Friday, October 26, 2018

Democrats are on a long haul to win back rural voters

Two major magazines have had recent stories about Democrats trying to stay alive in rural America.

The first, in The Economist, says "The challenge is overcoming decades of toxic decline—an exceedingly tall order." But the first thing is to go to rural places and ask for votes, the magazine heard from people who know some things about rural voters.

Bill Bishop, author of the 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the clustering of like-minded America is tearing us apart, pointed out that Barack Obama “visited rural locations infrequently while in office. As Deb Kozikowski, a 2016 Democratic superdelegate who heads an advocacy group called Rural Votes, bluntly puts it: 'Democrats need to show up...We don’t have an engagement problem; we just don’t engage.'”

The second story is a long piece in The New Yorker, by Nicholas Lemann, on Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill's effort to win re-election, which is very much in doubt. No longer do folks in rural Missouri think Democrats have their economic interests more at heart than Republicans do, he reports, quoting McCaskill: "No more. Now there's a much brighter dividing line between rural and urban. A lot of people gave up on me. They gave up on us. . . . Donald Trump gave voters a place to put their anger."

Bishop "argues that the fundamental division in American political geography is less between strictly urban and rural regions than between the central cores of cities of more than 1 million people and everywhere else," The Economist reports.

The main lenses for the Economist story are races for Congress in Kansas. It concludes, "The Democratic brand remains toxic in rural America. This year, the Democrats’ road to retaking the House runs through the suburbs, not the countryside. But the Democrats did not lose rural America in one cycle; it will take more than one for them to rebuild."

Productivity up, injury rates even more so at West Virginia coal mines Murray Energy bought from Consol in 2013

"Injury rates have more than doubled at five West Virginia coal mines acquired by Murray Energy Corp. in 2013 . . . as the firm sharply increased the amount of coal produced per man-hour, Richard Valdmanis and Valerie Volcovici report for Reuters. "The causes of the increase in injuries remain unknown and could include a host of factors in the complex business of underground coal mining. . . . Murray spokesman Cody Nett said that productivity has no correlation to injury rates."

Murray is the nation’s largest underground coal operator, with about 6,000 employees. It bought the five mines from Consol Energy, formerly Consolidation Coal, which is now out of the coal business. "The injury rate at the five mines averaged 6.35 per 200,000 work hours last year, up from 2.79 in 2013," the last year Consol operated them," Reuters reports.

"That’s the highest injury rate for the group in a decade and 70 percent above the national average for underground mines," based on data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. "At the same time, coal output per man-hour at the five mines rose nearly 50 percent since 2013 to 5.7 tons in 2017, according to MSHA figures. By comparison, the industry average in 2015 - the last year for which industry-wide data is available - was 3.4 tons per man-hour."

Nett, the company spokesman, "said the injury rate at the former Consol mines was inflated by false claims from workers who took time off for other reasons. He also attributed the doubling of injury rates since Murray acquired the mines to under-reporting by the previous owner during the preceding years," which MSHA disputed. "Regulators did cite Consol for under-reporting in a 2013 audit. But MSHA later revised the company’s data to include injuries that Consol initially failed to properly report, said MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere." Nett said there was no such revision.

West Virginia mine-safety expert Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA director, told Reuters, “Those particular mines are decades old, meaning miners are having to work deeper, more complicated coal seams, with aging equipment and infrastructure,” making the mines more dangerous. Reuters notes, "The company’s CEO, Robert Murray, is among the coal sector’s most vocal advocates for rollbacks of environmental and safety oversight."

Eastern Kentucky school leaders volunteer to make education key to reshaping the region's economy

A group of rural school superintendents in Eastern Kentucky and a cooperative that serves them are working on a list of "research-based solutions and policy recommendations to better serve disadvantaged rural students statewide," and to make local schools "centers of community transformation" in a region that has lost most of the jobs in its main industry, coal.

The effort is being coordinated by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, based at Hazard Community and Technical College. It is a non-profit serving 22 school districts in Appalachian Kentucky. It says recent educational gains by students in the region "demonstrate the determination of school districts and communities to use education to revitalize their small towns and rural areas."

The superintendents and KVEC say they "are seeking public input on the draft position paper before release of the report that details how schools in their region . . . .are poised to revitalize and reinvent their local economies and issue a "call to action" when the state legislature meets this winter. "In a meeting at Pikeville on Wednesday, "More than 600 educators demonstrated cutting-edge innovation in rural schools," which can be seen on the agency's website, The Holler.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Feds form strike force to fight opioid abuse in Appalachia

The U.S. Department of Justice is forming a strike force to fight opioid abuse in Appalachia.

"Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski says the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force will investigate health-care fraud schemes and prosecute medical professionals and others involved in the illegal distribution of opioids," The Associated Press reports.

The department said the strike force will include its prosecutors, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.

Benczkowski said suffering caused by opioid abuse is "particularly staggering" in Appalachia. He says the problem is "more reprehensible when unscrupulous physicians and pharmacies" contribute to the epidemic by illegally supplying prescription painkillers.

Inside Climate News turns a sharp eye on Farm Bureau and climate change, says lobby is being short-sighted

Is the American Farm Bureau Federation being short-sighted by opposing measures that have been proposed to mitigate climate change? Inside Climate News says so, in introducing the first of a series of stories about the powerful lobby and the issue.

Part of an ICN graphic, from AFBF statements and the 2014 NCA
Farm Bureau and President Trump "oppose any binding international, federal or local action that would regulate the emissions of greenhouse gases, or impose a market price or tax on them. Both refuse to embrace the core tenets of climate science," Georgina Gustin, Neela Banerjee, and John Cushman Jr. report for ICN, which calls itself a "Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment."

"For decades, the Farm Bureau has derailed climate action, deploying its political apparatus and 6 million members in a forceful alliance with conservative groups and the fossil fuel industry," ICN reports. Meanwhile, farmers are largely unprepared to deal with increased droughts, rain, heat, fires and storms that hurt crops. Instead of encouraging more climate-friendly practices, Farm Bureau has relied on taxpayer-funded subsidies to insure and partially insulate farmers from such risks, which are unsustainable in the long term, ICN says.

A spokesman told ICN in an email that Farm Bureau "is not a scientific organization, nor do we have climate scientists on staff. Our policy positions focus on the regulatory costs-and-benefits of policies in reaction to climate change." That was the only Farm Bureau response in the story.

ICN notes, "A landmark United Nations report issued in October included agriculture in its urgent call for "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. The damages to agriculture from climate change are already happening and getting worse; and the latest science suggests they will be much more costly than previously thought. One study found that uncontrolled warming could cut the United States corn crop nearly in half."

The U.N. report said farmers need not sacrifice profits, because climate-friendly farming practices are cheap and effective, and can actually increase farm profits. "With an all-out campaign to restore soil health, studies have found, U.S. land could absorb half of American agriculture's carbon footprint," ICN reports. "Modest annual improvements to arable soils, if adopted worldwide, could halt the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from all human activities."

Many economists favor approaches like emissions trading for farmers, but Farm Bureau has said for more than 20 years that putting a price on carbon would raise fuel prices and destroy farms while not helping curb global warming. "The Farm Bureau says it would tolerate market-based emissions trading — a way to reward farmers with carbon credits they could cash in — but only if it is voluntary and doesn't shift costs to other farmers," ICN reports. "Farm Bureau prefers direct government compensation for farmers who agree to plant in ways that keep carbon in the soil."

Inside Climate News chart shows crop insurance claims
One reason for Farm Bureau's disinclination to acknowledge climate change may be many of its state affiliates have "local farmers' cooperatives that run refineries and directly sell billions of dollars of fuel, alongside seeds and supplies," ICN says. "Less visibly, but more significantly, some state Farm Bureaus hold stakes in insurance companies whose for-profit investment funds hold millions of dollars of securities. The Iowa Farm Bureau's insurance business, through its fund, held investments last year of about $462 million in fossil fuel corporations, according to financial statements."

As for rank-and-file farmers, the jury is out on climate change. "Many farmers say they are unsure whether the changes they are witnessing are just natural variability, are not convinced that industrial and agricultural emissions are the main cause, and think they will be able to adapt to anything coming their way," ICN reports. It quotes Joe Glauber, former chief economist for the Agriculture Department: "Farmers believe they will be saved by technology and crop insurance." Research shows climate change causes drought and excess precipitation, by far the main causes of crop-insurance claims.

Opioid deaths slow, but reasons and outlook are unclear

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
Opioid deaths fell slightly over the past six months, but no one is sure why, or whether the trend will continue. 

"Preliminary figures reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week show that compared with the 12 months ending September 2017, opioid deaths are down 2.8 percent in the 12 months that ended March 2018, reflecting about 2,000 fewer people who have died of a drug overdose. But, as The Associated Press points out, the final numbers for this year won’t be available until the end of next year, so we don’t know if this downward trend has continued," Olga Khazan reports for The Atlantic.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a conference this week, "We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps at the end of the beginning," Politico reports.

The cause for the decline is unknown, but there are a few likely reasons: "Doctors are prescribing fewer painkillers. More states are making naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses, widely available. And it’s possible that more addicts have started medication-assisted therapies like buprenorphine, which is how France solved its own opioid epidemic years ago. Indeed, the states with the biggest declines in overdose deaths were those like Vermont that have used evidence-based, comprehensive approaches to tackling opioid addiction," Khazan reports. Also, "fentanyl and heroin addicts might also have become more careful about how they consume the drugs."

It's possible the trend will reverse, as it did in 2013 after opioid overdose deaths stalled from 2011 to 2012, said addiction expert Keith Humphreys of Stanford University

Hackers have already accomplished goal of undermining Americans' confidence in elections, security expert writes

The security threat to America's election systems is real and ongoing, but foreign hackers appear to have already accomplished one goal: to undermine voters' confidence in the electoral system, national-security expert Susan Hennessey writes for the Brookings Institution. Almost eight in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned about potential hacking of U.S. voting systems, according to a University of Chicago poll.

Hennessey, a governance fellow at the Washington, D.C. think tank, discusses election security in a short video:

Youth homelessness rate about equal in rural and urban areas, but rural areas don't have as many resources to help

Rural and urban youth experience homelessness at about the same rate, but rural youth generally don't have as much access to support services or employment opportunities, according to a national study by independent policy research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

"The report, titled “Missed Opportunities: Youth Homelessness in Rural America,” found that 9.2 percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 who reside in predominantly rural counties report experiencing homelessness in the last year, compared to 9.6 percent of their urban counterparts," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty. "The difference was similar for younger teens between the ages of 13 and 17—in rural areas, 4.4 percent of that age group had experience homelessness in the past year, compared to 4.2 percent of their peers in more urban areas."

Researchers used data from the Voices of Youth Count, a nationwide policy initiative focusing on homeless people between ages 13 and 25. Chapin Hall defined "rural areas" as the U.S. Census Bureau does: a county in which more than half of the population lives outside an urban area, Queram reports.

Besides lack of access, another difference in rural homelessness is that the problem may not be as obvious, since homeless youth are more likely to stay with other people or sleep in a vehicle or outside than homeless youth in urban areas. Rural homeless youth are also about half as likely to stay in a homeless shelter, mostly because such services are rarely available in rural areas, Queram reports.

Another difference: "Rates of homelessness in rural communities are affected by issues specific to those areas, including higher poverty rates and fewer economic opportunities," Queram reports. "Fifty-seven percent of youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who were experiencing homelessness in small counties were neither attending school nor employed, compared to 46 percent in large counties. They were also more likely to have been in juvenile detention or jail (52 percent versus 43 percent) and were less likely to be employed (23 percent versus 35 percent)."

Ohio news outlet brings attention to high infant mortality rate by throwing a community-wide baby shower

How to get more people to read about a depressing news topic? Give it a positive spin, as one digital newspaper in Ohio did.

Reporter Brittany Schock wrote a three-part series on the high infant mortality rate in Richland County, Ohio, for the Richland Source in Mansfield, but some in the community said it was too depressing to read. "The Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that advocates for rigorous reporting on responses to social problems, wanted to tap into that disconnect between readers and Schock’s reporting," April Simpson reports for Current. "It approached her with the promise of $10,000 in grant funding to divide between continuing her reporting and developing a community-engagement project."

Richland County (Wikipedia map)
So Schock and her editors spent five months planning a baby shower for the community to celebrate healthy babies and moms, combining the grant with $7,000 in local sponsorship raised by the paper's sales team. Schock wrote stories promoting the shower, got about 20 community organizations to participate and offer goodie bags and prizes, shot a video highlighting the shower's goals, and talked about it on local radio. The shower, held Sept. 9, 2017, was a hit: it drew 500 people, "with a line stretching around the corner before the doors opened," Simpson reports.

At the shower, the paper asked moms about the rewards and challenges of motherhood and turned the recorded responses into a multimedia project called "Faces of Motherhood".

The event did more than raise awareness: as solutions journalism seeks to do, it brought some promising results. "A local pediatrician said they received 99 new referrals in one day from the event. A local organization of community health workers contacted multiple new clients," Simpson reports. The shower's success and the Richland Source's reputation for organizing it helped them raise $70,000 in donations from local businesses and organizations for other solutions journalism and community events.

The paper and community are planning another shower for September 2019.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

How one Washington town battles rural 'brain drain'

Sperling's BestPlaces map
Rural towns all over the country struggle not just to get students to go to college, but to get them to come back afterward. A small town in southwestern Washington is bucking the odds.

Onalaska, an unincorporated former lumber town about halfway between Portland and Seattle, made the news in 2017 when all 43 of its high school seniors were accepted to college. That’s remarkable in a community where fewer than 16 percent of the people have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Not only that, but more and more college graduates are coming back to town to raise families, Kaitlin Gillespie reports for The Hechinger Report.

“And at the heart of that growth, former students and community leaders say, is the high school,” Gillespie reports. “This is a town of Friday night football games, of stargazing on the school’s soccer field, of fishing in the pond connected to the school. In its efforts to prevent students from leaving forever, to provide a public space for all residents to use and improve access to nearby natural resources, the school has built a sense of community.”

That’s consistent with a 2015 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that found that close-knit communities and good schools play a big role in attracting and keeping residents in small towns, Gillespie reports. Many small towns have a hard time attracting residents because there aren’t many jobs, but most people in Onalaska commute to a larger town nearby to work.

The school doesn’t just bring together the community; it encourages students to go to college with a mandatory class called “Senior Success” that teaches them adult skills like filing taxes and filling out college financial aid forms. The strategy is paying off: the number of residents in their 20s and 30s has doubled in the past five years, and school enrollment rose 14 percent, with elementary enrollment rising the most, Gillespie reports.

“Now families are saying this is a great little community to raise your family,” Cathy Murphy, chair of the anti-poverty organization Onalaska Alliance, told Gillespie.

N.D. law could keep rural Native Americans from voting

A North Dakota law requiring voters to present an ID at the polls may keep many of the state’s rural Native Americans from voting, Jeremy Hobson of Boston's wide-ranging WBUR-FM reports.

The problem is that state- or tribal-issued IDs must have a street address, but a street address is not required for the tens of thousands of Native Americans living on one of the state’s five reservations. House numbers are rare so many reservation residents simply use post office boxes for mail.

Ironically, a law designed to prevent voter fraud may instead create it, according to Danielle Ta'sheena Finn, external affairs director for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: “You have people now making up their own addresses, because they do not feel like they should go to the sheriff, who is also our 911 coordinator and the only person in Sioux County who can issue an address. So they're making up their own addresses right now, which is voter fraud. They just created a problem, basically."

The Supreme Court declined this month to overturn the law, so reservation residents and others without IDs will need to obtain them before voting in the midterm elections, Hobson reports. That has implications for Democratic U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, for whom Native Americans were an important voting bloc in her 2012 election. She is trailing in polls.

Wages lower in rural counties, but growing faster

The fourth story in CityLab's excellent series on the myths vs. realities in America's rural-urban divide focuses on wages and salaries. There is "considerable variation" in wages and salaries between urban and rural counties, but within the categories of urban and rural. Some urban counties like New York have a median income of more than $100,000, while others have a median of $20,000. Rural counties display the same kind of range, Richard Florida reports for CityLab.

In 2016, large and medium-sized metro areas had median wages and salaries above $40,000, compared to $37,000 for the nation as a whole. And though all types of urban counties had higher wages and salaries than the national median, only one kind of rural county did: large rural counties next to a metro area, Florida reports.

"Interestingly enough, large rural counties—both those that are adjacent to metro areas and those that aren’t—had wages and salaries that were comparable to counties in small metro areas. And some rural counties had median wages and salaries that were quite high," Florida reports. "Butte County, Idaho, a small rural county adjacent to a metro, had a median salary of nearly $90,000 . . . This can be traced to high levels of employment in the government sector, particularly in the Idaho National Lab. North Slope Borough County, Alaska, a medium-sized rural county that is not adjacent to a metro area, had a median wage and salary of nearly $100,000 ($99,283), largely because of the oil and natural-gas development there."

Though urban counties have higher median pay, pay in rural counties is growing faster. "Between 2001 and 2016, wages grew by roughly 50 percent across all counties. Most types of rural counties saw wage growth above the national average, while all types of urban counties had below-average gains," Florida reports. "In fact, the smallest and most isolated rural places—small rural counties that are not adjacent to a major metro area—posted the highest wage growth of all, nearly 60 percent."

Moreover, nearly a quarter of small rural counties not next to a metro county are in the top 10 percent of counties on wage growth. "So do 18 percent of small rural counties that are adjacent to a metro, and 11 percent of medium-size rural counties that are not adjacent to a metro," Florida reports. "This compares to just 4 percent of urban counties in large metros, 2 percent of urban counties in medium-sized metros, and 5 percent of counties in small metros."

More rural schools close as coal declines in SW Va.

"School closures and consolidations are a familiar story in cash-strapped, rural corners of the country — places where schools are integral to a sense of identity and belonging," Debbie Truong reports for The Washington Post from Southwest Virginia, where coal's troubles have forced school closures.

Residents migrate to urban areas as the industry declines, fewer young people want to farm, and manufacturers downsize, says Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, which advocates for rural schools. Those changes mean school districts collect less in property taxes and have fewer students; state funding is partly determined by enrollment.

In Virginia, the Tazewell County School Board had to cut spending more than $1 million this year, and in June abruptly closed two elementary schools, including Raven Elementary School. The school has functioned not just as a school, but as a community gathering place since it opened in the 1950s. And in Wise County, the school system has lost about 100 students each year for the past decade, according to the school superintendent. Pound High School had about 250 students by the time it shuttered in 2014. It and five other schools were consolidated into three that year, Truong reports.

The schools' closure pays a heavy toll on their towns. "When you have these communities . . . where everything seems to be leaving, typically the school’s one of the last big things that remains," Greg Deskins, a high school science teacher and president of teacher union the Tazewell Education Association, told Truong. "It’s like once your school closes, that seems like the end of your community, in some ways."

Oct. 29 webinar to discuss adverse childhood experiences, which may be more prevalent in rural America

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar on Oct. 29 to discuss a policy brief on the causes and effects of adverse childhood experiences, to which rural children may be more prone.

The webinar website elaborates: “ACEs are forms of chronic stress or trauma, (e.g., abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction) that, when experienced during childhood and adolescence, can have profound short- and long-term consequences on an individual’s development, health, and overall well-being. As first described in a landmark 1998 study, researchers identified a relationship between the number of ACEs and poor adult health-related outcomes, including increased risks for diabetes, cancer, ischemic heart disease, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”

The webinar will begin at 2 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. Click here for more information or to register. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Job growth in rural U.S. lags; map shows local data

"Job growth in rural America continues to lag the rest of the nation, according to the latest data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

A Yonder analysis found that the U.S. added more than 1.7 million jobs from August 2017 to August 2018, but only 38,000 were in rural counties. The lion's share, more than two-thirds, went to metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people. And while rural areas scored 12.9 percent of U.S. jobs in August 2018, they only got 2.2 percent of the jobs created in the previous 12 months, Bishop reports. Rural unemployment is about 4 percent, mostly because the number of people with jobs and the number of people looking for jobs decreased more than 93,000 last year.

Only about half of all rural counties gained jobs, while almost 90 percent of the largest metropolitan areas did. The more rural a county, the worse it fared: counties that don't touch any metro area lost jobs over the past year. An interactive map shows which counties gained or lost jobs.
Job changes from August 2017 to August 2018 (Daily Yonder map; click here for the interactive version)
"The map tells some rural stories. For instance, the coal mining counties of Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia continue to lose jobs well into the second year of the Trump administration. The Great Plains have lost jobs, a result, perhaps, of the falloff of the oil and gas industry," Bishop reports.

Citing Marsy's Law, South Dakota won't release name of state trooper who shot man after alleged attack

As six states consider ballot initiatives to enshrine Marsy's Law in their state constitutions, a South Dakota case shows how the law, which grants crime victims certain rights, can be applied.

Last week the state Attorney General's Office issued a report after a Highway Patrol trooper shot a man twice on Sept. 16, but refused to provide the trooper's name, gender, age, or years of service. A spokesperson said she could not share those details because the trooper invoked Marsy's Law, fearing for safety because the person shot was out on bond. A Marsy's Law amendment was approved by voters in 2016, Arielle Zionts reports for the Rapid City Journal.

According to the AG's report, 21-year-old Kuong Gatluak threw what looked like a flat, empty beer can at the trooper during a traffic stop in Union County, then tackled the trooper and tried to steal a gun. The trooper shot Gatluak in the left shoulder and bicep during the struggle. Galuak is charged with two counts of felony aggravated assault and is out on a $10,000 bond.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Marsy's Law protects victims even if formal criminal charges are not filed against the alleged perpetrator. Since Gatluak allegedly attacked the trooper, the trooper is a victim, and Marsy's Law affords the trooper the right to privacy and the right to prevent disclosing information that could be used to find or harass the trooper, he said.

In the other Dakota, "The law was invoked by most of the eight North Dakota police officers who shot someone between Dec. 8, 2016 (when the law went into effect) and July 22, 2018, according to an investigation by the Grand Forks Herald," Zoints reports. "Invoking the law withheld officers' names until investigations were complete."

Agriculture Dept. program funds rural jail-building boom

Vera Institute map shows where and how much the U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent funding jails since 1996.
(Click the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version, which gives detail on amounts and timing)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is quietly funding a rural jail-building boom. "Over the last two decades, the USDA has been funding jail construction through a program designed to finance infrastructure like emergency services, hospitals, fire stations, and community centers in agricultural areas," Jack Norton and Jacob Kang-Brown report for the Vera Institute of Justice. "But these funds are now increasingly being directed to helping some rural counties build new, expanded jails, and helping others stay in the business of immigrant detention."

When President Trump announced this summer that farmers hurt by the trade war would receive up to $12 billion in compensation, the administration also increased USDA funding for jail construction. Such funding has been justified as important to rural development since the Nixon administration authorized the Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program in the Rural Development Act of 1972. But the USDA didn't fund the first jail through that program until 1996, when it supplied $2.2 million to the Hale County Jail in Greensboro, Alabama; since then the agency has funded more than $360 million for rural jail construction, Norton and Kang-Brown report.

Vera Institute chart
"That funding has picked up speed since 2015. And, while total overall spending for the Community Facilities program has fallen by one-third since a peak in 2010, total funding allocated for jails has increased by more than 200 percent since 2010," Norton and Kang-Brown report. "In 2014, the USDA allocated almost no funding for jails, but in fiscal year 2017, it provided $31.5 million in direct loans at very low interest rates for four jail projects in rural communities. In fiscal year 2018, it plans to spend $75 million, more than double the previous year, on jails in Greene and Baker counties" in New York and Florida, respectively.

Some local residents oppose the new jails, saying that they increase debt and that the payments will take money from other important local programs -- and motivate local courts and law enforcement to fill the jails. "The USDA Community Facilities program, meant to improve economic development and quality of life, is instead increasingly being used to fund the infrastructure to detain and incarcerate more people in rural counties across the country," Norton and Kang-Brown report.

Powerful — and controversial — opioid nears FDA approval

Dr. Raeford Brown
A powerful — and controversial — new opioid may soon be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"The drug, Dsuvia, consists of a single-dose tablet of sufentanil, a synthetic opioid that is many times more potent than fentanyl and 500 times stronger than morphine," Emma Court reports for Marketwatch. "The tablet comes in a preloaded plastic applicator that is used to deposit the medication under a patient’s tongue."

The FDA's Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee recently recommended the drug for U.S. approval with a 10-3 vote; the FDA is expected to make a final decision by Nov. 3, and though it usually follows such committee recommendations, it doesn't have to, Court reports.

Dsuvia comes in a single-dose package.
(Photo by AcelRx)
Dr. Raeford Brown, the committee's longtime chair and a professor of anesthesiology and pediatrics at the University of Kentucky, wrote an open letter to the FDA protesting Dsuvia, questioning the wisdom of adding another strong opioid to the market as the nation struggles with an opioid addiction epidemic. Brown noted that the drug's design makes it easier for someone who doesn't have a prescription to get ahold of it. The letter was on the letterhead of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

"This drug offers no advance, in my mind, over previously available opioid formulations, but provides great risk of harm to patients and the general public health," Brown told Court.

Dsuvia's manufacturer, AcelRx Pharmaceuticals Inc., says the concerns are unfounded. Dr. Pamela Palmer, co-founder and chief medical officer of AcelRx, said the design makes it easier for battlefield medics to use and that the dosage is too small for many drug addicts to get "excited about." The drug can also help elderly or obese patients, she said, since intravenous opioids can be difficult to administer for such patients and oral opioids take more time to begin working, Court reports. Palmer also said that the drug would only be distributed at hospitals and other medically supervised settings, and that it wouldn't be available at pharmacies.

Lack of poll workers hurts U.S. elections; counties, states and nonprofits try to recruit more; a story in your locality?

Local election officials all over the country are having a hard time finding poll workers for the Nov. 6 election, Matt Vasilogambros reports for Stateline. That could lead to longer lines, fewer people voting because they are discouraged by long lines, more confusion, and miscounted ballots.

"In its 2016 biennial survey, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission found that two-thirds of jurisdictions had a hard time recruiting enough poll workers on Election Day, compared to fewer than half of officials in 2008 and 2012," Stateline reports. According to a 2013 review, the lack of reliable, well-trained poll workers was one of the "signal weaknesses" of the locally driven election system.

Recruitment and retention is the source of the problem, according to Aerion Abney, the Pennsylvania state director of All Voting Is Local, a project of the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Poll workers are underpaid, and most are middle-aged or senior citizens; 56 percent in a 2016 poll were 61 or older, according to the commission's survey. 

"The primary causes of the problem, according to a 2014 report from New York-based think tank Demos, are a lack of uniform training before Election Day, disparate wages, and little recruitment among public employees and high school and college students," Stateline reports.

All Voting is Local organizers say they're trying to change all that; last month they launched what they say is the first multi-state poll worker recruitment drive, featuring an online campaign and targeted billboard, digital newspaper, radio and social-media ads in Arizona, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Staeline reports. Organizers especially want to recruit people of color and younger people, and say they want to poll workers reflect the communities in which they serve so voters will feel more welcome.

"The group’s efforts seem to be working. Nationally, organizers have recruited more than 2,400 people — 924 of whom live in Pennsylvania, where organizers have spent more time because needs are more acute," Stateline reports.

Younger poll workers tend to be enthusiastic, energetic, comfortable with technology and are more likely to remain poll workers for years to come, according to Sherry Poland, the director of elections in Hamilton County, Ohio (Cincinnati). "It sparks an interest in voting and civic engagement at an early age that might last a lifetime," Poland told Stateline.

Monday, October 22, 2018

As trade war rages, more farmers seek big operating loans

Economic pain from the trade war with China may have spurred an uptick in U.S. farmers seeking operating and equipment loans of at least $1 million in the third quarter of 2018, according to Nathan Kauffman, lead economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Non-real estate farm loans were up more than 30 percent from this time last year, the highest such rise in 16 years.

"The increase in the size of loans also boosted the share of agricultural lending at large banks, adding potential risk to their loan portfolios as lenders are concerned about the longer-term impact of the U.S.-China trade war on their farmer customers," P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters.

Many farmers with such loans are struggling to repay them. "Delinquency rates on farm real-estate loans through the second quarter of 2018, the latest data available, ticked higher across the United States," Huffstutter reports. "Farm real-estate loan delinquencies for that quarter were also higher than the rate of delinquencies on all bank loans for the first time in nearly 20 years."

Gas pipeline plan scrapped amid Kentucky resistance

Kinder Morgan, one of the largest pipeline companies in North America, announced last week it is canceling the Utica Marcellus Texas Pipeline project. The $4 billion enterprise would have involved constructing about 200 miles of new pipeline from Louisiana to Texas, new storage capacity and laterals in Ohio, and converting 964 miles of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline to carry fracked natural gas liquids from the Marcellus/Utica shale region to the Gulf Coast, Marcellus Drilling News reports; the 70-year-old TGP now flows the other way and carries gas from the Gulf to the Northeast.

Kinder says it canceled the project because of not enough interest from producers, but Marcellus Drilling News notes that the project was more likely shuttered because of "stiff opposition from Kentuckians who don't like the idea of switching the pipeline to flowing 'dangerous' NGLs." The Tennessee Gas Pipeline passes through 256 miles of Kentucky.

"The project had drawn opposition in Boyle, Madison and other Kentucky counties as well as criticism from groups such as the Kentucky Environmental Foundation," Greg Kocher reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Opponents were concerned about the risks of a 1940s-era pipeline carrying a heavier, more explosive substance."

Kinder says it will still try to reverse a large portion of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline, but will instead flow Marcellus-Utica natural gas south instead of liquids, Marcellus Drilling News reports.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., venture-capital firm born from War on Poverty, has created or kept 25,000 jobs

Robert Shaffer (H-L photo by Tom Eblen)
One of the most successful of the War on Poverty programs, which has created or maintained 25,000 jobs in southeastern and southern Kentucky, celebrates its 50th year this month, Tom Eblen writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

It was the brainchild of Robert Shaffer, now 88, a New Jersey resident inspired to help the poor by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. When the Johnson administration offered him a job in the Office of Economic Opportunity, Shaffer, inspired by Harry Caudill's book Night Comes to the Cumberlands, insisted he be sent to Kentucky.

In 1968 Shaffer moved to Eastern Kentucky and helped create Job Start, which later changed its name to Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a non-profit that helped create small companies owned and run by low-income Kentuckians. Though it works with large partners, most of the time it works with startups, entrepreneurs and farmers, helping them with tech issues and providing small government and private loans, Eblen writes. Jerry Rickett, a native of the region's Wayne County, has led the organization since Shaffer retired to Berea, Ky., in 1989.

"In the past half-century, Kentucky Highlands has helped create or maintain 25,000 jobs in its 22-county service area of Southeastern and Southern Kentucky," Eblen writes. "About 15,500 of those jobs still exist. The organization has assisted more than 800 businesses and helped them secure nearly $423 million in financing." A dinner tonight in Somerset, Ky. will honor Shaffer and several local companies KHIC helped create.

The program has faced challenges from the beginning: in the 1960s local bigwigs didn't like developments they couldn't control. These days, low-income people often struggle with drug abuse, poor credit, and high debt from medical bills and loans, childcare, and transportation to work, Eblen writes. But Shaffer thinks the program has been successful because its low-income participants are involved as full partners from the start, and KHIC's board always has low-income members. "That’s part of what makes us work," he said. "They help us stay relevant to the folk we’re trying to serve."

Utility brings fiber-optic jobs to struggling Colo. coal county

Delta County, Colorado (Wikipedia map)
A electric utility in western Colorado is bringing better internet connection and jobs to a down-on-its-luck Delta County, population 30,000. Coal mines once employed thousands in Western Colorado, but about 800 miners were laid off in 2014-16 when two of the three mines in the area shut down.

Eric and Teresa Neal wanted to help. "Then their fledgling company, Lightworks, began bidding — and winning — contracts offered by the local electric utility that was looking to expand broadband to thousands of homes and businesses," Kirk Siegler reports for NPR. "Coal was going away and broadband was key. After all, how does a small town compete in today's economy without good access to the internet?"

In their barn, the Neals have taught more than 80 former miners about how fiber-optic cable works and how to lay and splice it. Johnny Olivas told Siegler during a break, "I didn't know anything about fiber optic, but you catch on pretty quick. It's a hell of a lot easier than coal mining."

The result of the Neals' efforts? Delta County's population isn't declining for the first time in years. "The fiber optics has pretty much saved this valley," retired miner Rob Clements told Siegler. The jobs don't pay as well as the old coal jobs, but they provide benefits and have been enough to keep people in the county. The jobs and the improved internet speed are also attracting urbanites who want to live in a small town (the county seat is Delta) and work remotely, Siegler reports.

FactCheck Monday: Killing Saudi arms deal would cost few if any jobs; N.C. newspaper takes congressman to task

Here's another installment of a series we are running weekly until Election Day, in which we list some of the most relevant items from and other nonpartisan fact checkers. We encourage you to subscribe to their alerts, which you can do here, and republish their findings, which FactCheck lets anyone do for free with credit to them.

In the wake of journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder, President Trump resisted calls to cancel weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, saying that such a move would hurt U.S. jobs. But very little: "Overall, the private U.S. defense industry does directly employ a lot of U.S. workers — about 355,500 in 2016, according to the most the recent estimates from the Aerospace Industries Association" Alexia Fernandez Campbell reports for Vox. "But private-sector defense workers make up less than 0.5 percent of the total U.S. labor force, and that includes every person whose job depends directly on the sale or production of airplanes, tanks, bombs, and services for the entire US military. It’s unlikely that many of them, if any, depend directly on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and its also unlikely that those jobs would vanish if Saudi money disappeared."

Newsapers of all sizes can provide useul analysis of politicians' claims for readers. In Lexington, N.C., a town of about 19,000 just south of Winston-Salem, the local paper weighed in when U.S. Rep. Tedd Budd said Democratic challenger Kathy Manning would "help Nancy Pelosi retake the Speaker's gavel" if elected. But The Dispatch noted in an editorial that Manning said in a TV ad that she would vote against Pelosi for speaker, and wrote on Medium that "I have decided if I want to change how Washington works, I cannot vote for more of the same, and I cannot support Nancy Pelosi or Paul Ryan to lead Congress." The Dispatch ended the editorial with a wish that politicians wouldn't "use cheap scare tactics and outright falsehoods in their effort to win votes" and promised that if Manning does win and supports Pelosi, "We'll be right back here, again siding with the facts."

Confused about the hubbub surrounding Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test? You're not alone. Trump had repeatedly criticized her for saying in college that she had Native American blood. On Oct. 15 Warren released the results of a genetic test, saying it proved that she has a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations back. The results were immediately misinterpreted by news sources and politicos. "It turns out reporters and politicians are not very good at understanding genetics," Glenn Kessler writes for the Washington Post's Fact Checker column. So Kessler and his colleagues reviewed the results in detail and consulted with genetics experts to set the record straight.

In a nutshell, reporters focused on the part of the report that indicated a range of six to 10 generations ago. The report made that estimate because a Native American-associated segment of Warren's Chromosome 10 means the DNA came from a fairly recent ancestor. But, Kessler notes, not all of a person's ancestors contribute genes equally. Some contribute a lot, and some not at all. "The most important point is this: The results in Warren’s DNA test are static," Kessler writes. "The percentage of Native American DNA in her genome does not shrink as you go back generations. There could be one individual in the sixth generation — living around the mid-1800s, which is similar to Warren family lore — or possibly a dozen or more ancestors back to the 10th generation, which would be about 250 years ago. Her results are consistent with a single ancestor, however."