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June 25, 2010

Taking Rural People Seriously. Not.

Parthenon General Store, Parthenon, Arkansas
(not a Census Designated Place and has no Wikipedia entry)
Photo © Lisa R. Pruitt

I started writing about rural people and places in relation to the law a few years ago, motivated in part by their near total absence from legal scholarship.  I grew up in a very rural corner of Arkansas, where most of my family of origin still lives, and it struck me that lives like theirs (and formerly mine) were largely unseen and unacknowledged by legal actors at scales other than the most local (and sometimes even by those, e.g, the Sheriff).  Rural residents comprise nearly 20% of our nation's population, but they are a forgotten fifth whose lives are in many ways different to what has become a presumptive but rarely expressed urban norm in legal scholarship.   (Katie Porter's work on bankruptcy in rural contexts is an important exception).  I started studying the legal relevance of rurality about a decade ago, and I have found so much to say that I have published only within the sub-discipline I call "law and rural livelihoods" since 2006.   I expect to spend the rest of my career exploring rural people as legal subjects and rural places as context, even if it sometimes feels as if I am writing my way into the very obscurity associated with rurality itself.

It is not surprising, then, that as a consumer of legal scholarship I find myself looking for rural people, for acknowledgment of rural difference, rural context, rural society.  Of course, rural-urban difference is not relevant to every legal issue or every piece of legal scholarship, but from time to time I come across a law review article that seems to cry out for some acknowledgment of rurality.   That happened last week when I saw on an essay by Jonas Lerman titled "Food Fights and Food Rights:  Legislating the 'Delicious Revolution.'"  Lerman's abstract states in part:

This Essay explores some of the civil rights and human rights dimensions of American food policy.  In particular, the Essay examines the weaknesses in America’s school lunch programs, and the problem of “food deserts” – the dearth of grocery stores and farmers’ markets in

America’s poor and nonwhite urban neighborhoods. These are complex problems, involving powerful agricultural interests, difficult public health questions, urban planning, and civil rights.

This is a nicely written manuscript about important issues that get surprisingly little attention in legal scholarship:  agricultural policy, food, and child nutrition.  But I was surprised and disappointed that in 51 pages, Lerman does not use the word "rural" a single time.   Nor does he use the word "nonmetropolitan."  The word "urban," on the other hand, appears thirteen times (more if you count the footnotes).  He talks about farmers' markets, farm policy, the Farm Bill, Farmer Barack, and occasionally plain old farmers,  but he doesn't mention the fact that a whole lot of food is grown in rural and/or nonmetropolitan areas.  He talks about what is good for cities and urban children without acknowledging rural children, their families, their nutritional needs or their communities.

On the one hand, Lerman's use of the modifier "urban" can be seen as progress.   That is, by specifying urban people and contexts, he is at least not pretending to refer to all children when his real focus is those who live in cities.  There is precision and honesty in this.  Unlike many legal scholars, he is not merely assuming the urban; he's expressing it.

Now, I do understand that urban ag, slow food, and Alice Waters are hot topics these days.  I also appreciate that even (or especially!) law review articles need a little marketing.  Still, given that food insecurity and child obesity are as much rural problems as urban ones and given agriculture's importance to rural economies, I would expect rurality might play at least a cameo role somewhere in the discussion.  (Read more about rural food insecurity and food deserts here here, and here.)

A few days after seeing Lerman's essay, I came across Katharine Baird Silbaugh's article,  "Sprawl, Family Rhythms and the Four-Day Work Week."   Rural people and places are more visible here, even garnering a mention in the abstract.  Here's an excerpt:

This Article seeks to highlight some of the institutional practices that influence the adoption of a four-day work week, particularly those associated with sprawl. It compares the reform to school districts that operate a four-day school week as a cost-saving measure. School systems choose a four-day week because they are rural and long distances create particularly serious time and transportation costs. This comparison helps to reveal the role sprawl and its impact on commutes plays in the four-day work week reform.

Professor Silbaugh uses "sprawl" as it is most commonly used now, to refer to a metropolitan phenomenon.  Fair enough.  Of course, the word sprawl is also an accurate descriptor of the lay of the land in rural areas.  That is, one defining characteristic of rurality is low population density--residents far flung across often vast spaces.  Kudos to Professor Silbaugh for seeing this link and acknowledging what might be seen as a rural "solution" to dealing with spatially dispersed populations:  the four-day school week.  What Professor Silbaugh doesn't do (presumably because her focus is the role that "urban sprawl plays in generating worker demand for a compressed work week and citizen demand for extended service hours") is acknowledge that the four-day work week (along with the upsides and downsides she identifies) would have similar impacts on rural families.  Not only must rural children traverse great distances to get to school, rural women (and men) must traverse them to get to work.  In fact, the rate at which rural mothers work outside the home is higher than that for their urban counterparts!  Read more here.

Of course, I appreciate (and greatly enjoy myself) the latitude that legal scholars enjoy to define their research agendas and to state the parameters of each article.  It's easy for a reader to say, "but what about ...."   Those "what about" questions can can go on endlessly, and they get in the way of the laudable goal of writing shorter law review articles.  Nevertheless, some legal issues cry out for an acknowledgment of rural difference.   Authors might ask how a given law would affect rural residents?  or whether a law would operate in the same way in rural places?

Taking our nation's rural population seriously is perhaps too much to ask as we move into the second decade of an increasingly metro-centric 21st century.  But we could at least acknowledge the very existence of rural people and places more often than we do.  In the context of legal scholarship, surely the rural experience is worth at least an occasional law review footnote.  Progressive legal scholars, who generally seek to be inclusive, could start with that.

Cross-posted at