Thursday, August 05, 2021

Fire destroys Calif. town; nearby paper steps up to cover it: 'These are the numbers, but they don't tell the story'

Greenville before the fire (Google maps) and after (above)
The Dixie Fire, now one of the 10 largest in California history, has destroyed most of the town of Greenville. And though the story has been covered by many nationwide outlets, one based an hour away, in Quincy, has stepped up to cover the story comprehensively.

Nationwide stories have covered the size of the fire and progress on its containment, and the Plumas News has those essentials, but as one update noted, "these are the numbers, but they don't tell the story." Only from a local paper can readers hear whether a beloved local bakery has survived. And only a local news source can help outsiders understand how Greenville's natural beauty and quirky residents made it special, as this moving "Eulogy for Greenville" does.

Plumas News is an umbrella website for six local newspapers owned by Feather Publishing Co., whose owners kept the paper local by selling it to longtime employees Cobey and Susan Brown a year ago. Cobey Brown, now the president and publisher, has been with the company for 33 years.

The print editions halted in April because of the pandemic, but Plumas News is still providing vital local coverage online. It's filling other community needs too, publishing notices about missing people and providing a place for community members to voice their grief.

Trumka, who mined Pa. coal, then became a UMW lawyer and the labor leader of all labor leaders, dies suddenly at 72

Rich Trumka spoke to the International Brotherhood
of Boilermakers convention in 2016. (IBB photo)
Richard Trumka, who went from mining coal in rural Pennsylvania to the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America and the AFL-CIO labor federation, has died. He was 72.

Trumka's death was announced on the Senate floor by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, "his voice breaking as he patted the lectern to compose himself," CNN reports. "The working people of America have lost a fierce warrior at a time when we needed him most," Schumer said.

Trumka was born in Nemacolin, Pa., originally a coal camp, and became a third-generation miner in 1968. After getting a law degree, he was a UMW staff attorney, and became president of the union in 1982. His high point there was a successful nine-month strike against Pittston Coal Co.,"which became a symbol of resistance against employer cutbacks and retrenchment for the entire labor movement, Wikipedia says. He became AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer in 1995 and president of the federation in 2009.

"President Biden called Trumka a 'very close' friend and said he was more than head of AFL-CIO,' in brief remarks to reporters," The Washington Post reports. "The president added that Trumka had died during a camping trip with family members." Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who grew up less than an hour away from Trumka, said of him, “He never forgot where he came from. He dedicated the rest of his career to fighting for America’s working men and women. He was a fierce advocate for working people, and a truly decent man.”

Rural vaccination rate steady overall, rising in high-infection areas; new rural infections up more than 50% in past week

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 25-31
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version
Two items from The Daily Yonder show rural trends in coronavirus vaccinations and infections.

Driven by the highly infectious Delta variant, the coronavirus "surged across the southern Midwest and South for the fifth consecutive week last week, raising new rural infections to a rate not seen since the middle of February," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for the Yonder. Rural areas saw just under 70,000 new cases in the week of July 25-31, a jump of more than 50 percent "after climbing by more than 60% the week before. In the past six weeks, new cases in rural counties have increased five-fold. The metropolitan new-infection rate has climbed at a slightly higher rate over the same period."

Deaths, the most lagging indicator of the pandemic, are beginning to rise. Rural counties saw 368 Covid-related deaths last week, up 25 from the week before—a 7% increase. New Covid deaths in metropolitan counties rose about 22% last week, Murphy and Marema report.

"The number of rural red-zone counties also surged last week, climbing by more than two-thirds to 945," they report. "That means nearly half of all the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan counties are in the red zone, a three-fold increase in the past three weeks." Red zones, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in a week.

Click here for more charts and regional analysis from the Yonder on infection rates, including an interactive county-level map.

Meanwhile, new vaccination rates in rural areas remained steady overall last week, but 19 states, "including several with rising rates of new Covid-19 infections, saw gains in the pace of rural vaccinations last week," Murphy and Marema report. "Increases in vaccination numbers in states like Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana confirm anecdotal evidence that rising infection rates in those states are creating renewed interest in vaccinations."

Nationwide, 150,205 rural residents completed coronavirus vaccinations last week. "That brings the percentage of the total rural population that has completed vaccination to 36.2%, an increase of about 0.3 percentage points from two weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. The metropolitan vaccination rate, now at 47.3%, is 11.1 percentage points higher than the rural rate. The metro rate continues to grow more quickly; last week the gap widened by 0.1 points.

Click here for more charts and regional analysis from the Yonder on vaccination rates, including an interactive county-level map.

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of July 29, compared to the national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.


Gov't watchdog report: FEMA not doing enough to convince homeowners in high-risk areas to buy flood insurance

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been collecting a lot of information about flood risks across America, including the increased risk of flooding linked to climate change. But the agency has not effectively used that new knowledge to persuade more Americans to buy flood insurance, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office," James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News. "As a result, homeowners are at increasing risk of costly damage from floods, and the government is facing rising costs for disaster relief assistance, the report found. The report called on Congress to consider requiring FEMA to evaluate how the agency can use the 'comprehensive and up-to-date flood risk information' it has been collecting to determine which properties should be required to have flood insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program."

Many rural areas, particularly those near water and some mountainous areas, are at a higher risk for flooding. After disasters, those without flood insurance have a hard time rebuilding without flood insurance, especially in poorer areas.


Trusting News: Reporters should stop 'journalismplaining,' which is using jargon, being defensive, getting on a pedestal

News research project Trusting News has some advice for journalists who want to help skeptical readers understand the reporting process: stop "journalismsplaining."

Lynn Walsh writes in their latest newsletter: "Talking about ourselves in a story is not something that comes easily to most journalists. But we know that people have questions about what makes our reporting credible. And we know that when those questions aren't answered, users make their own (usually negative) assumptions. It's better to be proactive, and that means talking about ourselves and our reporting process."

But, she continues, journalists should steer clear of "using a lot of industry jargon, being defensive or putting ourselves on a pedestal. Let's all try to avoid what we are calling 'journalismsplaining.'"

She suggests journalists answer questions such as why they chose to write a story, why readers should care about it, whether they were fair and respectful of sources, and more.

Click here for more tips on avoiding journalismsplaining. Trusting News is a collaboration of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute and the American Press Institute.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

CDC extends eviction moratorium extended for counties where pandemic is most active; see county-level map

Level of coronavirus transmission: non-metropolitan counties on the left, all counties on the right. CDC maps, adapted by The Rural Blog. Click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

"Days after a national eviction moratorium expired, the Biden administration on Tuesday issued a new, more limited freeze that remains in effect through Oct. 3. Like the previous order, the two-month moratorium issued Tuesday comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," Barbara Sprunt reports for NPR. "The new ban on evictions covers parts of the United States that are experiencing what the CDC calls 'substantial' and 'high' spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday afternoon, that's the vast majority of U.S. counties."

The last-minute order has caused widespread confusion, The Washington Post reports. The order is not retroactive, and so does not ban or stop evictions that were filed last week. It is likely to be challenged in court, under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. Legal information site Nolo.com has specifics on who qualifies for the extension and a searchable database of tenant protections by state. Surgo Ventures has county-level estimates of people who are behind on rent.

All Tyson employees must get a coronavirus vaccination by Nov. 1; vaccinated front-line workers will get $200 bonus

Tyson Foods will require its 120,000 U.S. workers to be vaccinated by Nov. 1, "making it the largest food company to mandate vaccinations in an industry beleaguered by coronavirus outbreaks,"  Taylor Telford and Abha Bhattarai report for The Washington Post. "Less than half of Tyson’s workforce is vaccinated, chief executive Donnie King said Tuesday in a memo to employees. Tyson leadership will have to be vaccinated by Sept. 24, while other office workers will have until Oct. 1." Front-line Tyson workers who present proof of vaccination will get a $200 bonus.

The nationwide rise in infections, driven by the Delta variant, has prompted many companies to mandate vaccinations and other distancing measures. But that's mostly been among white-collar employers such as Google and Facebook. Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, mandated vaccines for corporate employees; it increased its cash incentive for vaccinated store and warehouse workers rather than requiring a shot, Bhattarai and Erica Werner report for the Post. Ford Motor Co. employees don't have to get a shot but have to mask up in states where such mandates are allowed.

"Tyson’s sweeping mandate marks a shift in how some companies with employees who work in proximity to one another may be reconsidering their role in preventing the spread of the virus," Telford and Bhattarai report. "Mandates from companies like Tyson — whose employees work in conditions more conducive to virus spread — are more likely to have an impact on nationwide vaccination rates, according to Laura Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at Columbia Business School."

A representative for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 24,000 Tyson employees and 250,000 food-processing workers nationwide, said it is seriously concerned about the mandate and wants employers to provide paid leave so workers can get vaccinated without worrying about missing work.

Infrastructure bill has funds for Appalachian highways, wildlife corridors, rural weather-resilience grants, more

The Rural Blog has already listed some of the rural-interest features in the bipartisan infrastructure package, but here are some more, as noted by PBS NewsHour. The 2,700-page bill is a daunting meal for journalists to digest, so more details will undoubtedly come to light.

Here's what reporter Lisa Desjardins found in the bill, along with the page number so you can read more:

  • Resilience improvement grants (p. 356) to help communities upgrade infrastructure to better prepare for climate-change fueled disasters such as flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and more. At least 25 percent of the funds must go to rural areas, and at least 2% must go to Native American tribal areas.
  • Full funding for what the federal government owes in dozens of lawsuits over water rights of Native American tribes. (p. 2192)
  • A $350 million pilot program (p. 34) to make safe corridors for wildlife to pass through private lands.
  • Funding to potentially complete the Appalachian Highway System (p. 81), a network of roads and bridges begun in 1965 to connect some of the most remote parts of Appalachia.

Lawsuits from conservative groups drive up price tag, timing of Biden minority-farmer relief program, now at risk

"A string of legal defeats for a groundbreaking program to forgive the debts of minority farmers is presenting the Biden administration with a stark choice. It can continue the fight and risk further setbacks or give up and disappoint activists and lawmakers who have championed the cause," Josh Gerstein and Ximena Bustillo report for Politico. "The estimated $4 billion program is under siege by conservative legal groups — including one founded by close aides to former President Donald Trump — who have filed at least 13 lawsuits arguing the debt relief effort unconstitutionally discriminates on the basis of race."

Preliminary injunctions from three judges have blocked the program nationwide until the lawsuits are resolved. The Justice Department usually appeals in such cases, but hasn't yet. "Legal experts say the Biden administration’s best move at the moment might be to huddle with congressional allies and come up with a program more likely to pass muster," Gerstein and Bustillo report. "Otherwise, they say, there’s a danger of provoking court rulings that might undermine other programs aimed at remedying past discrimination." Several legal experts told Politico the program would be overturned if a case reached the Supreme Court.

Job gains, especially rural, stagnate over past three months; most counties are still below pre-pandemic levels

Employment in June 2021 compared to June 2021, by rurality and relative gain or loss.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Nationwide employment numbers have stagnated over the past three months and barely inched up in June, especially in rural areas. "Between May and June, the nation’s net gain in employment nationally amounted to just 0.3 percent. Rural America added about 93,000 jobs in June, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was an increase of just one half of one percent over May," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "And, as the map above shows, most U.S. counties had fewer jobs this June than June of 2019, before the Covid pandemic began." Nationwide employment in June 2021 was at 96.7% of June 2019 levels.

Metro counties lost a greater share of jobs in the early months of the pandemic, but have bounced back more quickly than rural areas. Twenty Republican-led states reduced unemployment benefits in June in an effort to force more people to return to work, The Washington Post reports. Those states did see more workers over age 25 return to work, but didn't really gain net jobs because those workers essentially elbowed out teen workers. Health concerns and childcare difficulties are probably the biggest reason people still aren't coming back to work, one expert said.

Click here for more charts and analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive county-level map.

Old coal plant now powers Bitcoin 'mine' in upstate N.Y.

From the BBC: "Bitcoin mines require a lot of energy to power the computers inside. Greenidge Generation in New York has converted a former coal plant into a gas-fired Bitcoin mine. Facing criticism from environmentalists, the company argues it offsets its emissions, is 100 percent carbon neutral, and has plans to invest in solar energy." BBC's North America technology reporter, James Clayton, takes viewers on a visit to the mine on Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes.

What is Bitcoin mining? CNet's Oscar Gonzales explains: "When Bitcoins are traded, computers across the globe race to complete a computation that creates a 64-digit hexadecimal number, or hash, for that Bitcoin. This hash goes into a public ledger so anyone can confirm the transaction for that particular Bitcoin happened. The computer that solves the computation first gets a reward of 6.2 bitcoins, or about $225,000 at current prices.

All that computing makes Bitcoin mining a notorious energy hog. "The Digiconomist's Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index estimated that one Bitcoin transaction takes 1,544 kWh to complete, or the equivalent of approximately 53 days of power for the average US household. To put that into money terms, the average cost per kWh in the US is 13 cents. That means a Bitcoin transaction would generate more than $200 in energy bills," Gonzales reports. Bitcoin mining uses more electricity each year than Argentina, "according to an analysis from Cambridge University in February. At 121.36 terawatt-hours, crypto mining would be in the top 30 of countries based on energy consumption."

Tuesday, August 03, 2021

Rural clinics have grants to persuade locals to get vaxed; they could collaborate with other providers and newspapers

The Biden administration recently announced it's sending $100 million to rural health clinics for outreach efforts to increase locals' confidence in the safety of coronavirus vaccines, but that leads to the question of how such efforts can be effective. Many rural health leaders say it's is a delicate business, and say it's counterproductive for advocates to be too assertive about vaccines, seem as if they invade their privacy, or send in outsiders to help, Erin Banco reports for Politico. What will rural public health clinics do with the money if they're reluctant to press locals on the issue?

"Well, they could collaborate with local newspapers and health-care providers," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog. "Community newspapers are generally trusted sources, and these funds could be used to finance sample-copy editions to reach every household with information from local doctors and other health providers."

In many rural areas, people rarely discuss the vaccine in public, and health leaders worry about alienate friends and family if they push too hard or even broach the subject. Officials Alabama and Louisiana "say their governments have in the past shied away from door knocking, trusting that if they put up enough flyers and promote the safety of the vaccine through the media, people would sign up," Banco reports. "But that strategy is not working. Vaccination rates have declined in recent weeks."

The biggest roadblocks are mistrust of the government, partisan sentiment, and social-media misinformation. "Almost every public-health official, local vaccine volunteer and physician in Alabama and Louisiana who spoke to Politico pointed to social media and the media as the main reason people in their neighborhoods are still holding out on the vaccine," Banco reports. "Their only hope for getting people vaccinated is if the media outlets that message to these areas, primarily Fox News, start advocating people get the shot, instead of pushing them away from the jab." Fox hosts and many Republican lawmakers have recently begun promoting the vaccine, but after months of aggressively questioning its safety and, in some cases, promoting conspiracies, it may be too late to change some people's minds.

Having more single-dose vaccines on hand could help, said one public-health official in rural Fayette County, Ohio, just south of Columbus. County immunization coordinator Amy Friel staffed a tent at the county fair to answer questions and get people scheduled for vaccines, but said it was a tough sell, Nick Evans reports for NPR affiliate WOSU Public Media.

It's difficult to administer vaccines at pop-up events because the multi-dose vials must be refrigerated, and doses end up getting wasted. "If there was a way for us to put it in a single-dose vial, and get out there, oh we’d be all over it," Friel told Evans. "I’d be all over the place, just 'hey do you want your vaccine? I’ve got it right now.'"

Pandemic roundup: Indoor masking advised in most counties; debates on school masking stir confusion, anger

Levels of coronavirus transmission by county from July 26-31, 2021. NPR map based on CDC data. Click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and immunization efforts:

The number of welfare recipients increased in most states during the pandemic, but declined in 10 of the 13 states that refused to drop rules requiring residents to work or look for a job to qualify for assistance. The decline is likely because it was more difficult to meet such requirements amid widespread shutdowns. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising vaccinated people to wear a mask indoors in counties with substantial coronavirus spread. See whether it's recommended for your county (above). Read more here.

State-level CDC data show that breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are relatively rare, and that the vast majority of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are unvaccinated people. Read more here.

According to an internal CDC document, the Delta variant is more likely to infect vaccinated people, and may cause more severe illness, than other coronavirus variants. It's also as contagious as the chicken pox, and more contagious than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox. Read more here.

The hype—and controversy—surrounding messenger RNA vaccines is distracting people from discussing other ways to end the pandemic, including more traditionally formulated coronavirus vaccines such as the Novavax. scientist Hilda Bastian writes for The AtlanticRead more here.

As the new school year looms, debates over mask mandates stir anger and confusion. Read more here.

Covid-19 outbreaks are on the rise in nursing homes. Read more here.

Vaccination rates are surging in areas where the Delta variant is running rampant. Read more here.

Walmart and other major employers are strengthening masking and vaccination requirements and/or incentives for employees. Read more here.

Another coronavirus variant is spreading in Florida. Read more here.

FCC plugs loopholes that let telecoms companies use rural broadband subsidies for urban areas

The Federal Communications Commission told SpaceX and other companies recently that "that the billions in rural broadband subsidies it doled out last year can’t be used in already connected areas like 'parking lots and well-served urban areas,' citing complaints," Joey Roulette reports for The Verge, a publication of Vox Media. "The commission, in an effort to 'clean up' its subsidy auction program, offered the companies a chance to rescind their funding requests from areas that already have service. The companies that got the subsidies must do the work to determine they qualify for the money."

SpaceX’s satellite internet network Starlink won $886 million last December as part of the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $9.2 billion auction meant to expand rural broadband. But the auction was riddled with wasteful spending and widespread data flaws, according to reports from the Competitive Carriers Association and consumer-advocacy group Free Press, Roulette reports. 

The Free Press report found that over $700 million in RDOF funds had been awarded to areas that already have broadband access. In particular, $111 million of SpaceX's share was going to "well-served urban areas and random patches of land with no infrastructure, from thin highway medians and empty patches of grass to New York City parking lots and big-box stores," Roulette reports. "The RDOF subsidies were announced under former FCC chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who left office when President Biden became president."

Monday, August 02, 2021

Senate unveils details of infrastructure bill; Appalachian Regional Commission's budget would more than double

"Senate Democrats and Republicans unveiled on Sunday a roughly $1 trillion proposal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections, setting in motion a long-awaited debate in the chamber to enact one of President Biden’s economic policy priorities," Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post.

One interesting tidbit: Funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission would more than double under the bill, receiving an additional $1 billion over the next four years. That's a significantly larger increase than other federal regional commissions would get from the package. The federal agency, responsible for promoting economic development in Appalachia, is led by Gayle Manchin, the wife of Senate swing voter Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Haris Alic reports for The Washington Times.

The bill calls for $550 billion in new spending over five years above projected federal spending levels, but the other half will come from existing, planned spending. It includes $73 billion to upgrade the nation's energy grid and $21 billion for environmental issues such as pollution. It also has an additional $65 billion to build out broadband internet and make sure it's affordable for the poor, but only $2 billion of that will go through the Agriculture Department. "The measure would also spend billions on carbon removal, firefighting and forest management resources, tree planting and more," Ximena Bustillo reports for& Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

Now the bill goes through Senate debate and a lengthy amendment process. But its future seems bright: "Last week, 17 GOP senators joined all Democrats in voting to start work on the bipartisan bill," Kevin Frekin and Lisa Mascaro report for The Associated Press. "That support largely held, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., voting yes in another procedural vote to nudge the process along in the 50-50 Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster and advance legislation.

"The legislation will face a more complicated path in the House, which Democrats control narrowly," Andrew Duehren reports for The Wall Street Journal. "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has repeatedly said that the chamber won’t take up the infrastructure agreement until the Senate approves a separate antipoverty and climate package that Democrats expect to pass through a budget process called reconciliation without GOP support."

More support secession, especially Southern Republicans

Support for secession from the U.S. to join new, regional unions (Bright Line Watch map; click to enlarge it.)
Six months after the Capitol riot, surveys show Americans more deeply divided than ever, and most Southern Republicans want their state to secede to a new nation of the South. That's according to June polling from Bright Line Watch, an initiative to monitor the strength of democracy. It polled 2,750 Americans and 327 political scientists. Secession support increased from a February survey.

Overall, the report says: "We find deep partisan polarization in perceptions of what is right and wrong with American democracy and the steps that should be taken to fix it. In addition, experts express reservations about current changes to election law at the state level. Still, we find some signs that Americans regard partisan attacks on election administration with skepticism."

Some other key findings:
  • The public and experts don't generally approve of tactics like gerrymandering, packing the Supreme Court or blocking nominees, voter suppression, abolishing the filibuster, adding new states to the nation, or refusing to certify election results. But, when elites carry out such actions, voters don't usually punish them at the ballot box.
  • Experts believe such tactics will become more common, especially extreme partisan gerrymandering. But they think Democrat-favored tactics such as adding states or abolishing the filibuster are less likely.
  • Bills that reduce the political independence of local elections officials or restrict mail-in voting are dangerous to democracy, experts say.
The report is long and dense, with plenty of charts and maps, and it's worth the time to explore it.

Eviction moratorium extended for those with federal loans; estimates show how many renters are behind in your county

Estimated percentage of renting households in arrears, June 23 to July 5, 2021. Based on Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey Wave. Surgo Ventures map; click the image to enlarge, or click here for an interactive version.
Though the federal government's eviction moratorium expired on Friday, President Biden has asked the Agriculture Department and other agencies to extend it until Sept. 30 for those who have real-estate loans through federal agencies, Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Biden to extend the whole program, saying that the administration must take action, but Biden insisted that only Congress has that power, citing a Supreme Court ruling in June that said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overstepped its authority in creating the policy. "The moratorium, put in place during the pandemic, was credited with keeping more than 2 million renters in their homes. Two days before it ended – and just one day before the House adjourned – the White House made its first public appeal for Congress to take action to extend the policy," Joey Garrison reports for USA Today. "The Democratic-controlled House adjourned for recess last week without taking action on a bill that would have renewed it."

Meanwhile, renters and landlords nationwide are struggling. An NBC investigation revealed last week that many states had, for a variety of reasons, distributed only a fraction of the aid meant to keep tenants from being evicted and unpaid landlords able to cover their own costs. A laid-off Phoenix woman, for example, told The Arizona Republic that the state said it was processing her application in early April, but despite numerous calls hasn't been able to get an update, a human voice on the phone, or a check. And in Georgia, only about 6% of the $710 million the state received has been paid out as of July 20, while 160,000 to 344,000 Georgians are likely to be evicted, according to Census Bureau estimates. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the culprits are "slow rollouts, cumbersome paperwork for both renters and landlords, and landlords who decline to accept payments have left government programs sitting on piles of unspent aid just as renters need it the most."

About 6.2 million American households are behind on rent, according to a new report by humanitarian data science outfit Surgo Ventures, an initiative of the Surgo Foundation. Households in arrears represent 14.7% of all renting households and owe an average of $3,700, or $23 billion nationwide.

A county-level map from the report shows that Southern renters are especially likely to owe money, with 16% of all households in arrears and owing $8.4 billion as of July. It's important to note that county-level figures are estimates based on Surgo's extrapolation of state-level data from the Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey and cross-referenced with the 2019 American Community Survey; however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Surgo's work careful enough to use its Covid-19 Community Vulnerability Index as a resource. Read more about its methodology here.

National Farmers Market Week begins today

This is National Farmers Market Week, an Agriculture Department celebration in its 22nd year.  

In his proclamation affirming the observation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that farmers' markets "serve as significant outlets for small-to-medium, new and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran agricultural producers to market agricultural products, in turn generating revenue that supports the sustainability of family farms and the revitalization of rural communities nationwide."

According to the 2019 National Farmers Market Managers survey, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S.  Farm vendors benefit in a number of ways, including:

  • 67% increased overall production.
  • 33% increased the number of workers employed on the farm.
  • Nearly 40% were able to sell imperfect products that would otherwise go unsold.
  • 77% diversified the types of agricultural products they grew.

A blog post from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service has links to farmers' markets data and programs meant to help them.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Ray Mosby, editor of small Mississippi weekly the Deer Creek Pilot, wins state's top editorial award for third time

Ray Mosby holds his third such award.
Ray Mosby, editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, won the J. Oliver Emmerich Award for Editorial Excellence from the Mississippi Press Association this month for the third time.

Mosby was honored for editorials in 2020 opposing the "defund the police" movement but calling for the de-militarization of police departments; the need for neighbors to cooperate and help each other in the Covid-19 pandemic; and endorsing a new state flag for Mississippi.

The contest judges wrote that his writing was "fearless . . . and fearless wins."

One of the winning editorials
The award was the latest big one for Mosby, who won MPA's Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2017 for revealing the need for renovations and repairs at the hospital owned by Issaquena and Sharkey counties, which his paper serves. He says they are the two poorest counties in the state, with a combined population of 6,500.

Mosby told Billy Watkins of the Jackson Clarion Ledger in 2017 that he came from the Clarksdale Press Register in 1994 and started offering a newsy front page and an editorial page with real opinion.

“Folks around here weren’t used to that and I was wondering if the paper was going to make it,” he recalled. Then a stranger whose arms “were bigger than my waist” came into his office and said, ‘There are a lot of folks out there who think you ain’t nothing but a son of a b----. But can’t a single one of them call you a liar.’” Mosby said that reassured him, and he kept on opining.

In other awards at the MPA convention in Biloxi, Jamie Patterson of The Yazoo Herald won the Bill Minor Prize for weeklies for the fourth time in 12 years, for stories centered on the Yazoo County jail; and the Minor prize for dailies was awarded to Isabelle Taft of the Sun Herald in Biloxi and the national journalistic philanthropy Report for America, for coverage of a murder case in Picayune and social-media rumors that persisted in its aftermath.

Among other awards, Jack Tannehill, retired editor and publisher of the Union Appeal, was placed in the MPA Hall of Fame, and Jack Ryan, publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, was elected MPA president for the coming year.

Bayer says it will remove glyphosate (Roundup), a lawsuit target, from the lawn and garden market in 2023

If you use Roundup to kill weeds, you won't be able to buy it legally in the U.S. in 2023, unless you're a farmer or a retailer. Bayer AG announced Thursday that it would removing glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, from the U.S. residential lawn and garden market, as early as January 2023, "as early as the decision could be implemented," reports Rhonda Brooks of AgWeb.

Roundup for lawns and gardens will be replaced with well-known active ingredients in a new "formulation or formulations." Professional users, including farmers and retailers who can license applicators, "will continue to have access to glyphosate from Bayer for weed control," Brooks reports.

“The agricultural segment is a completely different segment with very different volumes, of course, different labels and different dosages that are used,” said Liam Condon, president of Bayer Crop Science. “We think from an overall labeling point of view, it is a very well-protected market.”

Brooks reports, "More than 90 percent of the Roundup litigation claims Bayer has faced in recent years have come from the U.S. residential lawn and garden market business segment and is what led to the company deciding to abandon it," said Werner Baumann, CEO of Bayer AG: “Let me be very clear that (this decision) is exclusively geared at managing litigation risk and not because of any safety concerns.” Brooks notes, "The company currently has about 30,000 unresolved cancer claims."

Loan program to help Black farmers keep land they inherited informally, authorized in 2018 Farm Bill, is finally starting

The Agriculture Department will implement a loan program for farmers who inherited their land informally to resolve ownership issues so they can hold onto their land. Heirs' property issues have particularly threatened Black farmers in the South.

"The Heirs’ Property Relending Program will provide $67 million for loans to resolve property issues that have long kept some producers and landowners from being able to access USDA programs and services," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico. "The program’s provisions were included in the 2018 Farm Bill, but it wasn’t implemented during the Trump administration."

Under the program, landowners can borrow up to $600,000 to "buy out other people with claims to land, consolidate a title and clear the titles on the ground. Those farms would then become eligible for other USDA agricultural programs as well," Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Lenders such as cooperatives and credit unions can apply for up to $5 million at 1 percent interest when a two-month sign up window begins in late August. USDA will loan the money to those intermediate lenders who will then loan out the funds to the farmers."

About one-third of Black-owned land in the South is considered "heirs' property," or property passed down without a will or other clear documentation. Black families have often lost land to speculators and developers because they couldn't prove ownership, Clayton reports.

"The rising frequency and severity of natural disasters also poses a threat to heirs’ farms and other rural property. The Federal Emergency Management Agency more commonly denies disaster aid requests because of title issues in the South in counties that are majority Black," Bustillo reports.

Richardson, who had 13 papers in Ky. and Tenn., dies at 70

Dennis Richardson
Dennis Richardson, who published newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee and was the first in Kentucky to consolidate newspapers across county lines, died suddenly at his home in Camden, Tenn., Monday, July 26. He was 70. Funeral services were held this morning at Plunk Funeral Home in Camden.

Dennis and his wife, Lisa, owned Magic Valley Publishing, which has 13 newspapers and two radio stations. In 2017 they consolidated three newspapers at Kentucky's southwestern tip  — the Fulton Leader, the Hickman Courier and the Hickman County Gazette, into The Current, a weekly named for the Mississippi River and serving Fulton and Hickman counties, which are heavily agricultural and have lost population for decades. MVP sold The Current to Missouri-based Lewis County Press in 2018.

Richardson began his career as sports editor of the Paris Post-Intelligencer and was editor of the Weakley County Press and a copy editor at the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle. He was a director of the National Newspaper Association and the Tennessee Press Association, of which his son, Daniel, is president.

Gun roundup: first-time ownership spiked last year; recent polling shows rural-urban gaps, but some consensus

Here's some recent news and opinion about firearms:

Overall gun ownership nationwide jumped from 32 percent of Americans to 39 percent last year, according to University of Chicago survey data — well under the 50 percent level of half a century ago, but the biggest jump in recent decades," Marc Fisher reports for The Washington Post. "From the downtown streets left empty by the pandemic’s shutdowns to the sharp spike in homicides and the nationwide conflict over the role and behavior of police officers, a disorienting and often frightening year drove many decisions to buy guns, according to dealers and buyers alike." The Post offers portraits of a few first-time gun buyers and why they made the jump.

National Review correspondent Kevin D. Williams delves into the spike in gun and ammo purchases and speculates on what it says about America today. The trend "isn’t really about the guns" he writes. "It’s about a society that is, palpably, wobbling on the brink of something awful, with failing institutions, incompetent government, reciprocal distrust among rival social groups, and widespread simmering rage."

Finally, Route Fifty has a good overview of recent polling and analysis about gun violence.

According to May Pew Research Center and Gallup polling:
  • About half of Americans overall think gun violence is a "very big problem," but rural Americans are far less likely to think so. About 65 percent of urban respondents see gun violence as a major problem, compared to 47% of suburbanites and 35% of rural dwellers.
  • Rural Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, typically favor more expansive gun access. Among rural Republicans, 71% favor allowing K-12 teachers and school officials to carry guns, compared to 56% of urban Republicans and 33% of rural Democrats. And 51% of urban Republicans favor bans on assault-style weapons, compared to 31% of rural Republicans.
  • Men are more than twice as likely as women to own a gun (45% vs. 18%).
  • 48% of rural residents report owning a firearm, compared to 25% of suburban residents and 23% of urban residents.
An April Pew survey found that the number of Americans who favor stricter gun laws has declined in recent years. In Sept. 2019, about 60% of Americans favored such policies, but in April that fell to about 53%. According to that survey:
  • About 38% of rural residents said gun laws should be more strict, and another 38% said they're currently about right. Nearly a quarter (23%) said gun laws should be less strict.
  • When asked whether an increase in the number of gun-owning Americans would affect crime rates, half of urban respondents said there would be more crime, compared to 32% of suburbanites and 23% of rural residents.
  • About 40% of rural residents say more gun ownership would result in less crime, compared with 32% of suburbanites and 19% of city dwellers.
  • About 58% of urban residents said making guns harder to legally obtain would lead to fewer mass shootings, compared to 50% of urban residents and 36% of rural residents.
But, there is a general consensus on supporting firearm background checks, according to a June Quinnipiac poll.
  • Among rural residents, 84% support firearm background checks for all gun buyers and 14% oppose it.
  • 38% of rural residents support a nationwide ban on the sale of assault-style weapons, compared to 58% of suburban residents and 60% of urban residents.
  • 42% of rural residents support a nationwide ban on the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines, compared to 56% of suburban residents and 57% of urban residents.
  • 63% of rural residents favor allowing the police or family members to petition a judge to remove guns from a person who may be at risk of violence, compared to 79% of suburban residents and 80% of urban residents.
  • 36% of rural residents want to repeal a law that gives gun manufacturers broad immunity from being sued by victims of gun violence, compared to 42% of suburban residents and 50% of urban residents.
  • When asked how police nationwide are doing, 65% of rural residents approved of the way police do their job, compared to 58% of suburban residents and 45% of urban residents.
  • 84% of rural residents said they approve of how the police in their community are doing, compared to 81% of suburban residents and 61% of urban residents.

Quick hits: Neighborly listening, getting water to Navajo Nation, fracking effects study, and more

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

"We're rural Democrats and we're trying to listen to our Trumpy neighbors." Read more here.

A Navajo man has launched a program to deliver water to drought-stricken areas of the Navajo Nation. Read more here.

In their new podcast "Sepia Tones," Drs. William Turner and Ted Olson explore Black Appalachian music. Read more here.

An Aug. 11 webinar will educate on black-lung disease, grassroots efforts to address the problem, and ideas for influencing lawmakers on taking action. The webinar is presented by the left-leaning Appalachian Voices. Read more here.

A study correlates the hydraulic-fracturing boom with a rise in rural crime. Read more here.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

What's in the bipartisan infrastructure bill? How's it funded?

What's in the bipartisan infrastructure bill pending in the Senate? The Wall Street Journal reports:

"According to the White House, the bill will include $110 billion in funding for roads, bridges and major projects, as well as $39 billion to modernize and make public transit more accessible to the disabled and elderly. The deal also includes a $66 billion investment in rail maintenance, modernization and expansion. The legislation will provide $11 billion in funding for highway and pedestrian safety programs. A total of $7.5 billion will go to implementing a network of electric vehicle chargers, and another $7.5 billion will be used for zero-emission or low-emission buses and ferries. Ports and airports will be boosted with $42 billion in new spending."

The next paragraph of the WSJ story has more rural resonance: "$50 billion to bolster the country’s infrastructure generally against climate change and cyberattacks," which threaten rural water systems. "$55 billion will go toward clean drinking water and $65 billion will go toward broadband infrastructure and development. The deal invests $21 billion in removing pollution from soil and groundwater, job creation in energy communities and a focus on economic and environmental justice. The legislation will include $73 billion to update and expand the power grid," which will have much rural construction.

And how will it be paid for? "a variety of revenue streams, including more than $200 billion in repurposed funds originally intended for coronavirus relief but left unused; about $50 billion will come from delaying a Trump-era rule on Medicare rebates; and $50 billion from certain states returning unused unemployment insurance supplemental funds. The negotiators also expect about $30 billion will be generated from applying information-reporting requirements for cryptocurrency; nearly $60 billion will come from economic growth spurred by the spending; and $87 billion from past and future sales of wireless spectrum space. A series of smaller pay-fors are expected to make up the difference."

And what's next? "House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said Tuesday that House Democrats may want to tweak the bill to include more climate provisions. But he has also acknowledged such a move could put the bill’s chances in jeopardy in the Senate. If the House changes the bill and passes its own version, the Senate will need to vote on the House version. If they cannot pass the House version, the chambers could also go to a conference committee where they would try to bridge the gap."

Medicaid enrollees much less likely to get coronavirus vaccine; distrust, low income, education, media cited

Medicaid beneficiaries are getting the coronavirus vaccination at lower rates than the general population, and experts worry about the trend because the poorest Americans tend to have worse health outcomes and a shorter lifespan, Sandhya Raman reports for Roll Call.

The more immediate concern is that the phenomenon is a big obstacle to thwarting the virus. For example, more than a third of Kentucky's population is covered by Medicaid, and "only 27 percent of those eligible have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to about 51% of Kentuckians overall, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services," Deborah Yetter reports for the Courier Journal in Louisville.

Raman reports, "The reasons why vaccination is lower for this population are complex but could include economic barriers like lack of access to transportation and child care or less flexible work schedules," Raman reports. "A nationwide poll also showed higher levels of vaccine hesitancy among lower-income individuals." Low income correlates with low education and low health literacy.

Some of the insurance-company subsidiaries that manage Medicaid patients for state governments are offering $100 gift cards and other incentives, and "I don't know how much sway some insurance company's going to have over the phone. It usually takes someone you know to persuade you," said Dr. John Jones, who treats Medicaid patients in southeastern Kentucky,

In that area, Jones told Yetter, "There's just a distrust of outsiders in general," he told Yetter, and most vaccine-hesitant people would be more likely to listen to someone they know. He said vaccine demand from his patients has dwindled in recent weeks. "Often, they report anecdotal information shared by others or seen on social media, such as one patient who cited a case of a healthy young adult dying after being vaccinated, a report Jones said he could not verify," Yetter reports, quoting him: "Some of it's directly linked to social media. The stories, there's no way to confirm them . . . Sometimes, they refuse to talk about it."

New rural coronavirus infections spiked 60% last week, led by the Deep South and states touching Missouri, Arkansas

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, July 18-24
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here  for the interactive version

Nonmetropolitan counties saw 46,141 new coronavirus infections during the week of July 18-24, a 60 percent jump from the previous week. Overall, the new-infection rate has more than tripled since the end of June. "The growth in new infections is climbing fastest in the Deep South and in states adjacent to Missouri and Arkansas, the epicenter of the resurgence caused by the Delta variant of the coronavirus," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder

The number of Covid-related deaths in rural counties last week fell by 11, to 343, and the death rate remained about the same as the week prior, but deaths are a lagging indicator of the pandemic. Click here for charts, more regional analysis, and an interactive county-level map.

Series is examining plant-based meat-alternative industry

Meat and dairy analogues are more popular than ever, with consumers able to grab an Impossible Whopper from Burger King or almond milk from most any Walmart. Sales of such products grew 27 percent in 2020 to $7 billion, catching the attention of consumers, companies, farmers and more. A six-part series from agriculture and consumer-economics professor Maggie Cornelius provides an in-depth examination of the "meatless meat industry," as she calls it.

The first part, published July 22 in the University of Illinois' Farmdoc Daily, provides an overview of the industry, which includes plant-based meat alternatives and lab-grown meat. The second part, published today, discusses consumer preferences for plant-based analogues. Keep an eye out for the next parts, published over the next four Thursdays.

States that cut extra unemployment early saw jumps in hiring of over-25s but a slowdown in hiring of teenagers

"The 20 Republican-led states that reduced unemployment benefits in June did not see an immediate spike in overall hiring, but early evidence suggests something did change: The teen hiring boom slowed in those states, and workers 25 and older returned to work more quickly," Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam report for The Washington Post.

Payroll processor Gusto gave the Post an analysis which found that hospitality businesses in states that have ended extra unemployment benefits, such as Missouri, "saw a jump in hiring of workers over age 25," the Post reports. Howver, "The uptick in hiring of older workers was roughly offset by the slower hiring of teens in these states. In contrast, restaurants and hospitality businesses in states such as Kansas, where the full benefits remain, have been hiring a lot more teenagers who are less experienced and less likely to qualify for unemployment aid."

Health concerns and childcare difficulties have likely played a large role in adults' reluctance to return to work, Gusto found. The analysis concludes: "Ending enhanced unemployment insurance provisions is likely not the silver bullet to speeding up this economic recovery, and policymakers would be better-served by focusing on achieving higher vaccination rates and ensuring schools and child care centers can re-open in a safe and timely manner—particularly because these enhanced UI provisions are set to end for all states in several weeks."

With eviction moratorium about to end, most federal relief funds unspent; see how your area fares on rent debt

The federal government's pandemic-based eviction moratorium will expire tomorrow, but only a fraction of landlords and renters have received any of the relief meant to keep tenants from being evicted and unpaid landlords from going broke, according to an NBC investigation.

"NBC News contacted all 50 states and the District of Columbia about their emergency rental assistance programs. An analysis of responses from 41 states found that 26 of them had distributed less than 10 percent of their first allocations, although several programs had just begun distributing money in June," Bracey Harris and Adiel Kaplan report. "The reasons the aid hasn't reached frustrated landlords and nervous tenants are complex, from the inevitable stumbles that come with setting up new programs to software woes to varied degrees of hesitancy among states to sign off on payments without extensive documentation of need."

The December stimulus-and-relief package had $25 billion to help pay up to a year of back-rent, and the $1.9 trillion package approved in March gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help people pay one month's utilities and mortgage or rent to help prevent evictions and service cut-offs.

"An NBC News analysis of Census Household Pulse Survey data shows an overlap in some states that have the country's highest percentages of tenants behind on rent and programs that have gotten off to slower starts," Harris and Kaplan report. "In South Carolina, less than 1 percent of funds had been spent by July 15. Of renters in the state taking the survey, 29% said they were behind on payments, the highest percentage in the country. By mid-July, the state's emergency rental assistance program had processed 226 applications."

To see how your area is faring, click here for the Rent Debt Dashboard, an interactive data visualization tool with regularly updated data on rent debt for 40 states and 15 metro areas. The tool is a product of the National Equity Atlas and the Right to City Alliance.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Heath, icon of community newspapers and rural journalism, and top expert on newspapers and the mail, dies at 75

UPDATE, July 30: Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. ET Monday, Aug. 2, at Parrott & Ramsey Funeral Home in Campbellsville, which will hold funeral services at 1 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Max Heath (Photo from Southeast Outlook)
Max Heath, an icon of community newspapers and rural journalism, died today at 75 after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke Friday, July 23. 

Heath was executive editor and then vice president of Landmark Community Newspapers, which was based in Shelbyville, Ky., where he lived. After retiring from Landmark, he was postal chair for the National Newspaper Association, helping countless community newspapers negotiate the often confusing world of the U.S. Postal Service. At his death, he was NNA postal chair emeritus and a consultant to the organization's Postal Committee. He was also a consultant to Landmark until it was bought in May by Kentucky-based Paxton Media Group.

Heath's passing "set off a period of mourning across the community newspaper industry," NNA said in a news release. He was known across the country as the leading expert on newspaper mailing, and before that was an editor and manager of weekly papers, starting in his hometown of Campbellsville, Ky. He was Landmark's executive editor for 21 years, overseeing 52 newspapers in 12 states, seven collegiate sports newspapers, seven free newspapers, 30 shoppers and more than 30 specialty titles. He was in charge of Landmark's acquisition development from 2001 to 2008, when the company announced that it was exploring a sale. It sold most of its dailies but kept its weeklies until May.

In 2012 Heath won the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "Few journalists have had as much positive impact on as many communities as Max Heath," we said at the time. "He left a strong legacy of leadership during his years as executive editor of LCNI, recruiting, training and advising editors at the company . . . Heath largely established the editorial principles that earned LCNI national recognition. "He is and always will be a country editor," Benjy Hamm, Landmark's executive editor at the time, said at the awards dinner. Heath told the crowd, "Country editor is still the highest title one can hold, for its community impact."

Heath became NNA's point man on postal policy in 1989 when he joined the Postmaster General’s Mailers Technical Advisory Committee. The Postal Service gave him its first Special Achievement Award in 1998. "He served on numerous task forces and special committees to oversee the many changes in USPS and to guide its technical and logistical initiatives to preserve the affordable national mail delivery options of the community newspapers he so cherished," NNA said. "As NNA’s top guru, he conducted dozens of training seminars for NNA and other newspaper associations through the early 2000s, retiring only from the travel and never from the advisory function." He testified several times before the Postal Regulatory Commission, "often educating the commissioners, staff and USPS logistics experts on how newspapers were being handled in the field by USPS," NNA said.

“Max has long been a legend in the newspaper industry across the country as the go-to guy for anything postal, and has always been a stalwart ally of newspapers of any size and shape, “ NNA Foundation President Matt Adelman said. “He will be greatly missed as a true friend as well as a mentor, industry leader and invaluable partner in our constant struggle with postal issues on all fronts. His commitment and dedication to NNA and NNAF mirrored his passion for the newspaper industry throughout the many decades we have held him in such high regard. We look forward to honoring him and his immense level of service to our industry as we continue his work.”

NNA Executive Director Lynne Lance said, “Max’s generous way of helping people to understand the ins and outs of using the mail will live on in the education he provided his successors. No one will ever replace the knowledge Max had. But we pledge to honor his legacy by making sure community newspapers remain in the forefront of the Postal Service’s mission.”

Heath was on the advisory board of the rural-journalism institute and the governing board of the Southeast Outlook, a weekly published by the large, nondenominational Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Ann, and son Jason, of Louisville. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Senators reach apparent deal on infrastructure package

"Senate Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday appeared to clinch a deal that would invest roughly $1 trillion into the nation’s infrastructure," reports Tony Romm of The Washington Post. "The political breakthrough appeared to put the Senate on track to hold a key procedural vote Wednesday that would allow the chamber to begin debating the infrastructure measure. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he hopes to pass the package before the August recess."

The apparent breakthrough was "announced separately by two of its lead negotiators, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.)," Romm reports. "It came just days after talks appeared to have run aground. Lawmakers found themselves at a stalemate over how to spend money to improve the nation’s railways, water pipes and Internet connections, as well as the exact means by which to pay for it. The disagreements ultimately scuttled an attempt last week to open debate on the infrastructure proposal, which Republicans blocked unanimously since the proposal hadn’t yet been finished."

The Associated Press reports that Republican senators met this morning with their leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "who appears to have given his nod to proceed." Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, the lead GOP negotiator, "said McConnell 'all along has been encouraging our efforts'."

Even if the agreement proceeds, it is only the beginning of a battle "over a massive measure that would touch nearly every part of the economy," Romm writes. "To shepherd it through the Senate, Democratic leaders must ensure the measure remains attractive to those in their own party as well as Republicans, without whom they do not have the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster."

Also, the plan "is only one component of Biden’s broader economic agenda, and Democrats plan to try to move a second, roughly $3.5 trillion package essentially in tandem," Romm notes. "Party lawmakers plan to rely on a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation to adopt it using 51 votes, rather than the typical 60, allowing Democrats to bypass what is likely to be overwhelming GOP opposition to the budget deal."

Local newsrooms can apply for up to $10,000 in government and accountability-journalism project funding by Aug. 6

The American Press Institute is inviting local newsrooms to apply for funding to support projects that promote greater community engagement and participation in the reporting process on government and public accountability. 

Newsrooms can receive $2,500 to $10,000 for projects that will wrap up by Nov. 30; API expects to select five to 10 applicants. News organizations of any size are eligible, including weeklies and start-ups.

"The funding is available as part of API’s Local News Ideas-to-Action Series, a new effort to help journalists listen to leading audience and engagement professionals, workshop ideas, and execute experiments in their coverage of local governance," Andrew Rockway reports for API. "More than 150 people in local news have engaged with the series since it began in June."

The application deadline is Aug. 6. Click here for more information, eligibility parameters, project guidelines, or to apply.

Rock climbing's Olympic debut boosts popularity, highlights pros and cons of it for rural areas where it happens

A woman climbs in Kentucky's Red River Gorge. Climbers spend $2.7
million at local businesses there annually. (Redrivergorge.com photo)
The Olympic debut of sport climbing this year will undoubtedly boost interest in the sport (much as gymnastics facilities see a rise in enrollment after each Summer Games). "The growth of the sport presents exciting opportunities, but there are also economic, environmental, and social concerns about climbing’s footprint on the rural communities that are home to the majority of the climbing sites," Haley Cush reports for The Daily Yonder. "At the forefront of these concerns is how to ensure that the growing number of climbers respect the communities they visit to climb, protect the natural environment and observe the cultural significance of the sites themselves."

Climbers typically spend a lot of money at businesses near rock climbing havens such as Red River Gorge in Kentucky's Daniel Boone National Forest or Yosemite National Park in California (here are some of the nation's top rock-climbing destinations). All that food, gas and hotel money adds up. "The climbing industry contributes approximately $12.45 billion to the national economy, according to the American Alpine Club," Cush reports. "Due to the remote location of many climbing sites, much of this revenue flows to rural communities through accommodation expenses."

The increased traffic would line the coffers of rural economies, but without proper management could threaten the environment, including climbing spots. According to climbing advocacy nonprofit Access Fund, "one-fifth of climbing areas in the U.S. are already under threat from private developments, degradation from over-climbing, and use by climbers who lack an understanding of each site’s sensitivities and do not follow the 'leave no trace' practices," Cush reports. "A research paper published in peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One found that the increased climbing traffic can disturb plants, animals, and the face of the rock. Over time, too much activity can render climbing sites unclimbable and damage the habitats species that live there."

Also, many rock climbing areas are spiritually significant to Native American tribes, and some told Cush the noise and traffic makes it more difficult for them to worship in peace. Overall, better education for climbers will help ensure climbers and rural areas can enjoy the benefits of outdoor climbing spots for years to come, said Access Fund policy director Erik Murdock.

How to protect your lungs from wildfire smoke; interactive map shows smoke in your area

The sun peeks through wildfire smoke over New York City.
(Reuters photo)
The big wildfires right now are in the West, but the smoke is drifting all the way to the Atlantic, so rural areas that usually don't have much air pollution are getting a big dose.

Wildfire smoke contains hazardous gases and particulate matter that can damage the lungs. The Washington Post has a great explainer on what's in wildfire smoke, who's more vulnerable to it, and what people can do to protect themselves, especially on poor-air-quality days. Read more here.

For information about how the air fares locally, see the interactive Fire and Smoke Map, created by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Forest Service.

Rural water systems at risk of cyberattacks, advocates say

State and local infrastructure advocates told a Senate panel that rural water utilities may be vulnerable to cyberattacks because they're understaffed and employees need more training on federal cybersecurity regulations. Cyberattacks are a rising threat for utilities and the nation's food supply chain.

During a July 21 Environment and Public Works Committee hearing, advocates urged senators to better fund technical training and assistance programs like the Rural Water Circuit Rider Program. "The initiative was launched in 1980 with the goal of providing hands-on federal training and technical assistance to water utility managers and other specialists on a range of issues, including compliance with federal regulations and all other aspects of water utility management," Chris Riotta reports for government information technology publication GCN. Sophia Oberton of the Delmar Public Works Department in Maryland testified that the program is underutilized among rural communities, but could provide critical training and assistance.

"Other witnesses also stressed the need for further training and funding to meet the cybersecurity goals featured in President Joe Biden's cybersecurity executive order released in May, which outlined aggressive deadlines for all agencies and stakeholders to begin improving their cyber posture," Riotta reports. "A majority of water utilities, however, have not even fully assessed their own IT assets, according to a June survey from the Water Information Sharing and Analysis Center that included responses from more than 530 organizations. Dozens of firms responded that they were 'not sure' if they had experienced a cyber incident."

Some water utilities, private contractors and federal agencies have successfully responded to cyberattacks after implementing the National Institute of Standards and Technology's cybersecurity framework, according to Shailen Bhatt, president and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America. He recommended during the hearing that all stakeholders adopt the framework, which he says helps identify systemic threats, protect against vulnerabilities, detect and respond to attacks, and recover, Riotta reports.