Friday, February 27, 2015

White House announces new measures to help more rural businesses export

Because exports play an important role in maintaining economic growth, President Barack Obama wants to help workers from businesses of all sizes throughout the country—including in rural areas—benefit from the U.S.'s economic resurgence. In 2013, exports supported approximately 11.3 million U.S. jobs, which is 1.6 million more than in 2009, according to a press release from the White House.

As part of the "Made in Rural America" initiative that began in February 2014, the administration will put together resources to assist rural businesses and communities invest in new opportunities and access additional markets. The White House Rural Council has presented a list of executive actions to help businesses in rural America:
  • "A series of reverse trade missions and outreach events for rural businesses to meet foreign buyers, partners and trade experts and facilitate access to additional foreign markets.
  • "An effort to double the number of rural businesses attending international trade shows and missions with the help and sponsorship of partners, including the Appalachian Regional Commission and Delta Regional Authority.
  • "A new National Rural Export Innovation Team to help more rural businesses access export-related assistance, information and events.
  • "A new partnership with community banks to educate local lenders on the needs of rural exporters and the federal export resources available to them and their customers.
  • "A new partnership with the United States Postal Service to host 'Grow Your Business' Day workshops at 75 U.S. Postal Service locations throughout rural America to provide rural businesses an opportunity to learn about exporting and e-commerce, learn how to file customs forms online and calculate and plan for export shipping costs.
  • "An effort to develop better financial indexing and metrics for rural infrastructure projects. This will help underpin additional investments in roads, bridges, inland ports, water supply systems, information technology and community facilities that are vital to manufacturing and exports.
  • "A new effort to promote an entrepreneurial ecosystem mentorship program for rural communities.
  • "Launching an i6 Rural Challenge, which will focus on providing funding to rural communities to build capacity for commercializing technology by collaborating across agencies and providing funding to Challenge winners."
Department of Commerce data indicated that the exports setting records in 2014 were capital goods, consumer goods, petroleum products; foods, feeds and beverages; and automotive vehicles and parts. Canada, Mexico and China represented the largest export markets for U.S. goods in 2014. Services exports reached a record level of $231.8 billion, which is a 2.9 percent increase from 2013. Food and agricultural exports reached $150.5 billion in 2014, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, "We are seeking to cut red tape and bureaucracy for American small businesses and family farms, opening markets in the fastest growing region in the world to more American-made goods such as cars, trucks and crops," according to the release. Through TPP negotiations with Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, a regional agreement will be established to create new markets and address new issues. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will be a "high-standard trade and investment agreement that offers significant benefits for U.S. companies and workers through eliminated existing trade barriers and better enabling U.S. companies and workers to compete."

USDA awards $14 million in higher education grants to support rural economic growth

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on Wednesday "announced nearly $14 million in grants to support four programs to increase prosperity in rural America through research, education and extension programs focused on promoting rural community development, economic growth and sustainability," says a USDA press release.

Grants were awarded for:

Rural Communities and Regional Development:
  • Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Ala., $499,998
  • University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., $474,998
  • University of Idaho, Moscow, Idaho, $499,287
  • Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La., $499,789
  • University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn., $498,943
  • Montana State University, Bozeman, Mont., $474,190
  • Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., $499,374
  • University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt., $499,994
Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities – Environment:
  • University of Connecticut, Storrs, Conn., $500,000
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., $500,000
  • Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., $499,976
  • University of Nevada, Reno, Nev., $498,393
  • University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I., $463,096
  • University of Rhode Island, Kingston, R.I., $47,882
  • Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Va., $313,557
Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities – Economics, Markets and Trade:
  • University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark., $399,867
  • University of Illinois, Urbana, Ill., $49,600
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., $499,709
  • Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa., $245,131
  • Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., $500,000
  • Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio., $494,547
  • Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Okla., $485,414
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wis., $379,234
  • University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyo., $149,858
Funds were also provided through the Small and Medium-sized Farm program to provide farmers and ranchers assistance in their decision making with respect to management strategies, new technologies, sustainability, competitiveness and viability.

Fiscal year 2014 Small and Medium-Sized Farms:
  • University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark., $499,978
  • Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., $471,462
  • Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., $499,995
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., $499,380
  • Alcorn State University, Lorman, Miss., $499,794
  • Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, $384,913
  • Oregon State University, Corvallis, Ore., $499,996
  • University of Vermont, Burlington, Vt., $499,978

Kentucky, the No. 3 coal-producing state, has no working union miners, with closure of Patriot mine

There are no longer any union coal miners in Kentucky — the nation's No. 3 coal-producing state. The last remaining union miners were laid off by Patriot Coal in Western Kentucky on New Year's Day, marking the first time in a century that the state was without union coal miners, Whitney Jones and Erica Peterson and Whitney Jones report for Louisville Public Media.

Coal jobs have been rapidly declining in Eastern Kentucky, from 14,100 in in 2009 to 7,288 last year. Western Kentucky, which had fared much better, losing only 16 coal jobs in 2014, has already been hit hard in 2015 by the recent closure of two Patriot mines that employed 600. 

"The decline of unions is a nationwide trend that applies to organized labor of all types," Peterson and Jones note. "In 1983, 20 percent of American workers belonged to some sort of labor union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes. By 2014, that number had fallen to 11 percent."

"Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the United Mine Workers of America was successful in many ways in obtaining better working conditions and benefits for members; so much so, that most miners don’t see the union as essential anymore," the reporters write.

That's especially true with younger miners, said third-generation Eastern Kentucky miner Deke Hampton. He told a reporter, “When you throw in union dues that you’re required to pay, you throw in the fact that someone else can determine whether you work or whether you do not work, there’s a lot of factors that keep the younger guys from even considering it.”

The UMWA declined to comment, but Kentucky mine-safety lawyer Tony Oppegard "said the coal miners’ union still has a vital role," the story says: “It’s much harder for a miner at a non-union mine to stand up for safety,” he said. "In theory, federal safety laws mean coal miners can’t be discriminated against for refusing to work in unsafe conditions, Oppegard said. But in practice, those laws are lacking." (Read more)

FCC allows cites to expand broadband into rural area, overriding state laws; court action likely

Greenlight Community Broadband
in Wilson, N.C. (Travis Dove, NYT)
Before voting on net-neutrality rules on Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines to allow municipal utilities in Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga to go outside their defined service areas to provide broadband to rural areas.

The vote puts the FCC on the side of local governments and municipal utilities that have set up broadband systems but are constrained by laws in 20 states that prohibit governments from getting into the business and/or limit public utilities to their existing service areas. It is likely to be challenged in court by the telecommuncations companies that got state legislatures to pass such laws.

"The Electric Power Board of Chattanooga (EPB), which serves some 170,000 residents and businesses, created a fiber-optic network that allowed the company to deliver energy more reliably, an effort to reduce power outages," Reid Wilson reports for The Washington Post. "Along with power, the network can also deliver cable, phone and Internet service to residents throughout its service area—Internet that, by the way, achieves some of the fastest speeds in the country."

A 1999 Tennessee law "prohibits EPB from offering television and Internet service to residents who live in more rural areas outside Chattanooga’s actual city limits," Wilson writes. "EPB filed a petition with the FCC last summer, seeking permission to expand beyond the city limits. On Thursday, the FCC agreed to pre-empt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, where the city of Wilson also sought permission to extend broadband coverage to neighboring communities. The FCC's order said federal law allows it to preempt state laws that conflict with federal regulations or policies." The two Republican commissioners disagreed, and previewed the arguments that are likely to be made in a telecoms' lawsuit, Steve Lohr of The New York Times reports.

Tim Marema of the Daily Yonder salutes the ruling and gives other examples where state laws have prevented expansion of rural broadband.

Georgia unveils rural hospital pilot program; eight rural hospitals have closed since 2001

A committee of lawmakers, advocates and stakeholders handpicked by Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled a proposal this week to address the state's struggling rural hospital population, Jonathan Shapiro reports for 90.1 WABE. The plan "calls for a pilot program in which hospitals, ambulances, schools and nursing homes would get new equipment allowing doctors and nurses to remotely diagnose patients." The committee is asking for $3 million for the program, which will be initiated in four rural hospitals. (Charlton Memorial closed in August 2013)

Eight rural hospitals in Georgia have closed since 2001, and another 15 are struggling to remain open. Hospital closures are being blamed on a drop in patients, aging populations, payment cuts by government programs and commercial insurers and the state's refusal to expand Medicaid under federal health reform.

Jimmy Lewis of the advocacy group Hometown Health "says telemedicine will reduce costs and help hospitals stay afloat," Shapiro writes. Lewis told him, "In rural Georgia, probably 50 to 60 percent of ER visits shouldn't be ER visits. They’re primary care visits. There are ways we can go into triaging to reduce those. It’s very advanced, state-of-the-art equipment that can help determine what that patient is going to need." (Read more)

Michigan lawmakers propose bill aimed at protecting Great Lakes from invasive species

Asian carp
Michigan lawmakers introduced a bill on Thursday designed to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species, such Asian carp, that are threatening the region's $7 billion recreational fishing and $16 billion recreational boating industries, David Shepardson reports for The Detroit News.

"The Defending Our Great Lakes Act would give federal agencies 'broad authority to take immediate actions to stop the spread of Asian carp and other invasive species,' according to the bill's sponsors," Shepardson writes. “This legislation will also require key agencies to work with regional stakeholders to institute long-term measures to stop the spread of invasive species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins.”

The proposal "would give the Army Corps of Engineers authority to take short-term and long-term actions to prevent the spread of invasive species at a key point near the western end of the Chicago Area Waterway System—the Brandon Road Lock and Dam," Shepardson writes.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lack of competition led to a need for net neutrality; FCC has classified broadband Internet service as a public utility

The Federal Communications Commission released the new rules today making broadband Internet service a public utility, a move expected to help rural areas that lack broadband, Rebecca Ruiz and Steve Lohr report for The New York Times. The struggle for an open Internet had led to a massive battle involving Congressional members, large Internet providers and smaller Internet providers and businesses. So, how did we get to this point?

"The case for strong government rules to protect an open Internet rests in large part on a perceived market failure—the lack of competition for high-speed Internet service into American homes," Steve Lohr reports for The New York Times. "The FCC's approach makes sense, proponents say, because for genuine high-speed Internet service most American households now have only one choice, and most often it is a cable company." (NYT graphic)

"The new rules will not ensure competition from new entrants, ranging from next-generation wireless technology to ultrahigh-speed networks built by municipalities," Lohr writes. "Instead, strong regulation is intended to prevent the dominant broadband suppliers from abusing their market power. Technology, of course, can change quickly and unpredictably. So, analysts say, it is impossible to predict what the competitive landscape might look like in several years or a decade from now."

Last month FCC redefined broadband to increase speeds from 4 megabits per second to 25 megabits per second and upload speeds from 1 megabit per second to 3 megabits per second. More than half of rural Americans—53 percent, or 22 million people—do not currently have Internet access at the new levels, while only 8 percent of urban residents lack access to the new speeds.

"With or without the new net neutrality rules, cable broadband faces numerous competitors," Lohr writes. "They include upgraded versions of the DSL, or digital subscriber line, technology offered by most telephone companies; next-generation wireless service; Internet access from low-orbit satellites; and very-high-speed fiber optic connections to homes. Each has promise, analysts say, but also limitations. The telecommunications companies have employed a variety of techniques to increase the performance of DSL and have made progress. But cable remains a more capable technology and keeps advancing." (Read more)

Dothan Eagle in southeastern Alabama has a good example of how to localize net neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to release finalized net neutrality rules today, and the Dothan Eagle in the southeastern corner of Alabama (Wikipedia map: Dothan, Ala.) has a good example of how to localize a national story that could have a major impact on many rural areas, especially those lacking high-speed Internet or any Internet access at all.

Nationally, 55 million Americans—or 17 percent of the population—lack access to high-speed Internet, Carly Omenhiser reports for the Dothan Eagle. But numbers are much higher in rural Alabama, where 56 percent of the state's rural residents lack "access that meets today’s speed requirements."

"With the FCC recently updating its benchmark to 25 megabits per seconds (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, the rural parts of the state and country will continue to play catch up with the FCC’s set benchmarks," Omenhiser writes. "Using the 25 Mbps/3 Mbps benchmark, which is up from 4 Mbps/1 Mbps, the FCC found that Americans residing in the states with the lowest population density are 10 times more likely to lack access than the states with the highest density populations."

"According to broadband.gov, the most common speed for this area is 10 Mbps. However, Internet service is provided by about seven different companies in the Wiregrass, providing differing speeds from 3-25 Mbps or greater," Omenhiser writes. "The most underserved area within Houston County is the rural eastern portion of the county with speeds between 200-768 Kbps and 3 Mbps." (Read more)

More than two-thirds of smokers die from smoking-related deaths, Australian study says

Smokers are dying at increasingly high rates, and 67 percent of smokers die from smoking related illnesses, says a study published this week in BMC Medicine, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. Smoking rates are especially high in non-metro areas, where 26.9 percent of adults were smokers in 2010, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the University of Washington and in Germany. And recent reports have linked more diseases than previously thought to smoking. (Age standardized rates of all-cause mortality in current smokers and never-smokers, by smoking intensity)

The study, which consisted of 200,000 Australians, found that smoking 10 cigarettes a day doubled the risk of death, and smoking one pack a day quadrupled the risk of death, Paquette writes. Cigarette smoking is the top cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., accounting for more than 480,000 deaths every year—or one in every five deaths—says the Centers for Disease Control.

"An Ohio State University study found employees who smoke tobacco cost employers roughly $6,000 more annually in health care and productivity than nonsmokers," Paquette writes. "Another study, from the New England Journal of Medicine, shows health-care costs for smokers tend to be, on average, 40 percent higher."

U.S. wastes $162 billion worth of food every year

About 60 million metric tons of food worth about $162 billion is wasted each year in the U.S., says a report by Resources Action Program, an antiwaste organization in Britain, Ron Nixon reports for The New York Times. "About 32 million metric tons of it end up in municipal landfills, at a cost of about $1.5 billion a year to local governments."

That's particularly troubling, considering a report released in January by the Southern Education Foundation said that for the first time in at least 50 years, more than 50 percent of U.S. public school students are from low-income families, and some of the highest concentrations of poverty are located in states with large rural populations.

The U.S. isn't the only country wasting food. "The report estimates that a third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, and the total cost of that food waste could be as high as $400 billion a year," Nixon writes. "Reducing food waste from 20 to 50 percent globally could save $120 billion to $300 billion a year by 2030, the report found." (Read more)

Largely rural states that didn't expand Medicaid have highest number of uninsured residents

Massachusetts has the lowest number of uninsured residents, while Arkansas and Kentucky—two states that expanded Medicaid under federal health reform—saw the biggest drops in the number of uninsured residents from 2013 to 2014, says a report by Gallup.

Arkansas, which expanded Medicaid under a Democratic governor—Republican incumbent Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he wants to end it—ranked 49th in 2013 with 22.5 percent of residents uninsured, before moving up to 18th in 2013 with 11.4 percent uninsured, a national best drop of 11.1 percent. Kentucky, which has a Democratic governor but typically votes Republican in presidential elections, was ranked 40th in 2013 with 20.4 percent uninsured. In 2014 Kentucky was ranked 11th with 9.8 percent uninsured.

Massachusetts had a national low of 4.6 percent uninsured in 2014. Next was Hawaii and Connecticut, 6 percent; Vermont and Minnesota, 7.4 percent; Maryland, 7.8 percent; Iowa, 8.3 percent; Wisconsin, 8.4 percent; Rhode Island, 9.4 percent; and Delaware, 9.6 percent.

As expected, states with large rural populations that chose not to expand Medicaid had the highest number of uninsured in 2014. Texas led the way with 24.4 percent of residents uninsured, followed by Georgia, 19.1 percent; Mississippi, 18.7 percent; Oklahoma, 18.5 percent; Florida, 18.3 percent, Arizona, 17.5 percent, Louisiana, 17.2 percent; and Alaska, 16.2 percent. (Read more)

Media groups fight to overturn gag order in trial of Massey Energy coal executive

More than 30 media and free speech organizations "are fighting to overturn a gag order and sealing order entered in connection with the criminal trial of Donald Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy," Tom Isler reports for Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press." The appeal is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 on mine-safety charges stemming from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 people.

The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, National Public Radio and Charleston Gazette are among media outlets that have "appealed the denial of their request to have the orders overturned," Isler writes. "The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, on behalf of 29 other media and free speech organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the media petition."

After Blankenship was indicted, U.S. District Court Judge Irene Berger "issued a gag order preventing anyone connected with the case—the parties, attorneys, potential witnesses, family members of 'actual and alleged victims' and others—from making 'any statements of any nature, in any form, or release any documents to the media or any other entity regarding the facts or substance of this case,” Isler writes. "The judge also ordered that access to all filings in the case would be restricted to case participants and court personnel." Berger said media coverage "was sufficiently likely to prejudice Blankenship’s right to a fair trial." (Read more)

African American population growing faster than overall population in many rural areas

During a post-recession population slowdown, the African American population continued to grow, including in many rural areas, says a report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Researchers say this is the the result of African Americans having higher fertility rates and a younger average population.

The ERS study found that from 2010 to 2013, the total African American population grew by 3.2 percent, compared to the overall population growth of 2.2 percent. In rural areas adjacent to a metro area, the overall population dropped 0.1 percent, but the African American population grew by 0.8 percent. In rural areas not adjacent to a metro area, the overall population grew by 0.4 percent, with the African American population growing by 1.4 percent. In rural remote areas the African American population decreased by 0.5 percent, lower than the overall population drop of 0.7 percent. (ERS graphic)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

CDC to recommend New Mexico's nurse call center as a national model for free health services

A free health service in New Mexico—a state with a large rural population—has become so successful in assisting uninsured and low-income residents, while also saving the state millions of dollars, that in April the Centers for Disease Control is expected to recommend the program as a national model for other states to emulate, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. (NurseAdvice New Mexico photo)

"New Mexico is the only state with a 24/7 registered nurse call center that is free to all residents, whether insured or not," Vestal writes. "In operation since 2006, it has kept tens of thousands of New Mexicans out of emergency rooms and saved the state more than $68 million in health care expenses."

The state-run, locally-staffed hotline has served 1.5 million—or 75 percent—of the population, Vestal writes. In addition to providing a basic form of health care to thousands of uninsured people, "it also has relieved demand on doctors and hospitals in a sparsely populated state where all but a few counties have a severe shortage of health care providers" and "generated real-time public health data that has served as an early warning system during epidemics and natural disasters."

NurseAdvice New Mexico has become so successful that it "has a 98 percent customer approval rating and a compliance rate of 85 percent, meaning callers heed the nurses’ advice and either care for themselves at home, go to a doctor or go directly to a hospital based on the nurses’ orders," Vestal writes.

FCC expected to approve net neutrality rules Thursday; move could benefit rural areas

The Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve net neutrality rules to "regulate Internet service like a public utility, prohibiting companies from paying for faster lanes on the Internet," Jonathan Weisman reports for The New York Times. "Republicans on Capitol Hill, who once criticized the plan as 'Obamacare for the Internet,' now say they are unlikely to pass a legislative response that would undo perhaps the biggest policy shift since the Internet became a reality."

Reclassifying the Internet as a utility could benefit the 14 million rural Americans who lack Internet service, making it a high priority to get them connected, Chris Thomas reports for Public News Service. Supporters of net neutrality say "that without closer FCC regulation, the big Internet providers will continue to push for a tiered system that allows them to charge more money for faster speeds, which could compromise online access for those who can't afford it."

Rural teenage girls are more likely than boys to suffer from undiagnosed asthma and depression

Rural teenage girls are more likely than boys to have undiagnosed asthma, and asthma sufferers are at a higher risk to suffer from depression, says a study by researchers at Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University. The study, which was conducted from 2010-13 using data from 2,523 Georgia adolescents, found that diagnosed and undiagnosed asthma was the same in rural and urban areas but that girls had a much higher rate than boys.

Lead author Dr. Jeana Bush theorized that boys might be more likely to have athletic physicals, which would increase the chances of catching asthma, while girls might be more likely to dismiss asthmatic symptoms as something else, like anxiety.

"Teens from rural areas face a number of problems that could complicate their asthma, including poor housing quality, air pollution, trouble getting to doctors, smaller, less-equipped hospitals and more exposure to tobacco," says a release from Georgia Regents University. "Previous studies have shown smoking is more prevalent in rural areas than inner-cities."

The rate of depression among asthmatic teens is also higher in rural areas, researchers said. For the study, researchers screened 332 asthmatic sufferers from rural Georgia for depression, finding that 26 percent suffered from depression. Of that 26 percent, 77 percent were girls. Bush said, "So much of asthma treatment is about self-management—figuring out your symptoms and preventing an attack when you recognize those symptoms. If you’re depressed, you are less likely to be aware of and have the ability to interpret those symptoms.”

Obama vetoes Keystone XL Pipeline bill; Republicans plan an override attempt by March 3

UPDATE: The Senate voted 62-37 on March 3 to override the veto, five votes short of the two-thirds required to override, negating the need for an override vote in the House.

As expected, President Obama vetoed the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline bill on Tuesday, and just as expected, the Republican-controlled Congress is planning an override attempt that will most likely fail, Elana Schor reports for Politco. "Obama has no binding deadline to make the final decision on the pipeline’s permit, but Secretary of State John Kerry could make his own recommendation on the issue as soon as this week."

"Even before Obama whipped out his veto pen, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to hold an override vote, which the Republican leader’s office said would occur no later than March 3," Schor writes. "That gives the GOP a small window to search for the Democratic votes they still need in order to push the bill past Obama. About 20 more Democratic votes in the House and four in the Senate are required to enact the bill, judging from the votes the Keystone bill got when Congress passed it last month." (Read more)

Indiana anti-meth bill passes House, heads to Senate; state had 1,416 meth lab busts in 2014

An anti-meth bill in Indiana that would make it more difficult for anyone with a drug conviction to purchase ephedrine or pseudoephedrine—ingredients used to make meth—easily passed the House on Tuesday by a 46 to 3 vote, Adam Lee reports for The Statehouse File.

The bill, which now goes before the Senate, would require those convicted of "drug-related felonies to obtain a prescription before purchasing or possessing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine," Lee writes. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Michael Young (R-Indianapolis), said the bill is similar to ones in Oklahoma and Alabama that have led those states to see a 70-percent reduction in meth labs. (Indiana Methamphetamine Investigation System graphic)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Some question need for Essential Air Service program, which provides flights to remote areas

The Essential Air Service program is an important government-funded resource that provides 113 separate commercial flights to rural and remote areas. Many of the flights are sparsely booked, so some planes travel with only a handful of passengers, a fact that has some questioning the usefulness of a costly program that serves only a small number of individuals. (Wikipedia map)

"The cost to taxpayers for subsidizing those journeys has quadrupled in the last decade to a whopping $261 million, which has some lawmakers convinced the program is anything but essential," Kris Van Cleave reports for CBS This Morning. For example, a 50-seat jet that leaves Denver twice per day for two remote North Dakota towns costs the U.S. Department of Transportation more than $6 million a year.

Passengers say the flights save them hours of travel time, and local officials say the flights attract businesses and help stimulate local economies, Van Cleave reports. Devils Lake, N.D., mayor Dick Johnson told Van Cleave, "It's key to our cities. I think small rural communities are a major part of our country, and to keep them viable, to keep them functional, to keep them a viable community, sometimes you need to have help from the big communities."

But others are not convinced, especially since government data shows that 44 of the routes flew at least two-thirds empty last year, Van Cleave writes. Steve Ellis, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, told Van Cleave, "The Essential Air Service is really a relic of deregulation, airline deregulation, back in the 70s. We shouldn't be spending hundreds of millions just to make things a little easier for a few people to actually get to the airport." (Read more)

In need of rural doctors, Minnesota lawmakers look to expand loan forgiveness program

Facing a projected shortage of at least 800 rural doctors in the next decade, Minnesota lawmakers are considering tripling incentives for the state's loan forgiveness program, while also expanding the program to include other medical professionals, Jeremy Olson reports for the Star Tribune. "The deal is that doctors, dentists, nurses and others agree to practice for three to four years in sections of Minnesota designated as health care shortage areas and in exchange receive $5,000 to $30,000 per year to cut down their student loan debt."

The current program has been a success; 75 percent of the 192 doctors and more than 50 percent of dentists and nurses who have received loan forgiveness since 1991 are still working in rural areas, Olson writes. Rep. Deb Kiel (R-Crookston) has proposed increasing state funding from $740,000 per year to $3 million, which would fund an additional 50 loan forgiveness awards per year.

While nationally Republicans have gained control of Congress, in Minnesota, rural Republican lawmakers have a majority in the House. They hope that will lead to allocation of more funds to rural areas, Bill Salisbury reports for Pioneer Press. "The majority of Minnesotans who live in the Twin Cities area pay nearly two-thirds of the state's taxes and receive just over half of the state's spending. Meanwhile, non-metro taxpayers chip in slightly more than one-third of the revenue and get nearly half of the state aid."

"Rural issues moved to the Legislature's front burner this session after 10 Republicans defeated House DFL incumbents in outstate districts in the November election, giving the GOP the majority," Salisbury writes. "They campaigned on a theme that 'Greater Minnesota was left behind' under one-party DFL rule the previous two years." (Read more)

Rural and suburban inmates are the majority in Ohio prisons; rise in rural drug abuse to blame

A rise in drug abuse in rural and suburban Ohio has led to a dramatic shift in the state's incarceration rate, Nick Glunt reports for The Medina County Gazette. Since 2011, more than half of the state's new inmates have come from Ohio's 82 rural counties, compared to the 1990s when more than two-thirds of inmates were from the state's six urban counties. "And the shift isn’t limited to counties bordering urban counties: The Gazette’s analysis showed the increase in the number of people sent to prison was greater among counties that weren’t adjacent to urban centers." (The change in Ohio's prison population from 1993 to 2014)
Nearly 92 percent of all inmates in Ohio have a history of drug abuse, but the real story is how counties handle drug offenders, officials say, Glunt writes. Retired judge James L. Kimbler said "an urban judge might be less likely to send a drug offender to prison because he sees so many drug cases," while some rural areas lack a drug treatment center, making prison the only option, especially for repeat offenders. Ohio also has mandatory prison sentences "for having large amounts of drugs, repeatedly committing violent crimes, possessing or brandishing a weapon while committing a crime."

Another possibility for the rise in rural drug incarceration is migration, Glunt writes. For instance, "Medina County’s population rose 41 percent from 1990 to 2010. In that same period, the number of people sent to prison from the county rose by about 48 percent." In Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, the population dropped more than a quarter from 1970 to 2010. (Read more)

Flood project along Mississippi River pitting small town farmers against deep-pocketed farm owners

An Army Corps of Engineers $165 million flood project is pitting big farmers against small farmers along the Mississippi River, Kristofor Husted reports for NPR. "On the western shore, farmers in southeast Missouri need the project to protect their valuable farmland. But small river towns on the eastern side of the river say the project protects those influential farmers at the cost of their small communities." (Husted photo: A truck drives on top of a levee that protects a soybean field in New Madrid County, Missouri, when the Mississippi River floods) 

The New Madrid Floodway Project is designed to protect the land around the Mississippi River, where farmers grow millions of dollars' worth of soybeans, corn, cotton and rice, Husted writes. "The Corps wants to effectively separate the farmland from the river by completing the levee system and building an earthen wall along a 1,500-foot gap. This final levee would essentially cordon off the lucrative farmland in the floodway, protecting the crops from most floods. That's good for farmers west of the river but maybe not so good for towns on the other side."

"The levee system protects the farms most of the time, but every 75 years or so, a major flood slams the area. Then, the New Madrid Floodway has to be opened up and used as, well, a floodway," Husted writes. "Now, the Army Corps wants to close off the last part of the levee system, and that's pitting some deep-pocketed farm owners against less wealthy towns like Cairo. Environmental groups, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are also fighting the project. They say cutting off the floodway with a plug would be catastrophic for the 50,000 acres of wetland that fish and waterfowl call home." (Read more)

A record 292 million visited national parks in 2014

U.S. national parks had a record number of visitors in 2014, largely due to lower gas prices, an improving economy, warmer weather and an increase in foreign visitors whose numbers had dropped since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Corbin Hiar reports for Environment and Energy Publishing. Overall, national parks had 292,800,082 visitors last year, 5.6 million more than the previous record in 1987 and 19 million more than in 2013. (Great Outdoors San Diego photo: Joshua Tree National Park)

Joshua Tree, Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton and Glacier national parks all had a record number of visitors, Hiar writes. NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said in a statement: "We should see something on the order of $15 billion in visitor spending, 250,000 or more jobs and a $28 billion effect on the U.S. economy when our annual economics of national parks report comes out in April." (Read more)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Appalachian commission, at 50, has 'serious work to do,' co-chair says; especially in the central part!

The Appalachian Regional Commission "has helped county economies grow with nearly $4 billion in spending, but the region still lags in key measures of educational, economic and physical well-being," according to a study done for the commission's 50th anniversary, Jonathan Drew reports for The Associated Press. President Lyndon Johnson signed ARC into law on March 9, 1965 as part of his War on Poverty(AP photo: Johnson visiting Eastern Kentucky in April 1964)

The ARC's mission is to bring Appalachia to socioeconomic parity with the rest of the nation. It has a long way to go. While poverty rates in the region have fallen by about half, "researchers noted that other problems persist, including disproportionately high mortality rates and dependency on government checks," Drew writes. "The commission’s leaders acknowledge that even after half a century, the need for aid is as great as ever, a sentiment echoed by heads of charities in the region." Earl Gohl, the commission’s federal co-chair, told Drew, “We have serious work to do.”
In 1969, Appalachia's per-capita income was 78.7 percent of the national average, with many Central Appalachian counties under 50 percent. (Click on map for larger version) In 2012, the regional percentage was 81.1 percent of the national, "but that’s at least partly because safety-net programs such as Social Security and unemployment make up about 24 percent of personal income in the region, compared to 17 percent nationally," Drew writes.

The report focuses no attention on the neediest part of the region, Central Appalachia, which has been hard-hit recently by job losses in the coal industry. The executive summary of the report doesn't even mention "Central Appalachia," and the subregion gets only three mentions in the 181-page technical report. Central Appalachia as defined by ARC is the counties in yellow on the map above.

Health remains a serious problem, and the region is "losing ground," the report says. Infant mortality rates in the region have dropped significantly, but overall mortality rates remained the same while mortality rates nationally have dropped. "The report cites higher rates of obesity and diabetes in Appalachia as possible contributors," Drew writes. (Click map for larger version)
"Researchers did find that county employment and income levels in the region grew faster than a control group of similar counties elsewhere in the country," Drew reports. "Over the 50-year period, counties that received ARC investment averaged 4.2 percent higher employment growth and 5.5 percent higher per capita income growth than the control group counties."

"The report’s authors estimate that more jobs were created by the ARC in its early years when it received higher funding from the government," Drew writes. The Reagan administration wanted to abolish the agency, but Congress refused. However, "The funding levels changed dramatically, and with that the commission changed dramatically as well," Gohl told Drew. "We moved from large appropriations funding big public works projects. And it’s now, I would say, a leaner commission that focuses on developing strategic partnerships.” (Read more) For the full report, click here.

Interactive map shows county-by-county data of percentage of working-age women with jobs

Women between the ages of 25 and 54 living in Appalachia, Northern Michigan, the Deep South and the interior Southwest are less likely to have jobs than those living in other parts of the U.S., Gregor Aisch, Josh Katz and David Leonhardt report for The New York Times. (NYT map: Only 48 percent of women ages 25 to 54 in Jackson County, Kentucky, work—compared to the national average of 70 percent. To view an interactive version, click here
Overall, 70 percent of women ages 25 to 54 work, compared to 74 percent in 1999, reports the Times. But in some rural areas those numbers drop considerably. "The places with the highest rates of non-work include parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Michigan. These same areas have also had a sharp increase in health coverage in the last year, in part because more people without jobs can now obtain health insurance." (Read more)

Walmart to raise minimum wages to at least $10 per hour by 2016

Walmart, one of the biggest businesses in rural America, announced last week that it will voluntarily raise minimum wages to at least $10 per hour by 2016, Byron Tau reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Walmart said the changes aim to reward employees with better pay as well as offer employees closer relationships with supervisors, better management of departments and improved scheduling of hours. It pegged the cost of the moves at $1 billion this fiscal year." (Reuters photo: Walmart employees protesting for higher wages in November 2014)

Some are not applauding the mega-corporation, which has been accused in the past of underpaying workers, Tau writes. Josh Orton, a spokesman with the liberal advocacy group Progressives United, told Tau, "What does it say that Walmart workers getting a raise is huge news? I think everyone would probably agree that Walmart is likely not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. There’s been a long prolonged campaign from low-wage workers nationally to push them in this direction.” Others cheered the news but called on the chain to raise wages to $15 per hour.

One opinion as to why Walmart is making the move is to avoid workers' organizing unions, Max Ehrenfreund reports for The Washington Post. "One unexpected winner from Walmart's decision: taxpayers, who chip in thousands of dollars a year in benefits for minimum-wage workers, according to a report from Democratic staff in the House of Representatives. For all the employees at a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter in Wisconsin, these costs likely total more than $900,000 annually."

Rural Vermont schools struggling to retain staff; region has high percentage of first-year teachers

Remote rural Vermont schools with high poverty rates are forced to employ less experienced teachers, says a report by the U.S. Department of Education, Amy Ash Nixon reports for VTDigger, an independent investigative news organization covering the state. The state's poor rural schools have more first-year teachers than any other part of the state, though the high minority schools have a lower rate of first-year teachers than the national trend.

Remote, isolated towns “are having a hard time holding onto their educators, teachers, principals and superintendents,” said Amy Fowler, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, Nixon writes. Fowler said geographic isolation plays a larger part than poverty in the inability to retain teachers.

In response to the report, the Vermont Agency of Education is holding meetings around the state in March and April to address why some poor, remote communities do not have the same access to high quality teachers as schools in wealthier communities, reports The Associated Press.

Neurotoxin that grows everywhere in the U.S. is threatening bald eagles, other waterfowl

Bald eagles, which were taken off the endangered species list seven years ago, are being threatened by a deadly bacterium—Aetokthonos hydrillicola, Greek for “eagle killer"—that hides on the underside of an aquatic leaf and grows nearly everywhere in the U.S., Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. (Post graphic)

"Across the South, near reservoirs full of invasive plants from Asia called hydrilla, eagles have been stricken by this bacterium, which goes straight to their brains," Fears writes. "Eagles prey on American coots, which dine almost exclusively on the plant and are being hit even harder. In Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina, coots, shorebirds, ducks and eagles are dying by the dozens from the incurable lesions."

Saving the animals means spending millions "to eradicate a plant that was introduced to the United States in Florida about 60 years ago," Fears writes. "It now grows in virtually every body of fresh water from the southeast to California and Washington. It grows prolifically in the the Chesapeake Bay region, which is also full of bald eagles and visiting coots, a dark, plump, duck-like bird with a bright orange dot for an eye." (Read more)

Gray wolves returned to protected status in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Friday that gray wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin have been granted "endangered" status and wolves in Minnesota have been listed as "threatened," reports The Associated Press. "The rule complies with a federal judge's order in December that overruled the agency's earlier decision to revoke wolves' protected status and hand management authority to the states. It means sport hunting and trapping of Great Lakes wolves is no longer permissible." (AP photo by Gary Kramer)

In September a judge ordered federal protection for gray wolves in Wyoming, Kevin Murphy reports for Reuters. The Humane Society of the United States had argued in a federal lawsuit that Fish and Wildlife's 2012 decision "to allow states to regulate gray wolves could lead to excessive hunting and trapping and put their populations at risk." Fish and Wildlife spokesman Gavin Shire said on Friday that the agency is still deciding whether or not to appeal the decision.