Wednesday, October 1, 2014

“Mega farms” and their impacts rural livelihood

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40 percent of people in rural areas lived on farms in 1950. USDA statistics reveal that less than 10 percent of the rural population lives on farms and that only 14 percent of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture. The shift from the rural to the urban is attributable to many factors, including: industrialization, social preferences, demand, and costs. Whatever the cause of the shift, the traditional farms showcased in 20th century literature, art and film is being pushed to the wayside by large-scale farming activities, corporations and “industrial agriculture.”

Over the summer, National Public Radio (NPR), reported on this subject in a piece called “
In The Making Of Megafarms, A Mixture Of Pride And Pain,” by Dan Charles. The most surprising portion of the show was the statistic that: “According to the latest census of American agriculture, there are two million farms in America. But just four percent of those farms account for two-thirds of all agricultural production.” This shift is viewed with mixed feelings, as there both benefits and drawbacks to this form of production.

The benefits to large scale farming are production efficiency, arguably food-safety, profitability, and costs to the consumer. For every proponent of large scale farming, there are many opponents; John Ikerd falls into the latter category. In his paper,
Reclaiming Rural America from Corporate Agriculture, Prof. Ikerd writes: 
“Rural communities are being systematically polluted and plundered by an industrial agriculture that is increasingly under the control of large agribusiness corporations. . . . Many rural communities, desperate for jobs, are encouraged to compete for new prisons. If they can’t get a prison, they may be encouraged to settle for a landfill. . . . If they can’t get a landfill, they can probably get a toxic waste incinerator or a nuclear waste site . . . . [or] large-scale confinement animal feeding operations. The corporate world sees rural areas as empty spaces occupied by desperate people . . . . The profits go to wealthy corporate investors, while rural people are paid but a few dollars . . . .”
Prof. Ikerd’s position is not atypical. Other rationales given for being opposed to “mega farming” by some rural residents foul smelling odors and other negative secondary environmental effects. The unemployment that Prof. Ikerd’s paper mentions is one of the largest concerns. In 2001, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that declines in farming and opposition to industrializing trends in agriculture are compelling rural areas to seek new job sources, abandoning farming, and sometimes their hometown, altogether. Rural farmers, like Donn Teske, have observed a type of rural-flight: "there's nothing left but huge modern farms and boarded-up main streets of county seats. And that's really sad to see."

“Mega farming” may be necessary to facilitate a relatively cheap and plentiful source of food for America, however, there is a cost to the farmers and their rural way of life. Donn Teske’s home county of Jewell, has fallen victim to a large, 25 square mile farm. Since the “mega farm” took root in the 1980s, the population of Jewell County has fallen by nearly half. Daily accommodations and necessities have given way. The town of Jewell no longer has its own schools, nor are there shops where one could by a suit and shoes. This lacking cannot help but to impact the local rural community. 

As the negative consequences of larger farms on rural livelihood continues to accumulate, one cannot help but to reflect on this trend historically. The move from rural farms to “mega farms” can be said to be somewhat analogous to Rockefeller and the oil industry: where arguably the production is more efficient and the product itself is more consistent and arguably safer, however many families livelihoods are compromised in the process.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Considering future regulation of groundwater and such regulation's effect on rural communities.

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown signed historic groundwater legislation that will charge local water basin managers with the responsibility of protecting California’s groundwater aquifers from overdraft. There is no doubt that this legislation was the state legislature’s response to the severe, three-year drought California has been facing. As the state has experienced low amounts of rain and snowpack the past few years, Californians have turned to groundwater to meet their water needs. This increase in groundwater pumping has depleted groundwater supplies to their lowest level in a century and has caused the San Joaquin Valley to sink in certain areas. The recent groundwater legislation in California has motivated me to investigate where state legislatures might move next in their regulation of groundwater as environmental concerns around groundwater heighten and how that potential regulation might affect rural communities.

For those who do not know, groundwater is simply rainwater or surface water that has percolated and gathered in subsurface cracks and spaces. Groundwater supplies drinking water for 44% of the total US population and 99% of the rural population. In 2005, 68% of groundwater was used for irrigation. Considering the percent of groundwater used for rural drinking and irrigation, it seems that any regulation on groundwater will have a drastic effect on rural populations.

In my search to uncover information that could potentially provoke legislatures to develop future groundwater regulation, I began examining the environmental impacts of groundwater pumping.

According to G.L. MacPherson with the Department of Geology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, groundwater contains 10-100 times higher concentrations of carbon dioxide than the atmosphere; thus, when groundwater contacts the atmosphere, that carbon dioxide degases into the atmosphere. This means that pumping groundwater to the surface adds to the production in greenhouse gas emissions. In his public comment submission to the California Air Resources Board, William Bourcier, Ph.D., sited MacPherson stating that MacPherson estimates that the carbon dioxide produced from pumping groundwater is equal to the sum of all volcanic carbon dioxide release. If this is accurate, then the carbon dioxide emissions produced by groundwater pumping may be something that is regulated by states concerned with greenhouse gas emissions.

What type of effect might regulation of emissions produced by groundwater pumping on rural communities in a state like Nebraska, where 50 of the state’s 93 counties are rural? Nebraska is a state that, in 2005, accounted for 9% of the nation’s groundwater withdraws despite being less than 1% of the nation’s total population.

The overall impact of regulation of this type on rural communities will, likely, depend on the amount of carb dioxide that is actually being produced by pumping groundwater to the surface and the individual state’s environmental regulation tendencies. It is tough to say whether a state, like Nebraska, so apparently dependent on groundwater will implement such a regulation.

Rural workers unqualified for high skill manufacturing jobs

Rural locations are among the poorest in the nation. Part of this problem is availability of jobs. There are not enough jobs that pay well in rural communities. But another obstacle rural workers face is the increase in knowledge-based jobs. Manufacturing jobs of today require a skill set unlike the assembly line days of the past.

Indiana is home to many rural communities. Almost half of Indiana's counties are classified as rural. Indiana is also the top manufacturing state in the nation. Many of these manufacturing companies are related to the automotive and metal machining industry. For example the Fortune 500 companies Cummins Engines and Steel Dynamics are located in Indiana. 

Brazil, Indiana is the county seat of rural Clay County. Brazil is home to three companies that fit Indiana's high tech manufacturing profile well. Great Dane TrailersBritt Aero, and Morris Manufacturing are all located in Brazil. Great Dane makes trailers for big rig trucks while Britt Aero and Morris Manufacturing make tools and metal parts. 

Brazil has an interesting economic problem: they have jobs, but no qualified labor force. These three companies are searching nationwide for qualified workers because local workers are not qualified for these jobs. Rural Americans are ill qualified for the jobs available. Economist Robert Guell says “You have a group of people who need jobs, want jobs. They’re ill-suited to the jobs that are available.” 

In Indiana, manufacturing jobs have been restored to their pre-recession levels, but the labor force available in rural communities cannot fill them. A report by the Rural Urban Entrepreneurship Institute at Indiana State University explains this conundrum. There is a labor mismatch in rural communities. According to the report advanced manufacturing is among the areas leading the resurgence in manufacturing jobs. But these advanced manufacturing jobs require higher education and training.

Rural economies need jobs, but they also need training. Proper training of local workers can help manufacturers keep jobs local and improve rural economies.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The shortage of doctors in rural areas and medical schools’ attempt to fill this gap

The United States has a serious shortage of doctors, and rural areas are hit harder than average. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are 6,100 federally designated areas in the United States, referred to as health professional shortage areas, with a deficiency of doctors. Urban areas have approximately 84 primary care doctors per 100,000 people. However, rural areas have only 68 primary care doctors per 100,000 people. To put these numbers into perspective, approximately 20% of the population lives in rural areas, while only 9% of doctors practice there. The future looks even bleaker; the Association of American Medical Colleges warned that by 2020, the United States will have a shortfall of 45,000 primary care physicians and 46,000 surgeons and medical specialists.

If medical school applicants are increasing, then why is there a severe shortage of doctors in rural areas? Dr. Howard Rabinowitz, professor of family and community medicine at Thomas Jefferson University's Medical College, has studied this issue for over 30 years and cites several reasons. For current doctors, commonly cited reasons for leaving rural areas include insufficient insurance payments, administrative hassles regarding insurance claims, and rising business and malpractice insurance expenses. Additionally, fewer people from rural areas are applying to medical schools, and approximately half of the students from rural areas want to practice in metropolitan areas instead of returning to their rural communities.
Losing doctors in rural areas can be particularly problematic for the community because that doctor may be the only one around within an hour (or more!) drive. For a family, that means not only time spent driving to the doctor, but also the gas expense and lost wages if one needs to take time off of work to go to the doctor. 

Medicare and medical schools have taken steps to try to control the shortage. Medicare gives a 10% bonus to doctors who serve communities with physician shortages. From 2011-2015, these doctors are eligible for additional bonuses depending on the type of care they provide. Medical schools are thinking even more proactively by influencing students during the educational stages of becoming a doctor. For example, the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Rural Track Pipeline Program targets students who want to practice in rural areas and offers repeat exposure to these areas. More than 450 medical students have participated in the program, and more than 57% of students practice in rural areas both inside and outside Missouri. The University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Rural Track program helps students understand the benefits of practicing medicine in a rural environment. Applicants are up from 62 in 2006 to 190 in 2010. Lastly, Kansas, a state that has five counties without any doctors, opened a medical school devoted to rural medicine. (See this blog post on the University of Kansas and this blog post describing other similar programs).

Will legislative and medical school efforts be enough? For current doctors, especially those with families, the bonuses may not be enough to draw them to a rural area. Uprooting a family often means the spouse finding another job, children having to start new schools, and leaving family and friends – essentially leaving an established life. For many, moving to a rural area may not be worth the effort. Additionally, many of these doctors likely did their residency in metropolitan area hospitals and became accustomed to certain aspects of urban areas, such as more extensive cultural or educational opportunities. 

Medical schools’ rural track programs offer a better solution by developing students’ interest in rural areas early on. Research shows that only 3-4% of medical school graduates plan to practice in rural areas, while schools with rural track programs, such as University of Missouri School of Medicine, show more than 50% of matriculates work in rural areas. This outcome is quite promising, and hopefully other medical schools begin to adopt this idea so we can begin solving a problem before it’s too late.

Differences in social identification derivative of place call for particularized legal services

In Creed and Ching’s article “Recognizing Rusticity: Identity and the Power of Place” they discuss the ways in which the urban/rural distinction affects how identity is expressed and experienced. Markers of place influence differences in social identification and how identity is experienced within broader minority groups. Creed and Ching aptly state:
“The resulting representation of social distinctions primarily in terms of race, class, and gender thus masks the extent to which these categories are inflected by place identification. For example, social theorist generally fail to acknowledge that a rural woman’s experience of gender inequality may be quite different from that of an urban woman, or that racial oppression in the city can take a different form in the countryside.”
An important reason for studying rural livelihoods in a legal framework, and also a significant personal motivator for myself, is to be able to better understand the ways in which the legal needs of rural communities differ from perhaps my own urban-normative understanding of legal services.

One group Creed and Ching do not explicitly mention is the LGBT community, which has been historically discriminated against in rural areas—arguably facing a distinct, and different set of needs and experiences than the metropolitan LGBT community. While LGBT individuals in urban populations seems to constitute most mainstream narratives of identity experience, many LGBT people living in rural areas still face systemic inequality. In rural areas, discrimination in access to health care, housing, and employment often leads to an increased risk for poverty and social isolation for LGBT families. This can be particularly crippling in rural communities where jobs are scarcer, health care providers and housing options are limited, and economic status might already be low. Moreover, LGBT inequality in rural communities also creates an additional barrier to accessing critical state and federal social services.

Addressing the intersection between place and identity becomes crucial in being able to provide legal services that account for the distinct needs of specific minority groups. That is not to say this effort is not being made—many organizations are addressing the legal needs of rural LGBT communities in exciting ways. One such attempt to confront discrimination faced by the rural LGBT community includes, for example, includes the USDA reaching out to the rural LGBT community. Newly-proposed regulations will protect transgender people from discrimination in many USDA programs, including important housing and farming programs that particularly impact rural Americans. Moreover, the Human Rights Campaign has recently expanded offices into the Deep South – Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas—to address LGBT rights in more rural parts of the country. Such efforts are important in being able to understand the experience of the rural LGBT community; address the specific, particularized legal needs of its members; and protect and identify ways to ensure they have access to resources they need to thrive.

Native Americans and rural education  
Distinguishing by race is a sensitive and complex endeavor. Race has long been a foremost consideration in the history of our nation. One area growing in racial diversity is that of rural America. Rural and small town areas have traditionally not been as racially or ethnically diverse as the nation overall. The 2010 Census reports that approximately 78 percent of the population in rural and small town communities are white and non-Hispanic, compared to 64 percent of the population in the nation as a whole.

Less than two percent of the population in rural and small town areas identifies as Native American. Native Americans may seems like the minority in rural areas, however, as a percentage within the race, more than half of all Native Americans take up residence in rural or small town area. This concentration of rural living has led to many hardships. One of the more apparent hardships of rural life and poverty is education.

As of 2013, 78.8% of single-race American Indians and Alaska Natives 25 and older, had at least a high school diploma, GED certificate or some type of credential in 2012. Only 13.5 percent obtained a bachelor's degree or beyond. Why is this? Historical poverty and social constructs aside, a rural quality of living is a large factor.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of American Indians live on reservations.  American Indians living on rural removed reservations have limited access to education. Efforts are made: there are federally funding options, grants, and some schools extend scholarships to Native American children, however, options for small rural tribes are still lacking. This is even truer when it comes to higher education, as there are only 33 accredited Tribal Colleges in the United States and the cost to attend, though low, is beyond what many at the poverty level can afford. 

Higher education within the tribal communities is scarce. But it is in the early educational years where Native American students are greatly impacted. Rural impoverished Native Americans are a minority within the minority. Xenophobia and sometimes blatant racism has created yet another hurdle that rural Native Americans have to overcome. This struggle has been evidenced in the classroom student-teacher interaction.

One such case that occurred earlier this year is that of the Northern Californian Bear River Band and the Wiyot tribe. The Wiyot’s reside is in rural Humboldt County and recently, there have been allegations that the Native American students of the district have been subject to harassment by faculty, staff and student based on their race. An investigation into the claim resulted in racial epithets and an allegation of physical abuse. California Indian Legal Services, the National Center for Youth Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a complaint on the matter.

In July, President Obama acknowledged that there was a “crisis” in Native American education and announced that he planned to improve the Bureau of Indian Education via additional federal funding.  Federal funding is the key in moving these rural impoverished tribes into a competitive position. If the children are the future of the tribes, their education is absolutely crucial and they need the support of our government. America needs to recognize that we are one unit, and that to marginalize one group hurts the organization as a whole.

Narratives of Rural Life in Criminal Trials

The documentary Brother's Keeper tells the grim tale of a false confession to murder and explains how rural culture can contribute to the phenomena of false confessions in general.  The documentary has the potential to help jurors in future trials comprehend why people in rural areas may not have the civic savvy to identify when they are being coerced by police into make a false confession.

In the film, four brothers live in a shack in a rural town of New York.  Bill, the eldest, never wakes up one morning.  Did he die naturally in his sleep? Or did his brother Delbert mercy kill sick and elderly Bill? Here’s the twist: Delbert confessed to police that he placed his hand over Bill’s mouth and suffocated him.
The defense attorney’s strategy is to show that Delbert is just simple country folk who, due to a feeble mind coupled with police coercion, falsely confessed to the murder of his brother.    The prosecution paints a darker story of an uneducated hick that callously murdered his brother like he was a sick animal.   
Although the film never discusses the issue, it is interesting to compare two hypothetical jurors that might be asked to sit on this trial in such a rural area: one is Rudy and he is from a rural town just like the defendant; the other is Larry, from a larger nearby city.  Both men receive a jury summons to appear at the municipal courthouse, located in the county seat.  Who is likely to end up on the jury?  First, the process assumes that both men are literate and fully appreciate the importance of the jury summons.  Next, there is the issue of access to public transportation or a car to make the trip to the county seat.  Yet another factor is the men’s ability to take time off from work and lose income.  Given the statistics on rural life in this country- lower educational access, lack of public transportation, and long-term poverty- it seems tentative that the “Rudys” of the world will actually be present for voir deer as often as the “Larrys”.
The result is that the defendant may not be tried in front of a group of peers that truly understand the context of his life and motivations.

Unfortunately, it is common in the criminal justice system that the jury is not composed of the defendant’s peers.  (A common is example is the number of minority defendants that are judged by completely white juries.)  In regards to the case in My Brother’s Keeper, Delbert’s defense hinges on the willingness of the jurors to believe that someone could falsely confess to a crime.  Delbert’s defense battles against the assumption that everyone knows their Miranda rights, his defense fights the presumption that a confession equals guilt.  However, My Brother’s Keeper does an outstanding job of capturing the circumstances under which an uneducated, unsavvy “country bumpkin” could easily be misguided by coercive police interrogation tactics and ultimately confess to a crime that he did not commit.  Most jurors, especially those from large cities with a higher education, would not be able to comprehend how someone could mistakenly admit to a murder.  The documentary provides the background culture of rural life that could lead to such a false confession. 
The value of Brother’s Keeper potentially transcends its ability to explain why Delbert, in particular, falsely confessed to a crime.  The film could be used in future criminal trials to provide jurors with a look at rural mentality and how that mentality can lead to a false confessions.  Currently in California, the courts often allow defense counsel to read from newspapers, books, and magazines to explain the phenomenon of false witness identification and false confessions.  The California District Court of Appeals in People v. Woodson explicitly rejected the view that a criminal defense lawyer is limited in closing arguments only to what was said in testimony or introduced into evidence during the trial.  The court stated that “[i]f argument is to be so restricted, there could be no use made of the writings of philosophers, patriots, statesmen or judges.”  As the law currently stands, lawyers may refer to popular movies and read from printed sources.  With aggressive advocacy, criminal defense attorneys might successfully argue that documentaries like My Brothers Keeper likewise should be shown to jurors to provide context to the defendant’s actions. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rural music: a sharp change of tune

For the larger portion of my life, I have been a loving devotee of American folk music. As an adolescent, I started out listening to American and British rock artists from the 60s and 70s (e.g. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Lynyrd Skyndyrd, Aerosmith, AC/DC etc.). That phase of my life compelled me to dig deeper, so to speak, and investigate the musical influences of my classic rock heroes. This is how I became acquainted with authentically American music.

The artists I admired in my pre-teen years were tremendous enthusiasts of blues, folk, country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and r & b. Through my study of classic rock’s musical progenitors, I not only became a fan of American folk music in its own right, but also I was able to construct a mental timeline of American folk music’s development over the past century. (Before I begin my analysis, I would like to make clear that I utilize the term “folk music” very loosely. In the sense I utilize it, it is not confined simply to folk music as such, but rather it encapsulates the entirety of music that originates from the American “heartland.”)

Because of my study of American folk music’s history, I have made certain observations concerning folk music particularly designated as necessarily “rural.” I have noticed a tremendous shift in the narratives of rural songs.

I went back and read an article in the New Yorker, Folk Hero: A New Biography of Woody Guthrie, written by David Hadju. In it, Hadju makes clear that Guthrie, perhaps the most renowned American folk sing-songwriter, the man who wrote the socialist refrain “This Land is Your Land,” was an unwavering exponent of his own brand of folksy radical leftism. This reminded me of a concept that has been floating in my head for some time: rural music’s narrative has experienced a drastic paradigm shift from organic protest to one of engineered conservatism. Why is this the case? What accounts for this stark switch?

I can recall listening to songs like Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and just feeling (and loving) her unabashed rural, working class pride and a degree of class-consciousness. In the song Lynn describes her upbringing, “We were poor but we had love that's the one thing that daddy made sure of/ He shoveled coal to make a poor man's dollar.” Attached to this endearing, purely descriptive account of her impoverished background there is no explicit political message. It is simply a tender and nostalgic (and perhaps romanticized) recollection of her working class past.

Now, contrast this with a more contemporary country song I heard while listening to the radio.  Charlie Daniels’ “Simple Man” plays on the same theme of unashamed rural, working class pride, but it is attached with a direct reactionary political message. He sings:

I ain't nothin' but a simple man. They call me a redneck. I reckon that I am, but there's things going on that make me mad down to the core. I have to work like a dog to make ends meet,
there's crooked politicians and crime in the street, and I'm madder'n hell and I ain't gonna take it no more.

The lyrics at this point express a degree of discontent with the political and social status quo, however Daniels’ prescription is what is really problematic. He sings, in discontent with what he considers to be a criminal-lenient judicial system: “If I had my way with people sellin' dope/ I'd take a big tall tree and a short piece of rope/ I'd hang 'em up high and let 'em swing 'til the sun goes down.”

The coded language is quite stark, and quite unsettling. In effect, Daniels sings that if it were up to him, he would lynch those who sell drugs. He believes the judges and politicians are too soft on the petty criminals that peddle narcotics, thus he would like to bypass trial and simply lynch. Shamefully, lynching has been quite the common phenomenon in rural American history, particularly the lynching of (often times innocent) people of color (see lynching of Jesse Washington).

Daniels’ proposed solution to the illicit drug trade appears racially neutral at first glance. But, if one dwells on the notion for more than a cursory moment, and if one has a nominal degree of knowledge concerning the demographics of those accused of drug crimes, one will be able to see that Daniels indirectly proposes the return to the lynching of black folks.

To emphasize, even more so, the paradigm shift in the rural music narrative, it is important to note that in the early 70s Daniels had a significant hit with the song “Long Haired Country Boy.” In that song he describes himself as a sort of unapologetic country contrarian. He places himself in opposition to the conservative mores of the time, which dictated that men maintain their hair at respectably short lengths, by reveling in his status as a long-haired, dope-smoking, preacher-scoffing, rock ‘n’ roller.

There are other conservative themes prevalent in contemporary rural music, which were certainly not in the fore in decades past. For instance, it is quite common nowadays to hear a country music artist lament the ubiquity of foreign cars in bigger cities, the influx of city slickers in rural areas, and the alleged concerted effort to corrode country life.

I believe these themes all point to the underlying cause of this shift. Rural music went from Johnny Cash to Hank Williams, Jr.—from the poetic beauty of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “For the Good Times” to “Kiss My Country Ass,” “Country Boys Can Survive,” or “Redneck Paradise—because of the rapidly changing economic and social state of affairs in this nation.

For one, the United States is increasingly transforming its demographic characteristics. White-Americans are gradually becoming more of a numerical minority than a majority. Thus, the credence of socially constructed mythology like white supremacy is being shaken up a bit. For fear of its complete destruction, naturally white folk singers have responded defensively, to say the least.

Moreover, the United States’ unrivaled economic primacy has been facing steep decline for the past few decades, thus putting in a tremulous situation other social mythology like the so-called American way of life, or the American Dream. Country, or rural, life at its core represents and epitomizes this Americanism. As the material basis for Americanism dissipates, it follows that the most American of institutions, rurality, is placed in a precarious situation.

Add to this the fact that the livelihoods of rural working class Americans have been put in jeopardy because of this nation’s overall economic decline. And add to this a conscious effort on the part of ultra-reactionary, bourgeois ideologues to scapegoat “big government,” immigrants, and people of color, and naturally the most reactionary elements of Middle America will come out in song.

Moreover, the much of the twentieth century was colored with the omnipresence of progressive social upheaval and radical leftism, consequently much of popular music of the time was a direct reflection of this zeitgeist, and rural music was no exception. That sort of general turmoil is nonexistent today in the United States.

But, as time goes on, and international economic conditions worsen, the spirit of the times is orienting toward a return of popular uprising. So too, American folk music will reorient itself in that path. It’s fitting to end on this note: