Saturday, December 12, 2009

college students today....

College professors have always complained about college students. The complaints usually starts with the phrase "the trouble with college students today..." and usually also contains the phrase "when I was a student..."

The fact is that college students today are different from the past, in a whole host of ways. Let's look at the demographics: in 1966 the total number of undergraduate college students of all ages was 6,085,000 which represented 3% of the total U.S. population, in 2008 the total number of undergraduate college students of all ages was 14,955,000, which represented 5% of the total U.S. population ; in 1966 39% of college students were 18-19 years old, 15% were age 25 or older, 94% were white and 5 percent were black, 38% were women and 62% were male; in 2008 22% were 18-19 years old, 37% were age 25 or older, 77% were white and 13 percent were black, 55% were women and 45% were male. In the year 1970 (first year for which the government collected data on this) the percent of all undergraduate students attending community colleges was 27%, in 2008 that had risen to 36%.

As discussed this past week in the Chronicle of Higher Education most of the increasing numbers of college students in the last couple of decades have gone into the community colleges, and to a lesser extent into less selective four year colleges (public and private). More selective colleges and universities have used the increased numbers of students applying to become more selective, more choosy.

Family income which impacts college choices due to rising costs, also has a strong positive correlation with standardized test scores and to a more moderate correlation with high school grade point average. Other aspects of social class, such as parental educational levels influence students' selection of or assignment to courses of study in high school. [The college educated parent is more likely to know that taking algebra in summer school before high school can put their child on a fast track to advance math classes in high school making him or her more attractive to selective colleges and universities.]

As a result of the confluence of increased selectiveness and rising costs, social class and income stratification between colleges has increased steadily over the past twenty years. Students from poor and working class families are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of elite, selective colleges and universities, while community colleges become the primary educational institutions for poor, working class, and even lower middle class families.

The flood of new college students into community colleges and less selective four year colleges, is made up primarily of poorer, working class and lower middle class students who are the first in their family to go to college. Educational pundits have pointed out the impact of this on the level of college preparation -- a large percentage of these new students were shunted by their high school advisers into non-college preparatory tracks or classes. They did not take the mathematics, science or even English, history, etc. usually taken by college bound secondary students. Pundits have also made much about the lack of monetary resources of these students, and the high percentage of them that have jobs (all of these things have been discussed extensively in The Chronicle of Higher Education in recent weeks and over the last few years).

One thing that has not been discussed at all, that is painfully obvious among our poorer and working class student body at my Kentucky community college, is the impact of poor health and health care problems on students. Our students themselves have a very high level of health problems, including diabetes and its complications, heart disease, other obesity related conditions, back problems, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and a frighteningly high level of cancer for a relatively young population. As many health problems as my students have, their families -- spouses, parents, grandparents, mothers- and fathers-in-law, siblings, aunts and uncles, have even more. Because in lower income communities, people are highly dependent on family and kin for aid during crises, students often are primary care-takers for ill family members, providing emotional support, transportation, and nursing care at home or in the hospital. [These days with nursing staffs stretched so thinly -- especially in poor rural areas like this -- some one needs to be present in the hospital with a patient to insure proper nursing care.]

This semester I had one student providing physical, household, medical/nursing, and emotional support for her mother with cancer and her mother-in-law with congestive heart failure (the mother-in-law died just before the end of term). An other student spent weeks in the nearest research hospital (3 hours away from her home) providing support for her long term partner who was dying, and then came home to her own diagnosis of heart disease and need for heart surgery. At least a dozen other students in my classes (I only teach about 75 students a semester) had serious health issues for themselves or family members this term, and this was not an unusual semester.

All these forms of illness have a higher incidence among lower income and working class populations. On top of that, are the burdens imposed by lack of good health coverage. Many of them have the additional struggle of having to worry about mounting medical bills that they may never be able to pay off. If they have assistance from Medicaid or from the local public health department, they often have very little control over the times of appointments and have to invest more time than some one with insurance would have to invest.

Just this week as I was getting my mammogram I overheard the following situation -- a woman with a suspicious lump had been referred by the public health department to a private physician to order a diagnostic mammogram and had authorized payment for that mammogram. The physician however, had decided that an ultrasound would provide him with more information and wrote an order for an ultrasound. The woman showed up at the radiography department for her appointment, only to be told that she would have to return to the public health department, so that they could write a new authorization for payment for the ultrasound, and then go back to the physicians office for a new order to go with it, and have to reschedule the mammogram for a day later in the week. It was obvious from the conversation that her husband who accompanied her, had taken off from work and was losing pay, and would have to take off yet another day later in the week to accompany her for the second go-round.

Poor health and poor health care are huge obstacles to successful college completion for lower income and working class students.

Friday, October 09, 2009

electronic textbooks and textbook costs

College textbook costs have been skyrocketing in the past decade. As a professor who has worked diligently to find the lowest cost books possible, often forgoing textbooks to use quality trade books (at $14 and $15 dollars a piece) in upper level courses, I had not really understood why students were complaining so much about textbook prices. Then I had to foot the bill for my husband's textbooks this semester -- $600 for two classes (anatomy and developmental psychology). No wonder students are complaining, that's simply outrageous.

Textbook companies have been trying to encourage the use of electronic texts, touting them as a solution to the rising cost of textbooks. The use of electronic versions of textbooks in on-line classes has caught on rapidly, and many colleges, such as Northwest Missouri, are experimenting with the use of portable electronic text readers such as Kindle (from and the Sony PRS-505 e-reader.

There are a number of good arguments in favor of electronic texts (such as the "save the trees" argument), and a number of good arguments against electronic texts (they don't really fit the way students study - jumping from one page to another 20 pages away and back again). But the primary argument in favor of electronic texts -- that they will save students money -- just does not hold water.

Let's begin with the cost of the readers. The Kindle DX (the larger format Kindle suitable for use in reading large format college textbooks like anatomy and development psychology) is $489 plus tax and shipping. Smaller Kindle readers are $279, while the Sony PRS-505 e-reader (same dimensions as the smaller Kindle reader) are $299.

Second there is the terms and conditions under which students rent textbooks -- yes, RENT not buy. My husband's hardback traditional copy of Anatomy and Physiology, 5th Edition by Saladin cost $200 from the college bookstore. It would cost $98.50 from (one of the lower cost etextbook sellers). However, for this fifty percent cost reduction, the student only rents the book for 360 days. That's not even a full year. Many e-textbooks rental period is for 180 days or less. At the end of the rental period the textbook becomes inaccessible.

Most of the students taking Anatomy and Physiology (like my husband), are planning to take the second part of the course which uses the same book. If they can fit the two parts of the course into two sequential semesters, the 360 day subscription might be sufficient to get them through two semesters. But should something interfere with taking the classes sequentially, they would have to re-purchase the electronic text to have it available for the second semester. That means they have to pay $98.50 TWICE to rent the same book. Now there is no price advantage to the electronic version at all.

At our college, most students taking Anatomy and Physiology are also doing so as preliminary to entering an allied health field (nursing, respiratory therapy, radiography, and physical therapy are the fields at my college). Students going into these fields frequently keep their anatomy textbooks to use for reference while pursing their career courses. Electronic textbooks cannot be "kept" -- they expire in 360 (or 180) days.

Those students who do not keep their texts for reference almost always sell them. While the payback on selling textbooks is not 50 percent of the cost, it still does lessen the overall cost. eTextbooks cannot easily or readily be sold to others. Electronic texts on readers like Kindle and the Sony PRS-505 e-reader cannot be transferred from the device. Electronic text that are purchased on-line can be viewed from many machines, but what student with any sense would want to purchase a rental agreement that could make the book inaccessible before the course is over (or even before the course has barely begun).

This last fact (the inability to sell your electronic book) leads inexorably to the most important way in which a shift to electronic textbooks would negatively impact the overall cost of college textbooks -- the entire supply of used textbooks, that many students depend upon purchasing to reduce their costs, would dry up. All students would have to buy "new" in an all electronic textbook world.

Since all students would be buying "new" textbooks, textbook publishers would no longer have an incentive to come out with new editions every two years. This practice is almost entirely driven by the desire to limit the sales of used books which cut into textbook publishers profits.

Textbook publishers will have a steadier, more reliable stream of revenue (no competition from the used book sellers), and substantially lower costs. Publishers won't have to pay faculty to write new editions as often, they will eliminate many resource costs (paper, ink, presses) and transportation costs. While this may prevent textbook costs from rising quite as quickly, chances are, businesses being what businesses are, most of the publishers' savings will become publishers' profits rather than student savings.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Friends of Coal"

There is a sociologically and politically interesting phenomenon sweeping the coal fields of Kentucky (similar things are happening is West Virginia) called the Friends of Coal.

Friends of Coal is the brainchild of a coal industry organization Kentucky Coal [note the nearly identical websites]. The Kentucky Coal Association central membership is coal companies and associate members comprised of businesses related to coal mining such as engineering firms, equipment firms, (even law firms) and individuals employed in the coal mining and related industries.

Friends of coal began as an exercise in what political pundits call "AstroTurfing" -- industry sponsored and supported activity posing as grassroots organizing -- but it has become a genuinely popular organization garnering membership, support and funding from thousands of Kentuckians from all walks of life. This may be a political first, a popular movement in support of a particular industry, not by its workers, but by a wide cross section of individuals and families living within the communities where an industry operates.

Not only does one see the bumper stickers, window stickers, yard signs, pins and t-shirts declaring "Friends of Coal" in eastern Kentucky. But most intriguingly, the Friends of Coal organization proposed a special issue Kentucky license plate (see photo at top taken at a stop light in Letcher County), which has been wildly successful and can be seen on cars (and especially trucks) everywhere in eastern Kentucky.

This may be the first time in the United States that an industry actively engaged in whole series of major political battles (over the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions, mountain top removal, and fly ash storage) has been able to get the general public to voluntarily help fund their public relations battle through a official state sponsored tax (license plate fees). Usually industries have to use their own monies (albeit coming from customers) for legitimation advertising and activities.

The average person in eastern Kentucky who sports a "Friends of Coal" sticker or license plate views supporting "the coal industry" as identical to supporting "coal miners." A view which flies in the face of the very long record of industry abuses of the health and safety of miners, and successful efforts to undermine unionization of coal mining.

Supporters of Friends of Coal fear that new environmental regulations will bring a sudden and abrupt end to all coal employment in the mountains. They lack awareness that the coal industry has done quite well on its own to cut coal mining employment despite many decades of special treatment and tax advantages from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Employment in coal in Kentucky has dropped by two-thirds from a high of about 48,000 in 1981 to 17,893 in 2006. [graphic from MACED based on data from].

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The pharmaceutical industry and American health care

Today I sat in our family doctor's waiting room for three hours while my husband was seen for broken ribs. While we were there (and waiting for three hours), a total of eight different drug company representatives were allowed welcomed in to speak to our family doctor. Eight.

The numbers today may have been a little unusual, but the presence of drug representatives is not. I have yet to come to see my physician with out spotting at least one and more often two or three drug representatives during the time of my visit.

Why be concerned? Well first, why with people waiting for hours in the lobby, should drug reps be given the fast track to doctors time? But far more importantly, how much pressure is being brought to bear on family physicians and internists to prescribe new, more costly, patented medicines instead of older, less expensive, generic medicines?

More than a decade ago, after some type of injury my physician prescribed a generic muscle relaxant for me. It worked well, was helpful, and cost me (with health insurance) $5. A year or so later, after another injury, she prescribed a new brand new, name brand muscle relaxant, that when I got to the pharmacy turned out to cost $45 (with insurance -- imagine what it would have cost without insurance). Well it didn't work as well for me as the generic. Some time later, another injury, another visit, and time for another prescription. This time I specifically told her that I wanted the generic, that I found it worked better than the name brand and was 1/9th the cost. She mumbled a bit and said, oh, well I was told that this new medicine would be better, and wouldn't upset people's stomachs. While this may be true, it never once occurred to my doctor to 1) ask if I'd had any problems with the generic drug and needed a substitution or 2) think about the huge difference in cost. This kind of blind acceptance of drug company sales pitches is part of the current problem with health care.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Definitions -- broad for family, narrow for marriage

Once again, I am fascinated by the responses of my students to my discussion questions on the topic of family in Introductory Sociology.

The overwhelming majority of students, about 95 out of every 100 who respond to the discussion, when asked what a family is provide a very broad definition that focuses on things like "love," "caring," "supportiveness," and other qualities of relationships. These students explicitly include homosexual couples living together, especially those with children, as qualifying to be included in the concept of "family." Sometimes students even will state, that while they do not approve of homosexual relationships, they are still examples of "family."

When the same students when asked about what constitutes "marriage," about sixty percent of them (in Kentucky), are adamant that a marriage consists of one man and one woman only. They reject homosexual relationships as qualifying for marriage, and they reject polygamy in any form as well.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

stereotypes of Appalachia/Eastern Kentucky

My students frequently bemoan the stereotypes that outsiders hold of Appalachians and especially of folks in Eastern Kentucky. They wonder where these stereotypes come from, and mumble about the meanness of flatlanders and city folks.

In Wednesday July 15th edition of the local weekly paper was a news story that gives insight into the origin of the stereotypes. In an old mining camp town called Seco (derived from the acronym for South East Coal), an enterprising family named Looney has operated a very successful winery (the grapes are grown on old strip mine property) and bed & breakfast for more than a decade. The headline of the article read as follows: "Owner says facility forced to suspend operations until neighbors behave."

The key passage of the article is as follows:
Meanwhile Looney remains up in arms over the shots being fired a round the houses and cottages on the winery's property.
"We had a couple from Oregon here," said Looney, "and in the middle of the night someone fired shots outside their window and told hem they wouldn't live to see the light of day if they didn't leave."
Looney said the couple immediately packed their bags and left. "...when we found out what happened we didn't blame them."

While it certainly is unfair to label all residents of Appalachia as gun-toting imbeciles that hate outsiders, obviously there are some folks here that really are just that. And thus stereotypes are born!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

social issues: obesity and air conditioning

Obesity may have once been an individual trouble (to use C. Wright Mills' terminology), that was the consequence of individual decision-making and behavior, but today it is a complex social issue that is the result of patterns of modern economic and social life. Mills distinguished between troubles (which were purely individual or interpersonal in origin) and social issues which were created by the structure of society.

The media (as well as the government) has recognized obesity as a social "problem" largely because the many of the costs of obesity in medical expenses and lost work days are born by society. There has also been some recognition of social factors contributing to obesity -- such as the pervasiveness of candy and soda machines in schools. However, for the most part, while recognizing the social consequences, government decision-makers and the media are blind to the social causes of obesity, focusing perversely on individual behavior and individual decisions about food and exercise.

Each semester I use the topic of obesity as a way to engage students in SOC 101 in the sociological imagination (C. Wright Mills); getting them to move beyond individualistic thinking to sociological thinking. Asking them to explore questions about how work, school, transportation, community design, and many other aspects of social life contribute to the problem of obesity. We talk about things such as how the occupational structure of society has changed (away from active blue collar to sedentary white collar work), how the cost of living has changed (from the family wage earned by men, to the dual pay-check family), how the layout of communities have changed(from walking friendly to car-essential designs), and so forth.

This summer term (today in fact) one of my students mentioned something, that caused a proverbial light bulb to go on in my mind. She said that kids today don't want to go out in the heat during the summer. She didn't realize that she was bringing up something that represented a change. Indeed she pronounced this as if it were an unchanging element in American life: indoors was always cooler than outdoors during the summer. I immediately recognized that the relative comfort of indoors and outdoors during the summer months is something that has changed drastically in the past 50 years, and could be an important missing piece of the puzzle for understanding the development of the obesity epidemic during that time.

Practical home air conditioners were developed in the late 1920's, but until forty ago, air conditioning was extraordinarily rare in homes. It wasn't until the early 1970's that air conditioning reached more than fifty percent of American homes (by 1978, only 45 percent of American homes did not have air conditioning). In the 1950's only the most affluent had air conditioning. Even fans, which were made of metal and relatively more expensive were not within the reach of many people.

The need for air conditioning of course varies geographically, but in much of the U.S., sweltering summer heat and humidity forced people, and especially children, out of doors, to seek summer breezes and shade and cooling sources of water. I spent part of many childhood summers in Virginia and a vivid part of those childhood memories is smothering damp heat, and the various ways we attempted to stay cool, with cool drinks and splashing in water (lawn sprinklers, wading pools, creeks and streams). Riding bicycles, roller skating, even running around in the shade of the back yard was cooler than sitting still inside.

The heat and humidity affected how we cooked and ate. Few people wanted to heat up the house even more by using their ovens for extended periods. One also felt less like eating a heavy meal on the hottest days. Of course, in addition to air conditioning, the microwave has changed how we view summer cooking.

Air conditioning has made the indoors far more attractive than the outdoors during the summer for scores of Americans. Coupled with an explosion in fun things to do indoors (computers, video games, Tivo, DVD's) and with the ability to easily microwave highly processed meals and snacks, it is not surprising that there has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of obesity in America.

Friday, May 29, 2009

reconstituting working class neighborhoods

I grew up (1954-1969) in a suburb of San Francisco -- San Mateo -- in a neighborhood of blue collar/working class families. Construction on the subdivision in which we lived began in about 1948, and was not fully completed until a few years after we moved there in 1954. The first wave of houses were two and three bedroom, one bath, with a attached single car garage, and lots under a quarter acre. The later wave of houses built between 1953 and 1956, were three bedroom, two bath, with attached two car garages. These were on the same sized lot, so had less yard.

By 1954, solid six foot high privacy fences completely divided the backyards of each single family home from its neighbors. The only shared/public spaces were the sidewalks, the elementary school ground, and the single, large municipal park located across from the elementary school at the center of the subdivision. Children roamed from yard to yard, but adults stayed within the limits of their own yard, and did not socialize frequently with neighbors.

The residents of the homes during the 50's and 60's were primarily nuclear families, consisting a husband employed in a blue collar or working class occupation, wives who were rarely employed outside the home, and 2+ children. Occasionally a home was occupied by a retired couple, without children. Many of the men in this subdivision worked in maintenance departments of major air lines based at San Francisco International Airport (less than 8 miles away). There were also large numbers of men in the construction trades -- carpenters, electricians, bricklayers, plumbers, etc.

Almost all of the adults were from outside California, and many of the older children had been born outside the state as well. None of the families were related to each other, all were stripped of kinship ties. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all resided "back east" or in the Midwest, rather than California. Rarely families would go "home" for brief vacations, usually during the summer months. Even more rarely kin would come for short visits. Thanksgiving and Christmas were holidays celebrated by isolated nuclear families.

Those of us who grew up in these communities took this isolation from kin for granted. Leaving behind extended family, to move great distances for work opportunities, and new communities was the norm for the majority of white working class families in California of the 1950's and 1960's. So it was not unexpected that most of the first wave of children would leave the area to go to college, find work and build futures in other cities and other states.

Attending college in Ohio and later graduate school in Kentucky, most of my fellow students had also left their homes and families some distance away. So the family and neighborhood patterns of my childhood seemed quite normal. It was not until I obtained my first full-time teaching position in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that I got a good, close hand look at a very different pattern of working class family and community life.

In Johnstown, the majority of working class and lower middle class adults lived within a few miles of their parents and grandparents, frequently on the same street, and not uncommonly in the other half of a double house -- a two or three story house under a single roof, that was divided down the middle into two distinct separate living units with separate kitchens, etc. This type of housing is extremely common in older working class neighborhoods of older industrial cities and towns east of the Mississippi.

Not only did the generations stay close to each other physically, but they often formed cooperative economic and social units. Children were cared for by grandparents, while parents worked. The increasing necessity for married women to be employed outside the home, made the assistance of grandparents in child care more and more crucial to economic well-being of working and lower middle class families in the 1980's.

The period of time that I spent in Johnstown included 1984-1985 during which time official unemployment rose to 25 percent as Bethlehem and U.S. Steel closed down the majority of their steel works. The permeable boundaries of family/household across generations was essential to many families survival, as those who retained jobs shared income with those who lost jobs. Many of the family and community patterns chronicled by Gans in Urban Villagers were alive and well in Johnstown in the 1980's.

I have since observed that trans-generational/trans-household family patterns are also exceedingly common among the working and lower middle classes in small town Virginia and rural Kentucky, and part of long standing traditions of kin helping kin.
What I find fascinating is that fifty years later in the 21st century, working and middle class families in San Mateo are reconstituting similar family and neighborhood patterns. This is being done both by new ethnic in-migrants to California (Filipino, Tongan, Vietnamese, Cambodian etc.) and by the later generations of the original working class families that populated the second wave in San Mateo's subdivisions.

It has become extremely common for two to four houses on one street to be owned by successive generations of the same family, and for other homes to be inhabited by cousins or other relatives. Because of vastly inflated housing values, often the older generation owns several homes that are rented to younger couples starting out. One family that first bought into the neighborhood in 1962 (the second wave) has three generations living in four houses at one end of one street. Two other houses nearby are owned by cousins who settled in the neighborhood in the 1970's and their adult child.

The entire neighborhood that was once populated by isolated nuclear families has become a complex web of family ties across generations, and extending out to collateral kin. The behavior of these families, providing assistance, child care, and financial aid, is far more similar to the old working class neighborhoods of Johnstown, than to the same neighborhood in the 1950's. All it took was time.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

co-optation or political savvy?

Today (among many other things) I participated in a system-wide curriculum meeting and taught Appalachian studies. In the curriculum committee, I represented the views of a group of faculty that opposes our system's move to modularize and "McDonaldize" college courses on-line. In Appalachian studies we continued our exploration of various Appalachian based opposition movements, with a look at the Black Lung Association, and the role of mountain music in building community and helping mobilize opposition in coal mining strikes and the anti-strip-mining movement.

One of the common themes that crossed tied these two experiences together today, was a question that often faces groups that oppose the prevailing power structure, which is when failure is likely should one maintain a position of opposition for the sake of principle and be frozen out of the decision-making, or capitulate and compromise in order to have some input into the path of the future.

The first consideration is whether or not failure is likely. The assessment of that is often based on which position a person is taking. Those who advocate supporting principle to the end, take the optomistic view, believing that failure is not likely, and that it is only capitulation and compromise that make it inevitable. Those supporting compromise for the sake of having some stake in the decision-making tend towards pessimism, viewing the cause as lost already.

At the beginning of 2008, I would have said that the modularization of sociology was inevitable, and that the prudent course was to compromise in order to have some say in how that modularization took place. But the majority of the people on the committee I chaired took the other position to stand on principle. Five months later, I was surprised, and pleased to discover, that at least for the forseable future those that argued for standing put were correct. Faced with nearly unanimous opposition by faculty in the discipline, the system's plan to modularize sociology was abandoned.

Instead, the system mandated modularization program found an individual in another discipline (psychology) willing to provide what was desired (a modularized social science course), and a college willing to sponsor the proposal providing a way around the system committee I chair. So the overall project goes forward, but without sociology. But in the process, my committee and the system psychology faculty it represents have loss some of their ability to influence the development of this alternative modularized course. The committee I chair will get to review and "endorse" or "not endorse" the project, but unlike the sociology case, the committee will not be able to reject the proposal, and it will go on to become fact. We may have won the battle over sociology, but lost the war over the principle of modularization, and lost influence in shaping curriculum in the process.

The view of the pessimists is that some input is better than no input, while the view of the pessimists is that if they are going down, they sure as hell aren't going to dig their own graves by compromise.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

co-opting opposition through leadership

My students in Appalachian Studies are currently reading a collection of essays on grassroots political and economic organization in Appalachia entitled Fighting Back in Appalachia: Traditions of Resistance and Change, edited by Stephen L. Fisher. This is not a new book; published in 1993 it has been a standard for Appalachian studies, social movements and political science courses for more than a decade.

Although I had read most of the essays when the book was published, I had not picked it up in the intervening 15 years. So re-reading the articles with my students has been a little like seeing them for the first time. However, I am seeing them with new eyes, with 15 years more experience of participation in grassroots organizations, and suddenly I'm not sure I like what I see.

Three grassroots organizations highlighted in part I of the book are Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) of Tennessee, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and the Community Farm Alliance (CFA)of Kentucky. SOCM was started in 1972 to deal with coal mining, especially strip-mining, issues in five Tennessee counties. KFTC began in 1981 as a response to unfair tax exemptions for large mineral owners in eastern Kentucky, and the abuses of the broad form deed by strip-mining. The CFA emerged in 1985 during a period of crisis in American agriculture to address the regionally specific agricultural problems of small farmers in Kentucky.

Reading this articles back to back in a short period of time, I was struck by the similar pattern that all three followed. Each of these grassroots organizations appeared as the result of intense concerns over clearly defined issues. Early members were strongly motivated by issues, and active in pursuing specific changes in laws and economic practices within their region.

Each of these organizations had at least one significant win early in their existence. Save Our Cumberland Mountains in its first decade successfully stopped one of the largest strip-mines every proposed (20,000 acres) by AMAX, Inc., which, had it gone forward would have dramatically increased the power of coal companies to circumvent water quality laws and destroyed water supplies for many in the area. SOCM may not have been successful at its overarching goal of ending strip-mining altogether, but the organization had a number of significant victories.

In its first decade, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was successful in seeing an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution stopping the use by strip miners of broad form deeds to rob landowners of surface rights, pushed through legislation to give local control over decisions on hazardous waste incinerators, and stopped the exemption of wealthy mineral owners from property taxation.

The Community Farm Alliance was highly successful in getting issues specific to Kentucky farmers passed through Congress even though other farming issues did not fare as well in the 1986 farm policy legislation. Moreover, by 1990, the CFA was able to win a legislative victory in Kentucky for a new state lending program that would solve many of Kentucky farmers credit issues.

Despite substantial issue centered successes by all three organizations, each organization after its first decade shifted away from issue orientation to focus on community organizing and leadership training and education. Each of these three organizations, in order to continue to exist as organization turned their focus to recruitment, to building a funding base (from donations and grants), and to "empowerment" of their local constituencies.

The writers of the articles in Fighting Back all highlight this shift to community organizing and leadership development as a positive step in the evolution of more permanent grassroots organizations. Hal Hamilton and Ellen Ryan write (about the Community Farm Alliance) that:
"Community organizing is sometimes criticized as parochial because issue objectives are often achievable without fundamentally changing power relations. This criticism rings true if our view of social change is revolutionary or apocalyptic. Lasting change in power relations, however can occur incrementally. Probably the most important contribution of organizations like CFA is the nurturing of new leaders with experience, vision and important group of people emerge from these campaigns with a vision of democracy that extends from local communities to the world economy."
But as I read these essays, and I reflect on the record of these organizations (through their websites and my own participation in KFTC), I find myself questioning the evaluation of the writers. I can see ways that conditions in the mountains have improved (e.g., levels of poverty in Appalachia are substantially lower today than they were 40 years ago which has far more to do with national economic change than grassroots organizing), but I can also see even more ways in which conditions targeted by some of these groups are many times worse than they were forty years ago. Strip-mining is an excellent example, although laws regarding reclamation are far stricter than they were, the sheer volume and destructiveness of strip-mining (via mountain top removal) are far greater, and federal and state controls over water quality impacts of strip-mining have gotten loser rather than tighter.

It does not appear to me that the last two decades of "leadership" training has had any real impact on the leadership in Appalachia. The experiences often do enhance the feelings of self-worth and confidence of the individuals involved, but those individuals have not, in any numbers moved into community, state or regional leadership positions. The political establishments in eastern Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Tennessee seem to be little effected by the efforts of these grassroots organizations.

As I re-examine the history of these organizations, I can see that by shifting their focus to community organizing and leadership development they have been able to attract funding from large foundations; donations that in all likelihood would be less likely to flow to more militant issue oriented organizations. These three organizations have been successful in surviving where many others have disappeared, and have had some small input into the decision-making processes in their state and local governments. But have they exchanged genuine power for the semblance of leadership?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

norms on speaking up

Friday was our monthly faculty meeting. Since we have five campuses spread over 100 miles, most of our meetings are held via Interactive Television (or compressed two way video). The faculty gather on each campus in a common room, and can view speakers (and the folks around them) on the other campuses. Unless a microphone is turned on, any conversation that happens on a campus cannot be heard elsewhere.

This Friday something happened that has happened many times before. A faculty member on another campus made a proposal that did not sit well at all with anyone in the room around me. An immediate buzz of complaints and criticism took over the room. Several people said, "someone should tell them" but no one made a move to touch one of the microphones and report their concerns. In the meantime, several other individuals (all male) from other campuses, did activate their microphones and speak on behalf of the proposal. The volume of complaint around me increased. While I personally had no problem with the proposal, I could see that it would not be successful with such a high level of negative feeling from my local colleagues. Finally, since none of the people around me with the complaints did anything, I punched my microphone and informed the chair that our campus was unanimous in opposing the proposal. A few other people, from other campuses, then chimed in with their doubts, and the proposal was withdrawn.

Many times over the years that we have conducted our meetings through Interactive Television, there have been issues and proposals that have raised the ire and criticism of the faculty on my campus. Not once in all those years has any one, aside from myself, ever pressed the microphone button and expressed their concerns. If the issue is not one I share or wish to ally with, then the opposition of faculty on my campus is not expressed. Instead, they continue to grumble to each other, but never speak up, never take an action to oppose something. Indeed, no one on my campus, willingly speaks in the meeting unless they have a specific committee assignment on which they are required to report. I am the only one who will simply ask questions or offer opinions. The faculty on other campuses, with the exception of three others (all men), are the same, only those with official roles to play (heads of programs, elected officers, deans, etc.) will speak, make comments and ask questions.

This particular Friday, several people thanked me for speaking up and expressing our view. But more often, the comments and questions by those few of us who do speak up, are resented rather than appreciated. Two of the three men who speak up frequently are considered annoying trouble makers. My guess is that I may well have developed that reputation as well.

I am left to wonder to what extent this norm against speaking up in meetings, and asking questions of the authority figures, is a function of regional subculture (central Appalachia) and to what extent is it a function of working class subculture (since nearly all of the community college faculty I work with are from working class families). Sociologists Sennett and Cobb in their seminal work The Hidden Injuries of Class recorded similar behavior among grade school students in working class Boston and Pennsylvania. But I did not see the same behavior in the working-class originating faculty of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, when I taught there in the 1980's. Perhaps this is not an "either/or" situation, but a combination of both regional and social class subculture.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

solving the fiscal crisis in Kentucky

Kentucky, like 44 other states, is facing a fiscal crisis. Revenue coming from taxes and fees is not enough to cover budgeted expenditures. By law Kentucky cannot do what most people do when faced with this situation which is borrow money. While this is probably a good thing, it means that Kentucky’s legislators have only two choices: cut spending or increase revenue.

Not every penny spent by Kentucky's state government is essential. Governments are run by people, and people sometimes spend money on things we don’t absolutely need. When’s the last time you bought a candy bar or a soda? We all buy things we want that aren't really necessary -- sometimes things that are even bad for us. But state governments -- Kentucky's included -- like us, spends most of its money on essentials, and budget cuts would hurt the essentials.

One of those essentials is education which accounts for nearly forty percent of total Kentucky state spending. Kentucky lags behind much of the U.S. in many areas of education already. In 2004, while less than 15 percent of people over 25 in the country as a whole had not graduated from high school (or gotten a GED), more than 18 percent in Kentucky has failed to attain that important milestone. The gap in college attendance is even greater. In the U.S. as a whole about 28 percent received bachelors degrees or higher, while in Kentucky only 21 percent had done so. Education is clearly not an area that can tolerate cuts if Kentucky wants to compete with other states and other countries for businesses and jobs.

Another essential area is transportation that commands nine percent of the annual budget in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This has to cover all aspects of transportation from road, bridge and airport construction to maintenance and repair and snow removal. Most people would certainly consider the criminal justice system -- law enforcement, courts, prisons and probation to be essential expenditures, another five percent of the total budget.

Most people are aware of the role of state governments in education, transportation and criminal justice, but they often unaware of other essential expenditures. Another kind of essential is the state funds given to communities for water and sewer, equipment and training for fire and rescue, flood control and stream improvement, water safety testing, and infectious disease control. If residents of Kentucky were to go to their local fiscal court, town or city council, and ask, I'm sure they'd learn that their local governments depend heavily on funds from Frankfort to provide services and infrastructure necessary for safety, security and health in local communities.

Most people often do not think about the fact that state funded licensing boards to insure the quality of service people we depend upon daily – doctors, nurses, dentists, counselors, barbers, hairdressers, pharmacists, engineers and many others. The news stories about salmonella in peanut butter illustrate what can go wrong when a state (in this case Georgia) does not spend enough on adequate safety testing and enforcement of food safety standards.

The real solution to the crisis is to raise revenues, by raising taxes. In the short run this probably means raising taxes on tobacco products. Kentucky under taxes cigarettes compared to most of the states surrounding it. The increased cost would not only raise revenue, but would encourage more people to quit. But it is a tax that hits low income people harder than others. In the long run the overall structure of taxes in Kentucky needs to be modernized. More tax money has to come from those with the ability to pay more, both in taxes on luxury and business services, reinstating the inheritance tax, and more progressive income tax that raises, slightly, the percentage paid by those with the highest incomes, such as proposed in both Kentucky HB 223 and HB 257.

Currently, Kentucky income tax is essentially a flat tax of 6 percent on all incomes over $8,000. HB223 proposes that individuals (NOT families) with incomes over $75,000 pay an extra 1% (7% instead of 6%) only on the proportion of income that exceeds $75,000 up to $90,000, and individuals with incomes in excess of $90,000 pay an extra 2% (8% instead of 6%) only on the portion of income that exceeds $90,000. In Kentucky all earners pay tax individually even if married -- married couples file separately but on the same tax form. This bill would NOT affect families with incomes of more than $75,000 as long as each individual person's income was less than $75,000. Indeed, families with two earners each making $74,000 (a family income of $150,000) would not be affected by this bill. An individual with an income of $100,000 would pay an extra 1% on the $15,000 between $75,000 and $90,000 (that's an extra $150 dollars), and an extra 2% on the $10,000 between $90,000 and $100,000 (that's an extra $200 for a total of $350 dollars more than they would be paying under the current tax system).

This does not seem like an unreasonable cost given all the benefits and services that we all gain from state government. When people think about who benefits from state spending they almost exclusively focus on the poor. But affluent people benefit as much or more from government spending. Affluent people travel more making more use of highways and especially airports, they make more use of libraries and parks, more likely to go boating on Kentucky lakes. Even if the affluent do not make direct use of public schools, colleges and universities (although a high percentage do), if they are business owners or managers their success in business depends upon subordinates and workers educated in public schools.

The irony is that even the benefits that people identify as "going" to poor people, actually go to middle class and affluent people. Take Medicaid. Poor people do benefit from having a medical card. They receive medical services and medicines that can save their life and keep them healthy. But the poor do not get any money from Medicaid -- the money goes to hospitals, doctors, home health companies, and pharmaceutical companies -- in other words to middle class, affluent and even to rich people (stockholders and executives in medical and pharmaceutical corporations). The majority of money spent on social services doesn't go to poor people, it goes to middle class social workers, therapists, psychologists and other people with graduate educations. It pays the fees, their salaries and their health insurance and pension payments of these middle class workers.

The more affluent you are the more your lifestyle and your economic position depends upon publicly funded resources. So what not pay a (very) small premium for those benefits?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

smoking up the joint -- part 2

Recently I had the opportunity to have lunch with the faculty of two of our allied health programs -- Respiratory Therapy and Radiography. I mentioned how nice it would be if we could find some one to provide funding for a "stop smoking" program for the students in these programs.

The faculty agreed that it would be desirable for students to quit, but that stop smoking programs had been made available in the past with no success. One program a few years ago, not only provided all the services for free, but also offered to pay the students a substantial stipend for completing the program (not for stopping smoking, but just for completing the entire program). Not one of the students to whom this opportunity was offered were willing to participate. As my husband likes to say "it reeked of effort," and they weren't willing to put forth the effort.

There was a news story this week about more than a 1,000 people standing in line to apply for 35 jobs as firefighters in the Miami, Florida area, included the interesting tidbit, that initial screening would weed out all applicants who did not have the minimum education (high school diploma), were not residents within the appropriate municipal area, and who were smokers -- only non-smokers would be considered for hiring. This is the wave of the future. Perhaps as tobacco becomes less and less important as a crop in Kentucky (the current trend is downward), fiscal conservatism will triumph and see smokers as the drain on employers that they are.