Friday, April 17, 2015

E-cigarette use among teens tripled from 2013 to 2014, CDC report says

E-cigarette use among middle and high school students tripled from 2013 to 2014, says the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of high school students who said they smoked at least one e-cigarette in the past 30 days increased from 4.5 percent in 2013 to 13.4 percent in 2014, an increase of 666,000 students to 2 million, while e-cigarette use among middle school students rose from 1.1 percent in 2013 to 3.9 percent in 2014, an increase from 120,000 students to 450,000. (Washington Post graphic)

E-cigarettes, which are especially popular among rural teens, are now more popular among middle and high school students than traditional cigarettes, reports CDC. Cigarette smoking actually declined to 9.4 percent. But hookah smoking doubled for middle and high school students, rising from 5.2 percent to 9.4 percent for high school students and 1.1 percent to 2.5 percent for middle school students.

Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, called the spike in ­e-cigarette use “shocking," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. Frieden told reporters, “It’s a really bad thing, and it is subjecting another generation of our children to an addictive substance.”

Dennis writes, "E-cigarettes remain unregulated by the federal government ­although numerous cities and states have passed laws restricting sales to minors and banning the devices in public places. But e-cigarettes do not face the same federal restrictions on television and radio advertising that apply to traditional cigarettes." (Read more)

USDA graphic shows that urban migration is the main cause of rural population loss

The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last week that rural population was down for the fourth year in a row, largely due to the loss of oil and coal jobs. ERS released a chart this week that takes a closer look at rural population changes, examining total population change, the number of births compared to the number of deaths and total net migration.

The graphic shows that the majority of population changes in rural areas are the result of people choosing to move away, not because the number of deaths exceeds the number of births, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. At the same time, metro areas are seeing growth in both natural increase (births over deaths) and migration (folks moving in from other areas).

"If urban sprawl was causing this population gain, we'd expect to see the counties closer to urban areas growing at a faster rate," Marema writes. "That's not happening. Rather than benefiting from economic spillover from a metropolitan area, these counties may have generated their own conditions. Have those conditions staunched the flow of out-migration to a dribble and contributed to a higher birth rate? That's a question worth exploring." (ERS graphic)

Invasive species reintroducing toxic, possibly cancer-causing, chemicals to Green Bay food web

"Two invasive species—the quagga mussel and round goby—can allow a group of toxic chemicals deposited more than 45 years ago to reenter the food web, passing them to predatory fish and possibly people," said a study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, Holly Drankhan reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resrouces photo: Adult round gobies eat quagga mussels and may reintroduce PCBs to predatory fish)

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB), which the Environmental Protection Agency says can potentially cause cancer and may harm reproductive, neurological and immune systems, were discharged into the the Lower Fox River in northeastern Wisconsin from 1954 to 1971 by manufacturers of carbonless copy paper, Drankhan writes. "The river flows north from Lake Winnebago and discharges into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay."

Study author Kimberly Gray, of Northwestern University, said "the two invasive species are relatively stationary and reside in the lowest portion of the water column," Drankhan writes. "They move a large segment of the aquatic food web’s energy to the bottom of Green Bay, where PCBs are most concentrated."

"Mussels can filter about a liter of water a day, said Bob Wakeman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources water resources management specialist," Drankhan writes. "Adult round gobies in turn eat quagga mussels. This makes both invasive species capable of refocusing PCBs and introducing them to species higher up on the food chain—like the fish that people catch and eat." (Read more)

Some blame Obamacare for rural hospitals closing, but 4 Texas hospitals closed due to fraud

Texas has lost 10 rural hospitals since 2010, and several more are in danger. While everyone from the federal government to private insurers to declining rural populations are being blamed, some forget that nearly half of the closures were the result of a fraud case, David Warren reports for The Associated Press. On Tuesday Dr. Tariq Mahmood was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison after earlier being convicted of submitting more than $1 million in false Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement claims. Those claims led to the closure of four rural hospitals that Mahmood operated. (Dallas Morning News photo by Vernon Bryant: Dr. Tariq Mahmood after a hearing in 2014)

"The hospitals at the center of the case took a major financial hit when federal funding was withdrawn after inspectors found substandard patient care and deteriorating conditions at the facilities," Warren writes. Dr. Doug Curran, a family physician in rural East Texas and a board member of the Texas Medical Association, told Warren, "Whenever something like that happens, and these hospitals close, you just don't have the access to care. Especially for people who are poor."

In a state where people have to travel long distances to receive care, the closure of the four hospitals makes some drives even longer, Warren writes. "People in East Texas seeking specialized pediatric care usually have to travel to Dallas or Houston, Curran said."

South Carolina promoting Little Free Libraries in rural areas that lack a public library

Officials in South Carolina are trying to promote reading in rural areas that lack a public library by holding a contest to encourage communities to open a Little Free Library, Savannah Lewis reports for WLTX 19 in Columbia. Donny Supplee, who has applied to build a little library, told Lewis, "With all the technology that's going out there I think books still have a place in our lives. I think getting kids involved in an early age—I think this will be a good way for them to go to a little mailbox, see a book that they can get, and I think it just involves a new way of getting out there." (The first Little Free Library built in 2009)

Little Free Library was started in 2009 by Wisconsin's Todd Bol, who built a one-room schoolhouse as a tribute to his mother, a former teacher. Bol filled the schoolhouse with books and encouraged his friends and neighbors to take the books for free. The first schoolhouse was so successful he built more. The organization now has a goal of building 2,510 libraries, the same number of free libraries Andrew Carnegie built around the turn of the 20th century.

California rural homeowners hiring goats to clear brush and keep properties safe during fire season

As drought-plagued California enters what could be the worst fire season on record, rural homeowners are renting goats to safe-proof their properties, George Warren reports for KXTV News 10 in Sacramento. Goat farmer Roy Austin said "each goat eats roughly 10 pounds of vegetation per day. If kept in a confined area, they will clear even stubborn brush down to bare dirt."  (Read more) (Warren photo: Rented goats clear a 40-acre property in El Dorado County on Thursday)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Legal battle begins today over proposed rules for cutting CO2 emissions 30% by 2030

The legal battle begins today over President Obama's proposed rules to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "In two separate but related cases to be jointly argued in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the country’s two largest coal companies, along with 14 coal-producing states," have challenged the proposed rules, fearing that if put into effect, it will shutter hundreds of coal plants in favor of expanding renewable energy sources. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., back the proposed rules. (National Conference of State Legislatures map)
In the cases, Murray Energy vs. EPA and West Virginia vs. EPA, "the plaintiffs contend that EPA lacks the authority to issue the rule in the first place and so should stop working on the rule before making it final," Davenport writes. "No matter the outcome of the case, it is widely expected that it will be appealed and that more lawsuits will follow—and that its fate will ultimately end up before the Supreme Court."

"Legal experts say it is also possible that the judges could throw the case out since the rule has only been proposed and thus contains language that could change when released in the final form," Davenport writes.

"If the court does entertain the case, it will enter into more unusual legal territory," Davenport writes. "The coal companies and the E.P.A. dispute the interpretation of ambiguously worded amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990. Under those amendments, legal experts say, it is not clear whether EPA has the authority to use one section of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from power plants since the agency has already used a different section of the law to regulate different pollutants from power plants."

"In arguing that it has the authority to regulate different pollutants from the same sources, the EPA will point to the 1990 Senate language," Davenport writes. "In arguing that the agency lacks the authority, the coal companies will point to the House language," which "appeared to prohibit such 'double regulation,' experts say, but the Senate version appeared to allow it. The final version of the legislation left the question unclear."

The three judges hearing the case were all appointed by Republican presidents, one by President H.W. Bush and two by President George W. Bush. (Read more)

Rural Mainstreet Index hits lowest number in five years; farmland prices fell for 16th straight month

The Rural Mainstreet Index in March fell to its lowest level since February 2010, reports Midwest Producer. The monthly survey of bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming found that farmland prices had dropped for the 16th straight month and agricultural equipment sales fell to a record-low index level.  Only 7.2 percent of ethanol plants have reduced production due to lower energy prices, and about one-third of of bankers say the Federal Reserve should not raise interest rates in 2015.

The index, which ranges between 0 and 100, was at 43.6 in March, reports High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal. Ernie Goss of Creighton University, which publishes the index, said in a statement: “The stronger U.S. dollar is undermining the farm and energy sectors by weakening agricultural exports, crop prices, livestock prices and energy prices. Rural Mainstreet businesses dependent on export, agriculture or energy are experiencing pullbacks in economic activity. Even though crop prices have stabilized, demand for farmland remains weak pulling agricultural land prices down again."

The March farm-equipment sales index fell "to a record low of 15.2 and down from February’s already fragile 19.5," the Journal writes. "The index has been below growth neutral for 20 straight months." (Read more)

School Nutrition Association wants more funding, more flexibility for new school lunch rules

School nutrition advocates want more flexibility with new school lunch rules to cut down on the amount of waste from unwanted food, Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. Julia Bauscher, president of the School Nutrition Association, told the House Education and Workforce Committee on Wednesday that the organization supports the rules but needs more funding to enforce it and more wiggle room to serve foods students will eat. (USDA graphic)
"SNA is requesting 35 cents more in federal funding for each lunch and breakfast that is served in the school lunch program, up from the additional six cents the government provided when the new standards were put in place," Chase writes. Bauscher told the committee, “That will help school food authorities afford the foods that we must serve, but unfortunately that won't make students consume it.”

Bauscher, who said SNA wants Congress "to soften the bill's target levels for more whole grains and less sodium in school meals," said that "in many cases, the new requirements have forced school lunch programs outside of budgetary constraints, forcing them to ask school districts to make up the difference. According to SNA, school districts will absorb $1.2 billion in new food and labor costs in 2010."

Currently 51 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, the first time the number has topped 50 percent in at least 50 years, Chase writes.

Fracking waste treated as non-hazardous but can lead to cancer, environmental group says

Fracking waste puts people at risk of exposure to chemicals known to cause cancer, but states are allowed to treat oil and gas waste as non-hazardous and dispose of it with little regard to safety, says a study by the environmental organization Earthworks, David Hasemyer reports for InsideClimate News.

A 1988 Environmental Protection Agency rule "exempted the waste from the stricter disposal requirements required of hazardous substances and allowed the states to establish their own disposal standards," Hasemyer writes. Earthworks, which is often criticized by the oil and gas industry as being consistently biased, "concludes the EPA was wrong when it applied the non-hazardous label to oil-and-gas waste."

The study, which focused on the Marcellus and Utica shale regions, found that in Pennsylvania fracking operations are allowed to store waste in open air pits and spread waste on roads and open land, Hasemyer writes. In West Virginia, solid oil-and-gas waste "does not have to be disposed of in specialized facilities; it can be dumped in municipal landfills."

"In Ohio, Earthworks found no public information available on the number, location or use of oil-and-gas waste pits and impoundments,"  Hasemyer writes. "The state doesn't have specific requirements for the construction and use of pits and impoundments." (Read more)

USDA awards 31 grants to create jobs and boost economic development in small rural communities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has selected 31 community-based organizations in 17 states and Washington, D.C., to receive more than $6 million in grants to create jobs and boost rural economic development in small rural communities, Agriculture Under Secretary Lisa Mensah announced on Wednesday. For a full list of recipients, click here.

"Rural Community Development Initiative grants support rural housing, community facilities and economic development projects," said a release from USDA. "Funds may be used to develop child care facilities; provide education, technical assistance and training; conduct strategic planning; and conduct other projects that help local communities develop their capacity. Eligible grant recipients are non-profit housing and community development organizations." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rural areas lost 330,000 jobs from January 2014 to January 2015; decline of oil and coal jobs to blame

Non-metro areas saw a loss of 330,000 jobs from January 2014 to January 2015, "reversing a year of economic improvement for rural America," according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder. During that same period metro areas gained more than 3.1 million jobs. Overall, the workforce in rural counties decreased by 557,000 people from January 2014 to January 2015.

The main reason for the decrease in jobs is rural population loss in regions that the oil boom has begun to fade because of a drop in oil prices and in areas that have lost coal jobs, especially in Central Appalachia, Bishop writes. Oil areas were hit especially hard. For example, Williams County, North Dakota, lost 4,000 jobs and Carter County, Oklahoma, lost 6,000 jobs. (This interactive Yonder county-level map shows the number of jobs now, the number of jobs lost or gained and the unemployment rate for January 2015)

The fate of rural hospitals rests in the hands of community members, weekly publisher writes

Just like country grocery stores in rural areas often have to close because community members drive past them to chain stores to save a few cents, rural hospitals will also suffer and eventually disappear if citizens do not use them, Publisher Chris Evans writes for The Crittenden Press in Marion, Ky.

When Evans was growing up in northwest Tennessee, his grandparents had to close their grocery store, which had been the center of the community, because too many people chose to purchase their food and other items from the new Walmart eight miles down the road. "Our rural hospitals are headed down the same path of extinction unless we recognize and reverse the trend," Evans writes.

Charlie Hunt, volunteer chairman of Crittenden Health Systems, which owns the local hospital, told Evans, "The only way for rural hospitals to survive is through community support."

In Kentucky, one-quarter of the 66 rural hospitals are in danger of closing, according to state Auditor Adam Edelen. In general, "Country hospitals do not have a good record for making money or breaking even, for that matter," Evans writes in a front-page column for the weekly he and his wife own.

Based on the results of Obamacare, Evans opines, it appears that America is moving toward a single-payer health care system like Canada's. Then instead of the government paying for 85 percent of Crittenden Hospital's services, it will pay for 100 percent. "When that happens, hospitals will have to play solely by government rules or get completely out of the game," Evans writes. Most of the 50 rural hospitals that have been shuttered in the past few years have been in the rural South.

"Hunt, who chairs the board, said that approximately 10 percent of the future of this hospital rests in the hands of its leaders. The other 90 percent falls squarely on the shoulders of this community," Evans writes. The column is not online, but PDFs of the pages on which it appears are posted here.

Democrats need to learn from mistakes, reconnect with white rural America, writer says

Regaining a Senate majority and recapturing lost gubernatorial seats means Democrats have to win the white rural vote that has largely swung in favor of Republicans, Matt Barron, president of MLB Research Associates, a political consulting and rural strategy firm in Chesterfield, Mass., writes for The Hill.

"This cycle, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is headed by Montana Sen. Jon Tester while his counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Ben Ray Luján, hails from northern New Mexico," Barron writes. "Tester, from the nation's seventh most-rural state, replaces Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet of Denver while Luján's district of mountains, buttes and pueblos is 32 percent rural, a stark contrast to his predecessor, Rep. Steve Israel, whose Long Island turf is choked by expressways and apartment complexes."

"But now, months into their new jobs, neither Tester nor Luján seem to have a strategy to compete for votes in the countryside, and the natives are getting restless," Barron writes. Tester and Luján refused to speak to Barron for this article.

Nate Timm of Mazomanie, Wis., chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's Rural Caucus, told Barron, "The first thing they ought to be doing is paying attention to the folks on the ground who are closest to the rural areas. They need to be moving downstream to engage more at the county and community level on organizational and messaging strategies."

Vic Meyers of Trinidad, Colo., who lost a bid last November for Congress in the eastern plains of Colorado's 4th District, told Barron, "I'm watching what's going, on and it's like they [Democrats] didn't learn anything from last year's elections. [Democrats] have to start caring about something other than Wall Street and the big banks." (How the Senate currently looks)

Boys, 3 and 5, die in unsupervised ATV accident on rural road; safety, education should be promoted

Now that spring is here and schools will soon begin letting out for summer vacation, it might be a good time to remind readers of the dangers of riding ATVs and the precautions that should be taken to ensure that riders of all ages remain safe.

Two Northern California boys, ages 3 and 5, were killed on Sunday when an ATV they were riding alone and unsupervised on a rural road, drove into a pond, Gus Thomson reports for the Auburn Journal.

Last year 508 ATV fatalities were recorded, and 93—or 18 percent—involved children under 16, and 46—or 9 percent—involved children under the age of 12, says the Consumer Federation of America. Most of the 508 fatalities took place on roads, where dangers are increased because of vehicular traffic. Many riders also have not received training, don't wear a helmet, have too many people riding the vehicle or are on an ATV that's the wrong size. (Read more) (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety map: ATV deaths on public roads from 2007-11)

Senate passes extension of Secure Rural Schools program to help struggling rural timber counties

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a two-year extension of the Secure Rural Schools program, Andy Giegerich reports for the Portland Business Journal. The House passed a similar bill last month. The program, which provides funding for rural schools that have struggled to make up shortfalls because of declines in the timber industry, awarded about $270 million to 729 counties in 2014, but the $1.1 trillion spending bill that passed in December did not include funds for the program.

Oregon's rural counties faced payment cuts of more than 50 percent if the program was cancelled, Giegerich writes. The program brings $85 million to the state's rural counties.

In Oregon, the forest sector accounts for about 58,000 jobs and $12.7 billion to the economy. The forest industry in Pennsylvania includes about 90,000 jobs and $5.5 billion in annual revenue. And in Washington, where half of the state is forested, the industry creates 107,000 jobs and $4.5 billion in annual wages. (Daily Yonder map: Estimated payments that counties received from the Secure Rural Schools program in FY 2013. For an interactive version, click here)

Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America; actuary is the best job

Newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, according to CareerCast's ranking of the best and worst jobs for 2015. Newspaper reporter was selected 200th our of 200 jobs ranked, based on low salary, job losses and a projected hiring outlook of negative 13.33 percent. Rankings were based on environment, outlook, income and stress.

Following newspaper reporter was lumberjack; enlisted military personnel, cook, broadcaster,  photojournalist, corrections officer, taxi driver, fire fighter, mail carrier and disc jockey. The best job is actuary, followed by audiologist; mathematician; statistician; biomedical engineer; data scientist; dental hygienist, software engineer, occupational therapist and computer systems analyst. (Read more)

4-H members address House subcommittee on the importance of bridging rural-urban gap

A group of 4-H members from across the nation addressed the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research this week on the importance of bridging the agricultural gap between rural and urban areas, especially when it comes to young people, Ann Tracy Mueller reports for Agri-Pulse. That sentiment is especially true today with the average age of farmers continuing to climb, rising from 2007 to 2012 from 57.1 years to 58.3 years.

Gabriella Germann, who lives in a primarily agricultural community in California, said "she was 'stunned' by the lack of awareness some teens had about agriculture," Mueller writes. Germann's family hosts school children on its farm, and she conducts presentations at elementary school career days. German told the committee, “Through this I have learned the importance of informing people about agriculture while they are young so as to cultivate early understanding and support, bridging the gap between consumers and producers.”

The 4-H members "also shared how agriculture education is helping to bridge the gap," Mueller writes. "Garrett Tomera is a sixth-generation rancher whose family has ranched in northern Nevada for more than 150 years. As he and his family noticed producers and consumers growing apart, they looked for ways to connect with consumers. In his community, the 'Agriculture in the Classroom' program is a tool through which producers teach students about farming."

Chairman Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) told committee members, “If we do not mend the divide between rural and urban areas and foster a widespread understanding of the food and fiber industries and the impact they have on everyday life, it is likely we may face the same challenges in enacting future farm bills. Bridging the gap between rural and urban areas is essential to the passage and implementation of future food and agricultural legislation.” (Read more)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Young Central Appalachian entrepreneur helping revive region, while inspiring others to do the same

Jennifer Noble is one of a growing number of young entrepreneurs opening businesses in Central Appalachia and helping to revive the economies of towns depleted by the loss of coal jobs. Noble, born and raised in Hazard in Eastern Kentucky, opened Treehouse Café and Bakery three years ago and has found success with a business that serves healthy, natural foods in an area that isn't known for being health conscious. (Atlantic photo by Alana Semuels: Treehouse Café and Bakery)

When she was 24, Noble said she had a choice whether to go to New York to pursue a painting career or move back home to Hazard, Karyn Knecht reports for The Hazard Herald. Noble told Knecht, "New York didn’t need another artist, but I felt Hazard needed something different.”

After seeing photos of downtown Hazard during the coal boom of the 1960s, Noble said she chose downtown for her business because she wanted to see Main Street come back to life, Knecht writes. Noble told her, “I just imagined having a business, a storefront, on Main Street. Something that would bring people joy.”

Many people were skeptical that a business that didn't serve anything fried and instead served hummus would flourish in coal country, but it has, Knecht writes. And Noble has remained true to her roots, buying ingredients from local farmers. She told Knecht, “I think we do have more people come in when we advertise that we use local ingredients. . . . I think everyone appreciates that we’re keeping the money local."

Noble, who has become actively involved in promoting and supporting the region, told Knecht, “I always try to inspire young people to get involved. . . . I want them to want to be involved and to help make it a better place because it’s where their children are going to grow up, where my children are going to grow up. We need to make it better for them.” (Read more)

Major brewers, Baptists align to keep small breweries from opening in the mostly rural South

The number of active breweries in the U.S. is on the rise, with 3,699 in 2013, compared to only 49 in 1983. But campaign contributions from major breweries, like Budweiser, and a large Baptist population make the South the nation's most difficult region to open a small brewery, says a study by University of Louisville economics professor Steve Gohmann published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice.

Gohmann writes, "The limited number of breweries in the South follows the idea of bootleggers and Baptists where those who gain economically from limited competition—large breweries and distributors—side with groups morally opposed to alcohol to keep breweries out.

The nine states with the fewest breweries are all located in the South, Joe Pinsker reports for The Atlantic. For example, Mississippi, with a large Baptist population, had one brewery for every 994,500 residents in 2012, compared to Vermont, which had one brewery for every 25,000 residents. It's not that Southern residents don't drink—it's that they don't have as many options as people in others parts of the country.

"Around the nation, big beer producers contribute to the campaigns of politicians who will support policies that discourage competition from local upstarts—for example, taxes on breweries and laws that prevent breweries from selling their kegs directly to consumers (instead of through a distributor)," Pinsky writes.

"But what's unique about the South is that there's a voting bloc—the Baptists—whose moral stance against alcohol happens to align with large producers' desires to keep new competitors from getting started in the business," Pinsky writes. "The support of Baptists provides Southern politicians with a reason to hinder brewers that politicians in other regions don't have. As a result, the states with the most Baptists tend to have the fewest breweries." (Gohmann graphic)

Pew Charitable hosts webcast for journalists to focus on navigating transportation funding

One of the major issues facing states is funding for the Highway Trust Fund. The temporary infusion of funding is set to run out by May. Many states have put transportation projects on hold or have taken action to make their own transportation funding more sustainable, as they wait to see if additional funding will be provided.

To help journalists cover this issue, The Pew Charitable Trusts is hosting a webcast from 9-11:30 a.m. (EDT) on Friday with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who will make opening remarks, before a panel discussion with state and local officials will take place. To register for the event, click here.

Newspaper editor, in town 14 months, reveals run-in with official and their meeting that resolved it

Steve Wilson, executive editor of The Paducah Sun in far Western Kentucky, has brought new energy to the daily newspaper since taking the job a little over a year ago. Wilson recently had a shouting match with a public official and decided to detail the experience for his readers to explain how the problem started and how it was resolved, with everyone coming out a winner. (Best Places map: Paducah)

"Since arriving in Paducah 14 months ago, I've been lucky," Wilson wrote on Sunday. "Former Mayor Bill Paxton and I had a bristling exchange a few months ago over my column about the city's declining population, but other than that, I can't recall another irate encounter. Until a few days ago. That's when Paducah City Commissioner Allan Rhodes called and engaged me in a raucous argument."

What "lit his fuse and prompted his call was an email I sent to him and other city officials," Wilson writes. "It asked for comment on a memo we received from Chad Chancellor, former CEO of Paducah Economic Development, chastising the city's new economic incentives policy. He is now based in New Orleans and consults with business clients looking to expand or relocate."

"I tried to make it clear I was not siding with Chancellor but wanted them to respond for a story we were writing about his critique," Wilson writes. "Rhodes, however, felt this was another slap in the face and picked up the phone. He said I was once again being too negative and dismissive of positive things going on in town. I said I've expressed high regard for Paducah, but good newspapers push their communities to do more and be more. We each cited specifics, and as the conversation went on, the decibels went higher."

"The next day Rhodes sent a text asking to meet, and I agreed," Wilson writes. "He said he would come to my office and bring coffee. I wondered whether it would be for drinking or throwing. When he arrived, we sat on opposite sides of my office table. I thanked him for the coffee and for coming over and said I would be glad to start wherever he wanted. Rhodes said he had no agenda. Then he stood up, extended his hand across the table and said what he wanted to do most was apologize. We shook hands, and two words came quickly to mind: class act."

"I told Rhodes I deserved at least half the blame and made my own apology," Wilson writes. "Then we had our best conversation yet about many issues. They included his contrarian notion that before the commission commits more than $10 million to build a new city hall, it might see if a suitable building could be rented for maybe a decade and spend those millions on a project of greater benefit to residents." He ended the column, "Thanks, Allan."

"Most newspaper editors might have kept such a conversation confidential, but when you're new to town, it's a good idea to show how you operate, and we like how Steve Wilson operates," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. The Paducah Sun is behind a paywall, but the Institute posted the editorial here.

West Virginia lost 2,596 coal mining jobs from Jan. 1 to March 26, reports Bluefield Daily Telegraph

Central Appalachia has been rapidly losing coal jobs, as coal companies face more competition from natural gas, proposed rules to cut greenhouse gases and a reduction of foreign investors buying U.S. coal, which has led to shuttering of several coal operations. Numbers have been especially startling in West Virginia in recent months, Bill Archer reports for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. From Jan. 1 to March 26, the state lost 2,596 coal jobs, with the number of jobs dropping from 18,200 to 15,604.

Rick Taylor, president of the Pocahontas Coal Association, who started working mines in 1976, told Archer, “In the nearly 40 years that I’ve been in this business, this is the worst I’ve ever seen it. What bothers me the most is that we’re losing our most valuable asset—our labor force. These experienced coal miners are good workers who may be forced to leave homes their families have been in for generations. They’re good workers, so they will likely find work. When they do, we may never get them back.”

Losing coal jobs also affects other businesses, Archer writes. Taylor estimates that for every coal miner job lost it affects seven other jobs that rely on the coal business, such as welders, retail sales associates, school teachers, pharmacists, automobile mechanics and preachers.

Tenn. GOP lawmakers accuse reporters of bias; reporters say lawmakers holding secret meetings

Republican lawmakers and journalists in Tennessee are at odds over what reporters say is a lack of freedom of information and accusations from lawmakers that statehouse reporters are conspiring to advocate against a guns rights bill that allows permitted guns in parks, Corey Hutchins reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

"It’s the most high-profile recent example of a growing transparency battle between the statehouse press corps and politicians in Tennessee," Hutchins writes. This all comes in the wake of joint news coverage "to expose an apparent growing trend at the capitol in which House lawmakers hold unannounced secret pre-meetings before publicly discussing pending legislation in committees."

"When Tennessean reporter David Boucher spoke with legislators for his piece on the secret meetings, he found 'none of the lawmakers could say why it was in the state’s best interest for the meetings to be closed and not publicly noticed,'" Hutchins writes. The Associated Press "noted how supporters of the pre-meeting process 'argued they allowed for free-flowing discussion about bills without lobbyists, the media or parliamentary procedure.'"

"In Tennessee, the legislature is exempt from the state’s open meetings and sunshine laws, but the reporting still had an impact," Hutchins writes. "Soon after the stories ran in newspapers and on TV broadcasts, the House Speaker sent a memo to committee chairmen urging them to announce meetings and establish an open-door policy." (Read more)

Monday, April 13, 2015

States beginning to impose time limits, restrictions on receiving SNAP benefits

Several states have begun imposing time limits and work requirements for receiving food stamps, and millions of Americans have lost their access to assistance, Jess Bidgood reports for The New York Times. Nationwide, 11.4 percent of households received Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from 2008-2012, but numbers were higher in rural areas, with 14.6 percent of households receiving assistance.

During the recession, most states took advantage of a provision that allows them to waive the time limit on receiving food stamps "when unemployment is persistently high, which meant poor adults could stay on the program regardless of their work status," Bidgood writes. But eight states that qualified for waivers in 2015 either didn't use them or only used them in parts of the state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates "that 23 states will cease to qualify for statewide waivers in the 2016 fiscal year." (USDA map)
Last year Maine Republican Gov. Paul R. LePage "decided to reimpose a three-month limit (out of every three-year period) on food stamps for a group often known as Abawds—able-bodied adults without minor dependents—unless they work 20 hours per week, take state job-training courses or volunteer for about six hours per week," Bidgood writes. The state's food stamp recipients have dropped nearly 80 percent since the rule kicked in, from 12,000 to 2,530.

"In Kansas, the number of childless, able-bodied adults receiving food stamps dropped by 15,000 in the month after the waiver expired in December 2013, compared with the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 people who had been leaving the program monthly before the change, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities," Bidgood writes.

"The re-emergence of the work requirements has stoked discontent among advocates for the poor and hungry who say the law is unfair because states are not required to offer food stamp recipients a work assignment before cutting them off and because searching for a job does not necessarily count," Bidgood writes. "The Agriculture Department makes money available to states willing to pledge work assignments to food stamp recipients, but many states do not take advantage of it. Recently the department announced that it had provided $200 million to 10 states for pilot programs that would help people find jobs and move them off food stamps." (Read more)

County-level map details diabetes rates; S.D., Miss., N.C. have highest rates at more than 14%

The rate of diabetes increased in 2,992 counties from 2004 to 2012, with only 10 counties seeing a decrease in rates and five more remaining unchanged, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. At this rate, by 2050, one in every three Americans will have diabetes.

Most of the states with the highest rates have large rural populations, led by South Dakota, Mississippi and North Carolina with more than 14 percent of the population having diabetes in 2012, Swanson writes. Alabama, Montana and West Virginia also had some of the highest rates. (The Data Dude map: For an interactive version click here)

Supreme Court ruling could cost 8.3 million people health insurance subsidies

The Supreme Court's ruling on a case regarding federal health reform subsidies could have major implications on states that use federally run health exchange programs, Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post. If the Supreme Court rules that the Affordable Care Act does not allow for states using federally run exchanges to receive subsidies, about 8.3 million people may have to go without health insurance.

States that run their own exchanges would not be impacted by the ruling, at least initially, Swanson writes. Proponents of Obamacare believe that striking subsidies from states that use federal run health care exchange programs would make health care unaffordable for many people and undermine the ACA altogether. (Washington Center for Equitable Growth map: Green states expanded Medicaid. Brown ones did not. For an interactive version of the map click here)

HIV outbreak in rural Indiana has topped 100 cases

The HIV outbreak in rural southeastern Indiana has now topped more than 100 cases, reports WNDU 16 in South Bend. "The state's Joint Information Center said Friday that as of Thursday there had been 95 confirmed HIV cases and 11 preliminary positive cases tied to the outbreak." All the cases have been linked to shared needles among intravenous drug users, and most of the cases are from Austin, (Best Places map) a town of about 4,300 that only has one doctor.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence last month declared a public health emergency, allowing local authorities to begin a short-term needle-exchange program. "The needle-exchange program, which is only for Scott County residents, gives out enough needles for one week based on reported drug use," Sarah Parvini reports for the Los Angeles Times. "A total of 437 syringes were turned in, and 1,151 syringes were distributed by Thursday afternoon, the state’s health department said."

Rural Kansas residents who complained about gun noise told to learn to live with it

Rural residents in Douglas County, Kansas, (Wikipedia map) who are displeased they have to hear what sounds like a war zone as a result of neighbors firing guns are being told they need to just live with it, Peter Hancock reports for the Lawrence Journal-World. Resident Alan Miller told Hancock, "It's not a question of target shooting. I'm talking about semi-automatics and high caliber rifles. It’s almost unbearable."

One problem is that Douglas County's noise law, "which was last amended in 2011, specifically exempts, 'the lawful shooting of firearms between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. or in connection with lawful hunting activities," Hancock writes. Even if local authorities wanted to make changes, local officials say state law prohibits local governments from enacting local gun laws.

In 2007, Kansas lawmakers "stripped away most of the authority that cities and counties had to regulate firearms locally," Hancock writes. "As the law stands now, local governments are prohibited from enacting any laws or regulations governing the 'purchase, transfer, ownership, storage, carrying or transporting of firearms or ammunition or any component or combination thereof.'"

Another issue is urban transplants unfamiliar with gun noise moving to rural areas, said Lt. Steve Lewis, spokesman for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, Hancock writes. Lewis told Hancock, "Rural areas of Douglas County are becoming a little less rural. Some of the people there tend to be suburbanites or urbanites who find things like firearms and neighbors driving all-terrain vehicles on their property to be a nuisance. Sometimes it’s just a matter of learning to live with things you don’t particularly enjoy about your neighbors." (Read more)