Friday, May 31, 2024

My Rural Travelogue (Part XXXIX): Hvar Island, Croatia

Island of Hvar, Croatia
all photos (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

I've been traveling in Slovenia and Croatia the last week or so and, not surprisingly, paying particular attention to rural places.  A few days ago, I visited the Island of Hvar (population 10,678 on an island 42 kilometers long).  Our guide--because it was raining and she was delaying the start of our bicycle tour--drove us over the mountain between Hvar town and Stari Grad (population 2,772), and through the village of Velo Grablje, which featured this sign about the "entity" being protected cultural heritage.  (Going over the mountain as we did was a longer-distance alternative to going through a tunnel).  We saw what appeared to be the only restaurant in the village overflowing with families following first communion at the nearby church.  (We also stopped in the "ghost town" of Malo Grablje, a few kilometers below, along the same "back road").  Among the things we have learned here is that not only music and art, but also recipes and--as we see here--entire villages can be deemed protected cultural heritage.  

As we have found to be the case elsewhere in Croatia--including on Hvar and other islands in Dalmatia, small-scale agriculture is widespread.  Many folks have small garden plots in their front or back yards, and on Hvar many also have plots in the Stari Grad Plain, prime agricultural land that made Stari Grad such a desirable location for settlement.  Many also have small vineyards and/or olive groves, which are also on terraces that stretch up the mountainsides.   

Vineyard near Stari Grad, Hvar Island
Stone wall along ancient Roman road on Stari Grad Plain

Potato plants are as common as vineyards and olive groves on the island.

Little free library in Stari Grad

Our guide, who is viola player as well as a cyclist and librarian, told us about a recent benefit concert she played to raise funds to buy food for donkeys kept by a local woman.  The yield from the event raised a few thousand Euros for the care of the donkeys.  That outdoor concert was held near the restaurant featured in this advertisement, adjacent to the village of Dol, which rises above the Stari Grad Plain.
Public library, Stari Grad.  It is above a coffee shop,
right on the waterfront, next to the city hall.

K-4 school in the village of Dol; older children go to school in Stari Grad 

Artichoke plant next to a stone wall on road between Dol and Vrbnj

Hvar is known for its lavender, which was in early season.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Judge in rural-ish county censured, partly for failure to disclose relationships with attorneys, litigants

This week, California's Commission on Judicial Performance censured and removed a judge from the Humboldt County California Superior Court.  Jackson Guilfoil reports for the Times-Standard, Eureka on the matter involving Gregory Kreis, who admitted 17 of 21 counts against him.  The former judge has also agreed never again to serve as a judicial officer.  (A prior post with background on the allegations against Kreis is here).

The Commission on Judicial Performance stated:  

The commission issued a censure and bar to Judge Kreis as a result of multiple acts of misconduct. In at least 44 cases over which he presided, Judge Kreis failed to disclose his relationships with seven attorneys; his familiarity with individuals involved in matters before him; or the extent of his relationships with the individuals. The extent and type of this misconduct is serious. Also, the commission commented that it took particularly seriously the judge's sexual misconduct with a female acquaintance. Further, the commission based the censure and bar on Judge Kreis's conduct in treating attorneys and litigants poorly, including making inappropriate, sarcastic, and gratuitous comments to them.

This familiarity among litigants, attorneys and judges reflects a challenge for administration of justice in rural-ish places:  the lack of anonymity or "high density of acquaintanceship" that marks these communities.   That is no excuse, however, for Kreis' failure to disclose these relationships.   

The Guilfoil story includes this summary, which touches on the conflict issue, as well as other more salacious charges levied at Kreis: 

Most of the CJP's initial accusations remained in the stipulated agreement, including a moment when Kreis touched the butt of a mutual friend after being told not to, though the majority of the counts stemmed from hearings where Kreis either did not disclose a conflict or would not recuse himself. Several cases cited in the decision were litigated by Kreis' personal friends, former friends or attorneys representing him in other cases.

Kreis' attorney, James Murphy, said Kreis agreed to these terms because he lost his recent bid for re-election.  Murphy is quoted, "He lost the re-election bid, so he was going to be a short-timer. No sense staying on."  Murphy also commented that he "believes the CJP interfered in the election by announcing their disciplinary inquiry into Kreis during campaign season." 

Here is a story about Kreis' appointment to the bench, by Governor Jerry Brown, in 2017.  He was previously a public defender in Humboldt County.  Kreis is an alumnus of CSU Humboldt, which suggests he may have grown up in the region.  

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

NYT op-ed on Biden's investments in rural America: Why they matter and how to make them happen

Tony Pipa of the Brookings Institution wrote in the New York Times opinion section this weekend under the headline, "Biden Wants to Send Billions to Rural America, but This Must Happen First."  

President Biden regularly emphasizes how the major pieces of legislation he has signed — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act — expand opportunities for Americans.

This is especially true for rural Americans. Those three laws appropriated billions of dollars — about $464 billion — for many projects that could be particularly relevant to rural communities, allowing them to dream of a different economic future.

I am often asked if rural voters will give Mr. Biden credit for all that money and the changes it could bring and will show their appreciation at the ballot box. My answer is that it is unrealistic to expect place-specific investments to have an immediate impact on elections.

Rural places remain skeptical that federal policymakers have their best interests at heart. Proving otherwise will take intention and time.

Pipa goes on to explain how important implementation is, by which he refers to the lack of bandwidth many rural local governments have to plan, develop projects, and write grants.   This is because many of these local governments are run by officials who are elected but unpaid.   Here's some data he uses to illustrate the point:   

Only 15 percent of Michigan’s smallest jurisdictions, for example, express confidence in their ability to get access to federal grants, whereas the rate for jurisdictions over 30,000 people is close to 40 percent. A national survey published in 2019 found more than half of rural counties experienced moderate or significant fiscal stress, so for programs where local governments must match the federal funding, those counties face an additional challenge.

This, Pipa predicts, portends likely inequitable distribution of these federal monies.  He also gives a nod to the recent debate over whether rural places are worthy of investment.  

These human capital issues and the impact they have on garnering federal dollars, as well as charitable grant funding, have been addressed in prior posts here, here, and here.  

Pipa's X (formerly Twitter) thread about the op-ed is here.  

I discuss some of the issues Pipa raises--in particular the challenge of showing rural folks that the federal government is working for them, too--in my recent commentary in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society:  "Mustering the political will to help left-behind places in a polarized USA.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Solving a rural county's public defender shortage one (or two) lawyer(s) at a time

The Methow Valley News reported earlier this month on an expansion of the public defender staff in Okanogan County, Washington (population 42,000).  (A prior post about the situation in this county that straddles the Cascades, on the Canadian border, is here).  The story is by Marcy Stamper, and the lede follows: 

The situation for people in Okanogan County who can’t afford a lawyer — and for the attorneys who represent them in court — has improved, with two lawyers joining the county’s public defense team and more money for indigent defense available through the end of the year.

One attorney started at the end of April and the other starts next week, Anna Burica of Burica Law, who holds the contract for public defense work for Okanogan County, said last week. One lawyer will work full-time on cases in Okanogan County Superior Court, and the other will work a 75% schedule in District Court. Neither attorney is based in Okanogan County, so both will handle many cases remotely, traveling to the county as needed for trials, certain hearings, and to meet with clients, Burica said.

The additional attorneys and money from the county “will keep us afloat a little longer,” Burica said. Because the state places limits on the number of cases each attorney can handle, Burica and another attorney expect to reach their limit by August, she said.

The story then describes new standards regarding case load limits for public defenders.  These standards that will be implemented over the next four years: 

The new numbers mean that Okanogan County will need 10 full-time attorneys for Superior Court cases, another 10 in District Court, and two in juvenile court. That’s a huge increase, since current contracts (a mix of full- and part-time) add up to just over three attorneys, Burica said. Burica handles some cases as well as administrative duties.

It’s going to be very difficult to find 22 attorneys to do full-time criminal work, Burica said. The pool for new attorneys is not encouraging — right now, there aren’t even 10 attorneys in Okanogan County, including those in private practice, who practice criminal law on the defense side, she said.

Okanogan County will also need 17 legal assistants to help with investigations and mitigation, Burica said. Mitigation specialists look at a defendant’s entire history — such as family issues or abuse — and can help build a case that avoids the maximum penalty, she said.

Stamper also includes some data I've not seen before regarding law school enrollment nationally: 

The situation is complicated by a drop in law-school enrollment nationwide. There was an average of 43,000 first-year students from 1988 through 2000, but then enrollment grew, peaking at 52,400 in 2010. After that, there was a steep drop for four years, ultimately stabilizing at about 38,000 new law students annually.

These data ignore the fact that most law students desire to work in metropolitan areas rather than rural ones, a bigger issue than the sheer number of those earning J.D. degrees.  Read more on these issues here.

Stamper quotes Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover as saying that that the state's failure to fund indigent defense makes it an "unfunded mandate, which counties struggle to afford.  He says the cost of providing indigent defense, which will rise with the new standards, could be "in the millions."  Here's some additional context from Stamper: 

The state Legislature has also appropriated a small amount of money for public defense. That includes $900,000 (split between cities and counties) to improve the quality of public defense services.

Hover called that additional state money “a drop in the hat.”  Stamper continues: 

Another $1.86 million will go toward internships and training, in part with the aim of encouraging attorneys to practice in rural areas. Some appropriations are specifically for representation connected with drug crimes, parents programs, and cases involving the insanity defense.

Read more about what is happening at the state level from Daniel Beekman in the Seattle Times, here and here.  

Sunday, May 26, 2024

On rural gentrification, and the ensuing housing shortage, in coastal California

Hailey Branson-Potts reported for the Los Angeles Times a few days ago from Marin County, the famously wealthy county that lies just north of San Francisco, on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.  The headline is "Looking to vacation on the California coast?  Marin County just made it harder."  Here are some excerpts particularly relevant to the issue of rural gentrification. 

In Marin County, the explosive growth in short-term rentals has been particularly divisive in smaller towns. There, the number of full-time residents is dwindling while millionaires’ second — and third — homes, many of which are used as seasonal rentals, sit empty much of the year.

That’s a cruel paradox when there are not enough affordable homes for people who work in those communities, proponents of the cap say.

In unincorporated Marin County, the median sales price of a single-family home rose 98% from 2013 to 2021, to $1.91 million, according to a countywide housing plan adopted last year.

The story quotes Sarah Jones, who directs the Marin County Community Development Agency: 

Housing affordability and housing supply were really the driving factor in why we’re addressing short-term rentals right now.  There’s not housing being built. And the housing that’s available, people are just seeing that it’s more profitable and easier to use it as a short-term rental than to rent it out long term.

Branson-Potts' story continues: 

Although Marin County has much open space, it has little room to expand housing. Roughly 85% of its land, including the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is public space or agricultural land protected from development.
Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who represents the scenic West Marin towns where vacation rentals are most heavily concentrated, said they have transformed “tiny communities where even losing a few homes is a big deal.”  
Rodoni continues: 
Our volunteer fire departments are losing volunteers.  Our schoolteachers, we’re having a hard time locating them in the community; they have to commute long distances.

Read more about this region of California in several posts here.  Posts about Sonoma County, just to the north of Marin, are here, here, and here.  

Saturday, May 25, 2024

A rural listening (or rallying?) tour in North Carolina

X Post by Anderson Breeze Clayton
from Pasquotank County, NC
I've written a great deal about Anderson Breeze Clayton in the last couple of years.  The North Carolinian is the youngest state Democratic Party chair in the nation.  I've also written about the need for candidates to show up in rural places--the need not to neglect the rural vote, including in Politico here and in the Daily Yonder here.  

In the last few weeks, these two topics have come together as Clayton has been promoting her rural tour, which I'll help document here, based on her X (formerly Twitter) account.  The photo above is from Pasquotank County, population 40,568.

Above is a screenshot of Clayton touting Stop No. 10 on the Rural Tour (note her capitalization here,) in Gates County, population 10,478, on the Virginia state line, in the eastern part of the state. 
Above is Pitt County, population 170,243, which is the Greenville Metro area and so not rural.  But Clayton mentions the rural tour in this post to X, perhaps because Pitt County has rural reaches. 
Above Clayton touts the candidates who are showing up in all 100 counties--which is definitely going to include some rural ones! 
Stop No. 5 was Currituck County, population 28,000, on April 29, 2024.  The county is on the coast, and also borders Virginia.  It is part of the Virginia Beach-Chesapeake VA-NC Combined Statiscal area and includes part of the Outer Banks. 
Here's another post from Stop No. 6, Pitt County.
Stop No. 9 was Hertford County, population 21,552 in the Inner Banks region.
Here Clayton quotes a story that quotes her, "It's a damn good thing to be a Democrat, y'all." and in her re-post, "especially say it in rural North Carolina," with the hashtag #RuralMatters.  

Clayton's more recent posts show her traveling with Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Jamie Harrison, of neighboring South Carolina, in the eastern part of NC.  

I'm impressed, as always, with Clayton's commitment to rural North Carolina.   I look forward to seeing where she goes next--and how the Democrats fare in the state in Election 2024.  

Postscript:  the May 29, 2024 NPR Politics podcast is all about the Democrats efforts to win North Carolina, though it attends little to rural issues and doesn't mention Clayton.  It does mention that the Democrats have opened offices in places like Rocky Mount (population 54,000), which isn't really rural. It's also just 45 miles from the state's capital, Raleigh.  

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Rural Legal Scholarship: Magassa and Friedman's "Toward Inclusive Justice"

 Lassana Magassa and Batya Friedman of the University of Washington just published "Toward inclusive justice: Applying the Diverse Voices design method to improve the Washington State Access to Justice Technology Principles" in the ACM Journal on Responsible Computing.  Here's part of the abstract: 

We situate our work in literature on inclusive justice, public interest technology in the courts, value sensitive design, and experiential experts. Then we present our research context, the Washington State ATJ-TPrinc, and our method, the Diverse Voices. We provide details on our methods, including our project genesis and implementation of the Diverse Voices process. We conducted experiential expert panels with four stakeholder groups: legal professionals, currently/formerly incarcerated people, immigrant communities, and rural communities. We then report key concerns and insights which surfaced during the panels as well as the review process and adoption of the revised Principles by the Washington State Supreme Court.

Here is what the authors say about why they chose to include rural stakeholders as one of the four groups of stakeholders in their study:

Panel 4: Rural Communities. Selected to balance the historical leaning for urban communities to be at the center of discussions about technology in the courts [35, 68]; the needs of people in rural areas, their distance from judicial bodies, their digital capabilities, and other factors are likely to differ from those who live in urban areas in Washington State.

This is from the Rural Communities Panel, which features the subhead "Experiential Experts" 

We recruited three experiential experts from rural Western Washington state with the help of public librarians and held the panel in a local public library. Panelists included: (1) an attorney who practiced family law, counseling, and mediation; (2) the city attorney in a town with a population less than 5,000; and (3) a legal assistant who worked as a parenting coach.

Panelists were concerned about bias in the justice system – both bias introduced by technology and bias introduced by human actors. The Scope and Access to Justice for All principles state that technology should not create unfairness or bias. Panelists concurred but also felt that it was important to acknowledge that technology could keep human bias in check.

From "Key Concerns and Insights"

“Human beings are massively biased too, so it's really balancing ... maybe using the two [humans and technology] to help balance out.” – Rural communities panelist
Panelists insisted that having the technology available is useless if the judicial system's actors are not sure how or when the technology can or should be used.
“Oh, one thing before I forget, on phones ... I don‟t know if they still do, but I did a trial down there two years ago, and they have a hard and fast rule that you cannot use a phone in the courtroom. I did a trial, and my assistant was doing research on her phone. The judge said, put that phone away. I said, wait a minute, that‟s impairing my ability to represent my client. The judge said, f**k you, you put that phone away.” – Rural communities panelist
The panelists went on to say that when they used a laptop for the same purpose, the judge had no objections. To this end, panelists proposed that the Maximizing Public Awareness and Use principle should advocate for training for those who interact with or are a part of the justice system.

Panelists also questioned the ATJ-TPrinc focus on "high-tech." They countered with the term "high-touch" to bring the focus back to the people who carry out activities in the judicial system.
“High-tech is great, but this is human beings we're dealing with and relationships. People need to be heard to feel justice. When I see people talking about tech stuff, that rarely comes in.” – Rural communities panelist
The panelists expressed disappointment with the focus on technology over people. While acknowledging that the ATJ-TPrinc went some distance to affirm the justice system's users are people with human problems, nonetheless, panelists believed that if justice is to be experienced and felt, more could be done.
Elsewhere, the article notes the difficulty in recruiting rural informants for the study: 
The time and effort to recruit and schedule panelists varied by community, with some being more challenging than others: Legal Professionals (10 hr), Currently/Formerly Incarcerated (15 hr), Immigrant Communities (20 hr); and RuralCommunities (30 hr).

Table 2 shows the location, duration, and panelist composition for each panel. Panels were held in physical locations convenient for panelists, either at an urban university or at a rural library.

Here are some of the rural findings: 

Rural Communities experts maintained that humans are an essential part of the rural justice system and were concerned that as more technologies are introduced, the rural courts might consider humans less important, in turn having a negative impact on rural court users.
* * * 
Rural Communities experts were concerned that lack of access to adequate translation services could result in people having no or inaccurate representation.

I recommend this article in its entirety to those interested in access-to-justice broadly speaking, as well as those interested in formerly incarcerated individuals and rural communities. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Literary Ruralism (Part XLVII): Kent Haruf's "The Tie that Binds"

Kent Haruf's 1984 novel, The Tie that Binds, leads with something of a contrast--or perhaps it's a more  subtle distinction--between rural and urban.  The opening paragraph also introduces one of the principal characters, Edith Goodnough, whose life the novel chronicles from her birth.  Indeed, it goes farther back still, to her parents' migration from Iowa to eastern Colorado and the fictitious small town of Holt, where all of Haruf's novels are set: 
EDITH GOODNOUGH isn’t in the country anymore. She’s in town now, in the hospital, lying there in that white bed with a needle stuck in the back of one hand and a man standing guard in the hallway outside her room. She will be eighty years old this week: a clean beautiful white-haired woman who never in her life weighed as much as 115 pounds, and she has weighed a lot less than that since New Year’s Eve. Still, the sheriff and the lawyers expect her to get well enough for them to sit her up in a wheelchair and then drive her across town to the courthouse to begin the trial. When that happens, if that happens, I don’t know that they will go so far as to put handcuffs on her. Bud Sealy, the sheriff, has turned out to be a son of a bitch, all right, but I still can’t see him putting handcuffs on a woman like Edith Goodnough. (p. 1)

Sheriff Sealy--representing "the law" plays roles throughout the novel.  He is a peer, for example, of the narrator, Sanders Roscoe.  

(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2011
Kilmarnock, Virginia 

Early on in the novel, Roscoe is visited by a journalist from the Denver Post, and this exchange ensues: 

“Mr. Roscoe,” he says. “I’m Dick Harrington. With the Post.” 

“That so?” I say. “I hope you’re not selling anything.” 

“No,” he says. “The Denver Post. It’s a newspaper. Maybe you’ve heard of it.” 

“Sure. I’ve heard of it,” I say. “But we keep it out on the back porch where we scrape our boots, so we don’t have to track cow into the kitchen.” Then I throw my head back and laugh. “It saves throw rugs,” I tell him. 

But he doesn’t think that’s real funny; he looks at me like How can I be so dumb and live? Guys like him think they drive the 150 miles out here due east from Denver and when they get here we don’t know anything. They think they have to educate us poor dumb country bastards. They think we don’t know what the Denver Post is. We know all right. We just don’t give a damn. (p. 6) 
How interesting that Haruf offered this observation four decades ago because it's surely even more true now--this assumption that rural folks are stupid.  I am reminded of this recent empirical academic work by Michael Carolan of Colorado State University.  It documents the annoyance of rural Coloradans at their urban counterparts, an annoyance born of feeling unseen and unappreciated.  

The Tie that Binds also features this comparison of rural and urban teens' experiences; it also acknowledges the role of generational change. This excerpt features Edith Goodnough as a teen, along with her younger brother Lyman. 
BUT if Edith and Lyman had been city kids, things might have been different. City kids, even in 1915, had some opportunities to escape which farm kids didn’t have. City kids could take off and walk ten or fifteen blocks or jump on a trolley car going across town and end up as far away from home as if they were in another state entirely, another country even. Then they could make their mark, or not make it, and start their life over or end it, but whatever happened, at least the ties would have been cut, the limits of home would have been broken.

Or if Edith and Lyman had been country kids living now, alive and howling in the 1970s, things might have been different too. It’s TV and movie shows and high school and 3.2 beer and loud music and paved highways and fast cars (and what goes on and comes off too in the back seats of those cars, until maybe Bud Sealy shines his flashlight in through the side windows)—it’s all those things and more that country kids have now, and you can’t tell a farm kid from a town kid, even with a program. They’re just about all the same, all alike in their cars, driving up and down Main Street every Saturday night, honking and howling, in Holt, Colorado. 

But Edith and Lyman didn’t have those things, those chances and opportunities to escape. They were farm kids in the second decade of this violent century, and they were stuck. Their mother died early, like I’ve already said; their father was Roy Goodnough, and even if he was a raging madman sometimes, even if he yelled too much at them, he was still their father.  (p. 52-53)

I am not certain I agree with Haruf that city kids and country kids are now so indistinguishable... but I did love this novel, not least for its intimate, small-town setting.  

Holt is said to be based on Yuma, Colorado, where Haruf once lived.  Interestingly, Yuma was in the news yesterday because of a hail storm there on Monday.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Rural Legal Scholarship: Michele Statz on "The Scandal of Particularity"

 Here's the link to Statz's latest article, and the abstract follows.  The title is "The Scandal of Particularlity: A New Approach to Rural Attorney Shortages and Access to Justice," and it is forthcoming in the South Dakota Law Review:   

This article adds necessary dimension to prevailing understandings of the rural attorney shortage and proposed solutions to it. These solutions include efforts to recruit and retain rural attorneys; to advance “non-lawyer” practitioners; and to create distance-spanning rural access to justice technologies. While many of these initiatives are based in careful, empirical analysis and have strong evaluative components, they often start with an answer: More attorneys. UPL Waivers. Legal help apps. Legal empowerment. This makes sense, particularly when we consider that many of the individuals at the forefront of addressing the rural access to justice crisis are themselves law scholars or legal professionals who feel real, understandable urgency toward finding a solution. What happens, however, when we approach rural attorney shortages not with a proposed initiative, but with more, and different, questions? Instead of a solution-centric or even person-centered approach, what if we sought to understand the subjective, relational experience of legal problems in rural places? How might honoring the lived reality of rural community members who are and who are not legal professionals unsettle what we believe about professional hierarchies, expertise, and who is best suited to address attorney shortages?

Drawing on over seven years of mixed-methodological, collaborative research in diverse rural settings, this article proposes a new epistemological approach to rural access to justice and professional shortages. It provides empirically based principles for students, scholars, and practitioners to consider as they explore rural justice gaps and efforts to address them. It demonstrates that a deep, considered acknowledgement of crisis, trust, home, care, time, and relationships—in short, the embodied particularities of rural place and how they feel—offers a kind of knowledge that necessarily exceeds familiar metrics and indicators of “success.” Finally, this framework ensures that practices and policies aimed at solving rural attorney shortages are relevant, collaborative, and sustaining.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

What you can learn in a small town (according to a Brooklyn hipster)

Sam Kahn recently wrote for Persuasion (and his own Substack) about what he, as a documentary filmmaker living in Brooklyn, learned when he visited small towns/the flyover states. The headline is, "A Reckoning is Coming for the Democrats." Here's an excerpt:

I always felt a lot wiser every time I returned to my Brooklyn coffee shop or neighborhood bookstore; I always felt like I wanted to start getting into arguments with everyone around me. It wasn’t that my politics were so different from my coastal brethren, but after even a few days in Decatur or Lubbock or Clovis or wherever I was, it would be clear to me that there was a great deal about the country that liberals and progressives—however well-intentioned they might be—were just missing.

Politics would almost never come up on these shoots, but it would just be screamingly obvious that the people I talked to would have had no chance of voting Democratic. The cultural markers were all off. People liked to drive and to shoot. People liked their chain stores. People hated the feeling of being scolded, which was above all what they associated with the Dems. On one of the very first shoots I ever did, a rancher in Clovis, New Mexico, told me, “People like to have a real independent lifestyle around here” shortly before he urinated right off of the bed of his truck. But that general attitude could have stood in for just about any of the shoots I did. People were friendly and interesting, they were eager to form cultural bridges—those same ranchers really wanted to let me know that they knew every word of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Rolling Stones songs, maybe thinking that I assumed they listened to Gene Autry or something—but I strongly felt myself having to shed anything “Democratic,” anything “liberal,” in order to fit in.

In the places I was visiting, the Democratic Party meant, above all, taxes. It really wasn’t much more complicated than that.

* * * 

In the coastal enclaves where I lived, being an “environmentalist” was something like a candidacy for sainthood, but in the places where I was shooting it was a dirty word—and the environmental advocacy organizations seemed really to not get that.

* * * 

And strike three was wokeism. 

There's more to the essay, of course, including an expansion on what the author means by wokeism, which references racial issues, among others.

Returning to the theme of the headline, the author concludes that, "at the national level, [Democrats] seemed to have lost all ability to communicate simply and clearly to hinterland voters."

Don't miss the essay in its entirety here

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Art Cullen turns his attention to rural poverty

This is from Cullen's Substack today, "Iowa's unique sort of rural poverty."  Cullen recently traveled to New Orleans and back from northern Iowa (and he did so in an electric Ford pick up truck, no less).  Here's a rumination that begins as he passed from northeast Arkansas into southeast Missouri.  

Coming from relatively prosperous Iowa, I continue to be stunned by the scenes of grinding rural poverty when you get off the freeways and revisit Hwy. 61 or its cousins.

Drive the edge of gorgeous Mark Twain National Forest enroute from Jonesboro, Ark., to the Gateway to the Ozarks, Poplar Bluff, Mo., where the downtown is dead empty on a Saturday afternoon but for an open sports bar with no customers. A sign on the bar proclaims it is doing what it can to save the downtown.

The action is out on the highway in a town of 16,000 whose population steadily declined since 1980, set in the prettiest hills you could behold.

Shacks line the road in Arkansas, Black and White folks. You see the same in South Dakota off Interstate 90 (substitute Native American for Black), or in eastern Colorado, or in a Kansas cowtown time and progress passed by.

You get back to Iowa where the farmsteads look better, the dirt blacker, the machinery shinier. Yet the rust sets in here, too.

Nationally, the rural poverty rate is about 15% compared to an urban rate of about 11%. Those statistics do not reflect the extremes you see in the little burgs waylaid by the freeways.

Cullen goes on to offer further comparisons of that Arkansas/Missouri area to northwest Iowa, where he lives,  The entire post is well worth a read, not least for its discussion of the significance of immigration and race--and, of course, what freeways have done to downtowns, including those like Poplar Bluff. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Rural hospitals in the news, again

Axios' Northwest Arkansas newsletter led yesterday with the travails of rural hospitals.  Here's the scoop:  

71% of rural hospitals in Arkansas are running in the financial red, according to a recent report from health care consultancy Chartis. The same is true for half of America's rural hospitals.

Why it matters: Millions of Americans, especially those in rural states like Arkansas, rely on local hospitals for emergency and other forms of care.The report also points out: "Within many rural communities, the hospital is often among the largest employers and thus a major contributor to the local economy."

Driving the news: While COVID-era government aid helped alleviate financial pressure on rural hospitals, such support has largely ended.The growth of Medicare Advantage enrollment is also taking a toll. 
"The Medicare alternative's popularity with seniors is cutting into a typically better funding source for rural hospitals — traditional Medicare — as hundreds of rural hospitals face financial calamity," Axios' Arielle Dreher reported last August.

Stunning stat: The jump from 43% of rural hospitals operating in the red last year to 50% this year is the single largest change in percentage in a one-year period that Chartis reports seeing.

What they're saying: "When you see all of this negative pressure, what you're really talking about is loss of access in the places where we need it — one could arguably say, most," says Michael Topchik, partner and executive director of the Chartis Center for Rural Health.He points to problems like suicide, opioid overdoses, alcohol-related deaths and more that plague rural America in particular. 
"I'm focusing on data on the providers, on the hospitals. But in the end, what we're really talking about is the communities served — and these are the most vulnerable communities in America."

Of course, you'll find a great deal more content on rural hospitals here on Legal Ruralism.  

Monday, May 13, 2024

Rural folks resist having their land become a carbon sponge

The Washington Post reported yesterday on a proposal to make land in eastern Montana a carbon sponge because it is home to"thousands of acres of porous rock where oil company executives say greenhouse gas could be piped in from afar and stored forever."  The headline is "Biden and oil companies like this climate tech. Many Americans do not."  Here's an excerpt from Evan Halper's story: 

In the ranching community of Carter County, Mont., the prospect of shipping in all that carbon pollution and injecting it underneath an area called Snowy River is about as popular as an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease.

“The question I keep hearing is, ‘Why are they making us the dumping ground for the rest of the country?’” said Rod Tauck, chairman of the Carter County Board of Commissioners and a descendant of homesteaders who more than a century ago settled his family ranch. “Not a single constituent I know wants this.”

Carter County lies in the state's far southeast corner, and has a population of just 1,415.

Halper mentions other places similarly resisting energy company plans:

Hostile community reception is undermining plans from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to the prairies of South Dakota. Energy companies racing ahead are facing tough questions around safety, environmental impact and technological viability.
* * * 
Many in the local community see something else: big corporations looking for a payday partnering with an administration turning a blind eye to a flawed technology. They point to problems that carbon capture projects are encountering around the world, such as Chevron’s sprawling Gorgon operation at a massive natural gas field in Australia. It is not trapping even half the carbon dioxide planned, amid persistent technological troubles.

This is just one way the green energy transition is pitting rural against urban, and it's not so different from environmental injustices that have made rural places dumping grounds for essentially urban waste.  

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Dollar Store entry has a bigger impact in rural markets than in urban ones

USDA ERS reporrts in Amber Waves under the headline, "Dollar Store Entry Affects Rural Grocery Stores More Than Urban":  
Independent grocery stores, or grocers whose owners operate fewer than four stores, have been a large part of the rural U.S. food retail landscape. In 2015, they represented about half of the food retailers in 44 percent of U.S. counties. Leading up to 2015, however, dollar stores were becoming increasingly visible in rural counties, experiencing the second-largest growth behind supercenters among food retailers from 1990 to 2015, according to research by USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS). Economists from ERS, North Dakota State University, and the University of Connecticut recently investigated the implications of the growth of dollar stores for more traditional, independent grocery stores using proprietary data from the National Establishment Time Series (NETS) database and the ERS Rural-Urban Commuting Area (RUCA) Codes.

NETS provides geographic, employment, and sales information for every year an establishment is open for all sectors of the U.S. economy. The researchers focused on dollar stores and independent grocery stores and combined these data with the ERS RUCA codes’ measures of population density, urbanization, and daily commuting to classify census tracts; in this research, all nonmetropolitan core or commuting areas were classified as rural.

The researchers examined what happened to the number of independent grocery stores, as well as employment and sales statistics from these stores, from 2000–19, when a new dollar store opened in the same rural or urban census tract. Results showed that when a dollar store opened in a census tract independent grocery retailers were 2.3 percent more likely, on average, to exit the market. Employment at independent grocery stores fell about 3.7 percent, and sales declined by 5.7 percent.

However, there was significant variation between the impact of dollar stores on independent grocery stores in urban and rural census tracts. For instance, the likelihood of an independent grocery store exiting a rural census tract after a new dollar store opened was 5 percent, about three times greater than in urban census tracts. Similarly, the decline in employment in rural tracts was about 2.5 times as large as in urban tracts, and the decline in sales was nearly double in rural census tracts.
Bar chart showing percent loss after the entry of a dollar store in number, employment, and sales for independent grocery stores in rural and urban census tracts, and the average percent loss, from 2000 to 2019.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Rural broadband in the news as Affordable Connectivity Program comes to an end

I've been hearing a lot about rural folks in relation to broadband the last few weeks because a federal program, the Affordable Connectivity Program, is expiring.  Here are a smattering of stories that acknowledged the rural angle on this event. 

First, here is some CalMatters coverage, which explains lots of basics and also acknowledges the rural impact. 
On April 30, a popular and widely used government program began the process of shutting down due to congressional inaction. With its demise, closing the digital divide becomes considerably more difficult.

The federal government first launched a broadband subsidy program during the depths of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, where internet connections became many peoples’ only window into the outside world. That effort, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), was made permanent as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. It offered a $30 monthly subsidy ($75 on tribal lands) to qualifying low-income households for broadband internet or cell phone bills. The program also offers up to $100 toward a computer or tablet.

However, it came with a major caveat: The $14.2 billion Congress allocated toward the program was a one-time thing. When the money ran out at some point in the future, Congress would have to infuse the program with more money or find a more permanent funding solution.

That future has officially arrived. More than 23 million American households, about 45% of all those eligible nationwide, will no longer receive the full subsidies that previously helped them get online. Two-thirds of those households had “inconsistent or zero connectivity prior to ACP enrollment,” a recent Federal Communications Commission survey revealed.

Partial subsidies of $14 ($35 for households on Tribal lands) will be available for some ISP customers for service in May, according to an FCC notice. But that will be the program’s last disbursement.

“Many recent press reports about the impending end of this program describe how ACP households across the country are now facing hard choices about what expenses they have to cut, including food and gas, to maintain their broadband access, with some households doubtful they can afford to keep their broadband service at all,” FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in an April letter to congressional leaders. “These press reports echo what the Commission has been hearing from ACP households directly, with many writing the agency to express their distress and fear that ending this program could lead them to lose access to the internet at home.”

Case in point: Alfredo Camacho, who lives in Guadalupe, California, told CalMatters that because he is no longer able to afford home internet service, he’s started taking his daughters to the parking lot outside a local library so the family can use the free wifi to do homework and look for jobs.

“This takes away grocery money,” said Camacho, who is one of around three million Golden State residents losing access to the subsidy. “Being a single father, $30 goes a long way.”

In anticipation of the shut-down, the program stopped accepting new sign-ups in early February. Participating households started receiving notifications about the program’s potential shuttering in January. After it ends, internet service providers are required to allow ACP-using households to cancel without termination fees.

The program has been an essential part of how millions of Americans get online, with nearly one-in-five U.S. households relying on the subsidy to keep their internet subscriptions active. Uptake has been especially strong in areas with high-poverty rates in both urban and rural areas.

Here is a Forbes story from May 6, 2024, with no acknowledgment of rural difference or disadvantage:

Congress first allocated $14.2 billion to the Affordable Connectivity Program in December of 2021, and that money—used to provide a $30 to $75 stipend toward internet bills per month and for a one-time discount toward the purchase of a laptop computer, desktop or tablet—is now running out.

The bill introduced to save the program would allocate $7 billion more to extend it through the end of the year and allow Congress to “work out the long-term changes that are needed for sustainable access,” according to Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.)

Before receiving the federal internet subsidy, almost 22% of program participants had no personal internet service and another 25% had only mobile internet, according to a 2023 survey by the Federal Communications Commission.

The same survey found that almost 77% of beneficiaries said they would need to make changes to their broadband plan if they stopped receiving the subsidy, with 30% saying they'd need to drop internet service altogether.

The New York Times reported on this pending wind-down in March.  

The program was tucked into the 2021 infrastructure law as a replacement for a pandemic-era program that provided certain households discounts on their internet bills. Although there is some bipartisan support to continue the subsidies, lawmakers have not passed an extension.

Interestingly, while it does not use the word "rural," it does include this somewhat counterintuitive quote from the Senator of South Dakota, a state popularly thought of as a rural place. 

But some Republicans have argued that the program is wasteful. In a December letter to the F.C.C., Senator John Thune of South Dakota and other Republican lawmakers raised concerns about the program subsidizing households that already had internet service. They have also pointed to findings from the F.C.C.’s Office of Inspector General, which has in recent months expressed concerns about some providers failing to comply with program rules and improperly claiming funds.

Finally, here's the Federal Communication Commission's webpage on the issue, which covers the basics, but/and also does not use the word "rural":  

The Affordable Connectivity Program stopped accepting new applications and enrollments on February 7, 2024. The last fully funded month of the program is April 2024.

All ACP households enrolled at the time of the enrollment freeze, February 7, 2024 at 11:59 PM ET, will be able to remain enrolled through the final month of ACP service if they are not required to be de-enrolled under FCC rules.

Households that are de-enrolled from the program, such as for failure to use their ACP-supported service, will not be able to re-apply or re-enroll in the ACP during the enrollment freeze.

ACP enrolled households are strongly encouraged to carefully review written notices from their internet company and from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), the ACP administrator, about the ACP wind-down.

Households are also encouraged to consult their internet company to learn more about how the end of the ACP will impact their internet service and bills.

I'm glad that at least some of these sources recognize the rural angle on the digital divide.  

Monday, May 6, 2024

Developers of proposed new Bay Area city gather enough signatures to get re-zoning on November ballot

Solano County, California (April, 2024)
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
The Associated Press reported last week that California Forever, the group associated with secretly buying up farm land in southeastern Solano County, California (population 453,000), on the periphery of the San Francisco Bay Area, has garnered sufficient signatures to have placed on the November ballot whether the land can be re-zoned urban to permit its development.  Read more of the background on this matter here, here, and here.  A short excerpt from the AP story follows:  

Rio Vista Youth and Community Hall
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
A wealthy Silicon Valley-backed campaign to build a green city for up to 400,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area has submitted what it says are enough signatures to qualify the initiative for the November election.
The campaign submitted more than 20,000 signatures but would need only about 13,000 valid ones to qualify for the ballot. If verified by Solano County’s elections office, voters will decide in the fall whether to allow urban development on land currently zoned for agriculture. The land-use change would be necessary for the development to be built.
Child visitors to the sales office express
their desires for the new community 
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader who heads the company behind the campaign, California Forever, said at a news conference Tuesday that he heard from thousands of people who want careers and homes in the county where they grew up but can no longer afford because of high housing costs and a lack of nearby work.

I had the opportunity in early April to travel to the parts of Solano County that will be most affected if this new development moves forward.  Those areas include the town of Rio Vista (population 7,360), on the Sacramento River Delta, and along the Montezuma Hills.  I found Rio Vista to be a charming town with one of the most appealing (and highly utilized) small public libraries I've ever visited, among other amenities.  The town also has a pharmacy that isn't part of a national chain, which I thought was pretty cool.  Plus, there are small eateries and an auto body shop with a prime location on the waterfront.  

Poster in California Forever sales office, 
also featured in brochures
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

Though it was not well publicized and not on my car's GPS, I did find the California Forever office in downtown Rio Vista--having taken up residence in the city's old Vista Cinema on Main Street.  Two California Forever employees were there, one who self-identified as a salesman.   They are collecting wish lists for community amenities, and I took a few photos of those lists--including one from what visiting children wanted.  (I list some of these at the bottom of the post).  

The salesman chatted me up about the project, noting that many residents of Rio Vista support it because, currently, there is "nothing" for their grandkids job-wise and in terms of activities.   If the city is built, it will provide not only jobs, but also many amenities for Rio Vista residents.  The salesman said some amenities are currently available to residents of Liberty and Trilogy, two nearby planned communities, but that the new city will make facilities and amenities available to those living in nearby Rio Vista. 

I raised with the salesman the issue of the lawsuit California Forever brought against some area landowners who had refused to sell and been accused of price-fixing.  He said those sued by California Forever were not family farmers but instead were large corporate farms--basically "BigAg."  I disputed that based on my personal acquaintance with one of those land-owning families.

California Forever Sales Office in Rio vista
in former Vista Theatre
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

At the end of my visit, the salesman asked me if I was on board with the project, and I told him I was still undecided, but generally skeptical.  I'd already explained to him that I didn't live in Solano County and so could not vote on the anticipated ballot initiative.  

Here are some bullet points/highlights from the brochure I picked up at the California Forever sales office.  

Windborn Church,
Main Street
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt

The farmland in "East Solano County today" is "Rated among the worst for agriculture in all of Solano County." (I wonder about the quality of that farm land generally, in comparison to 

Auto Repair in Rio Vista
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
  • The community California Forever wishes to build is a "new future for East Solano County, a new community for all of us." 
  • "Middle-class neighborhoods.  Safe, walkable, and affordable.  $400 million in downpayment assistance for Solano County residents."
  • "Good local new jobs.  15,000 new local jobs in manufacturing, services and technology paying $88,000 a year or more"
  • "Parks and green space.  4,000 acres of park, trails and habitats.  The project affects less than 2% of Solano County's current agricultural production." 
  • "Rio Vista Parkland.  A new 712-acre park between the new community and Rio Vista." 
  • "Downtowns.  Major offices, entertainment, arts, shops, cafes, locally owned restaurants, apartment buildings and more"
  • New Employers Zone.  New Manufacturing jobs and technology research labs in defense and other important industries.  A way to bring new employers and the good jobs of the future to Solan County."
Entrance to Marina
(c) L.R. Pruitt 2024
  • Maker zones.  Workshops, art studios, and ohter light industrial spaces.  Also restaurants and entertainment, and loft-style homes."
  • Open Space.  The plan requires at least 4,000 acres of parks and open spaces aligned with natural features, distributed across the new community, programmed with a variety of playgrounds, parks, and shared spaces for all ages and activities.
  • Solar sheep are happy sheep.  Solar panels and grazing sheep make for great friends. The sheep happily eat the grass, greatly reducing wildfire hazards and  keeping weeks off the solar panels, as well as creating income for sheep farmers so they to rely less on meat sales.  The shade from the panels help the sheep stay cooler, rest more and experience less heat stress.  (This one incudes a reference:  New Scientist Magazine 2/1/2023)
  • Solano Jobs Guarantee.  All new community growth beyond 50K residents is frozen, unless the new community creates at least 15K new jobs.  And each new job must be a good job, paying at least 125% of the average wage in Solano County (about $88K a year today).
Sign at Montezuma Hills area
along Highway 12
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

  • Solano Homes for All.  We will provide $400 million to help Solano residents buy home sin the new community, and to build more affordable homes.  If $300 million is allocated to down payment assistance, that's enough to help 6K Solano families buy homes with a $50K each down payment grant.
  • Solano Scholarships.  The new community will bring good new jobs.  To prepare, we will provide $70 million in funing to help Solano residents pay for vocational training, college, or to start or expand a small business.  
    Riverview Middle School
    Rio Vista, California
    Lisa R. Pruitt 2024

  • Green Solano.  We are providing $80 million in community-benefits funding for public parks and trails, open space and natural habitats.  This funding will also help support Solano's agriculture economy, including family farms and workers.  We are exciting to work with the Solano community to help identify priorities for this funding, to nurture our county's strong connections to its lands.  
  • Solano Downtowns.  We believe in investing in all areas of Solano--both in the new community in East Solano and in Solano's existing cities.  Why not just invest in existing cities?  We need more room for homes families can afford and for new industries.  We will provide $200 million in new investment in building and renovating homes, offices,  shops, and other mixed use projects in the downtown areas of Benicia, Dixon, Fairfield, Rio Vista, Suisun City, Vacaville, and Vallejo.  
  • Smart Growth Guarantee.  Our initial commitments are to provide $500 million in community-benefits funding and $200 million for investments in Solano Downtowns over the build-out towards $50,000 residents.  But our commitment to Solano does not end there.  If our community grow beyond 50,000 residents, all of these financial commitments will continue to scale up in proportion to the growth of our community.  We are excited to grow with Solano, and be a good neighbor for generations to come. 
Downtown Rio Vista
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
Water Guarantee. Before a brick is laid, we guarantee to provide our water supplies through the highly regulated and state-mandated Water Supply Assessment and Water Supply Verification process.  Regulated closely by the State of California, this process requires us to prove we can deliver water to the new community for many decades going forward, including through drought periods. 
  • Transportation Guarantee.  We will provide right of way for upgrades for Highway 12 and 113, including the Rio Vista and Dixon bypass, and we will pay above our proportionate share to fund these upgrades.  
  • Schools Guarantee.  We are required to ensure that new schools are ready in our new community when first residents move in. That way parens and teachers an be sure that existing schools are not overly burdened with new students.  Our schools remain in the existing school districts, but we will ensure that new schools are ready by the time the first children move in. We want the new community to be a big win for public education in Solano County.
  • Solano Taxpayer Guarantee.  We will pay our own way through the significant tax revenue we will generate as the new city gains residents.  The initiative guarantees no new cost to Solano taxpayers, except to those new residents who live in the new community. 
Wind turbines and gravel road running 
South from Highway 12 between I-80 & Rio Vista
area known as Montezuma Hills
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
A significant part of one 12-page brochure addresses nearby Travis Air Force Base and a buffer zone that will lie between it and the new community. 

Til this weekend, the only billboard I'd seen promoting California Forever was on eastbound I-80 in Solano County, and it touted the 15K jobs paying more than $88K.  Then, on May 5, traveling westbound on I-80 , I saw one touting the $400 million in downpayment assistance for Solano County residents.  

Among the items on the crowd-sourced list of amenities folks had written on giant note pads in the sales office   

  • Music events, dining destinations, emphasis on nature in the community
  • Affordable housing--not market rate
  • Smart growth
  • Movie theatres (good for teens)
  • Let's re-create our normal!
  • Medical Center
  • Big Box retailers
  • Preserve wetlands
  • Widen Highway 12 from Suisun
  • Satellite junior college campus
  • Archeological recognition (Native Americans)
  • Nightclub!!!
  • Chain Hotel (Nice!)
  • Elderly/Alzheimers dementia care facility (home) with 24/7 nurse on site
  • Quality restaurants on the water front
On the kids list, one wrote, "If I had my own city, I would want a dirt bike track, a Walmart, and lots of houses."  The child included a drawing of this place, complete with a dirt bike track and a church, along with a Walmart and several houses. 

Crowd-sourced list of desired amenities
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2024
California Forever has three sales offices in addition to the one in Rio Vista; the others are in Vacaville, Vallejo, and Fairfield.