Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rural lack of anonymity amidst a measles outbreak

A story in the New York Times today about the measles outbreak affecting more than a dozen states included these bit about the impact in Kearny, Arizona, population 1950, which is described as a "small rural community with an economy tied to a nearby copper mine."
[A] single family’s Christmas vacation has upended the rhythms of daily life. The family visited Disneyland in December, and four of its unvaccinated members came back with measles; a fifth person in Kearny also contracted the disease. 
Now, many businesses in town — the grocery store, the post office, and more — have measles alerts in the windows featuring a blond boy with a rash all over his face. Several signs say that someone with the measles was in the store at a specific time last week and advise others who were there at the same time to be alert to symptoms.
The story quotes several Kearny residents regarding their attitudes toward the situation and the family who didn't get vaccinated.  It's especially interesting to consider these comments since everyone in Kearny knows who the family is.  

Interestingly, school officials there report that the children who contracted measles at Disneyland are the only ones in the school district who have not been vaccinated.   Compare that with the rate of non-vaccination for measles in San Geronimo, California, another place featured in the NYT story:  40%.  A whopping 58% of San Geronimo students are not fully vaccinated.  San Geronimo is in Marin County, north of San Francisco, and the story characterizes it as "a mostly rural community of rolling hills and oak."  I suspect it is characterized as "mostly rural" because of the rolling hills and oak.  After all, Marin County is metropolitan, with a population of a quarter million, and San Geronimo is just 8 miles from Novato, population 51,904. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Rural America's Silent Housing Crisis

That's the headline for Gillian White's story in Atlantic Magazine, dateline today.  She leads with a rural-urban comparison and then gets to this depressing (but for me, familiar) point:  
Few people think about rural communities—not only when it comes to housing issues, but at all. It’s mostly a numbers game. According to data from the Housing Assistance Council (HAC), in 2012 only about 21 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, which means that not many people outside those areas—or about 80 percent of Americans—probably feel much association with rural issues. And that can make it difficult to shed light on the problems that happen there. Making the case to divert funds and attention to parts of the country that house a mere 20 percent of the total population can be an uphill battle, especially in difficult economic times. 
Is everything about rural America essentially "silent"?  I'm reminded of the philanthropy gap between rural and urban.

In any event, White provides some quotes from folks very knowledgeable about the rural housing crisis, including Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition:
Much of the affordable-housing stock in rural housing areas is old and in need of repair. Many of the people who live there don't have the resources that they need in order to keep the houses in good repair. 
And from David Dangler, director of Rural Initiatives at Neighbor Works America, which advocates for affordable housing and acts as a network for nonprofit housing groups:
When we are looking at areas that are most challenged economically we're also finding some of the most challenging housing conditions.
Then there is the part of the story where she illustrates the problem with several examples.  They seem dramatic, but they may be more typical than we--especially we urbanites--think.

The story is well worth a read in its entirety.  And I can't help wondering how Ms. White came to the topic. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Geography and class mobility, an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee

Foon Rhee of the Bee's editorial board wrote yesterday in a piece headlined, "To Make it to Middle Class, Location Matters."  Here's an excerpt from his California-oriented analysis:
Moving up happens less often for poorer children in the Southeast and Midwest, while it is more common in the Northeast and West, according to the study by top economists at UC Berkeley and Harvard. (Geographic differences don’t mean that much for well-off children; the rich tend to stay rich no matter where they grow up.) 
Mobility is generally better in California, but just as poverty is worse in the Central Valley than along the coast, there’s wide variation in metro areas across the state. 
The odds of making it to at least the middle class are 8 percent for poor children in the Eureka area and 8.3 percent in Fresno, but 11.2 percent in San Francisco and San Jose and 11.8 percent in Santa Barbara. The number is 10 percent in Sacramento, 10.2 percent in Modesto, 10.4 percent in San Diego and 9.6 percent in Los Angeles. 
The researchers found that mobility tends to be higher in areas where the poor are less concentrated and there’s a bigger middle class, and in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary and high schools and more civic engagement.
Sadly, Rhee's piece is quite metro-centric.  The only place he lists that is rural by any measure is Eureka, population 27,191, and the county seat of (barely) metropolitan Humboldt County, population 134,623.  Many folks think of Fresno as rural because it is in the Great Central Valley amidst California's agricultural economy. However, with a population of half a million, Fresno is the fifth largest city in the state.  So, what if you're from Ukiah or Bishop?  What are your chances of ascending from poverty to the middle class? 

Rhee closes with some policy implications for this data:  
[P]oor children in some places need more of a helping hand up the income ladder – from the religious community, from nonprofits and volunteers and, yes, even from government.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Another story about Keystone XL and the unusual bedfellows it has made in Nebraska

The New York Times reports today under the headline, "Defenders of Tradition in Keystone XL Fight,"    of the unexpected alliances between farmers and ranchers on the one hand and environmentalists on the other in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline's path through Nebraska.

Mitch Smith's story features the Harrington sisters of Bradshaw, Nebraska, one of whom was featured in this December post about the pipeline and this NPR story regarding local conflicts over the controversial piece of energy infrastructure.    
Four Harrington sisters — Abbi, Terri, Jenni and Heidi — grew up in the 1960s and ’70s tending livestock and crops here, and three of them have remained in Nebraska and continue to farm the land. They fear that construction of the pipeline could threaten their livelihood and a family farming tradition that dates back about 150 years, to when their great-great-grandfather settled on the plot.
Smith describes how folks like the Harringtons, who according to dominant lore about rural folks should be conservative (note the "defenders of tradition" phrase in the headline), have partnered with environmentalists to oppose the pipeline.
The pipeline project has become a cause célèbre, and not just among conservatives, who cite its potential to create jobs, or among environmentalists, who lament the risks they say it poses to groundwater. Several farmers like the Harringtons are also in a personal battle to protect land that in many cases has been passed down through generations.
* * *  
[N]ational environmental groups have joined forces with an unlikely, and bipartisan, team of farmers, ranchers and city dwellers. 
Terri Harrington was among several landowners who filed lawsuits in county court last week; they are challenging the route through Nebraska. Read more here.  Four of seven justices on the Nebraska Supreme Court recently ruled that "the law giving Mr. Heineman the authority to sign off on the route was unconstitutional. The other three justices did not say whether they thought the measure was constitutional, and the law stood because five votes were needed for it to be overturned."  Read more here.  

Yesterday's story features a photo of a "No Oil in our Soil" sign--and anecdotes about how Jenni Harrington's activism has caused her children to be teased at school.  (Another example of that is illustrated in this story).
All of this reminds me of this quote from a newspaper publisher in York, Nebraska, which was included in an NPR story last month about the pipeline.  Publisher Greg Awtry figures he has written some 50 editorials opposing the pipeline.  He declares:
I'm very conservative.  Profit is good! 
The only place I think that this [pipeline] is political would be Washington.  Out here on the ground, we have very conservative lifelong Republican ranchers and farmers, arm-in-arm with the very liberal environmentalists who had little to nothing in common along those lines before this came up. 
* * *  
We are talking about one of the greatest natural resources in the United States of America: the Ogallala Aquifer, which furnishes drinking water to people in eight states.  So even though the risk may be minimal, minimal risk is not acceptable.
Awry opines that the the fact the aquifer is unseen creates challenges for pipeline opponents:
[It] is one of the reasons you don't see a huge uproar about it, because you can't put your hand on it, you can't see it. It's not a park, you can't go climb it like a mountain. ... It's out of sight, out of mind.
As my earlier post suggested, for those elsewhere--outside Nebraska and the plains, that is--that entire region is also out of sight, out of mind.   (I have written here and here about environmental hazards in relation to rural spatiality and the out-of-sight, out of mind phenomenon.  One of those posts is based on this 2012 event.)     

Other posts about Keystone XL are here and here.  A recent op-ed about another pipeline project that threatens rural livelihoods is here.  Reports on recent pipeline spills in Montana and North Dakota respectively are here and here

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The virtue of the "rural" vis a vis national politics

Here are the first couple of lines of coverage of Senator Joni Ernst's response to President Barak Obama's state of the Union address:
Joni Ernst, who in 2014 became the first woman elected to the Senate from Iowa, offered the Republican response to the State of the Union last night and introduced herself to the nation. 
In a speech that referenced her thrifty upbringing in rural Iowa and her 20 years of service in the armed forces, Ernst often echoed the themes of the president's speech — increasing exports, reforming the tax code, going after the Islamic State and combating cyberattacks — and his call for cooperation in areas where there is agreement. 
But she also reinforced Republicans' intentions to take a more active and aggressive stand against Iran's nuclear plan and to continue efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act.
More about Senator Ernst here.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Serving (or neglecting) veterans in Washington's San Juan Islands

Another installment of the NPR series on spatial inequality in veterans services is here, as reported by Patricia Murphy.  The dateline is Friday Harbor Washington, on San Juan Island, the only incorporated area in San Juan County (population 15,875), which also includes Orcas, Lopez and many smaller islands.  Although 1700 veterans live in San Juan County--they comprise about a 10th of the population--most are not taking advantage of the benefits to which they are entitled.  Spending by the VA is lower in San Juan County than anywhere else in the state, less than $2500 per veteran.  While the county is served by a veterans services officer, a VA contract position for a counselor has remained unfilled for five years.  The San Juan County Veterans Advisory Board has invited a representative from the Bellingham, Washington Vet Center to visit the island, but none has yet accepted that invitation.  So, Murphy reports:
So a lot of the responsibility for reaching out to veterans who could benefit from counseling falls to a tight-knit community of local vets. 
"You just hear things, you hear people talking," says Shannon Plummer, the American Legion post commander. "You hear that, you know, 'Hey I've got a friend of mine that was in Vietnam, and he's now wanting to talk. Would you be willing to have a talk with him?' We jump right to it."

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Schools and retirement homes as windows into rural China's decline (and the legacy of the one-child policy)

NPR reported last week from Rudong County in Jiangsu Province in eastern China under the headline, "One County Provides Preview of China's Looming Aging Crisis." Anthony Kuhn's report focuses on the county's school and youth, as well as the proliferation of government-funded retirement homes, to make his point about the legacy of China's one-child policy. The county has been known for the quality of its schools, but now there is only one elementary school, in the town of Yangkou, and with 460 students, its enrollment is half of what it was a decade ago. Further, some of the students are struggling because of their home life situations. In particular, many parents are absent because they have migrated for jobs in cities, but they have left their children behind because they are not entitled to education or welfare benefits outside their rural home areas.
So they leave their children in the countryside in the care of their grandparents.

[The elementary school principal] says this causes developmental problems for some kids.

"The grandparents' love is a doting love," he says. "They don't know how to love them. They don't know what to give them or talk to them about."
And then there's the part about those at the other end of the life cycle, many living in state-sponsored retirement homes, where residents are "bundled up against the cold, as there's no heat in the winter here." Kuhn explains:
Most of them have no income or children to support them.

In recent years, this town went from having one such facility to having five. That doesn't include private retirement homes, where children pay to have their parents looked after.
As for the one-child policy that is one reason places like Rudong County are in this situation, Kuhn quotes a former local Communist Party secretary who helped enforce that nation's one-child policy back in the 1960s:
Having a second child wasn't allowed, so we had to work on them and persuade them to have an abortion. At the time, we village cadres' work revolved around women's big bellies.
A sociologist/demographer, Chen Youhua, who grew up in Rudong County and now teaches at Nanjing University projects that "in a 150-year period from 1950 to 2100, China's population will have gone from about 500 million to a peak of 1.4 billion and then decline more or less to where it started." He explains:
"Only yesterday, China was emphasizing the advantages of the one-child policy," he points out. "To encourage people the next day to have children is a 180-degree reversal."

For decades, he adds, Chinese have been taught that all of their problems — from poverty to chaos — boil down to having too many people. He says that idea is deeply ingrained and difficult to change.
Other posts about rural China are here, here and here.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Spatial inequality in veterans benefits

NPR reports this morning on their analysis of veterans benefits availability and generosity across the nation, analyzed down to the county level.  Here's the lede:
NPR, together with member stations WBUR, Lakeshore Public Radio and KUOW, looked at data from 3,000 counties nationwide, and found there's a huge variation in coverage from state to state — and even within a state — on how much the VA spends per veteran. 
We also found there's no obvious pattern. And there's no strong association between spending per veteran and the size or age of the veteran population, or the affluence of a particular area.
Even though the reporters said there is "no obvious pattern," I immediately assumed that rural vets were likely getting less than urban vets when it comes to benefits including "health care, monthly disability checks, home loans, life insurance, and education through the GI bill, among others."  That is supported by this tidbit:
  • Spending in Suffolk County (Boston) is $11,286 per veteran while in Barnstable County, on Cape Cod, spending is just $4,560.  
But then there is this tidbit:
Among the states, West Virginia and Arkansas had the highest per-veteran spending in 2013 — just over $7,600. Indiana, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania had the lowest — less than $5,000. Nationally, the average is just over $6,000. That's after filtering out things like costs to build and operate VA facilities.
Because West Virginia and Arkansas are widely considered "rural states" and have significant rural populations, it would appear that some rural vets are getting their due.  But then, Pennsylvania and Indiana also have significant rural populations, and their numbers are not good.  

Looking just at health benefits, the reporters also found wide disparities "without discernible patterns."  Here's one data point:
[S]pending is nearly $30,000 per patient in San Francisco, and less than $7,000 per patient in Lubbock, Texas. Nationally, the average is just under $10,000. In places where more veterans are enrolled in VA health benefit plans, spending per veteran did tend to be higher.
That last point may be indicative of economies of scale that larger VA hospitals can achieve.  

Journalists Quil Lawrence and Martha Bebinger note many possible explanations for the disparities:
Some are demographic and beyond the VA's control, while others the VA could maybe do something about. Some of the range is because benefits cost more in different places. Other discrepancies are because veterans aren't using all the services they're due.
The story features a cool interactive features, so I looked up the data on my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, population 8,064, and a persistent poverty county.  I expected to find that lots of vets live there, and I was right.  Here's what it showed me:

Number of veterans 
756 in Newton County
250,095 in Arkansas
21,882,153 in the United States
Veterans as a share of the population
13% in Newton County
10% in Arkansas
8% in the United States
Average spending per veteran
$6,935 in Newton County
$7,627 in Arkansas
$6,088 in the United States
Share of veterans receiving medical benefits
42% in Newton County
35% in Arkansas
26% in the United States
Medical spending per veteran patient
$7,331 in Newton County
$10,259 in Arkansas
$9,840 in the United States 

Note:  U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spending figures include only categories that go directly to veterans (such as medical, compensation or education benefits) and exclude capital expenses (such as facilities and new construction).

Here is another recent post linking veterans to rurality.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How a million (mostly rural, poor) Texas women became constitutionally irrelevant

That is a slightly amended version of the headline for an op-ed I published in the Austin American-Statesman yesterday.  Here's the text of my piece:

The fundamental rights of millions of Texas women are at stake in a case in which the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments on Wednesday. The case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Lakey, will determine the constitutionality of a Texas law that imposes ambulatory surgical center (ASC) regulations on abortion providers. The judges will essentially decide if women living outside the state’s major metropolitan areas, and who therefore must travel considerable distances to reach the few abortion providers able to comply, are constitutionally relevant.

If the 5th Circuit upholds the Texas HB 2 requirement that abortion providers meet ASC standards, the number of providers in Texas will drop from 16 to eight. All remaining clinics will be located in major metropolitan areas in northern and eastern Texas: Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Already, 25 Texas clinics closed last year as the result of the 5th Circuit’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Texas v. Abbott, which upheld Texas HB 2’s requirement that abortion providers have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Access to safe and legal abortion in Texas — already decimated by Abbott — is at risk of vanishing.

In October, the 5th Circuit ruled that the ambulatory surgical center requirement could go into effect pending full consideration of the law, the task the court took up this week. That October decision provides insights into the court’s thinking. First, the court treated a one-way trip of 150 miles as a constitutional “safe harbor” — a distance that did not impose an undue burden on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. This effectively doubled the distance that other courts have suggested is constitutionally acceptable. Second, the court held that 900,000 Texas women — 1 in 6 of the state’s reproductive-age females — who live farther than 150 miles from an abortion provider are too few to matter in challenging the constitutionality of the law as written. Both rulings are inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedents, as well as with recent decisions of other U.S. Courts of Appeals.

Among those deemed constitutionally irrelevant by recent 5th Circuit decisions are numerous women in South and West Texas, some of whom live hundreds of miles from the Interstate 35 and 45 corridors where abortion providers are expected to meet the ambulatory surgical center requirements. Many of those women are disadvantaged by more than geography; they are among the poorest and most disenfranchised populations in the state and, indeed, in the entire nation. In the four counties that constitute the Rio Grande Valley, for example, the poverty rate is a whopping 38 percent. These women previously had abortion access in McAllen and Harlingen, but if the court upholds the ambulatory surgical center requirement, they will have to travel about 250 miles to San Antonio.

The Abbott and Lakey rulings have revealed judges who appear not only oblivious to their own socioeconomic and metropolitan privilege but also grossly insensitive to the day-to-day realities of the less fortunate denizens of Texas, whose lives are also governed by these judgments. If the 5th Circuit in this case holds that women do not face an undue burden when they must travel 250 to 300 miles one way to exercise their constitutional right, the court will reinforce the sense it is grossly out of touch with the realities of Texas’s poor and rural populations.

The 5th Circuit has an opportunity in Lakey to show that it is neither clueless nor callous. It can do so by retreating from the metro-centric path it has been forging. The court should now demonstrate that it takes seriously the constitutional rights of all Texans — including poor and rural women.

* * * 
Coverage of the oral arguments in Lakey is here (from the New York Times), here (from NPR) and here (from the Texas Tribune).  As you can see, there is lots of talk (in the media coverage and in the oral arguments) about distance, but not about "rural" as such--and not about poverty.  

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

(More) Fracking in the news

Here's another batch of recent headlines about fracking:

Heavyweight Responses to Local Fracking Bans, in the New York Times, by Jack Healy, January 3, 2015:
In an aggressive response to a wave of citizen-led drilling bans, state officials, energy companies and industry groups are taking Longmont and other municipalities to court, forcing local governments into what critics say are expensive, long-shot efforts to defend the measures. 
While the details vary — some municipalities have voted for outright bans, and others for multiyear suspensions of fracking — energy companies in city after city argue that they have a right to extract underground minerals, and that the drilling bans amount to voter-approved theft.
Here's an earlier story (Nov. 2014), out of Denton Texas, about local fracking bans.

New Research Links Scores of Earthquakes to Fracking Wells near a Fault in Ohio, in the New York Times, by Michael Wines, January 7, 2015.  Here is the lede:
Not long after two mild earthquakes jolted the normally steady terrain outside Youngstown, Ohio, last March, geologists quickly decided that hydraulic fracturing operations at new oil-and-gas wells in the area had set off the tremors. 
Now a detailed study has concluded that the earthquakes were not isolated events, but merely the largest of scores of quakes that rattled the area around the wells for more than a week. 
The study, published this week in The Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, indicates that hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, built up subterranean pressures that repeatedly caused slippage in an existing fault as close as a half-mile beneath the wells.
In North Dakota, A Tale of Oil, Corruption and Death, in the New York Times, by Deborah Sontag and  Brent McDonald, December 28, 2014.  This is mostly a feature about Tex Hall, now former chair of the M.H.A.Tribe (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation).  It depicts the conflict within the tribe over Hall's embrace of fracking on its Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.  
After six years of dizzyingly rapid oil development, anxiety about the environmental and social costs of the boom, as well as about tribal mismanagement and oil-related corruption, had burst to the surface.
By that point, there were two murder cases — one person dead in Spokane, Wash., the other missing but presumed dead in North Dakota — tied to oil business on the reservation. And Mr. Hall, a once-seemingly untouchable leader, was under investigation by his tribal council because of his connections to an Oregon man who would later be charged with murder for hire in the two deaths.
And from the Religion pages of the New York Times, As North Dakota Oil Town Booms, a Priest Steadies the Newcomers, by Samuel G. Freedman, dateline Watford City, North Dakota, population 1,744.
For generations the remote terrain of Scandinavian and German stock, Watford City now attracts roughnecks and roustabouts, geologists and engineers. There are oil patch pros from East Texas, hopeful and desperate immigrants from Mexico, African-Americans escaping the cratered economy of places like East St. Louis. And with a male-to-female ratio estimated as high as 20 to 1, the vices have followed in step: pornography, prostitution, alcoholism, crystal meth. 
The sole priest [Rev. Brian Gross] in the only Catholic church for a 20 miles around, Father Gross provides the staples of parish life: Mass seven times a week, confession whenever requested, religious education classes, baptism, first communion. He has begun a discussion group for men, made himself a regular at the town’s nine-hole golf course, and tossed down the occasional shot of tequila with Mexican parents celebrating a child’s baptism.
And here's an older one, also about religion, from October, which I missed at the time.  It regards a film, "The Overnighters," about a Williston, N.D., Lutheran pastor who let workers sleep on the floor of the church or in the parking lot.  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

More on the rural vote in the Colorado mid-term election

A few weeks ago, Enrique Fernandez wrote this post analyzing the rural vote in the recent election in Colorado, in which Republican Cory Gardner defeated Democrat incumbent Mark Udall for a U.S. Senate seat, even as Democratic incumbent governor John Hickenlooper held off a challenge from Republican Bob Beauprez.  Now, Nate Cohn of the New York Times Upshot weighs in with this analysis of the rural vote in relation to the Gardner-Udall race.  He notes that turnout was up compared to the 2010 election, when Democrat Michael Bennet won his seat.  This meant a "more Democratic" electorate than four years earlier, yet Gardner still beat Udall.  Cohn summarizes:
Mr. Gardner won because he made impressive gains among rural, less educated, older, evangelical and Hispanic voters. His showing among these groups might have been unprecedented for a Colorado Republican in a close statewide contest, let alone against an incumbent Democrat.
* * * 
In many parts of the sparsely populated Western Slope of the Rockies and the High Plains east of Denver, Mr. Udall posted the worst Democratic showings in decades, generally running at least 10 points behind Mr. Bennet or Mr. Obama.
Some of Mr. Gardner’s strength was in his congressional district, which encompasses much of the eastern half of the state, but it stretched to the countryside beyond it as well.
* * *  
In counties with names that reflect both their Spanish heritage and contemporary demographics, like Pubelo, Las Animas, Costilla and Conejos, Mr. Gardner performed better than any recent Republican Senate or presidential candidate. These ancestrally Spanish counties, all in the southern part of the state, are rural, conservative, but traditionally Democratic. They have drifted toward the right over the last few decades; Mr. Gardner’s performance may have been the strongest, but it reflects a longer-term trend.
And here's some analysis of the rural-urban voting trends across the nation.  It's from Bill Bishop over at the Daily Yonder.  His headline is "Dems Lose Everywhere but Biggest Cities," and suggests the political divide (and the culture wars?) is less rural vs. urban than it is major metropolitan areas vs. everywhere else.  That is consistent with one of Cohn's observations regarding the Udall-Gardner race: Udall won Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties, which are basically suburban Denver.  One might think of these as not the "biggest cities" but Denver County is small and these counties are integral parts of the greater Denver, with its better-educated-than-average populace.  Here's a pre-election NPR story out of greater Denver.