Thursday, December 31, 2020

Rural news media, especially newspapers, can help overcome some of the obstacles to coronavirus vaccinations

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

Rural hospitals and other health-care providers face special challenges in getting coronavirus vaccines to the public, but rural news media, especially newspapers, can help them overcome the challenge of vaccine misinformation.

The providers' first problem was with the first vaccine, produced by Pfizer Inc., because it requires ultra-cold storage and is being shipped in large boxes with 975 doses. The Moderna vaccine takes normal refrigeration and comes in boxes of 100.

In Texas, some rural hospitals bought special freezers for the Pfizer vaccine but state officials didn't direct any Pfizer shipments to them, Will Stone reports for NPR and Kaiser Health News. "It's frustrating that you would go to that effort and expense and not be able to participate," said John Henderson, president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

The Moderna vaccine, which was approved a week after Pfizer's, is now arriving at rural hospitals, clinics and health departments, but "having the vaccine is no guarantee it will get used," even on frontline health workers, Stone reports, with a quote from Tracy Warner, CEO of Greene County Medical Center in central Iowa: "A third of the people that are in line said, no, I'm not interested."

"Each vial has multiple doses. And once opened, they have a shelf life," Stone reports. "In smaller hospitals, the dosing needs to be staggered carefully. An immune response could sideline a nurse or doctor for a day, and they don't have staff to spare."

Once vaccines become available to older members of the general public, those in rural areas will face some of the same obstacles long faced by health care in rural areas, write Bennett Doughty and Pamela Stewart Fahs, professors at State University of New York at Binghamton, for The Conversation.

"In many of these areas," they write, "rural hospitals have been closing at an alarming rate, leaving people to travel farther for care. The population is also older. Public transportation that could help poor or elderly residents reach hospitals is rare, and distance and geography, such as mountain roads, can mean driving to those sites takes time."

Another obstacle is rural Americans themselves. Their thinking about vaccines is "influenced by media and word of mouth, politics and religion, as well as previous experience with vaccinations," the professors wrote, noting a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December that found about 35% of rural Americans said they probably or definitely would not get a vaccine, higher than the 27% nationwide.

"Getting accurate information about the vaccine and how to receive it into rural areas has also proved difficult," the professors write. "Many rural counties still have limited access to broadband internet connections, smartphone service and other technologies. That often means residents rely on television, newspapers and radio for news, which can limit the depth and scope of information."

That last line should be a wake-up call to rural news media. For rural newspapers and local health officials, this challenge also presents an opportunity. Newspapers can mail sample copies in their home county to non-subscribers at subscriber rates, and a total-market-circulation edition can reach every household with detailed information from a trusted source, the local paper. At least three papers in Kentucky did this early in the pandemic, with support from local governments.

The vaccine-rollout period seems like another good time for sample copying, since states are adopting different policies and priorities for vaccinations, and the public may be confused by information they get from national sources, social media or news media based in other states. Local newspaper circulation is declining, but the postal regulations still give newspapers a powerful tool to reach everyone in their home county, and they and local officials should take advantage of it.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Tim Crews, fighter for open government, wins Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

Tim Crews of the Sacramento Valley Mirror held up a toothbrush outside a county jail after serving five days in 2000 for refusing to give up an anonymous source. (Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, The Associated Press)

Tim Crews, a rural editor-publisher who fought for open government in California and went to jail to protect his sources, is the winner of the 2020 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog). The award recognizes rural journalists who demonstrate outstanding courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism.

Crews died at 77 on Nov. 12 after a long illness and nearly 30 years as publisher and editor of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows, a town of 6,000 and the seat of Glenn County, pop. 28,000. He was known for relentless open-records requests and for spending five days in jail in 2000 for refusing to reveal sources for a story he published about theft of weapons by a former California Highway Patrol officer. That won him the Francis Frost Wood Award for courage in journalism from Hofstra University, the Bill Farr Freedom of Information Award from the California First Amendment Association and the California Society of Newspaper Editors, and the Shield of Courage Award from the California First Amendment Coalition, which had given him its First Amendment Beacon Award in 1996.

Crews told the Poynter Institute in 2017 that he averaged more than 20 records requests a year, sometimes going to court fight for access. In 2013, a judge said his suit to force a school district to turn over 3,000 withheld emails from the superintendent was frivolous, and ordered him to pay $56,595 in attorneys' fees and costs when his income was $20,000 a year. An appeals court reversed the ruling, and that helped Crews earn the California News Publishers Association Freedom of Information Award. When he received the California Press Foundation’s Newspaper Executive of the Year Award in 2009, the Mirror was called "California's most courageous newspaper." In 2011, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave him its Norwin S. Yoffe Award for lifetime achievement in freedom of information.

As Crews fought battles for open government, he was known as "an old-time community journalist who stood up for regular people and published obituaries for free," The Associated Press reported after his death. "He dashed about the town of Willows, population 6,000, in red suspenders and with a bushy white beard, covering crime and politics but also community events."

"Tim Crews exemplified the best in rural journalism: broad community service that includes holding local officials and institutions accountable," said Al Cross, director of the institute and extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky. "We wish Tim had received the Gish Award while he was still with us, but we are still pleased to recognize his service." Presentation of this year's award has been delayed by the pandemic and will be announced later.

Tom and Pat Gish at award announcement
The award is named for Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and repeatedly demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity through advertiser boycotts, business competition, declining population, personal attacks, and even the burning of their office by a local policeman who state police believe was paid by coal companies.

The Gishes, who died in 2008 and 2014, respectively, were the first winners of the award, in 2005. The other winners, in chronological order, have been the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; Stanley Dearman (former publisher, now deceased) and Jim Prince (publisher), The Neshoba Democrat, Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler of Portland, Oregon, for her work at the Jacksonville (Texas) Daily Progress and the daily Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky.; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin, publishers of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky.; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in EspaƱola, N.M.; Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.; the Cullen family of the Storm Lake (Iowa) Times; Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon; and last year, Ken Ward Jr., then of the Charleston Gazette-Mail and now of Mountain State Spotlight; his mentor, the late Paul J. Nyden of the Charleston Gazette; and Howard Berkes, recently retired from NPR.

"Tim Crews fits nicely in this pantheon of courageous rural journalists," Cross said. "And he brings to the list one of the more varied backgrounds."

Crews was born and raised in western Washington, and served in the Marines and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. He had started in journalism in high school, and returned to it, working at papers in Washington, Colorado, Texas, California and Rome, and free-lanced from Crete. Between newspaper jobs, he was a steel-plant worker, had his own logging company in Washington, taught journalism at Evergreen State College, and worked for The Boeing Co. in Seattle. He started the Mirror after a dispute with an employer, and over the years attracted several promising interns from The Stanford Daily at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

One was Gerry Shih, now interim Beijing Bureau chief for The Washington Post. In a tribute to Crews, he wrote, "Within weeks, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Tim gave me clarity, purpose, focus. 'You have to have fire in your belly,' he said. People poisoned his dog and left death threats – hence the six-shot" in the drawer of his desk at the back of the Mirror office.

An intern who came back for a full-time job, Aimee Miles, wrote that Crews was "fiercely principled, and was willing to see those principles through to the end, even at the expense of his personal relationships. Once, after publicly condemning an elected official whom he had previously endorsed, Tim proclaimed, memorably, 'The truth is more important than friendship. It’s more important than everything.' He really believed that, and lived by it, although it sometimes meant making difficult choices. That unwavering integrity rattled some people, who read it as a ruthless willingness to betray. Many people have a threshold at which they are willing to part ways with their professed principles, the point at which fidelity imperils their personal interests. But Tim couldn’t be compromised, and nothing would dissuade him from holding public officials accountable for their actions, whether he liked them personally or not."

Miles also wrote, "One quality of his stands out in my memory. In addition to integrity and tenacity, Tim had more genuine empathy than anyone I know. I think that is what gave him the prodigious energy to do what he did for nearly 30 years. He had the rare gift of really seeing people, and was inquisitive about their lives to an extent that far surpassed his interests as an investigative journalist. He leant an ear to those who were struggling with one problem or another; people whom most others would have written off without a moment’s hesitation. I think many in the community sensed that quality as well, and that is why so many confided in him. He listened to people intently, recognized their humanity, and treated them with dignity. He truly cared for his community. That kind of profound empathy, above all, is what separates a competent journalist from an eminent one, and it’s what I remember Tim for more than anything else."

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Drop in students seeking aid for college is greater in rural areas, where some college rolls have dropped signifcantly

"The isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic year is translating into more than teenage angst. 
It’s driving a dramatic drop in the proportion of students going on to college, threatening the already precarious economies of rural areas and widening their socioeconomic drift from urban and suburban America," reports Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in a story done with Maine Public Radio.

"The number of rural students filling out the federal application for financial aid, a sign of whether they’re even considering going to college, has plummeted by more than 18%, the National College Attainment Network reports. That’s worse than the also alarming nearly 16% drop among urban students," Marcus reports. "The numbers are down even more in . . . West Virginia (32%), Louisiana (30%), Mississippi (26%), Alaska (24%) and Arkansas and Oklahoma (23%)," states with large percentages of rural population.

The numbers come after enrollment drops at many universities and colleges in rural places. "In Idaho, for instance, which already has the lowest proportion in the country of high school graduates who go on to college (tied with Alaska at 44%), first-time undergraduate enrollment fell nearly 4% at the University of Idaho, nearly 8% at Idaho State University and more than 5% at Boise State University — with an even bigger slide among first-time in-state undergrads," Marcus reports.

In Maine, Bucksport High School Principal Josh Tripp told Maine Public Radio, “Their overall feeling toward education right now is that they’ve just been beaten down. Everything about this year has been harder. Certainly being an election year and seeing so much negativity around forecasts of our future, regardless of what political side you’re on — there’s just a lot of dim and dreary outlooks.”

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Tony Rice, 'Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar,' dead at 69

Tony Rice (Photo by Stephen A. Ide / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images, via Rolling Stone)
Tony Rice, who was called "the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar" for his quick, fluid playing of bluegrass and other genres, died Friday at his home in Reidsville, N.C. He was 69.

“Sometime during Christmas morning while making his coffee, our dear friend and guitar hero Tony Rice passed from this life and made his swift journey to his heavenly home,” Ricky Skaggs wrote on Facebook. One of the many musicians who revered Rice and performed and recorded with him, Skaggs called him “the single most influential acoustic guitar player in the last 50 years.”

Other tributes came from longtime banjo player Steve Martin, and Jason Isbell, who called him "the king of the flat-picked flattop guitar," Rachel McGrath of The Associated Press reports.

"With an understated live presence that contrasted with the dynamism of his guitar, Rice had experienced health problems over the past quarter-century. A muscle disorder around his vocal cords left him unable to sing on stage, and tennis elbow limited his playing. His last live guitar performance was in 2013, when he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame," AP reports. "He played with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Dolly Parton and received many honors, notably a Grammy in 1993 for best country instrumental performance, and citations from the International Bluegrass Music Association as guitarist of the year."

Born David Anthony Rice in Danville, Va., Rice grew up in Los Angeles and learned about bluegrass from his father and his older brother Larry, who played mandolin. "When Tony was 20, he joined his sibling as a member of the New South, the bluegrass group led by banjoist J.D. Crowe. The band played throughout Kentucky and introduced Rice to Ricky Skaggs," Joseph Hudak of Rolling Stone reports. "His 1973 debut solo album was titled, simply, Guitar . . . That Rice also sang as well as he played made him even more of a pivotal figure in the genre."

Rice played with many partners and groups, including Norman Blake, Chris Hillman and Peter Rowan, "but it was with his own group, the Tony Rice Unit, that Rice made some of his most acclaimed and inventive work. The outfit’s 1979 album Manzanita is sacred text in bluegrass, with guests like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Skaggs, and Grisman making up Rice’s band."

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

SpaceX rural broadband plan may be too pricey, and it appears to have exploited flawed FCC broadband maps

The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded SpaceX $885 million to bring broadband internet to rural America via its Starlink satellite service, but the service may end up being too expensive for many rural residents, and the company is spending nearly 13 percent of the money on urban broadband expansion because of flawed FCC data maps, critics say.

"While underserved communities will be happy to have access to faster Internet, it can be expensive," Geoff Herbert of writes for GovTech. "CNBC reported in October that Starlink’s 'beta' service costs $99 a month — plus a $499 upfront cost to order the Starlink kit. The kit includes a user terminal to connect with SpaceX satellites and a Wi-Fi router that can be controlled by a Starlink app on Google and Apple devices."

Not only will $111 million of SpaceX's funding will support urban broadband expansion, across all 180 internet service providers that received funding in the latest tranche of $9.2 billion, more than $700 million will go for non-rural development, reports Derek Turner, research director at advocacy group Free Press. "Turner has a strong track record analyzing FCC broadband data and last year found major errors in Pai's broadband-deployment claims," notes Jon Brodkin of ArsTechnica.

Some of the locations for which SpaceX won funding include several major airports, census blocks with luxury hotels in Chicago, and a parking garage in downtown Miami Beach, Turner reports. That's possible because ISPs exploit a design flaw in the FCC's mapping system. "ISPs are [required] to report the blocks where they currently offer service or could without extraordinary use of resources within a 10-day period," Turner told Brodkin in an email. "Thus a block can show up as 'unserved' even though it isn't any more expensive than any typical block to serve; it just means an ISP didn't claim the block."

SpaceX "appears to have played by the rules. But the FCC's rules created a broken system," Turner reports. "By bidding for subsidies assigned to dense urban areas, Musk's firm and others were able to get potentially hundreds of millions in subsidies meant for people and businesses in rural areas that would never see broadband deployment without the government's help."

Agribusiness consolidation helps drive rural-urban polarization, writes ag econ columnist, citing Wendell Berry

Alan Guebert
In January 1999, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, urged colleagues to pass on consolidation of agribusiness, saying Cargill's offer to buy a competitor was a question for lawyers, not lawmakers.

That directive turned out to be prescient. "In fact, as a friend pointed out on Twitter shortly after Thanksgiving, 'Turkey is now the only meat in (U.S. flag emoji) right now not under investigation for price-fixing'," writes syndicated agriculture columnist Alan Guebert. "That should infuriate all Americans for two reasons: First for what it says about today’s largely dysfunctional livestock and poultry markets and, secondly, that it has taken 20 years for end users to confront Big Meat over how it uses its sledgehammer market power to suck unearned profits out of both livestock growers and meat buyers."

The increasing industrialization has hurt rural America, Guebert writes, citing recently published research for the Family Farm Action Alliance that says "Agrifood consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes."

Guebert notes, "Lugar’s edict for 'legislatures' to stay out of Big Agbiz’s biz has remained in effect despite mountains of evidence that the corporatization of key ag sectors has cost farmers, ranchers, rural America and consumers billions of dollars and an untold number of jobs And that’s on top of what boneheaded farm policies advocated by AgBiz — like 1996’s Freedom to Farm — cost taxpayers. (From 1997 to 2002, F2F cost taxpayers $122 billion, or three times its projected cost.) Many of these policies also took down antitrust fences and, shortly thereafter, consolidation in ag inputs, production, and processing went into overdrive."

Wendell Berry
Guebert implies that economic disparities brought on by Big Ag have helped drive rural-urban polarization, noting writer, farmer and activist Wendell Berry wrote in Another Turn of the Crank that "Political democracy can endure only as the guardian of economic democracy. A democratic government fails in failing to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities."

"That wisdom bears repeating," Guebert writes. "We will continue to fail if we continue to fail 'to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities.'"

Quick hits: the top 10 agriculture stories of 2020; rural schools facing closures amid pandemic, and more

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

Small banks helped businesses win more Paycheck Protection Plan loans. Read more here.

A school district is suing parents for unpaid textbook fees during the pandemic. Does your state allow such lawsuits? Read more here.

Rural schools are more likely to hold in-person classes, but the pandemic is hitting staff and students in many areas, forcing closures. Read more here.

Ken Burns' Country Music documentary is "feel-good but badly conceived entertainment," writes one critic. Read more here.

Columnist shares ways to create caregiver-friendly workspaces in rural communities. Read more here.

DTN/The Progressive Farmer has the top 10 agriculture stories of 2020, one per day. Read more here.

A recent paper from the Aspen Institute takes a deep dive into the rural disparities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic and how they might be tackled. Read more here.

The proposed nationwide bike and foot path is making progress. Read more here.

Investigative reporters place sensors around rural Illinois for a year, detect banned pesticides near homes and schools

In an admirable feat of investigative journalism, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting placed air-pollution sensors in five agricultural locations in central Illinois, where much soybeans and corn are grown. After periodically sampling the air from June 2018 to July 2019, the center "found the presence of pesticides near schools, parks and homes where vulnerable populations live," Claire and Johnathan Hettinger report. The chemicals have been linked to multiple health issues. Read more here.

New country song an ode to modern farmers' struggles

"In the agriculture industry, we have witnessed changes in our communities and across the nation," AgDaily staff writes. "While some of the changes are improvements, others have been detrimental to the farmers and ranchers in our community. Nashville recording artist and dairy farmer Stephanie Nash recorded 'Time Changes' as a song for farmers everywhere who are just trying to do what they love while also providing for the family. Nash’s titular single, 'Time Changes,' was written after she heard that California’s bullet train was taking land away from farmers without paying them. This song explains the struggles that farmers deal with every day due to an evolving society that doesn’t always appreciate agriculture. It took Nash only 45 minutes to write down her emotions and feelings and create a song that farmers everywhere can agree on — times are changing."

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Trump's Justice Department, after shielding Walmart from criminal charges in opioid epidemic, files lawsuit against it

The Justice Department sued Walmart Inc. Tuesday, alleging that the company worsened the opioid epidemic "by inadequately screening for questionable prescriptions despite repeated warnings from its own pharmacists," The Wall Street Journal reports.

The suit claims Walmart tried to boost profits by understaffing pharmacies and pressuring employees to fill prescriptions quickly. ProPublica reported in March that the company slashed drug prices to attract buyers, then when demand soared, pressured pharmacists to fill prescriptions faster. That made it harder for them to question suspicious prescriptions, increasing drug abuse, the suit charges.

ProPublica found that top Justice Department officials shielded Walmart from criminal prosecution in 2018 for allowing suspicious opioid prescriptions to be filled over the objections of thousands of Walmart pharmacists. This happened as the Trump administration told the public it would crack down on those responsible for the opioid epidemic, Jesse Eisinger and James Bandler reported. Their blockbuster report is based on Walmart internal emails and documents, legal correspondence, and interviews with nine people familiar with the investigation.

Federal prosecutors in Texas began investigating Walmart in 2016. Walmart pharmacists there and in other states reported hundreds of thousands of suspicious or inappropriate opioid prescriptions to their supervisors. They knew these opioids were being prescribed by "pill mill" doctors, and begged the corporate office to allow them to refuse to honor such prescriptions. Some of the doctors had been banned from sending prescriptions to all of Walmart's major competitors.

"Walmart didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment" on the lawsuit, the Journal reports. "The country’s largest retailer by revenue, Walmart has been expecting this complaint and sued the federal government in October to fight the allegations pre-emptively. In its suit, Walmart accuses the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration of attempting to scapegoat the company for what it says are the federal government’s own regulatory and enforcement shortcomings."

Relief bill has more forgivable loans for community news media, expanded to include those owned by big chains

The new pandemic relief bill has more forgivable loans for local newspapers and broadcast stations -- a first round for those owned by large chains, and a second round for those that lost more than 25% of revenues in any quarter of 2020, compared to the same quarter of 2019, with a limit of $2 million.

Newspapers owned by large groups were not eligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans in the relief bill passed in the spring, which was for companies with fewer than 500 employees. The new bill's limits are 500 employees per location and $10 million per corporation, as long as news outlets certify funds will be used for production or distribution of locally focused or emergency information.

The bill addresses all requests the National Newspaper Association made to Congress in the latter half of 2020, NNA said in a release. NNA Chair Brett Wesner of Cordell, Okla., said NNA had hoped the second round of loans "would reach more businesses and to enable greater loan packages."

“Most of our requests were included in some way,” Wessner said. “What’s more, we learn again and again that members of Congress value the contributions of our newspapers to local communities. We take the recognition of our requests as an encouraging indication that Congress wants to see local newspapers survive and thrive as we get through this painful coronavirus disaster.”

Recent films, including Hillbilly Elegy, prompt discussion about how Hollywood views rural America

Films like Hillbilly Elegy and the new limited-release Nomadland are stirring up new discussion about how Hollywood portrays rural life, Stephen Humphries reports for The Christian Science Monitor.

"It’s a touchy topic. White, rural voters have been excoriated in some quarters of the media for voting for Donald Trump. Consequently, popular culture depictions of those in the countryside are often viewed through a political lens," Humphries reports. "Those living in small-town America worry about how they’re portrayed by filmmakers who’ve parachuted into a locale. Others argue that the outsider storytellers can bring fresh perspectives to socioeconomic issues. But there’s also widespread agreement that Hollywood should venture into the outer reaches of red states more often and try to tell nuanced stories about what unites and divides us."

Stereotypes are also often embraced by nationwide news media, R. Garringer writes for Scalawag:
"I've seen national media portray West Virginia—where I was raised—and Eastern Kentucky—where I now live—as the home of racist white voters, as a place of despair and conservatism, as a wasteland of drug epidemics and pollution. I've seen national media swoop in every four years for presidential campaigns, or stop in for a short story about the "drug overdose capital" of the country. I've seen national media seek out stories that fit a narrative they wrote long before their reporters set foot on mountain ground. What I've almost never seen is national coverage that portrays this place as the home of rich legacies of radical labor organizing, environmental organizing, and queer organizing, as the soil for rich artistic and literary traditions, as a region shaped by patterns of in- and out-migration, as a place that is complex, varied, diverse, and full."

Impoverished single moms in Appalachia don't have much access to the literary world, and are mostly portrayed inaccurately in popular media such as Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy film version of J.D. Vance's book, Alison Stine writes for Gen, a Medium publication about politics, power and culture: "The film gets so much epically wrong about the region it purports to reflect; its poverty fallacies have overshadowed how much it gets wrong about women, particularly single mothers."

In the film, Vance's mother, a high school salutatorian, mourns that she got pregnant at 18 and was unable to pursue her own goals. "But her very valid complaints of not being allowed to better herself or use her brain because she’s been forced into solo caregiving are presented by the film as hysterics. She’s a roadblock in Vance’s way — how dare she question the system," Stine writes. "In this narrative, Vance’s desire for a better life is presented as noble, a hero’s quest. Bev’s desires — to have more schooling, to remarry, to get out, like Vance — are monstrous, unacceptable . . . Vance heads off to the kind of better life that only some men can aspire to, while women are left behind to pick up the pieces."

Proliferation of paywalled content will make it more difficult for Americans to read a diverse range of news sources

More and more news sites are putting up paywalls, which helps news writers make a living, but also makes it harder for the public to read a wide range of reputable news. 

"As paywalls grow more common (76 percent of American newspapers used them in 2019, up from 60% just two years prior) and stricter (publications are getting better at sussing out incognito mode and other tricks to dodge paywalls), most readers are still only willing to pay for one online news subscription," Mark Hill writes for Wired. "The media landscape, then, may come to resemble what it looked like before the internet, where it was difficult and expensive for any one consumer to traverse a wide range of viewpoints."

Hill continues: "Unless readers are willing to spend a lot of money—and substantially more than they spend on watching videos—it simply won’t be financially viable for them to consume a lot of internet content. Not coincidentally, a lot of internet content won’t be financially viable, either." That could push readers to free "news" sites with more dubious content.

University of Oregon journalism professor Damian Radcliffe told Hill that news sites must make it clear to readers why a subscription is worth their money. "That means letting people know the actual cost of producing journalism, and what’s at risk if you don’t financially support it," Hill writes. "Otherwise, big publications will only serve a minority of the population, small publications will struggle to survive, and people who have grown accustomed to free news will continue to seek it out, even if it ends up not really being news at all."

Coronavirus vaccine roundup: Rural providers fight distrust and conspiracies, and face distribution challenges

Rural communities face challenges in distributing the coronavirus vaccine. Watch the video here.

The first vaccines have been administered to hard-hit Native American communities. Read more here.

Rural doctors fight vaccine distrust and conspiracies along with the virus itself. Read more here.

The next six months will be "strange and confusing" as certain groups of people get vaccinated but others have to wait. Read more here.

Farmworkers, firefighters and flight attendants jockey for vaccine priority. Read more here.

Some rural Texas doctors celebrate the distribution of the Moderna vaccine while others are disappointed. Read more here, here, here and here.

A recent survey in Oregon shows that less-educated people were less likely to say they would take the coronavirus vaccine as soon as it becomes available. It's unclear whether that's partly conflated with political and population fault lines, since Republicans and rural residents are less likely to have a college degree, and those segments are also less likely to report wanting the vaccine. Read more here.

The vaccine rollout in rural Oregon and Idaho poses unique challenges. Read more here.

Rural Louisiana also faces challenges in distributing the vaccine. Read more here.

FCC report: Broadband linked with more productive farms

Better rural broadband availability has significant positive effects on crop yields and other measures of agricultural production, according to a new working paper by the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Economics and Analytics.

The report "drew on FCC data on broadband availability by census tract and U.S. Department of Agriculture data on agricultural productivity by county, for crops such as corn, cotton, hay, and soybeans. The report found 'statistically significant effects' of increased broadband penetration, both on lower costs and higher production for farms," Kelly Hill reports for RCR Wireless News. "The paper acknowledges that high-speed connectivity is 'considered an essential component of modern agriculture' and sought to quantify the impacts of broadband availability on farming outcomes."

Pandemic has boosted ranks of first-time hunters, and that could help fund state conservation and wildlife efforts

"Conservationists and wildlife officials have spent years trying to stave off the decline of hunting in America. In 2020, they finally saw a glimmer of hope," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "For decades, the number of hunters—who are mostly older, white males—has steadily dwindled. That’s led to a loss of conservation funding at state wildlife agencies, which largely rely on license sales to support their budgets. But now, unexpectedly, officials in nearly every state are reporting a moderate-to-massive spike in hunting in 2020."

The reasons are many: an increase in free time, concerns about food-chain security, and financial hardship. "Officials said it’s too soon to calculate how the 2020 hunting surge will affect their budgets, but for once it won’t be bad news," Brown reports.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Survey of rural heartland bankers shows strongest growth since 2013, from farmland prices and farm equipment sales

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download the full report.

The December Creighton University survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on farming and energy showed the strongest growth for farmland prices and equipment sales since June 2013. The index surveys bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

For the second time in the past three months, the Rural Mainstreet Index climbed above growth-neutral, climbing to its second-highest level in the past 10 months because of recent improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm aid, and the Federal Reserve's record-low interest rates, according to Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the survey. The farm equipment sales index moved above growth positive for the first time in 86 months. 

Bankers continued to report "anemic" loan volumes, and non-farm hiring was down by 2.2 percent (non-seasonally adjusted) from pre-pandemic levels and 4.8% compared to 12 months ago. "Bankers were to indicate their top 10 concerns for 2021 and water availability and was the top concern (see tables). Not surprisingly, with strong 2020 farm income and farm commodity prices, farm financial conditions were of least concern for 2021 as judged by bank CEOs," Goss reports.

Blackjewel bankruptcy motion, apparently denied, would dodge mine cleanup laws, abandon miners' medical claims

A judge has apparently denied a proposal to shift Blackjewel, LLC's bankruptcy from reorganization to liquidation, a shift that would have allowed the coal company to dodge its responsibility to clean up abandoned mines and pay workers' compensation for medical bills. On Nov. 25, Blackjewel lawyers motioned to convert the bankruptcy from Chapter 11 to Chapter 7. "That would mean that instead of exiting bankruptcy as a new company with less debt, Blackjewel L.L.C. would effectively cease to exist," Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

"Blackjewel had 1,100 employees at its Appalachian mines and about 600 at surface-mining operations in Wyoming," The Lane Report reports. "At the time of its bankruptcy filing, Blackjewel owed about $146 million in unpaid taxes and also owed workers unpaid wages and retirement funding." The company made national headlines in 2019 after laid-off miners in Harlan County, Kentucky, blocked a coal train from leaving for months because the bankrupt company had not paid them for recent work.

Dec. 17 was the deadline to file objections to the company's plan to liquidate. A wide range of environmental and community groups did so, along with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and federal creditors, Matt Hepler and Molly Moore report for The Appalachian Voice. At a hearing that day, Judge Benjamin Kahn denied Blackjewel's motion to shift to Chapter 7. 

It's "pretty common" for companies to shift to Chapter 7 "when they're struggling like Blackjewel is," University of Chicago School of Law assistant professor and coal bankruptcy expert Joshua Macey told Boles.

One reason Blackjewel may have been struggling so much: its former CEO, Jeff Hoops, was allegedly defrauding the company. Blackjewel lawyers filed a civil suit against Hoops on Dec. 10, accusing Hoops of making tens of millions of dollars in fraudulent transactions, Boles reports.

America's Health Rankings makes annual report, based on more metrics than before but with no overall ranking

America's Health Rankings map, with figures for states ranking high in multiple chronic conditions added by The Rural Blog

The latest edition of America's Health Rankings, from the United Health Foundation, gives a set of snapshots for every state. The report usually gives each state an overall ranking, but this one does not, citing the health challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the latest rankings have even more comparative information for states than before, because they are based on 74 separate metrics, more than double the number used for previous rankings. County-level information is available from other sources for many of those metrics.

States with large percentages of rural population tend to rank low. One example of that is the high share of people with more than one chronic condition; the 10 states with the largest percentages of people with multiple chronic conditions are Maine, the most rural state by population, and a group of states running from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to Oklahoma.

Churches struggle to decide how to celebrate Christmas during pandemic

Churches all over the nation are trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas during the coronavirus pandemic, a decision influenced by shut-down laws, broadband availability, and local sentiment. 

"Generally, religious leaders in the region predict a minority of people will physically be in church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but the ones who attend will in some instances have circumvented wait-lists and long lines," Michelle Boorstein reports for The Washington Post. "Other faith leaders have urged Christians to stay away from gatherings to reduce the spread of the virus, and they say the most apt way in 2020 to mark the narrative of Jesus’ birth is to focus on improving housing and health care."

Rural churches are facing a more complicated calculus. Locals are more likely to be regular church-goers, less likely to observe social-distancing measures and less likely to have broadband access so they can worship from home. 

Pastor Jay Richardson of Highland Colony Baptist Church in Mississippi said the isolation might be more dangerous than the virus—and Richardson knows how bad the virus can be. "The church temporarily shut down at the start of the pandemic, and again three months ago, when 25 worshipers became infected with coronavirus during an outbreak. Richardson, 70, was hospitalized with double pneumonia caused by the virus," Leah Willingham reports for The Associated Press and Report for America.

"God has built a certain rhythm into our lives as Christians, and part of that rhythm is meeting together on a real regular basis," Richardson told Willingham. "If you get to where you’re not doing that, your whole life gets out of rhythm."

In the Upper Midwest, "church announcements are marked not with parties and performances, but with deaths. South Dakota and North Dakota, states largely spared from the worst of the pandemic during the spring and summer, have seen a frightening pace of death since October. The states' per capita death over the fall was almost double that of even the next worst-off state," Stephen Groves reports for The Associated Press. "The virus has been a crucible on the neighborly harmony that is the pride of many towns. Impassioned debates over politics and mask requirements, the unrelenting discomfort of isolation, the pain of losing loved ones and the pressures on medical workers have all compounded into discord. Churches saw needs arising, even as they waded through divisions."

Support rural journalism in your end-of-year giving; in the end, it matters to everyone in rural America

Rural journalism matters more than ever, and not just in rural areas. Local journalists play a crucial role in keeping people informed during the pandemic and engaged in democracy, and that has far-reaching consequences for all Americans.

But rural journalists need your help. At a time when local journalism is more critical than ever, newspapers and broadcasters, including many in rural areas, are teetering on the brink after losing advertising revenue.

You can help by subscribing to your local news outlets and donating to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Why? It's not just financial support that rural journalists need: they often don't have the professional resources that suburban and urban journalists do. As news outlets are cutting down on personnel, frequency and even closing their doors, we provide information and inspiration for rural news operations. We work hard all year to help rural journalists all over the U.S. with training, news aggregation, resources and recognition.

Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor-publisher of The Canadian Record, a Texas weekly, 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.

Friday, December 18, 2020

USDA releases 2020 Rural America at a Glance report; webinar at 1 p.m. ET TODAY to discuss findings

USDA chart; graph represents weekly rates, averaged over the three weeks preceding the dates at the bottom. "Micropolitan" includes adjacent rural counties when inter-county commuting in substantial. Click on the image to enlarge it.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has released the 2020 edition of its Rural America at a Glance report, a summary of broad rural trends in population, employment, poverty and income. This year's edition focuses on recent economic and demographic conditions in rural areas resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession.

At 1 p.m. ET today, ERS economist Elizabeth Dobbs will host a free, one-hour webinar to go over the report's findings. Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Here are some of the general, topline findings from the report:

  • The U.S. population in counties outside metropolitan areas was 46.1 million in July 2019, essentially unchanged from 46.2 million in 2010.
  • The rural population grew by 0.02% between 2018 and 2019, a small increase after six previous years of population decline, but well below the urban increase of 0.6%. 
  • Rural counties added jobs every year during the past decade but at less than half the rate of urban counties during most years, including 2018-19 (0.6 percent growth in rural counties compared with 1.4 percent growth in urban counties).
  • Rural poverty rates dropped from a 2013 rate of 18.4% to 16.1% in 2018, still well above the urban rate of 12.6%.
And here are some of the major findings related to the coronavirus pandemic:
  • The rural share of cases and deaths increased markedly during the fall. Rural areas have 14% of the population but accounted for 27% of Covid-19 deaths during the last three weeks of October. Rural residents are more likely to be older, have underlying health issues, live further away from hospitals, an are less likely to have health insurance.
  • In March and April, the pandemic drove U.S. unemployment rates to levels not seen since the 1930s. Rural unemployment peaked at 13.6% in mid-April, which was 1 point lower than in metro areas, and fell to 6.0% by mid-September.
  • The spread of the pandemic across rural America varied according to different areas' dominant economic sectors. In rural counties with a high proportion of jobs in meatpacking operations, for example, Covid-19 cases peaked at the end of April at nearly 50 per 100,000 population, compared with roughly 5 per 100,000 in other rural counties.
  • The first "flare-up" of coronavirus infections in the spring happened mostly in urban areas; the second, in August, hit rural and urban areas, and the third, which began in late October, disproportionately hit rural areas.
  • Rural residents in the Great Plains and Mountain West are particularly likely to live far from a hospital with an intensive-care unit.
  • Before the pandemic, rural unemployment had been declining for a decade, reaching 2.5% in September 2019. But rural unemployment hit 13.6% in mid-April 2020, well above the 2010 peak of 11.5% following the Great Recession.
  • Rural unemployment rates in 2020 were highest in counties whose economies depended on mining and lowest in counties that depended on farming.

$300 million Bayer dicamba settlement finalized for soybean farmers; claims portal is to be open by Jan. 1

"Soybean farmers whose fields were injured by off-target dicamba movement in the past six years could file claims for compensation as early as late December, after the details of a $300 million settlement with Monsanto (now a subsidiary of Bayer) were finalized Wednesday," Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The settlement is part of Bayer's efforts to settle ongoing lawsuits involving its herbicides, including multi-district litigation pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri over dicamba injury claims."

BASF, the other major dicamba producer, is not included in the settlement, which was announced in June. "The settlement will make $300 million from Bayer available to any soybean farmers who can document yield loss from dicamba injury between 2015 and 2020," Unglesbee reports. A website where farmers can file their claim is expected to be live in late December, and no later than Jan. 1. Farmers will have 150 days to file claims after the website opens.

Farmers who grow other crops or have other plants injured are settling claims separately with Bayer, and are not eligible for damages from this settlement. 

Support rural journalism in your end-of-year giving

Rural journalism matters more than ever, and not just in rural areas. Local journalists play a crucial role in keeping people informed during the pandemic and engaged in democracy, and that has far-reaching consequences for all Americans.

But rural journalists need your help. At a time when local journalism is more critical than ever, newspapers and broadcasters, including many in rural areas, are teetering on the brink after losing advertising revenue.

You can help by subscribing to your local community newspaper, buying gift subscriptions and donating to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Why give to us? We help provide rural journalists the professional resources that many of them lack. As news outlets are cutting staff, frequency and even closing, we provide information and inspiration for rural news operations. We work hard all year to help rural journalists all over the U.S. with training, news aggregation, resources and recognition.

Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor-publisher of The Canadian Record, a Texas weekly, 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. Please donate here.

Arts industry can boost rural economies, but industry advocates say artists need more stimulus funding

As Congress mulls a new economic stimulus package, arts industry leaders say creative professionals need more funding. During the pandemic, "nearly 3 million jobs in creative industries are projected to have been lost, representing more than a third of all creative-industry jobs in the United States, according to a Brookings Institution analysis this summer of the coronavirus impact on the creative economy," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. "About $150 billion in sales of goods and services from creative industries is estimated to have been lost as well."

That matters in rural America because arts and cultural organizations can boost local economies, make towns more attractive to tourists and prospective businesses and residents, and increase civic pride among residents. "Artists turn around economies and rural and distressed communities. They stimulate jobs in other sectors that depend on a vibrant arts economy," Kelly Barsdate, chief program and planning officer for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, told Noble.

Some state and local governments have earmarked direct financial aid for artists, but "going forward there may be less public grant funding available for artists as state and local governments coping with tax revenue declines end up slashing their budgets," Noble reports.

Arts leaders say federal support for the creative economy has been lacking. "It’s not just about the arts wanting special treatment," Barsdate told Noble. "Across the board, the arts have lost four times more jobs and revenue than other industries."

Quick hits: federal gov't stymies Texas law to remove racist place names; wildfire expert urges tougher building codes

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

Appalachian shale drillers are still losing despite spending cuts. Read more here.

In 1991, Texas passed a law to remove the word "Negro" from place names across the state, but many still haven't changed because the federal government blocked them. Read more here.

An 89-year-old Black woman from rural North Carolina worried that the oral histories from her family and community would be lost, so she self-published a memoir recounting them. Read more here.

A wildfire policy expert urged state and local governments to toughen building codes for houses in wildfire-prone areas. Read more here.

Missouri will stop printing paper income-tax forms in an effort to encourage more people to file their taxes electronically. Residents can file paper returns, but will have to download and print the forms. About 12% of the state's taxpayers filed paper returns in 2019. Rural residents without broadband access may have a harder time with the new rule. Read more here.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Study: Americans trust local media more on the pandemic

Screenshot from The Covid-10 Societal Impact Project. Click here to read more.
A study by the Whitman Insight Strategies Initiative and Creative Circle Media Solutions shows that Americans are more likely to trust local media sources than nationwide news media for pandemic information. "Moreover, when asked where they go for essential information about Covid-19, local news scored much higher than cable news and social media channels," Editor & Publisher reports.

Other findings "show how scared and frightened our readers are and how much they crave credible, local information that connects them with their community and offers hope and comfort," Editor & Publisher reports. 

Overall, 34 percent of respondents said they've started using new sources and platforms for news because of the pandemic. Among that one-third of respondents, 29% said they've begun paying attention to local news sources. Respondents said local news was the most trusted source on several measurements, according to the report.

"We have new eyeballs and more eyeballs. We have an opportunity to provide new kinds of content. Better content," Bill Ostendorf, president and founder of Creative Circle, told E&P. "If we create more engaging content now, we can change the way they view newspapers and how they value us."

Local governments, citizens solve problems as D.C. dithers

While nationwide debate over many issues remains deeply polarized, local governments are quietly finding common ground—and solutions—on a wide range of issues, Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib reports for The Wall Street Journal.

For example, "While national politicians lapsed into finger-pointing over shortages of masks and surgical gowns during the pandemic, two businesswomen in Morganton, N.C., organized a network of small textile companies in the area to begin producing half a million masks and surgical gowns for the region’s doctors, hospitals, businesses and citizens," Seib reports. 

"In the early days it was like Rosie the Riveter," Sara Chester, one of the businesswomen, told Seib. "Everybody wanted to do their part."

"There are potentially big lessons in such small steps," Seib reports. "At a time of deepening national divisions and political tribalism, many Americans have decided to rely less on Washington to deal with problems and have turned for answers to local institutions, state governments, business leaders, their own communities and one another."

"States of Innovation," a new series of case studies from the Pew Charitable Trusts, highlights examples of state governments tackling problems, including "laws passed in more than a dozen states to deal with a shortage of dentists in rural areas by authorizing dental therapists to provide more services," Seib reports.

Unemployed Americans face benefits delay under relief bill; states demand money back for mistaken benefit payments

Millions of Americans have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, but many are still getting inadequate unemployment benefits, and even if the bipartisan relief bill passes, they'll likely see a lag in payments.

The new bipartisan bill includes $300 in weekly unemployment benefits, but it could be weeks after the bill is signed before unemployed workers start seeing that money, The Washington Post reports.

The last relief bill, passed in March, included an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits though the end of July. Other measures added to that. The bill also created two programs to help unemployed independent contractors, both of which are set to end in December, Emily Stewart reports for Vox

"In designing these programs, Congress made a lot of assumptions about how the U.S. would handle the pandemic — mainly, that it would do a better job than it did of getting the virus under control so that people could get back to work," Stewart reports. "But nine months later, America still has 10 million fewer jobs than it did pre-pandemic, and as the coronavirus continues to spread, many places across the country are facing shutdowns once again, threatening further job losses."

Meanwhile, many states are demanding that recipients pay back thousands of dollars after mistakenly issuing too much in benefits, Ava Kofman reports for ProPublica. The new bill might stop that.

Trump won by a landslide in most rural counties; see data

Landslide counties in 2020 presidential election are shown in dark colors.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Much has been made of President-elect Joe Biden's narrow wins in battleground states, but in most places, the presidential race wasn't competitive at all; most people live in "landslide counties," where one of the candidates won by at least 20 percentage points. It reflects the rural-urban political divide.

"Nationally, 77% of all counties this year were won in a landslide. Four years ago, 79% of counties were won by 20 points or more," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "Nearly eight in 10 rural voters (77.3%) live in a landslide county, about the same as four years ago."

Though the 2020 race had a slightly lower percentage of landslide counties than in 2016, "The percentage of people living in a landslide county has been increasing since the mid-1970s," Bishop reports. The phenomenon was a major basis for his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

In 2020, Texas boasted the most Republican urban and rural counties. In Armstrong County, an Amarillo suburb, 93.2% of voters went for Trump. "The most Republican rural county was Roberts County in the Texas Panhandle, where 96.9% of the vote went for President Trump," Bishop reports. "Only 17 people there voted for the Democrat,."

Biden's top rural strongholds were Jefferson and Claiborne counties in the Delta region of Mississippi. Each gave 86.2% of votes to Biden, Bishop reports. On the map above, they're the southernmost dark-blue Mississippi counties on the river, except the one in the state's southwest corner; that's Wilkinson County, which Biden won by more than 2 to 1.

Rural hospital roundup: rural hospitals still struggling to cope with rising tide of Covid cases

Rural hospitals in the Ozarks are struggling to cope with rising tide of Covid-19 patients. Read more here.

The Covid surge is straining rural health-care systems. Read more here.

The pandemic reveals rural health-care disparities, writes Nathan Beacom, a policy associate for the Center for Rural Affairs, in an op-ed for The Coastland Times in North Carolina. Read more here.

The rural South, which had already suffered the lion's share of hospital closures over the past decade, is particularly struggling with the pandemic. Read more here.

Many rural Kansas hospitals are overflowing with Covid-19 patients, but urban hospitals are full too, and it's hard to find beds for the patients anywhere. Read more here.

With many rural hospitals full, some Covid patients must be transferred to larger hospitals. For patients with underlying illnesses, the transfer process can be life-threatening. Read more here.

Rural Arizona doctor says local health-care providers tired and overwhelmed watching their friends and neighbors fall ill. Read more here.

Hospital workers have been hailed as heroes, but for years hospitals have done little to protect nurses and other medical staff from patient violence. Read more here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

What's in the bipartisan relief bill for agriculture and more

A bipartisan group of senators has released a pair of coronavirus relief bills that aim to provide economic aid for American workers and small businesses. The bills were originally one $908 billion plan unveiled earlier this month, but the senators split them into two bills they believe have a better chance of passing. The first bill is a $748 billion comprehensive measure, and the second bill provides $160 billion for state and local funding (click here for a Tax Foundation estimate of how much each state would receive).

"The $748 billion measure is expected to include additional funding for the popular Paycheck Protection Program, schools and unemployment insurance, as well as more money for vaccine development and distribution, coronavirus testing and contact tracing. Both Republicans and Democrats agree on these measures," Grace Segers reports for CBS News. "The second bill, however, would address two issues that have been sticking points between Republicans and Democrats in negotiations over a relief package: $160 billion for state and local governments, a priority for Democrats, and a liability shield for businesses, key to Republicans. Republicans oppose the former, while Democrats think the liability shield could hurt workers."

The $748 billion bill earmarked $13 billion "to address Covid-related impacts on farmers, ranchers, growers, etc., and rural communities, Ben Nuelle reports for Agri-Pulse. From that funding, $600 million will go toward fishery disaster relief, and an undisclosed amount would go to the Agriculture Department's Rural Development agencies to fund water and wastewater programs.

Other measures in the $748 billion bill:

  • The U.S. Postal Service would get $10 billion from the treasury without having to repay it, but would have to disclose how the money is spent. The USPS Board of Governors would have to present a plan to Congress within 180 days to ensure the service's long-term solvency.
  • $10 billion to support child-care providers struggling economically.
  • $6.25 billion for broadband build-out.
  • $3 billion to to help underserved areas—especially rural areas—with broadband hotspots, computers, and other needs for distance learning.
  • $200 million for internet-connected devices for libraries in low-income and rural areas.
  • $475 million for the Federal Communications Commission's Covid-19 Telehealth Program, with 20% set aside for small, rural health-care providers.
  • $100 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for Telehealth and Connected Care Program.
  • $3.15 billion to substance-abuse prevention and treatment block grants.
  • $1.3 billion for opioid response grants to states.
  • An unspecified amount (possibly none needed) for expanding access to medication-assisted treatment by allowing limited extension of telehealth waivers and eliminating the requirement for practitioners to apply for a waiver through the Drug Enforcement Administration in order to prescribe buprenorphine.
  • An extension of the eviction moratorium until Jan. 31.
  • $25 billion in rental assistance.
  • $35 billion for health-care providers.
  • 16 weeks of unemployment benefits at $300 per week.
  • 16-week extensions in base unemployment benefits and the unemployment program for gig workers and independent contractors.
  • $300 billion for small-business relief.
  • $82 billion for schools.
  • $13 billion in emergency food assistance.

Columnist Thomas Friedman suggests Biden assign Harris as vice president to tackle long list of rural disparities

Vice presidents are often viewed as ornamental, but New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman suggests Kamala Harris use her platform to address a serious problem in America.

"Harris is too smart and energetic to be just the vice president, a position with few official responsibilities," Friedman writes for The New York Times. "I’d love to see President-elect Joe Biden give her a more important job: his de facto secretary of rural development, in charge of closing the opportunity gap, the connectivity gap, the learning gap, the start-up gap — and the anger and alienation gap — between rural America and the rest of the country."

There's a political angle for Democrats. Friedman notes that rural America has become increasingly Republican in recent years, and Donald Trump exploited rural resentment to win votes. But charging Harris with addressing rural concerns "would provide a vision for American renewal and signal that Democrats were no longer going to cede rural America to Republicans but were instead going to seize it from them. And it would make Harris a super-relevant vice president from Day 1," Friedman writes.

Biden must address rural inequalities such as broadband, agriculture, health-care access. One suggestion that would kick-start broadband build-out: "a new federal loan program that would offer 50-year, no-interest loans to communities and co-ops (and ease regulations) so rural public-private coalitions can build broadband networks with a minimum 100 megabits per second of speed for downloading and uploading all kinds of remote learning tools, work tools and telehealth tools," Friedman writes.

Whatever Biden's plans to help rural America, he and his appointees must start simply by showing up regularly to listen to rural residents' concerns, Friedman writes: "Nothing earns more respect than listening to people respectfully."

Friday webinar to discuss USDA's Rural America at a Glance report, which will be released Thursday

The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service will release the 2020 edition of its Rural America at a Glance report Thursday, Dec. 17. The report summarizes rural trends in population, employment, poverty and income. This year's edition will focus on recent economic and demographic conditions in rural areas resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession.

On Friday, Dec. 18, ERS economist Elizabeth Dobis will host a free webinar to discuss the report's findings. The webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. For more information about the webinar or to register, click here.

Americans report lowest mental-health ratings in nearly 20 years; farmers have trouble reaching out due to stigma

"The coronavirus pandemic and its associated lockdowns, prolonged unemployment, social isolation, and general uncertainty appear to have contributed to a decline in Americans’ mental health—to the point where self assessments have hit a nearly 20-year low," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "Seventy-six percent of adults now rate their mental health as 'excellent' or 'good,' a nine-point decline from 2019, according to a new Gallup poll that surveyed 1,018 people Nov. 5-19. Since 2001, the polling firm has been surveying Americans about their mental and emotional well-being, and in each of those years, between 81% and 89% of respondents had a positive outlook on their health."

The results are not surprising, considering the pandemic and its economic fallout combined with the coming winter, which can trigger seasonal depression, Coleman reports. But not all Americans saw the same rate of mental-health decline, and one demographic even saw an improvement. 

"Republicans, independents, women, those who never attend religious services, and unmarried people were among the groups that all saw double-digit drops in rating their mental health as excellent," Coleman reports. "Democrats had the least change in their ratings, dropping by only one point compared to last year. Those who attend weekly religious services were the only group to report better mental health this year than in 2019."

Rural Americans are more likely than their suburban and urban counterparts to report mental-health conditions, but less able to access or afford mental-health treatment, and stigma surrounding mental health problems sometimes makes them less likely to seek help.

Farming is one of the most stressful jobs in the U.S., and farmers report some of the highest rates of mental-health issues and suicides of any occupation. But farmers value independence, and it can be difficult for them to reach out or talk about stressors in their lives. In Eads, Colo., for example, a poor growing season has stressed many local farmers, but not many are seeking help, Susan Green reports for the Colorado News Collaborative.

Dawn Beck, a physician's assistant in Eads, told Green her patients "bristle" when she mentions anxiety or depression. "They say 'Well, we’ve been through this before,' even though this is by far the worst year anybody can remember. It’s a pride thing. A cowboy thing. And it’s just eating people up."

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Public-health workers, once an 'invisible army,' have become 'a public punching bag' in a politicized pandemic

Karen Koenemann quit as public health director for Pitkin County, Colo. (seat: Aspen) after realizing she was in “Groundhog Day,” she said. “I have been working eight months, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m really burnt out, really burnt out. ... I think of the pandemic as the ultra-marathon that we were required to do at a sprint’s pace. And we walked into that ultra-marathon emaciated, we didn’t train well for it, we didn’t have the strength going in. ... Every day I do the best I can and I am giving so much, so much of myself to this job and this community, and all I get is criticism and it just was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Life is too short.”  (Photo for Kaiser Health News by Kelsey Brunner)

Local and state public-health officials and workers are "at the center of a political storm as they combat the worst pandemic in a century," Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press report.

"Amid a fractured federal response, the usually invisible army of workers charged with preventing the spread of infectious diseases has become a public punching bag. Their expertise on how to fight the coronavirus is often disregarded," write Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber of KHN and Michelle R. Smith of AP.

Kaiser Health News map; to enlarge, click on it.
"Some have become the target of far-right activists, conservative groups and anti-vaccination extremists, who have coalesced around common goals — fighting mask orders, quarantines and contact tracing with protests, threats and personal attacks. The backlash has moved beyond the angry fringe. In the courts, public health powers are being undermined. Lawmakers in at least 24 states have crafted legislation to weaken public health powers, which could make it more difficult for communities to respond to other health emergencies in the future."

“What we’ve taken for granted for 100 years in public health is now very much in doubt,” Lawrence Gostin, a public-health law expert at Georgetown University, told one of the reporters.

It's too much for some in public health. "At least 181 state and local public health leaders in 38 states have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1," according to the reporters' ongoing investigation. "According to experts, this is the largest exodus of public health leaders in American history. An untold number of lower-level staffers has also left. . . . Many of the state and local officials left due to political blowback or pandemic pressure. Some departed to take higher-profile positions or due to health concerns. Others were fired for poor performance. Dozens retired."

“I’ve never seen or studied a pandemic that has been as politicized, as vitriolic and as challenged as this one, and I’ve studied a lot of epidemics,” Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, told one of the reporters. “All of that has been very demoralizing for the men and women who don’t make a great deal of money, don’t get a lot of fame, but work 24/7.”

"The politicization has put some local governments at odds with their own health officials," KHN and AP report, giving several examples. "In California, near Lake Tahoe, the Placer County Board of Supervisors voted to end a local health emergency and declared support for a widely discredited “herd immunity” strategy, which would let the virus spread. . . . The supervisors also endorsed a false conspiracy theory claiming many Covid-19 deaths are not actually from Covid-19. The meeting occurred just days after county Public Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson explained to the board the rigorous standards used for counting Covid-19 deaths. Sisson quit the next day."