Saturday, February 08, 2020

Bill Williams, who set a standard for small dailies, dies at 85

Front page of latest edition of Williams' paper
Bill Williams, who was one of Tennessee's most respected newspaper publishers, died Thursday in his hometown of Paris, in the northwest part of the state. He was 85.

Williams was publisher of the Paris Post-Intelligencer, the daily his grandfather bought in 1927, until 1999, but continued to write editorials until 2016. He suffered from Parkinson's disease and Lewy body dementia, and suffered a massive stroke the day before his death, his obituary said.

He once said of his newspaper, “I’ve tried to see that it’s been a good citizen of our community.” His grandfather, Bryant Williams, said of their profession, “The only higher calling is the ministry.”

The Post-Intelligencer set a standard for small dailies in Tennessee, as signified when Williams was made a member of the charter class of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame in 2013, along with former Nashville Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler, Maryville Times editor Dean Stone and three Nashville television journalists.

Williams wrote many editorials that won awards from the Tennessee Press Association, which he served as president in 1982-83. He was also former president of the Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors and United Press International’s Tennessee newspaper group, and a civic leader in Paris.

Visitation will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday and from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, and the funeral at 3 p.m. Sunday, all at First Presbyterian Church, where he served as an elder for 52 years. McEvoy Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the church, 105 S. Market St., Paris.

Williams is survived by his wife of 63 years, the former Anne Corbett; their son, P-I Editor and Publisher Michael Williams; three daughters: Cindy Barnett of Murray, Ky.; Julie Ray of Gainesville, Fla.; and Joan Howe of Paris; 14 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Trump aides tout rural angles in budget to come next week

President Trump will "propose spending billions on health care, infrastructure, business loans and internet access in rural America, a key part of his constituency as he seeks reelection," when he presents his budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, reports David Jackson of USA Today. "Trump is expected to make a major appeal to rural voters in his reelection campaign, especially as it relates to farmers in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin."

On the other side, Democrats running for president "say that Trump’s economic policies – including tariffs, tax cuts, and regulation reductions – favor the wealthy at the expense of farmers and other residents of rural America," Jackson notes. He lists several items that Trump administration officials provided, on the condition of anonymity "because the budget has not yet been released," including $25 billion for a new “Revitalizing Rural America” grant program to help areas with broadband, transportation, water and road and bridge projects.

Most of the items in the list appear to be for existing programs and mandatory spending. "Some could be applied to urban and suburban areas as well," Jackson writes. "Also, there is no way these plans will pass Congress intact, certainly not in an election year and with Democrats controlling the House. These days, Congress doesn’t pass annual budgets per se. They approve a series of temporary spending plans to keep the government funded."

Democrats running for the nomination to face Trump "have said that Trump’s policies have been bad for rural America, particularly farmers," Jackson notes. "They have focused on tariffs on China and other countries that have raised the prices of products and make it harder for U.S. farmers to sell goods overseas. . . . Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC focused on the presidential election, said polling in battleground states shows that 'rural voters do have a slightly favorable opinion of Trump and his work on the economy.' But it added that rural residents 'are concerned about health care and also don’t see themselves as thriving under Trump’s economy.'"

Guide helps rural communities deal with substance abuse

The White House Office of Drug Control Policy and the Department of Agriculture have released a Rural Community Action Guide to help rural places address substance-abuse problems. It includes "promising practices for a range of issues related to drug addiction in rural America and recommended action steps for communities addressing these issues," the Appalachian Regional Commission says in its weekly "ARC in the Region" email newsletter.

"The guide also includes insight from ARC on the impact addiction has on economic development specifically in Appalachia," ARC says. "Using this resource, local leaders can learn more about the resources available to help combat the crisis and help change the narrative about substance abuse in rural areas." ARC says it is following recommendations made by its Substance Abuse Advisory Council, a 24-member volunteer group of leaders from recovery services, health, economic development, private industry, education, state government, law enforcement, and other sectors representing each of the region’s 13 states, addressing the workforce impacts of substance-abuse disorder.

The recommendations included pilot projects to address common recovery-to-work issues; developing best practices “toolkit” to educate employers and human resource experts in recruiting, selecting, managing, and retaining employees who are in recovery; and "assembling a playbook of solutions for communities addressing common ecosystems gaps and services barriers." ARC says.

Leading manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, insecticide linked to neurological problems in children, says it will stop making it

The largest maker of an insecticide linked to neurological problems in children and threats to wildlife said Thursday it would stop making it by the end of the year. Chlorpyrifos "has long been sprayed on strawberries, corn and citrus to kill pests," Catherine Boudreau notes for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "The EPA under President Donald Trump has resisted banning it, arguing additional safety assessments are needed."

Some states have taken action; California has banned farm us of the insecticide after this year. Gregg Schmidt, a spokesman for leading manufacturer Corteva, said "significantly" declining demand, not safety concerns, drove the decision. "The company told Reuters that it will continue to back chlorpyrifos during the EPA's review," Boudreau notes.

"Environmental groups praised the move, but cautioned that other companies are still manufacturing the pesticide, which is allowed on imported food," Boudreau writes. Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, said "A federal ban on chlorpyrifos is the only next logical step toward protecting children and farmworkers from this toxic pesticide."

Nutrition label now has larger portion sizes and lists added sugars, which can cause problems; here's how to limit it

Nutrition fact labels are the primary source of information about what's in the food we eat, and they recently got their first update in 20 years.

The Food and Drug Administration says it based the changes on "updated scientific information, new nutrition and public health research, more recent dietary recommendations from expert groups, and input from the public."

Manufacturers with $10 million or more in annual sales were required to switch to the new label by Jan. 1, those with less annual food sales have another year to comply.

One of the biggest changes on the labels is that they now show a serving size based on the amount most people eat and drink, instead of a suggested serving size.

This change was made to reflect the larger portions people eat and drink now, compared to those in 1993 when the previous size requirements were published. For example, the new serving size for ice cream is 2/3 cup, compared to 1/2 cup on the old label.

And for products that could be consumed in one sitting, like a 24-ounce bottle of soda or a pint of ice cream, manufacturers must now provide a "dual column" label to show calories and nutrients for both "per serving" and"per package" amounts.

The labels also show the calories and serving size in larger and bolder type. This change was made to address the growing obesity problem in the United States, which is associated with heart disease, stroke, certain cancers and diabetes.

The new labels will no longer include calories from fat, but will instead show the types of fat a product contains. This change was made to reflect research that shows the type of fat you consume is more important than the amount.

The labels now include potassium and Vitamin D, along with calcium and iron. Vitamins A and C have become optional for listing, since most Americans get enough of those nutrients in their diets. They also reflect updated requirements for the amount of nutrients we need, shown in both the actual amount and the percent daily value. An updated footnote explains the meaning of percent daily value.

The FDA added Vitamin D and potassium because research shows these are nutrients that Americans don't always get enough of, and when lacking, are associated with increased risk of chronic disease.

Added sugars have also been added to the label. The most recent dietary guidelines recommends you consume less than 10% of your daily calories from added sugars.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons for men. The recommended rate for children varies between three and six teaspoons per day, depending on age and caloric need. One teaspoon of sugar equals four grams on the label.

Health risk of added sugar

Most people have no idea how much added sugar they consume, because it's in nearly 70% of packaged foods and is found in breads, health foods, snacks, yogurts, most breakfast foods and sauces. Tara Parker-Pope reports for The New York Times. She says the average American eats about 17 teaspoons of added sugar a day -- not counting the sugars that occur naturally in foods like fruit or dairy products.

A physician who was one of the first to raise the alarm about the health risks of added sugar told Parker-Pope that it's not just about the added calories, but also about the many health risks that come with eating too much added sugar.

“It’s not about being obese, it has to do with metabolic health,” Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, told Parker-Pope. “Sugar turns on the aging programs in your body. The more sugar you eat, the faster you age.”

A number of health authorities, including the World Health Organization and the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which issues national dietary guidelines for Americans, agree that cutting back on added sugars is a good idea, Parker-Pope reports, adding that these views have come under attack by groups with ties to the food industry.

Parker-Pope writes that while many scientists believe added sugar is the leading culprit in the obesity epidemic, they also say that even people of normal weight can suffer the same health problems associated with eating too much sugar, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and even Alzheimer's disease.

Too much added sugar can also damage your liver, similarly to the way that alcohol does, leading to a condition that is called "sugar belly," in which your waist is bigger than your hips.

Parker-Pope points to the difference between the sugar, or fructose, found naturally in foods, which are good to eat, and those that have been added to foods.

She writes that our bodies can handle fructose when it's eaten as a whole fruit because it comes with a number of micronutrients plus fiber, which slows the rate at which the sugar enters your bloodstream. But when we eat the fructose found in ultra-processed foods and beverages, it doesn't have the fiber to slow it down and "your body gets a big dose of fructose that can wreak havoc," she writes.

Further, she reports that high consumption of processed fructose can result in a dulled response to a hormone called leptin, which is a natural appetitie suppressant, leading to weight gain and that it can create changes in the brain similar to those found in people who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol.

Gary Taubes, author of The Case Against Sugar and an advocate of low-carbohydrate eating, doesn't agree with the food industry's recommendation that added sugars be consumed in moderation.

“If I start to allow sugars into my life, there is a slippery slope,” Taubes told Parker-Pope “I think for many people, getting control of their sugar habit is the most important thing they can do for their health. If they can’t do it through abstinence, then mostly-abstinence is a good thing to achieve.”

The New York Times has offered a 7-Day Sugar Challenge to help people reduce the added sugar in their diet. For example, the first day in the challenge offers tips on how to cut out sugar from your breakfast. Parker-Pope stresses that it's not easy, and the cravings for sweets will be worse in the first five days -- but the payoff is worth it.

Lustig recommends three weeks of no added sugar to get your brain’s dopamine system back to normal. “Then you can introduce something back in,” he told Parker-Pope. “But it’s got to be under your control, not the food industry’s control.”

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Interior clears way for energy development on land Trump removed from monument, but industry shows little interest

Washington Post map shows current and former monument boundaries and the energy potential in the area.
The Department of the Interior has issued its final plans "to allow mining and energy drilling on nearly a million acres of land in southern Utah that had once been protected as part of a major national monument," reports Coral Davenport of The New York Times.

The plan clears the way for energy companies to lease almost 862,000 acres that had been part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, created by Bill Clinton. President Trump cut the monument’s acreage about in half in December 2017, and "removed about a million acres from another Utah monument, Bears Ears," created by Barack Obama, Davenport notes. "Together, the moves were the largest rollback of public lands protection in United States history."

No developers have moved to lease the land, "although they could have done so at any time in the months following Mr. Trump’s proclamation that he was removing protection from the land, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department said."

That is probably no surprise to Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, who wrote over a year ago that the land Trump removed from the monument was unlikely to attract much interest from energy developers. "In this fight," she wrote, "ideology has triumphed over economics."

Citation of community-journalism book in N.Y. Review of Books leads to a dire observation from Rural Blog editor

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

The Feb. 27 issue of the New York Review of Books has a feature article, "Can Journalism Be Saved?" by Nicholas Lemann that cites 14 books, including The News Untold: Community Journalism and the Failure to Confront Poverty in Appalachia, by my esteemed colleague, Michael Clay Carey of Samford University. Here's what the dean emeritus of the journalism faculty at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism had to say about Clay's work:
Michael Clay Carey’s The News Untold, an ethnographic study of journalism in three small rural Appalachian communities, offers the hope that such papers could draw badly needed attention to poverty. His own careful research demonstrates how pathetically under-resourced these papers are. Carey interviews the owner of one of his small-town papers in the barbershop where he cuts hair three days a week, because the paper can’t support him full time; the paper’s editorial staff, consisting of one person who was hired through a temporary employment agency, is also part-time. Carey’s call for the papers to become less boosterish and more “inclusive” in their coverage is affecting, but with what resources would they undertake this? It would be possible to ask poor people to tell their own stories in such papers, but that wouldn’t be much different from starting a group conversation online. As [Michael] Schudson asks [in Why Journalism Still Matters], “What news items have the president or the Congress, governors or mayors, or corporate executives been forced by law or public opinion to respond to?” Outside of work produced by news organizations, “Little or none, I suspect.” In poor small towns, far more than in Washington, such reporting requires subsidy.
But there's no one to subsidize it. Not the audience, which is penurious, aging and migrating out. Not the advertisers, who have been savaged by big-box stores and the internet, and are disappearing. Not the philanthropies, who have never really understood rural America and sure as heck don't understand rural journalism. If that sounds like a gripe from someone who has failed to raise much money from them, it is, but it's also an admission of failure to educate them. Now they and rural America will learn the hard way; in the last three years, I have seen the finances of rural weeklies begin to take the same sort of hits from ad losses that their metro cousins took a decade ago. More than ever, they must make themselves essential servants to their communities, and make sure those communities understand their value.

Webcast Tuesday morning will examine effective steps states are taking to make high-speed internet available to all

At least 21 million Americans, many if not most of them in rural areas, still lack access to high-speed internet, or broadband, says the Federal Communications Commission—and the number could be much higher, says the Pew Charitable Trusts, which will hold a webcast from 9 a.m. to noon ET Tuesday, Feb. 11, on how states can close the gap.

"Although much of the conversation about expanding broadband access has focused on the federal and local levels, states are taking decisive steps to expand this critical service to communities that lack it or are under-served," Pew says in its announcement on the page where the webcast will appear. "State leaders have recognized that broadband is not just a technology, but a key asset that will shape other policy priorities: access to health care, economic development, and distance-learning programs, among others." For Pew's latest issue brief on state broadband efforts, go here.

Pew says the webcast will include participants from California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maine, and will examine state practices in five categories that are proving effective for expanding broadband: stakeholder engagement, policy framework, planning and capacity building, funding and operations, and program evaluation. Its Twitter handle is #PewBroadband. Register here. To download Pew's latest report on the issue, go here. Its updated State Broadband Policy Explorer is here.

Buttegeig's apparent Iowa win built in large part on rural vote

Los Angeles Times map shows margin of victory by county. Story has other good graphics.

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttegeig carried most rural areas in his apparent victory in Iowa's Democratic presidential caucuses. They put him one-tenth of a percentage point ahead of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with 97 percent of all the delayed results in. (National Democratic Chair Tom Perez called today for a recanvass of the votes.)

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was eight points behind Buttegeig and Sanders, at 18.2%; former vice president Joe Biden had 15.8% and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar 12.2%. The results, especially in rural areas, were damaging to Biden. "Joe Biden spent a lot of his time in rural areas," CNN political correspondent Arlette Saenz noted Monday night.

Sanders won the popular vote, but Buttegeig got more state-delegate equivalents ("the traditional metric by which an Iowa winner has been determined," The Washington Post notes) because the party's delegate-allocation formula gives more weight to rural precincts. NBC political correspondent Steve Kornacki said on Twitter of Buttigieg’s lead. “Basically, rural areas tend to get more bang for their buck at the expense of college-heavy areas.”

The Post's Philip Bump checks the second choices of voters whose candidates didn't reach the 15 percent qualifying threshold in their caucuses and finds, "Over and over, Buttigieg was the second choice." Those results suggest "Buttigieg may have an edge moving forward if he remains the No. 2 choice for voters, as their first choices might give up on seeking the nomination."
Read more here:

Hillary Clinton gave up on rural America; are the Democrats about to do it again? Will they even ask for rural votes?

So asks Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine, based on reporting from Politico and The Washington Post. "Ignoring it would be foolish," he writes, citing Jake Davis, policy director for Family Farm Action.

Whoever gets the Democratic nomination “has to show up” in rural areas, Davis said. “Make some campaign stops, talk about [rural people’s] issues, listen to their issues, and there’s 10 percent of voters out there who feel like they’re disenfranchised from both parties. It’s there for the taking, and it’s clear President Trump isn’t taking care of rural areas.”

Davis was "referring to the administration’s export-roiling trade machinations, its policies favoring big meat packers over independent farmers, and its approvals of mega-mergers among seed/agrichemical conglomerates," Philpott writes for the liberal magazine.

He also quotes Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa, a liberal who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials three years ago. Clinton lost Midwest farm states because “she never showed up,” Cullen said. “The first rule of politics is to ask people for their vote. She never asked the Midwest for their votes.”

Oil companies in Permian Basin trying to figure out what to do with wastewater from fracking

Oil producers in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico are looking for alternate ways to dispose of the huge amounts of water used in their horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations, April Reese reports for Searchlight New Mexico.

"For every barrel of oil produced in the Permian, about four barrels of this 'produced water' come out of the earth with it. In 2018 alone, New Mexico’s share of the Permian Basin generated 42 billion gallons of oil and gas wastewater, according to the New Mexico Environment Department," Reese writes. "For years, companies simply dumped the contaminated wastewater into disposal wells. Now, there’s keen interest in reusing that water for drilling — and even for other, more controversial purposes."

Wastewater recycling is the most popular alternative in the arid state, "but others contend that the water is too contaminated to ever be anything but waste," and recycling is too expensive.

"As divided as New Mexicans might be on the prospect of reusing produced water beyond oil fields," Reese writes, they agree on two things: Southeastern New Mexico is headed for a water crisis, and oil and gas production is resulting in increasing volumes of wastewater. . . . the constant flow of freshwater needed for fracking is ever harder to come by in this parched region, which receives only about 13 inches of precipitation a year."

China cuts in half recent tariffs on U.S. meat and soybeans

China announced today that it has cut in half the $75 billion in tariffs it placed on American products, including pork, chicken, beef and soybeans, in late 2019. The move was "a sign that Beijing is implementing the phase-one deal with United States despite the coronavirus outbreak," which had raised questions about that, report Zhou Xin and Cissy Zhou of the South China Morning Post.

"The Chinese government said that the planned reduction of tariffs on U.S. products was in response to a decision by the U.S. to halve 15 per cent an additional tariff on $120 billion of Chinese goods to 7.5 per cent," the Post reports. "China said on Thursday that it remained committed to the eventual goal of removing all additional tariffs imposed on each other since the tariff war started in early 2018."

Observers of international trade thought China might "delay some of the phase one commitments as it attempts to deal with the rampant spread of the coronavirus, which has placed large swaths of the economy on lockdown," the Post notes. "The deal states that the U.S. and China will 'consult' each other if there is a 'natural disaster' or other emergency that could affect commitments. . . . Chinese buyers have yet to make large-scale purchases of U.S. farm goods in 2020, partly due to the Lunar New Year holiday, which fell early this year, and also due to the shutdown due to the coronavirus." But also, "Market sources told AgriCensus that Chinese soybean crushers had bought 'at least 1 million metric tons of soybeans from Brazil' since the end of the extended holiday period."

Appalachian congressmen in Trump districts file bipartisan bill to re-create White House Rural Council he abolished

Two House members from Appalachian districts carried by Donald Trump have filed a bipartisan bill to restore the White House Rural Council, which the president disbanded soon after taking office.

Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright of eastern Pennsylvania's 8th District and Republican Rep. Hal Rogers of eastern Kentucky's 5th District said in a joint press release that their legislation "would create new economic opportunities in rural areas." They dubbed it the Transforming Hiring in Rural Industries and Vital Economies (THRIVE) Act.

“At a time when urban issues get plenty of attention, it’s our responsibility to make sure small towns don’t get left behind,” Cartwright said. “This bill directs federal dollars toward critical projects to improve health care services, expand broadband internet access, assist small businesses and strengthen schools.”

Rogers, a former Appropriations Committee chair, said “This bill ensures that rural America is not an afterthought and has a prominent voice in Washington. . . . This legislation will bring together key decision-makers to prioritize rural needs and make sure federal investments are having the best impact possible in the areas that need it most.”

Among the programs overseen by the Rural Council was the Livable Communities Initiative, which supported small towns' efforts to improve transportation and develop housing. The council also worked with the Department of Education to provide online educational resources for teachers and students in rural communities and started a water-quality initiative "to work with farmers to improve conservation of working lands and ensure they can be used for years to come," the release said.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Floods made 2019 crop insurance payout highest in history; still-saturated soils in Midwest threaten more this year

"Flood-related federal crop insurance payouts for the 2019 growing season total more than $6.4 billion so far — the costliest on record," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "Most of those indemnities are tied to the spring and summer floods across states like North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Illinois, according to an analysis of USDA data by Steve Bowen, a meteorologist and head of catastrophe insight at Aon, an insurance company."

Bowen told Politico, “Given the record rainfall that occurred and the multiple ‘waves’ of flooding that affected areas across the Mississippi, Missouri, and Arkansas River basins, the heightened impacts are not overly surprising. Last year was a very tough year for farmers, and there are concerns that already saturated soils across the Plains and Midwest may set the stage for more possible flooding in 2020.”

Department of Agriculture economists predicted last year that climate change will fuel bigger and more frequent storms, which will increase the price of crop insurance by 4% to 22%. Inside Climate News reported in 2018 that drought, partly driven by climate change, was driving up crop-insurance payouts and accounted for almost half the payouts from 2000 to 2016. Floods were second.

McCrimmon notes that the crop-insurance program "is overseen by USDA and carried out by private companies. Taxpayers cover companies’ costs of administering the program and subsidize, on average, 60 percent of farmers’ premiums; growers pay the other 40 percent."

Freelancers, a Cherokee and an Ozarker, win $100,000 for journalism about Native Americans and a migrant's journey

Rebecca Nagle, left, and Nancy Corteau
Freelance journalists Rebecca Nagle and Darcy Courteau are the recipients of the 2020 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, which includes an unrestricted cash prize of $100,000. It is awarded by the Heising-Simons Foundation, which said in a press release, "This is one of the largest dollar amounts given for a journalism award in the United States."

"The prize is awarded for excellence in long-form, narrative, or deep reporting about under-represented and/or misrepresented groups in the United States," the release says. "It recognizes journalism’s ability to foster understanding and aims to support freelance journalists." The foundation says it works "to advance sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people."

Nagle’s journalism includes the Crooked Media podcast, “This Land,” which explores Native American rights. Courteau’s work includes a June 2019 feature in The Atlantic, “Mireya’s Third Crossing,” about an undocumented immigrant’s harrowing journeys across the U.S.-Mexico border.

Nagle is a writer, audio journalist and advocate, based in Tahlequah, Okla. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she frequently writes about Native American issues. Courteau is a writer and photo essayist based in Washington, D.C. and the Arkansas Ozarks. "Among her enduring subjects are the outsider communities she has made home," the release says.

The prize winners are selected from confidential nominations invited from more than 100 journalism leaders around the country, the release says, by 10 journalists from organizations including The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, NPR, Vice News, The Oxford American, Columbia University and Arizona State University.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Fact-checking the State of the Union, in which Trump committed to high-speed internet for all, 'especially in rural'

In his State of the Union speech, President Trump called on Congress "to invest in new roads, bridges, and tunnels all across our land. I'm also committed to ensuring that every citizen can have access to high-speed internet, including and especially in rural America."

That was about it for rural issues in the speech, which had many applause lines about the economy. One was, "The average unemployment rate under my administration is lower than any administration in the history of our country."
Amber Phillips of The Washington Post writes, "This does not seem to be not true. In the past 50 years, yes. But not ever; some historians on Twitter noted that unemployment rate during the Eisenhower administration was 3 percent; the rate today is in the 3.5-3.8 range. Also, about half a century ago is when unemployment data started being collected and regularly distributed."

UPDATE, Feb. 5: Glenn Kessler, the Post's chief fact-checker, and his colleagues analyze what the newspaper calls "31 dubious claims" in the speech. Read it here.

Here are more questionable remarks in the speech, with analysis from New York Times reporters:

Trump: “Our economy is the best it has ever been.”
Jim Tankersley: "This is false. The American economic expansion has entered a record 11th year, and the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low. But by most conventional measures, including wage growth for typical workers and the growth rate of the economy, it is far from the best ever. Growth was stronger in some years under President George W. Bush, most recently."

Trump: “We are restoring our nation’s manufacturing might, even though predictions were that this could never be done. After losing 60,000 factories under the previous two administrations, America has now gained 12,000 new factories under my administration.”
Tankersley: "This is false. According to the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, the United States has added fewer than 11,000 new manufacturing establishments since President Trump took office. The bulk of those — more than 8,000 — employ five people or fewer."

Trump: “The U.S.M.C.A. will create nearly 100,000 new high-paying American auto jobs.”
Ana Swanson: This is false. The nonpartisan International Trade Commission has estimated that the agreement would create about 28,000 jobs in the auto sector. President Trump’s own United States trade representative has a higher estimate — 76,000 new jobs in the next five years — but still one that falls short of Mr. Trump’s claims today."

Trump: “Thanks to our bold regulatory reduction campaign, the United States has become the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world, by far.”
Lisa Friedman: "This is exaggerated. The United States is the top producer of oil and natural gas, but it is inaccurate to credit the Trump administration or President Trump’s deregulation agenda. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States became the world’s top oil producer in 2013 and overtook Russia as the world’s leading gas producer as far back as 2009."

Trump: “There are many cities in America where radical politicians have chosen to provide sanctuary for these criminal illegal aliens. In sanctuary cities, local officials order police to release dangerous criminal aliens to prey upon the public, instead of handing them over to ICE to be safely removed.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs: "This is misleading. So-called sanctuary-city policies vary by location. In most of the cities, local politicians direct police departments not to transfer undocumented immigrants suspected or charged with crimes to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But such suspects are not automatically released into the public unless they were to make bail."

Trump: “We will always protect patients with pre-existing conditions.”
Margot Sanger-Katz: "This is false. The president has taken multiple steps to weaken or eliminate current protections for Americans with pre-existing health conditions. These efforts include legislation he championed, regulation his administration has finished, and a lawsuit the Justice Department is litigating that would declare the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional."

The recovery from the Great Recession has been uneven across the states; major coal states under-performed.

Lack of caucus results spotlights Iowa's place in the process and raises questions about the future clout of ethanol

When the results of Iowa Democrats' presidential caucuses were delayed in a historic debacle, "Iowa's place in the nominating process became the story," writes Dan Balz, chief political correspondent for The Washington Post, reflecting a strong thread in the commentary that filled the vacuum created by lack of results.

"Iowans have prided themselves on their first-in-the-nation caucuses. Voters in the state have taken their role seriously, and over the years, a culture has developed here of citizens who turn out to see and evaluate the candidates firsthand," Balz writes from experience. "But whatever the culture that exists in evaluating candidates, Iowa has also come under strong and recurring criticism for exercising outsize influence on the nominating process. This predominantly white state, where agriculture is a dominant industry, is far from representative of the nation. The absence of a larger minority population, especially for a Democratic Party that has become increasingly diverse in its makeup, rubs raw many non-Iowa Democrats." The state has 41 delegates; 1,991 are needed to win.

Much of the griping is about the caucus system, which requires hours of commitment and thus disenfranchises some voters. But there seem to be more complaints about the nature of Iowa, a small state with a large rural population: 36 percent of the total in the 2010 census, making it the 12th most rural. But Iowa is the state with the highest literacy rate, 99.5%, and its Democrats resemble the rest of their party in one big way, Ron Brownstein writes for The Atlantic: "Democrats in Iowa are improving their performance in the urban centers that are driving most of the state’s population growth, while the party is simultaneously losing ground in the small towns and rural areas that are either stagnant or losing population." That's a trend that could affect the results, whatever they are.

"Critics contend that the system unfairly dilutes the influence of large counties and favors rural places, because a county doesn’t receive more delegates if more people show up on caucus night," Brownstein writes. "That means if turnout surges in the big counties, those new voters won’t generate more delegates for the candidates they support."

Whatever the results of the caucus and the nominating process, the Democratic nominee may not come back, Tim Alberta reports for Politico: "After decades spent at the center of both parties’ strategies for winning the Electoral College, Iowa is suddenly an afterthought. Its six electoral votes no longer seem essential, not when states like Texas and Arizona and Georgia — longtime GOP strongholds — all were decided by tighter margins in 2016, and all have demographic tailwinds that benefit the Democratic Party." President Trump won the state  by 9.5 percentage points, and in 2018, Republicans performed even better in rural areas than they did in the 2014 cycle, one of the best in modern history for the party," and retained statewide offices while increasing their registration.

The debacle could have broader ramifications if it leads to abolition or rescheduling of the caucuses, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture: "Iowa's traditional status as the leadoff hitter has driven presidential contenders to ensure they were on solid ground with the corn lobby on the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires certain levels of biofuels like ethanol to be blended into the U.S. gasoline pool. But in 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) won the state's GOP primary contest despite his opposition to RFS. Now Monday's chaos has ignited calls for Iowa to be bumped from its primary perch (and for scrapping the caucus format altogether)."

Number of U.S. nurse practitioners more than doubled from 2010 to 2017, even more in rural areas

The number of full-time nurse practitioners per 10,000 residents by U.S. region in 2010 and 2017
The number of nurse practitioners more than doubled from 2010 to 2017, especially in rural areas, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data published in the journal Health Affairs.

In the study period, the number of nurse practitioners in the U.S. went from about 91,000 to 190,000. The growth happened in every U.S. region and was driven by the rapid expansion of programs targeting Millennial registered nurses. The increase in NPs reduced the ranks of RNs by up to 80,000 nationwide, according to the researchers from Montana State University and Dartmouth College.

The increase in NPs has helped fill critical gaps in underserved rural areas that have a hard time attracting physicians. However, since NP programs poach working RNs, hospitals and other health care systems should consider innovative ideas to replace RNs who have left to become NPs, the researchers write.

Investigative reporting shows lax enforcement of air-quality laws near cattle feedlots in the Texas Panhandle

"In the Texas Panhandle, which produces a fifth of the U.S. beef supply, communities are being choked by fecal dust from nearby feedlots. The state’s regulatory agency isn’t doing anything about it—and it’s about to get a whole lot worse," Christopher Collins reports for the Texas Observer in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

In Hereford, Texas, a panhandle town of about 15,000, the odor is sometimes unbearable—and the smell isn't all. The wind frequently picks up tiny specks of dried manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and coats homes and businesses with it. The shust (a locally used portmanteau of "shit" and "dust") can sometimes limit visibility on the roads so much that drivers have to turn their headlights on, Collins reports.

Nearby residents say the shust causes problems with breathing, especially in small children, and many have complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "From 2008 to 2017, at least 100 complaints about fecal dust and odor from feedlots have been registered with the agency, according to data obtained through an open records request. The comments reveal a problem potentially far graver than the smell," Collins reports. A four-month investigation found that "the agency performs only perfunctory investigations of the complaints: From 2014 to November 2019, TCEQ took no enforcement action against large beef feedlots in the Panhandle. The agency levied no fines and issued no warnings, its own records show."

Multiple studies have correlated the presence of CAFOs with health problems in children. "A 2009 study published by Oxford University Press found that doubling livestock production is correlated with a 7.4 percent increase in infant mortality due to respiratory disease. Another study, published in 2006, found that children living near CAFOs were at greater risk for asthma," Collins reports. "Despite this, the Texas Department of State Health Services does no monitoring or testing to determine whether living near feedlots or other CAFOs in the Panhandle compromises human health. TCEQ operates a network of air quality monitors around the state, but the agency hasn’t placed one in Hereford or other small towns where fecal dust pollution is most pronounced."

Perhaps a sign of the times: Airbnb rentals generate more income for Vermonters than does maple syrup

Just over a decade after its launch, Airbnb now makes more money for Vermonters than maple syrup production, John Lippman reports for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt. According to Airbnb's numbers, Vermont residents brought in $68.8 million in 2019 from renting out their homes through the popular app, up from $48.4 million in 2018.

Meanwhile, maple syrup brought Vermont $54.3 million in 2018, according to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. "Maple syrup production numbers increased 7 percent in Vermont in 2019, but the value of the crop has not been announced," Lippman reports. If the price of maple syrup hasn't gone up since 2018, a 7% production increase would mean a $58.1 million value.

"Call it a healthy sign in how digital technology is reshaping Vermont’s economy. Or call it another dispiriting example in how making a real product just doesn’t count as much anymore," Lippman writes. "Either way, I don’t see it as something to cheer about . . . Call me a sap, but I believe that Vermont maple syrup deserves some of the credit for Airbnb’s success in Vermont. Come for the foliage, stay for the nectar of the gods."

Soy and pork futures fall as China delays buying more U.S. farm products; coronavirus scare is part of the problem

In mid-January the United States and China signed a trade deal in which China promised to buy more U.S. agricultural products. However, economists have been skeptical that China will uphold its end of the deal, and the current coronavirus scare isn't improving the odds.

Since the trade deal was signed, "Chinese buyers have booked only modest amounts of U.S. soybeans, pork and cotton, according to government data. Sure, it’s early days, and coronavirus is an ongoing emergency. Barges aren’t ordered, loaded and delivered that quickly anyway," Michael Hirtzer reports for Bloomberg. "But markets are noticing the dearth of buying activity, wondering how big of a dent to demand the health scare will cause."

Since the deal was signed, futures prices for soybeans dropped 4.4 percent in Chicago and pork went down 4.9%. China has traditionally purchased large amounts of both from the U.S., but recently bought half its yearly soy needs from the upcoming harvest in Brazil, mainly south of the equator.

To complicate matters, "as the coronavirus spreads, slower economic growth and travel restrictions could limit the need for imports in China’s food pipeline," Hirtzer reports. "Beijing pushed for wording in the accord that ensured its purchases complied with both World Trade Organization rules and the laws of supply and demand — insulating it somewhat against unforeseen events like a demand shock."

The wording of the trade deal "allows China to seek flexibility 'in the event that a natural disaster or other unforeseeable event', [which] makes it hard for one side to comply with the terms of the deal," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Daily Agriculture.

It's unclear what will happen if China doesn't fulfill its promises to buy more farm products; the deal includes no enforcement mechanism. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the recent American Farm Bureau Federation convention that upcoming trade deals would make further payments unnecessary; on Monday the government released final tranche of 2019 payments to compensate farmers for lower prices due to the trade war, McCrimmon reports.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Trump's USDA shows pattern of making decisions based on politics, not data, say economists, scientists and former staff

Many big policy changes in the Trump administration's Agriculture Department "have been marred by missing pieces of critical data, assertions challenged by outside experts or other struggles to demonstrate the reasons for major shifts in federal food and farm policy," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "The trend has raised questions from critics about how USDA leaders are making decisions with huge implications for struggling farmers, food stamp recipients and workers in dangerous meatpacking jobs, among other aspects of America’s food system." Many lawmakers, agricultural research experts and former USDA staff feel that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and his top deputies are making political decisions first and gathering relevant facts later.

For example, when the USDA announced a July 2019 proposal to narrow eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the formal analysis of the rule did not include a critical measurement: how many low-income children would lose automatic access to free school meals. "Lawmakers hounded USDA officials for months to track down those figures, which turned out to be twice as high as USDA initially indicated," McCrimmon reports.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle protested last year when Perdue suddenly announced plans to shutter a Forest Service program that provides vocational training to disadvantaged rural teens and young adults. The administration planned to transfer the Job Corps program to the Labor Department, close nine centers and outsource 16 to state governments or private companies. About 1,100 employees were slated to lose their jobs. The official regulatory notice said that the centers underperformed, were inefficient and didn't achieve long-term positive outcomes, but provided no data to support that, McCrimmon reports.

"The Trump administration has also asserted in budget documents that the USDA-run sites on average were more costly and less effective than other centers managed by the Labor Department — even though their own performance data shows that most of the Forest Service centers scored in the top 25 percent of all job training centers, meaning they significantly outperformed the other sites," McCrimmon reports. Perdue ultimately backed off the plan after pressure from lawmakers concerned about their constituents losing jobs.

Agricultural economists have criticized the calculations the USDA used to structure its trade bailout program for farmers, McCrimmon reports. Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee lambasted the program's payment structure in a November report, saying that the calculations lacked transparency, and that it disproportionately helped Southern farmers, wealthy farms and foreign companies while paying Midwestern soybean and corn farmers less.

"In June of last year, the department’s internal watchdog launched an investigation into whether officials used flawed data to support a new rule allowing meatpackers to accelerate their pork processing lines to high speeds that could endanger plant workers," McCrimmon reports.

Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told McCrimmon that the administration has deliberately made data take a backseat in policymaking: "It’s obviously political, and special interests come into it. But bottom line is the public loses, farmers lose."

Farm bankruptcies rose 20% in 2019; at an eight-year high

"U.S. farm bankruptcy rates jumped 20 percent in 2019 - to an eight-year high - as financial woes in the U.S. agricultural economy continued in spite of massive federal bail-out funding, according to federal court data," P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters. "According to data released this week by the United States Courts, family farmers filed 595 Chapter 12 bankruptcies in 2019, up from 498 filings a year earlier. The data also shows that such filings -- known as 'family farmer' bankruptcies -- have steadily increased every year for the past five years." Chapter 12 bankruptcy was created in the 1980s as a way for small farmers and fishers to keep operating while restructuring their debts.

Bankruptcy experts and agricultural economists said the increase was somewhat expected, "as farmers face trade battles, ever-mounting farm debt, prolonged low commodity prices, volatile weather patterns and a fatal pig disease that has decimated China’s herd," Huffstutter reports.

The federal government tried to help farmers suffering financially from the trade war with China; almost one-third of U.S. net farm income in 2019 came from direct federal aid and crop-insurance payouts, Huffstutter reports. And though court data shows that that aid did prevent a worse crisis for most, some of the biggest bankruptcy spikes happened in places where farmers didn't receive much or any trade aid, such as apple growers in the Pacific Northwest. But many farmers were already in financial trouble: a high-interest alternative farm lender was the single biggest recipient of trade aid, because it forced farmers to assign payments to it.

Franklin Graham's magazine casts 'mainstream media' as the primary device for indoctrinating society with evil beliefs

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

"The Lies of Mainstream Media" is the headline over the cover story in the February edition of Decision magazine, which touts itself as "the evangelical voice for today." Its editor-in-chief is Franklin Graham, head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and son of its namesake and founder. The story by Editor Bob Paulson begins:
   It’s a normal day in the life of a typical man or woman in any Western nation: Wake up and, while getting ready for the day, watch a morning news program that—by the stories it covers, the sources it cites and the language it uses—promotes a leftist-progressive bias.
   Drive to work, listening to hit songs filled with sexual immorality, greed and violence. Throughout the day, keep an eye on social media, where memes and discussions polarize neighbors, distort conflicting views and breed bitterness and cynicism.
   Back at home that evening, watch television programs that—if LGBTQ activists have their way—will within the next five years have 20 percent of series regular characters portrayed as gay or lesbian. Or skip TV altogether and play a video game that glamorizes violence and crime.
Paulson's emphasis is on popular culture, but he the represents the news media as the main transmission device for evil. As the sub-headline says, "We are inundated with messages that contradict God's Word." Many of those messages come through social media, not news media, but the article does not make that distinction (one that is important for journalists to explain).

Photo illustration from Decision magazine
Perhaps because it's easier to attack the news media, a narrow and relatively popular segment of society, than popular culture (which is, after all, popular) the article's presentation emphasizes the news media. The headline on the magazine's cover describes it as "CONFRONTING THE LIES THAT DECEIVE A NATION" and the story is illustrated with a photo of a young woman watching a television screen announcing the presentation of "LIVE FAKE NEWS." The magazine's internal label for the photo is "Media indoctrination feature," indicating that the article was written to make the case that the media -- especially the news media -- have an agenda of telling people how to think and believe.

As a Christian and a journalist, I take offense. The use of the term "mainstream media" is, in effect, a promotion of ideological or partisan sites that don't practice journalism so much as they advocate. People need to know the difference, and that includes the millions of people for whom Billy Graham meant the truth, and words to live by.

At the same time, journalists and their paymasters must realize that their own presentation practices make it too easy for their audiences to confuse news with entertainment, and fact with opinion. We need to do a better job of explaining and upholding our standards. All have sinned and come short.

Some state legislatures tackle rural health access problems

Stateline map; click to enlarge it.
As state legislatures begin their 2020 sessions, more are grappling with how to increase access to medical care in rural areas.

Most rural areas have significantly worse health outcomes than cities and suburbs. Rural mortality rates for the top five causes of death (heart disease, cancer, accidents, low respiratory disease and stroke) and the gap has been growing at least since 2009, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. Rural areas also have higher suicide rates. And though urban areas have a higher overall rate of deaths from drug overdoses, rural areas have higher overdose rates for some drugs, such as methamphetamines and oxycodone. Rural women are also more likely to die from a drug overdose than their suburban and urban counterparts.

The health gap has multiple reasons: poverty (which reduces access to health insurance and nutritious food), higher rates of smoking and obesity, and lower rates of exercise. Another big reason: "Since 2005, at least 163 rural hospitals have closed, more than 60 percent of them since 2012. Nineteen rural hospitals closed in 2019, the most in a year," according to the Rural Health Research Program at the University of North Carolina, which tracks rural hospital closures, Ollove reports. Rural health clinics are faring poorly, too: 388 clinics closed between 2012 and 2018, leaving 4,245 in operation.

Partly because of hospital closures, rural areas have a hard time attracting and keeping medical professionals. "Nearly 80% of rural counties are short on primary-care doctors, and 9% have none, according to the National Rural Health Association’s Policy Institute," Ollove reports. "The shortage of providers is likely to only get worse. More than 25% of primary care physicians in rural areas are 60 or older, compared with 18% in urban areas.

Though Medicaid expansion and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have helped many rural residents get health insurance, rural areas are still grappling with these systemic problems. "Many states are focused on making improvements, both large and small, to address the deficiencies," Ollove reports. "Among the ideas: creating private-public partnerships to increase access to care, sending mobile medical units into remote areas, expanding telemedicine and encouraging young people in rural communities to go into health professions."

Several Republican-run states are fielding initiatives to expand Medicaid, which would increase rural coverage and thus rural hospitals' revenue. "Some states are trying to help rural hospitals deliver preventive care and chronic illness management beyond their walls, improving the collective health of the community while reducing health care costs," Ollove reports.

Pennsylvania, for example, has an initiative in which it guarantees 13 participating rural hospitals the revenue they'll receive in the coming year and rewards hospitals for keeping patients healthy and out of hospitals. The hope is that hospitals will be better able to focus on prevention and treatment without having to worry so much about the budget, Ollove reports.

"Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the nonprofit National Rural Health Association, said big ideas are needed to truly change the trajectory of rural health. The good news is that because of scale, rural areas are promising places to test out innovations in the delivery and financing of health care." But, he told Ollove, "we don’t have the luxury of having years to spend finding solutions."

Research project combats stereotypes about where poverty exists in America; interactive map shows county-level data

Click here for interactive map of Index of Deep Disadvantage
Researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University recently released research that combats common misconceptions about poverty being mainly an urban problem. The Index of Deep Disadvantage measures income, health and social mobility in each U.S. county along with the 500 largest cities. "While the most advantaged communities in the U.S. rank alongside the most developed parts of the world, those struggling the hardest measure up with countries like North Korea and Bangladesh," Jan Pytalski reports for The Daily Yonder.

Of the 100 most disadvantaged communities, 80 are rural. Of the top 100 most disadvantaged counties, 21 contained tribal lands, and 19 were in rural Mississippi and had majority African American populations, Pytalski reports.

Luke Shaefar, a faculty director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and one of the project's lead researchers, said the findings revealed misconceptions of rural poverty that must be corrected before effective solutions can be designed. He noted that funding dedicated to reducing poverty is disproportionately distributed to urban areas.

"We were really struck when we put [our] map up against the map of the concentration of enslavement. Not just the overall clusterings are the same, but even the concentration is the same," Shaefer told Pytalski. These correlations have long been known to those familiar with the history of plantation slavery, the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt (a term both geologic and demographic), and the correlations don't fit in Kentucky and Tennessee, which have smaller black populations.
Index of Deep Disadvantage in the South next to a map showing slavery distribution across southern states.
(source: University of Michigan)
In addition to statistical work, the researchers conducted direct research. "Researchers were sent to the communities, staying for several weeks at a time, collecting stories and learning first hand of people’s experiences. It allowed for a fresh and eye-opening perspective," Pytalski reports.

Direct engagement was important, Shaefer said, because without it, the researchers might miss important parts of the picture. For instance, researchers found that some households couldn't participate in disaster relief and other programs because the owners had inherited their homes without a clear title proving ownership. Another researcher found that a free health clinic wasn't helping some people in need because they didn't have the transportation to get there, Pytalski reports. And many rural residents had little trust in the government or its ability to help.