Friday, November 22, 2013

Many rural veterans struggle to afford good housing

"Housing affordability has become the nation's biggest housing problem, and many veterans find housing unaffordable," says an issue brief from the Housing Assistance Council. It's a rural issue because one-fourth of veterans live in rural areas. Vets make up 13 percent of the homeless population, 11.4 percent of the rural population and 9 percent of the total population.

"Providing housing and needed services for our veterans can be complicated in rural areas due to vast geographies, limited resources and less social service infrastructure," the brief reports. As the wars overseas wind down, more veterans will return to the U.S. In the next 10 years, about 70 percent of rural veterans will be 65 or older. Younger veterans are more likely to struggle with costs; about 34 percent of rural veterans in their 20s and 25 percent of veterans in their 30s experience affordability issues compared with 20.3 of veterans 55 and over, the brief says.

While 83.3 percent of rural veterans own homes, that is partially due to the overall older ages of rural veterans, and it also reflects a lack of affordable rental housing in rural areas. Unlike the overall affordability issues that mostly pertain to younger veterans, more older veteran renters struggle with affordability issues than their younger counterparts. "An astounding 47.6 percent of veteran renters over age 55 are cost-burdened compared to 37.2 percent of individuals in the 20s and 26.6 of those in their 30s," the brief reports.

In Kansas, more than a third of the homeless are veterans, and in West Virginia, one in four is. "Many veterans live with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, further complicating their ability to maintain safe, secure housing," the brief says.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki announced a five-year plan in 2009 to fight homelessness among vets. "The program combines the HUD Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance with case management and clinical services provided by the VA for veterans experiencing homelessness." The program has significantly reduced veteran homelessness, but some rural veterans—particularly those who live in very remote areas—experience difficulties participating in the program because they live so far away from the facility. Thus, it's difficult for them and their case managers to easily travel. (Read more)

Study finds most Americans have little knowledge, much less opinions, about hydraulic fracturing

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas is a booming business in the U.S., and is not lacking in controversy, but more than half of Americans don't know anything about the practice, according to a study by researchers at Oregon State University, George Mason University and Yale University.

Of the 1,061 people sampled in the "Climate Change in the American Mind" survey, 58 percent "said they didn’t know or were undecided about whether they supported or opposed fracking, while 20 percent were opposed and 22 percent supported it," Bobby Magill reports for Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science.

Magill writes: "Research shows Americans have very little knowledge about fracking and its benefits and risks, findings that have implications for U.S. energy policy and risk communications, the paper says." It states: “Broadly speaking, our results paint a picture of an American populace that is largely unaware and undecided about this issue. Over half of those surveyed had heard nothing at all or only a little about it, and more than half didn’t know or were undecided about whether to support or oppose it. Among the minority who has formed an opinion, respondents were nearly split between support and opposition.”

Samantha Malone, manager of science and communications for FracTracker, an oil-and-gas research organization, told Magill, “When conducting training sessions on how to use, we often find that we must first explain the process of drilling for unconventional oil and gas before the training can commence. Education results in the formation of stronger opinions. At a policy level, this research supports the development of a more formal and objective educational approach to discussing the benefits and drawbacks of this emerging technology. The potential economic and job benefits and the risks — such as environmental, health and social impacts as well as broader climate change implications — should all be part of the larger energy dialogue.” (Read more)

A similar study of 2,400 people in 2012 by the University of Texas found that 63 percent had never heard of fracking or were unfamiliar with it: 

Small Business Saturday will be observed Nov. 30

As many consumers gear up for a late-night or early-morning run around town to all the big sales on "Black Friday," signaling the beginning of the holiday rush for presents, don't forget the next day: Small Business Saturday, which promotes shopping at smaller stores. "The day was created in response to small business owners' most pressing need, more customers, and has since grown into an annual celebration of the independent businesses that help boost our local economies," according to a press release from American Express, which founded the event.

Many businesses, especially those in rural areas, also use community newspapers to spread the word, buying advertising in their local paper. The share of businesses that say they rely on TV, radio, and newspaper ads doubled from 9 percent last year to 18 percent this year, according to the Small Business Saturday Insights Survey. It also found that 70 percent of businesses say the day will be helpful in attracting new customers.

The survey found that 75 percent of businesses say the day could be more effective if communities hosted events; 39 percent are planning to collaborate with other small businesses; 33 percent rely on social media; 67 percent are offering discounts; 36 percent are offering coupons for future offers or discounts; 32 percent started holiday promotions earlier than last year; and 21 percent are adding seasonal employees. (Read more)

Merger of flour millers would create a giant company with about a third of the national market

"Some of the biggest players in the flour milling industry are joining forces to make the country’s largest miller even larger," Luke Runyon reports for Harvest Public Media. "The biggest flour miller in the U.S., Horizon Milling, which is jointly owned by privately held Cargill and the agricultural cooperative CHS, proposed earlier this year a merger with the milling arm of food giant ConAgra. The new company would be called Ardent Mills."

The new firm would be twice the size of its next largest competitor "and control roughly a third of the country’s flour milling market," Runyon reports. "That could mean lower prices for farmers and higher prices for consumers, according to advocates for both groups." Now the top three milling companies have nearly equal market shares, about a sixth of the market. The merger is undergoing an anti-trust review by the Department of Justice. (Read more)

Utah lawmakers propose legalizing burying of trash in rural areas that have no pick-up service

Utah legislators have a solution for rural residents who don't have regular trash pick-up: bury it. On Wednesday, a legislative committee "endorsed a measure that would clarify that residents of rural Utah who lack garbage pickup service could legally bury their non-hazardous household waste," Amy Joi O'Donoghue reports for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. The "measure would only apply to rural residents who lack garbage pickup service and only to household waste disposed of on their property."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Ronda Menlove (R-Garland) said rural residents who lack trash pick-up were either burning or burying it anyway, O'Donoghue writes. She said "research unveiled that there are federal prohibitions against residential incineration of trash, but no such restrictions exist on a federal or state level for the burial of trash." (Read more)

Thursday, November 21, 2013

John Egerton, who loved Southern food and culture, and civil-rights struggles, and wrote them up, dies

Egerton fixed beans, simple slaw and cornbread dodgers
for the Nashville Cooks series in 2010 (Tennessean photo)
John Egerton, a chronicler of the civil-rights movement, Southern food and culture, and many other topics, died this morning in Nashville of an apparent heart attack. He was 78. UPDATE, Nov. 23: Kim Severson of The New York Times catches up with a well-done obituary. Nov. 24: The Times has an appreciation from John Edge, with whom Egerton founded the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi.

"Egerton made his name with Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award," Michael Cass writes for The Tennessean."He also wrote Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History and other books, and he co-edited Nashville: An American Self-Portrait, a turn-of-the-millennium look at the city he moved to in the 1960s."

The University of Kentucky graduate was also known for The Americanization of Dixie, and he also won awards for Generations: An American Family. "Mr. Egerton brought a renewed focus to fading culinary traditions and evoked a sense of how food could be a unifying force among people of different backgrounds," writes Matt Schudel of The Washington Post. "Although Mr. Egerton’s books on civil rights and Southern food would seem to have little in common, he considered them deeply intertwined. For him, terror, the fight for justice and slow-cooked meals were all part of the tangled legacy of the world into which he was born."

Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, wrote this recollection of his friend:
"As a journalist and author John Egerton wrote about social change in the 20th century South with impressive skill and sensitivity. His early reporting in Atlanta on school integration laid the foundation for his great book, Speak Now Against the Day (a quotation from William Faulkner) . . . This was one of those important books that should have won a Pulitzer Prize but didn't. In an exemplary work of oral history, he crafted Generations, about the lives of an Appalachian couple, Burnam and Addie Ledford, married in 1903, who each lived for over 100 years with memories that John transformed into what The Washington Post's reviewer called "a small American epic." . . . John's interest in Southern foodways -- the customs, celebrations, and cooks -- inspired his humanitarian campaign to help New Orleans chefs whose businesses were damaged and lives uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He never wrote fiction that I knew about, nor waged crusades in the style of Harry Caudill or Wendell Berry, but for a keen eye, an attentive ear, and eloquent reporting in depth, I don't think he was surpassed by any Kentucky journalist in our time, and few elsewhere in the South."

Farm Bill talks snag on food-stamp cut, subsidies

Prospects for a new farm law dimmed today, as the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee "said it would be 'very challenging' now for him to meet the Republican leadership’s schedule of having a final agreement back on the House floor by Dec. 13," David Rogers reports for Politico.

Not meeting the deadline "means that the Farm Bill will be kicked over into a third year of debate after Congress failed to act in 2012 and is now at risk of doing the same for 2013," Rogers writes. "Not all is lost: real progress has been made and the process has advanced much further in this Congress. But it raises the prospect that lawmakers will need to adopt a short-term extension into January of at least dairy program provisions."

The main sticking points remain subsidies for commodity crops and cuts in food stamps. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) "dug in more against the level of food stamp savings demanded by the House," to the frustration of her opposite number, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.). She told Rogers that accepting cuts became "much tougher" when a temporary increase in benefits, part of the 2009 stimulus package, expired Nov. 1. That was a 7 percent cut, amounting to slightly more than $1 billion a year. (Read more)

Meanwhile, the White House Rural Council, an interagency group, issued a report listing the benefits of a new Farm Bill, including rural development, conservation, research and deficit reduction.

End to filibusters for federal-judge nominees boosts prospects for greenhouse-gas regulations

Today's vote by Senate Democrats to eliminate filibusters for presidential appointments, except Supreme Court justices, has important implications for President Obama's plan to regulate greenhouse gases. That's because the regulatory effort will have to pass muster with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, which "rules on decisions made by federal administrative agencies," Brad Plumer writes for The Washington Post.

The court is three short of its authorized 11 judges. Four judges each were appointed by Democratic and Republican presidents, but "any overflow in caseloads tends to get handled by six 'senior' judges who work part time," Plumer notes. "Five of those senior judges were appointed by Republicans." (Read more)

Why did this happen? The Post's Ezra Klein Writes, "The way Senate Democrats saw it was that if they weren't going to get immigration reform or gun control or jobs bills or anything big that they cared about, then at least they would get their judicial and executive-branch nominations. . . . Today, the political system changed its rules to work more smoothly in an age of sharply polarized parties. If American politics is to avoid collapsing into complete dysfunction in the years to come, more changes like this one will likely be needed." (Read more)

Rural Americans are not feeling as good about the economy as the rest of the country is

U.S. consumers are feeling better about the economy, but less so in rural areas, Matt Nager reports for The Wall Street Journal. A real-time measure of how consumers feel about the economy rose from 38.5 in October to 45.7 this month, but the number was only 40.1 in rural areas, the biggest gap between rural areas and cities since February. The number was 47.4 in cities and 45.9 in suburbs.

The Economic Sentiment Index, developed by lobbying and consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies and pollster Civic Science, "measures U.S. adults’ expectations for the economy going forward, as well as their feelings about current conditions for major purchases," according to the ESI website.

"People living in rural areas often answer more pessimistically to economic-survey questions," Nager writes. "Still, the sizeable gap in sentiment between rural and city Americans is a reminder that things that move confidence, like a soaring stock market or Washington’s infighting, can boost or hamper sentiment for some groups and not others. While Americans’ confidence levels generally fell in October, likely because of the government shutdown, the drop was less steep for rural people than city people. And while confidence has now broadly recovered, sentiment among one group—people ages 18 to 24—has barely improved at all so far this month, according to CivicScience’s numbers." (Read more)

Rural grocers fear cuts in food stamp program

Much of the talk about a new Farm Bill has centered on the food stamp budget, now $80 billion a year and about 80 percent of the bill's cost. The House has proposed cutting $4 billion a year and changing eligibility and requirements, while the Senate has proposed a $1 billion cut. In addition to food stamp recipients, cuts would hurt rural grocery store owners, Mike Moen reports for NPR. They have already seen the effect of the "food stamp cliff," which saw benefits cut $36 a month for a family of four because an increase in the 2009 economic stimulus package expired.

John Anderson, "an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, says it's too early to forecast how much of a pinch food retailers might feel in the coming days. But he says there is real concern out there," Moen writes. Anderson told Moen, "In many rural areas around the country, we do have, proportionately, maybe higher participation in the SNAP program. And a lot of that gets spent locally, obviously, because that's where it can be spent, in those local grocery stores."

Craig Schultz, who manages Countryside Market in the 25,000-population town of Belvidere, Ill., where the unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, told Moen he expects store sales to drop 5 to 10 percent. The store has responded to the cliff" by cutting prices. And with Thanksgiving right around the corner, managers are worried they might sell fewer turkeys. "Hopefully not," Moen said, "because I have a whole freezer full of 'em." (Read more)

Many immigrants are more concerned with being able to work and travel freely than with citizenship

One of the main points of the Senate-passed immigration bill is the idea of a pathway for 11.7 million undocumented workers to gain legal status, and perhaps citizenship, but the bill has stalled in the House. Even the idea of passing legislation to help farm workers and their employers has failed to gain traction.

While Congress deliberates, many undocumented workers say they aren't as concerned with gaining citizenship as they are with being able to work, provide for their families and travel to and from their native lands without fear of losing their jobs or being deported, Julia Preston reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by John Van Beekum: Alejandra Saucedo, a legal resident, distributes bumper stickers on immigration reform)

Oscar A. Chacon, executive director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, told Preston, “For many undocumented people, citizenship is not a priority. What they really care about is a solution that allows them to overcome their greatest vulnerabilities.”

Glendy Martínez, an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua working at a hair salon in Houston, has one child who was born in Texas and three who were born in her native land. She told Preston, “So many people back there depend on those of us who are here. It would be such a help if we could work in peace and go back sometimes to see our children.” While Martínez would like to become an American, what she said she most wants is to be able to work and drive legally and be able to travel from the U.S. to Nicaragua without worry.

Others who have been living and working illegally in the U.S. for years say anything less than full citizenship would be a slap in the face. Yaquelín López, an immigrant from Bolivia who has been in the U.S. for a decade, told Preston, “Citizenship is fundamental. Otherwise we will be 11 million people left in limbo.” Marcela Espinal, from Honduras, agreed, telling Preston, “We have been working hard for our families and paying taxes all these years, and we never lived off the government. Why shouldn’t we be able to vote someday?” (Read more)

Ohio county has first quake in 127 years; geologist dismisses suggested link to injection wells

Yesterday afternoon, Nov 20, Athens County, Ohio, experienced a 3.5-magnitude earthquake, the first recorded quake in the area in 127 years, The Athens News reports. Anti-drilling activists suggested nearby injection wells played a role, but a state geologist refuted those claims. Some have blamed oil and gas production sites for a recent rash of earthquakes around Oklahoma City.

Less than 24 hours before the earthquake was detected, 160 people attended a meeting with Athens County commissioners, with most in attendance protesting a proposed injection well for oil and gas waste that would be the state's largest such well, Bob Downing reports for the Akron Beacon Journal.

Tim Leftwich, a geologist and seismologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, told the News, "At this point, there's no reason to suspect there was any kind of induced seismicity going on." The Athens County Fracking Action Network said in a release: "The occurrence of this quake makes it unconscionable and illegal for ODNR to permit the well without a seismic survey of the region. Well failure due to future quakes would put the drinking water of tens of thousands of people at risk . . .  Underground injection well programs MUST protect drinking water by state and federal law." (Athens news illustration by Kyle Schultz)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Digital conversion endangers rural theaters; Colorado using grants, fundraising to help owners

More and more multiplexes seem to be opening, some featuring 20 or more screens, IMAX capability, stadium seating, and concession stands that offer restaurant-quality goods.  Most rural theaters can't compete with all that, but still hold a charm that harkens back to the old days when going to the movies was an event and the theater was an important local gathering place. But as we have noted before, the future of rural theaters is in jeopardy. (Kickstarter photo: The Rogers City Theater in Rogers City, Mich., has started a campaign to raise money to convert to digital)

"By the end of this year, an industry-mandated conversion to digital projectors will make it nearly impossible for many small, one or two-screen theaters in isolated towns across America to continue to operate," Stephanie Garlock reports for The Atlantic Cities. Digital-only benefits movie studios, because "the picture is generally clearer, and, more significantly, the financial and logistical costs of distribution are radically lower. A single copy of a 35mm feature film costs studios upwards of $1,500, while copies on digital hard drives run at about a tenth of that, with prices falling fast. Eventually, satellite transmission could make getting first-run films to theaters across the globe virtually hassle-free."

But the cost to theater owners is great, coming in at an estimated $50,000 per screen, Garlock writes. And if theaters don't convert, they won't get any first-run features, limiting them to small, independent films and older movies. As many as 20 percent of theaters, many of them in rural areas, are in danger of closing, because they can't afford to convert to digital. (Read more)

Colorado has a plan to save its rural theaters. State grants have awarded $200,000 to help save 13 rural theaters -- many of which only have one screen -- and officials hope a fundraising campaign will give the owners enough to pay for the rest of the conversions, Bente Birkeland reports for public radio station KUNC.

"It’s unusual for the state to give out grants to this type of mom and pop business, but government officials say it's not just about the theaters. It’s about preserving rural downtowns and the communities themselves," Birkleand reports. Jeff Kraft, state director of business funding and incentives, told her, “We’re able to use some of our incentive funds to make an existing business go over a onetime transition obstacle. All of them are really central to having a vital downtown experience in their communities. And they help make it more attractive to workers and business.” (Birkeland photo: The Sands in Brush, Colo., received a $20,000 grant, but needs another $30,000 to convert to digital)

Downtown Colorado Inc., "a statewide non-profit focusing on building vibrant commercial areas, is also helping theater owners who aren’t used to fundraising," with a campaign called Save Our Screens, Birkeland writes. The idea is to "engage theater owners in regular conference calls to address issues and questions, and develop training for fundraising, technology, and ownership models," according to Downtown Colorado. The group is also using case studies, by "collecting stories of theaters that have converted to identify best practices." According to Downtown Colorado, 58 percent of the state's theaters have converted to digital, 13 percent are in the process of converting, 26 percent have not converted, and 3 percent of theaters have closed. (Read more)

Traffic fatalities rose in rural areas from 2011 to 2012; overall numbers down in first half of 2013

Traffic fatalities in rural areas rose 2.3 percent from 2011 to 2012, from 17,769 to 18,170, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nationwide, deadly accidents increased at a faster rate, 3.3 percent, the first rise in six years. However, most of the big state-by-state increases in deadly accidents were in states with large rural populations.

Fatalities in Vermont rose 40 percent, from 55 to 77. The next highest increase, 26 percent, was in Hawaii. In Maine, the state with the largest percentage of rural population, fatalities rose 21 percent, from 136 to 164. South Dakota and New Hampshire had increases of 20 percent, Nebraska 17 percent, North Dakota 15 percent, Delaware 15 percent and Idaho and Ohio 10 percent.

Some states with large rural populations, however, saw big drops. Fatalities in Alaska dropped by 18 percent, from 72 to 59. In Utah the number fell 11 percent, and in Wyoming it dropped 9 percent. Mississippi, which had the biggest change of any state with 48 fewer deaths, saw its fatalities drop 7.6 percent, from 630 to 582.

The biggest increase in road deaths was in Texas, where the number rose 11 percent. Deaths on federal highways, which are mostly in rural areas, rose 5.6 percent in 2012, with motorcycle deaths rising 9 percent. More than half of fatal accidents involved motorcycles or pedestrians. Alcohol-related deaths rose 4.6 percent.

Through the first six months of 2013, there were 15,470 fatalities on U.S. roads, down 4.2 percent from 16,150 from the year before. That is probably a good indicator for the whole year; 72 percent of fatalities in 2012 occurred during the first three months. State numbers for 2011 and 2012 are available by clicking here. Numbers for the first half of 2013 are available here.

Alaska may spend $9 billion to help build gas pipeline

Tired of waiting for major oil companies to build a natural-gas pipeline to the rest of North America, Alaska officials are considering spending around $9 billion to help fund a $45 billion pipeline and export facility, Margaret Kriz Hobson reports for Energy Wire. The report from a consulting firm "suggests that the state cover 20 to 30 percent of the project as an equity investment to generate more revenue," Alexandra Gutierrez reports for Alaska Public Media. "The gas line would stretch from the North Slope reserves down to the southcentral coast." (Alaska Pipeline Project photo)

Accepting the project "would mean joining forces with TransCanada Corp. and the North Slope's three major energy producers -- BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips Alaska and Exxon Mobil Corp.," Hobson writes. "Those companies have done preliminary planning work on an 800-mile pipeline that would run from a gas treatment facility in Prudhoe Bay to an export facility in south-central Alaska. Last month, the companies announced that if they build the long-awaited pipeline, they're likely to site a gas liquefaction plant and export terminal at the Kenai Peninsula town of Nikiski. But after years of debate and discussion, they have yet to commit to actually building the project."

Most Alaska state officials are likely to support the recommendation, Hobson writes. Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash told Hobson, "If we do it right, direct state participation in the project can allow the other project sponsors to structure their business and financing in whatever way benefits them. That would leave us free to structure our share of the business in whatever ways maximize the benefits to Alaskans." (Read more)

Balash told Gutierrez, "A lot of the heartburn, a lot of the fights between the state of Alaska and industry were a consequence of that misalignment, and it could have been fixed right up front, and it wasn’t. I think there’s a lesson to be learned there. We’re no longer resource rich and cash poor. We’re resource rich, and frankly cash heavy.”

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell "has called for an annual spending limit of $6.8 billion over the next five years, but that state-wide legacy projects shouldn’t count toward that amount. Parnell has previously said that a North Slope gas line would fall in that category," Gutierrez writes. The report will be presented Friday to the state House Resources Committee. (Read more)

Some investment funds are dumping coal stocks

Will the coal industry run short of capital because too many investors are concerned with the greenhouse gases that mining and burning it will generate? Jesse Riseborough and Thomas Biesheuvel of Bloomberg News explore the possibility, suggested by a Norway investment fund's sale of coal and oil-sands stocks and a proposal by the country's opposition party to keep its sovereign wealth fund, the world's largest, from investing in coal.

The story notes that coal generated 30.3 of the world's primary energy last year, the biggest share since 1969, but quotes Nick Robins, head of HSBC’s climate change center of excellence in London: “There is the beginnings of divestment out of pure-play coal by some investors. There’s been a very marked rise in concern about this issue. There’s a recognition that as you move to a low-carbon economy that coal is potentially most vulnerable.”

Torklep Meisingset, head of sustainable investments for Norway's Storebrand ASA, which unloaded its coal stocks, told Bloomberg: “There could be an interesting parallel to tobacco,” which lost capital because of its health impacts and cigarette companies' perfidy about it. "The movement is an offshoot of a campaign by more than 70 investors to pressure all fossil-fuel industries on climate change," the reporters write. "It harks to the 1990s anti-tobacco push and is gaining help from unlikely partners. The International Energy Agency, a 28-nation group promoting energy security, is lobbying increasingly to limit the release of heat-trapping gases." (Read more)

U.S. farm broadcasters elect officers for 2014

The National Association of Farm Broadcasting elected Janet Adkison, right, of RFD-TV/Rural TV, Nashville, president at its meeting last week in Kansas City. Susan Littlefield, farm broadcaster at KZEN-FM, Columbus, Neb., was chosen as president-elect, and Brian Winnekins of WRDN-AM, Durand, Wis., was elected vice-president, Agri-Pulse reports. The NAFB website lists winners of awards handed out at the meeting.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Interactive maps show counties' global connections: language, employment, heritage and more

Did you ever wonder what percentage of people in your county or state speak a language other than English when they're at home? How many students in your state are studying abroad? How many foreign born people live in your state? How many people work for import or export companies? These, and other answers about language, education, and economics are available at the click of a button on a website called Mapping the Nation.
The interactive map is easy to use. By clicking on a state, users can see county-by-county data. For example, the map above shows the number of postsecondary students studying Spanish in Pennsylvania. Below a map showing percentage categories of people who speak languages other than English in Kentucky. Similar maps are available for specific languages.
"The map was modeled on one developed for North Carolina’s 100 counties last year by (software company) SAS and the University of North Carolina’s Center for International Understanding," Renee Schoof reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "Its intended users are policymakers interested in learning more about the economic potential of global connections and students thinking about what kind of international skills might help them find jobs." Not all the factors are available on the county level; here's a map showing percentages of foreign-born in Tennessee, and one showing the number of employees at foreign-owned companies in North Carolina:

Caroline McCullen, director of education initiatives at SAS in North Carolina, said "about 6,000 SAS employees work in the state’s Research Triangle out of nearly 14,000 company employees worldwide. Being prepared for a global economy means not only being able to speak other languages, but also knowing how to work comfortably in other cultures, she said," Schoof writes. "Jennifer Manise, executive director of the Longview Foundation, said that the data was meant to help show the need for students who fit that profile." (Read more)

Medicare quality-incentive program penalizes most hospitals; see how yours are doing

The Medicare quality incentive program, strengthened under federal health reform, has benefited 1,231 hospitals (45.1 percent of U.S. hospitals), and hurt 1,451 (53.2 percent) by paying them more or less for each Medicare patient they treat, based on a new set of quality measurements, Jordan Rau reports for Kaiser Health News. For data on any hospital, click here.

Penalties and bonuses vary widely, with Arkansas Heart Hospital in Little Rock, "a physician-owned hospital that only handles cardiovascular cases," getting the largest bonus at 0.88 percent, while "Gallup Indian Medical Center in New Mexico, a federal government hospital on the border of the Navajo Reservation, will be paid 1.14 percent less for each patient," Rau writes. Only one other hospital lost more than 1 percent of its reimbursements.

Kaiser's analysis found that 60 percent of hospitals in Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Utah and Wisconsin are getting higher payments, but payments have been reduced in at least 60 percent of hospitals in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico (86%), New York and North Dakota (83%), and Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming (88%). 

Medicare reduced its payments to all hospitals by 1.25 percent during the second year of the program, putting $1.1 billion into an incentive program, Rau writes. But not every hospital is getting the 1.25 percent back, and some are getting more back. That's because Medicare is judging hospitals based on how they compare against each other, and how much they've improved in the past two years compared to other hospitals, with hospitals judged by the higher score, which benefits hospitals that made significant improvements, even if those hospitals have lower overall quality rankings.

Forty-five percent of a hospital's score "is based on how frequently it followed basic clinical standards of care, such as removing urinary catheters from surgery patients within two days to decrease the chance of infections," Rau writes. "Thirty percent of the score is based on how patients rate the way they felt they were treated in the hospital, such as whether the doctors and nurses communicated well." The remaining 25 percent is based on mortality rates "calculated from the number of Medicare patients who died in the hospital or within a month of discharge."

Critics say the incentive program benefits physician-owned hospitals that treat specialties, and fancier-looking hospitals, because both receive high marks from patients, while "hospitals that treat the very sickest patients often get the worst evaluations," Rau writes. "Some leaders also object that even if they show improvements, their hospital can lose money if the improvements are not as great as others." (Read more)

Rural hospitals say their number is likely to decline in Georgia; three have closed this year

Georgia keeps losing rural hospitals. It has lost three this year because of financial difficulties, with Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland, Ga., and Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Arlington closing in the early part of the year, and Charlton Memorial Hospital in southeast Georgia shutting down in August. But the worst could be to come. "As many as 15 more may be closing their doors in the coming months," according to Hometown Health, "a trade association representing 56 rural hospitals in Georgia," Ellen Reinhardt reports for Georgia Public Broadcasting. (First Coast News photo: Charlton Memorial closed in August)

Because Republican Gov. Nathan Deal and the GOP-controlled legislature did not expand the Medicaid program under the federal health-reform law, Georgia hospitals will not get "about $400 million in federal subsidies to pay for care for indigent patients over the next four years," Reinhardt writes. In 2017, the state would have to pay 3 percent of the expansion cost, topping out at 10 percent in 2020.

A Deal spokesman told Reinhardt, “If we expand Medicaid, we’re on the hook for that 10 percent and most people believe, if they really look at it, that that 10 percent isn’t going to stay 10 percent forever; that as the federal government looks for ways to pay off its $17 trillion debt, it’s going to start cutting corners on the biggest expenses and Medicaid is going to be one of the biggest expenses So, it’s going to be a prime target for future budget cutters on the federal level.” (Read more)

Study: Rural Americans, especially in the South, are not getting as much CPR training as in other areas

Americans in rural areas, especially the South, are not receiving much-needed training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, according to a study at Duke University that is reported in the Nov. 18 edition of JAMA Internal Medicine. "Each year, more than 350,000 Americans experience cardiac arrest outside of a hospital. On average, 7 to 9 percent of people survive, but these figures vary by geographic location," a Duke news release says. "Research has shown that when bystanders perform CPR, it doubles the likelihood of an individual surviving cardiac arrest outside of the hospital. However, rates of bystanders performing CPR vary widely, from 10 percent to 65 percent, depending on the community."

During the study, which took place from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, "13.1 million people in the United States received CPR training, with a median county training rate of 2.39 percent," Duke Medicine reports. Counties were grouped into three categories: the lower third, with a median training rate of 0.51 percent, the middle third, at 2.39 percent, and the upper third, 6.81 percent. "Counties with the lowest rates of CPR training were more likely to be rural, have a higher proportion of African-American and Hispanic residents and a lower median household income," the study report says. "In addition, counties in the South were the most likely to have lower rates of CPR training compared with the Northeast." (Read more)

Researchers concluded, "These data, coupled with previous work demonstrating lower rates of bystander CPR among communities with higher proportions of minority populations and lower socioeconomic status, suggest that variation in bystander delivery of CPR may indeed be related to variation in rates of CPR training within communities. The work also highlights striking disparities in CPR education based on racial, socioeconomic, and geographic factors."

The report notes that "a considerable portion" of the training could have been re-certification of health-care providers; and that "The rates do not include CPR training provided by other organizations or CPR education through unconventional mechanisms that do not generate certification, such as video self-instructional approaches that have become more widespread in recent years." To read the full report click here. (Duke graphic)

Thursday webinar on covering ACA to focus on baby boomers and Medicare beneficiaries

The Kaiser Family Foundation's series of informative webinars for journalists covering the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues Thursday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. The fifth installment of the webinar will concentrate on how the act affects baby boomers and Medicare beneficiaries. Kaiser senior fellow Karen Pollitz "will focus on the ACA’s role for baby boomers who are not yet 65, and eligible for Medicare, and their access to new coverage options in marketplaces and/or their eligibility for premium subsidies or Medicaid expansions." Dr. Juliette Cubanski, an associate director of the Program on Medicare Policy at Kaiser, "will talk about how the ACA impacts Medicare benefits and beneficiaries." Most of the hour will be questions and answers. 

Journalists who want to register can RSVP by clicking here. Shortly after registering, each participant will receive a confirmation email that contains information about how to join the webinar. If you are unable to join this webinar but would like to receive all future updates about the series, you can email your name and media affiliation to Video and transcripts are also available for the other webinars: “What Do Consumers Need to Know About Health Reform’s Changes,” “Understanding Insurance Premiums Under the Affordable Care Act," "The Impact of State Decisions," and Researching Consumer Stories, Finding New Ideas & Securing Real World Examples.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Common Core standards for education are taking flak from the right, but also from the left

UPDATE: For a comprehensive look at the standards debate, click here. For a look at the experience in Kentucky, the national leader in adopting the standards and tests, go here.

Some children are not in school today because their parents are keeping them home in protest of the Common Core education standards that 45 states have adopted. It's the third such annual protest, reports Chalonda Roberts of WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y., but seems to be getting more attention as school systems begin to implement the standards. Charley Hannagan of The Post-Standard in Syracuse writes about a strong reaction to her story about a local family joining the protest.

The organizers of “Don’t Send Your Child To School Day” issued a press release saying, “We recommend that you keep your children out of school . . . and help us send a message to the federal government. We the people want evidence-based curriculum that is locally controlled and which does not require data mining our children.” As Chuck Todd and his NBC News "First Read" colleagues note, "Common Core is not a federal government initiative, but one that was created by governors. Yet that hasn’t stopped this scare campaign among some on the right. To us, it’s amazing how Common Core standards have become a hot political potato. In many respects, it’s the Tea Party meets education reform."

Perhaps, but the standards also came under attack Saturday from a liberal blogger and former teacher, Anthony Cody, on his "Living in Dialogue" blog on Education Week's Teacher edition. In a post Sunday, Cody said the original post " has been the most widely read article on Education Week over the weekend, and has been 'liked' more than seven thousand times on Facebook. (Read more)

Hearing examines Obamacare's impact on schools and their employees who work less than full time

Long before the Patient Protection Affordable Care Act went into effect, local and state government agencies began cutting part-time employees to avoid having to give them health coverage. Concern, and debate, has now turned to health reform's impact on part-time school and college employees. Republicans at a Capitol Hill hearing last week "predicted that school systems would be forced to cut programs to account for the law's pricetag, and possibly scale back employees' hours," Sean Cavanagh reports for Education Week.

The act "mandates that public and private employers with at least 50 workers provide health insurance to full-time workers—defined as employees working an average of 30 or more hours a week—or face fines. That requirement would apply to many school districts," Cavanagh writes. "Some school systems that rely heavily on hourly workers to fill positions such as instructional aides, support staff, and other roles say the provision will force them to reduce those employees' work weeks to get below the 30-hour threshold. Others say it could lead districts to offer their employees watered-down health plans."

That has some districts worried. Mark D. Benigni, the superintendent of the Meriden school system in Connecticut, told the hearing "the law could cost his 9,100-student district $4.6 million over time—the approximate cost of 58 teaching positions," Cavanagh writes. "The costs, he said, stem from the law's requirement that districts expand the benefits and eligibility of coverage to current employees, a step that includes covering children up until the age of 26; and from the law's call to insure employees working at least 30 hours a week, among other pieces of the law." (Read more)

The problem is that it's complicated for schools to document "actual time worked for people in positions like substitute teachers, paraprofessional coaches and part-time employees," Susan Barkley, assistant director of the Kentucky Department of Education's Division of District Support, told Madelynn Coldiron for the November issue of the Kentucky School Board Advocate. Even worse, "If a school district worker who is eligible for coverage instead purchases a health plan from the state’s marketplace, the district faces a big fine," said Shannon Stiglitz, a lobbyist for the Kentucky School Boards Association. (Read more)

Railroad lobby calls for manufacturers to replace older tank cars that haul oil, other flammables

In response to recent explosions in Quebec and Alabama, "the Association of American Railroads is urging U.S. regulators to require retrofits for roughly 72,000 older tank cars that haul flammable substances such as crude and ethanol, plus minor upgrades for an additional 14,000 newer cars," Blake Sobczak reports for Energy Wire. The AAR, "which projects major railroads will carry 400,000 carloads of crude this year, compared to 4,700 carloads in 2006, also recommends an 'aggressive phase-out' of cars that can't meet retrofit requirements, the group said in comments filed with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration." (Salem Communications photo: The train explosion in Alabama)

The AAR recommendations may not sit well with those to make and lease tank cars, because they "are expected to bear the initial costs from any tougher standards," Sobczak writes. "By contrast, freight railways rarely own the cars moving on their tracks, so they wouldn't have to devote much capital to upgrading tank cars Ultimately, shippers will absorb the expenses brought by new regulations, potentially affecting railways' competitiveness in the oil sector."

Jonathan Kletzel, U.S. transportation and logistics leader for consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in an interview last week: "If you put in regulations that take supply of cars off the market, you're absolutely going to see an increase in prices. I think trucking has a short opportunity during this window where rail can't keep up to potentially pick up some market share." (Read more) For more on oil trains click here and here. (AAR graphic: Projected 2035 train volumes relative to current capacity)

How fat are your state's children? Report shows

How fat are your state's children? Each state's percentage and ranking appears in a report from the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Federal and state officials are fighting child obesity with improved school nutritional guidelines, and efforts are also being made to increase the standard expectations of physical activity, increase the activity requirements in child care facilities, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The frequency at which children eat fast food, and its nutritional value, are also challenges in decreasing childhood obesity. Kids and teens consume up to 300 calories more per trip to a fast-food or full service restaurant compared to days they eat at home, Ryan Jaslow reports for CBS News. Although fast-food restaurants have made some improvements with healthier sides and beverage choices in most children's meals, "there is room for improvement," researchers say in the "Fast Food Facts 2013" report, issued by Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

The report examines how 18 major restaurant chains market their foods and beverages to children and teens, and analyzes the nutritional quality of the chains' food. Significant findings included: Less than 1 percent of all children's meal combinations at such restaurants met recommended nutrition standards; McDonald's spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water and milk advertisers combined; the total amount spent on all advertising by fast-food restaurants in 2012 was $4.6 billion; preschoolers viewed 2.8 fast-food ads per day in 2012; children 6 to 11 saw 3.2 such ads per day; and teens viewed 4.8. The researchers also found that fast-food restaurants continued to target black and Hispanic youth, populations at high risk for obesity and related diseases.

Researchers called for fast-food restaurants to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children and teens, saying "Research shows that exposure to food marketing messages increases children’s obesity risk." (Read more) On the marketing front, "Sesame Street" characters have joined the Produce Marketing Association to help market fresh fruits and vegetables to children, according to a press release from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"Marketing healthy products with the same skill and vigor typically used for less healthy options could make a major difference in shaping children's food preferences," Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the foundation's president and CEO. "I have a vision of children pestering their parents for pears and begging for broccoli."

Landowners, oil-industry group sue to block first countywide ban on oil drilling in U.S.

Mora County, New Mexico, is a small county making big waves. In April, commissioners in the county of 4,500 voted to ban all oil drilling, including hydraulic fracturing and the use of water for fracking. Now, the county is facing a lawsuit from an oil-industry group and landowners who want to lease drilling rights, Steve Terrell writes for The New Mexican in Santa Fe.

The ordinances say "corporations violating the local law won't have the rights of 'persons' under the U.S. and New Mexico constitutions and cites local residents' water rights under the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the U.S.-Mexican War in 1848 and made New Mexico a U.S. territory," Mike Lee reports for Energy Wire. "Natural communities and ecosystems including, but not limited to, wetlands, streams, rivers, aquifers and other water systems, possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist and flourish within Mora County against oil and gas extraction. Residents of the county, along with the Mora County Commission, shall possess legal standing to enforce those rights."

In response, "The New Mexico Independent Petroleum Association and two landowners have sued in federal District Court, asking a judge to rule that the county ordinance contradicts state and federal law," Lee writes. "The ban on drilling violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of due process and the Constitution's prohibition against governments taking private property without compensation, the suit says." (Read more)

"Mora was the first county in the United States to impose an outright ban on all drilling," Terrell writes. Richard Gilliland, president of the state Independent Petroleum Association, said in a release last week: "What the Mora County Commission has done with this ordinance is an insult to the U.S. Constitution and every free citizen." But Mora County Commissioner John Olivas responded by telling Terrell, “I was in a position to protect our resources in Mora County. We’re ready for this fight.”

Terrell reports, "The San Miguel County Commission rejected a similar drilling ban" but is considering an ordinance to greatly restrict fracking. "In 2008, Santa Fe County, in response to a Texas company’s plan to drill in the Galisteo Basin, adopted a law that doesn’t actually outlaw drilling, but places enough restrictions that those in the oil industry have said it amounts to a ban." (Read more)

EPA OKs Ky. selenium rules favored by coal industry

The Environmental Protection Agency approved changes to the way Kentucky will measure selenium in its water, a controversial move the coal industry and the state favor, but that environmentalists have criticized, Erica Peterson reports for WFPL Radio in Louisville. Under current regulations, "Kentucky’s water quality standard for selenium is based on the amount of the substance that’s in the water." Under the new regulations, "If water testing reveals levels that are above a certain benchmark, that will trigger fish-tissue testing." 

Critics say catching fish to sample will be difficult. The EPA said: “In the event that sufficient fish tissue cannot be obtained, the permit holder will be deemed to be in non-compliance . . . for exceeding the chronic trigger level of 5.0 µg/L.”  Selenium, "a naturally-occurring substance that's released into waterways during strip mining," is "toxic to both aquatic life and humans, Peterson writes. "The substance also bio-accumulates up the food chain, so as fish eat other fish, levels of selenium rise." (Read more) To read the letter the EPA sent announcing its decision, click here. More more background, go here.

Texas ranchers and farmers are using cell-phone technology to control feral hog population

Farmers and ranchers in South Texas are using smartphones to put an end to the damage caused by the region's feral hog problem, David Sears reports for KSAT-TV in San Antonio. The use of modern technology to stop the area's estimated 5,000 to 6,000 wild hogs has caught on quick, with rancher Brian Heideman saying he caught 29 hogs the first night he used the new technology.

The technology is simple: a 25-foot wide remote-controlled gate on a round pen that can be operated by cell phone, Sears writes. "The gate has a motion detector on it. When it senses something, it sends a text or email to Heideman’s cell phone, along with an attached picture. If he sees he has some hogs in the trap, he hits and button and the gate closes, allowing him to catch the critters from anywhere."

Heidman, who said he's been able to check the trap while being as far as two hours away at a football game, told Sears, “I never thought when I moved back to the family farm (that) I would be using my cell phone to trap hogs and manage the ranch." And catching the hogs by remote control is so much easier than hunting them, Heidman said. He told Sears, "This is the only way to do it. It's so easy." (Read more)