The Washington Post’s Data on Social Security Disability is Just Plain Wrong

Earlier this month, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about Social Security disability benefits in rural counties, followed this past Sunday by an editorial calling for a wholesale restructuring of Social Security Disability Insurance.Often called SSDI, this is the plank of Social Security that replaces some of your lost wages if you become disabled before reaching retirement age. Several SSDI experts, including our colleague Rebecca Vallas, as well as Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Dean Baker of the Center on Economic Policy Research, published responses explaining what the Post missed in their reporting. But it turns out the article’s problems go even deeper than they thought. Not only does the Post’s reporting paint a misleading picture about SSDI, but the data analysis they published is just plain wrong.

The Post’s central assertion—flanked by an interactive map—was that as many as one-third of working-age adults in rural communities are living on monthly disability checks. But the data analysis supporting this argument doesn’t hold up.

In a sidebar to the article, the Post says they used publicly available county-level data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) to count “every working-age person who receives benefits through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program or both.” But the Social Security Administration doesn’t publish the data needed for that calculation. In an email response to our request for these data, the SSA  confirmed that these data are “not readily available.”

The Center for American Progress also reached out to the Post to ask about their data. The Post confirmed in an email exchange that they did indeed rely on publicly available data, and identified the specific reports, tables, and figures they used.

We tried to replicate their analysis, and here’s why their numbers are flat-out wrong. (Warning: We are about to dive head-first into the weeds.)

The analysis overcounts working-age people receiving disability benefits by nearly 500,000. The SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries in the age range the Post defines as “working age” (18 to 64). SSA’s OASDI Beneficiaries by State and County report does provide county-level data on SSDI beneficiaries (Table 4), including disabled worker beneficiaries. However, of the 8,909,430 disabled worker SSDI beneficiaries whom the table breaks down by county, 472,080—or about 5 percent—are age 65 or older. Including these older disabled workers would inflate the share of working-age people with disabilities.

It overcounts “disabled adult children” by about 750,000. About 1 million SSDI beneficiaries are disabled adult children (DACs)—people whose disability onset occurred before age 22 and who are insured for SSDI benefits based on a parent’s work record. Since the Post claims to count working-age people receiving SSDI, SSI, or both, they need to include working-age DACs. But—contrary to the Post’s data sidebar—there are no data available on working-age DACs at the county level.

The same SSA table from above does provide county-level data on one group of “children” receiving SSDI—totaling 1,755,276 in 2015. The problem is, these children aren’t disabled adults—they’re actually the offspring of disabled workers. Most are under age 18, and most are not disabled. Not only does erroneously using these data mean including minors without disabilities, it also inflates the number of DACs by about three-quarters of a million, since the total number of DACs aged 18-64 is 977,776. What’s more, offspring of disabled workers and DACs are likely differently distributed across counties, creating problems in county-level comparisons.

It can’t accurately adjust for double-counting the 1.3 million working-age people who receive both SSDI and SSI (a.k.a. “concurrent beneficiaries”). About 1.3 million working-age Americans receive a small amount in benefits from both SSDI and SSI—generally people with very low incomes and limited resources. To avoid double-counting these folks, the Post would need county-level figures on concurrent beneficiaries. But here they run into another problem: SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on working-age concurrent beneficiaries. The Social Security Administration does provide the number of people receiving both SSI and Social Security benefits of any type (Table 3), but that figure also includes people receiving any other kind of Social Security benefit (like survivor or retirement benefits). What’s more, they also include concurrent beneficiaries who are children and adults 65 and older. Both of these issues make it impossible to calculate for working-age beneficiaries receiving both SSDI and SSI at the county level. So these county-level figures can’t give the Post what they need to accurately mitigate their double-counting problem.

It’s missing data for a whopping 106 counties. Mostly because of small population size, SSA doesn’t publish county-level data on SSI beneficiaries for 106 counties. This would be problematic for any county-level analysis. But it’s especially notable given that the Post’s article focuses on rural counties—as some 97 of the counties with missing data are rural. It’s unclear how the Post treats these counties in their analysis.

This might seem like a lot of trouble to go through to explain two inaccurate newspaper articles. But the thing is, misleading media reports have consequences—particularly in political climates like the one we’re living in right now. Just this week, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney once again opened the door to cutting Social Security Disability Insurance, despite President Trump’s pledge not to cut Social Security. Misleading media reports based on inaccurate data analysis risk giving Mulvaney and others cover to slash critical programs like SSDI.

Media covering this important program should get their facts straight before going to press.



Mike Pence’s Policies Aren’t “Traditional.” They’re Dangerous.

Last month, Vice President Mike Pence cast the deciding vote on a measure that targets funding for Planned Parenthood clinics. His vote—which broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate—makes it legal for states to revoke federal Title X funds from clinics that provide abortion services, jeopardizing access to reproductive health care for millions of women.

Pence’s vote came as no surprise. A week into his tenure as vice president, he addressed thousands of abortion opponents at the 44th annual March for Life. Days earlier, his administration instituted a particularly draconian version of the Global Gag Rule, which bans NGOs that receive U.S. aid from counseling anyone on abortion, and a week later it announced a nominee to the Supreme Court chosen in no small part because he poses an existential threat to Roe v. Wade.

All in the name of traditional family values.

Pence has built an entire career on his family values narrative. In 2006, as a Congressman, he supported a constitutional amendment to define marriage as strictly between a man and a woman—same-sex couples, he said, threaten to usher in “societal collapse.” In 2015, as governor of Indiana, he made national news for signing a bill that legalized discrimination against LGBT couples. A year later, he signed a law restricting access to abortion and—as part of his continued quest to make health care as awful as possible for women—requiring that fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages at any stage of pregnancy be buried or cremated.

Plus, there’s that bit of weirdness where he calls his wife “mother,” and won’t dine alone with women or attend events with alcohol unless she’s present.

The irony of these positions, which he insists are in defense of families, is that he is actively undermining them.

For starters, access to reproductive health care, which gives families control over if and when they have children, increases economic security. That makes families less likely to undergo conflict. On the flip side, laws that restrict access to abortion actively endanger families’ financial security. Generally, the birth of a child is a big expense—and if its’s unplanned or mistimed, it’s more likely to cause an economic shock or plunge a family into poverty. Financial stress, in turn, can lead to divorce or relationship dissolution as well as domestic violence.

And all those anti-LGBT policies? LGBT people have families, too—and when Pence denies them the right to get married or use the bathroom, he denies them the humanity that he grants families that look more like his own: “Christian, conservative, and Republican—in that order.” And when he opposes legislation that prohibits discrimination against LGBT workers, like he did in 2007 and again in 2015, he also jeopardizes their families’ economic security.

Even Pence’s intense devotion to his wife, which the internet mostly wrote off as eccentric codependency, works to undermine families. When he refuses to eat dinner or attend events with female staffers––allegedly to resist temptation from other women and to uphold the sanctity of his marriage––he denies them a professional opportunity that he makes available to men. One-on-one time with managers can lead to professional capital that makes salaries or promotions possible. Pence’s inability to treat women as professional counterparts, rather than objects of sexual temptation, excludes them from those opportunities for job growth. That brings us back to women’s financial security, and—once again—to their families.

Pence’s intense devotion to “traditional family values,” isn’t wholesome, or pious, or even just weird. It’s radical and dangerous. And less than 100 days into his vice presidency, we haven’t even scratched the surface.



New Survey Says Women Are Leading the Resistance, Because Of Course They Are

Last week, the Internet gathered, in delight and shock, to discuss two apparently brand-new revelations: First, contrary to popular supposition, women do not magically evaporate from the public sphere upon entering their forties. Secondly, some of the poor old dears actually do activism.

In fact, as per a poll commissioned by progressive advocacy site Daily Action, middle-aged women are doing nearly all the activism these days. The company, which texts daily alerts reminding users to contact Congressional representatives, says that the members who responded to the poll were 86% female — and, significantly, over 60% were older than age 46. Most had attended a Women’s March, and the vast majority (77%) described themselves as “very likely” to publicly protest Donald Trump’s administration and policies in the near future.

Much of the discussion around this report, particularly from male commentators, was politely baffled. Jeff Stein of Vox called the data “fascinating,” and marveled that “angry young white men may be blowing up your social media, but middle-aged women/moms [are] doing the real grunt work.” Shane Savitsky of Axios informed his followers that “your mom might be playing a huge part in the anti-Trump movement.” (I don’t know about you, Shane, but my mom also knows how to use Twitter. Might want to re-think those pronouns.) This reaction, though it was well intentioned, was grating. This data simply should not shock us. The dynamic Stein describes—men writing Twitter essays and women making phone calls, men as the faces of the movement and women as its faceless foot soldiers—is exactly how things have worked for a very long time.

Of course, this is self-reported data from one platform, and doesn’t necessarily represent the totality of progressive activism.  But it’s worth noting, especially since women are sometimes dinged for their unwillingness to participate in “politics”—usually construed to mean running for office. That accusation rests on a very specific idea of political engagement. Rejigger your definitions, and the picture changes considerably.

By a variety of political metrics, women are doing more of the work. Women register to vote more often than men, and are more likely to vote once they’ve registered. Women are more likely to do volunteer work. Women make the vast majority of charitable donations; in fact, as per Debra Mesch of the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, “women give more than their male peers at virtually all income levels, even though women in general earn less.” At the local level, women are far more likely than men to attend religious services and to join religious groups—which Pew Research tells us is an indicator of civic engagement—and slightly more likely to be involved in neighborhood associations. Finally, and most predictably: As of 2009, 90% of all PTA members were female.

We see “leadership” qualities in the guy doing all the talking, not the girl doing all the work.

This is not glamorous stuff. It is, in fact, mom stuff; making sure that children are schooled and people are fed, that the church fundraiser goes off well and the new mayor is more competent, that the park gets a new fence, that the Goodwill gets the old clothes, and that the daily wheel of life more or less rolls on, in all its boring glory. Which is to say, we assign women the work of community; all the daily, unremarkable social and political engagement that keeps groups of people bound together as a coherent whole, and thereby makes civic life possible. Women are expected to do all this for the same reason that they’re still expected to do the lion’s share of parenting, or to take care of aging relatives, or to do most of the chores; because they’re “just better at it,” because no-one else wants to do it, because the willingness to provide this labor, for free, is some essential part of how we construe being feminine.

And, because it is feminine, it is dismissed. None of this work is what we see as “leadership,” and none of these women, especially as they age, fit our images of “leaders.” Barricade-mounting and enraged-speech-giving and Nazi-punching and office-holding — all the positions we actually associate with “politics”—are assumed to be beyond them. Instead, middle-aged women are stereotyped as terminally bland soccer moms, oversharing mommybloggers and prudish neighborhood busybodies, harried non-entities who “try too hard to be cool” and whose idea of fun is “always having snacks on the counter.” Throughout the 2016 election, the media made a constant fuss about their irrelevance and their political ineptitude when compared to their supposedly more progressive millennial daughters.

This is where the benign, patronizing shock around the poll numbers comes in. How could meek little Barb or Pam, or anyone else afflicted by God with such terminal lack of flavor, turn out to be the face of anti-fascist resistance in America?

Again: She always has been.

It would be more shocking if the majority of women involved in the anti-Trump protests actually fit the “white soccer mom” stereotype. That is, at least in part, because it would be shocking if most of them were white; though the Daily Action survey doesn’t segment its data by race, we know that only 4% of black women voted for Donald Trump, whereas 52% of white women did. Plus, older women vote more than younger women, and they are more likely to have money to donate or children to tie them to a community.

But, most importantly, time is not static. “Old lady” stereotypes aside, today’s moms are likely to have more direct experience of radical activism than their daughters. A 64-year-old woman, in 2017, has a birth date of 1953. She has directly witnessed—or actively participated in—both the mid-century civil rights movement and feminism’s second wave. She is more likely to identify as feminist than any other age group, and she is more likely to vote for political candidates based on their gender politics. She is also the most likely to advocate for women’s rights by taking measures such as—surprise!—calling or writing her representatives.

This isn’t to slight younger women; they come in a very close second in the Most Feminist Generation sweepstakes. It’s simply to demonstrate how easily women’s political work can be ignored or obscured, hidden away by our presumptions about what—and who—qualifies as an “activist.” Indeed, even as the media whipped up the catfight of the century between millennial feminists and their second-wave mothers, the same pattern of gendered labor was repeating itself: In one 2013 survey, women under 30 were already volunteering more, donating more, voting more, and joining community groups more than their male peers. In fact, young women were outstripping men on every measure of “civic participation” but one: “Talking about politics with friends and family frequently.” That one, the boys had covered.

This is exactly the sort of granular, incremental, everyday work that women are socialized to take on themselves.

Unfortunately, we happen to live in a society that perceives “leadership” qualities in the guy doing all the talking, not the girl doing all the work. We applaud the man giving the speech, not the woman making sure there are enough chairs for everyone in the audience; the dude who pens a single scathing Medium essay, not the woman showing up every night to phone bank; the charismatic male candidate, not his female campaign manager.

Making a daily phone call to one’s representative—taking ten minutes out of a lunch break to be one of twelve people on hold, staying appropriately polite for a 30-second conversation about voting against Betsy DeVos or Syrian intervention or whatever is on the menu today—is exactly the sort of granular, incremental, everyday work that women are socialized to take on themselves. It’s also one of the more immediately effective forms of protest out there. In the midst of the crisis that is the Trump administration, it should not be surprising that women would, once again, step in and do the pragmatic, everyday work of keeping their communities safe. What is surprising is that we still don’t expect them to do it — or that we simply didn’t notice them doing it in the background all this time.

If we knew how to value those women, to notice and spotlight all the unheeded background work that keeps resistance running, we might have a very different idea of “leadership” — and a very different picture of who actually runs (and saves) the world.



How to Change a Conservative State

President Donald Trump and Sheriff Joe Arpaio have a lot in common. They’ve both built political careers out of attacking immigrants: They were elected on populist platforms that appealed to white nationalists, and they were two of the most vocal supporters of the racist “birther” movement. They’ve both starred in reality TV shows. They even share the same birthday. But there’s one important difference: While Trump was voted into office in November, Maricopa County, Arizona voted Arpaio out.

Arizona has traditionally been a conservative stronghold. It’s where Barry Goldwater launched his career; where, more than 60 years later, John McCain was officially censured for being too liberal. It’s the birthplace of one of the most anti-immigrant bills in the nation, and it’s home to a legislature that recently passed a law that would have allowed businesses to refuse service to gay people.

But in November, amid Trump’s victory and a conservative sweep in Congress, Arizona boasted several progressive wins. It was one of four states to pass minimum wage legislation via ballot initiative: Prop 206, which gained 58% of the vote, will raise the state minimum wage to $12 by 2020 and give workers the right to paid sick time. Arizonans also elected several progressive Latino candidates, including Adrian Fontes, the new Maricopa County recorder, and Juan Mendez, an openly atheist state senator. And of course, Maricopa voters ousted Arpaio—ending his 24-year authoritarian reign.

These wins were not isolated events. They were part of a larger progressive movement in Arizona—one that’s been building for several years.


For many Arizonans, Arpaio is the embodiment of anti-immigrant hate. While in office, he persecuted immigrants—and the entire Latino community—with a singular focus. When the U.S. Department of Justice sued him in 2012 for racial profiling, the formal legal complaint was full of frightening anecdotes of police misconduct: Latino drivers were “nearly nine times” more likely to be pulled over than non-Latino drivers; Latino people were regularly detained solely due to their race; and Latino detainees were often punished as a group.

Liedy Robledo, one of the lead organizers of the Bazta Arpaio campaign credited with Arapaio’s defeat in November, was raised by undocumented parents in Maricopa County under Sheriff Arpaio’s rule. Robledo says she didn’t realize how discriminatory Arpaio’s policing was until she moved to Colorado in 2008. She was a senior in high school at the time, and she remembers noticing that the police there wouldn’t pull people over just to check their immigration status. “When the sheriff would drive down the street, they had a purpose—they weren’t just patrolling.”

The anti-immigrant law was a catalyst.

Robledo became involved with youth organizing in Denver as legislators in her home state were crafting S.B. 1070, Arizona’s extreme anti-immigrant bill. She recalls it as a defining moment in her political development. She began thinking less about Arpaio as an individual actor and more about “the entire culture he’s built.” After she graduated, Robledo returned to Maricopa County, determined to organize against hate and injustice.

S.B. 1070 was also a catalyst for Tomas Robles, the executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona (LUCHA), the group that led the statewide campaign for Prop 206. “It called a lot of us into action,” he says.

But according to Robles, when S.B. 1070 passed in 2010, there was no organizing infrastructure yet for immigrant justice and economic justice in Arizona. They had to build it themselves. “We were the first group of leaders and organizers that came out of that 2010 struggle.”

In response to S.B. 1070, ten community organizations came together to form One Arizona, a coalition designed to combat against anti-immigrant legislation and get Latino voters to the polls. One of the founding groups, Puente, also partnered with LUCHA to create People United for Justice, which oversaw Bazta Arpaio and helped train leaders in both campaigns.

This emerging infrastructure created a new generation of organizers. “It’s kind of strange saying ‘generation’ when it’s only seven years,” Robles muses. But that’s exactly what it is—both Robles and Robledo began as volunteers, grew into leadership roles, then trained the next crop of leaders.


If there are parallels between Bazta Arpaio and LUCHA’s campaign for Prop 206, it’s likely because many of the organizers trained together and share a theory of change—one that focuses on training leaders from the most directly affected communities.

LUCHA had community members lead every aspect of the campaign, and most of its leaders were women of color. “Leadership development was ingrained in us from the very beginning,” Robles says. Bazta shared this same commitment: One of their organizers was a mother from the community who had never used a computer before. Robledo says she had to learn how to use a phone and a computer, but “by the end, she was cutting her own turf”—drafting lists and sending mass texts.

This leadership development pipeline allowed Bazta to leverage the strengths of different community members. “Our moms are really good at going into the churches and getting volunteers,” Robeldo said, while the younger organizers use their access to school to recruit student volunteers.

Robledo’s own experience as a community leader brought her back to the neighborhood where she grew up. When she was younger, her parents wouldn’t want her to walk down certain streets after school. But as an organizer with Bazta, those were the streets she had to walk, the doors she had to knock on. “It was really empowering, taking back Phoenix.”


Both Bazta Arpaio and the Prop 206 campaign relied heavily on door-to-door canvassing to gather votes, but not until after they’d built momentum in other ways. Bazta had a wide-ranging direct action and communications strategy that involved an enormous inflatable of Arpaio, a roving bus, murals, internet memes, and an online game. “By the time we knocked on doors,” says Robledo, “people already knew who we were.”

Similarly, LUCHA started creating momentum for the minimum wage fight in 2013. They staged actions with Fight for 15 and led community forums and workshops to get people fired up about economic justice. After two years of this, they funded a statewide poll and found that their work had paid off—most voters would support paid sick time and a higher minimum wage. Now they just had to get the votes.

Once it was time for both campaigns to knock on doors, they did so with extreme ardor, hitting thousands of doors per week for several months. “Tomas Robles and the Prop 206 campaign—they just outworked the opponents,” says Greg Stanton, Phoenix’s mayor. Stanton lauded Bazta’s volunteer canvassers for hitting “hundreds of doors per person per night”—especially since campaigns in Arizona take place during the hottest part of the year, when it often reaches 110 degrees or more. “They won this the right way,” he says.

The same tactics helped get Stanton elected in 2012. In West Phoenix, which had a large Latino population but low voter turnout, a group of young canvassers—some of whom Stanton says were the same people that worked on Bazta and Prop 206—knocked on 72,000 doors, increasing Latino voter turnout by more than 400% in one election cycle.

Organizers didn’t have to convince people there was a problem—they had to convince them that there was a solution.

Bazta’s door-to-door canvassing was a winning combination of grim determination and clinical efficiency. Robledo says that before counting a vote in their favor, volunteers would have to walk people through every step of the ballot application process: “Fill it out. Sign it. Put it in the mail.” And if the canvassers found a good story at the door, they’d hand it over to the communications team, so the canvassers could “keep on hitting more doors.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the canvassers faced was a feeling of powerlessness among voters. Robles said that most people supported raising the minimum wage, but they’d say, “There’s no way that can happen here in Arizona.” And the Bazta canvassers heard hundreds of iterations of “my vote doesn’t count” or “he’s going to win again” or “he’s invincible.” They didn’t have to convince people there was a problem—they had to convince them that there was a solution, that they had the power to change the status quo.

On election day, Bazta’s young volunteers felt this power. They had been scrambling that week because of last-minute court decisions to revoke, and then reinstate, a ban on collecting ballots, which caused many voters to miss the deadline to mail their absentee ballots. Bazta went to two high schools to try to get 50 students from each school to spend their afternoon canvassing. But people were so energized that 100 students walked out of each school to volunteer—so many that the organizers ran out of doors to give to people.


Bazta’s victory in defeating an anti-immigrant authoritarian leader has obvious national parallels. As Progress Now’s executive director Josselyn Berry says, “In Arizona, we’ve seen Trumps before, and we’ve been able to defeat them.”

But the beauty of the Bazta Arpaio campaign—and LUCHA’s victorious Prop 206 campaign—is that they’ve created a movement that will outlast one election cycle. By rallying voters for their respective causes, these two campaigns helped the One Arizona coalition register 150,000 new Latino voters in Arizona—more than Trump’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan combined. And they raised a new generation of leaders in the Latino community, including hundreds of 17- and 18-year-old students who are now realizing their political power.

It’s tempting to think that the progressive uprising in Arizona is a direct result of S.B. 1070 and Arpaio’s culture of hate; that those oppressive conditions, via some social analog of Newton’s third law, triggered an opposite reaction. The pendulum of history swung to the right, and it was only a matter of time before it inevitably corrected itself.

But progressive change is not inevitable, nor is it easy. It takes strategic organizing and collective resilience. And sometimes, it takes a swarm of volunteers knocking on door after door after door beneath Arizona’s punishing midsummer sun.



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.’”