Wednesday Roundup: The New Subsistence

Rural school supporters bus into New York's state capitol • Norwegians and Brits bounce back from rural mythology • Bridling at Maryland's rein on sprawl

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Rural teachers, parents and students from across New York state are rallying in Albany today, five coach buses full coming from St. Lawrence County alone.

They’re converging on the state capitol to speak out against deep cuts that have been made in school funding and to decry a new competitive system for restoring some of those education dollars, a system that they say disqualifies many small schools.

“Assemblywoman Addie Russell, D-Theresa, whose district runs along the St. Lawrence River in the North Country, knows that the college hopes of her constituents are threatened. 

’I’ve had one student say to me that she was in a college interview recently and was asked why she wasn’t in more activities. And she had to tell them a significant amount of their after-school activities had been cut.’”

Mark Scheerer reports that the Executive Budget provides $160 million in supplemental funds for rural and small-city schools, “but much of it is in the form of grants for which school districts have to compete. The demonstrators say that puts upstate schools at a disadvantage, and want the money used instead to restore teachers and programs to help students prepare for college and careers.

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The smallest school districts won’t be eligible even to enter the competition.


 Martin Messner, a high school physical education teacher from Schoharie, told Scheerer, “I never would have thought I’d have to be this active in order to fight for just some basic things that I had when I was growing up…a decent education.”

Tornadoes roared across the Midwest early this morning, killing one person in Branson, Missouri, and three in Harrisburg, Illinois.

All of the buildings in Harveyville, Kansas, were either damaged or completely destroyed. Tornado season, which usually churns up in late March, is off to a dreadful early start this year. Two people died in Alabama tornadoes this January. According to researcher William Browning, there were 95 tornadoes reported during this January alone.

Parts of Missouri, Arkansas and Ohio, much of Tennessee and nearly all of Kentucky are under a tornado watch today. Here’s a severe weather map for the nation.

Sharon Astyk posts a provocative editorial that unearths the class-based biases of urban zoning laws. Astyk writes that both cultural norms about beauty and public regulations work against an ethic of subsistence. Front lawns – yes/Front yard gardens – no. Great danes – yes/Sheep – no. Telecommuting from home – yes/ signs for a hair styling salon – no.

These urban norms say not only “we can afford to buy vegetables and a clothes dryer” but “we’re not country.” 

Astyk writes, “Most Americans couldn’t get much more separate from our roots, so it is sort of silly to spend time showing that we’re not from our agrarian past – we’ve noticed. Bit by bit, people are bringing clotheslines and front yard gardens back, and making them cool again. But we can’t wait for that to happen – because the reality is that many of us will be poor, and the utility of these activities will be needed to soften our poverty.”

Zoning regulations, Astyk writes, must change now.

• In Maryland, a statewide planning proposal would in effect implement zoning rules from the capitol. Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal “would deny permits or mandatory funding to local projects that don’t comply with the initiative’s recommendations.”

The governor says his PlanMaryland proposal is meant to rein in sprawl. According to the Washington Times, it would “encourage development in existing population centers and discourage building in rural, undeveloped areas.” Counties and towns would be free to plan as they see fit, but they might not be eligible for discretionary funds from the state.

A group of Maryland’s rural state senators is asking that the stipulations of PlanMaryland be recommended but not required.

• The North County Times writes that a plan to change how timber counties pay for roads and schools is flawed. Formerly, areas covered with tracts of national forest were paid by the federal government not to engage in timbering; rural counties were compensated for lost revenue and used these funds for schools and local infrastructure.

The Federal Forests County Revenue, Schools and Jobs Act, that passed a U.S. House Committee several weeks ago, would instead step up timbering operations and return a portion of proceeds to local governments.

Several environmentalists have already spoken out against the new law. Now, research economist Mark Haggerty of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana, says that the structure of the proposed Act would not benefit rural areas as designed. (See his full report here.)

Haggerty notes that the new law “sets annual revenue requirements for forests based on their average receipts from 1980 and 2000.” Therefore, “timber sales would need to increase an average of 1,449 percent nationwide and 4,294 percent in California over 2010 levels to achieve the bill’s revenue requirements.” Such a huge increase in timbering, Haggerty writes, would be economically foolhardy. The decline in housing has lowered demand for timber, and in any case, “a fixed target doesn’t account for how the economy has changed or could change in the future.”

Haggerty said, “The House bill simply doesn’t work in a volatile commodity market. It’s bad politics – it’s bad economics, really.”

• Is life in the country all it’s cracked up to be? Two recent articles from Europe challenge the rural idyll. Amelia Hill writing for The Guardian quotes Mavis Cheek, who moved from London to rural Witshire in 2001: “I cannot imagine growing old here. If your car breaks down, you need to be able to afford taxis because the public transport is so bad. If you stop being proactive in keeping your brain and social life active, you will find yourself completely unstimulated. If you do something unspeakable at a dinner party, everyone in the area will know about it by the next morning.”

The story also features “Over a Hill?,” a campaign that, among its other goals, hopes to alert the elderly about the realities of rural life and urge them to lobby politicians for needed services.

And a new study in Norway finds that, much as Norwegians claim to identify with agrarian life and seafaring, in fact the proportion of urbanites continues to grow, and more city dwellers report  that they “enjoy life” than do Norwegians living in the countryside.

“Maintaining the myth of roots in or fondness for rural areas may become more difficult,” according to  Thomas Hylland Eriksen, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo. He noted that increasingly Norwegians don’t even have grandparents who live in the country and “can’t travel back to a family farm at Christmas and confirm their sense of self.”

 

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