Rural Americans Have Less Access to Books. There’s a Way to Fix That.

When I lived in rural Arizona, we were tucked away on sloping acreage, surrounded by mountains and scrubby desert. Twenty miles from the nearest town, we lacked basic services that many of my city-dwelling friends took for granted: trash pick-up, cell phone service, reliable internet. Sometimes during summer storms or winter freezes, our landline would temporarily turn to static, and we would lose all communication with the rest of the world.

As a young mother, this meant no play groups or coffee meet-ups with other moms. My children rarely experienced playgrounds or library story time. Instead, they caught chickens and climbed tractors. They played with sticks and covered themselves in mud down in the river.

But once a month, the library bookmobile would park at the end of our property, on the shoulder of the road where the pavement turned to dirt. On those days, I would strap the baby to my chest and take my stepson’s hand, and we would walk down the road to the bookmobile. The converted bus was filled with books, DVDs, magazines, even a pillow in the children’s section for kids to prop on their elbows and read. It felt like a secret special world, curated just for us.


In the article “The Bookmobile: Defining the Information Poor,” MSU Philosophy writer Joshua Finnell notes that, while public libraries were created in the mid-1800s to offer equal access to information, they were primarily operated by the white, educated middle class. “Whether intentionally or not, library holdings, furnishings, programs, and even hours of operation all sent a powerful message about who controlled access to information in our society and provided the basis for defining the information rich and the information poor,” writes Finnell.

The non-white and the working poor were left out of the public library structure.

The non-white and the working poor were systemically left out of the public library structure, and due to the location of most libraries, rural residents also had limited access. In an effort to reach those communities, librarian Mary Titcomb created a horse-drawn wagon to haul books to post offices and stores at the beginning of the 20th century—the first bookmobile.

By 1912, the horse-drawn library wagon was replaced by a motorized bookmobile. Bookmobiles became part of the larger literacy effort, transporting reading materials to rural communities, schools, and senior centers. In the 1950s and ’60s, bookmobiles reached over 30 million Americans living in rural communities, before fuel shortages in the 1970s and ’80s triggered a decline.

A little over a decade ago, the number of bookmobiles started growing again—according to the American Library Association, they increased by more than 10 percent between 2003 and 2005. Today there are approximately 660 bookmobiles in operation, according to the latest data from the Institute of Museum and Library Services survey.

Ann Plazek, president of the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services, says bookmobile numbers fell slightly in 2014 (with a loss of ten nationwide), but she expects that 2015 statistics, which have not yet been released, will reflect an increase.

“There were numerous library systems adding bookmobiles for the first time,” she says. “I think we’re going to see a turnaround —especially as they’re becoming greener and more economical. Some bookmobiles are installing solar panels, which cuts down on the need for generators, and that’s been a huge change.”


Judy Calhoun grew up 18 miles from town in rural Arkansas. Once a month, the bookmobile visited her community. “Everyone would come over,” she remembers. “I was a huge reader, and even though they had a rule that you could only check out five books at a time, the librarian would let me check out 30 books. In the summer, I could read one book a day.”

Calhoun grew up to become a librarian herself, managing a branch for 14 years, and currently serves as the president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. As the Director of the Southeast Arkansas Regional Library System, she oversees nine libraries in five counties in southeast Arkansas. “Eighty percent of libraries in the United States are small or rural,” she says. “So we’re actually the majority.”

Arkansas is one of the poorest states in the country—ranked 48th in 2016—with an overall poverty rate of 19.1%.  Most of the counties served by Calhoun’s library system have poverty rates more than double the state average, and she says libraries in these areas are especially linked to the well-being of their patrons.

“People are leaving these little communities,” she says. “They’re moving away to seek jobs. Once they lose their school, we see a decline in population. As a result, small and rural libraries are continually battling declining revenues. But there are still people here who can’t afford to move, or who won’t move away, because this is their home. So we keep working to serve those people.”

Recently, three of the smaller branch libraries in southeast Arkansas were forced to close. One was shut down completely because the building was in disrepair, and the other two were donated to the towns and are now being run by volunteers. “We even left the computers for them,” says Calhoun.

“For a lot of these little towns, they can’t afford the permanent site. You’ve got to pay the building fees, electricity, internet, phone. In a lot of these places, the buildings are getting unusable, and there aren’t resources to keep them safe. So we’re seeing a resurgence of bookmobiles,” says Calhoun. “As we should.”


Even though bookmobiles are regaining popularity, Plazek says she encounters people shocked that they still exist. “Some people think bookmobiles are these antiquated things,” she says, “But we still exist, and we’re still relevant.”

The bookmobile was a place of gathering.

That’s because mobile and rural library services have adapted to serve as community hubs. My neighbors and I used to lean against our bookmobile’s counter to talk about all strides of our lives—pecan harvests and rainfall predictions, mountain lion sightings, an elderly neighbor in search of large-print mystery novels. We discussed lost dogs, the price of alfalfa, and the latest in the opposition to the high-voltage power lines slated to be built through our valley. The bookmobile was a place of gathering, of communion over the complexities and the intricacies of our lives, for passing time with one another in a tiny air-conditioned bus on the side of a dusty road.

Calhoun acknowledged this personal connection, too. “People love to tell us about their troubles, what’s going on in their lives, what they need. We’re kind of like a bartender. We get to know the people we’re serving in a different way.”

Part of that bond is because bookmobiles, and rural libraries more broadly, meet very real needs. Calhoun’s system doubles as a voter registration site, provides tax form assistance, maintains copy and computer centers, and even has an initiative to help combat hunger in the community. And Plazek notes that bookmobiles are often adjusted so they can cater to day cares, Amish populations, or seniors.

Even so, Calhoun admits: “We’re kind of modest. We don’t toot our own horns, and we’ve got to change that.” She says her job is to advocate for small and rural libraries, so she visits legislators at the state capitol, attends conferences, and talks to donors. “People will ask, ‘Are rural libraries really needed?’ And I just keep saying, ‘Come and see what we’re doing. We’re needed. We’re still so needed.’”



A Cruel New Bill Is About to Become Law in Mississippi

Had the Ryan-Trump health care bill been signed into law, 24 million people could have lost their health care—and Donald Trump would have received a $2.18 million annual tax cut. Fortunately, the Republican congressional leaders’ latest attempt to create a windfall for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class was defeated. But last week in Mississippi, residents weren’t so lucky.

The conspicuously named HOPE Act (Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone), introduced by Mississippi State Representative Chris Brown, passed the House and Senate and is now expected to be signed into law. The legislation reads like a compilation of all-time favorites from a conservative wish list: It would enrich a private contractor by outsourcing the work of verifying people’s eligibility for social-support programs, including Medicaid and SNAP (food stamps); throw people who likely qualify for assistance off of these programs; and make it more difficult for people to get food and income assistance in the future.

It does all of this under the guise of helping people—Rep. Brown described the bill as “an incredible opportunity” to help people “move out of welfare dependency and poverty to a better life.” It’s also about eliminating fraud, supposedly, though legislators offered no proof that this is a problem in the state.

The HOPE Act applies to all Mississippians who receive Medicaid, TANF (income assistance), or SNAP. Anyone enrolled in those programs will have 10 days to reply to a written request for information proving eligibility, as deemed necessary by a private contractor hired by the state. That deadline would be tough for anyone to meet, but the fact that many program beneficiaries are disabled, unemployed, lack stable housing, or are simply living under the everyday pressures of poverty makes the deadline all but impossible for many people.

“Just getting that notice to program participants can be a real challenge,” said Matt Williams, the director of research at the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. “Then you’re talking about making sense of a lot of highly technical information, and putting that in written form too.”

Currently, a Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS) caseworker determines eligibility by sitting down with an applicant and sorting through liquid assets, utility bills, loans, child-support payments, child-care costs, employee pay stubs, and other sources of income and expenses. It’s a time-consuming process, but the agency has been rewarded for doing it well. Between FY2012 and FY2014, the department received $8.75 million in bonus federal funds for its SNAP-payment accuracy rates.

Under the HOPE Act, however, that kind of reciprocal relationship and guidance will be gone. “People will have to figure out on their own how to acquire the requested information and then explain it—in writing—within 10 days,” said Williams. “If they don’t, they’re going to be kicked off.”

Rep. Brown and other proponents claim that the state will save money through this privatized system. But the assertion is belied by the state’s own analysis, which was conducted by a private firm that supports the legislation. It estimated a cost of $10 million to $12 million, with about $2.5 million covered by state taxpayers. Williams said even that would be hard to come up with given the state’s tax and budget cuts over the past two years. But the actual cost will likely be much higher, and the study wrongly assumed that the federal government will pick up most of the tab for the privatized system. Tennessee considered nearly identical legislation and found that it would run $81 million with the state covering 95 percent of the cost. The legislators killed that bill.

“We will be out millions of more dollars that could have benefited children, the elderly, and disabled people who are already neglected due to budget cuts,” said Williams.

If any household is found to be out of compliance, the children lose benefits.

The HOPE Act will also make it more likely that childless adults between the ages of 18 and 49 will be limited to three months of SNAP benefits in any three-year period, unless they’re working. Under current law, the governor can apply for a waiver to this time limit during periods of high unemployment—during recessions, or for particular regions with high unemployment rates, like the Mississippi Delta. Now it will be up to a hostile state legislature to ask for the waiver. Moreover, if any household is found to be out of compliance with any requirement of SNAP or TANF, the children lose benefits, too.

Mississippians can thank the Foundation for Government Accountability—an ally of the American Legislative Exchange Council and an affiliate of the Koch-funded State Policy Network—for providing Rep. Brown with the model for this legislation. The right-wing group’s past efforts include mandatory drug-testing for TANF recipients in Florida. Studies showed that there was no greater incident of drug use for people who receive benefits than the general public—and a lower rate compared to all Floridians—so the court struck it down as an illegal search and seizure. The drug-testing also cost the state far more to implement than it saved in benefits denied to the handful of people who tested positive.

Whatever the costs of Mississippi’s new system, proponents claim that they will be more than offset by savings as the private contractor discovers “fraud” and kicks people off of assistance, particularly Medicaid. However, Illinois used a similar system and found that more than 80 percent of cancelled Medicaid cases were simply due to a lack of response from the recipient, and nearly all of them ended up qualifying and reenrolling. The number of cases referred for fraud investigation was, in fact, “negligible.”

Mississippi’s move comes as conservatives across the country are kicking people off of needed assistance, under the pretense of freeing them from “dependency,” or giving states “flexibility” to better meet a community’s needs. Next up? More governors will likely seek waivers from protections for Medicaid recipients so that they can impose new work requirements, higher premiums, and time limits—and offer more largesse to the wealthy.

This post first appeared on The Nation. It has been modified slightly from the original. 



What the Washington Post Missed on Disability

Yesterday, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Disabled or just desperate?” that painted a bleak picture of rural America. But rather than digging into what’s driving widespread unemployment and poor health in struggling rural counties, the article cherry-picks one of the counties with the highest rates of disability benefit receipt, to create a dystopian portrait where Social Security disability benefits represent out-of-control government spending riddled with rampant abuse.

Reality looks quite a bit different. As Shawn Fremstad and I have pointed out time and again, Social Security disability benefits are incredibly hard to get—fewer than 4 in 10 applicants are approved, even after all stages of appeal. To qualify for benefits, you must have one or more medically determinable physical or mental impairments expected to last at least 12 months, or to result in death. And many recipients do, in fact, die: 1 in 5 male and 1 in 6 female Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits.

But having a disability alone is not enough to qualify for benefits. You also have to prove that your impairment, or combination of impairments, leave you unable to do any job that exists in significant numbers in the national economy at a level where you could earn even $11,070 per year.

According to the Organisation for Economic Development, the United States has the most restrictive—and least generous—disability benefit system of all OECD member countries, apart from Korea. While some unemployed workers—like Desmond Spencer, whom the article profiles—may apply for disability benefits out of desperation as the article’s headline suggests, they’ll be left empty-handed if they don’t meet Social Security’s strict eligibility criteria. Consider the recent economic downturn. Application rates increased as unemployment rose, but approval rates dropped significantly as people who didn’t qualify were denied benefits. It’s also worth noting that the Post focuses on Spencer’s decision to apply for disability benefits—but ends there. What we’re not shown is him being denied, if and when he’s found not disabled enough to qualify.

The Post sidesteps the eligibility requirements for SSDI, and focuses on the recent increase in the number of people receiving benefits. But as the agency’s chief actuary has explained—and in fact predicted decades ago—the growth is mostly due to baby boomers aging into their high-disability years, women entering the workforce in greater numbers in the 1970s and 1980s (so now we are insured under Social Security in case of disability at nearly the same rates as men), and population growth. In fact, these three factors alone explain more than 90 percent of the increase in beneficiaries between 1970 and 2008.

Notably, the program’s growth has leveled off, slowing to its lowest rate in a quarter-century. It is projected to decline further in the coming years, as the baby boomers retire (a fact left out entirely by the Post).

Because of misleading media coverage, people are more familiar with myths than they are with the facts.

Make no mistake, the Post’s article highlights a very real set of problems that call out for policymakers’ attention. For starters, the high rates of unemployment and pervasive economic hardship that plague rural communities, many of whose residents voted for Donald Trump in hopes that he would save or bring back their jobs. Then there is widespread lack of health insurance in rural areas. Spencer reports seeing his health decline following an injury he suffered on the job because “he’d never had health insurance.” It’s not a coincidence that he lives in Beaverton, Alabama—one of the states still refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

And third, there are the employment barriers many people with disabilities continue to face more than 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. They range from outright discrimination; to lack of affordable, accessible housing and transportation; to policies that allow disabled workers to be paid less than minimum wage. These inequities scream out for policies that would give workers with disabilities a fair shot, rather than blaming the lifeboat for the flood.

Unfortunately, the Washington Post’s storyline—long pushed by conservative critics of Social Security—has been a favorite of many in the media going back several years. Notably, NPR ran similar reporting back in 2012, which was widely debunked—including by a bipartisan group of eight former Social Security commissioners who teamed up to write an open letter correcting the record.  But in large part because of misleading media coverage, many people are more familiar with myths about Social Security disability benefits—and beneficiaries—than they are with the facts.

This puts the people who rely on SSDI’s modest benefits at serious risk. While Trump has pledged not to cut Social Security, his budget director Mick Mulvaney has hardly been quiet about his intention to target Social Security Disability Insurance for cuts, portraying disability beneficiaries as less deserving than retirees.

Misleading media accounts that have made the disability beneficiary into the modern day “welfare queen” risk giving him cover to do just that.

Correction: The article originally stated that Lamar county is tied for the highest rate of disability benefit receipt. It is in the top 5% of the rural counties that the Washington Post analyzed. 



The Labor Secretary Nominee Promised to Defer to Trump. That’s a Problem for Workers.

Last week’s political news was dominated by the stunning failure of congressional Republicans’ health care bill. The resulting chaos will ultimately preserve health insurance for 24 million Americans, but it allowed the March 22 confirmation hearing for Alexander Acosta, President Trump’s second choice to lead the Labor Department, to slide by unnoticed.

In a party-line vote, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions advanced Acosta’s nomination today, putting 160 million American workers one step closer to having a protector-in-chief whose views are largely unknown. During his hearing, Acosta fought to keep his opinions concealed. He repeatedly dodged questions about the department’s most significant recent activities, including updating overtime rules, reducing exposure to deadly silica dust, and requiring retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interest.

But, despite his relative silence on labor issues, Acosta’s past has a giant red flag.

From 2003 to 2005, when Acosta was leading the Civil Rights Division of George W. Bush’s Department of Justice, the division became intensely politicized. An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General found the division violated federal law and DOJ policy by conducting hiring based on candidates’ political and ideological affiliations. Although the report did not find Acosta directly responsible for illegal behavior, former DOJ employee Kristen Clark wrote, “This egregious conduct played out under Acosta’s watch and the Inspector General found that, despite the special litigation section chief informing Acosta of the wrongdoing, Acosta failed to take sufficient action to address the illegal and unprofessional actions.”

Acosta used his authority to push the administration’s agenda.

Acosta’s worrisome record doesn’t end with turning a blind eye to illegal activity. During his tenure at DOJ, Acosta himself was accused of partisan meddling. Just days before the 2004 presidential election, Ohio Republicans challenged and purged the voter registration of thousands of mostly African-American voters through a practice known as “voter caging.” When the case was challenged in federal court, Acosta took the unusual step of sending a letter to the court claiming that the purge was allowed under the Voting Rights Act. Typically, federal agency chiefs go out of their way not to influence elections—but if this behavior sounds like déjà vu, you can thank FBI Director James Comey.

In other words, when the interests of the Bush administration—which favored restrictions on voting rights—conflicted with his responsibility as a civil rights chief, it appears Acosta chose to use his authority to push the administration’s agenda.

And if he is confirmed as labor secretary, Acosta will once again be tasked with protecting a marginalized group of Americans—workers. One of his first tasks will be deciding whether he will enforce a spate of new rules that are designed to protect workers, passed during the end of the Obama administration. The rules themselves are straightforward: companies would have to disclose worker exposure to a cancer-causing dust often found in construction, federal contractors would have to disclose labor law violations, and employers would have to pay overtime to additional eligible workers.  But in some cases, Trump has already criticized them.

If his previous actions are any guide, Acosta will likely place partisan loyalty above enforcement of his agency’s mission. And when he repeated during last week’s hearing that he’d defer to Trump as the “boss,” he gave little assurance that he won’t place ideology above the labor rights and civil rights of working Americans.



We Already Have the Path Through Trump’s America

Late last month, the White House invited leaders from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to participate in a listening session and to meet with President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  The group talked about improving education, school infrastructure, collaborations with private industry, and jobs for HBCU students.

Days after the meeting, Morehouse College President John Wilson described its tone as “troubling.” He noted that President Trump’s promises to “do more for HBCUs than any other president has done before” were impossible to measure, and Secretary DeVos’s reference to HBCUs as “pioneers of school choice” showed willful ignorance of Jim Crow and segregation.

It was just the latest insult in a month that began with Trump using the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. to attack the media—rather than mention any of King’s accomplishments—saying:

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. […] I think it was a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate.

These examples highlight a persistent moral awkwardness afflicting the Trump administration.  The yawning gap between President Trump and the leader he was almost honoring (who was a graduate of an Atlanta HBCU, Morehouse College), doesn’t just make the two men seem at odds. It calls for a reassessment of the road that lies ahead.

In 1967, King delivered a powerful speech calling racism, economic exploitation, and militarism “triple evils.” He said a society where machines, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people required a revolutionary shift in values—one that questioned past and present policies, and looked glaringly at the contrasts between poverty and wealth.

During his campaign for the U.S. presidency, Donald Trump stood on the platform of the “triple evils” that King condemned. Trump espoused populist contempt for traditional political elites, promoted authoritarian views of crime and justice, and launched xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic attacks that the media amplified. Trump’s statements are not pithy one-offs—they are rank hallmarks of his deeply-held views.

King would not have been sanguine about this.

As a private businessman, Trump was responsible for a laundry list of highly-public positions that are both racist and dangerous. In 1973, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights case against Trump charging him with discriminating against African Americans who applied to rent apartments in buildings Trump owned. In 1989, Trump spent $85,000 for a full-page ad calling for “murderers and muggers to be forced to suffer and to be executed when they kill” after five black and Hispanic teenagers were accused of raping and beating a white woman in Central Park. Though all five men they were proven innocent, Trump has never apologized and has maintained that the five men must be guilty. Then in 1991, Trump’s Plaza casino and hotel was fined $200,000 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission because the casino’s manager regularly removed African-American card dealers at the request of certain affluent gamblers, and ordered all black staff off the floor when Trump and came into the casino.

Now, after just one month in office, we are witnessing the policy implications of a demagogue who becomes commander-in-chief.

Trump has already attempted to sever health care access for millions of Americans, cleared the path for the Dakota Access Pipelines, ordered the construction of a border wall with Mexico, vowed to punish “sanctuary cities,”  issued two executive orders to temporarily ban travel from several majority Muslim countries, and issued three other executive orders granting more authority to local and federal police. These early policies are reflective of the profit-driven, racist, militaristic ideals that characterize oppression.

King would not have been complicit or sanguine about this.

In 1961, King declined an invitation to John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, even though Kennedy had lobbied for King’s release from an Atlanta jail months prior.  King’s self-imposed absence from Kennedy’s inauguration was strategic—he was unwilling to let Kennedy (or anyone else) paternalistically set or dictate the tone and timetable for civil rights.

Many so-called leaders, who have rushed to sit at the table Trump has laid, could take a lesson from Dr. King.

King used his absence to help nudge Kennedy to take a firmer stance on civil rights. Weeks after the inauguration, King wrote to Kennedy outlining how the new president could use the power of his office to end racial discrimination.  King’s stance is critical for us as women, men, workers, mothers, fathers, and LGBTQ people reckoning with our lives in Trumpland.

By example, King showed us what it looks like to preach, march, teach, sit-in, and push the media to tell the truth.

King’s dream did not envision accepting status quo militarism, racism, violence, or economic exploitation. King’s dream did not envision handing out socks, food, and toiletries as the endgame. King’s dream showed us what is possible, if we forge ahead with mutuality, community, respect, and love.

King’s dream gave us a roadmap through Trumpland.

Correction: This article originally misstated the crime that the Central Park Five were charged with.