Friday, October 19, 2012

Overcrowding and staff shortages at prisons, many of them rural, raise safety concerns

Overcrowding in federal prisons threatens the safety of staff and inmates, according to a new Government Accountability Office report on the Bureau of Prisons. Many prisons are in rural areas, employing many local residents. The report says BOP officials report an increased use of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios. Those factors lead to increased inmate misconduct, and increased safety risks.

Inmate population is growing faster than the BOP's capacity, Joe Davidson of The Washington Post reports. Prison population grew by 9.5 percent from 2006 to 2011, but the BOP's capacity only grew by 7 percent. "Nearly all BOP facilities had fewer correctional staff on board than needed," GAO said in the report. BOP staff shortages were in excess of 3,200. The inmate-to-staff ratio has decreased. "Fewer officers is not a strategy for success," Davidson writes. "The consequences can be real and bloody." Understaffing leads to an increased in inmate-on-worker assaults, with almost 1,700 assault on staff happening in 2010, according to GAO. (Read more)

Rural voters oppose 'Obamacare', except when label is dropped and law is called by its real name

Party labels affect what rural voters think about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, according to the latest National Rural Assembly and Center for Rural Strategies poll of rural voters in nine swing states, reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder, which the center publishes.

When asked if they approved or disapproved of the "Affordable Care Act, sometimes called Obamacare," 60 percent of rural voters said they opposed the law, and 34 percent said they favored it. Without reference to "Obamacare," voters were asked if they approved or disapproved of the law, which "would give states the opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to cover more low income families with health insurance, with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the costs," and 45 percent said they approved, while 42 percent disapproved.

Bishop concludes that partisanship is the culprit for such results. "Partisanship overwhelms issues in today's politics," he writes. "Voters are willing to change their beliefs -- even their religious affiliation ... in order to stay with their political tribe." (Read more)

Farm Bill includes conservation provisions important to hunters and the economy

Many Americans probably don't realize that the Farm Bill contains provisions for wildlife conservation programs, and that this has caused more than just farmers to press Congress for a vote on the bill. Hunters, anglers and conservationists have also been petitioning for passage of the stalled legislation. In a Politico opinion piece this week, Dale Hall, former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and current CEO of Ducks Unlimited, writes about why conservation programs are so important.

"The Farm Bill's Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program not only have a positive impact on wildlife populations but also help conserve soil and keep our streams, rivers and lakes clean," Hall writes. The incentive-based programs allow conservation groups to work with farmers  to create benefits for all stakeholders: wildlife, farmers, ranchers, the environment and hunters and fishers, "which generates significant financial support for out nation's economy," Hall says. Hunters, fishers and wildlife watchers spent $145 billion on wildlife-related recreation last year, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Three aspects of the Farm Bill are of particular concern to conservation groups, Hall writes: maintaining and strengthening effective wetland protections, a national "sodsaver" provision to protect native prairies, and preserving conservation programs. (Read more)

Laid-off Appalachian miner blames politicians, but not those you might think, for region's woes

Thousands of Central Appalachian coal miners have been laid off since January as coal companies decrease operations in the region and move to more lucrative mining areas, including the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. There are several reasons for this, the biggest of which is cheap natural gas. Mimi Pickering and Sylvia Ryerson of radio station WMMT in Whitesburg, Ky. recently interviewed Letcher County miner Gary Bentley, to collect his thoughts.

Bentley, 29, lost his job with Arch Coal Inc. in June, and after months of searching, was hired at a mine in Owewnsboro, Ky., five and a half hours from Whitesburg in the western part of the state. He worked for Arch for 10 years, and is a Letcher County native. The layoffs are unlike anything he's seen, he told Ryerson and Pickering, and he doesn't think it's fair.

"People come in here and they make billions of dollars, and they've been doing it for hundreds of years here, and now when they're leaving, they're just leaving us with nothing," Bentley said. He was lucky to find work in Kentucky, he said, because many other miners he worked with had to get jobs in Alabama, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and even Australia. It's also been slightly easier for him because he has a high school diploma. Some older miners he knows have no more than a sixth-grade education, and were hired before mining companies began requiring at least a high school education.

Bentley said local politicians want to blame Central Appalachian coal's decline on the federal government because of increased Environmental Protection Agency regulations, but what he saw at EPA hearings in Pikeville, Ky., showed him a different story. "I was real disappointed with our local, state and regional politicians because I felt like they all wanted to get up there and point fingers and say 'It's this person's fault, it's this person's fault. They're trying to destroy our industry; they're destroying Eastern Kentucky,'" Bentley said. "But at the same time, they're in the position. Why weren't they doing more to stand up for the region? Why weren't they doing more to try and bring in other industry?"

Bentley continued: "Anybody with any sort of intelligence that keeps up on the coal industry saw the declines coming. ... So, I feel that the political leaders really failed us by not having a back up plan for this area and for these communities. ... We need real answers and real solutions, not just a bunch of hot wind." To listen to Bentley's full interview, click here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

In southwest Oregon, as subsidy cuts hit policing, citizens form a general posse and do it themselves

An old police car has been parked on the
highway through O'Brien since the
sheriff's budget has been cut. (AP)
"There's no room in the county jail for burglars and thieves. And the sheriff's department in a vast, rural corner of southwest Oregon has been reduced by budget cuts to three deputies on patrol eight hours a day, five days a week," reports Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press. "People in this traditionally self-reliant section of timber country aren't about to raise taxes to put more officers on the road." Instead, folks are "mounting flashing lights on their trucks and strapping pistols to their hips to guard communities themselves. Others have put together a virtual neighborhood watch, using Facebook to share tips and information. 'I believe in standing up for myself rather than waiting for the government to do something for me,' said Sam Nichols, who organized a posse of about a dozen fed-up residents who have started patrolling the rural community of O'Brien, which has about 750 residents.'" They call themselves Citizens Against Crime -- CAC, for short.

O'Brien sits in Josephine County, a county which recently lost $12 million in federal timber subsidies. The jail, sheriff's patrols, prosecutors, probation officers and juvenile programs have all been drastically cut. The jail can house 69 inmates -- so few that recently small-time offenders have been let loose only to be repeatedly picked up for new crimes. In O'Brien, "We all know each other, and we're all related," said Carol Dickson, who helped to start the CAC about three months ago and posts regularly. "People know who's doing this," she said of recent spate of property crime in the area. "They are getting tired of it. They are speaking up, and they are saying, 'Enough.'"

The local police think the citizens involved are smart about this venture, that it's not vigilantism and that everyone understand the dangers. But policing expert Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at New York University, says neighborhood watch efforts can turn into problems when volunteers "decide that instead of supplementing law enforcement, they are going to replace law enforcement." He told AP that "people drawn to this sort of thing are the kinds of personalities more likely to take it too far." However, Nichols says what his group is doing is "not vigilantism at all. If it was, we would have taken care of a couple of problems a long time ago. Because we knew who they were, and where they lived."

The group is earning its keep. Members have reported a wildfire and a break-in since their watch began. The police log in the Grants Pass Daily Courier shows five thefts or burglaries in O'Brien from January through July, but none since August. (Read more)

NRA using Obama's remark about possible renewal of assault weapon ban as rallying point in swing states

The National Rifle Association is using President Obama's Tuesday-night debate reference to a possible reintroduction of an assault weapons ban as a pro-Mitt Romney rallying cry to gun owners in swing states. Dan Freeman of the Houston Chronicle reports, "The NRA has fielded 25 paid organizers deployed to 13 states including battlegrounds that may determine the election's outcome such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia and Nevada. In addition, an army of 4,300 volunteers is making hundreds of thousands of phone calls, distributing thousands of fliers and visiting events and places where gun owners congregate, Andrew Arulanandam, NRA director of public affairs said."

Obama, asked about about limits on AK-47 assault rifles, replied, "What I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally." Then he mentioned the possibility of reinstating the assault-weapon ban that was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1994 but expired in 2004 when the Republicans were in control. Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to the NRA challenge: "The president has a lot more to gain by voicing the concerns of the public on this issue than he had to lose. This is a conversation the American public wants to have." (Read more)

Crop insurance payouts likely to hit $15 billion; drought news gets only slightly better

The long, dry, hot summer will cost U.S. taxpayers big -- a record $15 billion. That is the amount that the Farm Bill's privately run crop-insurance program will pay to farmers affected by this year's losses. The program's runaway costs are in focus as Congress looks for ways to cut government spending, making crop insurance an even bigger target for reforms than it already might have been. Lawmakers return to Washington next month. (Read more)

As for the drought itself, there was some relief, at last, from one coast to another as storm systems pushed through some very dry parts of the nation this week. Still, 62.4 percent of the nation is still experiencing "moderate" drought, down from 63.5 percent a week earlier, according to Thursday's Drought Monitor, a weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic scientists. Reuters is reporting that "the portion of the United States under 'exceptional' drought' -- the direst classification -- fell to 5.8 percent, from 6.2 percent a week earlier." The worst news is still reserved for the High Plains -- some parts of Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas -- where drought classified as "severe" or worse covered more than 87 percent of the region. (Read more)

North Dakota oil boom overloading rural hospital emergency rooms and leaving them with unpaid bills

The Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota -- with its massive equipment and its young, transient oil workers -- is puting tremendous strain on the region’s small hospitals that are finding it hard to shoulder the increasing emergency trauma load and the unpaid bills left behind it. John McChesney reports in the Daily Yonder that if that weren't enough, "Nurse and staff recruitments have become much more difficult due to high housing prices and high competitive wages in the oil patch. And attracting physicians, always a problem for rural areas, has gotten tougher, even as needs soar."

Randall Pederson of Tioga Medical holds
piles of unpaid bills returned from
addresses for people long gone.
(Photo by John McChesney)
Randall Pederson, president and CEO of the 25-bed Tioga Medical Center and a regular ambulance volunteer, says his town has seen a dramatic leap in ambulance runs and emergency room patients this year. “In 2007 we would see 600 patients in ER per year,” Pederson told McChesney. “In 2012, we anticipate seeing over 2,000.” That means in a five-year period, Tioga’s emergency room visits have more than tripled. “We are seeing a lot more industrial accidents, major trauma, many of those involving car accidents, because there’s a lot more vehicles on the roads these days,” Pederson explains. Many accidents involve 40-ton tank trucks colliding with 5,000-pound passenger cars, writes McChesney, "incidents that can bring several patients with horrible injuries into the small ER at the same time. The one doctor on call has to scramble for help."

According to Darrold Bertsch, president of North Dakota’s Rural Health Association, private insurers pay less in North Dakota than in most other states. And many of these ER patients -- many who come from out-of-state for piecemeal work -- don’t pay their bills. Tioga's Pederson in Tioga says his hospital had to write off $270,000 in bad debt. Other area hospitals report similar collection problems. McChesney reports that North Dakota's McKenzie County Hospital will lose more than half a million dollars this year because of patients' unpaid bills. Likewise, Montrail County Medical Center in Stanley, has 25 to 30 percent of revenue written off to bad debt. In Williston, Mercy Hospital’s bad debt has sky rocketed from a pre-oil-boom $2 million a year to $7 million this year, hardly something rural hospitals can endure for long. Mercy's CEO Matt Grimshaw says most of those charges have been billed to people who have jobs and could afford to pay, but he just can’t find them. Could Obamacare help here, with its mandate that everyone have insurance? In this red state, no one wanted to answer that question, McChesney reports. (Read more)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Consultant: Central Appalachian coal outlook poor

Alan Stagg, one of the most respected consultants in the coal industry, told a major industry gathering last month that Central Appalachian coal mining would last at least 10 to 20 more years, but will continue to decline because the job-hungry region's coal is getting more difficult to mine, mainly because of geological limitations but also because of regulations.

"It's going to run out some day — there's a finite amount of coal — but I don't see that happening in 10 or 20 years," Stagg told Pam Kasey of The State Journal, a business-oriented weekly in West Virginia. Stagg, the president and CEO of Stagg Resource Consultants Inc., has been pessimstic about the industry's long-term prospects for several years, as we reported here, but this is his gloomiest forecast yet.

"This is the elephant in the room. No one wants to acknowledge that reserve depletion is profound," Stagg, of Cross Lanes, W.Va., said at Platt's Coal Marketing Days in Pittsburgh on Sept. 21, according to SNL Financial. "Mining conditions are difficult, and the cost to produce is high. That is a physical fact. It's not pleasant. Nobody wants to acknowledge it. That is a fact, and companies that ignore that fact will not do so well. . . . And by nature, regulations will always increase."

"Stagg cast such a pall on the Central Appalachia coal industry that West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, speaking later in the day, said he felt like a 'funeral director'," Darren Epps wrote for SNL. "Stagg expressed optimism, however, for the Powder River Basin" in Wyoming, which overtook West Virginia as the leading coal-producing state many years ago.

An earlier version of this story was based on a report from SNL Financial that Stagg says misquoted him as saying that he expects coal mining in Central Appalachia to end in the next 10 to 20 years. He did not dispute the rest of the report.

New feature at Tenn. weekly answers question newcomers get: Why did you come here?

"I'm just so proud to be here" was
the opening line of Hickman County
native Minnie Pearl, whose statue will
soon be placed at the 
They packed everything they had into a U-Haul, threw the dogs and cats into the truck and came to Hickman County, Tennessee, without jobs, friends, family or, frankly, anything but a deed to a piece of pretty property. Mark and Nicole Lewis came to the county seat of Centerville because they'd seen Nashville, 50 miles east, and were tired of New Hampshire winters. Six years later, the Lewises are so delighted by their decision they decided to tell the local weekly newspaper about it. Thus began the feature, "Why Did You Come Here?," a once-a-month installment that is now part of the Hickman County Times. 

Nicole Lewis' piece supports a recent trend "because that's the focus: newcomers who are creative types," Editor Brad Martin wrote. " Lewis fits that bill, having come to town and finding herself the founder of the county's Arts and Ag Tour straight-away. But why wouldn't she? In her 10-point list of things she loves about her county, she includes, along with a long growing season, Goo-Goo clusters, okra, strangers who wave and beautiful vistas, "I have met some of the most interesting, friendly, genuine, funny, smart, talented and caring people here in Tennessee." The Times is not online, but you can read Lewis's essay here.

A second "Why Did You Come Here" piece, offered up by the long-time member service adviser for the local electric cooperative, Jim Griffin, isn't as poetic, but it rings with heartfelt love of a town he came to in 1958 and has never seen reason to leave. We look forward to more.

Rural-urban broadband access gap grows; telcos rely on wireless, maybe not the answer in the hills

The U.S. faces a growing broadband gap between rural and urban markets, and narrowing that gap could improve the overall economic health of the country, according to a new Hudson Institute report. Very few rural areas have access to high-speed Internet, and things could get worse if large telecommunications companies like Verizon back out of expanding digital subscriber line services, reports Karl Bode of Broadband DSL Reports.

The report says improved broadband infrastructure in rural areas would lead to improved medical care, increased opportunities, stronger businesses and a healthier economy. It concludes by saying the broadband gap means "a loss of opportunities for those who live where technology is used less and a loss of economic potential for those who make the products and service that would close the gap." It continues: "Because communication technology continues to advance, the gap can only grow unless investment continues in the places where the capabilities are furthest behind."

Companies aren't investing in rural broadband because the rate of return is slower there, Bode writes, and the report offers no possible solutions to remedy that problem. Meanwhile, he writes, AT&T and Verizon "are letting unwanted DSL users flee to cable, empowering a new, bolder cable monopoly," and regulators are placing "all their hopes on wireless broadband -- which may be an egregious error," because there are wireless coverage gaps across the country, which are harder to fill in rural areas. (Read more)

'Cost of Coal' explores life cycle of the rock and its effects on human health in W.Va., Mich. and Nev.

The Sierra Club has partnered with award-winning photojournalist Ami Vitale to produce a photographic essay for its magazine about the life cycle of coal and its effects on the lives of residents living close to mine sites, power plants and coal-waste disposal areas, most of which are in rural areas.

"Cost of Coal" includes an 18-page photo spread in the November/December issue of Sierra, and an interactive website with more than 100 photos and videos of individuals living near four sites impacted by coal: Blair, W.Va., Lindytown, W.Va., River Rouge, Mich., and near the Moapa Band of Paiutes Reservation in Moapa, Nev. Slide shows and videos are organized by location and story on the website, where readers can donate to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, Living Green Magazine reports.

Here's a video overview of the project:

Climate change is moving U.S. corn production north

The Corn Belt is moving north, proving to food producers across the country that this summer's drought was not a fluke. The most corn since 1937 was planted this year, but growers in Kansas planted the fewest in three years, turning instead to crops that are less water-intensive, including wheat and sorghum. But in Manitoba, corn acreage has almost doubled over the past decade.
(Click on map for larger version)
This shift is "a glimpse of a future altered by climate change that will affect worldwide production," the Sydney Morning Herald of Australia reports. Changes are happening faster than plants can adapt, said Axel Schmidt, a former International Center for Tropical Agriculture scientist.

Agriculture businesses are adapting. Agribusiness Cargill Inc. is investing more in northern facilities in anticipation of increased production there. DuPont Co. is developing genetically modified corn seed that could withstand drought, and boosting research in sorghum and other crops.

U.S. corn was worth $76.5 billion last year, more than twice the value of soybeans and five times that of wheat. Most ethanol comes from corn, most livestock eats it, and high-fructose corn syrup is used in a mass array of products. While climate change will likely move its production north, the Midwest will probably remain the corn belt just because of its good soil and generally favorable weather, Illinois' Heritage Grain Cooperative manager Jerry Rowe told the Herald. (Read more)

Belief in climate change soars among conservatives but most still don't think it is caused by humans

Belief in climate change has climbed recently, making a rebound from a sharp drop in 2009, according to a Pew Research Center poll. About 67 percent of Americans now believe temperatures are rising, with acceptance stretching across all age groups and political party affiliations, including more skeptical senior citizens and Republicans, Evan Lehmann of Energy and Environment News reports.

Forty-eight percent of Republicans agree that there is "solid evidence" that Earth's temperature has increased over several decades. That's a 5-percentage-point climb among Republicans since last year, and a 13-point rise since 2009. The biggest jump among Republicans came from conservatives, 43 percent of whom now believe in climate change, an increase of 12 points since last year. Fifty-eight percent of Republican moderates believe in it.

However, far fewer Republicans believe that climate change is man-made. About 38 percent of GOP moderates say human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, causes climate change, and only 16 percent of conservatives agree with that. (Read more)

Swing-state rural voters prefer Republican Farm Bill

Since the failure of the Republican-led House to pass a Farm Bill before the September 30 deadline, Democrats running for office in rural districts have been using it as ammunition. Whether that makes rural voters pick Democrats on election day is yet to be seen, but in the latest National Rural Assembly and Center for Rural Strategies poll of rural voters in nine swing states, voters preferred the Republican approach over the Democratic one, 61 to 27 percent.

The poll described the Democratic position this way: "Democrats have said allowing the Farm Bill to expire is devastating for rural America. The Farm Bill supports rural development programs, invests in renewable energy industry, and provides an important safety net for farmers and producers. It would especially help those suffering for record drought. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps, not only helps feed people, but 14 cents per dollar of the money from this program goes into the pockets of farmers."

It described the Republican position like this: "Republicans have said they want to pass a Farm Bill that is helpful to farmers and rural communities. Eighty percent of the current Farm Bill goes to fund the food stamp program, which is in dire need of reform. The number of people on food stamps has increased by 59 percent under President Obama, and the program is filled with waste and fraud. Many other provisions of the Farm Bill are badly outdated. We need a modern Farm Bill focused on helping farmers."

Voters polled said the Republican approach was closer to their view by a 34-point margin. "We should point out that not many rural voters actually have anything to do with farming," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder, which is published by the center. Only 7 percent of those polled said they or someone in their family made more than half their income from farming, and 12 percent said they received less than half of it from farming. Eight of 10 said no one in their families made any income from agriculture. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Swing-state rural voters prefer Romney by 22 pts.

Mitt Romney is now leading President Obama in rural swing states by a 22-point margin, according to a National Rural Assembly poll released today. Rural voters polled last week said they preferred Romney to Obama by 59 to 37 percent. In a similar poll from September, Romney led by 14 points. The poll questioned voters in rural counties in nine states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. (Daily Yonder photo: Romney speaks in Lebanon, Ohio)

"The poll documents a continuing -- in fact, accelerating -- collapse of support for President Obama among rural voters," Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. Rural voters were "staunchly Republican" in 2000 and 2004, when George W. Bush won the rural vote by almost 20 points. Obama lost the rural vote in 13 swing states in 2008 by just a little more than 2 percentage points, Bishop writes. North Star Opinion Research's Dan Judy told Bishop the September poll showed Romney was "under-performing" among rural voters, but now that he's surged ahead, Judy said he thinks "it's fair to say his lead among these rural voters is what's helping him in swing states overall."

The poll asked which candidate would do a better job handling a range of issues, from the economy to medicare. "Voters thought Romney would do a better job than Obama in addressing every issue -- often by enormous margins," Bishop reports. Judy told Bishop he expects these margins to stand through the election because rural voters have "innate conservatism" that will push them to vote Republican. (Read more)

Farmers hiring legal migrant workers often deal with visa application delays, report says

Farmers who expect to face a shortage of agricultural workers during a season can apply for federal H-2A visas, which allow migrant workers from other countries to live and work legally in the U.S. Recently released Government Accountability Office data shows there are major flaws with the application process. While 90 percent of applications were approved in 2011, 37 percent were processed after the deadline, including 7 percent that were approved less than 15 days before workers were needed. (Good Fruit Grower photo: H-2A worker picks apples)

Delays in processing gives employers little time to complete the second phase of application and for workers to get visas. They can apply for visas online, but most of the H-2A process requires paper handling, which contributes to delays, the GAO said. Employers who need workers at different times during the season must repeat the entire application process for each set of workers. Farm employers say new rules implemented last year are causing the delay, even though the agencies in charge of it say they can't pinpoint why delays happen.

The GAO was asked to examine the program by the Departments of Labor, Homeland Security and State for aspects that create problems for employers, and how federal agencies have addressed those challenges. GAO found that federal agencies are trying to improve the application process through electronic systems, but those improvements have been delayed. It recommends the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security implement their electronic application systems and use them to collect data about the delays. It says the agencies should use that information to streamline the process. (Read more)

Restaurants hit with higher food prices caused by drought; small, local eateries struggle most

This summer's oppressive drought scorched Midwestern crops, raising the cost of feed, dairy and meat. Those high prices are impacting the size of restaurant menus across the U.S., with small, local eateries feeling the pinch the most. The cost of food now rivals labor as the top expense for most restaurants, Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times reports. Owners are reducing menu offerings, shrinking portion sizes and considering staff cuts. (L.A. Times photo by Francine Orr: patrons eat at Smokin' Jonny's BBQ in Gardena, Calif.)

Restaurant prices have been rising for more than a year, with wholesale food costs increasing by 8.1 percent in 2011, Hsu reports. The increases will continue, but at a quicker pace, because the price of corn, which is a key component in livestock feed, powdered sugar, salad dressing, and more, jumped by 60 percent this summer. Chicken and turkey prices rose by 5.3 and 6.9 percent, respectively, and eggs now cost 18 percent more. Analysts expect overall food prices to rise from between 5 to 20 percent by year's end.

Big chains are able to weather drought price hikes well, but small restaurants will suffer, Hsu reports. "The smaller mom-and-pop restaurants are going to get hit with the drought very shortly," Motley Fool analyst Don Krueger told Hsu. It's forcing small restaurant owners to make tough decisions. Restaurant consultant Kian Abedini told Hsu more restaurants are using small plates and tapas dishes to save money. He's also noticed cheaper cuts of meat on menus, along with more curry and rice dishes. Pickled items are showing up as well because they're less expensive than fresh foods, Abedini said.(Read more)

Federal criminal justice spending 'steadily declining;' How dependent is your local agency?

The U.S. Department of Justice has reduced funding for state and local criminal justice agencies by 43 percent over the last two years, according to a National Criminal Justice Association and Vera Institute of Justice report. Failure to resolve the national budget crisis could make things worse, the report says. This likely has a disproportionate impact on rural agencies who have less resources and oftentimes depend on federal money to operate.

Agencies "on the front lines of the justice system, including police," fear that cuts in spending would practically end federal criminal justice funding by 2021, reports Ted Gest of The Crime Report. Federal funding for state and local anti-crime efforts is "at a historically low level," the report said, with more than three-fourths of agencies surveyed saying their federal aid has been steadily declining. Fourteen percent of survey respondents said their federal grants have been cut by more than half. (Read more)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Health reform said to hurt rural doctor recruitment

Recruiting doctors to rural hospitals will get harder in the next few years as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act reaches full implementation and the demand for healthcare services increases, a new report suggests. An Association of Staff Physician Recruiters report, "In-House Physician Recruitment Benchmarking," says interview-to-hire ratios in rural areas are much higher than in urban, and rural recruiting officers are often responsible for several things, not just hiring new doctors, making them overworked. Both factors make it harder for rural hospitals to recruit, the authors concluded. (University of Chicago photo)

ASPR Benchmarking Committee Chair Shelly Tudor told John Commins of HealthLeaders Media that the cost of recruitment is rising, making it hard for rural hospitals to compete with their urban counterparts. "In lots of respects, the process favors urban providers. Physicians are coming to urban areas and they are looking for jobs, whereas rural providers have to go out and target physicians that are likely to come to their area," Tudor said. Rural recruiters have to "filter through a lot of people to find the right one who is willing to come in and even look at the opportunity," she said. (Read more)

Rural areas are more dependent on public radio, TV

In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney said he would cut federal funding for public broadcasting. Public television and radio outlets, including PBS and National Public Radio, received just $445 million of the 2012 budget, about .014 percent. In The Washington Post, Brad Plumer reflected on the importance of public broadcasting, and argued that if the budget is cut, rural areas would suffer the most.

"The usual arguments in favor of public broadcasting focus on the facts that a) public television and radio are highly educational and b) that this government spending mainly benefits rural areas with few other media options," Plumer writes. The government doesn't actually give money to PBS or NPR, he notes; it gives it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which parcels out the money based on a formula. A lot of it goes to TV programming, the rest goes to 581 local TV and radio stations across the U.S.

PBS would lose just 15 percent of its budget, and NPR just 2 percent if Congress eliminated the public broadcasting budget. But local stations in many rural areas might be forced to close or drastically cut back their programming because more than 50 percent of their funding comes from the government. Plumer says that would be bad for children in rural areas who have only three options for educational programming: Nick Jr., Disney Jr. and PBS. "For families that can't afford cable, PBS is the only option," Plumer wrote. "The big worry is that an end to government funding would leave pockets of the country without public radio and TV, replaced by commercial stations that are less affordable, more saturated with advertising, and less educational." (Read more)

Coal ash regulation will depend on who gets elected

Despite much controversy coal ash, Congress isn't likely to move on new regulations until after the election, and then action will depend on the priorities of the party controlling the White House, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The U.S.'s 431 coal-fired power plants produce 140 million tons of ash a year. About 60 percent is stored in landfills, ponds and mines, and evidence suggesting leaks are a problem had been growing. The issue is rural because that's where plants and disposal areas are located. (Photo by Nancy Pierce of The Clog: coal ash pond near Mountain Island Lake, N.C.)

The Environmental Protection Agency gave 45 ponds at 27 locations a "high hazard potential" rating, meaning that if they break or leak, it would likely result in loss of life. Environmental groups in the last month have sued operators of 14 power plants in North Carolina and four in Illinois over coal-ash contamination, and ash-contaminated water at 197 sites in 37 states, according to Earthjustice.

President Obama and Mitt Romney have touted their love of the coal industry, and the idea of coal ash as a hazardous waste creates controversy. Obama's EPA moved toward regulating more strictly, then backed off. If it is officially labeled hazardous, EPA will have direct control over it and new handling procedures on utilities will be implemented, something that would increase utilities' costs. The EPA and environmentalists say new regulations will encourage more utilities to recycle coal ash into concrete and other products, but recycling companies and mining industry officials say this will be less likely if it's labeled as hazardous. (Read more)

Delta political leaders thrash three Ark. politicians for expressing racial and religious prejudice

A group of political leaders in the eight-state federal Delta region, stretching from southern Illinois to the mouth of the Mississippi, has condemned three Arkansas politicians for derogatory statements they made about Muslims and African Americans. The Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus, which supports and works with the federal Delta Regional Authority, said the statements "are the prejudiced views of a tiny minority and do not reflect the point of view of the vast majority of people in Arkansas." About 30 to 40 percent of the MDGC is African American, and the group says it has strong ties to the Muslim community.

The statements in question came from three state Republicans: Rep. Jon Hubbard, who said African Americans benefitted from slavery and criticized those who chastised him by saying "this reeks of Nazi-style political intimidation;" state House candidate Charlie Fuqua, who wrote in the book God's Law that all Muslims should be expelled from the U.S.; and state Rep. Loy Mauch, who said in a 2001 editorial that Abraham Lincoln was a terrorist. (Read more)

Farmers more likely to be depressed amid harvest

There is an increased risk of depression among farmers during harvest season, and one doctor who treats a lot of them says it's important for them to take breaks to reduce stress, Julie Harker of Brownfield Agriculture News reports. Weather and other harvest-time pressures can increase farmers' stress, which can lead to increased risk of accidents and more, Harker heard from Dr. David Schwarts of Waukon, Iowa.

Schwartz said there is an increased risk of depression during this time of year, but many farmers don't seek help because they tend to think they are "tougher than that," he told Harker. Schwartz said he's seen an increase in cases of depression at his clinic this year because of the drought. He said family physicians can treat depression, but often farmers can reduce stress by "taking time out for enjoyable activities," Harker reports. (Read more) To listen to Harker's interview with Schwartz, click here.