Saturday, February 18, 2012

Editor-turned-academic falls in love with community journalism after six weeks at small paper

St. John, Wash., population 523
Journalism professor and former newspaper editor Mac McKerral got "the surprise of his life" while working last summer at The Community Current, a small newspaper in rural St. John, Wash., he writes in the latest edition of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists.

"It affirmed my belief in the value of community newspapers that focus singularly on their community — the good news and the bad — and that have a bond with the readers served," McKerral writes. "The Community Current is among many of those, but its signatures paint a picture of common characteristics that make it easier to understand why these papers survive and even thrive while the death knell for 'print' rings out."

McKerral's six-week sojourn, funded by his employers at Western Kentucky University, prompted him to write a 4,444-word article  about community journalism that is part love poem, part hard-nosed analysis and altogether interesting for those of us who appreciate and support rural and community journalism. Read it here.

Rural lawmakers anxious to pass a Farm Bill wish Obama had taken their cue on budget cuts

"President Obama’s budget puts him on a collision course this year with rural state lawmakers over farm policy," Erik Wasson of The Hill writes, taking a top-level look at a topic that gets more complex with each layer. Farm groups disagree over changes in the Farm Bill that expires in September, but Wasson says that schedule makes it "one of the few bills with a shot of passing Congress before the election," so farm interests want to get a new bill passed because farm programs could be "a popular target . . . in a lame-duck session where a grand deficit bargain may be negotiated."

Obama has proposed cutting farm programs by $32 billion over 10 years. "Members of the agriculture committees from both parties are crying foul," Wasson writes. "While Obama has proposed similar cuts in the past, this year he chose to ignore a new proposal developed last fall by a bipartisan group of farm-state lawmakers." It had cuts of $23 billion and an expanded crop-insurance program "that critics say could balloon taxpayer costs in future years." Obama's plan would cut crop insurance by $7 billion, and critics say that may complicate efforts to get a bill passed. (Read more)

Congress could extend the current bill for a year, but that is opposed by a broad array of lobbying groups, Jason Vance of Nebraska Farmer reports. "Unless there is a swift drop in prices this year—resulting in a potentially higher farm bill baseline in 2013—farmers will be better off if Congress passes a farm bill before its members head home for the fall campaign or, failing that, during the lame duck session between the election and the end of December 2012," write Daryll E. Ray and Harwood Schaffer of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee.

The Congressional Research Service recently published a comprehensive guide to farm programs and the major proposals to change them. The 31-page PDF can be downloaded here.

The heavy attention to the Farm Bill leaves other big farm factors with too little attention, Purdue University economist Mike Boehlje tells Gary Truitt of Hoosier Ag Today: “There are issues like immigration, energy, and even animal welfare, that impact agriculture.” Trade is big: “When 28 percent of your pork is exported, you had better make darn sure you have open markets.” And so is transportation: “At the same time Brazil is building their transportation system, we are letting ours atrophy.” (Read more)

2/5 of farmers don't plant required non-GM corn designed to keep 'super bugs' from developing

More than two of every five U.S. farmers planting genetically modified corn are failing to plant a non-modified crop nearby to keep pests from becoming immune to a natural insecticide generated by the modification, a threefold increase from last year, according to Monsanto Co. and other companies that make the seed corn, Jack Kaskey of Bloomberg News reports.

The Environmental Protection Agency requires the growers to plant an adjacent "refuge" area, but "about 41 percent of 3,053 farmers inspected in 2011 failed to fully comply with the refuge requirement, according to data from the Agricultural Biotechnology Stewardship Technical Committee," Kaskey reports.

Last year's non-compliance figure was 15 percent. There is "concern that an increasing number of bugs may be developing resistance to modified crops," Kaskey writes. In July, Iowa State University researchers found that some corn rootworms (above) have evolved resistance to a gene engineered into Monsanto corn.

The National Corn Growers Association said it expected an increase in non-compliance "because of a new industry initiative that uses sales data," Kaskey writes. "Seed companies used their data to identify farmers who may not have purchased enough seed for a refuge, said Nick Storer, Dow Chemical Co.’s representative on the committee. “What’s new is that every grower had some sort of scrutiny this year,” Storer told Bloomberg. (Read more)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Value of good farmland in Corn Belt rose by one-fourth in 2011, a 'once-in-a-generation' event

The value of good farmland in the heart of the Corn Belt rose by one-fourth in the last year, the largest annual increase since 1976, even when adjusted for inflation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago reported yesterday in its monthly AgLetter. The Kansas City Fed, which includes part of the Corn Belt, reported a similar increase in non-irrigated cropland, which it attributed to "robust bidding by farmers." The Chicago Fed said the rise was supported by "an unusual shift up in agricultural prices across the board," particularly for corn and soybeans.

Fourth-quarter and 2011 increases by region in Chicago Fed area
"The year 2011 may go down in the annals of U.S. agriculture as a once-in-a-generation phenomenon," the Chicago Fed said. The KC Fed said local bankers "noted an increasing number of absentee landowners were putting their farms up for sale and attributed much of the auction activity to landowners seeking top-dollar prices. Farmers were the main buyers, and the share of land purchased by farmers has grown during the past few years. Still, outside investor interest in farmland for rental income or capital gains remained high, with farmland sales for recreational or development use dwindling." It said about one-third of bankers in its district (Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and parts of Missouri and New Mexico) expected both the price and the amount of farmland offered for sale to rise further in 2012."

Predictions like that are likely to feed fears of a farmland bubble and bust. On, Multimedia Editor Jeff Caldwell writes, "The current boom will be followed by a bust at some point in the future. There are reasons, though, that this time the cycle's different than it's been in the last few decades." (Read more) And the Loranda Group says "This rapid increase in farmland values has been driven by profits and not speculation," AgriMarketing reports.

The biggest jump in farmland value in the Chicago Fed area was in Iowa, where one tract in the northern part of Region I sold for $20,000 an acre, an unheard-of sum. That is probably an outlier; a local newspaper publisher familiar with the auction told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues that it turned into a bidding war between two farmers who did not want the other one to have the property. UPDATE: A more recent sale, at just under $10,000 an acre, is more typical. If you're wondering exactly where the Corn Belt is, it's in dark green on this map (yellow numbers are each state's percentage of the national corn crop):

Rural institute head says Rural Development programs need flexibility, regionalism, money

In the face of budget problems that are likely to continue, the Rural Development programs of the Department of Agriculture need to adopt regional approaches, have greater flexibility and seek more investment from government, lenders and foundations, Charles "Chuck" Fluharty, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute, told the Senate Agriculture Committee this week.

Congress is supposed to listen to RUPRI. It created the institute in 1990 to report on federal policy as it affects life in the rural U.S, the Daily Yonder notes, reporting that Fluharty "emphasized that federal agencies have been poorly coordinated in efforts to sustain rural communties. He also stressed that investment in rural regions -- from government, commercial lenders and foundations -- continues to lag." For his written and video testimony, click here.

Monday is deadline to nominate a 'Local Hero' for using open-government laws to make a difference

Do you know someone who has made a difference in their community by using information gleaned through freedom of information laws of the states or federal government? You have until Monday, Feb. 20 to nominate them as a "Local Hero" to be recognized during Sunshine Week, will will be observed March 11-17.

Sunshine Week is designed to focus attention on, and spur dialogue about, the importance ofprotecting and utilizing access to government information.Nominations for “Local Heroes” may be submitted online by going here.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ky. panel OKs prescription-for-pseudoephedrine-pills bill in face of drug makers' radio ad campaign

In the face of a strong lobbying effort by makers of over-the-counter cold medicines, a Kentucky legislative committee narrowly approved a bill that would require a prescription for most products with pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to make methamphetamine.

The bill, approved 6-5 by the Senate Judiciary Committee, is sponsored by Senate Majority Floor Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, but he said he isn't sure of its chances in the full Senate, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader. A similar bill got out of committee last year but never came to a vote on the Senate floor because it lacked the votes to pass. This year's version would not apply to gelcaps, which are more difficult to use in meth making.

The Kentucky State Police recorded about 1,200 meth labs last year, and former meth addict Melanda Adams told the committee she believed the bill would "cut the burgeoning number of dangerous home-made meth labs in the state." The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a lobby for the over-the-counter medicine industry, contends requiring a prescription would "create a hardship for legitimate consumers," reports Jessie Halladay of The Courier-Journal.

Only Oregon and Mississippi have passed such laws, so Kentucky has become a firewall for the drug makers' lobby, which has bought many radio commercials urging people to contact senators in opposition to the bill, contending it would "punish Kentucky families" and pushing an alternative measure that would bar people convicted of meth making from buying the medicines. Opponents of that bill say meth makers would continue to use surrogates to buy the medicines for them, and at today's hearing one called the radio ads "scare tactics."

As of Feb. 3, the drug makers' lobby had spent more than $82,000 running ads on Louisville, Lexington and Somerset radio stations owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc., the nation's largest radio operator, according to public-inspection files at those stations. In 2011, CHPA paid the Kentucky Association of Radio and Television more than $93,000 to run ads, according to public-inspection files from Cummulus Broadcasting, another major owner of stations in Kentucky.

The commercials have been running uncontested for two months, but this week a group headed by Knox and Laurel County's Commonwealth's Attorney Jackie Steele, Real Facts About Meth, offered a counter-ad, describing the impact of meth on communities. The group does not appear to be well funded; its website solicits contributions.

Chinese veep returns to Muscatine, 'old friends'

The people of Muscatine, Iowa, welcomed a friendly and familiar face back to town yesterday: Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. He made a stop there in 1985 during an agriculture research trip before he became heir apparent to his country's highest office. He met the locals, spent the night with some of them, and when he returned to town, invited 17 of those people to tea, reports Kirk Johnson of The New York Times. (Times photo by Kevin E. Schmidt)

Chinese officials said the trip was a chance for Jinping to "relive a pleasant period from his past" and reconnect with farmers and other residents he met 25 years ago. The Times implies his visit was a propaganda event to show U.S. and Chinese audiences "the deep connection that the presumed future Chinese president ... feels with the people of the American heartland." The paper also implies the trip was possibly "meant to highlight China's growing dependency" on U.S. food. Iowa is one of China's biggest soybean suppliers.

Residents, though, didn't focus on the politics, Johnson reported. They were happy to have some good publicity for Muscatine and eager to extend open arms to an "old friend." Mayor DeWayne Hopkins said the city displayed its work ethic and value for friendship to Jinping. "If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here — and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing — then that’s a plus," he said. (Read more) The Muscatine Journal reported some local reaction Jinping's visit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Are seat belt laws being strongly enforced by judges in your area? Answer in one Ky. county is 'no'

Seat belt laws are almost universal in the U.S., with 49 states having some form of requirement on the books, but seat-belt use hasn't caught on in many rural areas, and one reason might be lax enforcement. In Casey County, Kentucky, District Judge Michael Loy dismissed 97 of 119 seat-belt tickets last year, reports Larry Rowell of The Casey County News. This looks like a good story idea anywhere.

The judge told Rowell a verbal warning to a first-time offender "is enough," arguing that it "carries the same weight" as a fine. Judges in adjoining counties don't share Loy's philosophy, Rowell reports. The highest rate of seat-belt ticket dismissals in those counties was only 22 percent, compared to 82 percent in Casey County, a very rural, hilly, non-coal Appalachian county in south-central Kentucky.

Law enforcement officers are concerned that the Casey rate is so high, especially since in 49 percent of Kentucky's 720 traffic deaths last year, the deceased weren't wearing seat belts. "Wearing a seat belt is the cheapest life insurance you can have," said Trooper William Gregory, the regional Kentucky State Police spokesman. "The numbers indicate that a failure to write a citation and then not have the courts enforce the citation enables the public to drive without fear of consequences which leads to a number of automobile fatalities." (Read more)

Seat belt use in rural areas has been historically low, even though data has shown rural roads are more dangerous than in other parts of the U.S. A 2010 Centers for Disease Control study found that 68.3 percent of people in rural counties reported wearing seat belts, compared to 87.4 percent in metropolitan areas.

Anti-mountaintop-removal group creates interactive health map as new study casts doubt on argument

I Love Mountains, a West Virginia-based organization fighting mountaintop-removal coal mining in Central Appalachia, recently created a Google Earth satellite map locating all active mountaintop-removal sites. Now it's created an interactive map reflecting data from recent scientific studies about health impacts of the mining practice. According to the group's website, people living near mine sites are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer and 42 percent more likely to be born with a birth defect than other people in the 13-state Appalachian region.

While the studies establish correlations, they have not proven causation, a point the coal industry makes. A new study by Yale University researchers, hired by the National Mining Association, concludes, "Coal mining is not per se an independent risk factor for increased mortality in Appalachia." The 11-page paper is available here; for a detailed analysis by Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, click here.

The I Love Mountains site has 10 maps based on regional data sets, including rates of birth defects, poverty and cancer. The group provides a summary of the data. Here's a image of one map, showing cancer rates, with mines in green; for the full set of maps, click here.

Leading foe of Keystone pipeline and oil-sands mining keynotes Ky. mountaintop-removal protest

The seventh annual "I Love Mountains Day" to fight mountaintop-removal coal mining was hosted by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in Kentucky's capital of Frankfort yesterday. The social-justice group usually has speakers from the Central Appalachian coalfield, but to show KFTC's networking efforts with other groups that try to protect rural land and people, this year's main speaker traveled from Alberta to speak about the fight against oil-sands mining and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo (photo by Milan Ilnyckyj) of the Cree First Nation in Alberta told the crowd that coal mining in Appalachia is very similar to the mining of oil sands, reports Kayla Phelps of the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky's student newspaper. "Mountains are sacred," the speaker said. "People go to them for peace and understanding." She has been a "key leader" in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico, Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, adding, "As the rally unfolded, large trucks with signs touting the coal industry circled the Capitol." The Courier-Journal of Louisville also covered the event.

New book delves into culture, economy of tobacco production in North Carolina

There's plenty of research on the health effects of tobacco use, but not much on the cultural and economic impacts of tobacco production in the U.S., especially after the 2004 repeal of federal quotas and price supports for the crop.  Peter Benson, a sociocultural anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, has remedied that with his new book Tobacco Capitalism, based on his research in North Carolina. He examines the "impact of the transformation of the tobacco industry on farmers, workers and the American public," according to a WU press release. The book focuses on public-health threats, impacts of foreign production and immigration issues, as well as new public-relations strategies.

Benson said he found out that pressures on the industry are complex. Farms have been family-owned for generations, and farmers "take great pride in their family's history and role" in production, he said. Companies are increasingly buying tobacco overseas because it's cheaper, reducing U.S. production and the number of tobacco farmers. With the end of quotas and price supports, they raise more tobacco per farm, but manufacturers pay lower prices, depressed by overseas production.

Tobacco is "widely seen as a dangerous product," leaving farmers to "face public derision," Benson says in the news release. Farmers are seeing "their livelihood and family heritage, their identity, as under attack from many sides." That's been true for decades, "but with many fewer tobacco farmers, they may feel more out of the mainstream than ever," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Public health risks of tobacco aren't only connected to smoking. A mostly migrant workforce, consisting of Mexicans and Central Americans, lives in "chronic vulnerability," Benson said. Most are undocumented and live in "labor camps" in dangerous conditions. They don't have access to health care, legal services or benefits, and their presence in small communities can lead to cultural tension.  (Read more)

Woman rides horses in L.A. to protest slaughter

The only time someone is likely to see a pack of horses in downtown Los Angeles is during filming of a movie. But now, people can see three horses posing for photographs with tourists, trotting up and down Vine Street and grazing outside yoga classes. Their owner, Karin Hauenstein, says she's on a mission to protest domestic horse slaughter, and rode her horses from rural Santa Barbara County to L.A. at a pace of 3 miles per hour to make a statement, reports Nita Lelyveld of the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Arkasha Stevenson)

A five-year ban on U.S. horse slaughter was lifted in November when Congress allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspecting domestic slaughter plants. Among the rationales are that horses are hard to care for in these economically shaky times, and with no bottom market price for horses, they are often left to wander until they starve to death. Some are conflicted on the matter. Others have spoken out against it, citing cruelty and a loss of collective respect for such an iconic animal.

Hauenstein camps at night in L.A. and leads her pack during the day, riding her Thoroughbred Glory, with pack horses Smoke and Coley following behind. Google Maps helps her find open meadows and valleys where the horse can graze, though overgrown medians in the city provide some meals. Though horse slaughter is banned in California, she said she wants everyone to know it's happened elsewhere in the country. She doesn't try to force the message on people, though Coley's packing some boxes painted with a message: "END COMMERCIAL HORSE SLAUGHTER." When challenged, she says horses can be humanely euthanized for less than the cost of a month's feed and board, and should not be sent to slaughterhouses. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Reuters wire service has comprehensive report on impact of post-office closures on rural America

Almost 80 percent of the 3,830 post offices that the U.S. Postal Service is considering closing "are in sparsely populated rural areas where poverty rates are higher than the national average," and almost 85 percent are in ZIP codes where United Parcel Service and Federal Express charge more to deliver packages, Cezary Podkul and Emily Stephenson of Reuters report in the most comprehensive package yet on the impact the closings would have on rural America.

"Moreover, about one-third of the offices slated for closure fall in areas with limited or no wired broadband Internet," a factor the USPS did not consider in drawing up the closure list. "Nearly 90 percent of the 24 million Americans without wired broadband access live in rural areas," Reuters reports, quoting Ed Luttrell, president of the National Grange: "There's still a real digital divide between rural and urban America.vYou look at rural folks, they tend to rely much more heavily on the Postal Service for delivery of a wide variety of necessities than urban people."

The USPS has refused to reveal the revenue for individual post offices, but "did provide Reuters expense data for all post offices," the wire service reports. "The statistics show that closing all of the post offices under consideration would save about $295 million a year – about four-tenths of 1 percent of the Postal Service's annual expenses of $70 billion." William Henderson, postmaster general in 1998-2001, told Reuters, "That's not even a drop in the bucket. The bucket won't ripple."

Reuters' package includes a video report (above) from Lohrville, Iowa, which fears that it would lose its identity if it lost its post office, and a nice interactive map that shows the offices on the list, those in rural areas, those without wired broadband and those with package-delivery surcharges. Clicking on a circle gives you the data for that office. Here's an image of the version showing the rural offices on the list:
Click on link in text above or here for interactive map

Private prison operator offers to buy state prisons

Many prisons are built in rural areas, but lately some states have had a hard time keeping them open because of budget shortfalls. Now Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit prison operator in the U.S., is offering to buy prisons in 48 states "as a remedy for 'challenging corrections budgets,'" reports Chris Kirkham on the Huffington Post. In exchange, CCA wants a 20-year management contract and assurance that prisons will remain at least 90 percent full, according to a letter it sent to the 48 states.

Kirkham writes the move is a "significant shift in strategy" for the private prison industry, which has previously expanded by building its own prisons, and is a bid for more control of state prisons. Last year, to remedy budget woes, Ohio sold CCA its largest state prison (Photo by The Associated Press).

CCA says it has budgeted $250 million to buy prisons, and says the money is "a convenient option for states in need of fresh revenue streams." While the offer is a one-time opportunity for states, CCA would benefit from long-term contracts, Kirkham writes. Some people are hesitant about the benefits for states because they would have fewer options to cut ties with CCA if contract negotiations turn sour and studies have shown that promised savings from private prisons "can be illusory at best," he writes. CCA spokesman Steve Owen said state-government contracts would be "completely transparent," and added that some states require a cost savings of 5 percent or more before privatizing a prison. (Read more)

Montana newspaper makes a few bucks off the 'small-town quirkiness' of police reports

One Montana newspaper is turning crime into something that pays. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle staff decided it was about time to collect the 1,000 best (or most entertaining) police reports printed in the paper over the last 30 years and publish them in a book, reports Paige Worthy of the Inlander, the monthly newsletter of the Inland Press Association. We Don't Make This Stuff Up became an "out-of-the-box revenue generator for the 16,000-circulation paper," Worthy writes. Managing Editor Nick Ehli told her "It just seemed obvious" to compile the best of the reports in a longer format.

Ehli worked with a local designer to make the book approachable and easy to read. It was published during the paper's centennial last year, making for "a nice commemoration." It was sold from the newspaper office and other local businesses for $10. But when the book hit the shelves of the state's largest independent bookseller, Country Bookshelf, it immediately became a best seller. The first 7,500 copies were gone before the holidays; 5,000 more have been ordered. Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis said customers bought five or 10 copies at a time to send to family and friends, and said its success is due to "the sense of small-town quirkiness it offers." (Read more)

Obama budget would cut mine-safety agency a bit

President Obama's budget proposal announced yesterday would make a slight cut in the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The agency said it plans to focus "limited resources" on enforcement, and would spend $2.9 million more next year on enforcement, safety and health standards in the coal industry. That is likely in response to the Upper Big Branch coal-mine explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia in 2010, The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward Jr. reports.

MSHA would cut non-enforcement branches, including education, training, information services and program administration. Under Obama's proposal, the agency's staff would drop to 2,336 from 2,365. The administration is also asking Congress to give MSHA authority to "assess a fee on coal operators to recoup the costs of analyzing 'rock dust' samples," used by officials to determine if enough crushed limestone has been spread in underground mines to prevent explosion. (Read more)

LSU AgCenter program tries to educate rural Louisiana residents about broadband benefits

The Federal Communications Commission voted in October of last year to shift telephone subsidies into a program to extend broadband Internet access in rural areas after much discussion about lack of access in those areas. The Louisiana State University AgCenter is hoping to inform rural residents in the state's most distressed areas about broadband through a four-year educational program. Connect My Louisiana was launched in 2011, and will teach people in 18 of the state's parishes about benefits of broadband in business, education, health care and other aspects of local economies. (Read more)

Bruce Garner, an extension specialist with the program, said it's trying to reach people who know little about the internet and even less about the benefits of broadband, Mark Rainwater of the Bastrop Daily Enterprise reported in December. "Everyone has something that they can relate to, whether it’s a farmer needing information about a U.S. Department of Agriculture program or a stay-at-home mom who needs nutritional information," Garner said. "We want to use those interests as a means of making them aware of everything that is out there." He said specialists would begin education by explaining what broadband is, then talk about how businesses and others can create web sites and use social media for promotion.

Tenn. governor wants to make business records secret, maybe alter handling of records requests

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told the state newspaper convention last week that "It may be time to reset the state’s policy for handling requests for public documents," writes Andrea Zelinski of TN Report. “A lot of times I see open records requests that I think 10 years ago, the reporter was doing a lot of legwork on his own before he ever asked the open records request,” Haslam, a Republican who was mayor of Knoxville before being elected governor in 2010, told the Tennessee Press Association.

"Haslam is also pushing legislation to keep secret certain information from businesses seeking millions of dollars in economic development grants. Haslam wants to shield corporate financial statements, budgets and ownership information," Zelinski writes. "Haslam was the only major candidate in the 2010 gubernatorial race who refused to release his tax forms. After his election, he exempted himself and Cabinet members from [his predecessor's] requirement to disclose the amounts of income from various sources. Those high-ranking officials must still disclose income sources."

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told TN Report that the Haslam administration includes many officials from the private sector, "who aren’t used to such high levels of interest from the public," Zelinski writes.

Shift of federal benefits to middle class stirs conflict over programs' future; NYT map has local data

The poorest Americans no longer get most of the benefits from the "safety net" of federal programs created to alleviate poverty, Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff of The New York Times report. But some areas that have recently or historically voted for opponents of federal aid now increasingly rely on it. The Times' example is the 8th Congressional District of Minnesota, approximately the northeastern quadrant of the state, where the reporters found middle-class voters who are "frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it." Other such areas may be apparent on this Times map:
Map shows share of income from all benefits; click here for interactive version
UPDATE, Feb. 17: Economist Paul Krugman, a Times columnist, cites some studies of such conflicted behavior, concluding with one by Suzanne Mettler Cornell University, which found that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those on unemployment and 40 percent of Medicare beneficiaries said they “have not used a government program.” (Read more)

The government now provides more than a sixth of Americans' income through more than 50 programs such as Medicare, food stamps and the earned-income tax credit. In 1979, 54 percent of benefits went to households earning the bottom 20 percent of incomes. In 2007, the bottom fifth got 36 percent of the total, according to the Congressional Budget Office. What was a secondary mission, maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement, "has gradually become primary," Appelbaum and Gebeloff report.

Almost half of all Americans lived in households that received federal benefits in 2010, according to the Census Bureau. The increase is due in large part to the expansion of the "safety net," the Times reports. In 1975, households that made up to $26,997 were eligible for the earned income tax credit. In 2010, households making up to $49,317 were eligible. They write the trend also reflects the decline of the middle class, mostly manifested in almost continuous boom and bust cycles of economy in small and rural towns. (Read more)

For rural journalists, the interactive map is a handy research device, because it can display county-by-county information. Here's a zoom to part of Appalachia, with information on a county where more than half the income is derived from federal benefits (click on map for larger version):

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rural students get greatest share of Pell grants

Researchers from several universities have debunked a myth that most Pell grants for college tuition go to minority students attending urban schools, the Daily Yonder reports. Iowa State University researcher Linda Hagedorn said data show "a plurality of grants go to rural students." A report about the data states most Pell money is helping rural students attend community college. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, community colleges added about 600,000 students between 2001 and 2008; 255,038 of those attended a rural college. The 574 rural institutions have 3.3 million students.
Rural colleges in red/pink, urban in blue, tribal in green (Click map for larger version)
Rural students make up 33 percent of all community-college students and use 39 percent of Pell grant money. Several factors contribute to the high participation rate, including high transportation costs and greater child-care expense. Rural students are also more likely to go into debt as a result of attending community college. Use of Pell grants in rural places may be overlooked because it isn't widely realized that six out of 10 community colleges serve rural areas.

A House Republican proposal last year would have reduced to $3,150 from $5,550 the maximum grant from the program, named for former Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. Community-college directors told researchers that such a reduction in grants would lower enrollment in their states. University of Alabama researcher Stephen G. Katsinas said "Pell is the single most important human-resource development program for adults in America." (Read more)

Gas pipeline rules don't apply to rural areas in Pa.

Just days after the Pennsylvania legislature voted to let localities tax natural-gas operations, state regulators are hiring inspectors to perform safety checks of pipelines and drafting new rules to "bring the state in line with the rest of the nation," Craig McCoy and Joseph Tanfani of the Philadelphia Inquirer report. A dispute is growing over the reach of such regulations, most of which will not apply in rural areas where the majority of 25,000 new miles of pipeline will be built. Federal officials are trying to close this loophole, but the industry is fighting it, "arguing that the hazards are remote and the cost would far outweigh any benefits," McCoy and Tanfani report. (Inquirer photo)

Some residents are saying this means rural people "don't count." Nancy Liebert of Eagles Mere, a 125-person community in Sullivan County, said companies and regulators don't consider the pipelines a big issue if they're located in rural areas. She added the state doesn't have regulations in place to keep up with the fast pace of the natural-gas boom. The Inquirer reported in December that the industry is building lines in rural areas with little oversight. "The regulatory gap persists even though new lines are large, high-pressure pipes  every bit as powerful, and as potentially dangerous, as more-regulated natural gas transmission lines that cross state borders," McCoy and Tanfani report. They write that state regulators often don't know where these lines are located. (Read more)

TV ad for wind industry twists truth, says as it solicits submissions from 'spin detectors'

The American Wind Energy Association, a wind-energy lobbying group, is running a $1.4 million ad campaign called "Weld by Weld" in 11 states, according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. However, has found the lobby's TV ads distort the facts about the industry and taxes. The ad claims Congress is "threatening new taxes" that will target wind power, and that the industry will support 500,000 new jobs within 20 years. Both statements are false, FactCheck says. (Photo of American Wind Energy Association ad)

No new taxes have been proposed. Congress is instead considering whether to renew an existing $1.3 billion-a-year tax break for the industry that's set to expire at the end of the year. FactCheck says the industry may create half a billion jobs over 20 years, but the jobs would "displace jobs and economic activity elsewhere." The website says the tax break debate in the ad couldn't be airing at a worse time for the wind industry because natural gas is "already bringing stiff competition" making wind energy not economical even with a tax subsidy. Also, some Republican legislators are pushing to repeal all tax breaks for renewable energy, fueled mostly by the failure of Solyndra. (Read more)

FactCheck is soliciting journalistic contributions for its service, which holds politicians accountable for things they say, and not just in TV ads. To find out how to become a "spin detector" for the service, by providing campaign materials or recordings that contain false or misleading information, click here.

President's budget would deeply cut farm subsidies and end Saturday mail but boost road work

Today is "budget day" in Washington as President Obama sends his 2013 budget proposal to the U.S. Senate. In an election year and a poisonously partisan atmosphere, the budget is probably dead on arrival, but it stands as a basic policy document around which debate can revolve, and this one makes at least three specific recommendations that would greatly affect rural areas.

Obama's proposal would funnel billions in "war savings" back into domestic projects, including an almost 50 percent increase in transportation spending over six years, reports David Rogers of Politico. This increase would likely allow repairs to deteriorating bridges in rural areas and help with safety upgrades for pedestrians and bicyclers on dangerous rural roads.

Rogers also reports the budget would cut farm subsidies "deeper than the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have proposed thus far." Jarad Favole and Damian Paletta of The Wall Street Journal report the budget calls for a five-day-a-week postal delivery schedule, which follows the U.S. Postal Service's recommendation to stop Saturday delivery in an attempt to curb the agency's deficits. Obama has adopted the recommendation before.

The Obama administration has a "fact sheet" on rural aspects of the budget.

Some cases of child sex abuse call for extra-careful attention to description; proper grammar can help

The staff of the Salisbury Post in rural North Carolina learned a lesson from the Poynter Institute about careful phrasing of stories and headlines about certain types of sexual abuse involving children, reports Mallary Tenore of Poynter. The daily newspaper published a story about a victimized 11-year-old girl with the headline "Mother finds daughter performing sex act on man staying in home." That language, Tenore writes, made it seem like the man was innocent. She contacted the Post's editor, who quickly changed the wording in online versions of the story to say the girl had been assaulted. The reporter said he was trying to avoid using the graphic language contained in the police report.

"Writing about rape and sexual assault is challenging, and police reporters have been dealing with these kinds of language issues for years," Tenore writes. It's easy for reporters to use words like "perform" when translating police-report jargon, she says, but cautions against it: "This word is particularly misleading; it's associated with theater and suggests that someone is one stage, acting or seeking attention." She reports a Google search reveals that "perform" is commonly used in similar sex-crime stories, and even The New York Times and Los Angeles Times have published similar, misleading wording, Tenore reports.

Poynter's Kelly McBride told Tenore that sentence structure is very important in stories about sex crimes, noting it's easy to use passive voice when trying to not assign blame to someone who hasn't been convicted. But, she said, it's best to make the perpetrator the subject of a sentence and assign verbs to him or her. The victim should be the direct object of the sentence to prevent unfairly assigning agency to them. Tenore writes, "We do our readers a disservice when we use language that changes or distorts meaning. We don't have to be graphic, but we do have to be clear." (Read more)