"Surrounded By Crops, Lacking Food": Scarcity in the Mississippi Delta

I deeply appreciated this two-part series in the Clarion-Ledger that tackles the devastating topic of food deserts in Mississippi Delta. "There are just four grocery stores in the 765-square-mile county, in four towns," writes Anna Wolfe. In one town of 1,300 people, there is no store at all. Consider also that one-third of Delta residents don't have a car in their household, and there's no such thing as public transportation in the Delta. This means many families go hungry, or eat food with no nutritional value. 

Food scarcity can also be traced to industrial agriculture, which use chemicals and pesticides to destroy soil. In the Delta today nearly half the population has obesity; a fifth has diabetes.  It has the highest rates of food insecurity in the country.

Here are some excerpts from Anna Wolfe's piece, including one promising community effort in Holmes County, Mississippi:

The co-op's youth-in-agriculture project, which began in 2015, partners farmers and young people. While giving them an opportunity to earn money, the farmers teach students and older apprentices how to grow and harvest vegetables.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon after school let out, a dozen Holmes County Central High School students gathered on a pre-plowed field behind the run-down mart.

Bill Evans, director of horticulture with Up in Farms Food Hub, which partners with Mileston, received blank stares after telling the group of 16- and 17-year-olds that the tray of tiny sprouts he carried would grow into cauliflower.

"You know what broccoli looks like?" Evans asked. "Imagine a white one of those."

Many of them had never eaten the vegetable that they'd spend the rest of the day planting. Head searched for pictures of cauliflower on his cellphone and passed it between the teens.


"We used to walk outside and get a pear — and that was my snack," Head said. "Now they got to go to the store and buy flaming hot Cheetos. They decorate these stores to target our children … and we're hungry so we eat it."


And this: 

Over the last several decades, national farm policy has increasingly prioritized driving down the cost of commodity crops — like soybeans, the crop dominating fields all over Holmes County — while providing relatively little support for fruits and vegetables.

The food industry has responded, finding more ways to use additives from these cheap crops in processed foods.

Most everywhere in the country, this has resulted in heavily processed diets and a sharp increase in obesity.

New report charts the growth of rural jails in America

The Vera Institute of Justice has just released a comprehensive, urgent, and essential report on the growth of rural jails in America. "Of the 250 poorest counties, 213 of them are rural, representing locations with the most acute needs across the board," the report notes. And yet "relatively little is known about the inner workings of rural criminal justice systems and, specifically, how rural jails operate—their characteristics, the challenges they face, and the opportunities that exist for reform."

It's hard to overstate how glad I am that researchers have finally tackled this issue, which has "received scant attention," the report concludes, "because cities continue to be the focal point of both academic inquiry and policymaking.” 

The report raises a diverse range of troubling issues, but I'll just highlight a few that are relevant to rural Arkansas jails:

  • LIMITED DELIVERY OF JUSTICE. Due to the poverty and limited tax base, rural counties "often struggle to provide many services—such as education or healthcare—as well as fund and deliver justice, including recruiting key justice personnel and providing even the most basic criminal justice services necessary to process criminal cases through the system." These services include basic investigations by the police and prosecution. 
  • REMOTE LOCATIONS. Courts are spread out across vast amounts of land. "The distances that the few available personnel are often required to travel further frustrate case flow and efficient court operations, extending case processing times, despite comparatively lower overall caseload numbers."
  • SHORTAGE OF SKILLED PRACTITIONERS. Rural counties "lack skilled practitionersjudges, prosecutors, investigators, public defenders, and court administrators—to run or oversee the basic functions of a local criminal justice system, posing serious operational challenges." 
  • INTENSELY LIMITED COURT DAYS. Court convened in Phillips County in four three-week sessions during the year.  "In contrast, Manhattan’s arraignment courts, for example, are open for sessions from early morning until 1:00 am, every day of the week." In other words, when court isn't convened, the people arrested -- still innocent in the eyes of the law -- are sitting around, languishing, waiting months before arraignment. And it means that they've lost the jobs they had and are separated from families.
  • FEW PRETRIAL SERVICE PROGRAMS or DIVERSION PROGRAMS. Resource-scarce counties don't have staff or tools to help make individualized assessments of people who are arrested. And rehabilitation, mental health, and education programs are rare. 


Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas: Confronting the Lawyer Shortage

Access to legal services is an urgent problem facing rural areas. This important study by Lisa Pruitt, J. Cliff McKinney, and Bart Calhoun, "Justice in The Hinterlands," examines Arkansas as a case study of rural shortage.

What Deters Law Students from Rural Practice?

Students indicated lack of jobs and economic support; a lack of cultural amenities associated with urban living; and the challenge of finding a life partner in rural places. Students also "expressed very negative attitudes toward rural people, places, and practice. Recurring themes included an expectation of rural bias toward racial and sexual minorities and women; concerns about lack of anonymity in the community and lack of professionalism in the justice system; and a shortage of clients able to afford an attorney’s services."

What Might Attract Law Students to Rural Practice? The study found that "a critical mass—certainly enough to meet the need in Arkansas’s rural communities—indicated willingness to practice in a rural locale if provided fiscal and professional support," including student loan repayment assistance, mentoring, training in law practice management. 

Among other recommendations, the study advises that Arkansas "follow the lead of South Dakota and offer loan repayment assistance to attorneys who are willing to make a multi-year commitment to practice in an underserved rural area." In South Dakota, this has attracted interest: the program has doubled the size of its program in just two years. 

"Rural America Is the New 'Inner City'"

This great piece on rural America by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg at the Wall Street Journal reflects more broadly the challenges that the Delta faces, in particular:

Lack of public transportation and childcare make it hard to hold down jobs.  "Although federal and state antipoverty programs were not limited to urban areas, they often failed to address the realities of the rural poor. The 1996 welfare overhaul put more city dwellers back to work, for example, but didn’t take into account the lack of public transportation and child care that made it difficult for people in small towns to hold down jobs[.]" 

Young people with talent leave rural areas. "In 1980, the median age of people in small towns and big cities almost matched. Today, the median age in small towns is about 41 years—five years above the median in big cities."

...And employers go where the young talent is. "In St. Louis, which has more than 30 nearby four-year schools, the percentage of residents with college degrees tripled between 1980 and 2015—creating a talent pool that has lured health care, finance and bioscience employers. Instead of people moving where the jobs are, 'jobs follow people,' said Greg Laposa, a local chamber of commerce vice president."

Hospitals shut down in rural areas, due to shortage of patients with employer-sponsored insurance. At least 79 rural hospitals have closed since 2010.

"Poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years."


Rural Education and Public Charters

I want to stress that "rural" does not mean white, a common mistake made by urbanites. One in five rural residents is a person of color. More than four of five new rural residents are people of color. And, since the days of slavery, the Arkansas Delta has been majority black. 

A piece by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill on challenges confronting rural schools notes: "Only one in three eighth-grade rural students were proficient in math or reading, about where urban students scored and well below their suburban peers. While rural students are likely to graduate from high school, they lag far behind on every college indicator—applications, admission, attendance, readiness, grades, persistence, and graduation."

In rural Idaho: "Some communities that had lost their schools via consolidation have been able to regain them via chartering, and poorly staffed schools have been able to join together to provide better-resourced schools than any one could afford."

In Phillips County, Arkansas, one of the poorest areas in America, which ranks dead last in health predictors in Arkansas:  "Local and state leaders worked to recruit KIPP to operate in Helena, and the effort has paid big dividends for the community and its children. According to community leader Chalk Mitchell, 'KIPP has helped to eliminate blight. ... The first new building constructed downtown in the last 30 or 40 years was the KIPP gymnasium.' KIPP is the largest employer in downtown Helena with more than 150 employees, including 70 teachers. The school draws students from farms and towns as far as an hour’s drive each way." 

(This charter is where Patrick's daughter attends school now.) 

Public charters get a bad rap in leftist circles, and as a lefty and former workers' rights lawyer, I totally get it. But I hope we can avoid applying an urban lens, with its range of assumptions, to a rural area. Worried about the absence of union protection for teachers? But unions were long ago decimated in rural areas, thanks to radical depopulation, gaping worker shortages,* and animus towards unions by red states. Worried about taking resources away from the traditional school? But the alternative, in a rural area, is often that the school is simply shut down: often it gets consolidated with another school that is fifteen, thirty miles away. That is the common and devastating reality for rural areas. 

In the context of the Delta, I think it's powerful that African American parents, some who live some 60 miles away in remote towns, choose to bus their kids to the public charter. I view the parents' dedication to education as part of a long historical tradition in the Delta. 

* To have a union, you must first have workers. And there are huge teacher shortages in rural areas like the Delta.

New Brain Research on Young Offenders , Ages 18-21

I have often wondered about the seemingly arbitrary distinction between “under 18” and “18.” Surely it is a legal fiction that, within the flick of a day, an adolescent transforms instantaneously into an adult. If under 18, the defendant is determined “less blameworthy,” as the Supreme Court has concluded. But if he is 18, he is an adult deserving of little mercy.

Obviously, lines need to be drawn somewhere. But is there no way to account for the gray area between 18 and 21, years in which he is still developing?

Scientific research finally has turned towards this question. In the past, research devoted to youth under 18, coupled with the tireless work of youth advocates, resulted in real social change. In 2005, the Supreme Court decision Roper v. Simmons banned the death penalty for defendants under 18 at the time of their crime. And over the course of the past six years, the Supreme Court, has steadily limited, and finally banned, life without parole (LWOP) for youth under 18 at the time of their crime.

But until now, scarcely any research has been done on the brain development of young adults, ages 18 to 21. A recent Vanderbilt study, the result of an intensely interdisciplinary collaboration among law professors, neuroscientists, doctors, and psychologists, shows “distinct changes in the brains of young adults, ages 18 to 21, suggesting that they too may be immature in ways that are relevant to justice policy.” They write that “young adulthood is a distinct developmental period, and that young adults are different both from adolescents and from somewhat older adults in ways that are potentially relevant to justice policy.”


Source (above and right): Casey, BJ and Bonnie, Richard J. and Davis, Andre and Faigman, David L. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Jones, Owen D. and Montague, Read and Morse, Stephen and Raichle, Marcus E. and Richeson, Jennifer A. and Scott, Elizabeth S. and Steinberg, Laurence and Taylor-Thompson, Kim A. and Wagner, Anthony D., How Should Justice Policy Treat Young Offenders? (February 2017). MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, February 2017; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-9. Available at SSRN:  https://ssrn.com/abstract=2881607

Source (above and right): Casey, BJ and Bonnie, Richard J. and Davis, Andre and Faigman, David L. and Hoffman, Morris B. and Jones, Owen D. and Montague, Read and Morse, Stephen and Raichle, Marcus E. and Richeson, Jennifer A. and Scott, Elizabeth S. and Steinberg, Laurence and Taylor-Thompson, Kim A. and Wagner, Anthony D., How Should Justice Policy Treat Young Offenders? (February 2017). MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, February 2017; Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 17-9. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2881607

Screenshot 2017-03-10 12.41.58.png

Many of their findings seem like common sense. But scientific research on this topic represents a turn to treating this age group as worthy of advocacy. Patrick was 18 when he was arrested. Had he been 17, the punishment of his crime would have been different. His record could be expunged; he would not have a felony; and he might have a better shot at making a living. He may have been placed in juvenile rehabilitation rather than in state prison. And just as important, he might view himself differently. If the law offers a reason for mercy, the defendant might be more willing to offer it to himself. 

For further reading on young adulthood and criminal justice, see this helpful bibliography that I lifted from the study.

Men in Prison Face Crushing Child Support Debt

Men in prison face crushing child support debt. This excellent article, written by Eli Hager at the Marshall Project, is based on interviews with a number of incarcerated men.

“Billing poor fathers doesn’t help poor mothers and kids become less poor,” said Jacquelyn Boggess, a poverty expert with the Center for Family Policy and Practice. “All it creates is a highly indebted individual.”

This graph obviously applies to Missouri, not the Delta. 

This graph obviously applies to Missouri, not the Delta.