Friday, October 17, 2014

Rent-to-own stores targeting those with lower income, many of whom end up defaulting on payments

Rent-to-own stores are popping up across America—especially in the South—targeting people with little money and no credit by giving them the opportunity to purchase middle class items with high interest rates that end up costing people double or triple the item's original cost, Chico Harlan reports for The Washington Post.

"The poor today can shop online, paying in installments, or walk into traditional retailers such as Kmart that now offer in-store leasing," Harlan writes. "The most striking change in the world of low-income commerce has been the proliferation of rent-to-own stores such as Buddy’s Home Furnishings, which has been opening a new store every week, largely in the South." (Post photo by Bob Miller: Donald Abbott looks over a receipt from Buddy’s Home Furnishings. Abbott bought a sofa set for about $1,500 that will end up costing $4,158 through weekly payments)

"In some ways, the business harkens back to the subprime boom of the early 2000s, when lenders handed out loans to low-income borrowers with little credit history," Harlan writes. "But while people in those days were charged perhaps an interest rate of 5 to 10 percent, at rental centers the poor find themselves paying effective annual interest rates of more than 100 percent. With business models such as 'rent-to-own,' in which transactions are categorized as leases, stores like Buddy’s can avoid state usury laws and other regulations."

And few people can afford the high interest rates, Harlan writes. "At the Buddy’s in Cullman, (Ala.), some 75 percent of items are returned or repossessed within weeks of the transaction, store manager Angela Shutt says. And nationally, the percentage of returns has been gradually ticking upward—a sign of growing struggles for lower-income workers, said Joe Gazzo, the president of Buddy’s." Gazzo told Harlan, “I’ve never seen a customer base or an economy like this. You may have five people open an account in a day, but five people return in a day. You almost become like a Blockbuster.”

Buddy's—which has grown from 80 stores in 2008 to 204 in 2014 to expectations of 500 by 2017—and its larger competitors, Aaron’s and Rent-A-Center, "are criticized by some consumer advocates for predatory strategies," Harlan writes. "But those in the industry say they offer a legitimate service to an easy-to-overlook customer base. Customers who can’t make the payments face no penalty; because they start out as renters, not owners, they don’t face debts or credit damage if they make a return." (Read more)

Texas community college rejecting African applicants over Ebola concerns

Fear spreads faster than diseases. Navarro Community College in Corsicana, Texas, about 55 miles outside Dallas, has been sending form letters to some applicants informing them "that it is not accepting students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases," reports CNHI News Service. In some instances, students from countries with no reported cases of Ebola say they have received the rejection letters.

On Thursday, Navarro College released a statement:

"The safety of all our students and our community is our top concern.  We are proud of our robust legacy of attracting and educating international students, including a significant population of Africans. Our African students are important to our educational experience and enrich our campus life here at Navarro College. (A rejection letter sent to a student in Nigeria, where there have been no reported cases of Ebola) 

The current Ebola epidemic is a fluid, dynamic, unprecedented situation for our country and our school. At this time, we believe it is the responsible thing to do to postpone our recruitment in those nations that the Center for Disease Control and the U.S. State Department have identified as at risk. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. We are eager to resume accepting student applicants from these countries as soon as possible.

We’re sorry that some disagree with our decision, but we believe that at this time, this is the right and responsible action to take for the safety of our students and community." (Read more)

Four states to vote on minimum wage hikes; nearly half of states are above federal rate

Nowhere in the U.S. can a single-income household afford a decent one-bedroom residence by working a 40-hour week at minimum wage, The Washington Post reported in April. But things could be changing for low-income workers, with at least 10 states and Washington D.C. having passed minimum wage increases this year, while voters in Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas can approve minimum wage increases in November, Niraj Chokshi reports for the Post.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but 23 states and Washington D.C. have set higher minimums, Chokshi writes. Alaska is considering raising its rate to $9.75 by 2016, Nebraska to $9 in 2016, South Dakota to $8.50 in 2015 and Arkansas to $8.50 in 2017. "Illinois voters will give their opinion on a hike to $10 in 2015, though that measure is not binding."

"Even without voter approval or further legislative action, the minimum wage is set to change in at least a dozen states and D.C. over the next few years," Chokshi writes. "Four states will see their minimum wages rise to at least $9 an hour early next year, joining Washington, Oregon and California. By early 2016, two states—Massachusetts and California—will breach a $10-minimum-wage mark. By early 2017, Massachusetts will have an $11 minimum wage." (Read more) (State Economic Monitor map from its quarterly appraisal of state economic conditions)

Mountaintop removal dust linked to lung cancer, West Virginia University study finds

Dust from mountaintop removal promotes the growth of lung cancer tumors, says a study by West Virginia University researchers published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Ken Ward reports for the Charleston Gazette.

For the study, dust was collected from communities near mountaintop removal sites in Southern West Virginia, with researchers examining "its effects on human lung cells to try to investigate previous statistical evidence that showed elevated lung cancer in coal-mining communities, even after adjusting for other factors such as smoking," Ward writes.

The study's authors wrote: “A growing body of evidence links living in proximity to (mountaintop removal) activities to greater risk of serious health consequences, including significantly higher reports of cancer. Our finding strengthens previous epidemiological studies linking [mountaintop removal] to increased incidence of lung cancer and supports adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control.”

Researchers "found that chronic exposure to mountaintop removal dust induced cell changes that indicated development of lung cancer," Ward writes. "While the data did not 'indicate tumor initiation,' it did show 'lung tumor promotion and progression' that showed the dust is 'a health concern as a cancer promoter.' The first-of-its-kind experimental study used a dust exposure level roughly equal to what mining community residents might experience over an 8.5-year period." (Read more)

EPA meeting with organizations about water rules was 'too little, too late," rural utilities say

The Environmental Protection Agency dragged its feet in evaluating how proposed water rules will affect small businesses, and the recent meeting was "too little, too late," said the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Amena Saiyid reports for Bloomberg BNA. NRECA Executive Director Jo Ann Emerson said in a statement: "Both the law and good sense require the agencies to meet with those businesses most likely affected by expanding the definition of regulated waters prior to publishing the rule in the Federal Register.”

Also at the meeting were representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Associated General Contractors of America, the National Association of Home Builders, the International Council of Shopping Centers and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Don Parrish, senior congressional relations director for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said most of the industry representatives were critical of the rules, with some fearing the rules will unnecessarily expand EPA's jurisdiction, Saiyid writes. Parrish told Saiyid, "None of the people present thought the agencies were doing the right thing. Everybody supported the Small Business Administration's demand that the agencies withdraw the rule and conduct a panel for small businesses." (Read more)

EPA has expanded its public comment period on the rules to Nov. 14. Comments can be made by clicking here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

EPA approves GMO herbicide in six states; environmentalists say decision violates law

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday gave final approval to Dow AgroSciences herbicide Enlist Duo to be used with new genetically modified corn and soybeans, Carey Gillam reports for Reuters. The decision "outraged critics, who say the approval violates environmental law and will create a host of problems for people and animals." The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave final approval to Enlist Duo in September.

The herbicide can now be used in six states—Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin—and EPA is accepting comments until Nov. 14 "whether to register Enlist Duo in ten more states: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota," reports Delta Farm Press.

EPA said its scientists "used highly conservative and protective assumptions to evaluate human health and ecological risks for the new uses of 2,4-D in Enlist Duo. The assessments confirm that these uses meet the safety standards for pesticide registration and, as approved, will be protective of the public, agricultural workers and non-target species, including endangered species" and pose no threat to human health.

But environmental activists disagree, Gillam writes. Greg Loarie, an attorney with Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law organization that is evaluating legal action to try to stop the commercialization of Enlist Duo, told Gillam, "EPA has not followed the law. In their view, a massive increase in the use of 2,4-D will have no impact on endangered species. They are supposed to consult with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They did not." EPA contends that they did follow the law. (Read more)

The cure for doctor shortages in rural South Dakota is to find more in-state residency spots

South Dakota medical school graduates who practice their residency within the state usually end up staying in state to practice medicine. But a shortage of open residency spots is forcing graduates to leave the state for their residency, resulting in many of those doctors beginning their careers out of state, leaving rural South Dakota with a severe lack of doctors, Scott Feldman reports for the Rapid City Journal.

About 40 percent of people who get their medical degree in South Dakota remain in state to practice, but when they also have their residency in state, that number jumps to 77 percent, said Dr. Mary Milroy, president of he South Dakota State Medical Association, Feldman writes. The problem is that South Dakota currently has 225 medical students and only 134 residency spots. That means that about 40 percent of the state's medical students are forced to leave the state for their residency.

That's bad news in a mostly rural state where "25 percent of South Dakotans live in a place with a shortage of primary health care options, and many of those people are in rural West River areas," Feldman writes. Milroy said the best way to improve the retention rate is "to increase the availability and range of graduate-level residency opportunities in the state."

The problem "is that the number of federally funded graduate-residency spots has been capped," Feldman writes. "Three bills are now before Congress that would increase the number of federally funded graduate medical education positions by 15,000 over the next five years. If passed, these pieces of legislation would provide critical funding to aid in the expansion of South Dakota’s residency slots, Milroy said." (Read more)

Natural gas boom will not slow the effects of climate change, study finds

Increased use of natural gas will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions and could lead to higher CO2 emissions, says a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research published in the journal Nature.

Five teams of experts—from the U.S., Germany, Austria, Italy and Australia—used computer model simulations to project what the world would look like in 2050 with or without the natural gas boom, says the Potsdam Institute. They all came to the same conclusion that natural gas does not reduce climate change.

"Two computer models even found that when considering other factors like methane leaks, cheaper natural gas could lead to more trapping of heat by greenhouse gases, the mechanism that drives global warming," Seth Borenstein reports for The Associated Press."Methane traps even more heat than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide."

Co-author Nico Bauer, of the Potsdam Institute, said that “The additional gas supply boosts its deployment, but the substitution of coal is rather limited, and it might also substitute low-emission renewables and nuclear, according to our calculations. The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating. The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply.” He said that could lead to an overall increase of energy consumption and higher emissions. (Read more)

Ohio county experiences 400 fracking-related earthquakes over three-month period, study says

Hydraulic fracturing in Harrison County, Ohio, resulted in 400 earthquakes during three months in 2013, including 190 earthquakes over a 39-hour period, says a study by seismologists published in the peer review Seismological Research Letters, reports Seismological Society of America.

"The research reveals a previously undiscovered fault line approximately two miles below three horizontal gas wells near the town of Uhrichsville, Ohio," Emily Atkin reports for Climate Progress. Researchers say most of the earthquakes were too small to be felt. “However, the earthquakes were three orders of magnitude larger than normally expected," researcher Paul Friberg wrote in the study. (Wikipedia map: Harrison County, Ohio)

"Only ten of the earthquakes measured by Friberg and his team were above negative magnitudes, all occurring between October 2 and October 19, 2013, and ranging from a magnitude of 1.7 to 2.2," Atkin writes. "Like the micro-quakes, those earthquakes weren’t felt by the public either because of how deep underground they occurred."

Semifinalists selected for Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge; finalists get cash awards

Semifinalists for the Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge have been announced. Created by the American Farm Bureau Federation and Georgetown University, the challenge allows rural farmers and entrepreneurs the chance to showcase new business ideas and innovation. Four finalists receive $15,000, while the Rural Entrepreneur of the Year Award gets an additional $15,000 and the Peoples' Choice Award winner another $10,000. Winners will be announced in January at the AFBF 96th Annual Convention. (Read more)

  • ATP-SC (Allendale, S.C.), a process to convert plant and wood biomass into bio-products. Team lead: Joe James.
  • Branches, Inc. (Neosho, Mo.), an online, STEM-based learning platform that teaches design and fabrication. Team lead: David Parsons.
  • Fergus Foods (Fergus Falls, Minn.), a rural food entrepreneur incubator and rental facility. Team lead: Robert Fuglie.
  • Mobile Rural Veterinary Clinic (Panhandle, Texas), a mobile veterinary satellite clinic serving rural communities. Team lead: Joe Hillhouse.
  • Pasturebird, LLC (Temecula, Calif.), a cost-effective method of producing pastured poultry on a large scale. Team lead: Paul Greive.
  • Pulaski Grow (Pulaski, Va.), an aquaponics facility to provide local youth with job training. Team lead: Lee Spiegel.
  • ScoutPro (Lone Tree, Iowa)software to assist farmers with crop maintenance. Team lead: Michael Koenig.
  • Senior Move Management (Palmyra, Mo.), customized moving and relocation services for older Americans. Team lead: Suzanne Ellerbrock.
  • Shelf Life (Arlington, Tenn.), a hydroponic growing system for small producers. Team lead: Glenn Cunningham.
  • StopFlood Appliance Systems (Inkom, Idaho), a product to prevent floods caused by washing machine hose failures. Team lead: Brent Singley.
  • Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    As juvenile detention rates decrease in many states, rates are on the rise in some rural states

    The U.S. has reduced the rate of juvenile incarceration by nearly half since the mid 1990s, as states turn to other methods, such as mediation, family therapy and substance abuse treatment, Dana Goldstein reports for The Marshall Project. "A large body of research shows that for juveniles, those interventions are more successful than incarceration in helping them avoid further crime, complete their educations and find employment."

    "West Virginia, however, is one of a handful of states that has been moving in the opposite direction," Goldstein writes. Juvenile confinement in West Virginia has risen 42 percent since 2001, the highest rate of any state, and "the state places offenders as young as 10 in facilities such as detention centers and group homes." (Goldstein photo: Kenneth Rubenstein juvenile detention facility in Davis, W.Va.)

    South Dakota leads the nation in highest rate of juvenile incarcerations, at 492 for every 100,000, Goldstein writes. Wyoming's rate is 433 incarcerations for every 100,000 juveniles, followed by Nebraska, 337, Oregon 281, West Virginia 278, Arkansas 270, Indiana 258, Kansas 255, Nevada 245 and North Dakota 241. The national average is 196, with Vermont having the lowest average with 59 incarcerations for every 100,000 juveniles.

    "A year in a West Virginia juvenile facility costs more than $80,000 per child, compared with $1,000 to $33,000 per child in community programs that have reduced recidivism by up to 20 percent in other states," Goldstein writes. "Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that since 2002, stricter enforcement of low-level offenses like truancy have put thousands of kids into contact with the West Virginia juvenile justice system." One West Virginia probation officer told Pew, “There is a considerable wait period for most therapeutic services in our surrounding area—a wait period that is unacceptable when I am faced with families that need immediate attention."

    Other rural states "that are lacking in treatment options, including South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, are also taking an aggressive approach to minor infractions like truancy, alcohol consumption, school fights and violations of probation," Goldstein writes. "West Virginia, for example, defines truancy as more than five days of unexcused absences from school and confines juveniles for this offense at five times the national rate. While the school-to-prison pipeline is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, it is prevalent in rural areas, too."

    "Some states—many rural ones—have been trying to find other ways of providing that structure," including banning juvenile incarceration, Goldstein writes. Ohio has RECLAIM, "a program in which every county is offered state funding to provide juvenile offenders with family therapy and substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration... Georgia’s 2014 budget provides $1.6 million for grants to both nonprofit and for-profit health service providers that are able to bring treatment programs to juvenile offenders in rural parts of the state," and a 2009 regulation in Idaho requires that before a case goes to a judge they receive a report from a team identifying relevant services for the child outside of secure facilities. (Read more)

    Obamacare to be canceled for more than 10,000 Californians who failed to prove citizenship

    More than 10,000 California residents who received coverage under federal health reform are having their insurance canceled for failing to prove citizenship or legal residency in the U.S., Chad Terhune reports for the Los Angeles Times.

    "Covered California, the state-run insurance exchange, enrolled more than 1.2 million people during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act this year," Terhune writes. "For most consumers, the exchange said, it could verify citizenship or immigration status instantly with a federal data hub. But more than 148,000 enrollees were lacking proof of eligibility and needed to submit documentation. People living in the U.S. illegally aren't eligible for health law coverage." Overall, 10,474 people have failed to provide documentation, while another 7,629 documents are still being reviewed.

    Peter Lee, executive director of Covered California, said people whose insurance has been canceled still have time to provide proof of residency, Terhune writes. Lee told him, "We are hopeful that anyone receiving these notices will respond by providing appropriate documents so we can work with them to ensure their ongoing eligibility for health coverage. Our goal is to continue coverage for anyone who is lawfully present." (Read more)

    Republican-led Senate could lead to major attacks against Obama's environmental agenda

    If Republicans gain control of the Senate, it could be bad news for the environmental activists, Robin Bravender reports for Environment & Energy Publishing. "For the first six years of the Obama administration, Senate Republicans' minority status has handcuffed their efforts to rein in the environmental and energy policies they loathe. But if Republicans retake the Senate in this year's election, it'll be open season for attacks on President Obama's environmental agenda."

    "A GOP takeover of the Senate would mean Republicans could finally set the agenda for votes and hearings, haul Obama administration officials to Capitol Hill to testify, slice even more cash from controversial agencies' budgets and continue to stall nominees for key agency posts," Bravender writes. "Perhaps the biggest impact on agencies like U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Energy Department would be ramped-up efforts to cut their funding—and some of the administration's pet programs."

    Former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a longtime member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told Bravender, "Those three agencies are really important and a significant part of the president's agenda. If the Republicans take over the Senate, there will be an appetite for more aggressive hearings on how the administration is using its executive powers, there will be an appetite for riders and all the . . . things that have been bottled up that they want to do."

    But in 2016, Republicans "will be defending Senate seats in a half-dozen states where Obama prevailed in both 2008 and 2012—Illinois, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—so they may not want to pursue an aggressively conservative agenda for fear of jeopardizing some of their incumbents," Bravender writes. (Read more)

    World War II-era community cannery in rural Virginia allows customers to can their own foods

    In rural Virginia a World War II-era cannery is still plugging away and drawing visitors from all over who want the opportunity to can their own foods. The community cannery in Keezletown is equipped with "industrial-grade canning equipment available, for a small fee, to anyone who wants to can a lot of food a lot faster than could be done at home," Andrew Jenner reports for Modern Farmer.

    The Keezletown Community Cannery "opened in 1942, during the World War II 'Victory Garden' push to encourage the American public to become more self-sufficient while so much food was being sent to feed soldiers overseas," Jenner writes. "By the end of the war, according to a 1977 USDA publication, there were more than 3,800 community canneries in the country." The Keezeletown Cannery claims to be the only World War II-founded cannery still in operation. (Modern Farmer photo: The Keezletown Community Cannery pressure cooker)

    "Most canneries were supported by local governments, and most eventually closed their doors when those county governments pulled funding for one reason or another at some point along the way," Jenner writes. The Keezletown Cannery faced the same fate in 2009, before local nonprofit Horizons Learning Foundation took over operations, keeping the cannery open mostly on donations. (Read more)

    Court filing details how 'dark money' got a mining company what it wanted in Wisconsin

    Not much is publicized about the behind the scenes lobbying that goes on during election season. "But a court filing recently made public by a federal appeals court in Chicago provides a rare look at how so-called 'dark money' groups helped one company get what it wanted," Theodroic Meyer reports for ProPublica. (ProPublica photo by Mark Hirsch: Wisconsin Republican state Sen. Dale Schultz was targeted by non-profit groups after voting against a mining bill.)

    "When billionaire Chris Cline's company bought an option to mine a swath of northern Wisconsin in 2010, the company touted the project's potential to bring up to 700 well-paid jobs to a hard-pressed part of the state," Meyer writes. "But the Florida-based company wanted something in return for its estimated $1.5 billion investment—a change to Wisconsin law to speed up the iron mining permit process."

    "So, Cline officials courted state legislators and hired lobbyists," Meyer writes. "And, unbeknownst to Wisconsin voters and lawmakers, the company waged a more covert campaign, secretly funding a nonprofit advocacy group that battered opponents of the legislation online and on the airwaves."

    "Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on politics, hundreds of millions of dollars have flooded into the political system—much of it through nonprofit groups that have no legal obligation to identify their donors," Meyer writes. "In its push for a new state law, a Cline Group subsidiary gave $700,000 to a conservative nonprofit in 2011 and 2012. That group, in turn, donated almost $3 million in 2012 to a second, like-minded nonprofit that also campaigned to change the mine permit process, tax filings show."

    "Both nonprofits worked to pass the mining bill," Meyer writes. "One helped to write the measure and launched a radio campaign even before it was introduced. The other tried to pressure a Republican holdout. Together, the two groups played a critical role in defeating a freshman Democratic state senator who'd voted against the bill, paving the way for its passage months later. "With the help of ads funded by the two groups, the GOP retook the state senate in 2012 and passed mining legislation similar to what the company had wanted."

    "Neither nonprofit reported spending any money on politics on their 2012 tax returns, potentially violating Internal Revenue Service rules, experts said," Meyer writes. (Read more)

    Tuesday, October 14, 2014

    War on Poverty has turned into a war against poor people, writer says

    President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, launched 50 years ago, has now morphed into a war against the poor, Tom Eblen writes for Yes! Magazine. "Wealth inequality is growing. State support for education is withering. Social safety-net programs are under attack in Congress. Many Americans believe that if people are poor, it’s their own fault. The only 'solution' for poverty that many people advocate is allowing companies to create jobs offering wages too low to support a family." (LBJ Presidential Library photo: President Johnson visits with Appalachian residents)

    "Although it is now widely—and inaccurately—portrayed as a costly welfare program, the War on Poverty was not a failure," Eblen writes. "If not for government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012, according to a study published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research."

    "For the many Americans committed to fighting economic injustice, the War on Poverty offers some valuable lessons. It showed what can work—and what is still working," Eblen writes. "It can even work in some of America’s poorest places, such as the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky where Johnson traveled in 1964 to launch his 'war' from the front porch of a poor laborer’s cabin."

    "Johnson’s passion for ending poverty was not shared by his successor, Richard Nixon," Eblen writes. "By the early 1970s, the Nixon Administration had killed or neutered many War on Poverty programs."

    "At its core, the War on Poverty was not about a handout, but a hand up," Eblen writes. "It was about creating economic opportunity and giving poor people the skills and support they needed to take advantage of it. And it was about giving poor people a voice in decisions affecting their lives. A half-century ago, Americans made a commitment to fight a war on poverty, and we could do it again. Creating a society that is more fair, just and prosperous for everyone is a fight worth winning." (Read more)

    Writer discusses problems with using students' test scores to grade teachers

    Districts evaluating teachers based on students' test scores is becoming a more and more common practice. In Houston, the teachers' union even sued their school district as a result. Those who condone the practice often cite research that highlights a connection among teachers, test scores and students' success in adulthood. However, Jesse Rothstein, an economist at the University of California, argues that this might not be a consistent measure of teacher effectiveness because teachers who are viewed as exceptionally skilled may just be "assigned good students or seek them out rather than making a difference in the test scores themselves," Max Ehrenfreund writes for The Washington Post.

    Economist Raj Chetty of Harvard University and two colleagues conducted the study in question. They found that students who performed well on tests earned more money later in life. President Obama even talked about the study in 2012 when he said, "We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000."

    This information becomes less meaningful if certain teachers are simply assigned or seek out better students. For example, what if one teacher is adept at working with students who don't speak English, while a second teacher has poor classroom management skills. The second teacher may be assigned well-behaved, dedicated students. The second teacher's students will likely perform better on tests—and earn more money in the course of their lives, like the study predicts—but this isn't because the second teacher is better.

    While Harvard's John Friedman did find that "when a teacher whose students did well on tests moved to a different school . . . the average score across that teacher's grade at the new school did improve, indicating that it wasn't just a matter of schools assigning the best students to particular teachers, Rothstein wasn't convinced," Ehrenfreund writes. Rothstein observed a similar correlation in test scores and incomes in North Carolina but noted that when a teacher whose students get good test scores moves to another school where scores were already going up, it's hard to determine how much of the improvement can be attributed to the new teacher.

    Chetty agrees that "whether value-added scores are the best way to assess teachers is still an open question," Ehrenfreund writes. Also, using students' test scores as the basis for awarding teachers better salaries or tenure might have negative effects if teachers don't seek to cultivate qualities other than academics in their students. "Once you start using value-added measures in practice, their signal quality might get eroded," he said. "People might start teaching to the test." He doesn't think teachers will make that mistake but doesn't have data to support it yet.

    Rothstein said he isn't saying the models can never be useful. "I'm arguing that we need to go in with our eyes open." (Read more)

    Last month was warmest September on record; 2014 on pace to be warmest year on record

    Last month was the warmest September on record, and 2014 is shaping up to be the warmest year since the first records were recorded in 1880, Andrea Thompson reports for Climate Central. "This September was about 1.4°F above the 1951-1980 average temperature for the month, data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) showed. That makes it the warmest September in GISS records, edging out the previous September record set in 2005."

    This summer was the fourth warmest summer on record, and last month was the warmest August on record, Thompson writes. The warmest years on record, in order from warmest, were 2010, 2005, 1998, 2013 and 2003.

    "Gavin Schmidt, the NASA GISS director, has cautioned against trying to find larger-scale meaning in the exact records of specific months, as the difference between first and second place can be very small and natural variability plays a large role from month-to-month and year-to-year," Thompson writes. (Read more) (NASA map)

    South, Northeast have the most income inequality, study by real estate company says

    Income inequality between male and female workers is most prevalent in the South and Northeast, says a study by Movoto Real Estate, Laura Allen reports for the organization's blog. Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi have the most inequality, while South Dakota, Vermont and Nevada have the most equality.

    The results were calculated by comparing median income between men and women, the percent of earning households compared to non-earning households, annual income greater than $100,000 versus annual income less than $25,000 and by using a state income Gini index, which measures inequality, Allen writes. From there, states were ranked from one to 50.

    After Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, the states with the most inequality are Connecticut, West Virginia, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan and Rhode Island. After 
    South Dakota, Vermont and Nevada the states with the most equality are Nebraska, Utah, Iowa, Hawaii, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Minnesota and Maryland. (Read more) (Movoto map: To see an interactive version click here)

    After school district cuts agriculture position, community raises funds to pay for teacher

    Many schools have turned to agriculture, opening greenhouses or growing their own gardens to supply food to students or raise funds by selling products to the community. Others have created programs or teaching positions to make sure students learn the importance of agriculture, especially in counties or states that rely heavily on the business.

    These programs have become important tools for the school and community. So when a school in Northern Kentucky cut its agriculture teacher position because of a financial crisis, the community rallied together to start a non-profit organization to pay for the position, Valarie Honeycutt Spears reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Wikipedia photo: Fleming County, Kentucky)

    Adam Hinton, president of A Better Community Foundation, said the group "raised $48,000 for Fleming County Schools to fully fund an Agriculture Education teacher for the 2014-15 school year," Spears writes. "Tracy Moran teaches in the new agriculture education program at Simons Middle School and at Fleming County High School, where Hinton said more than 58 percent of students participate in agricultural education programs each year."

    Moran, whose courses cover agricultural enrichment, animal science and crop plants, told Spears, "I've never seen a community come together for agricultural heritage more than Fleming County." Spears writes, "Whether or not Fleming County students go into agriculture as an occupation, Hinton said, 'it touches all of our lives, all of our hearts and definitely our tables.'" (Read more)

    Read more here:

    Texas is losing rural land faster than any other state; urban growth is wiping out rural areas

    Texas, where 83 percent of land consists of privately owned farms, ranches and forests, is losing rural land faster than any other state, says a report by Texas A&M University, Marcos Vanetta and Neena Satjia report for The Texas Tribune. The main reason for rural land loss is continued growth around Austin, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.

    From 1997 to 2012, Texas experienced a net loss of nearly 1.1 million acres of privately owned farms, ranches and forests, Paul Schattenberg reports for the Texas A&M AgriLife Today Extension Service. (Tribune map: For an interactive version click here)

    Dr. Roel Lopez, director of the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and one of the study's authors, said that more than 54 percent of privately owned land loss "was related to development associated with population expansion in the state’s 25 highest growth rate counties," Schattenberg writes. Lopez said that "during this period, approximately 590,000 acres were lost from the agricultural land base in these counties.”

    Blair Fitzsimons, chief executive officer of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, told Schattenberg, "We have a lot of land in Texas, but we are losing it at a faster rate than most other states in the country, and that loss is having profound impacts on our agricultural base, our water resources and our native wildlife habitat.”

    The market value of land has also increased in almost every county but is increasing at faster rates in metropolitan ones, Vanetta and Satjia write. "Travis County, for example, lost almost a quarter of its open space while land gained an average of $8,297 per acre in value between 1997 and 2012." For an interactive map of changes in market value, click here.

    October and November are the months to be extra careful of deer crossing rural roads

    Rural roads are getting more dangerous, and drivers are being cautioned to pay extra attention now that it's that time of year when deer are more likely to wander out into the middle of the road. "October and November coincide with increased deer movement because it is the animals’ mating season and also the hunting and harvesting season," reports the Jefferson City News Tribune. (Kansas Highway Patrol photo)

    Last year in Indiana, 15,000 car-deer crashes were reported, said Indiana State Police Sergeant Joe Watts, Hunter Petroviak reports WTHI-TV in Terra Haute. "Watts says some tips to stay safe include using high beam lights when possible, watching for the reflection of eyes in the road and making a mental note that typically if there is one deer, there are more with it."

    In 2013 Missouri had 3,498 reported vehicle crashes involving deer, leading to 303 injuries, writes the Jefferson City News Tribune. Most accidents occur between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m., deer typically travel in groups and deer crossings are more likely near streams or wooded areas surrounded by farmland.

    North Dakota has about 500 deer-vehicle collisions in 2013, resulting in $1.4 million in claims to repair vehicles, reports KQCD-TV in Dickinson. Drivers are better off bracing for an accident instead of swerving, said Jeb Williams, chief of the wildlife division of Game and Fish. He told KQCD, "Anytime you swerve to avoid something, especially if you're going at a high rate of speed, that you're increasing your chances to collide with somebody else or you're increasing your chances to roll that vehicle."

    Monday, October 13, 2014

    Virginia leads nation in Internet speed; Alaska, Montana, Kentucky and Arkansas at the bottom

    Virginia has the nation's fastest Internet, followed by Massachusetts, Delaware, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C., says Akami's “State of the Internet” report for the first quarter of 2014, Jack Linshi reports for Time. Alaska has the slowest Internet, with Montana, Kentucky and Arkansas not far behind.

    The average Internet speed in Virginia is 13.7 megabits per second, Linshi writes. Massachusetts and Delaware are 13.1, Rhode Island 12.9, Washington D.C 12.8, Washington 12.5, New Hampshire 12.3, Utah 12.1, Michigan 11.8 and Connecticut 11.7. All of those states except Virginia saw increases in average connection speed from the last quarter of 2013, led by Michigan, which increased by 13 percent from the last quarter and 42 percent compared to the first quarter of 2013. Virginia's speed decreased by 4.3 percent since the end of the last quarter in 2013.

    On the other spectrum, Alaska remains at the bottom, averaging 7 Mbps, despite a 7.8 percent increase since the last quarter of 2013 and a 33 percent yearly increase, Linshi writes. Montana, Kentucky and Arkansas are all at 7.3 Mbps. (Read more) (Google map)
    Does rural Vermont have the fastest Internet in the country? An article in Buffalo Tech claims it does. The article says that the rural telephone company Vermontel transformed one customer's Internet speed overnight "from over a megabit of poky DSL on Wednesday to over 600 Megabits of fiber-fast Internet connectivity on Thursday," and "Suddenly I had faster Internet than 99 percent of the U.S." (Read more)

    Obama pushes his support for net-neutrality

    Associated Press photo by Evan Vucci
    One of the biggest supporters of net-neutrality is President Obama, who said on Thursday that he is "firmly opposed to any proposal that would let companies buy an Internet fast lane to deliver their content more quickly to consumers," Edward Wyatt reports for The New York Times.

    Obama's "statements at a town-hall meeting in Santa Monica, Calif., on innovation gave a strong signal to Mr. Obama’s Democratic appointees on the Federal Communications Commission that he wants them to heed the overwhelming public sentiment expressed in 3.7 million comments sent to the commission in recent months concerning a set of rules proposed by the commission meant to protect net neutrality," Wyatt writes. "A large majority of those comments, solicited by the commission, came out against Internet fast lanes—a practice known as paid prioritization."

    In May, the FCC "sought comment on a preliminary proposal for a new set of rules intended to protect the 'Open Internet,'" Wyatt writes. "A previous set of rules, crafted in 2010, was struck down in January by a federal appeals court, which said the rules illegally subjected Internet service providers to utility-like regulation."

    "The new rules were meant to discourage broadband providers from discriminating against or blocking legal content requested by subscribers," Wyatt writes. "But they were interpreted as not banning the creation of fast lanes, in which a content provider like Netflix might pay an Internet service provider like Comcast a fee to give its content top priority for delivery to customers."

    "Supporters of net neutrality say that if payment were required for content providers to reach consumers in a timely fashion, only wealthier, more established companies would be able to afford to do so, while emerging companies—those that could be the next Google or Facebook—might be relegated to the slow lane and a doubtful future," Wyatt writes. (Read more)

    Reality TV continues to exploit the whacky adventures of rednecks and hillbillies

    Rednecks, hillbillies and white trash continue to rule reality television. Led by "Swamp People," which "has become one of the most popular shows on what is called the 'redneck reality TV' circuit—the burgeoning number of cable programs about rural Southerners living primal forms of existence," Patrik Jonsson reports for The Christian Science Monitor. "While America has always been fascinated by its share of backcountry bumpkins—think 'The Beverly Hillbillies' in the 1960s—the new shows are about real people doing seemingly unreal things in a modern world."(History Channel photo: Ron and Bruce Mitchell, stars of "Swamp People.")

    "As a new television season kicks off, series about strange subcultures of survivalists or blue-collar families, many of them with Spanish moss beards and grins that need some dental work, appear at almost every click of the remote," Jonsson writes. "There are 'Yukon Men' who confront the bestial elements 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, tuna fishermen who war off the coast of New England and 'Mountain Men' who navigate America’s uninhabitable ranges."

    "The rise of redneck TV has paralleled one of the toughest economic stretches for the American worker since the Great Depression, a time of polarized politics and economic data that shows the middle-class dream is slipping away," Jonsson writes. "Some experts believe this malaise has pushed Americans toward the visual equivalent of escapism and comfort food."

    "Of course, some of these laughs come at the expense of the redneck life and its peculiar progenitors," Jonsson writes. "Critics see the genre as glorifying backwardness and perpetuating stereotypes, particularly of the South. But others respect many of the characters on these shows for what John Nolte, writing on, calls their masculinity and independence. In fact, he says, people like Mitchell mostly come across as 'selfless and surprisingly decent.'”

    Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told Jonsson, “There have been these types of good old American characters from the get-go. These are the people who picked up pitchforks and muskets and fought the Revolution. Our identity came from giving up all those fancy-schmancy European cathedrals and art museums in order to come here to wrestle bears and put up sod huts. This is deep in American mythology.” (Read more)

    Federal funds of $1.4 million to help rural residents enroll in Obamacare

    The Health Resources and Services Administration announced on Friday that it will award $1.4 million to help rural health organizations enroll rural residents in federal health reform, says a release from the organization. "Non-profit and public entities, including hospitals, health departments, community health centers and rural health centers in 57 rural communities, will receive up to $25,000 each from the Office of Rural Health Policy, housed within HRSA."

    "Grantees of the Rural Health Care Services Outreach Program, the Small Health Care Provider Quality Improvement Program, and the Delta States Rural Development Network Program will receive this supplemental funding so that these community providers can help people understand the range of coverage options, eligibility requirements and how to enroll in the Health Insurance Marketplace in their States," says the release. Last year similar funds helped enroll more than 9,000 people in Obamacare, while many more were able to learn about Medicaid, employer coverage or other ways to get health insurance. (Read more)

    Medicaid expansion increases rural health care access, study finds

    Expanding Medicaid to cover more adults boosts health care access and use in rural populations, says a study published in Health Services Research, Stephanie Stephens reports for Health Behavior News Service. The study, using data from January 2007 to September 2012, focused on childless adults in rural Wisconsin, a state that "expanded public health insurance to include that group under a Medicaid special waiver."

    "The Wisconsin Medicaid expansion began July 1, 2009, but was closed after three months after more than 60,000 participants enrolled, leaving 100,000 hopeful applicants on a waitlist," Stephens writes. "The researchers compared people on the waitlist who wanted coverage but didn’t get it with people who were enrolled, in order to examine the effect of insurance status on health care use."

    Study author Laura Dague, Ph.D. an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government & Public Service at Texas A&M University, told Stephens, “So many people signed up that there simply wasn’t enough money to fund the program." Dague, who said she hopes future research will examine effects on varied populations, told Stephens, “The effects of insurance really depend upon on underlying populations and the current level of access to care." (Read more)

    Head of OECD says media missed point of study when labeling South as having low quality of life

    Carol Guthrie, a southerner and head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Washington Center, says a Washington Post article that used the center's data rankings missed the point when it labeled the South as having a low quality of life, Guthrie writes for the Post.
    The study ranked states by nine categories: income, jobs, housing, health, education, environment, safety, civic engagement and accessibility of services, then assigned a value of 1 to 10 for each measure. States were ranked in order of highest to lowest score, and eight of the 10 bottom states are in the South. (Post graphic)

    The rankings don't offer an opinion about where it's good or bad to live, Guthrie writes. "One thing we don’t measure is perhaps the South’s most abundant natural resource: Southerners’ appreciation for living there. The data don't cover satisfaction or how we feel about home. They present objective criteria that underpin economic as well as physical well-being, including things that make our regions more or less competitive and able to provide vibrant quality of life."

    "The data—and the ability to compare it—are not tendered as criticism; they’re tools," Guthrie writes. "What we offer is the leverage of cold, hard facts to policymakers and citizens looking to bring about change. For instance: When you know that more than 40 percent of U.S. regions have a quarter of their population at risk of falling into poverty, versus less than 10 percent of regions in comparable European economies, you have proof that it must be possible to do better. And you might wonder how to go about that. We identify best practices and suggest what policymakers might do to tackle the most prevalent problems we find."

    "The data also reminded me that there’s a reason I work where I do," Guthrie writes. "The OECD’s real value is that it better equips national, regional and local governments—and committed citizens—to lift up those places that we love so much. When we can see clearly what’s working and what isn’t, we know where to start." (Read more)