Friday, December 06, 2019

Grundy, Va., is an example of how hard it is to revive a coal town, and perhaps other places in the industrial heartland

Downtown Grundy, Va. (New York Times photo by Julia Rendleman)
A former coal town in southwest Virginia has been struggling to reinvent itself, but despite millions in taxpayer money spent on development and attracting alternatives to coal for 20 years, not much seems to be helping, Eduardo Porter reports for The New York Times

State and local officials have tried a host of initiatives: they fostered the Appalachian School of Law in the 1990s and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in 2003. They moved most of downtown uphill to make it less susceptible to flooding from the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, which cost about $170 million in state and federal money, Porter reports.

"Coal is still the most prominent business, employing one in six workers in the county and accounting for one-third of its total wages. But it can no longer support such living standards," Porter reports, noting that Grundy has lost about 1,000, or half, of its coal jobs since 2012. "The income of Buchanan County’s residents has fallen to about two-thirds of the national average. And about 40 percent of that comes from federal transfers like Social Security." Meanwhile, the county's population has dropped from about 35,000 in the 1970s to under 22,000 in 2019, and today's residents are older and poorer than average.

"Grundy is hardly unique. It is one of many victims of globalization, technology and other economic dislocations that have wreaked havoc with small-town America," Porter writes. "For years, most economists argued that rather than spend millions in pursuit of a new economic engine for such places, it would make more sense to help residents seek opportunities elsewhere. But the proliferation of towns like Grundy across what used to be the nation’s industrial heartland — stymied by joblessness, awash in opioids and frustration — has prompted a new sense of alarm."

Porter notes that former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said at a recent conference: 'There is probably no issue more important for the political economy of the next 15 years, not just in the United States but around the world, than what happens in the areas that feel rightly that they are falling behind and increasingly left apart."

Report has state-level and rural data about prisons, jails

Some of the data about Kentucky in the new report.
A new report from the Vera Institute of Justice has in-depth data about incarceration trends in each state, including breakdowns along the lines of race, gender, county, prison vs. jail populations, and more. 

The county-level data serves as a rough proxy for comparisons of urban and rural areas. As a recent Vera Institute report noted, rural areas are increasingly relying on jail expansion as a revenue source. The new report affirms that that the rural incarceration rate continues to rise in rural areas and fall in urban areas.

Overall, the report notes that America's incarceration rate has more than quadrupled, and that the U.S. has the highest population of incarcerated people in the world.

New documentary takes on mental-health care in rural Ariz.

A new short documentary takes a close look at the difficulty of accessing mental health care in rural America. "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" zeroes in on Cochise County in the southeastern corner of Arizona. Many of the 911 calls in the area involve people with mental-health issues, and local sheriff Mark Dannels says 67 percent of the people in the county jail have a diagnosed mental-health condition, The Atlantic reports. The 13-minute documentary was directed by James Burns for the PBS Show "Independent Lens" and was produced in collaboration with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. Watch the video below:

Appalachian writer suggests three recent books that provide a more complex treatment of the region than most

Ivy Brashear
Appalachia is frequently presented in pop culture through a series of tired stereotypes—often negative—that belie the complex nature of the people and the region, Ivy Brashear, a native of Viper, Ky., , writes for Yes! magazine.

"To this day, Appalachia is a largely misunderstood place and people," Brashear writes. "National reporters have flocked to the region since 2014, the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and again in a wave of fervor after the 2016 presidential election, to seek an explanation for the nation’s ills by trying to define us and tell us who we are. For the most part, these waves of reporters have sought the easy answers—the bootstraps and hardhats narrative; the hopelessness narrative; the brain-drain narrative. And the region has suffered for their unwillingness to seek the answers to why the conditions the region faces exist at all."

There's no single narrative that captures the full reality of Appalachia, but seeking out more accurate depictions and discussions of the region is critical in order to address the complex problems it faces, Brashear writes. Toward this end, she suggests three recently published books that present a more nuanced picture of Appalachia.

Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks (West Virginia University Press, 2018) by Lon Kelly Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers provides an in-depth account of a 1912-13 coal miners' strike in West Virginia and the complicated tug of war between the major players: the coal miners, the union, organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, coal companies, and law enforcement. The book underscores the role of women in activism, especially relevant today as Appalachian workers in many sectors are losing jobs and rights, Brashear writes.

In Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film (University of Georgia Press, 2018), Meredith McCarroll examines Appalachian stereotypes throughout the ages, and notes that journalists' periodic fascination with the region happens every 20-30 years when the nation is seeking explanations for major economic or political shifts. McCarroll also, interestingly, suggests that Appalachians be referred to as "unwhite" because Hollywood doesn't portray them quite as white people nor quite as minority people of color, Brashear writes. McCarroll also says that "One of the most effective means of controlling a people is controlling their image," and notes that Appalachians have little control over the stories told about them on the national level.

To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2018) by Jessica Wilkerson stresses the vital role women have played in Appalachia. They've been front and center in every labor struggle in the region, they've cared for their families, including husbands disabled in the mines, started medical clinics, organized across racial lines, picketed and held the line in strikes, and even worked in the mines themselves as a way of asserting workplace equality, Brashear writes.

"Women, people of color, young people, and queer people have held this place together, and held it up, making sure we kept our eyes on the importance of working together to address the challenges we face, as Wilkerson points out through the story of Appalachian women activists," Brashear writes. "And yet, their names will rarely, if ever, be seen in print, on TV, or in the movies. Children will not learn about their efforts in school. It’s a whole lot easier to keep Appalachia in an easily digestible box than it is to make the story more complex, and in so doing, more real."

Brashear is Appalachian transition director at the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky., and a former graduate assistant at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, for which she wrote many items.

Quick hits: Lyme disease vaccine could be near; owner of small Alaskan newspaper offers to sell it for nothing

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

Take over the Skagway News in Alaska for free. Read more here.

It's called a "coyote vest."
Want to protect your dog from coyotes or feral hogs? This hilarious-looking body armor claims to do the job. Read more here.

Brain gain: returning to rural roots with education and experience. Read more here.

Economist says today's agricultural economy is more like the 1990s than the 1980s. Read more here.

Report says some rural Missourians are hesitant to participate in the 2020 Census. Could rural residents from other states feel likewise? Read more here.

Researchers say they're close to human testing of a Lyme diseases vaccine. Read more here.

A wealthy donor has promised to pay for college tuition for every kid in his home town in rural Kansas to spur economic development. Read more here.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Next-county owner steps in to keep two N. Dakota counties from becoming news deserts; a third still needs a buyer

Hettinger and Adams counties were about to become news deserts until the owner of the paper in Grant County, just east of them, became the new owner and published without missing an edition. The Dunn County Herald remains out of business. Slope County and Sioux County are the other news deserts in the state, says the North Dakota Newspaper Association.
North Dakota almost had three more "news deserts," counties without a local newspaper, but the owner of a paper in an adjoining county stepped in to keep two of them going.

Country Media, based in Salem, Oregon, announced the closing of the Adams County Record in Hettinger, The Herald in New England, and The Dunn County Herald in Killdeer in the papers' Friday, Nov. 29 editions, the North Dakota Newspaper Association Bulletin reports. But less than a week later, Jill Friesz of the Grant County News "had become the new owner of the Hettinger and New England publications, and she published them on time without missing an edition." The Dunn County Herald remains out of business; it had the largest circulation of the three papers: 1,624.

NDNA Executive Director Steve Andrist “reached out to me last Monday afternoon and told me that those papers were closing as of Friday,” Friesz told James B. Miller Jr. of The Bismarck Tribune. “He kind of put a bug in my ear that maybe that would be a great opportunity for me to grow a little bit and take care of those communities.”

NDNA reports that Friesz "saw expansion as a business opportunity, but was motivated more by her belief in the importance of newspapers to their communities." She told The Dickinson Press, “Local news is so important because we are the historians for our communities. Bigger papers cover wide areas, but they can’t come down to Mott, Regent, New England, Hettinger or New Liepzig and cover these areas the way that we can cover them.”

The purchase thwarted the creation of a news desert of four adjacent counties. There are no newspapers in Slope County, which has only 700 people, or in Sioux County, most of which is part of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Rural women, children at higher risk of poor birth outcomes

Studies have suggested a link between the declining availability of maternity care in rural America and poor childbirth outcomes. A newly published data analysis is the first to confirm that rural women face a higher risk of death or life-threatening complications during childbirth, Jeremy Olson reports for the Star Tribune in Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota study found that rural mothers have a 9 percent higher risk of severe childbirth outcomes, based on researchers' review of nearly 34 million birth outcomes across the nation from 2007 to 2015. "The disparity translates into 4,378 additional childbirth deaths and near-death complications among rural mothers during that period," Olson reports. Severe childbirth complications and deaths rose among rural and urban areas during that time period, increasing from 109 per 10,000 childbirth hospitalizations in 2007 to 152 per 10,000 in 2015, the study says.

The researchers found the 9% increase in risk for rural mothers after controlling for socio-demographic factors and clinical conditions. Blood-transfusion problems were a factor in a majority of the cases with poor outcomes, especially rural ones, Olson reports. That's significant because hemorrhages or excessive bleeding are a common cause of childbirth complications. Other factors related to difficult childbirths include the opioid epidemic, lack of transportation, poor housing, poverty, food insecurity, racism, violence and trauma.

At a recent symposium where she presented the findings, study co-author Katy Kozhimannil said the rate of childbirth complications and deaths is "unacceptably high." She noted that many hospitals have stopped delivering babies to save money, but said pregnant women near such hospitals receive less prenatal care and have to drive farther to give birth, Olson reports. "The hospital no longer holds the risk of a birth gone wrong, but that risk doesn’t leave that community," Kozhimannil said.

Rural and Republican areas have seen the most dramatic income gains and losses in the past few years

Per capita income changes in U.S. counties from 2016 to 2018, based on Bureau of Economic Analysis data
(Stateline map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version)
"In recent years, an oil boom has pumped up the incomes of many rural residents in Texas, even as flooding and the trade war have dragged down incomes in Nebraska farm country. Both cases are emblematic of a broader trend: The counties with the most dramatic income gains and losses since 2016 are mostly rural and Republican," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline, a news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "A Stateline analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data shows that while residents of booming big cities were most likely to have growing incomes in the three years between 2016 and 2018, rural residents had a very mixed outcome."

The analysis highlights some of the underpinnings of the rural-urban divide that drove the 2016 presidential election, Henderson writes. Though Democrat Hillary Clinton won fewer than 500 of the nation's 3,000-plus counties, those she took accounted for almost two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product. But the local economies in many Trump-voting counties were struggling or highly dependent on energy, agriculture and Rust Belt manufacturing.

"Nationally, the average personal income rose to about $54,000 last year, up 4% after inflation; and the typical county saw a 3% rise, whether it was Democratic or Republican, big city or rural," Henderson reports. The difference shows a rural-urban disparity, since most counties are rural. "In the list of the 200 biggest winners and losers, big Democratic cities tended to be among the success stories while rural Republican areas — which comprised nearly 90% of both lists — were split evenly between winners and losers," Henderson writes.

The Permian Basin oil boom in Texas and New Mexico triggered the biggest gains in rural and Republican areas. Rural Republican areas in Nevada, meanwhile, had the top 10 biggest income losses in the nation. "That came from a perfect storm of floods, the trade wars, a weak ethanol market and a strong dollar that made it even harder to export farm products. Many of those trends also affected Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota," Henderson reports.

In rural Nebraska, where the economy is mostly agricultural, voters who fared poorly are unlikely to blame Trump or the Republican policy, said Deb Cottier, director of the Northwest Nebraska Development Corp. "We are much more self-reliant than either coast or the urban areas," Cottier told Henderson. "It takes a lot to raise the anger and ire of hardworking, rural, agricultural people. If they believe they are being treated fairly, they are not going to jump ship."

Direct government payments, mostly for the trade war, are estimated to total $22.4 billion in 2018, about a quarter of all farm income and 40% of all farm profits, according to the Department of Agriculture's latest projections.

Studies suggest USDA overpaying some soybean farmers; other growers complain their crops are undervalued

Soybean harvest (UPI photo)
Faulty government estimates of the trade war's impact may have caused soybean growers to get more bailout money than the the trade war with China has actually cost them in sales; meanwhile, other growers may not be getting enough trade aid, Mike Dorning reports for Bloomberg.

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s calculations overshot the impact of the trade conflict on American soybean prices, according to six academic studies, a conclusion that is likely to add to criticism that the bailout has generated distortions and inequalities in the farm economy," Dorning writes. "The method the department used to calculate trade losses also likely overstates the conflict’s financial impact on most other farm products, though for a few commodities it may understate the true impact."

Overpayment doesn't necessarily mean a windfall for soybean farmers, since they're dealing with other financial pressures such as bad weather and global oversupply, Dorning reports: "Also, the trade conflict risks long-term loss of market share for U.S. producers as overseas customers build relationships with replacement suppliers. Neither the academic nor the USDA estimates take potential future market losses into account."

Wild blueberries in Maine's fall foliage
(University of Main Extension photo)
Blueberry farmers in Maine say the USDA is underpaying them for damages caused by the trade war. Blueberries were included in a separate, much smaller trade-relief program, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, independent Sen. Angus King of Maine wrote that the trade war will lead to a 96.75% decrease in the value of the state's wild-blueberry exports to China since 2017.

Net farm income is predicted to increase about 10 percent over last year, but that's mostly because of bailout payments, which are expected to total $22.4 billion—about a quarter of all farm income, according to the USDA's latest Farm Income Forecast. "Almost 40% of projected U.S. farm profits this year will come from trade aid, disaster assistance, federal subsidies and insurance payments," Dorning reports.

Former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack scrutinized for big salary from farmer-funded dairy promotion group

Tom Vilsack
Former Iowa governor and Obama agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack received just shy of $1 million in 2018 for his role as executive vice president of government trade group Dairy Management Inc., prompting complaints from struggling dairy farmers and industry advocates, Cary Spivak reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Vilsack, a Democrat who recently endorsed Joe Biden for president, joined the group in February 2017. He is president and CEO of one of its subsidiaries, the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Federal law requires farmers to fund Dairy Management or other checkoff programs created to research and promote commodities. "The idea is that by banding together, farmers — including many small, family-run operations — will get more for their marketing buck," Spivak reports. But "farms must pay into the program even if they are operating at a loss — and dairy farmers pay a larger share than do other types of farmers."

There are more than 20 agriculture checkoff programs. "Last year, the programs collected a combined $895 million to promote the various commodities. Of that, more than $420 million — 47% — came from dairy producers," Spivak reports. "Dairy farmers must pay 15 cents per hundred pounds of milk sold into the checkoff program. Ten cents goes to state and regional marketing programs, such as the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. A nickel goes to national programs, such as Dairy Management. All told, Dairy Management received $159.7 million from the checkoff program last year, up from $155 million in 2017, the new records show."

The newly revealed records show that Vilsack and other Dairy Management executives were paid more than their counterparts in other farm programs and at similarly sized nonprofits. Six Dairy Management executives, including Vilsack, were paid more than $500,000 last year, Spivak reports.

"Two bipartisan bills aimed at reforming the checkoff programs are pending in Congress," Spivak reports. "One calls for making checkoff payments voluntary. A second would require groups receiving checkoff money to provide more transparency in their financial dealings."

New SNAP restrictions limit states' power to extend payments during tough economic times

On Wednesday the Trump administration announced a final rule to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program with stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents under the age of 50, commonly called ABAWDs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the change will save about $5.5 billion over five years and reduce the number of SNAP recipients by 688,000.

"Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "But states have been able to waive this time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of reentering the workforce. Before this rule, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent were included in waived areas. The new rule, which is set to take effect on April 1, 2020, will tighten the criteria for states applying for such waivers, making 6 percent the minimum unemployment rate for a county to receive a waiver."

The changes will take effect on April 1, barring court action, Reiley reports.

"The rule is one of three recent changes the Trump administration has proposed to food eligibility requirements, which taken altogether are expected to eliminate benefits for around 4 million people, or approximately 10 percent of those currently enrolled in the program," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. "Other proposals would do away with automatic SNAP enrollments for those on welfare, and alter the way utility costs are factored into the SNAP benefit analysis. Those proposals are still being evaluated."
From 2012-2016, rural households were slightly more likely to receive SNAP benefits than their urban counterparts. A recent USDA report on the characteristics of SNAP households in 2018 shows that that trend has continued. According to the report, about 16% of households that received SNAP benefits in Fiscal Year 2018 were in non-metropolitan areas—over 3.1 million households. Almost 82% of households that received SNAP benefits in 2018 were in urban areas, more than 16 million households. The most rural households tended to be slightly larger and receive SNAP for slightly longer than urban or micropolitan SNAP households.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Three 'Culture of Health' prize winners are rural; in at least one, the local newspaper did its job and helped out

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recently awarded five U.S. communities the Culture of Health Prize for making big strides in improving local health; three of them are rural: Gonzales, CaliforniaSitka, Alaska; and Lake County, Colorado. Winning communities get a $25,000 prize.

About 94 percent of Gonzales, a Salinas Valley town of about 8,400, is Latinx (most of them farm workers), and over a third of the residents are under 18. "Young residents are seen as an asset and empowered to act on their ideas. Voters supported this focus on youth when they approved a half-cent sales tax in 2014 to pay for activities like after-school programs and summer camp; improvements in parks and recreational places; and summertime career training," the RWJF website says. "The money also funds mini-grants of up to $5,000 that allow residents to suggest ideas and lead projects that will improve the town’s quality of life—small but important steps, such as upgrading a food pantry or adding new hydration stations for filling water bottles at schools."

Google map, labeled
Sitka, a town of 8,647, is spread among 4,811 square miles on a chain of islands in Alaska's Panhandle. "Isolated and bound together by geography, the community has recognized that the only way to ensure better health for all is to move forward collectively, across cultures and sectors," RWJF says. "To that end, a dozen years ago, partners formed the Sitka Health Summit. They came from local nonprofits and the community’s two health care providers—Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, the region’s tribal health organization, and city-owned Sitka Community Hospital—which merged this year." The Sitka Health Summit has proved effective in addressing the community's health needs and empowering local citizens to be part of the process, RWJF reports.

Lake County, Colorado (Wikipedia map)
Lake County and Leadville, its only incorporated town, make up a former mining community where residents have been working hard to turn the economy around over the past decade. In 2010, the county got a wake-up call when an annual statewide survey noted that children and teens in the county were likely to have poor health outcomes. "For two years, county government, local nonprofits, and youth worked to create a plan of action for improving young people’s well-being and futures," RWJF reports. "Released in 2013, it set goals for boosting academic achievement and post-secondary training, reducing substance abuse and teen pregnancy, improving access to parks and volunteer opportunities, and strengthening economic opportunity. Today, the efforts set in motion by that plan are paying off. Teen birth rates have dropped. The percentage of teens who report being physically active and eating breakfast every day have increased. More high schoolers are taking classes for college credit."

In 2016, the city and county won a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, a state agency. "We received $3 million, the most awarded to one community," Marcia Martinek, editor of the weekly Leadville Herald Democrat, told The Rural Blog in an email. "Agencies in the community, with the help of kids and parents, started Get Outdoors Leadville!, which focused on getting youngsters out to recreate in Lake County. This was the start of many initiatives focused on health. As a newspaper we cover all the GOL activities to the utmost. Nothing cuter than a three-year-old in itty bitty skis on the ski slope. We aren't the richest community, but people are hard at work breaking down barriers to outdoor recreation. For example, I was just reading about the gear library which started last year and provides items such as skis, ski boots, snowboards, mountain bikes and fat-tire bikes for the use of kids who can't afford this kind of equipment. In the summer, older kids act as counselors for a GOL day camp for younger kids where they climb 14ers [peaks of 14,000 feet or more], fish, build trails -- all the outdoor stuff. And, no cell phones allowed. We will soon be doing a three-year update on Get Outdoors Leadville! So we've really supported these initiatives, but basically that's just doing our job."

Fewer rural students apply to, or get into, medical schools

The number of students from the rural U.S. who enrolled in medical school dropped 28 percent from 2002 to 2017, according to a newly published study in Health Affairs; it's the first study to examine long-term trends in rural student enrollment in medical school.

"The findings, published Tuesday from staff at the Association of American Medical Colleges, come as the nation faces a physician shortage in rural communities," Maria Castellucci reports for Modern Healthcare. A frequently cited 2010 study from the University of Washington School of Medicine found only 11.4% of physicians practice in rural settings although 19.2% of the population lives in those areas."

The study's authors said they were interested in the trend because research shows that doctors who grew up in rural areas are more likely to practice in a rural area after medical school. So, fewer rural med students could be one reason rural areas are seeing a shortage of physicians, Castellucci reports.

"In addition to finding that the number of students from rural areas enrolled in medical school has declined, the study also found the number of applicants from a rural background dropped during the same period," Castellucci reports. "Just 2,032 people from rural areas applied to medical school in 2017, down by 18% from 2002, when 2,479 applied."

The study didn't explore the reason for the drop in applications and attendance, but co-author Scott Shipman speculated on several reasons. Fewer rural students may apply for med school because they haven't seen the diversity of medical careers that are available, they don't feel high school prepared them academically, they don't want to take on so much debt, and/or may not want to travel far from home, he told Castellucci.

Shipman said enrollment might have declined because rural students aren't as competitive as urban candidates. Though rural students applying to med schools had higher grade-point averages than urban students, they had lower average scores on the MCAT, the exam required for medical-school entry, Castellucci reports. Rural students also tended to have fewer extracurricular activities on their transcript to improve their competitiveness.

When isolated from other factors, rural residents were more likely to be accepted to medical school than urban residents. Shipman said that shows that rurality, by itself, can work in an applicant's favor, but other factors are weighing more heavily. "Shipman and his co-authors recommend several changes to increase the number of rural applicants and enrollees to medical school such as pipeline programs for high school students in rural areas to expose them to medicine as a profession early," Castellucci reports.

Small-town editor urges students: consider rural journalism

Sara Baranowski
When Sara Baranowski was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, she had a specific career in mind: she wanted to be a political reporter at a large daily newspaper. So how did she end up as the award-winning editor of a twice-weekly paper in a town of 5,000, and why is she happy with that?

"I was hired by a small daily newspaper, and learned fairly quickly that corporate ownership wasn’t for me. I was a cog in a big machine whose values didn’t align with my own. What was important to the organization seemed trivial to me," Baranowski writes for the Poynter Institute. "When a job opened at the twice-weekly Iowa Falls Times Citizen in a small town down the highway, I was intrigued. The company was family-owned and, in addition to owning two local newspapers, it also operated a small radio station. In my new role I’d have two jobs: radio news director and newspaper reporter. It was on-the-job training in a skill that interested me. And I’d have a back-up plan. If The New York Times thing didn’t pan out, I’d have NPR to fall back on."

Baranowski planned to work for the Times Citizen for only a year or two, but 13 years later, she's still there and loves her job. She realized that the goals she set for herself in college had been influenced by professors who never encouraged students to pursue rural journalism, and she had never been exposed to the high-quality work being done by many rural journalists, she writes.

Her work at the Times Citizen prompted her to redefine what success meant. "Whereas before I thought of success as a big job at a big newspaper in a big city, now it’s something different: an important job at a small town’s only newspaper in a community that’s come to mean a lot to me," Baranowski writes.

She encourages journalism students not to let others define success for them, and to consider what would make them feel fulfilled. For Baranowski, it's "making a difference in a community through my work . . . by providing information and telling people’s stories, ultimately making it a better place for everyone — and having control over what I do and how I do it."

Water scarcity increasing in the Eastern United States

Wall Street Journal map and charts based on U.S. Geological Survey data. Click on the map to enlarge it.
"Increasing competition for water is playing out across the Eastern U.S., a region more commonly associated with floods and hurricanes and one that was mostly a stranger, until recently, to the type of bitter interstate water dispute long seen in the West," Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Eastern farmers’ rising thirst for water, together with urban growth and climate change, now is taxing water supplies and fueling legal fights that pit states against each other. The shift has exposed the region to changes in water supply occurring globally as swelling populations, surging industrial demand and warmer temperatures turn a resource seen as a natural right into a contested one."

"One striking marker of expanding stress," Newman wrotes, is the boundary between water-rich and water-poor areas. Geologist John Wesley Powell set it more than a century ago on the 100th meridian, which is the north-south border of Texas and Oklahoma. "According to a team of scientists, including those at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the boundary has shifted about 140 miles eastward since 1979 because of warmer temperatures or reduced rainfall. The scientists predict the West’s drier climate will continue to push eastward and pressure water supplies for farms and cities alike."

The effects can be seen all over the East: "Burgeoning coastal populations have lowered water tables and dried up streams in Long Island," Newman reports. "Near Tampa, Fla., groundwater pumping has drawn saltwater into aquifers, drained lakes and triggered sinkholes. Decades of pumping by farmers and others have led to sharp declines in critical aquifers that flank the lower Mississippi River."

Meanwhile, Florida and Georgia are fighting in court over farms' and fisheries' use of water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. The case landed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 but has not been heard. In early November the court appointed a special master (the second one for the case) to hear arguments, Newman reports. Georgia has talked about getting its slightly irregular border with Tennessee regularized so it can draw water from the Tennessee River, but the Volunteer state isn't volunteering.

Study: political beliefs may influence where people move, help deepen rural-urban political divide

Republican vote in counties of 20,000 or more from 2004
 to 2016; click on the image to enlarge it. (Penn State maps)
When people living in an extremely partisan county move to a new county, they tend to pick one with the same political atmosphere, according to a newly published study by Pennsylvania State University researchers. The study did not include counties with fewer than 20,000 residents.

"People moving from moderate partisan counties are just as likely to move to extreme partisan counties as they are to move to other moderate counties. However, people who live in a politically extreme county are significantly likely to move to a similarly extreme county," according to a Penn State press release. "This type of political sorting might turn extreme counties into 'magnets' that pull people from moderate counties and exchange them with other extreme counties."

The migration patterns shown in the study could contribute to the growing political divide in the U.S., according to study co-author Bruce Desmarais, a political science professor. When people self-sort politically, they're less likely to encounter differing points of view. He notes that other factors such as jobs still play a larger role in decisions about where to move.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Rural places keep building jails as moneymakers, but report from advocate of bail reform says they may not pay off

The Grayson County Detention Center in Leitchfield, Ky., houses many federal prisoners and is expanding.
While the overall incarcerated population in the U.S. has fallen over the past decade, jail and prison capacity has increased, especially in rural areas that increasingly rely on jails for revenue, according to a new report from the Vera Institute for Justice, "Broken Ground: Why America Keeps Building More Jails and What It Can Do Instead." (For simplicity's sake, it refers to prisons as "jails.")

Nationwide, jail capacity grew by 86,400 beds—over 11 percent—between 2005 and 2013, mostly in smaller cities and rural areas. "To justify this growth, incarceration is still often framed as a solution, rather than a problem, positioning jail expansion as a pragmatic answer to growing jail populations," the report says, but it says more jail and prison capacity almost ensures increased incarceration rates.

"There are several reasons why rural counties have steadily built out their jails over the past decade, but one of the biggest ones is the potential to turn the facility into a money generator," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "By building a new jail, or adding an expansion on to an existing one, counties are able to rent the extra space out to other counties, or to the state and federal government, when their facilities experience overcrowding." In recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has become a big customer, the report says.

"Usually a county could get paid $50 to $100 per day for housing people from outside their jurisdiction," report co-author Chris Mai told Coleman. "It makes people think a larger jail is a sound financial decision."

However, the report shows that pursuing jail expansion could be a long-term risk. Though jail populations have always increased eventually, "growing bipartisan support for policies like the elimination of cash bail, the decriminalization of marijuana, and diversion programs, coupled with falling crime rates, could change that calculus," Coleman reports. "Instead, new jails right now are being built for a shrinking market—and county taxpayers are on the hook for larger, more expensive facilities that may very well sit empty." The Vera Institute favors bail reform.

Southern states differ in response to coal-ash rule rollbacks

"As the Trump administration scales back federal regulation of the waste from coal-fired power plants known as coal ash, a handful of Southern states have passed laws forcing utilities to clean up or contain the toxic mess," Max Blau reports for Stateline. "Other states, though, have done little or nothing."

Coal-fired plants produce 130 million tons of toxic coal ash, one of the largest sources of industrial waste in the nation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The ash is commonly put in nearby ponds or pits that frequently leach toxic chemicals into drinking water and/or bodies of water. The South is home to nearly half of America's largest coal ash disposal sites, Blau reports.

The Obama administration created the nation's first comprehensive regulations for disposing of coal ash, but the Trump administration delayed the new rules from fully going into effect. Now, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, has proposed weakening rules on coal ash disposal and monitoring, Blau reports.

That means states will probably be largely responsible for coal-ash regulations, which the Trump administration has encouraged. "Lawmakers in Virginia and North Carolina have taken steps to require utilities to excavate coal ash from unlined ponds to prevent the heavy metals from seeping into groundwater," Blue reports. Also, "This past June, Tennessee officials settled with the Tennessee Valley Authority to excavate millions of tons of coal ash from ponds that the state said polluted the Cumberland River."

Some states, like Georgia and Alabama, have taken steps to adopt their own rules, but environmental advocates say the proposed rules won't do much to help. And some states, like Kentucky, are limited in their ability to regulate the industry because coal companies have persuaded legislators to pass laws restricting states from creating tougher regulations than the federal government. 

State officials in Georgia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky—as well as coal-industry groups—have praised the rollbacks, saying they felt the Obama-era laws were an overreach, and that it's wrong to impose a law on all states when some may have different needs, Blau reports.

Report for America touts 'the single biggest hiring announcement of journalists in recent memory,' many rural

Report for America will place a record 250 emerging journalists in 164 local newsrooms in 46 states and Puerto Rico in 2020; that's more than four times larger than the 2019 class and marks the single largest hiring announcement of journalists in recent memory, its website says. A considerable number of the winning newsrooms pitched projects with a rural angle (list below).

Though the newsrooms have been chosen, the journalists who will fill those slots have not. Applications for reporting slots are being accepted until Jan. 31, and will be chosen through a national competition. Click here to apply. The selected journalists and their newsroom pairings will be announced in April, and the journalists will begin work in June. About 50 RFA reporters will continue their work from last year.

Report for America is a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms for one to two years. An initiative of The GroundTruth Project, RFA was created as a direct response to the expansion of news deserts that leave communities uninformed on local issues.

Here are some RFA winners that pitched projects with a rural angle:
  • The Associated Press in Frankfort, Ky,: State legislature, especially issues affecting Appalachia (54 of the state's 120 counties).
  • Lexington Herald-Leader: 1) Health care in Appalachian Kentucky and watchdog reporting in Eastern Kentucky (filled by a current corps member); 2) a photojournalist for rural communities.
  • WFAE 90.7 FM, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, and the Digital Public Library of America, all in Charlotte, N.C.: a partnership using radio and Wikipedia to fill news deserts.
  • KOSU 91.7 FM in Oklahoma City: Agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma.
  • Rappahannock News & Foothills Forum in Washington, Va.: The changing nature of public services.
  • 100 Days in Appalachia in Morgantown, W.Va.: White supremacy groups in Appalachia.
  • Charleston Gazette-Mail: In addition to four other beats, coverage of poverty in southern West Virginia (filled by current corps member).
  • West Virginia Public Broadcasting: State government and southern West Virginia (filled by a current corps member).
  • The Victoria Advocate in Victoria, Texas: 1) rural counties surrounding Victoria; 2) rural health care (filled by current corps member).
  • KUER 90.1 FM in Salt Lake City: Indigenous issues in southern Utah (filled by current corps member).
  • The Spectrum in St. George, Utah: National parks.
  • Southern Illinois Local Media Group (Randolph County Herald Tribune): Town of Chester.
  • Kansas City PBS: Rural issues in Missouri.
  • The Columbus Dispatch: Rural issues in central Ohio.
  • WKSU 89.7 FM in Kent, Ohio: Rural health care.
  • The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.: Legislative coverage affecting rural western Massachusetts.
  • New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News in Manchester: Northern New Hampshire.
  • Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt.: 1) Environment and climate in the Upper Connecticut Valley; 2) photojournalism in northern New Hampshire.
  • Vermont Public Radio in Colchester: The Northeast Kingdom.
  • in Montpelier: Southern Vermont.
  • The Cordova Times on the southern Alaska coast: Native communities.
  • The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif.: Native American issues in the Coachella Valley.
  • The Mendocino Voice in Booneville, Calif.: The effect of environmental regulation on salmon runs, wildfires, the economy and other issues.
  • Ouray County Plaindealer, a weekly in Ridgway, Colo.: North-central Ouray County.
  • KIVI-TV, Nampa, Idaho: Agriculture and rural issues, including immigration and effects of climate change.
  • Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho: Rural health care.
  • Herald and News in Klamath Falls, Oregon: Endangered species, water rights and issues associated with a dam removal.
  • Malheur Enterprise, a weekly in Vale, Oregon: Latino communities in eastern Oregon (filled by current corps member).
  • South Dakota Public Broadcasting in Vermillion, S.D.: Ethnic communities, including Native Americans.
  • Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming: Native American Issues on the Wind River Reservation (filled by current corps member).

Webinars next week on rural suicide prevention, increasing rural household access to community solar power programs

At 2 p.m. ET Tuesday, Dec. 10, the American Public Power Association will host a free one-hour webinar about cost-effective ways to increase rural households' access to public utilties' community solar programs. Such programs are helpful to rural residents where there are logistical, legal or financial barriers to individually ownership of solar panels. Find more information or register here.

On Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. ET, the Rural Health Information Hub and the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center will hold a free one-hour webinar about their new Rural Suicide Prevention Toolkit, which supports organizations implementing suicide-prevention programs in rural communities. The webinar will offer an overview of rural suicide and effective strategies to overcome challenges specific to rural communities. Find more information about the webinar or register here.

You can find the Rural Suicide Prevention Toolkit here. It includes:
  • An overview of suicide in the U.S. and the unique challenges rural communities face
  • Models for suicide prevention programs
  • Examples of promising rural suicide prevention programs
  • Important issues to consider when implementing a rural suicide prevention program
  • Tools that can help with evaluating a suicide prevention program
  • Resources to help plan a sustainable suicide prevention program
  • Ideas and resources for disseminating findings from a suicide prevention program

It's Giving Tuesday, and helping rural journalism helps democracy. Please give to the Institute for Rural Journalism!

When a rural newspaper publishes its last edition, a part of democracy dies with it. Local officials aren't held accountable, and that's just the beginning. Studies show that when a paper dies, fewer people run for office, fewer people vote, and more people vote along party lines because most news they see is on cable TV. That deepens the rural-urban political divide—a gap that grows as rural coverage shrivels. More than 500 rural weeklies have closed in the last 15 years, and metro papers do much less rural coverage.

But you can help bridge the gap by donating to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. We work hard all year to help rural journalists all over the U.S. with training sessions, news aggregation, resources and recognition.
Laurie Ezzell Brown

Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor of Texas weekly The Canadian Record, writes: "The Rural Blog is that thing that I look for first each day, sifting through the mountain of too often meaningless mail that populates my inbox, knowing there is a treasure there waiting. It is my clipping service, my fire-starter, my kick in the butt reminder to pay attention to the real stories that affect rural communities like mine. Dig deeper, it always tells me, and so I try."

Please support the Institute for Rural Journalism today. Your tax-deductible gift helps us continue creating a community of rural journalists nationwide.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Community pharmacies could be a key to getting more rural teens vaccinated for virus that causes sex-related cancers

Alabama Department of Public Health
There's a vaccine for a virus that causes sex-related cancer, but rural teens are less likely to get it or know about it. Rural pharmacies could help improve vaccination rates, writes Casey Daniel, a Ph.D. pharmacist who teaches in the family medicine department at the University of South Alabama.

"Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with 80 million Americans currently infected and 14 million new cases of infection each year," Daniel notes, but only about two-thirds of 13-to-17-year-olds start the HPV vaccine series, and fewer than half have up-to-date vaccinations. Rural HPV vaccination rates are 11 percent lower than urban rates, partly because rural areas have fewer health-care providers, Daniel writes in the Journal of Rural Health.

He says that gap could be filled by pharmacies, which are more widespread than doctors' offices and open longer hours. "In the 2018 President's Cancer Panel report on HPV vaccination for cancer prevention, pharmacies were specifically recommended as a way to increase vaccine accessibility," he writes. "Most pharmacies are also ideally suited for immunizations because of their inherent infrastructure and storage capacity for various medications. Many pharmacies offer vaccines such as flu, pneumonia, and shingles, and therefore, they have established immunization protocols that can be easily adapted to HPV."

Convenience is important for HPV immunization "because this vaccination is a multi-dose series requiring subsequent visits," Daniel writes. "While large chain pharmacies have a broad, mass market appeal, there is a considerable case to be made for collaborating with 'community pharmacies' as alternative settings for HPV vaccination, particularly in rural and small-town settings. In these areas, independent community pharmacies are often an established part of the community. Community pharmacists frequently have personal relationships with their patients, knowing them both within and outside the bounds of the pharmacy, and have a unique, established trust. They are trusted providers within the community, acting as the first line of health care and consultation for many patients."

That's also important for HPV immunization because research has shown that rural parents are less likely to be aware of HPV and the vaccine. Community pharmacists "frequently have personal relationships with many local individuals," Daniel writes. "Therefore, they can function in both education and reinforcement regarding the importance of HPV vaccination. . . . In the exploration of alternative settings to increase HPV vaccination, community pharmacies have been significantly overlooked. Particularly in rural settings, these pharmacies have vast potential to reach under-served, disparate populations and serve crucial roles in addressing community health care needs and filling resource gaps."

Rural HIV infection rates rise as urban rates fall; crisis 'can't be ignored any longer,' journalism professor writes

HIV infection rates are falling in many large U.S. cities, but rates are rising in much of rural America.

"There have of course always been cases of HIV in sparsely populated parts of the country, but in these places far from cities, the conditions that lead to HIV transmission are now intensifying — and rural America is not ready for the coming crisis," Northwestern University journalism professor Steven Thrasher writes for The New York Times. "Unlike large urban areas that have dealt with similar health and substance crises in the past, and that have networks of service providers and consumers in place, small rural health jurisdictions often lack the infrastructure to confront the crisis and have little history of dealing with comparable health issues."

The opioid epidemic is a major factor in the explosion of rural HIV infections, since opioid users are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as having unprotected sex while high or sharing needles. (Prescription opioid abusers often turn to higher-octane intravenous opioids like heroin.) In West Virginia's Cabell County and Huntington, for example, where there is a massive prescription opioid addiction problem, 80 new HIV infections have been diagnosed over the past year. "This avoidable crisis has been exacerbated by unemployment, declining coal mining production and economic pressures on regional press to act as effectively as a watchdog," Thrasher writes.

Most frustratingly, the rise in rural HIV infection rates was predictable, Thrasher writes: "After a hepatitis C and HIV outbreak in Scott County, Ind., in 2014 and 2015 that was fueled by deindustrialization and opioids, the CDC released a list of 220 counties similarly vulnerable to such outbreaks among people who use intravenous drugs. The densest concentration of those counties is along the Appalachian Trail, with 28 of them in West Virginia — more than half of the state’s 55 counties."

However, many rural areas are ill-equipped to prevent or deal with an HIV outbreak because they frequently refuse to effective policies such as needle-exchange programs, more comprehensive sex education, and LGBTQ+ public health efforts, Thrasher writes. Rural HIV patients also may be reluctant to admit they're infected or seek treatment because of the stigma associated with it. That leads to worse health outcomes and more infections. Thrasher says the problem "can't be ignored any longer."

Farm income predicted to be up, mainly due to trade-war bailout, estimated at 24% of total income, USDA says

Net farm income in 2019 is expected to be 10.2 percent higher than in 2018, mostly because of government payments to compensate farmers for the trade war with China, according to the latest Farm Income Forecast report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In inflation-adjusted dollars, it's a $7 billion increase, or 8.2%, from last year. Here are some highlights from the report by the USDA's Economic Research Service:
  • In inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars, net farm income (a broad measure of profits) is forecast to hit $92.5 billion this year.
  • If the forecast is correct, 2019 net farm income would be 2.8% above the 2000-2018 average of $90.1 billion, but 32.3% below its $136.6 billion peak in 2013.
  • Net cash farm income (a more precise measurement of profits) is predicted to increase 15% from last year ($15.5 billion), to a total of $119 billion.
  • Inflation-adjusted net cash farm income is predicted to increase 12.9%, or $13.6 billion, from 2018. That would put 2019 farm income 10% higher than the 2000-18 average, $108.2 billion.
  • Direct payments to farms from the government are expected to total $22.4 billion, which is $8.8 billion higher than in 2018—a 64% increase. If correct, government payments would account for about 24% of all farm income, the largest share in more than a decade.
  • Farm debt is predicted to grow by $13.5 billion in 2019, or 3.4%.
  • Farmers' financial stability is predicted to decrease slightly in the past year as the debt-to-asset ratio, a key measure of financial stability, is expected to increase slightly from 13.28% in 2018 to 13.42%.
  • Total receipts for animals and animal products are expected to be largely unchanged as increases in milk and hog sales are almost offset by poultry and egg sale declines.
  • Adjusted for inflation, total cash receipts are expected to decline $4.6 billion, or 1.2%, because of a $3 billion drop in animal/animal product receipts and a $1.7 billion decline in crop receipts.

Helping rural journalism helps democracy

When a rural newspaper publishes its last edition, a part of democracy dies with it. Local officials aren't held accountable, and that's just the beginning. Studies show that when a paper dies, fewer people run for office, fewer people vote, and more people vote along party lines because most news they see is on cable TV. That deepens the rural-urban political divide—a gap that grows as rural coverage shrivels. More than 500 rural weeklies have closed in the last 15 years, and metro papers do much less rural coverage.

But you can help bridge the gap by donating to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. We work hard all year to help rural journalists all over the U.S. with training sessions, news aggregation, resources and recognition.

Sharon Burton
Sharon Burton, editor and publisher of the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., is a longtime ally of the Institute. She writes: "While listening to speakers during a recent workshop co-hosted by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, I thought about how much we rural journalists need each other. We learn from one another; we realize we are not alone when we share with one another. The Institute does many things for rural journalists, but perhaps its most important role is helping us help one another."

Please support the Institute for Rural Journalism today. Your tax-deductible gift helps us continue creating a community of rural journalists nationwide.

Bank branches are getting scarcer, especially in rural counties that are poor or have high minority populations

Branch banks are getting scarcer, especially in poor, rural places. According to new Federal Reserve research, 51 percent of the nation’s 3,114 counties had fewer bank branches in 2017 than in 2012, and rural counties with higher poverty rates or higher minority populations were disproportionately affected. The report attributed the reductions to banks consolidating after the Great Recession.

“The closing of local banks could mean for some communities the loss of a source of financial advice and civic leadership, the authors said,” Yuka Hayashi writes for The Wall Street Journal. “The drop was much greater than the 9% drop in the country’s 802 urban communities that also saw a decline.”

The Fed  found that 794 rural counties lost a total 1,553 bank branches during the period, "representing a decline of 14% in the number of institutions," Hayashi reports. The decline likely left many rural residents without an easy, inexpensive way to get financial services. In rural counties, seniors, small-business owners, and those without transportation appear to be the hardest hit, she writes. Lack of reliable broadband internet access has exacerbated the problem, since many rural residents haven’t been able to take advantage of online banking services.

Hayashi reports, “The impact could be particularly significant for small businesses, which could face reduced access to credit needed to maintain and expand their operations, the authors wrote. The Fed researchers pointed out that loan interest rates increase as the distance between a business and the local branch of its lender grows—a potential reason why most small businesses borrow from institutions with a local presence.”

The report’s authors urged lawmakers, banks and other stakeholders to consider solutions for affected counties, saying that without easy access to financial services, it’s difficult to build wealth, run a business, and achieve long-term financial stability, Hayashi notes.