On Rural-Proofing and Labor Markets
In my last post, I introduced the concept of “rural proofing,” a practice most commonly associated with the antipodean world. Today, I’m returning (in my final post as outgoing guest blogger) to talk about the benefits of rural proofing in relation to legislation pending in several states and now also a feature of Trump’s budget that would that makes receipt of public benefits (including Medicaid) dependent on being in the workforce. This issue implicates how broadly (geographically speaking) we define labor markets, which is something courts have occasionally weighed in on. My particular concern is fairness to rural residents whose labor markets are limited, and who may face structural obstacles to participating in the labor market–most obviously the lack of child care and lack of public transportation. (These are, incidentally, obstacles I noted in this recent Wall Street Journal article about “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’.“)
Even before Trump’s budget was released a few weeks ago, Arkansas and Maine were considering imposing work requirements on Medicaid recipients. The New York Times reported here on the Arkansas proposal, and the Wall Street Journal reported here on the Maine proposal. Jennifer Levitz observed in the latter that this is not Maine’s first effort at making benefits contingent on work: Governor Paul LaPage ushered in a similar requirement for SNAP (food stamps) in 2014, and it’s drawn criticism:
But Maine’s approach is drawing criticism from advocates for the poor, who say jobs, volunteer positions and transportation to either of them can be hard to come by in rural pocketswith persistent unemployment. They say those losing the assistance turn to charities instead, increasing demand at food banks.
One in four food-pantry users said he or she had lost food-stamp benefits in the past year, according to a statewide study co-released in February by Maine’s largest hunger-relief agency, Good Shepherd Food Bank.
This reminds of this recent report on NPR about increased demands on rural food banks. By the way, Arkansas has a SNAP work requirement similar to Maine’s: “able-bodied adults without dependents cannot receive food stamps for longer than three months unless they are working, volunteering or getting job training for 20 hours a week.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, food pantries also loom large in the Arkansas story.
Here’s an excerpt from this week’s New York Times story on cuts to SNAP and disability benefits under Trump’s proposed budget. The story quotes Beth Orlansky, advocacy director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, regarding rural and job market struggles among others faced by that state’s poor population.
While asking people to work might sound like a good idea “in the abstract,” [Orlansky] said, a state like Mississippi — with large pockets of poverty, sprawling rural communities and some of the highest rates of people on disability and food stamps — does not have enough jobs in the right places. Most people receiving food stamps and disability are doing some sort of work, but they need better skills and education to rise above poverty wages.
All of these stories feature interesting commentary on work ethics and work norms, and why work is a good idea. As someone raised in a working class family where work was king and the work ethic was off the charts, I appreciate the sentiments and largely share them. Here are a few, from folks on both left and right, from the Arkansas story. One (white) man working part time as a security guard for $10/hour described how he had lost his food stamps when he was unable to work while recovering from surgery:
I went from being able to eat vegetables to eating Hamburger Helper every day. I think most people want to work, but I also know a lot of people work when it’s not necessarily in their health’s best interest.
That man lives in Blytheville, population 18,272, in the far northeastern corner of the state, some 60 miles from Memphis, the largest major city nearby. A 55-year-old unemployed white woman who had previously worked as a custodian was interviewed outside a food pantry near Little Rock. Nancy Godienz said:
I’m glad we have it, but people should have to do something for it. This is America, right? You’re supposed to work for what you get.
An African-American man who manages operations at the Stewpot, a soup kitchen in Little Rock, said
If you’re of able mind and body, you should be able to make something happen for yourself. But some people just don’t want to work — they’re too taken care of.
So these quotes show the deep commitment of middle America to work–when it is available. But the stories also make clear that the line between being employable and not being employable is often a broad and fuzzy one, and that reminds me of recent stories here, here and here about the high(er) rate of disability in rural America. As Chana Joffe-Walt suggests, the higher rate of disability in rural places seems linked to the narrow, less robust and undiversified nature of rural job markets. (BTW, that story drew enormous criticism from the left as being anti-disability, including here and here). Here’s an excerpt that gets right to the issue of rural job markets in relation to disability:
One woman I met, Ethel Thomas, is on disability for back pain after working many years at the fish plant, and then as a nurse’s aide. When I asked her what job she would have in her dream world, she told me she would be the woman at the Social Security office who weeds through disability applications. I figured she said this because she thought she’d be good at weeding out the cheaters. But that wasn’t it. She said she wanted this job because it is the only job she’s seen where you get to sit all day.
Joffe-Walt was initially skeptical that Ethel struggled to imagine a job that would accommodate her pain, but then she started looking at the local job market in Hale County, Alabama (population 15,000) to see what jobs were available:
There’s the McDonald’s, the fish plant, the truck repair shop. I went down a list of job openings — Occupational Therapist, McDonald’s, McDonald’s, Truck Driver (heavy lifting), KFC, Registered Nurse, McDonald’s.
You get the picture. Rural jobs markets tend to be quite limited. Combine that with the rural challenges of transportation infrastructure and childcare deficits, and you can see why making the receipt of benefits contingent on work doesn’t make a lot of sense. (Of course, there are plenty of other reasons it might not make sense even in urban areas, but I’m focusing on rural difference here). Indeed, this mismatch, if you will, was the focus of my 2007 law review article for a symposium marking the 10th anniversary of welfare reform, PRWORA: Missing the Mark: Welfare Reform and Rural Poverty.
So it seems public benefits, including unemployment insurance and social security, is one arena where rural-proofing would help law- and policy-makers understand and respond appropriately to rural difference. And in that regard, I refer interested readers to another source here (ponder, in particular, the lede) and to just one case about rural labor markets in relation to unemployment insurance: Parsons v. Employment Security Commission, 71 N.M. 405 (1953).