Friday, March 28, 2014

Food prices highest since 2011; beef price a record

It's getting harder to feed a family these days. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said overall food prices rose 0.4 percent in February, the biggest increase since September 2011, while beef prices have hit the highest price on record, Paul Davidson reports for USA Today. "Droughts, unusually cold winter weather, rising exports and a virus outbreak in the hog population are among the causes of food inflation, which is expected to accelerate in 2014." Grocery store prices are expected to increase as much as 3.5 percent in 2014, up from 0.9 percent last year.

The biggest price increase came in beef, which rose from January to February from $5.04 per pound to $5.28 per pound, the highest price in records that go back to 1987, Davidson writes. Drought and the recession shrunk the U.S.. cattle herd to 88 million, the smallest number since 1951. Beef prices have risen 22 percent during the past year. The drought has also made it hard to feed cattle, killing off grass, and leading to high hay prices, Joe Taschler reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. John Freitag, executive director of the Wisconsin Beef Council, told Taschler, "They can't eat wind, water and scenery." (Sentinel graphic)
Porcine epidemic diarrhea virus has killed about 6 million pigs, reducing the herd by 10 percent, leading prices to rise 6.8 percent during the past year to $3.73 a pound in February, Davidson writes. Steve Meyer, president of Paragon Economics said "he expects the smaller inventory to boost per-pound prices to $4 by summer." Poultry prices increased 4.7 percent last year.

Milk rose from $3.46 a gallon in October to $3.56 in January because of a surge in exports to Asia, according to consulting firm Advanced Economic Solutions, Davidson writes. "Retailers have been hit by a 36 percent wholesale price increase since December, and prices could rise another 25 cents to 50 cents this year."

Fruits and vegetables have been hit hard by "cold weather in California and a 'citrus greening' disease in Florida have damaged citrus crops," causing orange prices to rise 3.4 percent from January to February, while strawberries are up 12 percent from last year," Davidson writes. "Analyst Michael Swanson says prices for other fruits and vegetables could spike this year, depending on the damage caused by California's drought." (Read more)

Pennsylvania study: Rural girls get better grades, are more likely to attend college than boys

Girls from rural areas are more likely to get better grades than boys and are more likely to attend college, according to results from a study by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the organization reports in its March/April newsletter. The 10-year study followed a group of students from 11 rural school districts, who at the time the study began were either in seventh-grade or high school juniors.

The study found that 75 percent of girls in the seventh-grade group received As and Bs, compared to 65 percent of boys. More girls, 68 percent, went on to a four-year college, compared to only 57 percent of boys, while 27 percent of boys had a high-school degree or less, compared to 19 percent of girls.

The disparities were larger among the high-school-juniors group, in which 74 percent of female juniors earned As and Bs, compared to only 61 percent of boys, and 75 percent of girls attended a four-year college, compared to only 57 percent of boys. Nineteen percent of boys had a high-school degree or less, compared to only 6 percent of girls. (Read more)

Feds designate lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species; 5 states criticize move

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday "designated the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, a long-anticipated announcement that politicians warned could set off a possible battle over states’ rights," Lindsay Wise reports for McClatchy Newspapers. The species, which shrunk 50 percent from 2012 to 2013 to a record-low 17,616 birds, primarily lives in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. Drought, construction of wind turbines, and oil and gas drilling have been blamed for the shrinking population. (McClatchy photo by Michael Pearce)

"The move prompted anxiety among landowners and threats of defiance from politicians in the bird’s five-state habitat," Wise writes. "They worry the listing could wreck havoc with the area’s economy by limiting land use and raising regulatory costs."

Read more here:

Anticipating the move, Kansas lawmakers already have a bill pending that "would prevent the federal government from protecting the lesser prairie chicken in the state by declaring any federal law related to the bird null and void," Wise writes. "The bill, which passed the state Senate 30-10 on Feb. 12, makes it a felony for any federal employee to enforce the bird’s threatened status."

"In a gesture that agency officials described as unprecedented, the bird’s threatened status will coincide with implementation of a special rule that will enable all five states to continue to manage conservation efforts for the lesser prairie chicken and avoid further regulation of activities such as oil and gas development, utility line maintenance and 'normal agricultural practices on existing cultivated land.'” Wise writes. (Read more)

Read more here:

Smithsonian magazine releases its annual list of 20 best American small towns to visit

Smithsonian magazine announced its third annual list of America's Best Small Towns to visit, concentrating this year on towns with fewer than 15,000 residents that have "particular strengths in history, music, visual arts, learning, food, theater and science," according to the magazine. "It's not solitude we're seeking—the fruits of human creativity are best shared—but, rather, enrichments unbothered by the growl of our increasingly urban lives." (Photo of Woods Hole, Mass., by Marianne Campolongo)

The 20 towns are: Chautauqua, N.Y.; Healdsburg, Calif.; Williamsburg, Va.; Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Woods Hole, Mass.; Marietta, Ohio; Beaufort, S.C.; Sedona, Ariz.; Nebraska City, Neb.; Lanesboro, Minn.; Spring Green, Wis.; Havre de Grace, Md.; Columbia, Pa.; Mount Dora, Fla.; Ketchum, Idaho; Montpelier, Vt.; Harrodsburg, Ky.; Silver City, N.M.; Decorah, Iowa; and The Dalles, Ore. (Read more)

Tennessee governor's anti-meth bill, to limit purchases of pseudoephedrine, starts to move

Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam's bill to fight methamphetamine makers and dealers, by limiting sales of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine, was approved Wednesday by the House Criminal Justice Committee. The measure, which is expected to pass the House but could run into problems in the Senate, would limit the purchase of tablets to 48 a month and 240 a year without a prescription.

Some senators have said they want to require a prescription for purchases, or declare the medicine a controlled substance, but "House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga) said he would pull the bill back from a final vote rather than allow a prescription requirement," Chas Sisk reports for The Tennessean.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Telemedicine can help treat, delay Alzheimer's, especially in rural areas, where it starts sooner

By Melissa Landon
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Telemedicine is a strategy that can be used to help prevent and treat Alzheimer's disease, especially in rural areas, where the disease comes sooner in life, Dr. Gregory Jicha, clinical-core director of the University of Kentucky's Disease Center, said today at the fourth annual Appalachian Translational Research Network Summit in Lexington.

While mortality rates for prostate cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and HIV are going down, the rates for Alzheimer's are going up, and by 2020, it is estimated that 5.6 million Americans could be affected by it. Rural areas have higher incidents of the condition, and the onset of dementia averages four years younger in rural areas than in urban areas, Jicha said.

The university's Telemedicine Cognition Clinic offers appointments that involve video interaction with patients and caregivers in remote areas. In rural areas in general, telemedicine can be particularly helpful for patients who live great distances from the nearest specialist. "I cannot drive to Paducah and fill an entire clinic every week," Jicha said. But he explained that he can "travel" to a different city every hour and provide care to patients. "Telemedicine really is the wave of the future," he said. 

During telemedicine appointments, medical experts can talk about the patients' history, administer cognitive tests, and even observe patients walking or performing tasks to diagnose them. The goal of the program is to provide high level care and cognitive evaluations in rural areas by partnering with primary care physicians and clinics in rural areas, Jicha said.

Another important aspect of the growing program is education, both for patients and for physicians. Alzheimer's disease has no sure, but some risk factors associated with it—such as hypertension, alcohol use and depression—are treatable. If rural residents had better access to specialists who can detect the early symptoms of the disease, its onset could be delayed.

The conference was a forum for hundreds of research efforts. Among the topics discussed during the conference were the connection between physical fitness and academic performance in children, and environmental enrichment to promote healthy aging brains.

Todd Gress, a professor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., presented a study about a pilot test of a text-message reminder system to advance diabetes awareness, compliance, and education—particularly in remote areas where cell phone service might be unreliable.

The advancing telemedicine strategy and these other research agendas should serve as a reminder that gifted researchers are searching for ways to improve rural health.

Such conferences "represent the best of what's happening out there in the world of universities and the world of communities," UK Provost Christine Rirodan told one session. She said the Appalachian gathering "represents the passion of people who are dedicated to solving these problems" in the region, "which require a great deal of collaboration to solve. . . . They're not small problems."

Micropolitan counties with oil and gas booms were the fastest growing last year; one up 10.7%

Following the trend of shrinking rural areas and growing urban ones, metropolitan-area populations rose by 2.3 million people from July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013, with 289 of 381 metro areas seeing an increase in population, according to statistics released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The report only focused on metro areas, micropolitan areas (those that contain an urban cluster of between 10,000 and 49,999 people) and counties with populations of more than 250,000. The overall U.S. micropolitan population did rise by 8,000 people from 2012 to 2013, but 306 of the 536 micropolitan counties (57 percent) lost population.

The fastest growing micropolitan areas are mostly located in areas where the oil industry is booming, such as Williston, N.D., and WIlliams County (Wikipedia map). Williston, in the heart of the Bakken Shale boom, saw its population rise in 2010-12 from 14,716 to 18,532, and it is estimated to have risen another 10.7 percent in 2012-13, making Williams the fastest growing U.S. county. Dickinson, N.D., was second in 2012-13 micropolitan city growth, at 5 percent, followed by Heber, Utah, 4.4 percent; Andrews, Tex., 4.1 percent; Minot, N.D., 3.1 percent; Vernal, Utah, 2.9 percent; Weatherford, Okla., 2.9 percent, Hobbs, N.M, 2.9 percent; Woodward, Okla., 2.8 percent; and Elko Nev., 2.8 percent.

While it didn't make the top 10 in percent of growth, Dunn, N.C., had the largest numeric increase, growing by 2,855 people from 2012 to 2013. That's good news for the Dunn Daily Record, perhaps the only daily newspaper in America with all-local content.

After Williams County, other fast-growing counties are: Duchesne, Utah, 5.5 percent; Sumter, Florida, 5.2 percent; Stark, North Dakota and Kendall, Texas, 5 percent; St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, 4.6 percent; Wasatch, Utah, 4.4 percent; Meade, South Dakota, 4.3 percent, Fort Bend, Texas, 4.2 percent; and Hays, Texas, 4.1 percent. (Read more) (Census Bureau map; click on it for larger version)

Drug companies agree to federal plan to phase out antibiotics used to spur growth in livestock

Drug manufacturers appear to be on board with proposed limitations to antibiotic use on livestock. The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday "said 25 of 26 drug companies that were asked to phase out antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals have agreed to comply with the agency’s voluntary plan," David Pierson reports for the Los Angeles Times. The 25 companies make 99.6 percent of the targeted drugs.

"Farms use about 80 percent of the nation's antibiotics supply, sometimes in healthy animals to speed up growth or prevent illness in unsanitary conditions," Pierson writes. "Their widespread application is being blamed for the rise of superbugs that afflict 2 million people in the U.S. and contribute to 23,000 deaths each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

FDA has said it wants to phase out the of antibiotics, something critics have said should be mandatory in light of evidence that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has serious weaknesses in poultry inspection, and the FDA still allows use of antibiotics that don't meet agency's own standards. There has been no evidence that the antibiotics pose any direct harm to humans. (Read more)

"The FDA's "final Guidance 213, released in December 2013, asked the companies to stop selling antimicrobial drugs for growth promotion and directs them to change many drugs from 'over the counter' to a status requiring veterinary oversight and consultation," Aarian Marshall notes for Agri-Pulse. "The industry had 90 days from the guidance release date in December to respond to FDA's requests. On March 10, the Animal Health Institute and the Generic Animal Drug Alliance, which represent most animal drug companies, committed to the voluntary guidelines." (Read more)

Vilsack says merging county Farm Service Agency offices will lead to better service

Secretary Tom Vilsack
Realigning and consolidating as many as 250 Farm Service Agency offices will improve service, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, when members expressed concern about the Department of Agriculture's plan to close the offices, Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer.

Vilsack said 30 offices have no employees, 111 have one full-time or part-time employee, and another 100 one-employee officers are within 30 miles of another office, Claytonn writes. "Vilsack said the consolidation is about improving services by ensuring more cross-trained people will be at bigger offices to offer services." Vilsack told the committee, "This is about better service. It's not about services going away. It's not about consolidation for the sake of consolidation." (Read more) For an interactive map of FSA locations by state click here.

Maps show spread of invasive species in waters

The Nature Conservancy has developed maps to detail the migration of invasive species over time into Eastern U.S. waterways. The maps "show population increase and spread since the appearance of each species in the Great Lakes basin and beyond," Evan Kreager reports for Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

"Sea lamprey, the first of the six invasive species to appear in the area, initially showed up in Lake Erie in 1921," Kreager writes. Another map, right, shows the migration of Asian carp from the Gulf to the edge of the Great Lakes basin from 1975 to 2013. Other maps show the migration of zebra and quagga mussels, Eurasian ruffe, sea lamprey, round goby and black carp. (Read more) (Map: Asian carp in 2012. In 1977 the fish were only reported in a small area in Arkansas, where they escaped from catfish farms, which imported them to control vegetation. To see the interactive maps click here)

House moves to block new rules that would protect streams from mountaintop removal mining

"The Republican-controlled House on Tuesday passed legislation blocking the Obama administration from issuing a rule intended to protect streams and the public health from mountaintop mining in Kentucky and other states," James Carroll reports for The Courier-Journal. "On a mostly party-line vote of 229-192, lawmakers approved a bill that would reinstate regulations issued during the George W. Bush administration that allow the coal industry to dispose of mine waste near streams and as a result, supporters said, would protect 7,000 mining jobs." The measure faces doubtful prospects in the Senate.

Rep. John Yarmuth
One opponent of the bill, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, "warned that the measure ignored the long-term environmental and health impacts of coal mining in Appalachia and other regions," Carroll writes. Yarmuth displayed a plastic bottle filled with orange-colored water to House members, saying, “This is what comes out of the taps in Appalachian communities where the water is contaminated by dangerous mine waste. It fills their wells and flows through the streams in their yards. It is the result of an inadequate law that is failing to protect public health and safety near mountaintop removal mining sites."

The Obama administration, which opposes the House bill, has yet to propose a new rule, but "it is believed the administration wants at least a 100-foot buffer between mine waste and streams," Carroll writes. The White House said the current measure “inadequately protects drinking water and watersheds from strip mining,” In February a federal judge "vacated the Bush stream buffer zone rule, saying it did not take into account the effects of mountaintop mining on threatened and endangered species." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

County health rankings, out today, are a good snapshot and a good place to start local coverage

Example: Arkansas counties by quartiles
The University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute has released its annual county health rankings, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The rankings are twofold: health outcomes, which reflect the length and quality of life; and health factors, which influence the outcomes. The rankings are a good snapshot of a county's health status relative to other counties in the same state, and a good place to start in assessing a county's overall health.

The factor rankings are based 30 percent on health behaviors (tobacco and alcohol use, diet and exercise, sexual activity), 20 percent on clinical care (access to care and quality of care), 40 percent on social and economic factors (education, employment, income, family and social support, community safety) and 10 percent on physical environment (air and water quality and housing and transit).

The factors used in the rankings have changed somewhat over the years, some statistical modeling is involved, and statistical differences among closely ranked counties are so small that they may not be significant. Thus, the rankings should be viewed more as a general categorization of a county's health status than be used to make specific comparisons with counties that are relatively close in the rankings. To emphasize that, the rankings maps group counties in quartiles, or fourths of the whole. Complete results for any county and state can be found here.

EPA, Army Corps propose new water rules, draw flak from business groups and Republicans

The Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday released proposed new water rules that would put "more small bodies of water and wetlands under Clean Water Act protections," Alicia Mundy reports for The Wall Street Journal. The rules "would clarify which waterways are subject to federal pollution regulations based on a large scientific study on how discharges from smaller bodies of water—including streams that flow only at certain times of the year or wetlands that occasionally dry out—affect water quality downstream."

The proposal was immediately "criticized by business groups, Republicans and a few Democrats," Mundy reports. The rules have also raised concern among farmers that EPA could expand its jurisdiction over streams, requiring farmers to obtain permits in cases where they have previously been exempt.

EPA and the corps said in a joint statement, "The proposed rule clarifies protection for streams and wetlands," but "does not protect any new types of waters that have not historically been covered under the Clean Water Act." Mundy notes, "The regulatory action might provoke legal challenges from several economic sectors—including the agriculture, construction and energy industries. Opponents say the rules could delay projects while permits are sought for dredging, filling or drainage in more areas." (Read more)

Proposed rules have caused plenty of concern, and some confusion. Here is a roundup of stories about the proposed rules, as noted by Farm Policy:

"Though U.S. agriculture groups have feared an expected expansion of the Clean Water Act for nearly three years, some 53 conservation practices would for the first time be exempt and previous agriculture exemptions from the law would stay in place in a newly proposed rule announced Tuesday by EPA," Todd Neely writes for DTN The Progressive Farmer. (Read more)

“The question of which isolated streams and wetlands qualify for protection under the Clean Water Act has been in dispute for a decade. The Supreme Court has issued two decisions, and the George W. Bush administration issued guidance in 2003 and 2008 limiting the scope of the act. The Obama administration delayed issuing a rule on the matter during its first term in part because of fierce objections from business interests," Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears report for The Washington Post. (Read more)

The Senate Agriculture Committee's ranking Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, said in a release: “Over the past five years the EPA has demonstrated a willingness to expand its regulatory reach, ignore common sense and, at times, exceed any rational reading of the law. Its actions have increased the regulatory burdens and costs on farmers, ranchers, businesses and other job creators. Stakeholders in Mississippi and elsewhere should take a very close look at this latest EPA regulatory effort.” (Read more)

Democratic Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. of Georgia said in a release, “I believe that regulations should be put to three basic tests: (1) be based on a cost-benefit analysis; (2) be based in sound science; (3) and be based on plain common sense. In this light, I have concerns as to the impact the EPA’s new proposed regulations of streams and waterways under the Clean Water Act will have on America’s farming communities, businesses, and others whose livelihoods depend on available water resources.” (Read more)

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president Bob McCan wrote, “This is a step too far, even by an agency and an administration notorious for over-regulation." (Read more)

Chandler Goule, senior vice president of programs for the National Farmers Union, took another view in a release: “Today’s ag-friendly announcement clearly indicates that NFU and other agricultural stakeholders made their voices heard, and EPA took notice.” (Read more)

Taxpayers foot huge bills to pay for road repairs caused by trucks from fracking sites, study says

A boom in hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas has increased truck traffic in rural areas where most roads are not heavily traveled and can't take the punishment. Researchers from RAND Corp. and Carnegie Mellon University examined the impact of extra truck traffic in the Marcellus Shale area in Pennsylvania, finding that the cost of repairs rose significantly in those areas, Leighton Walter Kille reports for Journalist's Resource. (Marcellus Effect photo: Fracking trucks in Bradford County, Pennsylvania)

The study, published in the Journal of Infrastructure Systems, found that trucks carrying heavy loads, 18,000 to 30,000 pounds, "do about 900 times and 7,500 times more damage than a 3,000-pound single axle pass, respectively,”  Kille writes. "The estimated road-reconstruction costs associated with a single horizontal well range from $13,000 to $23,000. However, Pennsylvania often negotiates with drilling companies to rebuild smaller roads that are visibly damaged, so the researchers’ conservative estimate of uncompensated roadway damage is $5,000 and $10,000 per well," a figure that falls on the state to cover. In 2011, "the statewide range of consumptive road costs for that year was between $8.5 and $39 million." (Read more)

Koch brothers take pro-business cause to county election in Wisconsin's iron range, get off base

Next week's County Board of Supervisors election in Iron County, Wisconsin (Wikipedia map) doesn't seem like something that would be of much interest to anyone other than the county's 6,000 residents. But the wealth of iron ore in the area has led Americans for Prosperity, a group run by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, to attack on seven candidates that they deem “radical anti-mining” environmentalists, Steven Verburg reports for the Wisconsin State Journal.

"At stake is a 15-member County Board that could make monetary and other demands of Gogebic Taconite, which is already deep into a sometimes combative state permitting process over its proposal for a huge iron mine that promises jobs while inspiring worries about environmental degradation," Verburg writes.

 Iron ore deposit in red; proposed mine site circled
But the attack has caused confusion, especially since the letter sent to 1,000 homes labels some candidates openly in favor of mining as "radical," Verburg writes. One said the mailer, which reads “Call these anti-mine radicals and tell them to stand up for you and your local jobs, not radical environmental policies,” listed his neighbor's phone number instead of his.

Candidate Karl Krall was labeled as "radical" in letters, but he "said he is a strong proponent of the mine, and he is puzzled and angry about being described as a job-killing radical on the material sent to his friends, neighbors and potential voters in the district where he is a candidate," Verburg writes. Krall told Verburg, “I couldn’t believe that someone who is pro-mine and for this wouldn’t do the research on the people they are sliming in the mailing. Is that the kind of people we want supporting the mine if that’s the kind sloppy research they did? Everybody in the town except me got the flyer saying I’m an anti-mine radicalist. It’s a joke." (Read more)

Sociologists examine how Obamacare rollout has fared in rural Central Pennsylvania

With the March 31 deadline for open enrollment under federal health reform looming, a group of sociologists working with undergraduate students, university faculty and local health-care providers to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in rural Central Pennsylvania decided to take a look at how it's gone, focusing on education, enrollment and evaluation. Pennsylvania did not expand Medicaid.

"As we’ve educated the community about ACA enrollment, we’ve learned that residents also need education about social services, other health-care programs and health literacy in general," Kristal Jones and Brandn Green write for the Daily Yonder. (Rural Assistance Center graphic)

While open enrollment might be accomplished most easily online, the researchers found that this wasn't true for all. "For many rural residents, access to computers and the Internet is a challenge, as are the skills to navigate computer-based systems," Jones and Green write. "Enter enthusiastic, tech-savvy college students. There are several small public and private universities in our area. Many of these students have little experience with the region, but they want to learn more. Helping with ACA enrollment gave them that opportunity."

Jones and Green write that "Reaching our rural residents required us to pay attention to the social and cultural details of our area. We reached people through the classified-ads section of local newspapers, on local radio and television programs and through other social-service providers.  We also heard from state legislators’ offices (all of which were Republican) who wanted help responding to constituents who were seeking assistance."

"Providing good health-insurance counseling to rural residents requires counseling organizations to know more than just the provisions of the ACA," Jones and Green write. "They also need to know their specific rural communities and institutions. The needs of potential enrollees will differ by area. In our region, aging populations and high rates of informal employment (primarily in agriculture and natural resources) mean that we have had to learn about a range of related social-service programs to best help those seeking enrollment assistance." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Poll questions can be skewed; here's some guidance, and an offer of help in dealing with them

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

It's an election year, and polls are flying to and fro. Some are worth writing about, some are not, and some are contradictory. Polls can be unreliable, or can conflict, for many reasons, and those are explored in studies published in Public Opinion Quarterly and excerpted in the latest edition of Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

The latest study is “Public Misunderstanding of Political Facts: How Question Wording Affected Estimates of Partisan Differences in Birtherism,” the belief that President Obama was not born in the U.S. "Polling groups frequently found that there was a large partisan gap in terms of belief on the issue — that Republicans were much more doubtful of President Obama’s birthplace, sometimes exceeding Democrats by as much as 48 percentage points," Journalist's Resource notes.

The researchers, Jon A. Krosnick and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University, said they found such difference were attributable to "leading introductory sentences," such as in this question: “According to the Constitution, American presidents must be ‘natural born citizens.’ Some people say Barack Obama was not born in the United States, but was born in another country. Do you think Barack Obama was born in the United States, or do you think he was born in another country?” That poll produced the 48-point difference between Democrats and Republicans. "Open-ended questions, where respondents are not forced to choose but rather must provide their own answer, 'yielded the highest rates of apparent correct understanding and the smallest partisan gaps'." (Read more)

This is a good example of why, in my nearly 16 years as chief political writer for The Courier-Journal of Louisville, I always asked to see a poll's complete questionnaire, at least up to and including the last question for which a result was provided. That also lets you see the "voter screen," the question or questions that try to divine the real "likely voters" in an election; if the percentage of voters making it through the screen is nearly double the expected turnout, the screen is too loose. The pollster also had to certify in writing the poll's methodology (Live interviewers or computerized recording? Sample drawn from file of frequent voters or database of phone numbers? If the latter: Number of callbacks to reach the selected respondents?) and be available for follow-up questions. There are other questions that can be asked about polls; if you need to consult about one, or need help in analyzing one, you can call me at 859-257-3744 or send an email to

A 2014 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly, “Public Misunderstanding of Political Facts: How Question Wording Affected Estimates of Partisan Differences in Birtherism,” analyzes the structure of certain key polls in 2010 and 2011 that kept alive the misleading issue of President Obama’s origins. The study also provides results from a survey the researchers conducted in May 2011, after President Obama had released his long-form birth certificate to help settle the matter. Polling groups frequently found that there was a large partisan gap in terms of belief on the issue — that Republicans were much more doubtful of President Obama’s birthplace, sometimes exceeding Democrats by as much as 48 percentage points.
The paper’s lead authors, Jon A. Krosnick and Neil Malhotra of Stanford University, provide insight into the nature of the survey industry that should serve as a loud warning for media members: “We put a spotlight on one instantiation of a story that has played out on the national stage over and over again in recent decades: different survey organizations each craft questions ostensibly measuring the same opinion, and yet the organizations employ different question structures and different choices of words. It is almost as if each organization strives not to ask others’ questions and instead seeks to take a unique approach to measurement.”
The study’s findings include:
  • The evidence suggests that “apparently very different results were partly attributable to the use of leading introductory sentences in one closed-ended question. Removal of those sentences, which were not present in other questions, caused obtained results to be more similar to those produced by the other closed-ended questions.”
  • For example, in April 2011 a CBS/New York Times poll asked a closed-ended question in such a way that produced a high degree of skepticism about President Obama’s origins, particularly among Republicans. The survey question read as follows: “According to the Constitution, American presidents must be ‘natural born citizens.’ Some people say Barack Obama was not born in the United States, but was born in another country. Do you think Barack Obama was born in the United States, or do you think he was born in another country?” The partisan gap revealed by this question (48 percentage points difference between Democrats, 19%, and Republicans, 67%) was larger than that produced by the four other surveys conducted during spring 2011 by other groups.
  • In an experiment in May 2011, the study’s researchers replicated the CBS/New York Times survey wording and then compared it to responses to a simpler question: “Is your best guess that Barack Obama was born in the United States or that he was born in another country?” Among Republicans, this simpler question found diminished skepticism about President Obama’s origins, by 17.6 percentage points. This experiment “illustrates the impact of leading introductory sentences and raises caution about employing them in the future.”
  • One explanation for the variation is that, with the introductory sentences in place, “some respondents may have answered differently after hearing the introductory sentences because those words constituted instructions about which answer was anti-Obama. Viewed in this way, the CBS/New York Times question may have accurately tapped some people’s anti-Obama sentiment but did not necessarily accurately tap their understanding of Mr. Obama’s birthplace.”
  • Overall, open-ended questions, where respondents are not forced to choose but rather must provide their own answer, “yielded the highest rates of apparent correct understanding and the smallest partisan gaps.”
- See more at:

Voucher programs steer tax dollars to private schools that teach creationism, intelligent design

Public schools are not legally allowed to teach creationism or intelligent design, but public tax dollars are going to private schools to teach those concepts. "Taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools that teach Earth is less than 10,000 years old, Adam and Eve strolled the garden with dinosaurs, and much of modern biology, geology and cosmology is a web of lies," Stephanie Simon reports for Politico. (Politico graphic: state voucher programs)

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, "Some 26 states are now considering enacting new voucher programs or expanding existing ones," Simon writes. "One concept that is gaining popularity, on the table in eight states: setting up individual bank accounts stocked with state funds that parents can spend not just on tuition but also on tutors or textbooks, both secular and religious. On Friday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled the approach constitutional; lawmakers there are already working to broaden eligibility."

"Already, about 250,000 students take advantage of vouchers and tax-credit scholarships," Simone writes. "That’s just a fraction of the 55 million public school students in the U.S., but it’s up about 30 percent from 2010. Some states have built growth into their laws. In Florida, for instance, public subsidies are set to rise from $286 million this year to about $700 million in 2018 even without further legislative action, as long as demand remains high." Only one state, Wisconsin, had a voucher program in 1993, but last year 20 states had programs. (Read more)

As smoking declines in wealthy places, it lingers more, or even rises, in poor, rural counties

Poor and working-class counties have increasingly high rates of smoking, while the smoking rates in wealthy counties continue to decline, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington and in Germany, published in Population Health Metrics. In particularly poor places like Clay County, Kentucky, where only 7 percent of the population has a college degree, the smoking rate is 36.7 percent in 2012, the highest in any U.S. county with fewer than 15,000 people, Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff report for The New York Times. (NYT map: Adult smoking rates for U.S. counties. To view the interactive version click here)
The study, which evaluated federal survey data from 1996 to 2012 "found that affluent counties across the nation have experienced the biggest, and fastest, declines in smoking rates, while progress in the poorest ones has stagnated," Tavernise and Gebeloff write. "The findings are particularly stark for women: About half of all high-income counties showed significant declines in the smoking rate for women, but only 4 percent of poor counties did, the analysis found."

Education also plays a role in smoking. "Americans with a high school education or less make up 40 percent of the population, but they account for 55 percent of the nation’s 42 million smokers," Tavernise and Gebeloff write. The smoking rate among adults has decreased 27 percent since 1997, but only 15 percent among poor people, and rates have not changed at all for adult smokers living in deep poverty in the South and Midwest.

“Smoking is leaving these fancy places, these big urban areas,” said Ali H. Mokdad, a researcher at the UW's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and an author of the study. “But it has remained in these poor and rural areas. They are getting left behind.”(Read more)

Review lists four basic risks involved in hydraulic fracturing that can lead to water contamination

Understanding the risks of hydraulic fracturing to water sources can be a confusing process. A review by scientists at Duke University published last month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology breaks down those risks, making it easier to understand, and providing a helpful took for journalists covering fracking in the current oil and gas boom.

“Most studies so far have found that fracking itself, narrowly defined, does not pose a risk. However, there is evidence that improper drilling techniques, especially faulty surface casing and cementing, can contaminate aquifers," Gayathri Vaidyanathan reports for EnergyWire. "Scientists have found elevated levels of hydrocarbon gases in some groundwater supplies, likely from leaks in well casings, the review states. Gas could also escape through abandoned oil and gas wells or through pre-existing fractures and faults that are adjacent to the formations being fracked.”

The study found four main areas, as described by EnergyWire, that could be a risk:
  • Stray methane gas from formations could leak from improperly constructed gas wells into shallow aquifers.
  • Wastewater from shale gas drilling could spill at the surface or could be improperly disposed of in streams and rivers.
  • Metals or radioactive elements could collect in rivers and streams where partially treated wastewater effluent is released.
  • Freshwater withdrawals for fracking could stress groundwater availability in drought-prone regions."
Many areas where fracking occurs have previously been drilled for oil and gas, and lax state regulation could have led to leaks from old wells. (Read more)

Speaker: States, localities can promote uniqueness of rural places with a camera and social media

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Promoting rural tourism is as simple as having access to a camera and social media. That was the message Cory Ramsey, creator of the Facebook page Map Dot, Kentucky, delivered to the Southeast Tourism Society Spring Symposium Tuesday in Lexington.

For the past five years Ramsey has traveled the back roads and off the beaten paths throughout the state, posting photos of his journeys and encouraging people to respond with their thoughts on small town life. Ramsey, who said he has taken thousands of photos, said people in any state can follow his model to promote their states. And since most people have a digital camera or a camera phone, along with a Facebook or Instagram page, sharing rural life is fairly simple. (Tim Mandell photo: Cory Ramsey)

"Outside of big cities, we're full of unique places," Ramsey said. "My luxury is, when I travel I get to plug every single place in Kentucky. Every single downtown. Every single greasy spoon. Every single tree on the side of the road that looked good and I wanted to post a picture of."

He said every state has its own unique places just waiting to be shared with the rest of the world. "People connect with rural America," Ramsey said. "You have a wealth of places that add to the mosaic  that color the whole picture that add to the reputation of your state as a cool place." he said people have told him that they visited a town after seeing it featured on his site.

A short visit opens the door to more, Ramsey said. Tourists who like an area will return, or might turn a day trip into an overnight trip, turning a one-day trip into two days, or turn a two-day trip into five days, staying longer to seek out other interesting sites in the area. "Get out there and drive the back roads and see where these places are," he said. "It's not just Kentucky. It's everywhere."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Big business promotes Common Core education standards, which are dividing Republicans

The Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign March 16 seeking conservatives' support for the Common Core State Standards in education by emphasizing their eventual benefits. The campaign includes TV spots and online ads featuring teachers expressing approval of the Common Core. The "campaign . . . aims to undercut dire tea-party warnings that the standards amount to a federal power grab, akin to Obamacare," Stephanie Simon reports for Politico.

The Common Core, designed by states and accepted by 45 of them, comprises a list of standards for students' learning each year and is supposed to help better prepare them for college. It has faced considerable opposition, especially from tea-party activists. Primarily in deep-red states, thousands of business owners and executives are telling state lawmakers that the standards will improve the workforce and result in superior economy. "We're telling the legislature that this is our No. 1 issue," said Todd Sanders, CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. "We will be watching."

According to a poll by Achieve Inc., which helped write the standards, "Nearly four in 10 voters still know 'nothing at all' about the Common Core," Simon reports. "Those who are aware of the Common Core tilt toward opposing it: 40 percent view the standards unfavorably, while 37 percent back them. That’s a sharp reversal from Achieve’s last national poll, in May 2012, when those aware of the standards tended to like them, with 'favorable' beating 'unfavorable' by a solid margin of 42 percent to 28 percent."

The campaign has already won some battles, including stopping bills that would have impeded the Common Core in Georgia and in Arizona. However, Indiana enacted a law today to opt out of the standards, and "Bills to undermine the Common Core are pending in at least a half-dozen other states as well," Simon writes. Tea-party activists say "The business community's tactics will backfire by stoking populist outrage against the Common Core and its raft of powerful, establishment supporters," Simon writes. Arizona state Sen. Al Melvin said, "They're not going to affect me, and I don't think they're going to affect any others. I'm a businessman. But sometimes, these chambers of commerce get it wrong." (Read more)

One of the main debates surrounding the Common Core issue is standardized testing, which has both changed and increased with the implementation of the standards. Oklahoma "State Rep. Jerry McPeak, D-Warner, said most of the criticism he has received from teachers and administrators in his district has centered on too many tests being required rather than the standard itself," Randy Ellis and Tim Willert write for The Oklahoman. (Read more) In Tennessee, a move to drop Common Core had been deferred because writing a separate test would cost an estimated $10 million. Indiana has estimated its cost at $30 million.

The Tennessee case was among those dividing Republicans at the state level, and the divide has also appeared at the national level. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both presidential hopefuls, have sponsored legislation banning federal funding of any Common Core component, while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is mulling the 2016 race, hails the standards, reports Bill Barrow of The Associated Press.  IN Tennessee last week, at at event with Common Core defender Gov. Bill Haslam, Bush said, "This is a real-world, grown-up approach to a real crisis that we have, and it's been mired in politics." (Read more)

The debate has revived an old one about whether the results of such assessments should be used to measure teacher performance, Alyson Klein writes for Education Week. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that although "states' priority should be to use test-score data to identify top performing teachers and not to punish low-performing educators," that isn't the idea behind the federal policy. The department has actually specified its desire for student-assessment performance to influence teacher evaluations. (Read more)

Even with special help, lack of Medicaid expansion leaves South Carolina's rural hospitals struggling

States' decisions not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform is putting pressure on rural hospitals, many of which are losing money and struggling to remain open, especially in the South. The solution for South Carolina's rural and critical-access hospitals is to look "for help from urban hospitals or large hospital chains in terms of merger, consolidation, affiliation or formal clinical cooperation agreements," Joey Holleman reports for The State newspaper in Columbia. "The national trend began years ago and has picked up steam in the Upstate in the past year."

Click on map for larger version
"About one-third of South Carolina’s total hospitals are in rural counties, but they account for only 10 percent of the state’s hospital beds and about 5 percent of in-patient days," Holleman writes. One of those rural hospitals, Fairfield Memorial Hospital, a 25-bed hospital in Winnsboro, "managed a net profit of $517,116 over the past five years" but lost more than $11 million in expenses vs. income for patient services during that span. CEO Michael Williams told Holleman, “If a small hospital is not looking at all its options, it’s not going to survive." (Rural Assistance Center graphic)

Charles Beaman, CEO of Palmetto Health, which owns six South Carolina hospitals, "said the dynamics of health care have been altered by the shift by insurance companies to more out-of-pocket expenses, putting more financial burden on the patients. Medicaid’s move to link reimbursements to quality of care, which in the short term often means more expense for hospital improvements" and the decision to not expand Medicaid, Holleman writes.

"Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration increased reimbursement to 19 rural hospitals for uninsured care to lessen the blow of turning down Medicaid expansion," but officials say rural hospitals need more help, Holleman writes. "They don’t necessarily want a full-scare purchase or merger. Instead, they want to band together to get quantity discounts on equipment or to negotiate higher reimbursements from major insurers such as BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina. They might combine labs or work out an affiliation with a larger hospital that has specialized, expensive heart care that the smaller hospitals can’t afford to provide." (Read more)

Read more here:

Supreme Court upholds EPA's retroactive veto of permit for huge mountaintop-removal coal mine

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal by Arch Coal Inc. challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's retroactive veto of parts of an Army Corps of Engineers permit for what could have been the largest mountaintop-removal coal mine to date.
Mine site lies amid swath of similar mines in West Virginia and Kentucky (Yahoo map)
At issue was the Spruce No. 1 mine in central West Virginia, "which in 2007 received a permit from the Corps of Engineers to discharge material at nearby streams and tributaries," Brent Kendall reports for The Wall Street Journal. In 2009, after the Obama administration began, newly appointed EPA officials began efforts to modify or suspend the permit, "saying new information showed that dumping mining waste would impose unacceptable harms on water quality and wildlife." EPA's efforts prohibited Arch Coal's Mingo Logan subsidiary in 2011 "from discharging material into two of the streams that had previously been approved as disposal areas." In April an appeals court reversed a federal judge's decision, ruling that EPA legally rejected the permit.

Mingo Logan said in a petition to the Supreme Court that EPA's move would curtail mine activities by 88 percent, Kendall writes. "The company said it spent several years and millions of dollars working with state and federal officials to obtain the permit." They said the move by EPA "was unprecedented and would create uncertainty in industries that have invested billions of dollars in reliance on permits issued by the Corps of Engineers," and said Congress "never meant to give EPA 'a retroactive trump card' over the corps." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Willie Nelson has come out against mountaintop removal with a video of mining and its pitfalls as he sings "America the Beautiful."

E. Ky. economic effort announces structure, plan; draws criticism for 'Old Guard' dominance

The bipartisan effort to reshape the economy of Eastern Kentucky, hit hard by coal-industry layoffs, now has an executive committee, managers, an office and a nine-month action plan that won't gather dust on shelves, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced Monday at Hazard.

"We have the elements to make it an ongoing, transformational process for Kentucky's Appalachian region," Beshear said of the Shaping Our Appalachian Region initiative. For a video of the event, click here. The 15-member executive committee includes Tom Hunter, former executive director of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He told the crowd, "We wouldn't have an Appalachian Regional Commission without Hal Rogers," who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Charles W. Fluharty, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, will serve as SOAR's interim executive director while the executive committee searches for a permanent executive director. The on-site managing director will be Donovan Blackburn, city manager of Pikeville, where a SOAR office has been established. Rogers called him "the most forward-looking person I know in Eastern Kentucky."

Rogers said the key to the next few months will be working groups that will hold "listening sessions" on 10 issues, aiming toward a second regional summit in November. Former Gov. Paul Patton of Pikeville will chair a "Futures Forum" to frame and advance a long-term vision for the region. Rogers said the effort will also need money, and that will be up to a development committee headed by Pikeville banker Jean Hale, who told the crowd, "Kentucky needs to understand that it needs Eastern Kentucky for its success."

UPDATES, March 25: The selections got a mostly negative review from Tom Eblen, columnist and former managing editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader. He said Fluharty's role is unclear, and "The list raised eyebrows not so much because of who was included as who was excluded, which was pretty much everybody outside Eastern Kentucky's establishment power structure," such as staff of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, "which has been working on innovative economic development strategies in Central Appalachia since 1976," and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and environmental and social-justice group that "has been working effectively in coal-dominated Eastern Kentucky since 1981." He concluded, "If they want new ideas and the broad public support and credibility SOAR needs to succeed, they must be willing to give some seats at the decision-making table to people besides Eastern Kentucky's Old Guard. Otherwise, SOAR won't be any different than the failed efforts of the past."

Meanwhile, Rogers cited SOAR and mentioned "the great strides that we’ve made over the last three decades in education, healthcare and job creation" in a response to a National Journal article noting that his district ranked last in the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index.

With limited providers and high rates, few Mississippi residents sign up for Obamacare

Despite living in one of the poorest and least healthy states in the nation, Mississippi residents are showing little interest in signing up for health insurance under federal health reform, Jennifer Haberkorn reports for Politico. With only two providers to choose from and relatively high premiums to pay, only 9 percent of eligible residents have signed up.

Through the end of February, 4.2 million people had signed up for health insurance under the program, reports Kasier Health News, but only 25,554 Mississippi residents, "results that were worse than in all but eight states," Haberkorn writes. (Heritage Foundation graphic: A lack of health insurance carriers in Mississippi)

"The effort in Mississippi illustrates the obstacles the health law must overcome in many parts of the country, particularly in deeply conservative areas where antipathy toward Washington mixes with challenges of geography, education and general skepticism or ignorance of the Affordable Care Act," Haberkorn writes. "High rates of poverty and disease — which mark much of this state — don’t necessarily aid recruitment. Add the strident opposition of GOP leaders and enrollment gets that much tougher."

"Despite all the political rhetoric about a government-run health program, Obamacare relies on private insurers to sell policies on the state and federal exchanges. If there’s no insurance company, then there’s really no Obamacare," Haberkorn notes. That's been a problem in Mississippi, which statistically is "one of the unhealthiest states, topping the charts in all kinds of negatives such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease — conditions that can be stabilized with treatment or kill without."

Last summer most of Mississippi only had one provider, a local company that covered a third of the state, leaving "about 36 counties with about 1 million people, many with incomes low enough to qualify for federal subsidies," with no access to coverage," Haberkorn writes. Attempts to recruit insurers didn't fare well, with Blue Cross Blue Shield and United HealthCare turning down offers before Humana Inc. agreed to expand from four to 40 counties.

That's led to a Humana bus tour, which has made more than 200 stops, but with little success. Additional attempts to get people signed up include "covering the co-pay for customers’ first doctor’s visit before June, and immediate cash savings that it hopes will get people to start a relationship with a primary-care physician," Haberkorn writes. "But Humana has every incentive to sell as many policies as possible. The math involved is simple: Insurance works when there are more people enrolled, which spreads the risk of high costs across hundreds or thousands of customers. To succeed in a state like Mississippi, it had to go all out to get customers." But with rates on average the third highest in the country, many residents appear to have decided it isn't worth it. (Read more)

PBS Newshour features segment on Kansas' attempt to draw people to rural towns

In 2012, the rural population of the U.S. declined for the first time, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One state trying to change that trend is Kansas, where Republican Gov. Sam Brownback has initiated the Rural Opportunity Zones program, which pays college graduates up to $15,000 over five years to move to counties that have experienced population loss, and waives income tax for people moving from out of state.

A feature on PBS Newshour takes a closer look at the state's circumstances, and reports that "Jobs and people have been disappearing from rural Kansas and most of the Great Plains for the last 80 years." One reason was the Great Depression, and the other was the introduction of mechanized farming in the 1960s, which reduced the number of farms and the need for human workers.

In Kansas, Brownback hopes Rural Opportunity Zones can re-populate rural towns. "It’s a beautiful community. We just need to give it some opportunity," he told PBS. "It’s about creating opportunity for people." Currently 650 people participate in the program, which cost the state $838,000 last year. While the program has helped raise rural populations, some fear that it won't last, because there is still concern about lack of jobs, opportunities for advancement at jobs and enough to do in small towns to keep people interested in staying. (Read more)

Fewer rural students are attending the University of Illinois; cost, readiness seem to be main issues

The number of rural students attending the University of Illinois keeps decreasing; some high-school graduates are looking for cheaper ways to get an education, some aren't prepared for college, and some want to avoid the big-city life of a school with more than 30,000 students, Christine Des Garennes reports for The News-Gazette in Champaign. (Gazette photo by Rick Danzl: Arminius Caldwell, left, and Billy Hatfield are two of three students from their high-school class of 37 to attend the university)

About 600 students from the state's 37 rural counties attend the school, down from 1,017 in 2003 and 1,048 in 1993. Over the past five years, 23 of those counties—mostly in the southern and western parts of the state—have sent an average of two or fewer students to any of the school's three campuses.

Des Garennes notes that "The sticker price for a year at the UI has reached $25,000 (including tuition, fees and room and board)," so many students opt for community colleges. Others fear making the switch from a school with a few hundred classmates to one with thousands, while some attend small high schools that don't properly prepare students for college. "Unlike at a large wealthy suburban high school, where students can enroll in numerous advanced placement and honors classes, students from some smaller schools may face challenges obtaining the coursework needed for college admission. For example, a student needs to complete a foreign-language class, but it's only offered at the same time as the math course needed." (Read more)