Sunday, November 22, 2015

The politics of the rural vote, in today's NYT

Two items in today's New York Times touch on the politics of the rural vote, though only one mentions "rural" explicitly.

First, the NYT reports here on Democrat John Bel Edwards win in the Louisiana gubernatorial race.  Noting that the Edwards win "defied political geography," Campbell Robertson describes Edwards, who handily defeated U.S. Senator David Vitter, thusly:
A more promising red state Democrat could hardly have been found than Mr. Edwards, a Catholic social conservative from a family of rural law enforcement officers who graduated from West Point and served eight years of active duty in the Army.
The other is this commentary by Alec McGillis, "Who Turned my Blue State Red?" The subhead is "Why poor areas vote for politicians who want to slash the safety net," and in it McGillis analyzes the politics of low-income people--even those who have used the social safety net in the past--voting Republican.  McGillis sums up the tendency of liberals: 
The temptation for coastal liberals is to shake their heads over those godforsaken white-working-class provincials who are voting against their own interests.
McGillis provides illustrations from rural places like Pineville, West Virginia (population 668) and Pike County, Kentucky (population 65,024).  Here's the first:
In Pineville, W.Va., in the state’s deeply depressed southern end, I watched in 2013 as a discussion with Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, quickly turned from gun control to the area’s reliance on government benefits, its high rate of opiate addiction, and whether people on assistance should be tested for drugs. Playing to the room, Senator Manchin declared, “If you’re on a public check, you should be subjected to a random check.”
And here's the second:  
Where opposition to the social safety net has long been fed by the specter of undeserving inner-city African-Americans — think of Ronald Reagan’s notorious “welfare queen” — in places like Pike County it’s fueled, more and more, by people’s resentment over rising dependency they see among their own neighbors, even their own families. “It’s Cousin Bobby — ‘he’s on Oxy and he’s on the draw and we’re paying for him,’ ” ... “If you need help, no one begrudges you taking the program — they’re good-hearted people. It’s when you’re able-bodied and making choices not to be able-bodied.”
A local political consultant summed it up:
It’s not the people on the draw that’s voting against [the Democrats.]  It’s everyone else.
This is reminiscent of what Jennifer Sherman observed in "Golden Valley" California in Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America.  In short, the "have a little" crowd turn up their noses toward--and vote against the interests of--the "have nots."

McGillis describes the work of Professor Kathryn Edin to illustrate:
Edin, of Johns Hopkins University, found a tendency by many Americans in the second lowest quintile of the income ladder — the working or lower-middle class — to dissociate themselves from those at the bottom, where many once resided. “There’s this virulent social distancing — suddenly, you’re a worker and anyone who is not a worker is a bad person,” said Professor Edin. “They’re playing to the middle fifth and saying, ‘I’m not those people.’ ”
This reminds me of Matt Wray's descriptions of intra-racial bias among whites, how even whites who are only slightly better off work to establish their distance and their distinction from those popularly thought of as "white trash."

Perhaps the saddest revelation in McGillis's piece is that poor and low-income folks don't vote at the same rate as those with higher incomes.  A number of bar graphs depict this in highly accessible form.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Finding the balance between rural tourism and transforming the rural into urban enclaves.


At the root of the myriad challenges facing rural dwellers is an anemic economy.  Whether local economic activity is focused on a singular entity (factory farms, coal mines, or similar monolithic entities) or a hodgepodge of small service industries that limp along, a common theme for those struggling in rural locations is simply a lack of economic opportunity.  To an extent the lack of opportunity is understandable: without a large enough population, there simply isn't the impetus for massive economic development. Therefore, the industries that do exist in rural places are the primary employers--prisons, hog farms, and mines. 

Rather than turn to these dominating rural employers, there is an industry that  may help alleviate economic underdevelopment.  Tourism.  And while tourism, like agribusiness or resource extraction, is not a magic bullet, it certainly has the potential to bring vital services and development to rural economies. 

Tourism and rural infrastructure

In some places, like Jackson Hole, Telluride, and other mountain towns in the Rockies, tourism fundamentally changed the character of rural areas.  Sometimes these changes altered the towns to no longer be rural--through an increase in population and infrastructure--to the extent that the towns can no longer be considered rural.  

In other rural locations, tourism is much more of a intermittent phenomenon. For example, Birdsville, Queensland, Australia.  Birdsville is a remote place in western Queensland  at the edge of the Simpson Desert and about 1,000 miles from the state capital of Brisbane.  The population is approximately 115 people; of whom half are Indigenous Australians.  However the town receives approximately 45,000 visitors from April-October.   7,000 of those visitors come during one weekend in September for the Birdsville Races.  The remainder of the visitors are generally older Australians who are going around the country in RVs, or the occasional backpacker.   

However, this influx of seasonal tourism presents unique challenges for the rural environment.  Generally, services are already limited.  In Birdsville, there is a single police officer.  There is a court, but it lacks a resident magistrate.  Instead, court is convened on the weekend of the Birdsville races, over telephone with a judge from Townsville--located on the Queensland coast 832 miles away.  The school has one teacher and 5 enrolled students.  There is a local clinic, but if there are serious health issues, the best treatment option is a 1,000 mile flight to Brisbane.  By any definition, Birdsville is rural.  Its infrastructure is designed for 363days of quiet, and 2 days of massive tourism.  Such a planning process is not 

The town plans for the annual influx of visitors exceptionally early. Police officers are drafted in from other towns, such as Mt. Isa, 10 hours to the north. Foodstuff and beer inventories begin in March.  In 2010, the races were cancelled due to torrential rain; and the tourists were stranded for 2 days.  The town ran out of food (but not beer); and the last pack of cigarettes in town was auctioned off for $200.   With the exception of the dedicated tourism industry, most of Birdsville engages in agricultural enterprises.  Services, including access to food, is limited to what can be grown, flown in, and kept in extreme temperatures.  So while the Birdsville Races put the rural town on the map, and it is generally prosperous, the question seems to remain, is the tourism and preparation worth it?

Is there a balance?

In 2010, the State government of Alberta, Canada, commissioned a report on "Rural Tourism."  In it, rural tourism was primarily defined as, "the 'country experience' [with] opportunities for visitors to to directly experience agricultural and/or natural environments."  And while focused primarily on agritourism, the report also includes "nature holidays and ecotourism, walking, climbing, and riding holidays, adventure, sport, and health tourism, hunting, angling, educational travel, arts, and heritage tourism, and in some areas, ethnic tourism [sic]."  The report acknowledges that rural towns essentially have two options: beef up infrastructure in the hopes of supporting year round tourism, or banking on annual events to fill town coffers, and eek out an existence for the remainder of the year. 

However, on a whole, the report finds that rural tourism is generally positive. As a form of economic development, the injection of outside cash is significant and allows for rural job creation, new business opportunities, increased infrastructure services, and increased land conservation (at least in places where ecotourism is prominent).  The report recognizes some of the problems with rural tourism--namely the seasonal nature, but seems to advocate for rural places up and down Canada to embrace their rural nature and follow in the successful footsteps of places like Ballyhoura in Ireland and the Trossachs in Scotland (places that relied on significant government grants, development agencies, and community involvement).  I wonder how a lot of rural communities would feel about increased outside government influence on their economy.


Birdsville may be an extreme example of rural tourism: a town of 115 that welcomes 7,000 for two days.  However, in rural towns--with populations of 2,000-3,000, the questions surrounding tourism are difficult to answer.  On one hand, tourism brings in money, allows for infrastructure expansion, and may provide for a more sustainable economic base (if not exactly diversified).  However, there are drawbacks.  Tourism can be notoriously fickle.  When trends change, the rural town that embraced tourism may be left thigh and dry.  And, taken to the extreme, encouraging tourism may lead to the fundamental destruction of the rural character of a place.  Rurality is partially defined by spatial distance and sparse population (among other things).  With the increased population and connectivity that tourism brings, what does that mean for rurality?  Does the tourist town simply become a pastiche of rural life? An island of prosperity shaped by urban notions of what rural should look like?

I have no idea what the right answer is for fostering economic development.  Every rural situation is different, and like agribusiness, mining, timber, or other traditional rural industries, tourism is not a magic bullet.  However, when developed thoughtfully, tourism can help boost local economies, and provide some semblance of economic stability. With the right event, a town can be on the map for one weekend a year and enjoy a sleepy, successful existence.  But generally, for tourism to be successful, the development should reflect the nature of the rural place, and embrace the complexities of the rural lifestyle--from farming to solitude.  Otherwise, tourism will simply make formerly rural places urban enclaves in the middle of nowhere.

For more on the urban corruption (or at least, exploitation) of the rural, read: this and this.
For more on agritourism, read: thisthis, and this.
For more on ecotourism, read: this and this.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Supreme Court will hear Texas abortion case, but no one is talking about rural women

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday accepted certiorari in the Cole case (previously Whole Women's Health v. Lakey) out of Texas, or more precisely, out of the Fifth Circuit.  Read more here and here. Adam Liptak of the New York Times provides context:
[I[t is the new abortion case, however it is decided, that is likely to produce the term’s most consequential and legally significant decision. Many states have been enacting restrictions that test the limits of the constitutional right to abortion established in 1973 in Roe v. Wade, and a ruling in the new case, from Texas, will enunciate principles that will apply in all of them.
Sadly, neither of these news reports mentions rural women, and thus neither grapples with spatiality/distance in any meaningful way.  An editorial in the NYTimes mentions poor women, but not rural ones.  My critical legal analysis here, however, grapples with both.  Would be nice to know someone is listening about the particular challenges facing rural women ... or, if not listening, considering the rural situation independent of my advocacy.

Seriously, what's up here?  Have "rural" folks become persona non grata?  Those who must not be named?  Or are the advocates discussing these issues of geography/spatiality/ in more nuanced ways?  The past is water under the bridge, but it would be so great if advocates actually started taking rural populations seriously when it comes to abortion access--and a number of other issues.

For more on neglect of the rural milieu, including stigma associated with rurality and poverty, see this and this, the latter specifically about legal neglect of rural populations in constitutional litigation.

A prior post (collecting sources and commentary) on rural abortion access is here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

"America's poorest white town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs"

That is the headline for Chris McGreal's story in The Guardian yesterday, the first in a series "of dispatches from America's poorest communities."  The dateline is Beattyville, Kentucky, population 1,307, in nonmetropolitan Lee County.  Here's an excerpt:
Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations. 
* * * 
Beattyville sits at the northern tip of a belt of the most enduring rural poverty in America. The belt runs from eastern Kentucky through the Mississippi delta to the Texas border with Mexico, taking in two of the other towns – one overwhelmingly African American and the other exclusively Latino – at the bottom of the low income scale.
The story quotes Dee Davis, of the Center for Rural Strategies (publisher of the Daily Yonder), who grew up in Lee County:
There’s this feeling here like people are looking down on you. Feeling like it’s OK to laugh at you, to pity you. … We’re primed to react to people we think are looking down on us. That they judge us for our clothes, judge us for our car, judge us for our income, the way we talk.
This is the poorest congressional district in the United States. I grew up delivering furniture with my dad. No one ever said they were in poverty. That’s a word that’s used to judge people. You hear them say, I may be a poor man but we live a pretty good life for poor people. People refer to themselves as poor but they won’t refer to themselves as in poverty.
I have written about similar phenomena here and here and lots of other places, too.  I find Davis's differentiation between "poor" and "poverty" in self perception very interesting, and it really resonates with my own upbringing in a nonmetropolitan persistent poverty county in Arkansas.  A lot of seriously socioeconomically disadvantaged rural people don't see themselves as living in poverty, though many will acknowledge they are poor.

And, in what is essentially a paraphrase of a favorite adage among rural sociologists, "if you've seen one rural place, you've seen one rural place," McGreal writes:
The communities share common struggles in grappling with blighted histories and uncertain futures.  
* * *  
At the same time, each of the towns is distinguished by problems not common to the rest. In Beattyville it is the drug epidemic, which has not only destroyed lives but has come to redefine a town whose fleeting embrace of prosperity a generation ago is still visible in some of its grander official buildings and homes near the heart of the town.
I look forward to others in The Guardian series.  Another recent series on small-town poverty, this one by Scott Rodd, can be found on Think Progress, here (also about Beattyville, KY), here (Jamestown, Tennessee), here (Tchula, Mississippi) and here (Campti, Louisiana).  

A current MSNBC series on the Geography of Poverty is here, but the places featured are mostly metropolitan:  Flint, MI, Baton Rouge, LA, and Brownsville, TX.  The one exception is rural Fort Yates, ND, population 184, in Sioux County, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.     

California and the rural way of life: Part III - Gold dredging

This is the third installment in a series of posts that focus on some of the issues that rural Californians have with their state government (see here for Part I and links for other posts on this topic, and here for Part II).  Many rural Californians feel that they are not being represented at the state level. This post will focus on the issue of California's moratorium on gold dredging.

In July of 2009, California placed a moratorium on gold dredging statewide.  Gold dredging is when a machine is used to suck up dirt and rocks off the bottom of a streambed.  The water, dirt, rocks, and gold are then sent down a sluice box to separate the gold from the rest of the material (for more info about dredging, see here).  This moratorium was to remain in place until the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly California Department of Fish and Game) complied with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act).  Dredging can only resume once an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) is completed and the department adopts and implements new regulations that address the environmental impacts of gold dredging. 

The reasoning behind the moratorium was due to the fact that gold dredging disturbs streambeds.  This disturbance can supposedly harm fish and remobilize mercury pollution that was left over from the California gold rush of the mid 1800s (mercury was used to separate the gold from sand and gravel).  For more info about mercury in California, see article here.  According to Fisheries Biologist Peter Moyle of UC Davis, the impacts of suction dredging are not well understood.  However, Moyle states that gold dredging "represents a chronic unnatural disturbance of habitats supporting fish that are already likely to be stressed by other factors." For the entire article, see here.

Some people are drawn to gold dredging for its recreational value, others are drawn by the money they can make by selling the gold.  There are several reasons why people are upset at the state government for the moratorium.  First, the moratorium could not have come at a worse time in regards to our economy.  The other reasons are because of a lack of consensus showing that the detrimental effects of gold dredging outweigh the positive effects.  

In the year 2008, the United States entered what is now called the Great Recession.  This economic downturn caused people to lose their jobs, their homes, and their life savings.  Many people were forced to find new and inventive ways to support their families.  Some people turned to gold dredging to supplement their incomes, including my own family.  However, less than a year after the recession started, California thought it was a good idea to limit the earning potential of gold dredgers.  Money made from gold dredging, although not much compared with the other industries in the state, could have been used to stimulate local economies and help lessen the impact the recession had on the dredging community.  The price of gold was hitting record highs, yet nobody could extract it in any meaningful way.  People could still pan for gold, but that technique is way less efficient at extracting gold. 

I attended a public hearing prior to the implementation of the moratorium along with a packed house of gold dredgers and representatives from the California Department of Fish and Game.  It seemed as though every dredger in the place was upset and/or angry.  Most felt that anything they said to the Fish and Game representatives was not taken seriously.  Having been there myself, I seemed to me that the decision was already made and the "hearing" was just an attempt to placate the dredging community.  During this hearing, there were a couple of valid arguments that the dredgers made in opposition to the theory that dredging is harmful to the environment.  The first argument offered was one that directly contradicted the theory that dredging causes the remobilization of mercury, which is then washed downstream, which in turn is bad for humans.

The serious and avid dredgers were the ones to first talk about all of the mercury and lead they removed from the water.  The dredgers claimed that they had removed, in some cases, barrels of lead and mercury from their sluice boxes, and thus from the rivers.  The positive effects from the removal of these substances from the rivers could have been compared with the detrimental effects of the mercury and lead spread downstream.  However, the state decided to place a moratorium on dredging instead of allowing research to help guide their decision before implementing the ban.

Even if it was shown that dredging spreads mercury and lead downstream, natural events do the same thing.  Heavy rain and snowmelt cause rivers to swell.  The increase in the volume of water in these rivers and streams stir up sediment, remobilize mercury, lead, and gold, and can scour and dramatically change the river bottom.  However, the state didn't compare the effects of dredging against natural causes before enacting the moratorium.

California has salmon and steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout) that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Part of the reason for the moratorium was to protect these species.  Dredging can destroy redds (basically fish nests), and kill the unhatched fish.  This is a significant problem.  California, however, has a multitude of dams that restrict salmon and steelhead migration upstream to their native spawning areas.  Much of the dredging occurs in areas above the dams where these fish can no longer reach.  This was not taken into consideration when the moratorium was issued.

Not only can dredging harm the anadromous species (fish that live in the ocean and reproduce in fresh water), but the activity can also harm native freshwater trout species. The redds of these species can easily be destroyed by a dredge.  However, stirring up the river beds can bring insects into the water and feed the fish.  I have seen this first hand.  Trout that are normally evasive will either hang out behind the sluice box to feed upon the insects that flow out from it or will hang out right in front of you and feed on insects a few inches from your face.  Once again, this was not taken into consideration, or if it was, it was not given much weight.  The state could have imposed a moratorium for dredging below the dams (where the salmon and steelhead are), could have imposed a ban during the times of the year between when the fish spawn and when the fish hatch, a limit in the size of dredges allowed, or a combination of all three.

Even though the moratorium is in effect, people continue to dredge.  Dredging is usually done in remote places and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, already stretched thin, lacks the resources to enforce the moratorium.  The dredging community has also come up with inventive ways to get around the moratorium.  In addition to high banking and electronic prospecting, they have started to use "underwater blow mining" to find gold.  Blow mining uses a stream of water to stir up the bottom or in crevices to clear material out of the way, leaving the gold behind.  For more info about different dredging/extracting techniques, see here.

Many people feel that this moratorium was due to lobbying by environmental groups with very little emphasis on any positive influences of dredging (due to lack of research or understanding in the scientific community).  The gold dredging community has not taken this sitting down.  This issue is on it's way to the Appellate Court of the Third Appellate District of California.  The gold dredgers have challenged the moratorium under a federal preemption argument (see here).  If California had just considered the social effects of the moratorium before enacting a one size fits all moratorium, the people would not have had to rely on the courts to have their voices heard.

In the next post, I will discuss ways that California (and other states) can tackle the lack of rural representation in state policy decisions.  There are three possible ways that this issue can be resolved.  One idea comes from Arizona, one from Australia, and one from the proponents of Jefferson State.

For more posts on gold and gold dredging, see here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Are high suicide rates in rural America linked to high death rates among working-class whites?

The New York Times reported last week on high and rising suicide rates in rural and small-town America. Laura Beil's story, based on a study published in the May issue of JAMA Pediatrics, emphasized, to some extent, the young.  She reports that rural adolescents commit suicide at about twice the rate of urban adolescents.  Beil notes that "imbalances between city and country have long persisted," and quotes Cynthia Fontanella, a psychologist at Ohio State University, the study's lead author:
We weren’t expecting that the disparities would be increasing over time.  The rates are higher, and the gap is getting wider.
But Beil also talked about older cohorts of rural residents:
Suicide is a threat not just to the young. Rates over all rose 7 percent in metropolitan counties from 2004 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In rural counties, the increase was 20 percent. 
The problem reaches across demographic boundaries, encompassing such groups as older men, Native Americans and veterans. The sons and daughters of small towns are more likely to serve in the military, and nearly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans live in rural communities.
The Sacramento Bee subsequently ran this story about suicide rates by county in California.  It shows a similar trend toward higher rates in nonmetropolitan counties.

On the same day as the NYT story on rural suicides, the paper also covered this story, which has received a lot more attention in the ensuing period:  the release of the Deaton-Case study on life expectancy, reported under the headline "Death Rate Rising for Middle-Age White Americans, Study Finds."  The NYT did not seem to link these two--at least not explicitly--but to me they seemed obviously related.

Here's the lede for the latter story:
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling. 
* * * 
Analyzing health and mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and from other sources, they concluded that rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abusealcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.
* * * 
In contrast, the death rate for middle-aged blacks and Hispanics continued to decline during the same period, as did death rates for younger and older people of all races and ethnic groups. 
Middle-aged blacks still have a higher mortality rate than whites — 581 per 100,000, compared with 415 for whites — but the gap is closing, and the rate for middle-aged Hispanics is far lower than for middle-aged whites at 262 per 100,000.
First, let us be clear that this study is not about middle-aged whites generally.  It is about middle aged, working class whites--those with no more than a high school education.  Between 1999 and 2014, their death rate increased by 134 deaths per 100,000.  According to commentary, this is a shift of considerable magnitude.  Many are speculating about the "why" behind this data.  Dr. Deaton said he "envisions poorly educated middle-aged white Americans who feel socially isolated are out of work, suffering from chronic pain and turning to narcotics or alcohol for relief, or taking their own lives."

So, what do the two news stories have to do with each other?  I suspect that a higher rate per capita of working class whites plagued by these health problems are living in rural America--or at least a disproportionate share of those who succumb to suicide or overdoses likely are.  Certainly the heroin and opioid epidemics have been associated with nonmetropolitan areas, though they are by no means exclusively rural phenomena.  See more here and here.  Further, the first story (the one focusing on rural suicides) suggests that rural Americans--no doubt including many middle age, working class white ones, some of whom are veterans (see more about rural veterans service access issues herehere and here)--are without adequate mental health resources, meaning they are more likely to succumb to drug abuse, alcoholism, and other problems associated with early mortality among this demographic slice.  We should think not only about the public health problem of a spiking death rate among working class whites, we should think about how to improve service provision and access to rural Americans.

See stories related to the Deaton-Case study here and here and commentary on the study herehereherehereherehere, hereherehere, and here.      

Sunday, November 8, 2015

An essay on the rural Mississippi Delta

Here's the lede from today's New York Times Sunday Review piece, "Sweet Home Mississippi" by Richard Grant.  
TO move from Lower Manhattan to rural Mississippi is probably the most extreme culture shock available in this country.
The essay features many observations on race, like this portion of one paragraph:
Contradictions are like oxygen here, part of the air itself. The Delta is arguably the most racist, or racially obsessed, place in America, and yet you see more ease and conviviality between blacks and whites than in the rest of America. It’s not uncommon to find close, loving, quasi-familial relationships between black and white families who have known one another for generations. They weep together at one another’s funerals, and sometimes name their children after one another
Read more to decide if you agree about that "extreme culture shock" assertion, and to ponder lots of information about the complicated race relations.  

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Environmentalists' victory lap over Keystone XL Pipeline fails to acknowledge rural angle, protests

President Obama announced yesterday the rejection of the 1,179 mile Keystone XL pipeline, the wildly controversial "bit" of infrastructure that would would have snaked from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf coast, giving Canadian oil access to refineries there.  Read the NPR coverage here and the New York Times coverage here.  The NYT lede is here:
President Obamaannounced on Friday that he had rejected the request from a Canadian company to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline, ending a seven-year review that had become a symbol of the debate over his climate policies.
One of my favorite quotes from Obama's speech follows:
It has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.
The NYT story quotes Bill McKibben, founder of, an environmental activist group which campaigned against the pipeline:
President Obama is the first world leader to reject a project because of its effect on the climate. That gives him new stature as an environmental leader, and it eloquently confirms the five years and millions of hours of work that people of every kind put into this fight.
What is striking to me is that neither of these stories makes any mention of the enormous grassroots effort against the pipeline, a grassroots effort by farmers and other landowners, primarily in Nebraska, where the pipeline would have threatened the Oglala Aquifer.  I have covered that activism extensively on Legal Ruralism, including here, here and here.  Further, the New York Times has covered that activism, including in a major story in the New York Times Magazine las year and also in the 2013 op-ed here.  

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Indigenous Australians: the brutal cycle of subpar education, healthcare, and poverty for a rural population


In many respects the story of Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders (hereinafter referred to as Indigenous Australians or people for readability) mirrors that of other native peoples.  As the European population spread over the continent, Indigenous peoples were marginalized, assimilated, or killed.  In Australia, from the 1870s to the 1970s (officially, 1969, but the practice continued in some locations for some time), indigenous children were forcibly removed from their communities.

The tragedy of the indigenous experience is one that is incredibly rich and complex, and I do not seek to do it justice in a single post.  However, the parallels of that experience to that of Native Americans is worth noting: many Indigenous Australians live in rural or remote areas, and experience the same issues as other remote populations: poverty, lack of access to education, healthcare, and social services, increased instances of substance abuse and domestic violence.  In Australia, the Indigenous population experiences rural issues at a higher rate than the white populations.  This post will focus on indigenous poverty, education, and healthcare; and the policies the Australian federal government may change under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull.

For posts on the interplay between education and health in rural California, read this.  For a more comprehensive understanding of rural poverty and education in the US, read this.  For a post on rural health in the United States, read this

Indigenous Poverty 

Across Australia,  rural and remote poverty is slightly worse than it is in the "capital cities," 13.1% in rural areas vs. 12.6% in the cities.  For a more detailed breakdown of Australian demographics, see this. Poverty in the greater, rural Australian contexts several characteristics: 
  • lower income
  • declining employment opportunities
  • distance and isolation
  • reduced access to healthcare, education, and other social services.
Throughout most of Australia, the poverty rate is generally higher in rural areas, except in New South Wales and Western Australia (where the cost of housing in the capital cities; Sydney and Perth, is very high). 

Specific to Indigenous Australians, the average disposable income of an indigenous person is about 70% of that of a white Australian. The discrepancy between Indigenous and white Australians is exacerbated in rural Australia.  For example, in Cape York (the remote, northern peninsula in Queensland), the average Indigenous weekly income is $394, 45% of the white average income of $869.  In no region of Australia--remote, rural, or urbanized--do Indigenous Australians have a higher disposable income than white Australians. Furthermore, Indigenous Australians are 2.5% of the overall population, but accounted for nearly 25% of homeless people in the 2011 census. 

As of the 2011 census, the Indigenous unemployment rate was 17.1%.  Of the Indigenous Australians aged between 15 and 64, only 46.5% were employed, compared to 70.6% of white Australians.  
Clearly, despite the relatively small proportion of the Australian population that is Indigenous, this population is disproportionately poor, under-served, and resident in rural and remote areas.  In fact, only 1/3 of Indigenous Australians live in major cities.  The remaining 2/3 of the Indigenous populations live in inner regional (22%), outer regional (22%), remote (8%), and very remote (14%) areas.  For definitions of these terms, see my previous post and this map. This population distribution is very different from the non-Indigenous, urban centric population.  What causes this population and poverty discrepancy, and more importantly, how are the Australian state and federal governments addressing the problem? 

Indigenous Education

As of the 2011 census, Indigenous children comprised approximately 4.8 % of students, compared to Indigenous Australians comprising only 2.5% of the population.  This disparity is partly caused by higher fertility rates, but also because nearly all children of intermarriage are identified as Indigenous. Despite the higher proportion of Indigenous children, approximately 20% of Indigenous children failed basic literacy and numeracy tests. 

The failure of this 20% must be understood in light of diminishing goals under the Coalition of Australian Governments (COAG) (In 2008, the COAG changed the education goals from seeking to eliminate the gap between Indigenous and white Australians in 4 years to halving the gap between Indigenous and white Australians in 10 years--a pretty drastic change in goals).  See this for the full 2012 education report. 

A significant reason this policy shift has failed to reduce education gaps is that COAG identifies "Indignity" itself as the obstacle. In 2011, approximately $360 million was spent on "culturally appropriate" programs.  These programs basically take resources away from classroom instruction and divert it towards theatre specialists, puppeteers, and visual artists.  This money was essentially wasted. The states that spent the least on these programs were most successful in reducing the education gap.  Queensland spent $850 per student on these cultural programs and reduced the gap; whereas South Australia spent nearly $6000 per student on the cultural program and saw no change. 

The state of education is even worse in Indigenous schools--schools that enroll 75% or more Indigenous students. These schools enroll approximately 20,000 students, mainly in rural or remote areas without private sector employment and remain welfare dependent. Forty schools in the Northern Territory do not have a full time teacher every day of the week.  Across the board, these schools have a failure rate of 90%.  

Another 40,000 Indigenous students are enrolled "mainstream" schools with students from low socio-economic backgrounds, with high staff turnover and disciplinary problems.  
From 2011 to 2013, graduation rates and several other metrics improved slightly. However, in mid-level progress, there were significant gaps between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students--nearly 61.6% literacy gap at schools in the Northern Territories. However, there was an improvement of 6.5% of Indigenous children attending the last year of schooling. 

In light of these slight improvements, the Australian government lowered the targets, to allow for 90% school attendance, and access to preschool for 95% of rural Indigenous populations under the age of 4.  Currently, 91% of these children have access to preschool.
In the 2015 COAG report, these education numbers remained disturbingly stagnant. For the full report, read this.  For the highlights, read on.  

Only two of the government's targets were met: halving the mortality rate for Indigenous children under 5 and halving the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children finishing school.  In effect, since 2008, there has been no progress in improving literacy or numeracy among Indigenous children.  The COAG report, in making recommendations to the federal government, suggested making preventative health, and access to healthcare overall, a priority in reducing the education gap between Indigenous and white Australians.

Indigenous Healthcare 

Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy approximately 10 years shorter than non-Indigenous Australians.  Indigenous people also have high levels of preventable, treatable, and chronic medical conditions in higher percentages than the non-Indigenous population, including:
  • 3x the instances of diabetes
  • 2x the instances of chronic kidney disease
  • 4x the instances of advanced chronic kidney disease
  • 3x (and rising) the instances of Hepatitis C
The prevalence of poorer health clearly track with increased poverty, increased homelessness, decreased education, and the remoteness of major Indigenous population centers. For a comprehensive overview of Indigenous Australian health, read this.  

Like the causes and irritating factors of poverty, the Indigenous health gap is caused by a variety of factors, including: insufficient housing, insufficient education, and insufficient access to health services.  Generally speaking, Indigenous Australians should access healthcare much more often than non-Indigenous Australians; but the reality only suggest a marginal increase in access.  The discrepancy in this access can be attributed to the remote nature--and understaffed and underfunded.  In fact, 26% of Indigenous Australians seeking access to health services reported barriers.  The barriers to access were underfunding (and consequently higher costs to patients) and understaffing (causing longer wait times). 

Access to general practitioners (GPs, or your standard physician who performs physicals and treats general ailments) and preventative medicine is perhaps the single greatest challenge--and opportunity--for Indigenous Australian health.  In the rural and remote areas, access to GPs decreases significantly the further one moves away from cities.  In addition, preventable hospitalizations in these regions remain stable across non-Indigenous populations, but skyrockets for Indigenous Australians (in remote areas, nearly 300/1000 Indigenous people. were hospitalized for preventable ailments, compared to 50/1000 non-Indigenous people). 

Improving the Quality of Life for Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians face significant challenges in both urban and rural environments, but a significant portion of Indigenous Australians live in rural areas.  Therefore, the challenges they face--access to education and healthcare, as well as increased instances of domestic violence (discussed in my last post)--are exacerbated by lack of well-funded services and the remote nature of the communities.  Access to education and healthcare must increase if there is to be a significant change in poverty statistics.  So what can the Australian government do?

Under the Abbott government, the federal government changed the way it funds Indigenous programs, from nearly 150 individual programs to 5-broader strategies.  This changed reduced the amount of red tape and the number of bureaucrats in Indigenous communities.  However, Indigenous leaders feel that the change is only half complete.  The leaders will soon meet with PM Turnbull to discuss further changes, but no firm date has been set.  In the meantime, Turnbull will continue with an Indigenous Affairs Council.  But it remains to be seen how the new government will tackle years of stagnant educational change.  And one thing remains abundantly clear, the Indigenous population faces significant challenges, compounded by the exceedingly rural nature of Rural communities.