Saturday, March 24, 2018

Rural health clinics claim opioid makers and distributors 'created and engineered' epidemic, seek class action

"Two rural Kentucky health clinics are trying to open a new front in the legal battle against drug companies that allegedly used improper tactics to fan an epidemic of addiction to powerful painkillers called opioids," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Two rural health clinics have filed a federal lawsuit against several drug companies, claiming the firms “created and engineered” the opioid epidemic, causing the clinics to incur past and future costs for treating addicts which they won't otherwise be compensat

The complaint by Family Practice Clinic of Booneville Inc., and Family Health Care Clinic PSC of Richmond claims that the firms “created and engineered” the epidemic, and “aggressively advertised to and persuaded practitioners to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, and turned patients into drug addicts or dependents for their own corporate profit.” The defendants are more than 20 defendant pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors, some of which "are subsidiaries of others in the complaint," Estep reports.

"There are hundreds of such cases pending around the country," but this is the first by rural health clinics, David J. Guarnieri of Lexington, one of the attorneys who filed it, told Estep. The suit seeks unspecified damages and asks that it be made a class action on behalf of more than 4,100 rural health clinics, including 745 in Appalachian areas of Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee.

"The lawsuit argues that drug makers used false and misleading claims to push their products, such as  down-playing the risk of addiction; claiming that it is easy to manage opioid dependence and withdrawal; and denying risks from using higher doses of the drugs," Estep reports. "It also alleges the companies targeted vulnerable patient populations, including people served by rural health clinics in Appalachia. There is a high prevalence of “societal risk factors which contribute to an increased and widespread abuse of opioids” in the region, the lawsuit says, including lower income; lower educational attainment; depression; a higher portion of jobs prone to injuries; and poor health status."

The suit claims distributors of the drugs failed "to stop suspiciously large shipments of painkillers and by not reporting red flags about possible diversion of prescription pills to the government as required," Estep reports. It says addiction to opioids "drives up costs for rural health clinics, not just for providing treatment but for added needs such as regulatory compliance and security; lost employee productivity; and having to kick out patients for abusing or diverting prescribed drugs."

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Friday, March 23, 2018

County-level interactive map shows rural population increasing, after declining in each of the last six years

County population change, 2016 to 2017. (Stateline map; click the image to enlarge it or view the interactive version here.)
After six years of decline, the population in some rural areas is starting to grow again while growth in large cities slows down, according to newly released data from the Bureau of the Census.

"Rural areas, defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as counties outside cities and their suburbs, gained population between 2016 and 2017 for the first time since 2010. They grew by about 33,000 residents nationwide, after losing more than 15,000 residents the year before," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline.

Heavily agricultural areas are growing; they tend to have fewer jobs available, but may attract people looking for a cheaper place to live or retire. One exception: the Mississippi Delta, which continued to lose population. So did the Central Appalachian coalfield, hurt badly by the industry's swoon. Most counties in Wyoming, the nation's top coal-producing state, lost population.

Rural areas with manufacturing jobs are growing, mainly in counties with a town of at least 10,000 people, according to senior demographer Kenneth Johnson of the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, who published a paper analyzing the census data. Counties with towns from 10,000 to 50,000 are classified as "micropolitan."

"This seems to be the beginning of a return to population dispersal after a decade or so of clustering into cities and the biggest metropolitan areas," Brookings Institution demographer William Frey told Henderson. "Steady improvement in the economy and recovering housing markets may be prompting employers and job seekers to look again at areas that were growing before the Great Recession — suburbs, exurbs and small towns."

Rural teens define the American dream and civic courage

Teen delegates discussed the meaning of the American Dream.
(Photo by Shawn Poynter, Center for Rural Strategies)
Twenty rural teens from around the country gathered in Arlington, Va., last weekend for a three-day meeting to discuss common issues before joining YouthBuild USA's 30th annual Conference of Young Leaders. YouthBuild is a nonprofit organization that provides training and leadership opportunities to low-income teens all over the U.S.

"If members of the YouthBuild Rural Youth Caucus are any indication, the nation’s young people define the American dream in economic terms first before moving on to more abstract concepts like freedom and opportunity," Dale Mackey reports for The Daily Yonder. "And while economic stability is a big concern, the ideal of civic courage is very much alive, as well."

One session discussed "civic courage," the theme of the National Rural Assembly, a gathering of more than 500 local, regional and national organizations dedicated to improving rural America. The teens will participate in the Assembly, which takes place May 21-23 in Durham, N.C. The group created a definition: "Civic courage looks like persistent, dedicated, and determined people showing up and speaking up for themselves and for those in their communities who cannot speak. Courage looks like vulnerable acts, like overcoming anxiety to become connectors and bridge-builders. We all have it within us to be courageous for our communities."

Assembly coordinator Whitney Kimball Coe "guided the delegates through a discussion about the expectations and shortcomings of the American dream. To prime the conversation, she used Langston Hughes’ 'Let America Be America Again,' the 1935 poem that gives a sharp critique of the nation’s fairness while offering hope that the U.S. can live up to its ideals," Mackey reports.

The teens defined the American dream in terms of freedom, opportunity, independence, and economic stability, such as a living wage and disposable income. They didn't mention democracy, free speech or the pursuit of happiness. Some delegates said that the U.S. struggles with equality in every sense, but said they feel optimistic about America's future.

"I think for a lot of people, they have this vivid dream of what America is, and it turns out to be nothing like it," said John Stubbs from Enid, Okla. "They’re wanting it to be how everybody dreams it, but it can be filled with discrimination."

Small but potent 'vaping' devices that look like USB drives become highly popular with young smokers and 'vapers'

Smoke-shop manager Cathleen McCarthy demonstrates
the device. (Photo by Suzanne Kreiter, The Boston Globe)
The latest trend in "vaping," inhaling vapor with nicotine, flavoring and who knows what else, is a small, rectangular device that looks enough like a USB drive or another electronic device that students can bring it to school and circumvent bans on smoking and vaping materials.

The device is branded JUUL, but the basis of the acronym (if it is one) is unknown. The Boston Globe called it "Juul" in a November story that called it "the most widespread phenomenon you've likely never heard of."

Though the device is small, its nicotine is much more concentrated than in typical vaping device, so "One puff is powerful," Carly Jensen of KOLN/KGIN-TV in Lincoln, Neb., reported this week. "Teachers are being warned to watch out for the dangers of the new device."

The devices have quickly become highly popular. A smoke-shop operator told Jensen, "In the past six months this thing has just been flying off the shelves." Beth Teitell of the Globe reported, "A psychologist who sees patients in Boston’s upscale western suburbs told the Globe that every teen he treats now uses a Juul. . . . Every student approached by a Globe reporter in multiple suburbs not only was familiar with the product, but had a story."

Conferences promote empowerment for female farmers

Caroline Pam, co-owner of Rhode Island's Kitchen Garden
Farm, with her award-winning sriracha. (USDA photo)
Women have always worked hard on family farms, but not all have called themselves farmers. Instead, they may have called themselves farm wives or said they do the bookkeeping or handle the house. But that's changing these days, and women are becoming more willing to step out of the background, Lou Wilin reports for The Courier in Findlay, Ohio.

"One of the big shifts that has taken place is women are self-identifying as farmers, which is different from what they have done in the past," Iowa State University associate sociology professor Carmen Bain told Wilin. "Women are more comfortable today being defined as farmers."

Women have "new ideas and a fresh outlook," and may be a key part of the future of agriculture, writes George Krivda, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development director for Southern New England: "It’s no secret that the average farmer is aging out of the industry. There is an ever-increasing number of farms and farmers with no succession plan and no one to take over after they’re gone. These farms and these farmers represent a way of life that is in decline. They represent rural communities that are struggling to survive." The increasing number of young women entering agriculture is not just a much-needed infusion of new farmers, but because many come from non-traditional backgrounds like finance, marketing and science, they're bringing a new way of doing business, Krivda writes.

Regional, state and national conferences for farming women are promoting that empowerment; the theme for this year's Iowa Women in Agriculture conference, for example, is "The Power of You."

And at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's 2018 Women in Agriculture conference in February, keynote speaker Ann Finkner of Farm Credit Services of America encouraged female farmers with a tongue-in-cheek reference to the feminist group National Organization for Women: "Focus on NOW, which stands for 'No Opportunity Wasted,' . . . Never stop learning . . . No car runs without gas. No bank account can have a withdrawal if it’s empty. So recognize you’re responsible for your life, and understand you are your own change agent," Katy Moore writes for the Midwest Messenger in Tekamah, Neb.

Click here for a list of state, regional and national conferences for women in agriculture.

Quick hits: dying at home in rural Texas; learn about MAT; how to talk to political opposites; origin of the word 'redneck'

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Shawn Jordan, 43, is dying, and he wants to spend the time he has left with his family in rural Texas. But getting home hospice care when you live in a rural area can be difficult because "the long distances and often empty miles mean long hours for nurses, arduous trips to the hospital, and extra work for caregivers who have to learn basic medical care," Megha Satyanarayana reports for Stat, the national health and science website of The Boston Globe.

Medication-assisted therapy is the gold standard for treating opioid addiction, but what is it? The Rural Health Information Hub has an article with plenty of resources to help you better understand the science behind MAT.

With Easter dinner coming up, Donna Kallner with The Daily Yonder has some suggestions for how to foster polite discussion among family members across the political spectrum. Read more here.

West Virginia Public Radio has a fascinating discussion about the history of the state's labor movement--including where the word "redneck" comes from. Read more here.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Spending bill would fix 'grain glitch,' fund wildfire fighting, clear gun-violence research, help gun-purchase checks, etc.

In what Dino Grandoni of The Washington Post calls a "swing and a miss" for the White House, the spending bill awaiting passage in Congress mostly preserves the environmental and clean-energy programs the Trump administration said it wanted to cut. The bill also would fix the so-called grain glitch, which threatens to distort grain markets by giving special advantage to cooperatives; clarify that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can do gun-violence research (which it abandoned in 1996 after Congress said it couldn't “advocate or promote gun control”); strengthen background checks for gun purchases by penalizing agencies that don't report records; and greenlight almost $3 billion in funding to fight the opioid epidemic, Sylvan Lane reports for The Hill.

Democrats blocked riders that would have permanently rescinded the "waters of the United States" definition written to keep farm runoff and other pollution from going into streams, prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing Obama-era methane rules, and taken gray wolves in Wyoming and near the Great Lakes from the endangered-species list, Grandoni reports. The bill would also fill the gap in funding of fighting wildfires, the Eugene Register-Guard reports.

The National Park Service will get a $150 million funding increase to help address its $11.6 billion maintenance backlog. The bill also boosts EPA appropriations for cleaning up Superfund sites by $66 million. Though overall funding for the EPA's regulatory programs was reduced $23.5 million, the bill fully funds the agency's state and regional grants. It also denied EPA the funding to execute a large-scale buyout of its staff, including scientists.

"Energy programs within the Energy Department will get a $1.6 billion boost to a total of $12.9 billion in funding. Congress will increase funding for the department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, an energy technology nursery that the department's head Rick Perry called 'impressive' and 'simply a preview of our possibilities' last week, by $47 million for a total of $353 million. For two years in a row, the White House had called for eliminating the agency," Grandoni reports. "Another part of the department targeted by Trump for heavy cuts, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, received $2.3 billion, or about a 14 percent increase in funding from current levels. The Trump administration wanted to cut funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs by nearly three-fourths."

Trump got a small win on the border wall: "The bill is expected to include $641 million for 33 miles of new border fencing, and $1.296 billion in funding new border technology such as levees and fences, not a concrete wall. Trump hoped to win $25 billion in money that could be put in a trust for the wall," Lane reports.

The bill was generally supported by moderate Republicans and Democrats, but fiscal hawks rebelled. Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said the bill was a "Great Dane-size whiz down the leg of every taxpayer in America." One senator could delay consideration of the bill tomorrow, the deadline to avoid another government shutdown. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., did that last time, and has called the current bill wasteful. If there is an objection to immediate action in the Senate, Congress could pass a stopgap resolution to prevent a shutdown for a few days.

Did nonwhite rural voters in 2016 vote more like rural voters or nonwhite voters? County-level graphs say the latter

Washington Post graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
In an interview about his new book The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, which we reported on, author Robert Wuthnow commented that rural America is about 10 percent nonwhite, and that percentage is increasing as more Hispanics and immigrants settled in rural areas.

That led Philip Bump pf The Washington Post to examine whether nonwhite rural residents tended to vote Republican, like most rural people, or Democratic, like most nonwhite people, in the 2016 presidential election. His reasoning, through which he guides us, is a fascinating feat of data wrangling. Click here to read more.

His conclusion? Nonwhite rural voters were far more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, as shown by the chart.

U.S., coal firms haven't set aside enough to reclaim mines

CHN graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
According to national data compiled and published for the first time yesterday, the coal industry may not have enough money set aside to clean up and reclaim abandoned mines, Mark Olalde reports for Climate Home News. "Mining companies and state governments hold just $9.2 billion nationwide to ensure mining land is reclaimed if operators go bust," Olalde reports. "Experts told CHN that amount falls far short of what is needed to rehabilitate more than two million acres of mining permits the system is supposed to cover. The data covers all 23 states that produce 99 percent of U.S. coal and about 5,000 mining permits. It was gathered from responses to dozens of records requests submitted to the state environmental and mining agencies in charge of each state’s program."

The shortage is most troublesome in Appalachia, where coal production has dropped 50 percent in the past decade. Indiana also looks dicey. It and some Appalachian states (Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia) only require companies to have a fraction of the cost of reclaiming their mines on hand because of a practice called "bond pooling," to which all the mining companies contribute to spread their risk. That might be enough to cover reclamation costs if only a few mines close without being reclaimed, but many have shuttered in recent years. If enough companies declare bankruptcy without adequate reclamation funds, taxpayers might have to foot the bill or risk dealing with the environmental and health hazards triggered by the untreated mines.

"In 2015-16, companies accounting for nearly half of the coal production in the U.S. went into some form of bankruptcy," Olalde reports. "They have since emerged from that nadir, but the massive, sudden collapse highlights the problem of sharing risk among companies that all produce the same atrophying commodity." Scott Simonton, coordinator of the environmental science program at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., told Olalde: "It just seems to be a very fragile system. That’s the problem. It’s a system that’s designed for small failures."

Interactive map shows county-level data on Appalachian opioid ODs, correlated with socioeconomic data

Screen grab from interactive map showing overdose rates with
the highest rates in dark blue (click on the image to enlarge it)

A new data visualization tool offers in-depth, county-by-county information about the impact of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia and how it relates to factors such as unemployment, poverty, education and disability.

The Appalachian Overdose Mapping Tool, developed by research organization NORC at the University of Chicago and the Appalachian Regional Commission, "integrates overdose mortality rates for each Appalachian county with data on unemployment, poverty, and disability, as well as other socioeconomic variables. Users can compare county-level information with regional and national data and see changes in the data between 2006–2010 and 2011–2015. The mapping tool can also generate fact sheets to assist in community planning and response efforts," ARC's Wendy Wasserman says in an ARC press release. A few of the correlations shown by the map include:
  • In Central Appalachia, counties with the highest rates of overdose are often the same counties with the highest rates of people on disability.
  • In Central Appalachia, the counties with the highest overdose rates are often the same counties with the lowest rates of educational attainment.
  • In Northern and Southern Appalachia, the highest overdose rates are in urban counties.
  • While Central Appalachia remains the most highly affected subregion of Appalachia, other subregions are experiencing increasing rates of overdose.

Denied federal funding, study on health effects of mountaintop-removal coal mining has been abandoned

"After Trump administration officials ordered a halt to a study on the health effects of mountaintop removal last fall, the study’s committee has been released, effectively terminating the project," Kate Mishkin reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

"The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s study would have looked at the health effects on residents who live near mountaintop removal coal-mining sites. It was put on hold when the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining announced that it was reviewing grants and agreements that would cost more than $100,000."

An Interior spokesperson did not answer any questions about why the study was terminated and whether it might be revived in the future. Riya Anandwala, a spokesperson for the National Academies, would not speculate on the reason for the study's termination, but told Mishkin it was "not unprecedented, but it's very rare."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Biologists fear Asian carp invasion of Southeastern rivers

Silver carp jump out of the Fox River in Illinois, presumably after an electric shock. But they often jump out
of the water on their own, posing danger to boaters. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Ryan Hagerty)
The battle to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes is well-known, but now one of the species, the silver carp, "a voracious, fast-moving and highly invasive species ravaging the Upper Mississippi River, has set its sights on the Tennessee, Cumberland, Yazoo and other Southern streams," Dan Chapman reports for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Another species, the black carp, is following in its tracks.

University of Alabama map shows waterways
of state, including Tennessee-Tombigbee canal
The carp pose the same risk there as they do in the Great Lakes: they eat the food normally eaten by native fish, starving them out. That could be a big problem for the ecosystem, as well as anglers and the recreational economy that depends on them.

The carp were imported to eat grass at fish farms in the Lower Mississippi River. They escaped and migrated upstream to the Illinois River and its tributaries, posing a threat to the Great Lakes via canals that leads to Lake Michigan. In the Southeast, the biggest concern is "in invasion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which allows passage to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico," Chapman reports. That would also put the carp in the Tombigbee River, a tributary of the Alabama, which has tributaries in northern Georgia.

State and federal biologists are tracking the carps' upstream push. FWS biologist Angie Rodgers told Chapman, "The Southeast is a hotspot of biodiversity, so we’re trying to prevent further declines in at-risk species. It’s a big threat . . . There’s not a magic bullet to get rid of them. It’s just a matter of working together to slow their movement and potential impact."

Communities worry that drug treatment centers attract crime

Communities can benefit from drug-treatment centers, but some residents are reluctant to allow them near their homes, another example of the "not in my back yard" syndrome. In Port Jervis, a town of about 8,000 just north of New York City, city officials recently denied plans to locate a new treatment facility, Cornerstone Family Healthcare, in an office building downtown, citing worries that it could be dangerous for nearby children.

Heroin is a big problem in the town, according to resident Anthony Cole, which is why a smaller-scale methadone clinic already exists in the building where the new treatment center was to operate. "Office manager Diana Hutchinson said the clinic had about 125 visits last week, and that if Cornerstone – a competitor – were allowed to set up shop in the building, it would be exactly what this ailing community needs," Ben Nandy reports for Spectrum News in Albany. Medication-assisted therapy is widely acknowledged to be the most effective way to treat opioid addiction.

The Cornerstone facility could accommodate more than 200 people. Other area Cornerstone facilities already treat and counsel about 450 addicts in surrounding Orange County, including 50 people from Port Jervis who regularly make the 40-mile trip to the nearest facility in Newburgh for treatment.

Wheaton, Illinois, a city of around 50,000 near Chicago, faced the same problem recently, in what John Keilman of the Chicago Tribune called "either NIMBY-ism at its worst or a sensible reaction to a poorly conceived plan," depending on whom you ask. Nearly 80 residents of DuPage County, where Wheaton is located, died from heroin overdoses in 2016. Haymarket Center wants to open a 16-bed residential and outpatient treatment center there, but the building it chose (which once housed medical offices) is near a strip mall, a movie theater, and a KinderCare daycare center. Neighbors say the facility is needed, but placing it at that site will increase crime and lower their property values.

"Nobody’s saying we don’t want it in Wheaton," Jeff Townsend, who lives nearby with his wife and five children, told Keilman. "It should be in the properly zoned area. That’s why you have zoning laws." The city council voted 4-0 against a zoning change that would have allowed the center, Bernie Tafoya reports for WBBM-FM. Haymarket CEO Dan Lustig says he is searching for other sites in the county, and said many of the people who spoke out against the center to the city council were incorrect in saying that Haymarket planned to bring in "criminals" and "people from Chicago."

Do drug treatment centers bring more crime to an area? Researchers from Johns Hopkins University attempted to answer the question in 2016, albeit with an urban setting. The researchers studied crime data in Baltimore correlated with the locations of drug treatment centers, liquor stores, chain convenience stores, and independently owned convenience stores. They found that crimes tend to cluster around any sort of public establishment, but liquor stores and mom-and-pop convenience stores attract significantly more crime than drug treatment centers. Read more about their study here.

USDA to host rural roundtables on STEM access, opioids

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture are hitting the road to better understand two rural issues: opioid misuse and access to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education.

The roundtables on rural opioid misuse began with one on March 14 in Pennsylvania, and will continue into the summer with the following schedule:
  • April 11 in Utah
  • May 9 in Kentucky
  • June 6 in Oklahoma
  • July 11 in Maine
The specifics for the upcoming roundtables are still being hammered out, but Anne Hazlett, Assistant to the Secretary for USDA Rural Development, said the chosen states had all seen a rise in overdose deaths in recent year, Julie Harker reports for Brownfield Ag News.

The regional listening sessions on the shortage of rural STEM access kicked off with a session on March 20 in Coalinga, California, and will continue as follows:
  • March 22 in Macon, Georgia, at Middle Georgia Regional Commission
  • April 3 in Champaign, Illinois and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • April 4 in Hudson, New York, at Columbia-Greene Community College

The listening sessions will discuss both the lack of access to STEM education in rural areas and discuss ways the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program can help address it.
If you are interested in attending a session, email

Smaller metro areas, which lag economically behind rural, could have most to lose from tariffs, liberal analysts say

President Trump defends his tariffs imported goods as a defense of "forgotten" American workers, but liberal columnist Greg Sargent of The Washington Post questions whether the president's actions will have the advertised effect. To start his argument, he uses from the Brookings Institution, shows that areas "that continue to capture and drive the largest share of the nation’s prosperity, amid the digital and information revolution, are the ones that, generally speaking, did not support Trump for president. The areas of the country that supported Trump overwhelmingly are the ones that continue to get left behind economically — even with Trump in office."

The data show that rural areas lag, as usual, but small metropolitan areas, those with fewer than 250,000 people, lag even more behind large metros, those of 1 million of more. Here's a chart:

"Hillary Clinton won big in areas with more than 1 million people," Sargent notes. "Trump won, but just barely, in areas with 250,000 to 1 million people. And Trump won huge majorities in areas with fewer than 250,000 people and in rural areas — the areas that are being most dramatically left behind, even with Trump in office. When you dig to the county level, the trend is even clearer. . . . Clinton counties produced almost two-thirds of the country’s new jobs and nearly three-fourths of its economic growth in recent years."

Sarget acknowledges that many “forgotten Americans” are economically stranded, but notes other Brookings research, that shows the divide "is being largely driven by the digitalization of the economy. And this, too, overlaps with the Clinton-Trump divide." He quotes CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein: "Clinton won preponderant majorities in the communities where the highest share of workers perform jobs that require intensive use of computerized technology — most of them larger cities, many along the two coasts. Trump overwhelmed her in the mostly smaller interior places that haven’t attracted nearly as many well-paying, information-savvy jobs."

Sargent adds, "So the Trumpist narrative is right, in the sense that many of the yields of economic progress are being unevenly distributed along regional lines, and the non-urban areas are on the losing end." But he says Mark Muro of Brookings "believes that there isn’t any particular reason to think that these tax cuts — or the new tariffs — will make a big dent in these regional disparities. For one thing, he argues, digitalization is having a profoundly polarizing effect on the economy. As he put it recently, this is producing 'deep economic and technological long waves. And while we are in the midst of this long wave, we are not near the end of it.'"

If this is right, then even boosted growth and investment don’t ensure that the yields will be adequately distributed to mitigate that trend.

Moreover, Trump’s tariffs are narrowly targeted toward the steel and aluminum industries, and many economists believe that more workers in other industries that use those materials will be hurt. What’s more, as Jim Tankersley points out, a trade war produced by tariffs could actually harm small metro areas — that rely heavily on exports — in states that went for Trump. The combination of job losses in other industries and trade war dislocations could also hurt the export-reliant Rust Belt — i.e., Trump country.

Pence, Perdue address farmers' fears in Ag Day speeches

Pence speaks on Ag Day (DTN photo by Greg Horstmeier)
Yesterday's speeches by Vice President Mike Pence and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in honor of National Agriculture Day celebrated farmers as usual, but both addressed major difficulties that farmers are having with the administration and Congress.

Perdue, speaking at the National Press Club, acknowledged that grain companies and farmer co-ops are waiting (probably in vain, it seems) for a tax change in the upcoming omnibus bill to fix the "grain glitch"--a provision added at the last minute to the tax overhaul bill passed in December that threatens to distort the grain market. 

He also discussed the debate about the Renewable Fuels Standard, which worries corn and soybean farmers who produce crops that are sometimes turned into biofuels. "Perdue said there have been intense discussions about what to do regarding Renewable Identification Numbers [credits that are traded], but no solutions have been reached. Perdue suggested to reporters that President Trump may seek a solution through Congress rather than administrative actions," Chris Clayton and Jerry Hagstrom report for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Perdue noted RIN prices have fallen more than 60 percent since last fall, and RIN prices would fall further if EPA would approve year-round 15 percent ethanol blends." Perdue also addressed farmers' worries that Trump's tariffs will spark a trade war that could hurt agriculture.

"Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a brief interview during the Ag Day events that he hopes there is still time to sway the president not to impose new tariffs on China," DTN reports. "Duvall said he hoped Perdue and White House agricultural adviser Ray Starling, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, are all talking to the president about reconsidering his stance."

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Fewer hunters means less funding for wildlife conservation

Tyler Hasheider (center) teaches new hunters how to clean a deer in the field. (NPR photo by Nathan Rott)
State and federal government agencies get about 60 percent of their conservation funding from hunting-license fees and excise taxes on guns, ammunition and fishing equipment; such a system has helped restore populations of some game animals that were once hunted nearly to extinction. But a new survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that today, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That's half of what it was 50 years ago and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade," Nathan Rott reports for NPR.

Wildlife agencies are trying to find other sources of revenue, such as taxing oil and gas revenues, general sales taxes, or tweaks to the license-and-equipment funding system to monetize such activities as wildlife viewing. That last one could prove lucrative, since activities like bird watching, hiking and wildlife photography have become more popular in recent years.

Whatever solution state and federal agencies find, it needs to be fast. "A panel on sustaining America's fish and wildlife resources recently warned: 'Without a change in the way we finance fish and wildlife conservation, we can expect the list of federally threatened and endangered species to grow from nearly 1,600 species today to perhaps thousands more in the future,'" Rott reports.

Reasons for the decline in hunting include increased urbanization, restricted access to hunting areas, lack of free time, and youth spending more time with team sports or video games. But Keith Warnke, Wisconsin's hunting and shooting sports coordinator, said the biggest factor is demographics: at 65, the average hunter stops buying licenses and hunting. That's a problem because nearly a third of all hunters are Baby Boomers. The oldest boomers have aged out of hunting and the youngest, at 54, will join them soon. State wildlife agencies are advertising to try to bring in a new generation of hunters. "In Wisconsin, they're offering free classes on college campuses, teaching hunter's safety and hands on butchering clinics, with the goal of capitalizing on the locavore movement and a renewed interest in wild meat," Rott reports.

The good news is that public support for both hunting and wildlife conservation remains high, and the number of people who say they enjoy outdoor recreation is increasing, so solutions may be possible. "We need to find ways for the rest of those folks, who are canoeing and cross country skiing and biking and going to the park to contribute as well," said Mary Jean Huston, director of The Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin.

Why gun culture is so strong in rural America: ideals

The country's deepest cultural divide might be on guns, and it "has a profound political dimension, reliably driving rural Americans into Republican arms," writes Robert Leonard, the news director for rural Knoxville, Iowa, radio stations KNIA-AM and KRLS-FM. In a thoughtful essay, Leonard digs into the gun debate and what it means for America.

While he grew up hunting small game with his grandfather, he says he's come to understand and appreciate arguments for gun control too. Guns are important to the culture in his conservative town of 7,313, so he said he wanted to understand more about pro-gun opinions.

Leonard spoke to a local police officer who believes better background checks could prevent some gun violence, and said people need to do a better job of keeping their guns locked up. But the officer doesn't think rural Americans will ever approve of significant gun-control measures, and says other officers have told him they'd rather quit their jobs than start taking away others' guns. He also said that gun control won't stop criminals from getting guns.

"To understand why many conservatives in rural America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about guns; it runs even deeper than the Second Amendment," Leonard writes. "At a 2015 campaign event during the Iowa caucuses, J. C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Watts said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people did bad things, something in society (in this case, guns) needed to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with the person — the perpetrator of the evil. Bad choices result in bad things being done, in part because the perpetrator lacks the moral guidance the Christian faith provides."

If Democrats want to connect with rural Americans, they must first understand rural ideals, he writes.

Analyst argues rural co-ops are better at creating fast, affordable broadband than FCC-subsidized telecom giants

The Federal Communications Commission has been trying to bring more broadband internet to rural America via the Connect America Fund, which subsidizes telecommunications companies that expand to rural areas or improve existing lines. So far most of the money has gone to telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast, which have spent bucketloads of money lobbying for it.

But the rural broadband service they're creating is slower, uses obsolete DSL technology instead of fiber, costs more for customers, and costs more for the federal government than the broadband networks created by smaller rural electric and telephone cooperatives, Matthew Marcus writes for The Daily Yonder. Marcus researches community broadband networks and policy for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Part of the reason big telecoms deliver slower internet is that the Connect America Fund only requires companies to provide broadband at speeds of at least 10 megabytes per second download and 1 Mbps upload -- far slower than the optimum FCC definition of broadband, which requires at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. Even after AT&T received a $2.5 billion CAF subsidy, its 10/1 Mbps broadband service will cost $60-70 per month. In contrast, "In rural central Missouri, $60 per month gets you a symmetrical (upload and download) 250 Mbps fiber-to-the-home connection from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, and United Fiber in northern Missouri only charges $50 for 100 Mbps service. And they aren’t getting CAF support to do it either," Marcus writes.

"Handing billions of federal dollars over to companies like AT&T for an already obsolete technology is wasteful and counter-productive," Marcus continues. "Investing in local cooperatives is a future-proof solution that redirects control and revenue to each respective community. Not only does this provide better, more affordable Internet service, it will revitalize faltering rural economies and improve overall quality of life across rural America."

The institute has mapped where co-ops offer fiber-optic internet (click on map for larger version):

Raided meat plant shows reality of immigration, work

Cactus, Texas (Sperling's Best Places map)
President Trump won wide acclaim in rural areas with his campaign promises to crack down on immigration (illegal and otherwise), which he has done. The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. has dropped 70 percent since Trump took office, and he's phasing out the protected immigration status that has allowed Central Americans and Haitians to work here for decades. Trump argued that such actions would force employers to raise wages and hire more blue-collar American citizens. But what happened at a meatpacking plant rural Cactus, Texas (pop. 3,179), shows the market forces that drive employers to hire immigrants and refugees, and the real-life effects of immigration raids, Nick Miroff reports for The Washington Post.

Cactus has two major employers: a Valero oil refinery, which mostly employs whites, and a meatpacking plant owned by Brazilian conglomorate JBS USA, which has employed mostly immigrants and refugees since it opened in the late 1970s. At first it was mostly Vietnamese and Laotian workers, then legal refugees from Thailand, Malaysia, Somalia and Sudan. So many Somalis came that at one point Moore County had the fifth-highest Muslim population percentage in the U.S. Then the plant increasingly employed Latinos, some legal and some undocumented.

In 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the Cactus plant as part of Operation Wagon Wheel, the largest workplace raid in U.S. history. ICE arrested nearly 1,300 workers overall and 300 workers in Cactus, almost 10 percent of the town's population. In spite of this sudden availability of jobs, white blue-collar workers did not step in to fill the gap. Today about half the floor workers are refugees and half are Latino, mostly immigrants. A Burmese meat-quality inspector said that in his 10 years at the Cactus plant, he had seen only two or three white workers cutting meat.

The problem is that, despite Trump's promises that reducing immigration will bring jobs to blue-collar workers, American-born citizens often don't want to do the kind of jobs that immigrants do, such as meat processing or farm labor. Meat work is so dangerous and off-putting that, in spite of the $17 hourly wage, health care and free English classes, there's a high turnover rate among new hires. Local American-born citizens say that they wouldn't work at the meatpacking plant unless it paid more than the $30 an hour they get paid at the refinery.

The U.S. meatpacking industry nationwide was having a hard time finding new workers even before Trump's anti-immigration policies, "having opened new plants in recent years to keep pace with soaring export demands and annual U.S. sales approaching $100 billion," Miroff reports. "Many of the industry’s processing plants are located in remote, ­rural areas of Midwestern states where employers in nearly every industry are struggling to find qualified workers, especially job candidates who will not test 'hot' for drugs."

Trump won 75 percent of the vote in Moore County. Some locals blame the meatpacking plant's workers for bringing "crime, drugs and civic decline," emboldened by Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. "Their corner of northern Texas has been culturally and economically transformed, and they had never had an American president say the transformation was a bad thing," Miroff reports.

Some have welcomed the immigrants and refugees; Stan Corbin at First Baptist Church in nearby Dumas has made it his life's work to help them settle in, learn English, and navigate the paperwork of applying for citizenship. He doubts that the older immigrants will ever learn much English, but says their children are much more assimilated. "What we need is people willing to work hard, and people willing to work at JBS,” he told Miroff. "Their children will grow up to be engineers. But right now in our country, there is a great need for laborers."

Monday, March 19, 2018

Community newspapers, fearing newsprint tariffs will put some of them out of business, seek help from Congress

Wisconsin newspaper representatives were among those from the community newspaper industry who met with lawmakers in Washington to discuss newsprint tariffs and other issues March 14-15. From left are U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and senior economic policy adviser Brian Conlan; Wisconsin Newspaper Association Executive Director Beth Bennett; Publisher Kris O'Leary of The Tribune-Phonograph in Abbotsford, and Laura Johnson. (Photo by WNA member Andrew Johnson)
Rural newspaper publishers from all over the country came to Washington last week to plead their case against new tariffs that will increase the cost of newsprint -- still a key cost for newspapers, which depend on print advertising even as they try to increase their digital revenue.

"My fear is for the community newspapers that don’t see this coming. This is a tidal wave that could wipe out a lot of community newspapers," Tony Smithson, vice president of printing for Bliss Communications in Janesville, Wis., told the publishers as they headed for Capitol Hill. As a publisher and printer in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s hometown, Smithson is a point man for the newsprint efforts of the National Newspaper Association, which organizes a lobbying blitz by community newspaper publishers every March.

This year's gathering began the day after the Department of Commerce announced preliminary "anti-dumping" duties as high as 22.16 percent on Canadian imports of untreated groundwood paper, such as newsprint. The new tariffs are in addition to a first round announced Jan. 9, ranging from 4.4 to 9.9 percent. “Newspapers could see an 8 to 10 percent increase in production costs in the short term,” Smithson told the publishers.

The tariffs were prompted by a petition from newsprint mill in Washington state, recently bought by a hedge fund. The International Trade Commission is expected to make a recommendation for final action by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in September. Newspapers can't offer testimony to the ITC, "but members of Congress can," said Tonda Rush, NNA's chief lobbyist. The News Media Alliance, comprising mainly daily newspapers, has created a lobbying coalition on the issue, but Rush said the case to Congress is “focused more on small papers because it’s hard to get sympathy for the larger ones.”

NNA is also seeking reform of the U.S. Postal Service. For a report on the issues from Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, click here.

Wildfire funding fix, left out of last omnibus spending bill, is more urgent for this week's bill as fire season looms

As Congress struggles to reach an agreement on a $1.3 trillion spending bill by Friday, to avoid another government shutdown, "Rural advocates say the time is now to deliver a policy fix that provides adequate funding for fighting wildfires while also supporting forest management activities that limit fire risk," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.
A fix would be none too soon, since the 2018 wildfire season is almost here and every indication is that it could be just as bad as 2017, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But "a bipartisan deal to pair a fire-borrowing fix with forest-management reforms and a two-year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools program fell apart and was not included in the final budget agreement negotiated earlier in February," Oates reports. "The next opportunity for lawmakers to weigh in on the wildfire issue is the Fiscal 2018 omnibus package that Congress is expected to pass before March 23."

Some Republicans are trying to barter looser environmental rules for forest management with Democrats in exchange for increased budgets for fighting wildfires. And Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has ordered more aggressive timber harvesting practices to decrease wildfire risk.

Last year's wildfire season cost the nation a record $2.4 billion, far surpassing the allotted budget. So the money had to be taken from other parts of the Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets to pay for it, a practice known as "fire borrowing". The problem is, fire borrowing means less money for things that can help keep wildfires from happening, such as brush clearing. 

"With an increase in domestic spending on the table, Congress can take action over the next few weeks to support forest restoration activities that will protect rural communities from wildfires," said Tyson Bertone-Riggs of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.

Appalachia at high risk of HIV and hep C, but stigma and other factors hamper testing, monitoring and treatment

Bloodborne diseases like HIV and hepatitis C are an increasing threat to public health in Appalachia, but the stigma associated with such diseases may be hindering monitoring, testing and treatment, ultimately increasing the risk of outbreaks.

A big part of the risk comes from sharing needles while shooting opioid drugs such as heroin. In 2016 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Appalachian counties were some of the most vulnerable in the U.S for HIV and Hepatitis C. A cluster of 43 recent HIV cases has popped up in northern Kentucky, and in West Virginia the CDC "just released a report on 40 new HIV cases diagnosed in 2017 in 15 mostly rural counties," Roxy Todd reports for WKMS-FM in Murray, Ky. Health officials worry that many more could be infected and not know it.

The number of HIV cases reported (left) vs. the possible number of cases both reported and unreported (right)
(CDC map; click on the image to enlarge it.)
Tania Basta, who chairs the College of Health Sciences at Ohio University and has researched the effects of stigma in rural Appalachia, said some rural health-care providers still stigmatize their patients. "They may feel that, unfortunately, some people with HIV, they did this to themselves," she told Todd. "Testing is an issue . . . And I’m not saying that stigma is any higher in rural areas. It’s just that, because of the nature of living in small towns, where everybody kind of knows everybody, word travels quickly."

The CDC report on the HIV outbreak in West Virginia also said lack of health literacy and transportation from remote areas to treatment or syringe exchanges also contributes to the spread of the disease. "Fourteen of the 15 counties where new cases were identified were on the CDC’s 2016 list of counties at high risk of disease. Yet only three of the counties had syringe service programs, which medical evidence shows is an effective way to reduce harm from drug use. Syringe services, also known as needle exchanges, can also serve as an opportunity to test for needle-borne disease," Loh reports. They also offer opportunities to get users into treatment.

Ex-con coal baron nears lead in W.Va. Senate primary; illustrates 'conservative movement in rural America'

Convicted coal CEO Don Blankenship is running neck and neck in the race for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in West Virginia, but he's aiming his blows at Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the former governor he considers responsible for his year in the pokey.

"In 2016, the former hard-charging chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co. went to federal prison for conspiring to evade safety laws in the lead-up to the worst coal mine disaster in a generation—a 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners. Manchin, the governor at the time, commissioned an independent probe that reached blistering conclusions about Blankenship’s tight grip over Massey and did a lot to seal public opinion about his role in the disaster," Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. "Years later, as federal prosecutors zeroed in on Blankenship, Manchin, by then a senator, said on national TV that the ex-coal boss had 'blood on his hands'."

Blankenship, who maintained his innocence during his year in prison, "entered this race because he has an axe to grind with Joe Manchin," state House Democratic Minority Whip Mike Caputo told Loh. "It's more personal than politics." But to face Manchin, Blankenship has to get through the May 8 GOP primary. His foes are more experienced politicians, but he has blown past state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in polling and is only two percentage points (within the margin of error) behind U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who represents the state's southern third.

Many West Virginians seem to have accepted Blankenship's claim that he's a victim, and some miners associate him with better times, when the state's coal production was three times higher than today. Through his anti-union, anti-illegal immigration stances, "Blankenship has tapped into the anger of working people in West Virginia and their deep frustration over the state’s stagnant economy," Loh reports. "To understand Blankenship’s appeal is to understand the current conservative movement in rural America, and how, in the span of several years, West Virginia became one of the reddest states in the country after decades as a Democratic enclave."

Steel tariff loophole triggers layoffs at last U.S. keg maker

American Keg Co. photo
The last U.S. manufacturer of steel beer kegs, located in Pottstown, Pa. (pop. 22,377), has laid off one-third of its workers because of President Trump's new tariffs on steel and aluminum, Lizzie O'Leary reports for Marketplace.

The main problem, according to American Keg Co. CEO Paul Czachor, is that the tariffs only cover raw materials and not finished products. That means imported kegs cost about $95 and domestic kegs about $115. The company has a loyal customer base that wants to buy American-made products, even if they're more expensive, but "they're only going to go so far as that price difference continues to rise," he told O'Leary. That will likely happen as domestic steel companies raise prices, secure in the knowledge that they're undercutting the artificially inflated costs of foreign steel. The tariffs will not take effect until March 23, but the price of domestic steel jumped 4 percent on March 8, the day Trump signed the orders, and continues to rise as American steel makers anticipate the effects of the tariffs.

"I think when the tariffs came out, it was probably a good idea," Czachor told O'Leary. "I'm sure the steel industry needs some protection but there are some unintended consequences for companies such as us that have competition that make imports." If Czachor could talk to Trump, he says, he would encourage steel tariffs that include finished products.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Soybean farmers worry tariffs will spark a trade war

American soybean growers are worried that President Trump's new tariffs on steel and aluminum could spark a trade war with China that would hurt the agriculture industry, Sarah McCammon reports for NPR.

John Heisdorffer
American Soybean Association President John Heisdorffer, an Iowa farmer, sent a letter to Trump this week urging him to change his mind about the tariffs, which will take effect next week.

"Sixty percent of U.S. soybeans are exported. China is our biggest customer," Heisdorffer told McCammon. "They take one out of every three rows, $14 billion worth of soybeans and soy products. You know, that's huge. You take all the other countries that we export to and they still don't lead up to as much as what China takes from us. So we would be actually giving that market away to a different country. South America has many more acres that can go into production, and they'd be glad to furnish what they are now plus take whatever we'd be willing to give up in a retaliation type of situation."

Not only would a trade war hurt the agriculture industry, he said, but it would have a ripple effect on the industries that depend on it, such as farming equipment manufacturers. They are on the front lines of the trade war already because they are big users of steel. Heisdorffer said he met with officials in the Commerce and Treasury departments as well as other White House staff last summer, but says he believes they don't understand how much damage the tariffs could do.

Mass. town kept out Walmart, now struggles with Amazon

Greenfield, Mass., kept out Walmart to help local businesses stay solvent, but now struggles with a foe much harder to fight: Amazon.

Al Norman headed up the fight in his hometown of Greenfield and other towns like it for the past 25 years, and runs a website called Sprawl Busters, an "International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information."

"But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce," Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. "Many customers who kept shopping in Greenfield’s downtown because Walmart was too far away are now turning to Amazon and other websites that offer free and fast shipping for basic needs, sapping business away from local stores that had survived for so long. Facing competition from a company as enormous as Amazon, some local stores are having trouble staying open." It's a long story, but worth the time. Read it here.

Sociologist who spent eight years asking rural people why they’re mad at government publishes a book about it

Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who grew up in rural America, spent eight years interviewing rural people to find out why they're so angry with government. In the resulting book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, "He argues that rural Americans are less concerned about economic issues and more concerned about Washington threatening the social fabric of small towns and causing a 'moral decline' in the country as a whole," Sean Illing reports for Vox. "The problem, though, is that it’s never quite clear what that means, or how Washington is responsible for it."

Wuthnow did the research between 2006 and 2014, speaking to people in every state, but only those living in towns with a population under 25,000 and far from suburbs or cities. In an interview with Illing, he noted that though rural America's racial makeup is mostly white, the number of Hispanics and other immigrants is growing. Rural whites, he found, believe that the government has a great deal of power over their lives, and feel threatened when they perceive that government wants to help urban areas or minority populations more.

Rural Americans "value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small," Wuthnow told Illing. In interviews, "I kept hearing from people is a general fear that traditional moral rules were being wiped out by a government and a culture that doesn’t understand the people who still believe in these things.

The book, and the project it was based on, come across somewhat as Wuthnow processing his feelings about growing up in -- and away from -- rural America. And impatient as he is about socially conservative attitudes, he recognizes also the very real problems facing rural areas, such as the opioid epidemic. And he notes also that America's divisions (and commonalities) aren't always predictable: "It’s worth remembering that not all divisions run along the rural-urban divide. The conservative-liberal divide or the Republican-Democrat is just as pronounced in many cases. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in this country, and it goes beyond this one fault line.

Senate passes bill easing restrictions on smaller banks, which make most loans to agriculture

The Senate passed a bill this week to ease restrictions on small- and mid-sized banks that provide half of all small business loans and 80 percent of agricultural loans. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo's bill went to the House on a 67-31 vote; all 51 Republicans supported it, as well as 16 Democratic senators and one independent, mostly from rural states, who worked out bipartisan compromises with the Idahoan.

"The bill makes a five-fold increase, to $250 billion, in the level of assets at which banks are deemed to pose a potential threat if they failed. The change would ease regulations and oversight on more than two dozen financial companies, including BB&T Corp., SunTrust Banks, Fifth Third Bancorp and American Express," Kevin Freking and Marcy Gordon report for The Associated Press. "Crapo, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, emphasized that the Federal Reserve would still have the authority to apply tougher standards for banks with between $100 billion and $250 billion in assets."

The restrictions were first passed as part of the Dodd-Frank law after the 2008 financial crisis. Under it, banks that are "too big to fail" must be assessed by the Federal Reserve each year to make sure they have enough capital to survive an economic shock, and must also submit a plan called a "living will" that detail how they would liquidate assets if they fail so as not to hurt the financial system.

The bill would also exempt some banks and credit unions from having to report some mortgage loan data such as the applicant's age, credit score, total loan costs and interest rate. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who opposed the bill, argued it would make it easier for banks to discriminate against minority applicants without anyone noticing. The bill would also require free credit freezes for consumers affected by data breaches such as the one from Equifax.

Microsoft to host rural broadband presentation

A senior Microsoft official will lead a presentation on how broadband technology can help rural America with economic development, health care access, education and more. Shelley McKinley, general manager of Microsoft's Technology and Corporate Responsibility Group, will "deep dive into the use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, to create environmental sustainability, connect 1 billion people around the world with disabilities and prepare the workforce of the future."

Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative is aimed at bringing more broadband connectivity to rural America, partly through the use of white-space technology. Critics say it's self-serving and not properly focused on rural areas.

The free presentation will take place at 3 p.m. CT March 28 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and will be live streamed for those who can't attend. Learn more here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ky. State Police try to keep local news media from reporting on investigations until KSP gives them green (blue?) light

Here's another timely story for Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and the role of the news media in keeping the government honest:

A Kentucky State Police spokesperson recently caused a stir when he told two rural news outlets that they need to wait until the KSP issues press releases before publishing anything about ongoing investigations, Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The officer wrote in an email to the Barbourville Mountain Advocate and Pineville radio station WRIL:"From this point forward when KSP is working an investigation, you are to wait until OUR (KSP) press release is sent out before putting anything out on social media, radio, and newspaper. No more posting inaccurate information from Sheriffs or anyone else. I don't care to confirm something and then get a release out later. [On] authority of my supervisors, if this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list."

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, told the Herald-Leader the order violates the First Amendment, and that state agencies cannot withhold information "just because they don’t like what the media outlet is writing," Wright reports.

KSP Capt. Ryan Catron said the police do not plan to withhold information from the Advocate or WRIL, and that the email was meant to encourage news organizations to wait for accurate information before publishing stories.

Mountain Advocate Editor Charles Myrick wrote that that the weekly has a strong relationship with KSP and that while he appreciates the sacrifices law-enforcement officers make to keep people safe, "Part of keeping the public safe is an open forum of communication, and that’s what we do. An attempt to silence the media is not only a breach of the First Amendment, but a slap in the face of any effort to keep our public safe."

Medicaid, integral to rural health care, faces uncertain future

Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income Americans, is "part of the financial bedrock for rural hospitals" across America, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News as part of "Medicaid Nation", a KHN series examining the program's reach and role.

Medicaid began as a medical program for the poorest Americans, but millions now rely on it. The program covers nearly 24 percent of rural Americans who aren't senior citizens, and pays for almost 45 percent of all U.S. births — 51 percent of rural births.

Some don't even know Medicaid is helping them: Medicaid reduces the amount of uncompensated care hospitals must provide, insulating them from worse financial problems and enabling some to stay open and keep services such as obstetrics. About half of rural counties don't have a hospital with an obstetric unit, since Medicaid compensation rates are lower for the expensive service, so it's often one of the first to be cut by cash-strapped hospitals.

When a hospital can stay afloat, not only is more medical care available in rural areas, but it provides hundreds, sometimes thousands of local jobs that are often critical to the local economy. The data backs this up: rural hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid are six times less likely to close than in states that didn't.

The benefit of Medicaid to rural communities has been a conundrum for rural residents, who tend to vote Republican even as GOP lawmakers consistently vote to reduce Medicaid costs and the number of people who have access to it. "In Ohio, many state lawmakers are pushing a cap on the state’s expanded Medicaid program — a controversial move that would almost certainly squeeze hospital revenue. Nationally, Republican leaders are weighing cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other safety-net programs," Luthra reports. Still, a Republican-flavored Medicaid that includes work requirements for able-bodied recipients may make Medicaid expansion more palatable to conservatives.

Interactive map with local data rates U.S. counties on economic distress; shows some unexpected outliers

Dark red counties are the most economically stressed, and dark blue the least.
(EIG map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive map.)
The Economic Innovation Group has created a interactive map that identifies the economic distress level of every zip code in the United States. Maps are also available that measure by zip code, congressional district or city.

The Distressed Communities Index is comprised of seven metrics that measure economic well-being: percentage of the population with high school diplomas, housing vacancy rate, unemployment rate, poverty rate, median income (expressed as a percentage of the state's median income), percentage change in the number of jobs available from 2011 to 2015, and the percentage change in the number of business establishments from 2011 to 2015.

Putnam County, W.Va., is near the middle.
Some of the map is predictable, with large swaths of dark red (the most economically distressed) across Appalachia, the Black Belt, the Mississippi Delta, the Rio Grande and many rural areas. But the map reveals some unexpected outliers too, like Putnam County, West Virginia, a dark blue dot in a sea of dark red.

It's a fascinating portrait of America. At a large scale, it’s almost an Impressionist painting; at small scale a colorful mosaic. How did your county fare?