Friday, April 19, 2019

Federal Reserve economic report shows growth nationally, with weakness in some agricultural areas

"Labor markets remained tight across the United States as businesses struggled to find skilled workers and wages grew modestly, the Federal Reserve said on Wednesday in its latest report on the economy," Pete Schroeder reports for Reuters. "The U.S. central bank’s 'Beige Book' report, a glimpse of the economy based on conversations with business contacts across all 12 of the Fed’s districts, found economic activity grew at a slight-to-moderate pace in March and early April. A few districts reported some strengthening in economic growth."

"Reports from the Fed’s contacts suggested sluggish sales for both general retailers and auto dealers into April.Home sales and tourism were bright spots. Agricultural conditions were weak and contacts in several Midwest districts expressed alarm about the heavy snow and subsequent widespread flooding," Greg Robb reports for MarketWatch. "There was some concern in the San Francisco district that the balance sheets of some agricultural producers 'weakened notably' due to low market prices and weak export demand."

Businesses in most districts reported difficulty in finding skilled workers for manufacturing, construction, technical and professional jobs; in response, companies mostly increased bonuses and benefits, but only increased wages a little, Schroeder reports. 

Big impacts on the economy in the past few months included uncertainty over foreign trade and severe weather in the Midwest. The partial federal shutdown at the beginning of the year appeared not to impact things much, Schroeder reports.

Analysis: NAFTA replacement would produce slight net positive for U.S. economy; several ag sectors would benefit

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement would produce a slight net positive for the U.S. economy, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission's analysis. "The report found that the agreement would increase gross domestic product by 0.35 percent after inflation, or $68.2 billion, and create 175,700 jobs — fewer than the economy has recently produced in a single month, on average," Ana Swanson reports for The New York Times. "It would increase United States trade with Canada and Mexico by about 5 percent, as well as provide a modest lift to agriculture, services and manufacturing activity."

The USMCA is the proposed replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement; President Trump ordered the renegotiation soon after taking office because he blamed NAFTA for increasing the U.S. trade deficit, Swanson reports. Most of the USMCA consists of updates to NAFTA's framework; others were drawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pending trade agreement from which Trump withdrew immediately after taking office.

Several agricultural sectors would benefit from the agreement, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico:
  • "Dairy exports from the U.S. to Canada would increase by $227 million annually, a jump of 43.8 percent. U.S. imports of Canadian dairy products would also rise, with $161.7 million more in goods entering the country.
  • Poultry raised in the U.S. would get expanded access to the Canadian market. Poultry meat exports in particular would increase by $183.5 million, or 49.3 percent, while shipments of live birds and eggs for incubation would rise by 11.2 percent and exports of eggs for consumption would jump by 27.9 percent.
  • Sugar would be traded between Canada and the U.S. at higher rates: Imports from Canada would increase by $16 million, or 1.4 percent, and exports from the U.S. would rise by $21.1 million, or 2.3 percent.
  • U.S. wheat producers are likely to get a small increase in access to the Canadian market, as well."

Farmworker shortage has led to higher wages, more foreign workers; could lead farmers to switch crops or automate

Farm employment and wage trends since 2003; click on the
chart to enlarge it. (AAEA chart)
The number of U.S. farmworkers has decreased by more than 104,000 since 2003, about a 12% drop, according to newly published research by the nonprofit Agricultural & Applied Economics Association.

The trend has led to a steady annual increase in wages of about 30 cents per hour, and has also led farmers to rely more on foreign farmworkers, according to the report. The H-2A visa program, which oversees foreign farmworkers, received 252,679 requests for workers in 2018, the most ever, and the number has increased 196 percent over the last decade. Farmers aren't hiring local or domestic labor because there generally aren't enough people willing or able to do the work.

If the decline continues, many farmers may decide to switch to less labor-intensive crops and/or rely more on automation, the report says. States that rely most on H-2A workers, like California, Florida, Washington, and Georgia, produce a lot of fruits and vegetables that require hand-harvesting.

Quick hits: Rural education needs more attention, cities pressure rural water sources, Mueller report has coal connection

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

National conversations about education often center on the needs of urban students, but the nation must focus more on the needs of rural schools and students, according to a panel convened by The Aspen Institute, a non-partisan think-tank. The panel gathered on April 11 to discuss a new book about rural education called "No Longer Forgotten: The Triumphs and Struggles of Rural America".

Growing city populations worldwide will continue to put pressure on rural water sources, including North America, according to a new study from the University of Oxford. Read more here.

The Mueller report revealed that Russians sought to exploit division among Americans over coal jobs. "The report cites a series of pro-Trump rallies organized by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization charged with interfering in the U.S. election, included one in Pennsylvania with a poster featuring a coal miner reading 'bring back our jobs'," Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill. "The rallies were hosted in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in October 2016."

Rural hospitals have benefitted from a change to Medicare and Medicaid readmission rules. "The research, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, found 44.1% of teaching hospitals and 43.7% of rural hospitals experienced a lower penalty in 2019 compared with 2018 from the readmissions program," Maria Castellucci reports for Modern Healthcare. "The smaller penalties were the result of changes made to the readmissions program this year in which hospitals were separated into five groups by similar proportion of patients who are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid."

A proposed "mini-casino" in rural Pennsylvania is causing consternation for locals, Andrew Maykuth reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Likewise, residents in rural Wisconsin are divided over a wind turbine proposal, Sarah Whites-Koditschek reports for the Minneapolis StarTribune.

Rural population of U.S. creeps up for the second year in a row; county-level data are available

The population in non-metropolitan counties grew slightly for the second year in a row, mostly in rural counties near cities, according to Census Bureau data released Wednesday. From 2017 to 2018, rural counties added about 37,000 residents for a total of 46.1 million nationwide, Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder.

"That’s a gain of about 0.1 percent, according to a report from demographer Kenneth M. Johnson at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. The rate of growth is roughly the same as the growth rate from 2016 to 2017, when nonmetropolitan counties added 33,000 residents," Marema reports. "While the gains for nonmetropolitan America were scant, they continue to reverse the historic drop in nonmetropolitan population that occurred from 2011-16."
Daily Yonder map using U.S. Census Bureau data; click the image to enlarge it.
Rural growth still lags behind metro areas' growth; the overall U.S. population grew by 0.6 percent from 2017 to 2018. About half of nonmetropolitan counties gained population, while about three quarters of metropolitan counties did, Marema reports.

The growth is largely a combination of net migration and more births than deaths. The report found that "The fastest growing counties have recreational and scenic amenities that attract migrants including retirees from elsewhere in the United States" and said farm counties generally had more people leave than move in, Marema reports.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

EU threatens tariffs on $20 billion in U.S. goods in latest salvo of 15-year airplane manufacturer subsidy dispute

The United States and European Union are threatening each other with import tariffs after the latest development in a 15-year feud over airplane manufacturer subsidies. The latest update: the EU threatened to impose tariffs on $20 billion worth of U.S. imports yesterday, following a recent World Trade Organization ruling that the U.S. government had failed to end illegal support of Boeing. Philip Blenkinsop reports for Reuters.

The 11-page list includes various seafood, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, chocolates, vegetable oils, nuts, wines and other spirits, soups, and non-food items such as handbags, motor vehicle components, and equipment for construction and farming.

"In a mirror-like situation, Washington has previously said it is considering tariffs on approximately $11 billion worth of EU goods, which it said was in line with economic damage the U.S. had sustained by European subsidies to aeroplane and defense firm Airbus," Blenkinsop reports. "Both sides have agreed to open talks designed to reduce trade barriers."

The tension comes just as trade talks between the EU and US are about to begin. The upcoming talks will focus on "two sets of negotiations — one to cut tariffs on industrial goods and another to make it easier for businesses to show that products meet EU or U.S. standards," Sam Meredith reports for CNBC. "The European bloc has insisted it does not want agriculture to be included, putting it at loggerheads with the U.S., which wants farm products to be part of future discussions."

Arkansas legislature repeals ban on cities and towns building broadband; N.C., other states may follow

After years of voter complaints about the lack of high-speed internet access, Arkansas legislators have passed a bill to repeal the ban on cities and towns building their own broadband networks; Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he will sign it. Such locally sourced networks are an increasingly popular and effective way to bring broadband to rural communities, Nick Keppler reports for CityLab.

Other states with similar bans may follow suit, including North Carolina, Keppler reports. The Arkansas ban went hand in hand with federal subsidies to encourage telecoms to expand broadband. The Federal Communications Commission gave $250 million in subsidies to AT&T, Windstream and CenturyLink for Arkansas broadband, but it didn't work, Keppler reports.

State Sen. Breanna Davis, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill, observed, "We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation . . . and almost last in broadband." Instead, Arkansans are losing out on remote jobs, can't do homework or take online classes, and some have trouble selling houses because buyers want a neighborhood with good internet, Keppler reports.

The new law won't give municipalities complete control to set up networks. They'll have to get a grant or loan from a second party, which Davis hopes will allow rural towns to get funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's $600 million e-Connectivity pilot program., Keppler reports.

"That this is happening at all is significant. That it’s happening in a deep-red state is perhaps monumental," Keppler reports. "Arkansas outlawed municipal broadband in 2011 as a wave of other states passed similar laws. It was, in part, a factor of the Tea Party movement, which ushered small-government Republicans into state capitols. By 2018, 21 states had some law banning or restricting municipal broadband; many were cut-and-paste 'model legislation' from the American Legislative Exchange Council, backed partly by telecom giants. They sought to kill municipal broadband under the belief" that government shouldn't compete with the private sector.

Rural Texas newspaper publisher deletes reference to same-sex partner in obituary, citing religious reasons

Olton, Texas (Wikipedia map)
A rural Texas newspaper is under fire after the publisher omitted a man's husband from an obituary because of religious convictions, KDFW-TV in Dallas reports.

Barry Giles and John Gambill have been together for 31 years, and both had a close relationship with Giles' mother, Brenda Light. When Light passed away in February, the Dallas couple bought an obituary in her hometown paper, the Olton Enterprise. The submitted obit said "Those left to cherish her memory include her son, Barry Giles and his husband, John Gambill of Dallas." But when the obit came out, Gambill wasn't in it, KDFW reports.

Gambill said that when he called Publisher Phillip Hamilton and asked why, Hamilton said only, "Because I wanted to." Hamilton is also a Baptist pastor, and though he declined an interview with KDFW, he issued a statement saying: "It is my religious conviction that a male cannot have a husband. It is also my belief that to publish anything contrary to God's Word on this issue would be to publish something in the newspaper that is not true."

The statement went on: "The newspaper respects the First Amendment rights of those who express such opinions. The newspaper’s decision to edit the obituary is both ethical and lawful. It would be unethical to publish a news item that is known by the editor to be false. Based on the truth found in the Word of God, I could not in good conscience identify Mr. Gambill as the husband of Mr. Giles."

The couple is considering legal action, but an appellate attorney not involved with the case told KDFW Hamilton has a stronger legal footing: "A newspaper cannot knowingly or recklessly publish false information," said Chad Ruback. "Other than that, the First Amendment grants the newspaper extremely broad rights in deciding what information to publish and what information not to publish."

Farmers getting smaller share of money from food spending

"The share of food spending that goes to America’s farmers fell for the sixth straight year in 2017, according to the USDA Economic Research Service," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Meanwhile, "The share of American food spending that goes to the foodservice industry has increased for six consecutive years."

Farmers got 14.6 cents for every dollar spent in the U.S. on food in 2017, compared to 17.6 cents on the dollar in 2011, according to the ERS's Food Dollar Series, which tracks American food spending and farmer income, Marema reports.

The ERS said farmers are getting a smaller share of food spending because food makes up a smaller share of total costs these days; that's because restaurants' costs for food prep and service have increased, Marema reports.

Local investors buy bankrupt Mississippi hospital, plan to help it thrive with focus on 'niche' development

Batesville in Panola County (Wikipedia map)
Rural hospitals are closing at alarming rates: about one per month since 2010, 99 total as of March. Mississippi is no stranger to the trend, since half of its rural hospitals were deemed in danger of closing in 2019. Here's how local investors brought in bigger financial firepower to save one such hospital, Giacomo Bologna reports for the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

Panola Medical Center in Batesville went into bankruptcy in August 2018 after a string of problems: a medical-fraud scandal, a 2009 bankruptcy, and several owners. Nearly 400 people in the community of 7,000 would lose their jobs if the hospital closed, the town would have a hard time attracting new businesses, and locals could face greater injury or even death if a hospital wasn't close enough, Bologna reports.

Four investors partnered to buy the hospital for $2.5 million, less than a tenth of the $27.3 million it fetched about 15 years ago. "There were hiccups, but now, a month into ownership, they're not scrambling to keep the hospital open — they're making plans to grow it," Bologna reports.

One of the new owners is Quentin Whitwell, a lawyer and former Jackson city councilman and the chief operating officer for Alliance HealthCare System. The CEO of Panola's bankrupt owner, Curae Health, reached out to Whitwell, saying Panola had a lot of promise, since the main facility was fairly new (built in 2004), the location was convenient to the interstate, and the staff was dedicated. He said it was important for Panola to stay open because there are no other emergency rooms within 30 miles, Bologna reports.

Whitwell put together a roughly equal partnership with three other owners: his boss, Kenneth Williams, who owns Alliance; Vizion Health, a new company founded by health-care industry veterans; and Ashoke Mukherji, who owns Java Medical Group and who grew up in a rural Tennessee town where his father was sometimes the only surgeon, Bologna reports.

Whitwell acknowledges the challenges facing Panola and other hospitals, but hopes the owners' entrepreneurial mindset will help the hospital survive and thrive. They plan to begin offering physical therapy within the month, expanding the wound clinic, set up a telemedicine service, and increasing preventative services. Instead of trying to compete with bigger hospitals, Whitwell told Bologna they plan to focus on excellence in specific areas. "We can build niches," he said. "Building niches is critical to success."

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Feds indict 60 on illegal-prescribing charges in Ohio, W.Va., Ky., Tenn., Ala.; some doctors allegedly traded sex for drugs

Sixty health professionals in five Appalachian states were charged Wednesday with "illegal prescribing of more than 32 million pain pills, including doctors who prosecutors said traded sex for prescriptions and a dentist who unnecessarily pulled teeth from patients to justify giving them opioids," report Sari Horwitz and Scott Higham of The Washington Post.

Those indicted included "31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals" who wrote more than 350,000 illegal prescriptions in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, according to federal indictments filed in Cincinnati.

“That is the equivalent of one opioid dose for every man, woman and child in the five states in the region that we’ve been targeting,” Brian Benczkowski, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, told the Post. “If these medical professionals behave like drug dealers, you can rest assured that the Justice Department is going to treat them like drug dealers.”

The department says it has targeted doctors, health-care companies and drug manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the opioid epidemic that killed 47,600 Americans in 2017. "Benczkowski said he created the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force late last year to target the region, which has been devastated by the epidemic," the Post reports. "The department analyzed several databases to identify suspicious prescribing activity and sent 14 prosecutors to 11 federal districts there. . . .Once they had the data indicating suspicious prescriptions, investigators used confidential informants and undercover agents to infiltrate medical offices across the region. Cameras and tape recorders were rolling as they documented how medical professionals used their licenses to peddle highly addictive opioids in exchange for cash and sex, officials said."

The indictments merited a statement from Attorney General William Barr: “The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region.”

U.S. pork and poultry industries seek inroads in trade talks

The United States and China have been in trade talks for months in an effort to end the trade war that has been hurting American farmers. The U.S. pork industry is hoping for a favorable resolution to one particular request: American negotiators want China to lift its ban on ractopamine, a drug about half of U.S. pork producers use to boost hog growth, Chris Prentice and Tom Polansek report for Reuters.

"Huge losses in China’s hog herd due to African swine fever have left the world’s largest pork market facing a protein deficit, stoking hopes among U.S. pork and poultry producers," Prentice and Polansek report. "Up to 200 million pigs could be culled or die from infections as the disease spreads through China, reducing the nation’s pork output by 30 percent from 2019."

Because of that loss, Iowa State University agricultural economist Dermot Hayes predicts China will need import 4 to 6 million tons of pork in 2020. That could strengthen America's hand in negotiations, according to independent U.S. livestock market analyst Bob Brown: "I think that China will do anything possible to make it easier for them to import protein."

The U.S. has also asked China to once again allow imports of U.S. poultry and eggs, which it banned in January 2015 because of an avian flu outbreak that is long over. "China lifted a similar restriction on poultry from France last month, and last year dropped duties on U.S. white-feathered broiler chickens. A total lifting of the ban would reopen the gates for U.S. poultry to compete in the world’s largest, and best-paying, market for products like chicken feet," Prentice and Polansek report. "While it looks increasingly likely China may lift its ban on U.S. poultry, Beijing is seeking a 'two-way street' and would want to be able to export some poultry products to the United States as well, two sources said."

What the Ag Census tells us about rural connectivity

The recently released 2017 Census of Agriculture is a gold mine of information about the nation's farmers and rural communities. Here's what it tells us about rural internet connectivity and what progress is (or isn't) being made, Margy Eckelkamp reports for AgProfessional.

Connectivity varies by farm size; big operations generally have better internet access: fewer than 3% of farms with more than 140 acres have slow, dial-up access. The most prevalent means of internet access has shifted from DSL to mobile wireless between 2012 and 2017. And though fewer farmers rely on dial-up, broadband adoption percentage has remained about the same, Eckelkamp reports.

Those reviewing the data must be careful about comparisons because of varying definitions and question parameters, though. The 2012 census included a "broadband" category, but that wasn't included in 2017. And the 2017 census included a "don't know" category that wasn't included in 2012, Eckelkamp reports. Moreover, the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Communications Commission don't use the same definitions of internet connectivity.

Dee Davis: Rural residents, largely abandoned by major papers, vulnerable to partisan influence and 'fake news'

Sources of credible, comprehensive local news have been drying up in rural America over the past 20 years, and people are getting skewed information from other sources, changing rural Americans' political views, writes Dee Davis, publisher of The Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

"The change helped get Donald Trump elected," Davis writes. "It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be."

Dee Davis (NPR photo)
Davis notes the decline in circulation of, and reporting by, major newspapers in his native Appalachia, and writes about a little-known topic, the increasing prevalence of evangelical Christian radio broadcasters. Before 2000, low FM frequencies had been devoted to secular education and nonprofit news. After the law changed, religious broadcasters became a tour de force in rural America, and by 2006 small evangelical radio stations were the second largest radio format in the nation, Davis writes.

"What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by Evangelical church networks," Davis writes. "Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons, and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million."

Social media, too, have created online echo chambers where users find only the news that confirms their biases and friends who share the same opinions. Davis saw the power of social media to mislead during the 2016 presidential election, when several people in Whitesburg, Ky., where he lives, believed a fake story that Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, abused a girl. Though the story was easily proven false, "when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor," Davis writes.

Midwestern workers moving away from flooded areas

Last month's heavy flooding caused more than $3 billion in damage in the Midwest, but lost crops, infrastructure and buildings aren't the only likely consequence of the disaster.

Fed-up workers are moving away from the Midwest, according to LinkedIn, the leading social network for professionals. "Data showed a spike in members changing their work location from areas flooded last month to cities in the Southwest and on the West Coast," Sebasian Malo reports for Reuters. Meanwhile, "Hiring rates tracked through the platform dropped across the Midwest."

Though it's not clear whether the workers will come back eventually, repeated disasters could trigger a "sustained bleed of talent," said Guy Berger, chief economist at LinkedIn.

Those who stay, especially farmers, have tough decisions to make. "Flooded farmland isn’t expected to recede in time for many affected farmers to plant a crop this season, so they may lose a year of income," April Simpson reports for Stateline. Several Midwestern states are working on state-level disaster aid for affected citizens, but federal aid may be a while coming since Congress left for a two-week break without approving disaster aid.

Compounding the problem for farmers: the recent floods have damaged or destroyed fertile topsoil, which could make future farming difficult, Jim Ippolito and Madi Al-Kaisi write for The Conversation. Ippolito is an associate professor of environmental soil quality/health at Colorado State University. Al-Kaisi is a professor of soil management and environment at Iowa State University.

It's difficult to leave though. "I got my life in this ground," Nebraska farmer Jeff Keithley told Simpson. "I spent my life here. It’s almost an extension of me. I raised all my children here."

Hemp industry booms on CBD's reputed health benefits, supported by users but not very much by science

The reputed health benefits of cannabidiol are the main driver of hemp's nationwide boom, but scientific research still doesn't support the claims, Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

The problem is that hemp hasn't been widely legal for very long, and only nationally legalized this year, so scientists have had little incentive to study CBD's medicinal effects. Anecdotal evidence has attributed all sorts of health benefits to CBD, but more double-blind studies are needed to discern the science from the hype, according to Dr. Anup Patel, section chief of pediatric neurology at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Niemeyer reports.

Patel has been involved in several studies in the past five years that examined CBD's effect on epilepsy. A 2018 study found that CBD reduced the frequency of seizures by more than 40 percent in patients with a severe form of epilepsy. Because of that study, the Food and Drug Administration approved  Epidiolex, which remains the only FDA-approved CBD drug, Niemeyer reports.

"There is potential benefit for certain types of patients with seizures or epilepsy," Patel told Niemeyer. "Beyond that, we have no idea. There aren’t any good studies using CBD in other areas."

That's changing, though: "Human trials, some of them double-blind, are being conducted to determine CBD’s effects for a variety of issues, from cancer therapies to Parkinson’s disease," Niemeyer reports. "Some preliminary CBD research has shown promising results toward CBD’s potential anti-inflammatory properties and how it affects brain chemistry, helping people with issues including anxiety disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and quitting tobacco." One recent study indicates CBD could increase the risk of glaucoma though.

Meanwhile, hemp farmers and CBD product sellers are pressing forward. Roger Hayes, who owns Louisville CBD product business Green Remedy, said that clinical studies are important, but consumers know CBD works. "The [studies] on what the therapeutic effects are going to be, that takes years," Hayes told Niemeyer. "America doesn’t need to wait that long to determine that something that has been around for thousands of years that people take for various reasons — we shouldn’t have to wait that long."

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Pulitzers announced; here are some with rural resonance

The 2019 Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism were announced Monday; some had rural resonance.

Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won for Commentary with "bold columns that exposed the malfeasance and injustice of forcing poor rural Missourians charged with misdemeanor crimes to pay unaffordable fines or be sent to jail," according to the Pulitzer website. Click here to see the prize-winning columns.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, by Eliza Griswold, won in the General Nonfiction category of Letters, Drama and Music. Griswold, an award-winning poet and journalist, "tells the story of the energy boom’s impact on a small town at the edge of Appalachia and one woman’s transformation from a struggling single parent to an unlikely activist."

The staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, won one of two special citations "for their courageous response to the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history in their newsroom on June 28, 2018, and for demonstrating unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief. The citation comes with a $100,000 bequest by the Pulitzer Board to be used to further the newspaper’s journalistic mission." The other special citation went to the late Aretha Franklin. Click here for the full list of winners.

Rural emergency-room visits jumped 70% in 12 years, suggesting rural hospitals are increasingly safety nets

Visits to rural hospital emergency departments have increased more than 70 percent from 2005 to 2017, according to a study at the University of New Mexico Albuquerque and the University of Michigan. Researchers said the study showed the hospitals' increased importance as safety nets.

"Increased visits by young to middle-aged white rural patients—particularly Medicaid beneficiaries and those without insurance—may indicate an increased burden of illness or challenges in access to alternative care sites,” the authors write. The jump in Medicaid-funded visits is likely because most states expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The authors also found an increase in the proportion of rural hospitals classified as safety-net hospitals, which by law must serve patients regardless of their financial status. If these trends continue, rural hospitals could face worsening financial troubles, the authors write.

Rural emergency-room visits increased to 28.4 million from 16.7 million. Urban visits increased to 117.2 million from 98.6 million, a rose of 19 percent. Applying population data, that's a jump from 36.5 to 64.5 ER visits for every 100 rural people, and an increase from 40.2 to 42.8 for every 100 urban people, the study says.

Data for the study came from the national Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey. Rurality was defined using Office of Management and Budget classification.

Barn wood stolen to meet demand for farmhouse-chic decor

Lois and Ann Coffey look at the gaps in Lois's barn
after thieves stole boards. (CJ photo by Matt Stone)
Farmhouse chic is all the rage in home decor these days, and some people are willing to turn to crime to help urban and suburban decorators get the look. Rural residents in several states report that thieves have been stealing the weathered wood from their barns in recent months, Tessa Duvall reports for the Courier Journal in Louisville, Ky.

"Sheriffs across the state have seen some barns stripped down to their frames and aluminum roofs. Law enforcement officials say there’s not much they can do to stop the thieves or to track down the wood," Duvall reports. "But it has become such a problem that buyers of weathered wood have taken to asking for W-9 tax forms from those looking to sell." Wholesalers buy the wood for up to $2 per board foot.

A few cases have been reported in Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee, but the phenomenon is hitting Kentucky the hardest, since the Bluegrass State has more old barns per square mile than any other state, Duvall reports. That's probably because Kentucky has had more tobacco farmers than any other state; barns in Southern Kentucky, where thefts have been heaviest, typically house livestock, hay, equipment and, during tobacco-curing season, tobacco. Some are used only during that season.

Residents whose barn wood has been stolen are frustrated that law enforcement can't do much to catch the thieves. Most thefts happen at night, and barns are usually in remote areas where no one is likely to catch thieves in the act. Lois "Nan" Coffey of Burkesville put up cameras and floodlights around her tobacco barn after thieves stole part of it. Her daughter, Ann Coffey, told Duvall she put a notice in the local weekly newspaper about it. "Everybody knew that barn wood was being taken, but the Cumberland County News didn’t have anything about it," Coffey said.

Rural Americans more likely to die prematurely (before 75); rural blacks and Native Americans' lives are the shortest

Premature death rate in counties by population and majority
race (University of Minnesota chart; click to enlarge it)
A new study shows that rural residents are more likely to die prematurely than urban residents, and people of color are more likely to die prematurely than non-Hispanic whites; rural African Americans and Native Americans have the shortest lives.

"The study is based on the rate of premature deaths (defined as before the age of 75), among non-Hispanic blacks and American Indian and Alaskan Native groups in comparison with non-Hispanic whites in every county (or similar jurisdiction) in the nation. The data also was applied to each county based on whether it's considered rural or urban," John Lundy reports for the Duluth News Tribune. "In terms of racial and ethnic composition, Native Americans are hit the hardest. In the 26 counties with a majority American Indian or Alaskan Native population, the premature death rate per 100,000 people is 16,255, according to the report, compared with 7,872 in the 2,767 counties with a majority non-Hispanic white population. The 99 counties with a majority Hispanic population fare even better, with a premature death rate of 7,693."

Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center and lead author of the study, said there are many barriers to good health in rural areas, such as fewer available jobs, slower economic recovery from the Great Recession, lack of health care facilities in rural areas, and transportation issues, Lundy reports.

The study analyzed data from the 2017 County Health Rankings on all U.S. counties and their equivalents, compiled by the University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute. Racial and ethnic lifespan estimates came from the National Center for Health Statistics mortality files. Estimates for racial and ethnic composition of counties came from the Census Bureau's Population Estimates Program. Rurality was defined by the nine-step urban influence codes of the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

USDA to start taking applications for $600 million rural broadband loan/grant pilot program on April 23

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development announced it will begin accepting applications April 23 for a funding to expand high-speed broadband internet in rural areas.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers, and municipal governments with insufficient broadband service can apply for funding from the Rural e-Connectivity Pilot Program, commonly called ReConnect. Funds will be awarded to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring broadband to rural communities.

The initiative was announced in December and will receive up to $600 million in funding: $200 million in grants, $200 million in loan and grant combinations, and $200 million in low-interest loans. The application deadlines are:
  • May 31, 2019, for grants
  • June 21, 2019 for loan/grant combinations
  • July 12, 2019, for low-interest loans
Click here to request technical assistance in applying.

The Office of Rural Development also recently created a free toolkit aimed at helping rural communities get or improve their broadband service. It contains a list of 27 USDA programs that support broadband development, along with a user guide and examples of how some rural communities are using e-Connectivity resources to increase broadband services.

The administration may take other steps to facilitate rural broadband buildout too. On Friday, President Trump proposed a $20 billion program called the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand rural broadband over the next decade. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said the fund could launch later this year after a period of public notice and comment.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Per capita income growth slows; check out state-level data

Change in personal income per capita, 2017 to 2018
(Stateline map; click here for the interactive version)
Per capita income in the U.S. rose from 2017 to 2018, but more slowly than in recent years, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data, Tim Henderson reports for Stateline, the nonprofit, nonpartisan news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Nationwide, per capita income rose 1.4% in 2017-18 after inflation, a bit less than the previous year's 1.6%. Between 2014 and 2015, it rose 4%, Henderson reports.

"High-paying blue-collar jobs lifted incomes in West Virginia, New York and Illinois last year, even though the states lost residents, while farmers and government workers shared the pain of more stagnant income in Nebraska, Maryland and Washington, D.C.," Henderson reports. "The new per-capita income numbers show how national policies and international markets directly affect state and local pocketbooks. Deregulation in the United States and a heat wave in China boosted coal demand in West Virginia, for example, while overseas mining and farming led to more giant truck manufacturing in Illinois. At the same time, U.S. tariffs hurt Nebraska soybean farmers."

Trump announces airwave auction to speed 5G network rollout and program to increase rural broadband access

On Friday President Trump announced a plan to speed the rollout of 5G networks and increase rural broadband connectivity.

"Under the plan, the Federal Communications Commission will release a wide swath of high-frequency airwaves for cellular use in what will be the largest trove of U.S. wireless spectrum ever to be auctioned off. As much as 3.4 gigahertz of 'millimeter-wave' spectrum could be sold to wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon in the sale, which will begin Dec. 10, according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai," Brian Fung reports for The Washington Post. "The FCC also proposed a $20 billion fund to expand broadband in rural America over the coming decade, connecting up to 4 million households and small businesses to high-speed Internet, Pai said. The 'Rural Digital Opportunity Fund' could launch later this year, after a period of public notice and comment."

However, Friday's announcement had another purpose beyond informing the public about the auction and the rural broadband program, Aaron Pressman reports for Fortune: "The real agenda was to try and kill a well-funded lobbying effort to convince the federal government to take over 5G airwaves and build a nationalized network that private carriers would have to lease from the government. Supporters included prominent Republicans Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove, as well as Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale. But the idea has driven the U.S. telecommunications industry, which is spending tens of billions of dollars to build private 5G networks, bonkers."

At Friday's event, Trump said that "in the United States, our approach is private-sector driven and private-sector led Government doesn’t have to spend lots of money . . . We had another alternative of doing it that would be through government investment and leading through the government. We don’t want to do that because it won’t be nearly as good, nearly as fast."

Syphilis spreading in rural U.S. because of intravenous drug use, stigma, lack of funding, and other factors

Rural counties across the Midwest and West are seeing a spike in syphilis. While the disease "is still concentrated in cities such as San Francisco, Atlanta and Las Vegas, its continued spread into places like Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma creates a new set of challenges," Lauren Weber reports for Kaiser Health News. "Compared with urban hubs, rural populations tend to have less access to public health resources, less experience with syphilis and less willingness to address it because of socially conservative views toward homosexuality and nonmarital sex."

How bad is the problem? In 1999 around 35,000 cases were reported, but by 2017 that number grew to 101,500, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Weber reports.

Syphilis is easily treatable and curable with antibiotics, but can cause permanent brain damage, blindness, birth defects and/or death if left untreated. It's making a comeback partly because of increasing drug use, which often leads to risky sexual behavior. In rural areas, that's compounded by the stigma of seeking help for a sexually transmitted disease or reluctance to reveal homosexual activity. Another problem: Syphilis has been so rare until recent years that many health-care providers have never seen it in patients, and don't easily recognize it, Weber reports.

In 1999 the CDC had a plan to eradicate the disease in the U.S. by focusing on hotspots in the South, California, and major urban areas, "but health officials are losing the fight because of a combination of cuts in national and state health funding and crumbling public-health infrastructure," Weber reports. "Federal funding for STD prevention has stayed relatively flat since 2003, with $157.3 million allocated for fiscal year 2018. But that amounts to a nearly 40% decrease in purchasing power over that time, according to the National Coalition of STD Directors."

Asian-carp processing industry booms in Western Ky., which will get nation's first industrial park for that purpose

The Asian carp processing industry in far Western Kentucky is getting a significant boost from abroad: Chinese investors joined state and local officials at Wickliffe Friday to announce the first industrial park in the U.S. dedicated to processing the invasive fish, which is a popular food in China.

"The investors represent seven new companies that will build in the 72-acre International Fisheries Industrial Park, spearheaded by Angie Yu, president of Two Rivers Fisheries which anchors the park along Ky. 286. Each is expected to invest $1 million and hire about 10 employees, according to Yu," David Zoeller reports for The Paducah Sun.

Two Rivers has bought, processed and sold 10 million pounds of carp in the past seven years since it opened, buying from about 30 commercial fishing groups in Kentucky and surrounding states, Zoeller reports. On Jan. 1 the state began a first-of-its-kind partnership with the fishery to pay anglers for Asian carp and sell their catches in online auctions in an effort to rid local waters of the voracious fish. 

One of the investors, Lining He, said at the ceremony Friday that Asian carp processing is a $10 billion industry in China and accounts for more than 10 percent of global seafood consumption. "It probably could be a gold mine" in Kentucky, said He, who has a doctorate in ecological economics.

"This industrial park creates economic opportunity, and something we haven't seen - a zero waste fish facility, with a cluster of industry fish companies in one area," Commissioner Erran Persley of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development said at the ceremony.

The Berkshire Eagle, bought back from a chain by locals in 2016, wins special journalism award in Massachusetts

"The Berkshire Eagle has received the 2019 John F. Kennedy Commonwealth Award for 'demonstrating the enduring civic value of community journalism' from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation," the Eagle reports. The Eagle, a daily, covers Berkshire County, the westernmost in Massachusetts.

In a recognition ceremony last week, MCC's executive director Anita Walker praised the Eagle for providing a balanced source of content, and praised the paper for doing so as a locally owned paper. "It's rare today to live in a community served by a newspaper that is locally owned and that gives as much coverage to arts and culture as, say, sports," Walker said. "No newspaper has devoted more resources and energy to stories that matter about our collective public trust than The Berkshire Eagle."

A group of local investors, led by retired District Court Judge Frederic Rutberg, bought the Eagle and several sister papers from Digital First Media in 2016.