Foreword: Toward a New Compact With Rural America

Foreword: Toward a New Compact With Rural America

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Foreword: Toward a New Compact With Rural America

 

The interpretation of United States laws and policies, and the extent to which they obstruct or support rural places and people to take advantage of opportunity, are at the nexus of our nation’s ability to reweave the social fabric and create a new compact between its rural areas and the rest of the country. It requires recognizing our interdependencies, our mutual interests, and our shared humanity. The Articles contained herein get us started—it is incumbent that we build on these contributions to take their ideas forward and provoke new and constructive policy debates.

Anthony F. Pipa *

* Senior Fellow, Center for Sustainable Development, Brookings Institution

 

Rural America as a Commons

Rural America as a Commons

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Rural America as a Commons

 

With many ready to dismiss non-urban life as a relic of history, rural America’s place in the future is in question. The rural role in the American past is understandably more apparent. As the story of urbanization goes in the United States and elsewhere, the majority of the population used to live in rural places, including small towns and sparsely populated counties. A substantial proportion of those people worked in agriculture, manufacturing, or extractive industries. But trends associated with modernity—mechanization, automation, globalization, and environmental conservation, for instance—have reduced the perceived need for a rural workforce. Roughly since the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, rural depopulation has continued with some consistency. In 1940, the U.S. rural population peaked at 57% of the total population. Today, that proportion is 14%.

Rural populations’ presence in distressed regions borne of fading legacy industries raises questions of whether it is a beneficial use of scarce public resources to support rural regions, and whether the rural way of life is consistent with modern needs. And thus, the fate of the 14% and their communities, at least in the most struggling regions, is in question.

While many urbanites are quick to dismiss rural issues as niche issues, geographic inequality, rurality, and rural livelihoods are implicated in one way or another in virtually all the crises described above. Framing the countryside as obsolescent or superfluous overlooks fundamental aspects of the often-invisible urban-rural interdependence that undergirds American life. Cities still rely heavily on rural resources and workers and will need to do so even more in the face of climate change. As such, rural resources, workers, and localities need to be taken more seriously as a critical component of an interdependent national system.

Ann M. Eisenberg *

* Associate Professor of Law, University of South Carolina School of Law

 

Those Who Need the Most, Get the Least: The Challenge of, and Opportunity for Helping Rural Virginia

Those Who Need the Most, Get the Least: The Challenge of, and Opportunity for Helping Rural Virginia

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Those Who Need the Most, Get the Least: The Challenge of, and Opportunity for Helping Rural Virginia

 

Rural America, as has been well documented, faces many challenges. Businesses and people are migrating to more urban and suburban regions. The extraction and agricultural economies that once helped them thrive—mining, tobacco, textiles—are dying. And, as we discuss below, residents of rural communities tend to be older, poorer, less credentialed in terms of their education, less healthy, and declining in population.

On a regular basis, political leaders on both sides of the aisle, and on national and state levels, make commitments to rural areas to help improve the quality of life for residents, to listen, and to help. Even with all the attention, many challenges remain, leading policy makers to ask: How can we help our rural communities?

In this Article we try to answer that question by looking specifically at the Commonwealth of Virginia, a state whose rural residents suffer disproportionately worse life outcomes than their counterparts in other parts of the state. While it is true, as we will show, that state leaders have paid attention to these challenges, it is equally true that many of the challenges facing rural Virginians persist.

Andrew Block *

Antonella Nicholas **

* Associate Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law

** JD Candidate, University of Virginia School of Law

 

Enhancing Rural Representation Through Electoral System Diversity

Enhancing Rural Representation Through Electoral System Diversity

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Enhancing Rural Representation Through Electoral System Diversity

 

Rural Virginians face disparities in outcomes regarding healthcare, access to important infrastructure, and other services. Some disparities may be related to rurality. The sparseness of population in rural areas may limit the sites where people may access services, triggering the need to travel significant distances to obtain goods and services in such areas. Limited access may lead to disparities even when the quality of goods and services in rural areas is high. The disparities affect all rural Virginians, but disproportionately affect rural Virginians of color. The causes of the disparities are complex and myriad, and may be based on race, class, or a combination of both.

The lack of political representation of those who most acutely experience the disparities may help explain the disparities. The interests of racial and political minorities in rural Virginia may not be fully represented in Virginia’s legislative bodies, including the General Assembly. Those rural Virginians have the right to vote, however, their interests may be ignored by their representatives. Legislation that may help minimize disparities may not be forthcoming because the interests of those suffering the disparities may not acutely concern their representatives. New programs to help ease the rural disparities may never be proposed. Proposed programs may receive insufficient support from rural legislators and legislators from non-rural areas of Virginia. The lack of representation of the interests of some rural Virginians may stem from the electoral system used to select representatives, rather than from personal failings of rural representatives.

Henry L. Chambers, Jr. *

* Professor of Law & Austin E. Owen Research Scholar, University of Richmond School of Law

 

With a Wink and a Nod: How Politicians, Regulators, and Corrupt Coal Companies Exploited Appalachia

With a Wink and a Nod: How Politicians, Regulators, and Corrupt Coal Companies Exploited Appalachia

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With a Wink and a Nod: How Politicians, Regulators, and Corrupt Coal Companies Exploited Appalachia

 

Environmental regulators treated America’s leading coal companies like Wall Street’s mismanaged banks leading to the “Great Recession”—big coal companies that produced millions of tons of coal were simply too big to fail. With a wink and a nod, federal and state regulators ignored a core provision of federal law that was intended to prevent coal companies from continuing their past practices of plundering Appalachia’s mineral wealth while ravaging her environment.

This Article examines how the coal industry successfully evaded compliance with that law. The consequences of this evasion include mass bankruptcies, thousands of acres of mined land laying unclaimed, the pollution of rivers, streams, and groundwater, and the degradation of the coalfield environment. Taxpayers are left holding the bag. How and why did this happen?

To answer this question, this Article explores the role the coal industry has played for more than a century in shaping the economy, culture, and politics of Appalachia—as well as the poverty, environmental degradation, and hundreds of thousands of dead and injured coal miners left in its wake.

Patrick C. McGinley *

* Judge Charles H. Haden II Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law

 

Rural Bashing

Rural Bashing

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Rural Bashing

 

Anti-rural sentiment is expressed in the United States in three major threads. The first is a narrative about the political structure of our representative democracy—an assertion that rural people are over-represented thanks to the structural features of the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College. Because rural residents are less than a fifth of the U.S. population, complaints about this situation are often framed as “minority rule.”

The second thread is related to the first: rural people and their communities get more than their fair share from federal government coffers. The argument, often expressed in terms of “subsidies,” is that rural places enjoy disproportionate government investments, especially from the federal government, in forms such as social safety net payments, infrastructure investments, and payments associated with the Farm Bill. These investments are said not to be justified by the relatively low amount of taxes rural folks pay and their small populations. Some see these investments as a function of earmarks and pork-barrel politics attributable to outsized small-state power in the U.S. Senate. Implicit in this line of thinking is that urban America does not get enough return on its investment in rural America. It may even evince a lack of awareness that rural and urban are interdependent and that urban folks do enjoy—even rely upon the fruits of rural labor.

The third thread, which emerges from the other two, is a culture of annoyance, even disdain, directed by metropolitan dwellers at rural people, their cultural trappings, and their intelligence. This contempt for rural people seems to envision and target an imagined caricature of working-class and illiberal White Americans; it tends to merge negative associations of working-class Whites with rurality in a “hillbilly” or “redneck” stereotype.19 Such contempt effectively “other[s]” rural folks, marginalizing them from mainstream society as manifested in urban norms.

All three of these phenomena fuel an impulse to dismiss rural needs and penalize rural residents. This unfortunate framing necessarily overlooks the complex realities of rural life, as well as the nuances of rural power and powerlessness. Among other goals, we seek in this Article to re-complicate the situation of rural people as a step toward rural-urban détente, even collaboration. Our task is not to rebut every criticism of rural populations and lifestyles. It is, rather, to document the extreme animus and call attention to how it undermines the wellbeing of communities along the rural-urban continuum. We are deeply concerned that rural bashing hinders coalition building that could solve problems afflicting both urban and rural places.

Kaceylee Klein *

Lisa R. Pruitt **

* J.D.  and Ph.D. (English) Candidate, University of California, Davis

** Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, University of California, Davis