Michelle Wilde Anderson is a professor of law at Stanford University, where she writes, researches, and teaches courses on the degradation of local governments, environments, and economics. Focused on high-poverty communities in the U.S., her recent book The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America is a study of disinvestment in Stockton, California; Josephine County, Oregon; Lawrence, Massachusetts; and Detroit, Michigan.

Enjoy our conversation about the painful dualities of depleted local governments, resident-centered governance in aging localities, and the attempt to integrate urban and rural social problems into one history, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What got you interested in “discarded America” and its city-wide poverty? How did you become convinced that this was an important lens through which to view American social problems? Was that an entirely academic or a more personal development?

Michelle Wilde Anderson, author of The Fight to Save the Town: Reimagining Discarded America. (Photo via Stanford Law School.)

Michelle Wilde Anderson: I have deep family roots in rural California and I started my career working on rural issues in the interior of California and throughout the West and the South in general. And when you work on local governments and poverty and rural America, as your readers know, you’re in a world of really weak governments, governments that just don’t provide many services to their communities. So for the first eight or so years of my work I was really focused on that problem, on how you get water and sanitation and 911 services to areas that are rural and poor.

And then the Great Recession showed up and a whole wave of governments in bigger cities started to go broke, too. We had the biggest wave of municipal bankruptcies and receiverships, since the Great Depression. So I started to think about weak governments as an urban problem too, and what it meant to have just absentee local governments in big cities. So that is basically the trajectory of my work. I really think of myself as a researcher on weak local governments in the context of poverty, whether urban or rural.

Some of my earliest research was focused on the San Joaquin Valley in California, which is the poorest region in the country outside of Appalachia, or sometimes the poorest region of the country, period. In that region, we have a lot of farmworker towns and settlements that are pretty dense. I mean, people don’t have a lot of private property space around their trailers or their homes, but they also don’t have basic public services. So a lot of that work early on was really about water and basic sanitary services. After that, I pretty quickly got linked up with similar kinds of communities in North Carolina, and across the Black south, where there’s a lot of very low-income, relatively higher density neighborhoods and communities that are just off the grid of local government services. Those communities, because of their density, can’t do things like DIY wastewater disposal or DIY septic systems because people don’t have enough land. It’s a different problem than rural people with big plots of land. When you’re in a denser community, but without a lot of space, you can’t just DIY all your basic infrastructure.

DY: So you’re talking about near-urban density levels with the level of public infrastructure that we might expect to find in rural places?

MWA: Yeah, urban or suburban. Just smaller lots, whether it’s a trailer park or a little home subdivision or just a little town. My work can quickly get into things like soil type. If you’re not dealing with big municipal infrastructure you have to adapt to the condition of beds. So, you know, some soil can take septics or has enough land to process wastewater in that way and some just can’t. Similarly, if you’ve got to produce water off your own land, then your groundwater supplies determine whether you have water at all and obviously in lots of the West and in lots of the South people just don’t have access to groundwater or their groundwater supply is polluted or their groundwater supply is too deep and the wells to reach it are too expensive. So once you privatize all this stuff, meaning once people have to kind of produce these basic services themselves, it creates really important challenges and public safety problems and environmental concerns. And that’s part of what keeps families poor across generations, because their land doesn’t appreciate in the same way that a property would appreciate in an area that has public investment in basic services.

And all of this is related to other public services that people take for granted. For instance, flood control infrastructure, sidewalks that keep kids off of the main streets, stop signs that keep busy intersections safe. In low-income rural areas in particular, those kinds of super basic measures can’t be taken for granted. Across the West and in the South with rising heat, there are lots of areas that really need street trees for shade, or open space with shade. A lot of urban areas take those basic components of infrastructure for granted. But those kinds of inequalities show up within cities, too. You can take for granted amazing library services in a city like Palo Alto, where I work. There’s state of the art Wi-Fi, electronic equipment, comfortable chairs, beautiful lighting, all kinds of books, school readiness programs, singing programs for kids.

DY: I thought another really important part of your book was the description of what those depleted local governments still do, how they remain present in people’s lives. Can you explain the somewhat counterintuitive way in which bare-bones public institutions make it their business to “punish, delay, and collect” from their constituents, and sow cynicism in the process?

MWA: Locally, in very high poverty areas, people still feel the presence of really strong versions of local government, for instance, if a local government is heavily allocating its budget toward policing, and then funding that budget with the fines and fees collected by police officers. Some local governments adapt to the weakness in their tax base by pouring their budgets into their police departments and then deploying those police departments for Civil Code Enforcement and to generate ticket fees and fines. So people can become quite antagonistic with local police officers, and afraid of them. This was the problem that was exposed nationwide through the protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown was killed by police. So that’s one piece of the answer, is that your local government itself might be taking money out of your pocket constantly in ways that families really can’t afford.

There’s another dynamic, too, which is that in areas with a lot of poverty and weak local governments, the state and the federal government can be quite present in people’s lives in lots of different forms. It could be because the state funds the court system that processes evictions, which makes people feel like government is alive and well. Or people can feel the presence of the state because the state funds incarceration, or through environmental law, labor law, or international trade policy that people understand to be costing them local jobs or driving down the value of their labor.

One other big category to bring into this discussion is immigration. The federal government is charged with immigration enforcement and in many rural areas with people that have marginal immigration status or undocumented status, or families with mixed status, they can feel the presence and the power of the government in ways that risk separating family members from each other, and separating children from their parents. So the government can be really powerful in ways that make it expensive to be poor or make it dangerous to be poor, and also be weak at reinvesting in people and their properties and their quality of life. And that’s what I worry about most, is a government that is both weak and strong – weak in the ways that can help break intergenerational cycles of poverty, but strong in ways that reinforce those cycles of intergenerational poverty.

One last thing I should mention is that low-income families often really feel the presence of Child Protective Services and the courts. That work can be really important for keeping kids safe in the context of addiction or keeping kids safe in the context of abuse and neglect, so it’s not to say that it’s bad, but it does separate families. And I fear that we have developed a version of Child Protective Services that emphasizes punishing parents rather than really supporting families to stay together and succeed. So again, it’s a bad combination of government that’s weak in investing in people and their families and their loved ones, but strong in separating kids from their parents, which we know to be a very traumatic experience for children. So, again, we have these big government systems that are just really dominant in people’s lives and yet they may not be making people’s lives better.

DY: Yeah, I really appreciated that point in the book. The fact that, even in places where local governments no longer provide basic services, it’s not like they make up some kind of libertarian Utopia. That leads to another question that I had for you, which is about your positive vision for local government. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about “resident-centered governance” and what you mean by that term.

MWA: So that’s a way of thinking about local governments that asks them to really look around in their communities and solve problems of their existing residents first. And that sounds super obvious, but actually, I think many local governments don’t do that. They really focus on delivering benefits to outsiders because they feel like they have to. So for instance, local governments will feel under tremendous pressure to really focus on real estate development or focus on cutting deals and incentive packages for employers outside their city. Those deals rarely pencil out for a local government, and they very rarely pencil out for residents. But local officials feel under a lot of pressure to kind of cut a ribbon on a new set of jobs or cut a ribbon on some kind of new downtown investments or construction or whatever. But a lot of the benefits of those things flow outside of town. By contrast, resident-centered government like I talked about in the book really focuses on how you invest in your residents’ skills, so that they have more marketable job chances in town and elsewhere. That kind of development ultimately makes a city or county more competitive to attract jobs. Because in this economy, local areas really can’t bring in competitive employment unless they show that their workforce has the skill levels to match that kind of employment. So when you invest in your people, you give them the ability to stay in town or to leave and go somewhere else for a job but you reinforce the competitiveness of your communities so that people who want to be near their families and near heritage land can do that and still earn a living.

So that’s an example in the context of job markets, but another example to think about is this historic drug crisis that we’re in. We can police our way through that by arresting dealers and waiting for them to be replaced by other dealers and punishing users for acts of theft or aggression when they’re under the influence. But, you know, really what local officials want — what they have called for and what they need support to do — is to really invest in treatment and really invest in holding families together in spite of addiction. That would be another example of really focusing on who already lives in your town, rather than trying to gentrify it or giving money to outsiders to drop a few nickels into the local economy.

Cover art for Michelle Wilde Anderson’s The Fight to Save the Town. (Image via Simon & Schuster)

DY: I’m curious about, in places with older or aging populations, what those resident-centered governance strategies look like.

MWA: Aging populations often require major health care services. And that kind of workforce requires a certain amount of housing, typically higher density housing or housing that just one way or another is more affordable. And it requires people to feel welcome in a new community. And that can be a real opportunity for a rural area to develop housing strategies, land use strategies, and really express and cultivate a welcome mat for caregivers and healthcare work. One of the problems I think in some rural areas, not all but some rural areas, is that they don’t communicate their openness to increased levels of racial diversity. So communities that are mostly white and rural and low-income or mostly white and Black and rural and low-income but not multiethnic can feel like hostile places for the workforce in eldercare to enter. That workforce is super diverse. It’s just a fact of who has shown up for that caregiving work, so I think cultivating that multiracial welcome mat is essential to providing the kinds of health services that aging rural areas will need. And it’s a win-win because rural places live with amazing histories and a lot of community and mutual aid and patterns of family and loyalty and heritage. They can be amazing communities and they don’t need to die out with aging generations. They can be replenished by younger people coming back and being the next generation of that population.

DY: At the Daily Yonder, we give a lot of airtime to specifically rural issues, and pundits across the land love to construct a zero-sum relationship between rural and urban social problems. But I think your book really beautifully links rural and urban disinvestment, and offers a way of imagining economic justice that brings really different kinds of people together from really different kinds of places. What exactly is your view on how the fates of de-industrialized rural and urban places intersect, and how do you think people should try to connect across that distance?

MWA: So in my book, as you know, I wrote about four places that I very deliberately chose to represent urban areas and rural areas. I wanted it to hold conservative areas and Democratic areas and also purple places. I wanted it to hold communities that are primarily Black or white or Latino, and also places that are multiracial. I wanted these places to be held all in one book, because I think sometimes we blame poverty on any given one of these categories. So in the context of urban and rural, what I mean is that we have this tendency to say a place is poor, because it’s rural and being mismanaged or a place is poor because it’s a zone of irresponsible urban governance. We have a lot of stereotypes and myths related to local corruption and mismanagement and where that happens, but my experience is that corruption and true mismanagement are important parts of the problem in all kinds of local governments. That can be an urban or rural problem, but we dramatically overstate the degree to which these categories are causing intergenerational poverty. Instead, I want us to recognize that urban and rural areas are facing so many of the same giant challenges. And in some cases, they have to be understood together to understand that they are often rooted in the problem of city-wide poverty and weak tax bases and weak social services. So when I think about what is needed or government that focuses on its people, that project is an urban project and a rural project at the same time. So that’s the last thing I wanted to say is that I really wanted to write a book that would force the stories that we tell about mismanagement in Detroit to share space with the stories that get told about destructive self governance in Southern Oregon, a rural area.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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