Thursday, February 4, 2016

Rural Idaho town elect all-Latino city council

NPR reports today on Wilder, Idaho's recent election of the first all-Latino city council in the state.  Wilder, population 1,533, also has a Latino mayor, who was elected last fall.    

Nathan Rott reports with a focus on Ismael Fernandez, a 19-year-old student at the College of Idaho who was one of the city council members elected in November an sworn in last month.  As such, he is one of the youngest elected officials in the state's history.  Rott quotes him:
There needs to be change in Wilder, and just in politics in general. We need to have younger people coming in, so that's why I decided to run.
* * * 
The Latino generation that I'm part of, we're kind of activists and all about empowerment and I think it's very empowering to the Latino community.
As Rott points out, Latina/os are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in Idaho.
Latest census data show that 12 percent of Idaho is Hispanic or Latino. Latinos are also the state's fastest-growing racial group by far, doubling the growth percentage of the state's white population. That growth, [says Margie Gonzalez, executive director for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs], is what's kept a lot of rural Idaho towns, like Wilder, populated and afloat in recent years.
Still, Erica Bernal-Martinez, the deputy executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, notes:  
Many rural cities with large shares of Latino population that have had a significant growth of Latinos in their cities haven't necessarily achieved what folks in Wilder were able to achieve.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Drones deliver contraceptives to women in rural Ghana

Here's the lede for the New York Times Women in the World post:
Inspired by Amazon’s vision of unmanned delivery drones, public health specialists have created Project Last Mile, a scheme that uses drones to deliver contraceptives to women living in remote rural areas in Ghana. Project Last Mile, which is jointly funded by Coca-Cola, UNFPA, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development, has been so successful in its mission flying birth control, condoms, and other medical supplies to rural areas in Ghana over the past few months that the program is now set to expand into six other African countries. Governments in Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique have even expressed interest in taking over the program in their countries and paying for it themselves.
The story notes that delivery to rural areas that previously took two days can now be accomplished in just half an hour.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How Burns, Oregon is holding up: on conflict, kindness, and symbolic gestures

Both NPR and the New York Times have reported in the past few days on clashes between locals in Harney County, Oregon, and outsiders who have poured in to protest the killing last week, by federal officials, of LaVoy Finicum, one of those who had been occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  (Read more here about the latter).  This excerpt from Martin Kaste's story on NPR sums up the conflict:
Now, people in Burns agree with a lot of what these groups have to say. Locals are tired of the heavy police and FBI presence since the takeover at the refuge, and most people here do think the federal government overreaches, especially when it comes to environmental rules and land use. But they're also sick of outsiders hanging around, trying to start a movement.
But another part of the story really amused me because it reminds me of a practice I associate with my own home town--the fact that every local driver waves (or, more precisely, lifts a finger above the steering wheel, in brief greeting), every other driver s/he meets.  This happens, in my experience, even when the driver doesn't actually know who s/he is waving at.  Indeed, one of my former students wrote a blog post on the topic a few years ago, here.

All of that came to mind when I read Kaste's quote of "local resident" Nancy Fine:
I don't know who to wave to anymore.  You have to kind of look and say, 'Is that a friend or is that someone who doesn't belong or doesn't live here and has come here to make trouble?'  
Fine goes on to say that "one sure way of identifying an outsider is a prominently displayed sidearm. She shoots a scornful glance at a trio of men standing in front of her, their arms crossed, their holsters hanging out."
We all have guns but none of us wear them on our hip and kind of flaunt them around. We consider that extremely rude and ungentlemanly at best.  
Kaste quotes another local woman who says "the community has been flooded in 'testosterone,'" the effects of which are likely to "linger."  One concluded:
We need the outside people to go home so we can start to heal. It's going to be a long, hard process.
Meanwhile, another group of outsiders--the journalists--are commenting on how kind and hospitable residents have been.  The headline of NYT reporter Kirk Johnson's story a few days ago sums it up, "Burns Journal:  An Unwanted Circus Descends, and an Oregon Town Strives to Stay Kind." An excerpt follows:
For the most part, Burns has not stopped being warm and welcoming to outsiders, even as that has become harder to do. If you were going to spend nearly the entire month of January in a town of about 2,000 people — isolated by distance in the high eastern Oregon desert, and often with bad weather to boot — you could do a lot worse. 
“We just decided to be kind,” said Leah Planinz, who owns Glory Days Pizza with her husband, Nick.
Pardon my obvious bias, but that, my friends, is rural America.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The challenge of rural poverty in the "Least Developed Countries" (LDCs)

"World's Poorest Nations Battle Rising Rural Poverty" is the headline for this November story by Thalif Deen for Interpress News Service, which just came to my attention.  Here are the first few paragraphs:  
The world’s 48 least developed countries (LDCs), described as the poorest of the poor, are fighting a relentless battle against rising rural poverty.

More than two thirds of the population of LDCs live in rural areas, and 60 per cent work in agriculture. 
As a result, there is an urgent need for structural changes focused on the fight against poverty, says a new report released November 25 by the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). 
“This means developing the synergies between agricultural modernisation and diversification of the rural economy.” 
Currently, the total population of the 48 LDCs is estimated at over 932 million people.
UNCTAD’s Least Developed Countries Report 2015, subtitled “Transforming Rural Economies”, presents a road map to address rural poverty, lack of progress in rural transformation and the root causes of migration within and from LDCs. 
The migration of poor people from the countryside into cities fuels excessive rates of urbanisation in many of the 48 LDCs, while many international migrants come from rural areas, says the report.
My own writing about rural women, migration and development is here, here and here.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

How important are rural voters in the Iowa caucuses?

This story in today's New York Times suggests rural voters in Iowa really matter.   "Rural Voters can Swing the Iowa Caucuses.  Meet Five of Them" is the headline.  Here's the lede:
There is a surprising diversity in the physical as well as the political landscape of Iowa’s rural areas, which make up more than three-quarters of the state’s 99 counties and are home to 40 percent of its population.

It’s not all flat farmland. The “driftless area” in the northeastern part of the state, which avoided advancing glaciers thousands of years ago, boasts deep river valleys and towering, tree-covered bluffs.

And it’s not all conservative.
There is a lot of texture to this story, and it is well worth a read in its entirety (some great photos, too!)  Here are some key quotes that shed light on the realities of rurality in relation to the political process (and otherwise):
And rural Iowans, who may caucus with just a handful of their neighbors on Feb. 1, take their responsibility just as seriously.
Rural Iowans can swing the state. 
In the 2012 Republican race, half of Iowa’s counties had fewer than 600 voters caucus, with some caucus sites hosting as few as three people. 
And it was the margins in those counties’ tiny precincts that ultimately delivered the victory to Rick Santorum over Mitt Romney.
* * * 
Party leaders in rural areas are well aware of the power they hold, whether they vote as a bloc to tip the result in one direction or provide just enough support to cut into a candidate’s margins from the bigger cities.
* * * 
Caucusing, especially in rural areas, requires a higher level of commitment.  
And a few more great blurbs and headlines about the relevance of rurality to the Iowa caucuses and to the political process more generally:
Rural politics are uniquely personal.

Party leaders will tell you that political organizing in rural areas isn’t the same as in the cities. It’s a much more personal experience to share your political beliefs with the people you see at the grocery store or at church every week. 
The caucuses themselves are not designed for anonymity.
And here is a quote from 30-year-old Ryan Frederick, chairman of the Adair County Republicans:
I think as far as farmers are concerned and rural small-business people, we’re tuned in to an extent because we know how involved the government’s become in our business. It’s important to recognize that regulations almost always hurt the little guy. And in rural areas, that’s all there is, is little guys.
Whether rural voters matter not just in Iowa, but over the long haul of the presidential election, remains to be seen.  I'm not convinced that they do ...  though I do agree that not all rural Americans are conservative and we need to stop assuming they are.  For more on the politics of the rural vote and national assumptions about it, don't miss my 2011 law review article here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Photo essay on "Faith, Family and the American Farmer" in the Atlantic:

Here is Emily Ann Epstein's introduction to Elliot Ross's photo essay:  
For the past year, Elliot Ross has been photographing the world of farmer Jim Mertens. Inspired by the empathetic imagery of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration, Ross created an essay that examines the relationship between the farmer and the land, giving both characters equal focus in “The Reckoning Days.” The grains of wheat and the cracked palms of laborers are given the same attention, depicted in a mesmerizing palette of blues and yellows. This is how bread, the most basic staple of our diet, is made. “Society is generally removed from the processes in which bread and hundreds of other products reach our baskets,” Ross said. "We must protect, nurture, and celebrate the salt of the earth.”
Don't miss these gorgeous photos which, for me, were very moving, poignant.    

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Income inequality--ski resort style

The New York Times reports today on how workers in ski resorts in Colorado cannot afford to live there.  This is, of course, not really "news" (as we have addressed it here and here), but Jack Healy suggests the problem has gotten worse recently.  It's not just a function of rural gentrification--but of the widening inequality gap in our nation.  Here's an excerpt.
These days, soaring home prices and a shift toward weekend vacation rentals have created a housing crisis in ski country, one that has people piling into apartments, camping in the woods and living out of their trailers and pickup trucks.
* * *  
Some are sleeping in their bosses’ spare bedrooms. The 2,300-person town of Telluride in southwest Colorado toyed with building tiny houses as a stop gap. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., where the vacancy rate for multifamily rental units was zero at the end of last year, bus drivers and hotel housekeepers have been living out of two motels converted to de facto dormitories.
The story quotes the mayor of Jackson Hole, where the median price of a single family home rose to $1.2 million last year, up nearly 25%.
When I go to the grocery store, I see the people who are sleeping in shifts. We see the gap continuing to widen between the uppermost levels of income earners and the rest.
While many ski towns have long built affordable housing, officials now indicate that the demand far exceeds the supply.  Breckenridge, county seat of Summit County, is now building 45 small apartments, with hundreds more in development.  The county is also checking to ensure that that those getting the benefit of employee housing are not subletting to "vacationing snowbirds."  Elisabeth Lawrence of the Breckenridge Town Council explains:
It’s so important that Breckenridge retain this identity of having locals live here.  ... Real town, real people.
Great idea.  Sounds like Breckenridge is doing more than most to keep things "real."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Our "empty" country

The Washington Post's Wonkblog published yesterday this piece on "the jaw-dropping emptiness of America." Christopher Ingraham presents a map depicting the 462 least populated counts in the country, none of which has a population density greater than 7.4 persons per square mile.  And in 65 counties the density is less than one person per square mile.  He then notes that all of the folks who live in these 462 counties add up to fewer than New York's Bronx and Queens Counties, a fact depicted in another map.  Worth a look.  Anyway, Ingraham closes with these lines:
Geographically speaking, we are a nation of mountains, forests and farmland surrounding tiny islands of urbanity. These maps help put some of that in perspective.
Fair enough, but as the U.S. Supreme Court has said regarding politics and representation, our members of congress represent people, not trees and cows.  Hence the interests of rural America remains quite underrepresented--at least in my opinion--in spite of the fact that states like Montana and Wyoming each have two U.S. Senators (and just one member of Congress).

Heroin and opioid overdoses on the rise everywhere, but especially in rural places

Haeyoun Park and Matthew Bloch reported yesterday in the New York Times on the rise in drug overdoses in the United States, mapping the overdoses per capita at the county level for each year from 2003 up through 2014.  Among other facts, they note:
Some of the largest concentrations of overdose deaths were in Appalachia and the Southwest, according to new county-level estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
The number of these deaths reached a new peak in 2014: 47,055 people, or the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day. 
* * * 
Drug overdoses cut across rural-urban boundaries. In fact, death rates from overdoses in rural areas now outpace the rate in large metropolitan areas, which historically had higher rates.
Sadly, I see that the death rate in my home county, Newton County, Arkansas, is in the highest range, 20 per 100,000, up from much lower levels in 2003. 

New Hampshire, Appalachia, and New Mexico are three states/regions that receive particular attention in the story, New Hampshire because the drug epidemic there has become a top campaign issue.  A 2008 story about heroin and opioid addiction, across multiple generations within New Mexico families, is here.  A 2011 blog post about Oxycontin addiction in Appalachia is here.   

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Rural economies tanking across the nation ... from Maine to Oregon, Kentucky to Wyoming

I've written about the situations in Wyoming and Kentucky here, both linked to lack of demand for and government regulation of coal production and burning.  But regulation and slowing of other extraction industry economies are also to blame in Oregon and Maine.  Of course, the Oregon situation has been very high profile for a few weeks now (read more here and here), and the New York Times ran this story about Maine a few days ago.  But I want to revisit in more detail what is being reported in these latter two locations because there is new information, new angles being covered.   

First, regarding the less captivating and less controversial situation in Maine, reported by Jess Bidgood in the NYT, the dateline is Cary Plantation in Aroostook County, population 69,447.   Bidgood quotes Diane Cassidy, a former nursing assistant who is leading ht effort to dissolve the local government.    
What do you do, what does the town do, when they can’t pay their bills? Do we go bankrupt? Do we lose our homes?  There was no answer, other than deorganization.
Bidgood continues:
Ms. Cassidy is leading an effort to dissolve the local government here and join the Unorganized Territory, a vast swath of forest and townships in north, central and eastern Maine run by a partnership between the state and the counties. Last month, residents here voted 64 to 0 to continue the process. 
At a time of rising municipal costs, local governments around the country are looking for ways to rein in tax bills, pursuing privatization, the consolidation of services, mergers and even bankruptcy.
For more on local government bankruptcy and the challenges facing municipalities, read the work of Michelle Wilde Anderson.  Here's more from Bidgood's story:
But in northern Maine, as operating costs increased, the economy stagnated and the population aged and dwindled, a handful of struggling towns have pursued the unusual process of eliminating local government entirely. 
Bidgood quotes University of Maine professor of political science, Mark Brewer:
Just the price tag to keep their local governments up and running is more or less untenable.  It’s the final step in this long, drawn-out process which really starts with population decline.
Meanwhile, in the West, the struggle is to constrain local government power, although the local government in Harney County are not stepping forward to fill a void the Bundys would like to see created.  Indeed, the current elected officials in Harney County seem to be quite opposed to the Bundys and their tactics.

I have already written a great deal about the Bundy militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, but a few pieces worthy of note have been published since my last post.  Like the reports about Maine, Wyoming, and Kentucky, important messages about these rural economies emerge.  Here's the latest from the New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, which I think provides incisive views of what's behind events in Harney County.  The headline says so much, "Rural Oregon's Lost Prosperity Gives Standoff a Distressed Backdrop":
Times were once very good out here on the high desert of east-central Oregon, and a place like Burns — remote and obscure until a group of armed protesters took over a nearby federal wildlife sanctuary this month — was full of civic pride and bustle. In their heyday, Harney County and its largest town, Burns, were economically important in a way that now seems unthinkable in the rural West.
There is so much to Johnson's story, which really does justice to the decdes-long (downward) trajectory (or should I say "spiral"?) of the rural west.  After describing how metro centric and urbanormative (my words, not his) even Oregon has become (half of the state's jobs are in the three counties in and around Portland), Johnson closes with this quote from a 73-year-old who formerly worked in Burns's sawmills:
People in western Oregon don’t even know where Burns is.
And that is lent further perspective by this quote from state representative Cliff Bentz, a Republican whose district includes Harney County:
People feel powerless.  ... As the rural areas grow more and more poor and urban areas grow more and more wealthy, there’s a shift in power.
Johnson does a fabulous job of providing heaps of economic context, including how rural poverty has changed from its early associations with Appalachia and the South, when the face of poverty was often children and elderly.  Now, many of those living in rural poverty are working age, and the jobs are just not there for them, leaving entire families in poverty.

And this, shocking and nonsensical as it is for urban folks, is what is behind the State of Jefferson movement, as well as the move behind succession of counties in northern Colorado.  Read more here and here.

But don't forget the economic angle.  Here's a quote from Ammon Bundy last week:
Government controls the land and resources ... [which] has put people in duress and put them in poverty.
(For a good rebuttal of this point, see this New Yorker piece).

Again, lest we assume this all boils down to local-federal tension, don't forget the state--let alone the tension within so-called local levels of government.  Johnson writes:  
Some residents and local officials say they believe the history and relationship between the people and the government is being distorted by the protesters, and that cooperation across lines has worked well, to the benefit of the community. For instance, an arrangement with private landowners to protect a threatened bird species, the sage grouse — and to prevent even more restrictive government protections — was a model of how cooperation can work, they said.
An earlier NYT story echoes this tension among locals.  Read more here ("Fervor in Oregon Compound Fear Outside It") and here.  Johnson also quotes Steven E. Grasty, Harney County judge, who is chair of the county commissioners:  
Those are things that Mr. Bundy doesn’t know about or care about it.  ... We can keep building on those things if he would get out of the way.
And this perspective, as much as anything, gives me hope for Harney County and the rest of the rural west.  Pragmatism and a stance of collaboration--not to mention a little empathy--are critical starting points to resolving not only the standoff, but ensuring some future for the ranchers.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Coal in the news this week, from Appalachia to the Rockies

Here and here are two stories, both focusing on Wyoming, about the Obama administration's moratorium on new coal mining on public lands.  The latter, from NPR this morning, focuses on the consequences for state and local government budgets.  Stephanie Joyce, reporting for Wyoming Public Radio, includes this quote from Wyoming State Senator Michael Von Flatern, who represents Gillette, a in the middle of the state's coal region:  
MICHAEL VON FLATERN: Well, I think the first thing the state government will have to do if they truly believe this is going to be our future is to consider what the state will look like with 100,000 less people in it. 
JOYCE: That's maybe a little dramatic. But if the industry does stop expanding, it will have a big impact locally, and people are scared. You know, until recently, Wyoming has been relatively insulated from the coal industry's downturn, which has mostly affected those higher cost mines in Appalachia. And now that appears to be changing. Let's hear from Travis Deti with the Wyoming Mining Association. 
TRAVIS DETI: When the markets look at this and when the utilities look at this, it sends that signal that, hey, that coal's going to stay in the ground. You know, the administration has ravaged the industry back east, too, so this is just our little piece of the pie.
But the "other" coal country was also in the news recently, including this story out of Kentucky, with Steve Inskeep reporting under the headline, "In Kentucky, the Coal Habit is Hard to Break."  Inskeep reports from Webster County, Kentucky, population 13,226.  Here's an excerpt highlighting how well-paying coal mining jobs have been--often $100K or better annually, depending on overtime.
When we toured a Webster County mine that is still open — the Dotiki mine, operational since 1967 and owned by Alliance Coal — our producer Ashley Westerman had a surprise. Westerman, who is from Webster County, discovered one of her elementary school classmates working underground as a foreman. 
She went off to an East Coast university; he ended up in the mine. Depending on his overtime in a given year, it's likely that he is the one who is paid more.
Of course, with mines closing, those well-paying blue-collar jobs are drying up, as are local economies.  As Inskeep notes, Arch Coal, the county's second largest coal producer, filed for bankruptcy protection this week, as "companies are squeezed between fierce competition and efforts to fight climate change."