort, Dan Clark, a senior deputy prosecutor in Yakima County, wrote in a column for the state Bar Association last year, noting that attorney shortages are resulting in vacancies on the prosecutorial as well as the defense side.

“Most law school graduates tend to be in their 20s or 30s, and to be blunt, most rural areas simply do not offer the variety of restaurants, entertainment, and social opportunities that urban areas can provide,” Clark wrote. “Many law school graduates have significant student loan debt, and lower salaries in rural areas — particularly for governmental attorneys — can be a barrier to attracting and retaining new and young lawyers to rural communities.”

Several defense attorneys under contract with Okanogan County in North Central Washington live elsewhere, including over the mountains in Western Washington, said Anna Burica, who leads the work and manages the roster. Judges allow them to appear in court via video, reluctantly.

“You want that face-to-face contact before making a big decision, and a lot of people just don’t get that opportunity,” Okanogan Judge Robert Grim said.

Here's what Stemper reports out of Okanogan County, leading with information about the caseloads there: 

For now, the workload is manageable and — crucially — within the limits set by the Washington State Bar Association. But if it continues at the current pace, some of the county’s public defenders won’t be able to take more cases, said Anna Burica of Burica Law, who holds the contract for public defense work for Okanogan County.

Burica handles cases on her own and subcontracts with seven other attorneys to provide legal representation to indigent defendants in Okanogan County.

Although the year started with an especially heavy load, the situation in Okanogan County is better than in some of Washington’s counties — no one is sitting in jail without an attorney, Burica said. But attorneys are overworked and struggle to find time to meet with clients, collect evidence, and prepare for defense.

“We’re overloaded, but all within the state standards. I hope it will slow down,” Burica told the Methow Valley News in February.
* * * 
While the state requires the county to provide indigent defense services, it pays just 5% of the county’s costs — even less if you consider that the county isn’t paying attorneys what they’re worth, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover told the News. “It’s an unfunded mandate,” he said.

Moreover, Okanogan County has a higher proportion of indigent defendants than wealthier counties, creating a disproportionate burden, Hover said.
Washington is one of just 12 states in the country that provide only minimal funding for indigent defense. Here's more on the cost implications--including local taxes--of these attorney deficits, per Beekman in the Seattle Times
In January, tiny Asotin County in Eastern Washington had only one attorney under contract to represent defendants charged with felonies, and he lived 100 miles away in Spokane, County Commissioner Brian Shinn said. Shelling out $150 per hour to other attorneys boosted the county’s defense costs (by about 43% last year), putting strain on an already-tight budget, he said.

Although Asotin County is raising its sales tax rate this year, most stores in the area are located across the Idaho border, so the revenue bump will be modest, Shinn said, explaining why he’s glad the Association of Counties sued the state in September, claiming the Legislature should step in.
"The state sends us $30,000,” while the county spent about $825,000 last year, the county commissioner said. “The state is really dropping the ball.”

Stamper provides more details on the funding situation in Okanogan County, as they relate to the overall state budget to support these services. 

Public-defense expenses in Washington exceed $200 million annually, but the state provides just $5.9 million of that, which is distributed to counties based on a complex formula set out in state law. An additional $1 million supplements the allocation to cities, Hulsey [managing attorney for OPD] said.

Of the $5.9 million, 6% is divvied equally among all counties. The remaining funding is allocated proportionately, half based on county population and half on the number of filings in each county’s Superior Court.

Although Okanogan County’s 2024 budget provides about $1.3 million for public defense, less than $50,000 of that comes from the state — in 2024, the county got $48,532, which will cover just 3.7% of the county’s costs, Hover [Okanogan County Commissioner] said.

Again the strain on county budgets echoes what I found in my deep dive in 2010 into how indigent defense is funded in Arizona. There, too, the state makes meager contributions to a constitutionally mandated function that is thus largely the fiscal responsibility of county governments. 

On the theme of spatial inequality, here are two more revealing data points from Stamper's story:

The state funding formula is not only inadequate, but it results in inequities. For example, in 2021, Grant County got less than 3% of its total spending from the state, while Garfield County got about 20%, according to a lawsuit filed against Washington by WSAC [Washington State Association of Counties].

Per capita spending on indigent defense services varies widely across counties. In 2018, Whitman County spent $6.71 per capita on public defense, whereas Skagit County spent $48.15, WSAC said.
Both of these deeply reported stories are well worth a read in their entirety.   Another terrific story about Washington State's court system--including the struggle of litigants to access its courthouses--is here.  

Friday, March 8, 2024

"Small Towns. Big Opportunities."

Georgetown University's Center for Education and the Workforce recently published Small Towns, Big Opportunities.  The subhead is: "Many Workers in Rural Areas Have Good Jobs, but These Areas Need Greater Investment in Education, Training, and Career Counseling."  

Here's part of the summary:
Rural America has long been perceived as “left behind” by policies that leave it struggling while benefiting bustling urban cities and suburbs. That narrative holds some truth: rural America has a declining population, along with lower educational attainment and lower workforce participation than urban America. But while rural America certainly faces challenges, it also has its own strengths and assets.

Small Towns, Big Opportunities: Many Workers in Rural Areas Have Good Jobs, but These Areas Need Greater Investment in Education, Training, and Career Counseling counters some of the negative stereotypes and finds that working adults in rural America are almost as likely (50 percent) as working adults in urban America (54 percent) to have a good job. 

Under the heading "Rural America's Assets" is this: 

The rural workforce represents 13 percent of the total 25-to-64-year-old working population in the US and holds 12 percent, or a roughly proportionate share, of the country’s good jobs. In particular, the blue-collar economy in rural America is strong, as blue-collar occupations employ 31 percent of rural workers compared to 21 percent of urban workers. Due to this strong blue-collar economy, workers with lower levels of educational attainment fare better in rural areas than in urban areas. For example, workers with a high school diploma as their highest level of attainment hold 26 percent of good jobs in rural areas, compared to 15 percent of good jobs in urban areas.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Oregon State Bar surveys the state's rural attorneys with a view to alleviating rural legal deserts

The Oregon Bar Bulletin recently reported under the headline, "Attracting Rural Lawyers."  The subhead is "Recruitment and Retention of Rural Attorneys Remains Critical to OSB's Mission."  Here's an excerpt from Cliff Collins' story: 

The ONLD [Oregon New Lawyers Division] held a discussion at its 2023 retreat on the issue [of how the Oregon State Bar can better support rural practitioneres]. Attendees included new Oregon Chief Justice Meagan Flynn, division and bar leadership, and some key OSB staff members.

One result was that the ONLD launched a Rural Project Work Group. As the first order of business, the group sponsored a survey last spring of all rural practitioners to learn more about issues facing them in the recruitment and retention of lawyers.

The division sent the survey to all attorneys practicing in counties the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries considers “nonurban” for minimum-wage purposes. This included 18 counties totaling 507 active, inactive and retired OSB members. One hundred forty-seven people responded, a 29% response rate, which is considered a healthy percentage, according to Catherine Petrecca, the OSB’s member services manager. Participants were given ample opportunities to provide open-ended comments, in addition to selecting responses from a list of provided options.

What the Survey Found

A majority of respondents expressed positive views about practicing in a rural environment. Although the survey’s executive summary did not identify names or locations of individuals who answered the survey, the Bulletin spoke with several bar members who practice in various parts of the state.
One rural practice trade-off--as one of the anonymous "responses to the survey noted--was that 'fewer people can pay for the full cost of your services, but lots of people need those services.'"

The story includes some other survey results: 
Survey respondents often mentioned lack of traffic, and ease of parking and getting to work as benefits of rural practice. 

* * * 

The bar survey found that some respondents remain pessimistic about recruitment potential and, even more so, about retention of new lawyers. One said: “Part of the problem with hiring is retaining attorneys. They work here for a year or two to get experience while they wait to move back to the larger areas.”

* * * 

Another outcome of the efforts by the ONLD was a list of recommendations made to the bar’s Board of Governors last September addressing rural practice. One of those recommendations was that the OSB extend its Loan Repayment Assistance Program — or LRAP — to include offering the opportunity to apply for repayment assistance to lawyers practicing in rural settings who meet other LRAP qualifications. The Board of Governors approved the recommendation, and the LRAP extension will take effect during this year’s application process. 
All of the bar members who spoke with the Bulletin supported the concept of the OSB’s expansion of the LRAP program to assist rural practitioners.

You can learn more about the Oregon State Bar's LRAP program as  

Another survey of attorneys--this one of all the state's attorneys, not only the rural ones, is reported here.  

Friday, March 1, 2024

Colleges reach out to serve rural communities, aiming to counter negative perceptions of higher education

Liam Elder-Conners of Vermont Public Radio reports for NPR.  Here's the summarizing blurb:

University of Vermont students are providing hands-on help to rural towns in the state. It's part of a trend to help build bridges between higher education and rural communities.

And here's an excerpt, with the lead in by A Martinez:   

Towns in rural Vermont faced lots of challenges - housing shortages, struggling downtowns and too little disaster preparedness. College students are stepping up to help, though. From The Hechinger Report and Vermont Public, here's Liam Elder-Connors.

LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, BYLINE: KTP mobile home park in Bristol, Vt., is nestled in a convenient place - right next to the high school and about a mile from the small downtown. And it's affordable. The monthly lot rent is $375. But a recent windstorm hit the park hard. KTP property manager Chris Ouelette pointed to a home in the park with plywood nailed around the bottom.

CHRIS OUELETTE: It looks like they just had to replace some skirting. We have a roof that was ripped off a house over there. We have a couple sheds that have been lost.

ELDER-CONNORS: Ouelette, who's in charge of rent collection and some park maintenance, tries to keep the budgets manageable for the 96 mostly low-income residents. But with more extreme weather, Ouelette says mobile home parks need help.

OUELETTE: It's very challenging because we don't have the people. The funding also is not there to be able to have - you know, have more staff on board to be able to tackle these bigger projects.

ELDER-CONNORS: The University of Vermont is stepping in. UVM senior lecturer Kelly Hamshaw, along with her students, are helping KTP and other parks tackle overdue projects, like assessing flood risk and developing emergency plans for when natural disasters strike.

KELLY HAMSHAW: So when you're knocking on people's doors and saying, hi, I'm a student from the University of Vermont, people would be like - they'd look at you a little perplexed at first. And then, you know, what do you want to know?

ELDER-CONNORS: UVM isn't the only college doing this. Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Wisconsin received money from the same federal program that funds UVM's work. Glenda Gillaspy at the University of Wisconsin says they're setting up weather stations to help cranberry farmers time their harvests, which involves flooding their fields.