Overview of Lisa Pruitt’s Recent Work on Geography, Poverty and Equality

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Professor Lisa R. Pruitt (UC Davis) has published two articles that study poverty and its consequences in relation to place. In particular, she brings together the socio-geographic concept of spatial inequality (adding "where?" to the core sociological inquiry "who gets what?") with constitutional conceptions of (in)equality. Pruitt shows that heavy reliance on local tax revenue to finance public services, including constitutionally mandated ones such as indigent defense, leave residents of counties with high poverty rates poorly served by the State. Nonmetropolitan counties, which are relatively undeveloped by definition, face particular service delivery challenges due not only to their typically inferior tax bases, but also because of their spatially dispersed populations and inability to achieve economies of scale.

Here is the author’s description of the articles:

The first article, Justice Deserts: Spatial Inequality and Local Funding of Indigent Defense, was written for the Arizona Law Review’s symposium on "Funding Justice." This article, co-authored with Beth Colgan of Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, analyzes variations in the funding and provision of indigent defense services in light of the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the Equal Protection clause. The article compares and contrasts funding and delivery of this service in five Arizona counties, from metropolitan behemoth Maricopa to the state’s most rural jurisdictions. 

The second article, Spatial Inequality as Constitutional infirmity: Equal Protection, Child Poverty and Place, considers dramatic county-to-county variations in the provision of health and human services in light of the Montana Constitution’s dignity and equal protection clauses. It was published in the Montana Law Review’s symposium on "Rural Law," and it focuses on children as a particularly vulnerable and immobile population who, like indigent defendants, have no choice about where they receive services. 

Both articles are empirical in that they examine fiscal and service provision data from specific counties in particular states to illustrate the gross disparities in service provision among counties and to show how county boundaries become arbitrary lines that dictate the type and sophistication of public services delivered. When States do not re-distribute tax revenue, the fiscal capacity of a local government is limited by its residents’ per capita income, and Pruitt illustrates this dramatically in the contexts of both Montana and Arizona, which are both unevenly developed to varying degrees. Counties with affluent residents and significant property tax bases have large public coffers, while counties with poor residents and poor tax bases deliver inferior services to their residents. Thus, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.

Pruitt’s work seeks to revive legal consideration of spatial variations in provision of government services, a concern that waned following the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent Schools v. Rodriguez. Her new angles on this issue are considering spatial inequality with respect to a right enumerated in the U.S. Constitution (the Sixth Amendment right to counsel) and relying not the federal constitution but on a state constitution to protect the interests of the poor.

Pruitt adds to an analysis of "inequality" a level of nuance that is otherwise lacking in traditional approaches.  I recommend both of these articles!

-Bridget Crawford

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