Friday, May 10, 2019

At major rural employer Walmart, many workers earn below the poverty line as store managers average $175,000 a year

Though Walmart managers make healthy salaries, many hourly workers still have a hard time making ends meet, Abha Bhattarai reports for The Washington Post.

"Walmart said its store managers now average $175,000 a year, while its full-time hourly worker average $14.26 an hour," Bhattarai writes. "Average hourly pay of $14.26 equals about $25,200 a year for 34-hour weeks, which is considered full time at Walmart. That is below the national poverty line for a family of four."

Walmart posted $129 billion in profits in 2018. With 1.5 million U.S. employees, it is one of the nation's largest employers, especially in rural areas, and is the leading employer in 22 states (most of them in the Midwest and South). But with the national unemployment rate at its lowest level since 1969, Walmart is struggling to hire and keep employees, especially where higher-paying competitors like Target and Costco operate, Bhattarai reports.

Walmart raised its hourly starting wage to $11 last year, and its overall starting wages have risen more than 50% in the past three years. Last year the company offered  virtually free college to employees who major in business or supply-chain management, and expanded its parental leave.

Some critics, including employees, say Walmart doesn't allow enough workers to have full-time hours, which would make them eligible for health insurance, but a company spokesperson told Bhattarai that "a majority" of hourly workers are full-time and that about 175,000 part-time employees got moved up to full-time positions last year.

Newspapers must show their complacent communities that they are an essential civic asset, not like 'news from Google'

By Al Cross, Professor and Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we are in "the golden age of ignorance," as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared? Maybe, if newspapers can't convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.

Richard Fausset of The New York Times looks over a proof of the
final edition with Publisher Rebecca Colden. (Photo: John Engler, MPR)
Collins followed up on MPR reporter John Engler's report on this week's demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota's northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: "He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn't seem too broken up about it."

Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: "I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next."

Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: "Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment," and cited one as saying that "he gets his news from Google, 'just like everybody else'."

That comment reflects "monumental ignorance," said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, in central Minnesota. "There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available."

Anfinson also said, "A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling."

Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, "There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite." Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, "I think Richard's saying they're just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should."

Colden said that feeling played a role in her decision to get out of the newspaper business. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but "The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age." The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.

And it wasn't as if she hadn't warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota newspapers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and "They’re gonna miss all the information they didn't know they needed."

Colden said she could have borrowed more money and taken the risk of converting to free, total-market circulation, "but I need to know that there's really community buy-in to do that, and . . . the community buy-in was really lacking." She said that showed in school news, a local-paper staple: "Teachers and coaches just throw some things up on social media rather than send it to the paper."

Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to "tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice." If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn't find a suitable successor or buyer.

Roseau County, Minnesota (Google map)
Colden said she couldn't work out a deal with the paper's former owners, who have five nearby weeklies based in nearby Baudette. That was after she'd considered going to free distribution, which she concluded was too risky, and tried to compete more directly with the county-seat paper, the Roseau Times-Region, 22 miles away. As often happens, local loyalties trumped other factors, Colden said: "Because of that community loyalty over there, we were never able to capture that advertising base."

She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has "a new generation of workers" who were more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. "It doesn't bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart," she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad's approximately 50 storefronts are empty. "We're really a community in transition."

The Pioneer's death "is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper," Anfinson wrote. "I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing." Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, "Times get tougher for rural newspapers."

Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And prove to their communities that they are needed.

Quick hits: Black coal miners, interpreters for rural-refugee health, a town dubbed 'Cancer Alley' and one that won't die

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

A beautifully shot and written photo essay and longform story in The New York Review of Books examines the dwindling community of African American coal miners in southeast Kentucky, here.

In rural Missouri, interpreters are the key to health care for refugees, Sebastian Martinez Valdivia reports for The Daily Yonder.

A small Louisiana town near a chemical plant has been dubbed "Cancer Alley." Don't miss out on the great multimedia presentation on this story in The Guardian.

An Oregon court tells a town that wanted to formally disband that it's still a city, whether it wants to be or not, reports Oregon Live (The Oregonian).

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., says Trump administration not living up to promise to help farmers recover from disasters

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott
(AP photo by Evan Vucci)
Gridlock over a $17 billion disaster-aid bill prompted criticism for President Trump's administration from Rep. Austin Scott, who represents south-central Georgia. "It was a rare rebuke of the administration from a Republican congressman, most of whom have been in lockstep with the president's policies," Catherine Boudreau reports for Politico.

During a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on Thursday, Scott read aloud part of a speech in which Vice President Mike Pence told Georgia farmers last fall that the administration would help them recover from Hurricane Michael. But the administration is breaking its promise, Scott said, since seven months later, Congress and the White House still can't agree on a disaster aid bill for those hurt by recent disasters, Boudreau reports. The main hang-up is that President Trump does not want to give more aid to Puerto Rico, and has made unsubstantiated claims that the local government has wasted previous aid money.

Scott, "who helped secure about $3 billion for agriculture in House disaster legislation, leveled much of his criticism at President Donald Trump’s White House," Boudreau reports. He "said the White House Office of Management and Budget has yet to submit a formal disaster request to Congress to supplement already-authorized federal emergency aid, but has done so for other priorities. He noted that OMB last week asked for $4.5 billion to address what Trump has described as a humanitarian and security crisis at the border with Mexico," Boudreau reports.

In his remarks, Scott obliquely criticized Mick Mulvaney, the former OMB director and Trump's acting chief of staff, who has been a leading opponent of agricultural subsidies. "I appreciate the vice president’s comments. I appreciate the president’s favorable comments about the agricultural community," Scott said. "But when things are then handed off to people at the Office of Management and Budget, who consider the American farmer and the American farm family nothing but subsidy-sucking freeloaders, then there’s a disconnect in what is actually coming out of the administration, and what the administration is telling us that they’re going to do."

Scott said OMB's opposition to disaster aid for farmers has been a major stumbling block in negotiations, and said his constituents will start losing their farms and homes soon if Congress doesn't pass an aid package, Boudreau reports.

Agriculture needs more tech specialists; hard to recruit

Some may consider agriculture old-fashioned, but it relies on innovation as much as any industry, so states that want to continue being ag powerhouses see a need to invest in high-tech ag education.

"Science and technology will be core to the farming revolution, which teachers and agricultural leaders envision as including robots, temperature and moisture sensors, aerial images and GPS technology, alongside big data that affects everyone — suppliers, farmers, traders, processors, retailers and consumers," April Simpson reports for Stateline.

The farm sector needs more tech experts to help develop precision agriculture, but many techies have no idea that agriculture is even an option for them. Ag educators and advocates "say part of the problem is marketing: Most people, including students, equate agriculture with farming. The industry gets limited media exposure, they said, but also needs to do a better job of promoting itself, particularly as high-tech," Simpson reports. "But agriculture can be a tough sell to students when other flashy majors are competing for attention. Engineering programs, for example, often have ample resources and funding. Computer science academies can give students computers." 

Also, "The agricultural industry can feel insular and difficult to break into for those who didn’t grow up on a farm, in a rural area or with an industry connection," Simpson reports. The industry is 95% white and mostly male, inhibiting non-white and female students. And there aren't enough certified ag teachers in public schools to help more students see farming or ag tech as viable career paths.

There's money to be made. A U.S. Department of Agriculture report found that, if farmers had better access to digital technologies, the U.S. could increase its agricultural production by almost 18%, meaning $47 billion to $65 billion in annual gross economic benefits, Simpson reports.

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Tariff hikes looms over U.S-China trade talks; president of soybean farmers says they 'are in a desperate situation'

"U.S. and Chinese negotiators will meet today in Washington, with less than 24 hours until the Trump administration dials up the trade tension on Friday by increasing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "There’s some hope that China could provide just enough assurances it would concede to President Donald Trump’s demands so the administration will delay a tariff hike — but there’s far more doubt that an eleventh-hour resolution can be reached."

Prices on grains and most other U.S. commodity crops were down this morning in anticipation of the tariff hike. Soybeans are in a particularly tough spot: "Soybeans are the United States' single biggest export to China, so prolonged negotiations and additional tariffs will hit the commodity hard," Anneken Tappe reports for CNN Business. "Soybean futures for July, the most active contract, were down 2.4% at $8.08 a bushel, while futures for May dropped 2.2% to $7.96, according to Refinitiv. Its putting the two closest contracts on track to log their worst one-day drop since October."

"This is a predicament for soy growers,” Davie Stephens, a soybean farmer from Clinton, Ky., and the president of the American Soybean Association, said in a press release. "We understand that Mr. Trump and his administration have broad goals they want to achieve for our country, but farmers are in a desperate situation. We need a positive resolution of this ongoing tariff dispute, not further escalation of tensions." Stephens warned that soybean growers' "patience is wearing thin" with the trade dispute and said "the financial and emotional toll on U.S. soybean farmers cannot be ignored."

Justice sues Justice, so to speak: Feds seek $4.7 million in fines owed by coal companies owned by W.Va. governor

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice
"The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against 23 coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, seeking more than $4.7 million in unpaid fines and fees for mine safety and health violations," Brittany Patterson reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The DOJ said in a news release that companies being sued racked up almost 2,300 safety and health violations in the past five years, and ignored multiple demands by several federal agencies to pay the debts. The companies are in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, Patterson reports.

Investigative reporting over the past few years brought Justice's debts to the public's attention. A 2016 investigation by NPR, the Ohio Valley ReSource and WVPB "found that Justice’s mines owed $2.6 million in overdue mines safety fines, as well as millions more in unpaid tax debt," Patterson notes. An OVR story last month revealed that the amount had increased to $4.3 million. "That meant the Justice companies had by far the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry," Park reports. "And it was also far more than the companies owed when Justice ran for governor in 2016, when he pledged to make good on such debts."

Pennsylvania farmers, faced with immigrant shortage, get creative about labor sources in efforts to stay afloat

A worker harvests button mushrooms on a Pa. farm
(Philadelphia Inquirer photo by Michael Bryant)
Farmers nationwide are experiencing labor shortages because of tighter immigration rules and lower unemployment. Some in Pennsylvania, and likely elsewhere, are turning to unconventional sources of labor in an effort to stay afloat.

Almost half the mushrooms in the U.S. come from Chester County, Pennsylvania, in the southeastern corner of the state. But farming and harvesting them is difficult work. "Full-time positions require workers to pick six days a week, including holidays," Katie Park reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Days start early and the work can be difficult, as workers have to bend between narrow, dimly lit wooden mushroom beds, knife in hand, and delicately cut thousands of mushrooms piece by piece."

Dairy jobs are also hard to fill. "They’re dirty jobs. They pay far above minimum wage, but they are dirty jobs. You’re behind cows. You’re going in and out of rain, snow, sleet, and hail," Caroline Novak, deputy director of the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, told Park.

Because there are fewer immigrants or other willing workers around, "Some mushroom and dairy farmers desperate for labor have begun to turn to places they may not have once considered, such as inmate work-release programs, organizations that help the visually impaired find employment, and others that help veterans find work," Park reports. Such workers are sometimes successful, but overall it's not enough.

The labor shortage, on top of paper-thin profit margins, has hit dairies and mushroom farms hard. Some dairies have been forced to downsize or postpone upgrades, and there are so few workers that some mushroom farms haven't been able to fully harvest their mushrooms, Park reports.

Several farmers and industry insiders Park interviewed bemoaned the loss of immigrant labor and advocated immigration reform. "The American public as a whole does not want to work these hours anymore," said dairy farmer Christian Landis. "And quite frankly, if the immigrant labor force was not there, there would be a major void in the labor force of the agriculture industry across all sectors."

California to ban pesticide linked to brain damage in babies

California, the nation's top agriculture state, moved Wednesday to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide believed to cause brain damage in babies. The news comes just days after a federal appeals court gave the Environmental Protection Agency 90 days to decide whether to ban the pesticide.

"Regulators in several states have taken steps in recent years to restrict the pesticide used on about 60 different crops in California, including grapes, almonds and oranges," Brian Melley reports for The Associated Press. "Hawaii banned it last year, and New York lawmakers recently sent a measure to the governor outlawing use of the pesticide."

California has taken previous steps to cut down on chlorpyrifos, Melley reports: "Use of the pesticide has been reduced by more than half in California since 2005, to just under 1 million pounds (450,000 kilograms) used on crops in 2016."

Chlorpyrifos, introduced in 1965, is one of the most extensively studied pesticides, so the research linking it to developmental delays in children is substantial, Melley reports. It was banned for indoor use in 2000, and under President Obama EPA proposed a total ban. President Trump's first EPA administrator reversed that order, saying more research was needed.

The ban could take six months to two years to take effect. In the meantime, "the state Department of Pesticide Regulation has recommended that county agriculture commissioners adopt stricter rules on where and how the chemical can be applied, including larger buffer zones," Melley reports. "To help farmers make the transition away from chlorpyrifos, California is adding contributing $5.7 million to the development of safer alternatives."

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Kentucky's broadband boondoggle is a cautionary tale; is governor's aide undercutting him by siding with AT&T?

Five years ago, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, who couldn't run for re-election, and a powerful Republican congressman struck a deal with private investors to get high-speed internet to the state's rural areas, especially the congressman's depressed district. The KentuckyWired system is only one-third built, and now the governor is a Republican whose administration is divided about whether to pull the plug, trim the sails or keep paying the bill, already $100 million over budget.

That's the short version of a long and revealing story by Alfred Miller of the Louisville Courier Journal, in cooperation with ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism outfit. The circumstances are peculiar to Kentucky, but show some of the pitfalls of politicians rushing to bring broadband to sparsely populated rural areas where private telecommunications companies aren't willing to run fiber-optic cables. The state made the mistake of letting its desired costs on paper dictate an ultimately impossible construction schedule, former director Phillip Brown told Miller.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers
"State Auditor Mike Harmon conservatively estimates that Kentucky taxpayers over the next 30 years will be on the hook for $1.5 billion — 50 times what they were originally told the project would cost them. That’s because the state quietly assumed most of the risk for this public-private partnership in the closing weeks of the previous Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration, Harmon said in his September 2018 report on the project," Miller reports. Beshear's Republican partner was Fifth District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, then chair of the House Appropriations Committee; now the partner is Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, a strong conservative who blew hot and cold on the idea but was finally persuaded by Rogers to keep it alive. But there is dissension in Bevin's camp, Miller reveals.

"Perhaps Bevin’s boldest move to dig the state out of its technological quagmire has been hiring an old Army buddy, Chuck Grindle, to advise him as the state’s IT chief at a salary of $375,000 annually, the highest-paid position of its kind in any state. While Grindle makes clear that he does not directly supervise the stalled project, he has publicly disdained it. And his job gives him the power to direct millions in state business annually away from KentuckyWired to other vendors. . . . Administration officials are engaged in a high-dollar tug of war over KentuckyWired, with some officials fighting to complete the project as promised and others such as Grindle seemingly willing to let it die an expensive death."

If completed, the network would not "connect directly to individual homes and businesses, but the private companies the state chose to construct and operate the loops would be able to sell access to third-party internet service providers," Miller writes. "In theory, that would promote broadband access in areas otherwise lacking good internet infrastructure. However, where exactly private companies have existing fiber lines is typically a closely held trade secret, meaning the project could duplicate existing private infrastructure." Meanwhile, AT&T, a troublesome player from the start of the project, is building more rural broadband, Grindle told a group at the University of Louisville, Miller reports: "Grindle said he prefers working with 'trusted partners' such as AT&T."

UPDATE, May 9: Jamie Lucke, recently retired editorial writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader, tells The Rural Blog, "AT&T really wants to sabotage potential competitor KentuckyWired, because what if it becomes a model for other places, even though AT&T has no interest in bringing high-speed internet to low-density, low-profit rural areas. (Many rural Kentuckians would never have gotten phones without rural co-ops and if they’d had to wait on Ma Bell.) Bevin’s overpaid crony is siding with the corporate giant that has wined and dined him rather than with rural Kentuckians."

Op-ed: support women entrepreneurs to help rural areas

If we want rural economies to thrive, we must support women who own small businesses, writes Barbara Kniff-McCulla in an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, in honor of National Small Business Week.

More than half of Americans own or work for a small business, so investing in them makes sense, she writes. Woman entrepreneurs especially need support since "they tend to open businesses or take over companies out of necessity, not interest," Kniff-McCulla writes. She experienced herself that when she took over her husband's company, KLK Construction, when he died in 1995.

Small businesses face many challenges, like lack of broadband internet access, and women entrepreneurs are especially likely to be isolated from support networks and have a hard time accessing funding sources for their businesses, Kniff-McCulla writes.

"Rural women entrepreneurship matters: It leads to economic development, creates jobs, and empowers women. There are more small businesses across the rural areas and cities than there are major corporations across the United States, and the number of women business owners has grown tremendously," Kniff-McCulla writes. "Small business owners have a passion for making it happen, and there isn’t much that can get in their way. Rural women’s entrepreneurship is a job creator, a means for local economic development, and a source of empowerment for women seeking stability and independence."

Barbara Kniff-McCulla sits on the National Women’s Business Council along with NWBC’s Rural Entrepreneurship subcommittee.

Mississippi flooding caused $12 billion in damage this year

Extreme weather has hampered shipping on the Mississippi River, hurting farmers who were already reeling from the trade war with China and were hoping to sell last year's soybeans. "The U.S. Coast Guard shut down a five-mile stretch in St. Louis on Friday — cutting off a major commercial artery for Midwest farmers and other industries," Frances Stead Sellers and Annie Gowen report for The Washington Post.

The river is at a level rarely seen since the historic flooding in 1993, and may not be fully open until June. The flooding has caused an estimated $12 billion in damage this year: the same rains that flooded the river also flooded out many Midwestern farms, killing livestock, ruining structures and stored crops, and postponing planting, Sellers and Gowen report.

Soybean farmer Robb Ewoldt, who has about $75,000 in soybeans to sell, told the Post: "It’s all one perfect storm between the tariffs and all the flooding and all the rain we’ve had that’s causing planting delays right now . . . There are a lot of things going on that are kicking producers in the mouth."

Diabetes is less deadly than it once was, but improvement in rural areas has faded in recent years

Diabetes mortality over time by rurality. The study grouped categories according to the National Center for Health Statistics' system. (Texas A&M chart; click the image to enlarge it.)
"The life expectancy of Americans with diabetes is diverging based on geography, with metropolitan areas seeing improvement in mortality rates while rural areas do not," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. That's according to a recently published study by researchers from the Southwest Rural Health Research Center at Texas A&M's School of Public Health.

Rates for diabetes mortality were very similar in rural and urban areas as recently as 1999, but urban areas have improved since then. Rural areas, especially in the South, have seen little improvement though. "From 1999 to 2016, diabetes mortality rates improved by 5.1 points in the central counties of metros larger than 1 million residents. In 'non-core' counties – the most 'rural' category in the study – the mortality rate improved by only 0.85 points during the same period," Marema reports.

The decline in diabetes mortality wasn't because fewer people have the disease; diabetes mortality declined in some areas where the incidence of diabetes remains high. "Possible causes are advancements in diabetes treatment or education, which may have been adopted at different rates in different regions," Marema reports. "The study also said future research should look at the possible roles played by the Affordable Care Act or Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit that went into effect in 2006."

Democrats divided on whether rural outreach is worth it

Rural areas have voted increasingly Republican over the past two decades, and went overwhelmingly for President Trump in 2016. That record margin has been partly attributed to Hillary Clinton's lack of focus on rural voters. This time around, Democratic candidates seem keener to talk about rural concerns, but should they bother reaching out to rural areas they're unlikely to carry?

"Democrats face an increasingly clear crossroads: Do they spend time and resources pursuing rural voters, who are often socially and culturally at odds with the party’s increasingly liberal direction? Or do they double down on cities and suburbs, hoping to drive up support among the multi-ethnic, younger, more highly educated voters that many see as the party’s future?" writes Holly Bailey of The Washington Post.

Democratic candidates have been reaching out to J.D. Scholten, a former minor-league baseball player who almost beat GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa last year in a heavily conservative rural district. Scholten advises Democrats to do more in rural areas, even if they lose at first: "We’re becoming the Whole Foods party, when we need to figure out how to win in Dollar General districts like mine," Scholten told Bailey. "You don’t have to win, but you should be able to compete."

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, agrees that rural outreach will help bridge the partisan gap: "If we are losing rural counties as we have in the past . . . I don’t give a damn how much you run up the vote in the inner cities and in the suburbs, we’ll be right back where we were in 2016." Vilsack cautions that Democrats should not conflate farmers with rural America, and must address concerns from other rural residents, Bailey reports.

But another faction of Democrats sees rural areas as a lost cause, and thinks the party should dedicate resources to increasing enthusiasm among voters who already share liberal values, especially non-whites. Low urban and suburban voter turnout cost Clinton the presidency, so appealing more to those voters is a better idea, according to this school of thought, Bailey reports.

Democrats might have the best shot with farmers who have been hurt by the trade war, like 32-year-old Spenser Jorgensen. The registered Republican, who also works as a farm-loan officer at a local bank, had to take a federal subsidy to keep the family farm afloat and says he's open to voting for any candidate who might do better for farmers than Trump. 

"It’s not just about me," Jorgensen told Bailey. "I want someone with a vision for the industry, for the community. . . . It doesn’t matter if they are Republican, Democrat, independent. I want someone who really gets what’s going on out here and who has the best plan for the future."

Job rate now growing faster in counties that voted for Trump, though their pay and output still lag 'blue' counties

Brookings Institution map; click on the image to enlarge it.
For the first time in seven years, jobs are now growing at a slightly faster rate in counties that voted for President Trump than in more liberal urban and coastal areas that voted otherwise, according to a Brookings Institution analysis that compared 12-month employment rates.

"During the first 21 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, the 2,622 mostly rural and exurban counties he won in the 2016 election added jobs at twice the pace they did during the previous two years under the Obama administration and at a slightly higher rate than the 490 counties that supported Democrat Hillary Clinton," Mike Dorning reports for Bloomberg News. The nation's jobless rate hit a 50-year low of 3.6% last Friday.

The improving economy has helped Trump remain popular with his political base: "The latest Gallup weekly tracking poll showing a 91 percent job approval rating among self-identified Republicans," Dorning reports. "His overall support also climbed to 46 percent from 39 percent at the beginning of March following the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and a burst of positive economic news."

There are some caveats to consider when looking at the analysis. The Brookings data doesn't reflect the recent cost of trade conflicts on export-reliant agriculture and manufacturing sectors, and blue areas are still substantially ahead in pay and economic output. "Trump counties, with 45 percent of the nation’s population, account for only a third of national GDP," Dorning reports. "In September 2018, workers in Red America earned only 72 cents for every dollar in the weekly paychecks of their counterparts in Blue America."

Still, "The uptick in Trump country is crucial to the president’s re-election chances in 2020," Dorning reports. "The key for Trump is whether the trends can be sustained through the latter part of next year."

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

WSJ story on newspapers confuses and obscures role of weeklies, but it's otherwise good; especially the graphics

By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth about the fate of most daily newspapers, the status and role of the weekly newspapers that serve rural America has become obscured, and sometimes confused with their city cousins.

The latest example of that was an otherwise excellent story in The Wall Street Journal, which said "Local newspapers are failing to make the digital transition larger players did — and are in danger of vanishing." As evidence, it cited the work of Penny Abernathy at the University of North Carolina, who found that "nearly 1,800 newspapers closed between 2004 and 2018, leaving 200 counties with no newspaper and roughly half the counties in the country with only one."

All but about 50 of those closed or merged newspapers were weeklies, but the story does not make that distinction, and it's otherwise about dailies; the words "weekly" or even "week" never appear. So, Abernathy's data is used as a warning device, but it needs an explanation; most of the weeklies that closed were urban or suburban papers in metropolitan areas, or rural papers with very small markets.

That is illustrated by the biggest graphic with the story, a map with the actual numbers of newspaper closures or mergers, from Abernathy's data, and online media startups in each state, from Michele's List, operated by Michele McLellan at the University of Missouri.

The main point of the story, by Keach HageyLukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez, is this: "A stark divide has emerged between a handful of national players that have managed to stabilize their businesses and local outlets for which time is running out, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of circulation, advertising, financial and employment data." Those players are the Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today, which have national audiences that can generate subscriptions at more reasonable prices than most smaller dailies.

The story has lots of good information and well-displayed graphics, but it's not about the most typical newspaper in America: A rural or exurban weekly that provides the only reliable, relevant coverage of news it its locality. Those newspapers are facing challenges, too, but not as dire as those at most dailies. At least not yet. The story does hint at the relative health of papers in smaller markets: "Smaller papers with circulation under 20,000 were actually somewhat better off, with a median circulation drop of only 41%."

Research shows which states, and which kinds of towns, have rural hospitals at most risk of financial distress

University of North Carolina map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The North Carolina Rural Health Research Program has released three new findings briefs about financial distress in rural hospitals. The program is administered by the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The first brief compares the percentage of rural hospitals at high risk of financial distress in each state. The map above shows each state's percentage range and number.

The second brief outlines the characteristics associated with communities served by hospitals at high risk of financial distress. Those communities tend to have higher minority populations, lower high school graduation rates, higher unemployment rates, and more adults who are obese, use tobacco, and/or suffer premature deaths.
UNC map; click the image to enlarge it. Refer to the third brief for definitions of different CMS reimbursement types.
The third brief shows trends in financial distress among rural hospitals from 2015 to 2019. It found that the proportion of rural hospitals predicted to be at high risk of financial distress increased from 7.1% in 2015 to 9.2% in 2019, especially in the South and especially among hospitals that rely more on Medicare reimbursements.

The brief also shows that hospitals with a Prospective Payment System now tend to be at greater financial risk than Medicare-dependent hospitals, though both types are at increasing risk (as shown above). In a PPS, the government reimburses hospitals for Medicare and Medicaid patients' care with a predetermined, fixed payment. A Medicare-dependent hospital is a small rural hospital that has at least 60 percent of its inpatient days or discharges attributable to Medicare beneficiaries and is not the sole hospital in a community.

Will locals trust Report for America's reporters? Study in Central Appalachia and Chicago finds that many don't

Public trust in the news media is near an all-time low these days. And though local media sources are more trusted, urban-based national and regional news outlets that report on big political stories cast a shadow on local news publications. But a nonprofit journalism venture called Report for America, which deploys reporters to under-covered local markets, is hoping to restore trust in local media. Andrea Wenzel, Sam Ford, Steve Bynum, and Efrat Nechushtai of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University studied the program, now in its second year, to see if it was achieving that goal. They looked at a project in Chicago and one in Central Appalachia.

Will Wright
RFA reporters say some locals in those under-served areas don't trust news media and are reluctant to talk to them. That has happened to Will Wright, who has been covering 13 Eastern Kentucky counties for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Several people have refused to be interviewed because they said they didn't trust the newspaper. Wright "realized that many people he spoke with saw his news outlet as 'the liberal Lexington paper, you know, who doesn’t understand Appalachia and who hates the coal industry'," the researchers report in Columbia Journalism Review.

The researchers focused on "perceptions of three components or factors of trust: accuracy and credibility, respectful and equitable representations, and benevolence of the journalist’s or outlet’s motives," they write. "We then examine the RFA interventions in both locations—how journalists pursue ambitious goals with limited resources, what residents make of these efforts, and what residents believe would further strengthen relationships between communities and local news. We end with some recommendations for the next phases of Report for America, as well as others seeking to strengthen the capacity of local news."

They measured impact with focus groups, follow-up emails, and interviews with other local reporters and editors. They also assessed a random sampling of RFA reporters' coverage of the areas, noting articles' length, theme and key points to map out the broader themes the reporters were addressing.

Just as many Eastern Kentucky residents believe the Herald-Leader is liberal and anti-coal, many residents of the Austin neighborhood believe the Chicago Sun-Times is too pro-police. In both places, residents tend to distrust outsiders and question journalists' motives. (That is nothing new in Appalachia.) They also "shared a sense that RFA fellows’ stories were more about their communities than for them, but participants acknowledged that circulating more complete narratives about their communities was not a small thing," they report. Participants felt that the more nuanced stories from RFA reporters could make it more likely that outsiders might visit or invest in their communities.

People in focus groups said RFA reporters were motivated to cover Eastern Kentucky and Austin accurately and respectfully, but the RFA reporters said it was difficult to establish relationships with beat sources or deep relationships with the communities in general, the researchers report.

In Appalachia, focus-group members "had a number of ideas for new modes of communication that could improve relationships between journalists and residents like themselves. These ranged from town meetings about civic issues, to journalism literacy classes, to open office hours, to simply visiting senior citizen centers," the researchers report. "Participants also suggested that reporters create opportunities to crowdsource story ideas via text messages, and take polls via social media. One group suggested a weekly feature highlighting which local resources were available and to whom, covering everything from going back to school to post-prison reentry, by collaborating with people involved in various community organizations and initiatives."

Ag economists offer tips for farmers in financial distress

As farmers are increasingly stressed over financial issues, agricultural economists at the University of Kentucky are offering tips that could help them and connect to other resources that can help.

First, farmers must have a good understanding of financial statements and key financial performance measures to effectively measure a farm's financial health. That includes balance sheets, income statements, financial performance measures (such as profitability, liquidity and solvency). Farmers in Kentucky can access the Kentucky Farm Business Management Program for help with understanding financial statements and measures; other states may have similar programs.

Experienced farmers are likely familiar with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's loan programs, but new farmers should make sure to learn about them and understand how each can help: the guaranteed loan program, farm operating loans, and emergency loans.

A farmer considering quitting or retiring needs to fully understand the tax consequences first and how to plan ahead to for minimum tax penalties. That means considering how to dispose of assets like grain in storage, market livestock, equipment, and land.

Bankruptcy may be necessary as a last resort; it's important to understand the different types of bankruptcy and how one can recover and possibly continue to operate their farm afterward.

If a farmer wants to transition to another profession or work part-time off the farm for extra income, it's important to remember that that doesn't mean failure; 91% of farm households have at least one family member working an off-farm job. The article finishes up with a list of resources that farmers may find helpful in managing farm stress and mental health.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Farmers increasingly stressed, dealing with mental health issues, according to new poll

Farmers and farmworkers were asked how much each factor impacts farmers' mental health (Morning Consult graph)
Though most of the American economy is booming, workers in rural areas, especially farmers and ranchers, are struggling financially, and that's taking a toll on their mental health, according to a new Morning Consult poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"We all know how stressful farm life can be, and things are even tougher now because of the farm economy. More of us are affected, either directly or by having a friend or family member in distress. This poll proves what we already knew anecdotally: Rural America is hurting not just economically but also emotionally," said AFBF President Zippy Duvall.

"Farmers and farmworkers surveyed said financial issues (91%), farm or business problems (88%) and fear of losing the farm (87%) impact farmers’ mental health. Other factors included stress, weather, the economy, isolation and social stigma," AFBF reports. Additionally, "Large majorities of rural Americans polled agreed that cost, social stigma and embarrassment would make it harder for them to seek help or treatment for mental health conditions."

The stress is increasing, too. About 41% of respondents said stress and mental health issues have become more of a problem in their community in the past five years, 36% said they had become more of a problem in the past year, and 48% (especially younger rural adults) said they're personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year ago, Morning Consult reports. And, a plurality of farmers and farmworkers (32%) said it's somewhat difficult to access a therapist or counselor in their local community.

More than 19 million in U.S., especially near military bases, have dangerous chemicals in drinking water; see local data

Database of contaminated water systems; click the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.
(Map by Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University)
"More than 610 drinking water sources in 43 states contain potentially unsafe levels of chemical compounds that have been linked to birth defects, cancers, infertility, and reduced immune responses in children, according to a new database compiled by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University," Tara Copp reports for McClatchy Newspapers. "Using Pentagon data released last year and recently obtained public water utility reports, the researchers now estimate that more than 19 million people are exposed to water contaminated with per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAs."

PFAs are found in things like non-stick cookware and fast-food wrappers, but are in much higher concentration in the fire-fighting foam used for decades on military bases, ships and airports. Accordingly, water sources near military bases tend to have the highest concentrations of PFAs, "much higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 recommendation of a maximum exposure level of 70 parts per trillion," Copp reports. The Pentagon provided filters or alternate supplies of drinking water where PFA levels near military bases were higher than 70 ppt.

EWG argues that exposure levels of even one part per trillion could be harmful, and notes that there is no legal requirement to keep testing for PFAs. "A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation in late April that would require the EPA to set an enforceable standard, known as a minimum contaminant level, for PFAS within the next two years," Copp reports.

Turmoil surrounding planned school in rural Alabama illustrates growing backlash to charter schools

Washington County
(Wikipedia map)
A controversy in rural Alabama illustrates a growing backlash to charter schools.

State officials have approved a charter school called Woodland Preparatory School to open in Chatom, the Washington County seat, even though Chatom's mayor said he doesn't want the school and doesn't know anyone else who does. Residents worry that Woodland Prep will drain tax money from local public schools, which are performing above the state average, Valerie Strauss reports for The Washington Post.

"That’s a key reason that charters — which are publicly funded but established and operated by nonprofit and for-profit companies outside traditional school systems — are facing growing opposition after enjoying bipartisan support for many years," Strauss reports. "Not only has it become clear that charters are not a panacea for public education — as supporters had claimed — but also many school systems have found they are losing millions of dollars from their education budgets when public dollars are directed to charters. And that is happening even though the fixed costs for traditional public school systems have not changed."

There are other concerns with Woodland Prep: "A national organization that evaluates charter school applications gave the thumbs-down on Woodland’s application, saying it did not meet educational and other standards benchmarks," Strauss reports. The school's financial model is murky too: "It’s sponsored by a new nonprofit organization while at the same time being built by a for-profit Utah company. It will be operated by a for-profit Texas company headed by a man who founded a controversial charter school network in the Lone Star State. That company is contracted to receive 15 percent of all gross revenue received during the school year from federal, state and local sources."

The Alabama Public Charter School Commission approved the school even after the nonprofit National Association of Charter School Authorizers, which had a contract with the Alabama State Department of Education to review charter applications, gave the school the thumbs down, Strauss reports. The association wrote that Woodland didn't have a good curriculum, that not enough information was available about the company that will operate the school, and that the school's financial plan was inadequate.

The association found several other charter schools inadequate that were ultimately approved by the commission; the state department of education has since dropped its contract with the association, Strauss reports.

Beyond Meat Inc. stock price doubled the day it went public

The share price of meat-alternative company Beyond Meat Inc. more than doubled May 2, the day it went on sale, making it the best first-day percentage gain for a U.S.-listed initial public offering in 2019 and the 16th best on record.

"Shares of the plant-based meat substitute company, which went public at $25, opened on the Nasdaq on Thursday at $46 and surged as high as $73, putting its market capitalization at $3.7 billion. The stock closed the day at $65.75, a rise of 163%," Heather Mack and Brian Gormley report for The Wall Street Journal.

Though a strong first day of trading doesn't mean the stock will stay strong, the company's performance highlights the growing popularity of meat alternatives with consumers. "What we are seeing with investors is representative of the same thing we have been seeing with the consumer," Beyond Meat Chief Executive Ethan Brown told Mack and Gormley.

Though Beyond Meat is increasingly popular, and is sold in 30,000 locations nationwide, it still hasn't turned a profit: "For 2018, Beyond Meat reported net revenue of $87.9 million, up from $32.6 million in 2017, and a loss of almost $30 million, versus a $32.6 million loss the previous year," Mack and Gormley report. That may be heartening news for beef and pork industry insiders worried about how meat alternatives will affect traditional meat producers.

"Jarrod Sutton, vice president of domestic marketing for the National Pork Board, said the milk industry's 14% loss of sales to alternatives such as almond milk is a reason the pork industry should take notice of the alternative meat industry," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.