Friday, August 28, 2020

Agribusinesses got 1.5% of Paycheck Protection Program's forgivable loans; among them, dairy was the top sector

The 10 agribusiness sectors that got the most PPP funding. (Part of a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting chart; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the complete and interactive version.)
"A very small percentage of businesses in the agriculture industry received Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, loans, which were intended to help keep people employed as the economy convulsed during the coronavirus pandemic," Samuel Trilling and Pramod Acharya report for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. "Of the agricultural companies that did receive loans, dairies received the most."

But even though the dairy sector won out among agribusinesses with the PPP, agribusinesses received only 1.5% of PPP funds. About half of the program's loans went to four industries: construction (13%); health care and social assistance (12.7%); professional, scientific, and technical services (12.7%); and manufacturing (10.4%), Trilling and Acharya report after analyzing federal data released in July.

Fact-checking President Trump's RNC acceptance speech

CNN did not mince words in its fact-check of President Trump's speech yesterday at the Republican National Convention.

"President Donald Trump is a serial liar and he serially lied during his speech accepting the Republican nomination," Daniel Dale and others report. "CNN counted more than 20 false, exaggerated or misleading claims from Trump on Thursday night. That's in addition to a number of falsehoods from other speakers. Trump's dishonesty touched on a range of topics, from the economy to his administration's performance during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of Trump's most egregious false claims were directed at Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden."

Here's some of what CNN's fact-checkers caught:
  • Trump suggested Biden wants to remove the border wall, but Biden has specifically said he will not, and will only stop further construction.
  • Trump said Biden's immigration plan calls for open borders. It does not.
  • Trump said 300 miles of border wall has been built during his administration, but that's not 300 miles of wall where no barriers existed before. About 275 miles of barriers have been built along the U.S.-Mexico border during the Trump administration, but only five miles of barriers were erected in areas where none had existed.
  • Trump claimed he had "very good information" that China wants his foe to win because Biden would help its agenda more. CNN acknowledges that it doesn't know what information Trump may have, but a recent intelligence assessment reported that China wanted Trump to lose because he was "unpredictable," and because of the trade war.
  • Biden opposes school choice and wants to close all charter schools, Trump claimed. The claim about charter schools is an exaggeration; the Democratic platform only recommends barring for-profit charters from receiving federal funding. The claim about school choice is debatable, since the phrase is so nebulous. Biden and his school task force oppose vouchers for private schools, but he supports some alternatives to standard public schools.
  • Trump claimed he has done more for Black Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln. At the very least, President Lyndon Johnson's advocacy and signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act dwarfed anything Trump has done, CNN says.
  • Trump said he "took on Big Pharma" and signed orders that "will massively lower" the cost of prescription drugs. It's unclear whether executive orders Trump signed in July will ever take effect or lower drug prices. Also, prices have continued to rise throughout the Trump administration, though the growth rate has slowed by some measures.
  • Trump pledged that he and the Republican Party will "always, and very strongly, protect patients with pre-existing conditions." However, his administration is actively trying to dismantle the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which does offer such protections, without providing an alternative plan.
  • Trump made a number of misleading or exaggerated claims about his administration's record on the coronavirus pandemic.
The Washington Post's fact-checkers also weighed in:
  • A Biden-appointed task force calls for abolishing cash bail, "immediately releasing 400,000 criminals onto the streets and into your neighborhoods," Trump said. Biden's task force said that "poverty is not a crime" and that Democrats want to eliminate cash bail because no one should be imprisoned for failing to pay fines or fees. However, in states that have moved to abolish cash bail, pre-trial defendants haven't been released—including in New Jersey, where Republican Chris Christie, a Trump ally, led a coalition to abolish cash bail. 
  • Biden would abolish American production of coal, shale oil and natural gas, which would devastate economies of states that rely on those industries, Trump claimed. Biden's energy plan doesn't call for the end of fossil-fuel production. It does call for the U.S. to expand low- and zero-carbon technologies and offset fossil fuel emissions by other means. Biden has said he will allow hydraulic-fracturing operations to continue but wouldn't grant new permits on federal lands.
  • Trump claimed he passed "Veterans Choice," a program in which veterans can get VA-funded health care from private providers. That's misleading; Obama signed Veterans Choice into law in 2014, Trump merely updated it in 2019. 

USDA schedules webinar on Wed., Sept. 2, to discuss its new farm-income and financial forecasts

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar at 1 p.m. ET Wednesday, Sept. 2, to go over findings in its soon-to-be-released Farm Income and Financial Forecasts. It will run about an hour.

The USDA's Economic Research Service releases the report three times a year, typically in February, August and November. From the webinar website: "These core statistical indicators provide guidance to policymakers, lenders, commodity organizations, farmers, and others interested in the financial status of the farm economy. ERS' farm income statistics also inform the computation of agriculture's contribution to the U.S. economy's gross domestic product."

Click here for more information or to register. The report will be available here when it is released.

Quick hits: Feds back coal miner fired for refusing dangerous work

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

Federal regulators have filed a discrimination complaint, alleging that a coal company wrongly fired a Kentucky miner for refusing to work under dangerous conditions. Read more here.

A Rural Health Information Hub paper discusses stigma and treatment of alcohol use disorder in rural America. Read more here.

A paper discusses strategies critical-access hospitals are using to combat the opioid epidemic. Read more here.

Broadband critical to rural businesses, students and health, but one op-ed notes that telemedicine isn't a cure-all

"The pandemic has shone a bright light on the lack of adequate high-speed internet in rural areas as office workers have been forced to work from farms, ranches and acreages, and students have been required to study remotely. In addition, studies show that rural residents who lacked broadband were more likely to lose their jobs," Paul Hammel reports for the Omaha World-Herald. "Conversely, covid-19 has also created an economic opportunity, as more people have discovered that they can work from anywhere in the U.S. . . . if they have adequate internet speeds and bandwidth."

The rural-urban broadband disparities can be big. In Nebraska, a state task force recently found that, while 90 percent of the state has access to broadband, only 63% of rural areas do, Hammel reports. 

Kyle Arganbright, the mayor of Valentine, Neb., pop. 2,737, told Hammel that many students and workers in his town were unable to work from home or engage in video chats for school. "Fiber is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessary utility," Arganbright said. 

But expanding broadband to rural areas is complicated and expensive, especially due to "last-mile" concerns and tight state budgets during the pandemic, Hammel reports.

Though many Americans take reliable broadband connectivity for granted, more than 19 million Americans lack access to it. That gap must close for the benefit of rural students, farmers, and businesses, Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., writes in an op-ed for The Hill. Better rural broadband access could also bring younger people to rural areas, especially those who want to work from home.

Better broadband can also make telehealth accessible to rural health-care providers and patients, but telehealth isn't a cure-all for rural health-care disparities, Libby Watson writes for The Soapbox.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Experts worry pandemic will hasten rural hospital closures

"As covid-19 continues to spread, an increasing number of rural communities find themselves without their hospital or on the brink of losing already cash-strapped facilities," Sarah Jane Tribble reports for Kaiser Health News. The outlook was already dire: 18 rural hospitals closed last year, and more than 170 have closed since 2005. But officials fear 2020 could see even more closures than last year because of the financial pressures of the pandemic.

Losing a hospital, even without a pandemic, is a big blow to a rural community's economy and health. A 2019 study found that death rates nearby rise nearly 6 percent after a rural hospital closes, Tribble reports.

"Add to that what is known about the coronavirus: People who are obese or live with diabetes, hypertension, asthma and other underlying health issues are more susceptible to covid-19," Tribble reports. "Rural areas tend to have higher rates of these conditions. And rural residents are more likely to be older, sicker and poorer than those in urban areas. All this leaves rural communities particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus."

Aug. survey of rural bankers shows slight improvements, but sixth straight month of recession-level readings

Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.
The rural Midwestern economy improved slightly over the past month, but is still below pre-pandemic levels, according to the August edition of Creighton University's Rural Mainstreet Index. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in 10 states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"The overall index for August increased slightly to 44.7 from July’s 44.1, but still well below growth neutral, though it was up from July’s 44.1 and April’s record low 12.1. The index ranges between 0 and 100 with a reading of 50.0 representing growth neutral," Creighton economist Ernie Goss reports. "Farm commodity prices are down by 10.4 percent over the last 12 months. As a result, and despite the initiation of $32 billion in USDA farm support payments in 2020, only 8% of bankers reported their area economy had improved compared to July, while 18.4% said economic conditions had worsened."

Other things of note from the report:
  • August's index marks the sixth straight month with a reading indicating a recession.
  • The farmland price index inched above growth-neutral for only the second time in the last 81 months.
  • Some areas, such as western South Dakota, saw an economic boost from tourism and recreation because they didn't shut down businesses during the pandemic.
  • Nearly 46% of bankers surveyed who have ethanol plants nearby reported temporary shutdowns. The other 54% reported slow expansion of ethanol production.

Republicans tout Trump's law-and-order bona fides on third day of Republican convention; Pence gets fact-checked

On the third day of the Republican National Convention, speakers continued to stress familiar themes: that President Trump "is on the side of blue-collar workers and African-Americans; that he is the only credible candidate for pro-life voters; that he has saved the nation from what could have been a much worse coronavirus pandemic; and that he is the last bulwark standing in the United States between order and anarchy," David Knowles reports for Yahoo! News. "Meanwhile, a pattern solidified in which the president’s perceived weaknesses were portrayed as strengths and the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, was portrayed as a radical, intent on letting the far left burn the country to the ground. On a night whose theme was 'Land of Heroes,' the program made the case that Trump was one of them.

Here's some fact-checking from The New York Times:
  • Several speakers, including Vice President Mike Pence, said Democratic nominee Joe Biden has said he would "defund the police." In July, asked if whether he would support redirecting “some of the funding for police into social services, mental health counseling and affordable housing,” Biden said "absolutely."
  • Speakers did not frequently mention the pandemic, but when they did, they "largely downplayed the threat or misstated the government’s response, as one lawmaker did when he said the administration 'authorized testing requests at blazing speed.' It did not," the Times reports.
  • Pence, in an attempt to paint Trump as the stronger candidate on terrorism, said Biden opposed the 2011 mission that took out Osama bin Laden. The Times called that misleading, saying was more skeptical than other Obama-administration officials at the time, "saying that he opposed the raid outright is at best a selective interpretation of the available evidence."
  • Pence also slammed recent-police brutality protests, and lamented the death of Dave Patrick Underwood, an officer in the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service who was killed in Oakland, Calif. He didn't mention that the man charged with killing Underwood was an Air Force sergeant who has been linked to the far-right, anti-government "boogaloo" movement, the Times reports.

San Joaquin farmworkers beset by heat, smoke, pandemic

California's San Joaquin Valley is a critical agricultural area that supplies a wealth of fruits, vegetables, and nuts to the rest of the nation. But the workers who pick those crops, many without access to health care, are being hit with a triple whammy of the pandemic, scorching hot weather fueled by climate change, and wildfire smoke. Somini Sengupta reports for The New York Times.

So far this year, more than 7,000 fires have scorched 1.4 million acres, and there is no reprieve in sight, officials warned," Sengupta reports. "Summer days are hotter than they were a century ago in the already scorching San Joaquin Valley; the nights, when the body would normally cool down, are warming faster. Heat waves are more frequent. And across the state, fires have burned over a million acres in less than two weeks. One recent scientific paper concluded that climate change had doubled the frequency of extreme fire weather days since the 1980s."

Farmworkers in many areas face such hazards, but it's particularly bad in the valley, where industrial activity and the valley geography make for some of the nation's most polluted air. "Rates of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease run high, according to doctors at Clinica Sierra Vista, a network of medical centers in the valley," Sengupta reports. "Kidney functions decline with prolonged dehydration among many agricultural workers, doctors in the region say. Diabetes — associated with eating inexpensive, starchy food — is common. There’s even a respiratory ailment named for the area: Valley Fever, caused by coccidioides fungus in the soil."

Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers of America, told Sengupta the poor working conditions are "the price of cheap food." California and Washington are the only two states that require employers to accommodate outdoor workers in hot weather. Workers must be provided with shade (usually a bench under a canopy) and water. Some labor contractors stop work when it's too hot, but the law doesn't require that at any certain temperature. The law was passed in California 15 years ago after a string of farmworker deaths; UFWA is lobbying for similar nationwide legislation. 

But some workers may choose not to take breaks so they can make decent money. "If you work fewer hours, you make less," Sengupta reports. "And for those who get paid at piece rates — wine grape pickers generally get paid by the bin — there can be a perverse incentive to work as fast as possible, even if it means skipping a water break."

24-year-old mayor shepherds small Ohio town through pandemic, amid last mayor's political scandal

As part of a series on small-town mayors, The Daily Yonder profiles the 24-year-old mayor in Oak Harbor, Ohio, as he navigates the pandemic and the echoes of a scandal involving the previous mayor. Read more here:

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Los Alamos to lose local newspaper and radio station Sun.

Los Alamos, N.M. (Wikipedia map)
Los Alamos, a historic community of 12,000 in New Mexico, will lose its only paid print newspaper and its major community radio station on Sunday. The coincidental announcements draw attention to not only the economic pain the pandemic has caused local businesses, but the increasing importance of public-notice ads to newspapers.

After nearly 60 years in print, the Los Alamos Monitor announced Monday that it will close at the end of the week. Landmark Community Newspapers, which has owned the now twice-weekly paper since 1979, told the staff Friday, The Associated Press reports.

"Landmark President Mike Abernathy said the staff has worked hard to produce a quality newspaper but that their efforts weren’t enough to overcome economic challenges that have worsened in the face of the coronavirus pandemic," AP reports. "Officials also pointed to diminishing community support for the newspaper, noting a decision by local government officials to send their legal advertising to a free-newspaper competitor."

That points up the recently increased importance of public-notice ads to newspapers, especially during the pandemic, which has reduced commercial advertising, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

The Monitor's shuttering adds to the more than 50 small newsrooms in the U.S. that have closed or merged in 2020, mostly rural weeklies, Kristen Hare reports for Poynter, drawing on research by the University of North Carolina's Penny Abernathy.

Meanwhile, Los Alamos AM/FM station KRSN announced Aug. 11 that it also will close Aug. 30.

KRSN started in 1945 as part of the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, which was accomplished at Los Alamos. It has become a community staple over the past 70 years, announcing local news, weather, sports and other programming, the online Los Alamos Reporter reports. David and Gillian Sutton, who have owned and operated it for the past 15 years, said the pandemic is to blame: "With the cancellation of high-school sports, events, the closure of small businesses and the struggles of those remaining, KRSN can no longer raise the advertising revenues it takes to run your free to you community radio station."

Both the Monitor and KRSN are for sale, so it's possible that buyers may resurrect them. In the meantime, the community's main source of local news will come from two free online-only publications, the Reporter and the Los Alamos Daily Post.

In second day of RNC, Trump tries to strengthen rural ties; religion writer sees a blend of economic, religious themes

On Tuesday, the second day of the Republican National Convention, President Trump's campaign made concerted efforts to appeal to strengthen ties with rural voters.

"On a night touting Trump's efforts to boost the economy, Jason Joyce, an eighth-generation lobster fisherman, praised the president for renegotiating tariffs on lobsters with the European Union — and criticized Barack Obama for creating a national marine monument off the New England coast," Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post

The Republican Party highlighted miners' concerns too. "Robert Vlaisavljevich, the mayor of Eveleth, a small town in Minnesota’s iron-mining region, said he is a lifelong Democrat now voting Trump," Grandoni reports. "Trump lost Minnesota by only 45,000 votes in the 2016 election, but former pro-labor Democratic strongholds in iron mining region have shown a growing affinity for Trump who has loosened up mining regulations and promised new jobs, Politico reported earlier this year." Vlaisavljevich said that Democrat Joe Biden allows "radicals" such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to create his environmental policy, which he conflated with the Green New Deal.

A rancher spoke during a segment featuring small-business owners. He "said his family stopped ranching after regulations became 'overbearing' but he had new hope under Trump," Grandoni reports.

Biden won't win the overall rural vote, but he's closer to Trump in rural areas than Hillary Clinton was in the 2016 election. But every rural vote may be critical for Trump, who lost the popular vote but won because of electoral votes decided in a handful of rural and blue-collar areas.

The economic messages were blended with social issues. It was a night of "God and mammon," Jeff Sharlet, founder of The Revealer, writes for Vanity Fair. "There’s a word used by the more esoteric Christian nationalists for this particular blend of theology and economics: theonomy. Others call it, more simply, “biblical capitalism,” an idea that, after a lifetime of religious indifference, perhaps comes naturally to a man who now names as his two favorite books The Art of the Deal and the Bible."

Sharlet concludes, "Liberalism’s too-common mistake is to suppose that Trump’s presidency remains transactional. That appeals can still be made to reasonable businessmen or to people of honest faith, that within conservatism remain constituencies bound together in an uneasy marriage, troubled, as they were in the past, by that which each faction, business people and believers, once saw as the party’s concessions to the crudities, impracticalities, or absurdities of the other. That’s how Trumpism began. What this Republican convention has revealed more starkly than before is what it has become: a fusion, a biblical capitalism of apocalyptic tendencies."

As far as fact-checking the second night, here's some of what The Associated Press had to say:
  • First Lady Melania Trump claimed her husband was the first president to address the United National General Assembly to advocate for religious freedom. That is false; President Barack Obama did that in a 2012 speech, as did several predecessors.
  • Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Trump inherited "a stagnant economy on the front end of recession" and that under Trump, "the economy was rebuilt in three years." That's untrue, AP reports. The economy was healthy when Trump was inaugurated, with low unemployment, steady job growth and a falling federal budget deficit on top. It benefited from the 2017 tax cuts, but the budget deficit climbed, and the current recession will "probably leave Trump with an inferior track record to his predecessor over four years."
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump had ended "ridiculously unfair trade deals with China that punched a hole in our economy." That's misleading, AP says. It's too soon to judge whether Trump's limited trade agreement with China is a winner, but, "whatever the weaknesses of the trade deals Trump inherited, it’s become clear that what he negotiated instead is not a gamechanger," AP reports. "The trade war that Trump escalated with China caused several self-inflicted wounds. Farmers and factories were part of the collateral damage from the volley of tariffs as the two largest countries in the world jockeyed for an edge."

South remains primary hotbed of rural coronavirus infections; county-level data available

Coronavirus infections by county, Aug. 15-22.
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
As new covid-19 cases in rural counties have fallen for the third week in a row, the South remained a rural hotbed of infections.

"While case numbers are down in rural counties, the number of rural counties that are in the 'red zone' dropped by only four from August 15 to August 22. This week, 734 rural counties were in the red zone," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Red-zone counties are those with at least 100 new cases per 100,000 in population for a seven-day period. The definition comes from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and indicates that the pandemic is out of control in those locations."

Non-metropolitan counties saw 46,000 new infections from Aug. 15-22, a 10 percent decline of 5,800 cases from the previous week, Murphy and Marema report. Rural covid-19 deaths from Aug. 15-22 fell 3%, to 1,118.

An Oxford comma and an oxymoron walk into a bar . . .

Many of us who deal with words for a living will get smiles from this clever list of grammar-and-style quips modeled on an old joke format. Jim Cook, former editor of The Parsons Sun in Kansas, posted it on Facebook. Retired Associated Press photographer Cliff Schiappa sent it to Connecting, a daily email newsleter for AP retirees and friends, saying of Cook, "I have no idea if he created it, or just forwarded it, but it sure is fun!" Yes, and it would be a good handout for journalism classes.

• An Oxford comma walks into a bar where it spends the evening watching the television getting drunk and smoking cigars.
• A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
• A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
• An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
• Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”
• A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
• Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
• A question mark walks into a bar?
• A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
• Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Get out -- we don't serve your type."
• A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
• A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
• Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
• A synonym strolls into a tavern.
• At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar -- fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
• A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
• Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.
• A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.
• An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
• The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.
• A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned by a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
• The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
• A dyslexic walks into a bra.
• A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
• A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
• A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
• A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony.

Proposed Alaska mine opposed by high-profile Republicans with fishing interests, gaining White House interest

Washington Post map
"Federal approval of a controversial gold and copper mine in Alaska that would be the largest in North America may be put on hold after a small group of influential Republicans — including the president’s son, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a wealthy Trump donor and one of the vice president’s former top aides — launched a full-court press to block the project," The Washington Post reports. "The proposed Pebble Mine was on the verge of winning a key permit from the Trump administration despite concerns from environmentalists that it could significantly damage Alaska’s world-renowned sockeye salmon fishery in nearby Bristol Bay."

However, Donald Trump Jr. told his father at a fundraiser this month that he opposed the permit. Trump donor Andrew Sabin sided with the president's son, and Tucker Carlson echoed the sentiment on his television show later. "Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, who has worked to marshal Republican opposition to the mine, said the flurry of appeals from members of Trump’s inner circle could prove decisive," the Post reports. "Both Trump Jr. and Carlson are members of Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of fish habitats, and Trump Jr. has fished in Bristol Bay several times; his brother Eric celebrated his bachelor’s party there."

The last-minute push has prompted the Trump administration to reassess its decision on the mine. Two anonymous individuals familiar with the matter "said administration officials are now weighing whether to delay granting a key permit to the mine’s sponsor, Pebble Limited Partnership," the Post reports. "This marks an abrupt turn of fortunes for the project and underscores the freewheeling nature of decision-making in Trump’s White House, as well as the persuasive power of the unofficial lobbying campaign, both public and private, to block the mine."

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Pandemic thwarts rural efforts to increase census response

Rural areas, already behind in responding to the 2020 census, are struggling to catch up before the Bureau of the Census ends counting efforts on Sept. 30, a month sooner than previously announced, Seth Bodine reports for Harvest Public Media.

Though the Census Bureau extended the deadline for self-response, it halted most of its in-person counting efforts this spring, local leaders and organizations have been trying to pick up the slack, Bodine reports. But the pandemic has made that difficult, and many report a lower response rate than normal, possibly because of lower internet access and language barriers.

An undercount could gut many small towns' ability to qualify for much-needed funding and could result in less representation for rural residents in state Houses. "More than $1.5 trillion in federal funds each year are distributed based on census data," Julia Sclafani reports for Searchlight New Mexico. "That includes funds for food assistance, childcare, Medicaid, Head Start, hospitals, schools, economic development, housing, transportation, and hundreds of other programs that benefit children, families, businesses and communities."

The Trump administration's attempt to add a citizenship question to the census has spooked many rural Hispanic immigrants, some undocumented, who fear they will be deported for filling out the census, Scalfani reports. Native Americans living in tribal lands may be undercounted as well, since many have closed entry to nonresidents in an effort to contain the pandemic; that will make in-person census campaigns difficult or impossible.

In a recent Government Executive podcast, University of Mississippi sociology professor John Green discussed the challenges facing rural communities during the 2020 census count. Click here to listen. And for a deeper dive, the Rural Health Information Hub has a toolkit with resources for those covering the 2020 census.

Experts to discuss pandemic-problematic disparities in rural health care and health in Twitter chat Wednesday, Aug. 26

Health experts from across the nation will participate in a Twitter chat on Wednesday, Aug. 26, to discuss the disparities in rural health care and health that have made it more difficult for rural areas to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The Rural Health Information Hub will lead the chat, which begins at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour.

To follow the chat or participate, log onto Twitter and follow the #RuralHealthChat hashtag. Click here for a list of experts who will participate in the chat (along with their Twitter handles) and for more information on the format of the chat.

The RHIH suggests its Rural Healthcare Surge Readiness toolbox as a supplementary source for those interested in covering the topic.

Fact-checking the Republican National Convention

After a Democratic National Convention that fact-checkers found little to quibble about, on Monday night "President Donald Trump made a dizzying array of misleading claims about voting fraud and health care Monday as fellow Republicans opened their convention with speeches distorting the agenda of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden," Hope Yen of The Associated Press reports. "Trump falsely asserted that he was the one who ensured that people with preexisting medical problems will be covered by health insurance; actually that was Democratic President Barack Obama. Several speakers accused Biden of proposing to defund police, ban fracking, take over health care and open borders — none of that true."

Trump said the Republicans had "very strongly" protected the ability of people with pre-existing conditions to obtain health insurance. That is not so; President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act protects that right, and Trump is trying to dismantle the act, AP reports. Click here for more fact-checking from AP.

Many fact-checkers said speakers painted a misleading picture of Trump's response to the coronavirus. The Fact Checker in The Washington Post  and NBC News both began by picking apart Donald Trump Jr.'s general description and specific assertions about the president's handling of the coronavirus. 

The Post questioned the credit given to Trump for the economy before the pandemic hit, Nikki Haley's assertions about North Korea, Rep. Matt Gaetz's claims about Trump's reluctance to put and keep troops overseas, and party Chair  Ronna McDaniel's misleading statements about taxes and abortion. NBC fact-checked several of those assertions and others, about Biden wanting to "abolish suburbs" and Democrats wanting to defund the police.

Research, detailed in new book, says Americans less religious than a decade ago

Pew Research Center chart;
click the image to enlarge it.
"Historically, Americans have recorded relatively high levels of worship-service attendance and belief in God, as compared with their peers in advanced industrial societies such as Europe or Japan. The U.S. example seemed to show that faith could survive in an environment dominated by science and technology," Charles Lane writes for The Washington Post. "A forthcoming book by University of Michigan political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart, however, suggests that the United States is now rapidly catching up with the trend toward secularization elsewhere."

In Religion's Sudden Decline, Inglehart notes that, when Americans were asked to express the importance of God in their lives on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest importance, Americans averaged 4.6 in 2017, down from 8.2 just over a decade ago, Lane writes.

"The U.S. importance-of-God score started higher than others and had more room to fall. Still, Inglehart’s finding reinforces those the Pew Research Center published last October, showing that the share of Americans claiming 'none' as their religious affiliation had grown from 16% to 26% since 2007. Fewer than half of Americans now attend services regularly — with only 35% of millennials going at least once a month."

America's increasing secularization has far-reaching implications for the nation's political landscape, Lane writes, since Republicans are far more likely to say they regularly attend any religious service (54 percent) compared to 38% of Democrats. 

Report: local jail populations fell 25% in early spring due to fewer arrests, more releases; continuing may help fight virus

From mid-March to mid-April the number of people in local jails in the U.S. fell by an "unprecedented" one-fourth, according to a newly released analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice. Intake was down because defendants who would normally be arrested were allowed to stay home, law enforcement made fewer arrests, and many judges and prosecutors allowed early release of prisoners deemed low-threat.

"But as the United States faces continued outbreaks of covid-19, it is crucial to recognize that de-carceration has still been inadequate, from both a public safety and a public health perspective," says Vera, which advocates reform of justice and corrections systems. "Maintaining recent reductions and further reducing jail populations will make communities safer in the coming months and years by reducing the likelihood and severity of future outbreaks of covid-19 and enabling reinvestment of state and local dollars into community-based services and resources that support public health and public safety."

Jails and prisons continue to be a major source of coronavirus spread in rural areas, due to lack of social distancing, cleanliness issues, and detainee transfers to prisons and jails.

The Marshall Project has frequently updated data on covid-19 prison deaths by state.

Monday, August 24, 2020

At hearing with postmaster general, internal USPS report details slower delivery of first-class mail and periodicals

Chart from U.S. Postal Service internal report; note that bottom line of chart is 75 percent, exaggerating recent change.
This story may be updated.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the head of the board that hired him are testifying today before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. This hearing covering much of the same ground as the one held Friday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, but it has new information: an internal performance report leaked to Democrats who run the House panel.

The report showed that "on time" delivery of first-class mail was down about 8 percent since DeJoy's arrival, and "on time" delivery of periodicals was down 9.57%, with internal processing time down 6.49%. Rural newspapers have periodical mailing permits and rely on the Postal Service for delivery of much or most of their circulation.

Postal Service internal report, with bottom line at 65 percent; for a larger version of either image, click on it.

Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., noted that even greater declines in on-time performance were recorded in 2012 under "the Obama-Biden administration," a term used by other Republicans on the committee. The White House has no direct control over the Postal Service; the president appoints its Board of Governors, which oversees the service and hires the postmaster general. The board has 11 seats, six of which are filled, all by President Trump; four are Republicans.

Board of Governors Chair Mike Duncan also testified before the House panel, by remote. Duncan, a longtime Republican activist and banker from Inez, Ky., said in his opening statement, "I spent my life in rural Appalachia and I know how important the Postal Service is to communities like mine." 

Duncan said picking a new postmaster general was the most important job the board would have, and "a transformational leader" was needed. He said an "organized, deliberate and thorough search process" picked the fifth postmaster general from the private sector, someone who was experienced in logistics and had been a major USPS contractor for over 25 years. The vote was unanimous.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that DeJoy, a major Trump contributor, "was hired after a methodical campaign by Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to ensure a Republican takeover of the agency’s Board of Governors, depleted for years and with no members when Trump took office. The president has long fixated on the Postal Service, complaining without evidence that it gives preferential treatment and money-losing terms to Amazon," whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns the Post.

Quoting an unnamed "person familiar with Mnuchin’s efforts," the Post reported that the Treasury secretary "urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to vet potential nominees through his caucus." Duncan "met with Mnuchin, the person said, and the secretary made clear his plan to oust [Postmaster General] Brennan. Duncan was hesitant, the person said, but not opposed. 'He wanted backup,' the person said."

The Treasury Department "rejected any allegations of untoward, partisan behavior, saying that Mnuchin met with governors as part of his effort to ensure sound governance at the Postal Service, which is his responsibility" because it got a $10 billion reasury loan under Brennan, the Post reported. DeJoy, asked in the hearing what discussions he had with Mnuchin, said they were "high level," about "controlling costs and growing revenue." Later, he said "Mr. Mnuchin had nothing to do with my selection . . . I talked with him after I accepted the offer," and didn't solicit the offer.

Duncan, asked why DeJoy was added to the potential hiring pool of 14 interviewees when he was not in the original list of 53 possible hires forwarded by a search firm, said his part-time board's search was slowed by holidays and the pandemic, and "It was during that period of time that Mr. Dejoy's availability became known to me." He said later, "I gave Mr DeJoy’s name as a candidate, as I did with other candidates."

That question was asked in combination with another question, why Duncan and the board didn't grant the request of then-Vice Chair David Williams, a former postal inspector general, for a background check of DeJoy when he was added to the interviews. Duncan didn't respond immediately to that. Williams resigned from the board in April, in protest of Mnuchin's involvement. DeJoy said he underwent a background check before taking the job.

Earlier, Duncan told the committee that the postal governors "represent the public interest" and he has twice told Congress that the service's business model is broken. He said that model can't be fixed without action by Congress. Duncan is a member of the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. For more on him, see this story by Morgan Watkins of the Louisville Courier Journal.

Postal Service roundup: Op-eds say it's a rural lifeline; Sen. Rand Paul suggests reducing delivery days for rural areas

Much has been written in recent weeks about the U.S. Postal Service and its outsized role in rural America. Here are some pieces of interest:

The Postal Service is a "vital lifeline" for Trump's rural Republican base, and the current uproar could damage his and other GOP lawmakers' re-election bids in battleground states and voting districts, Bloomberg News reports. Read more here.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has suggested cutting the number of days rural Americans get postal deliveries, The Associated Press reports. Read more here.

In an essay for The Atlantic, Kentucky author Silas House shares examples from his time as a rural mail carrier to illustrate the importance of the Postal Service to rural folks, and writes that the Trump administration's actions are an attack on rural America. Read more here.

Further privatization of the Postal Service will have a more widespread effect on American life than many people understand, according to an op-ed in The Conversation. Read more here.

Rural Americans are voicing their displeasure with delays in mail service, NPR reports.

Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union, writes in an op-ed for The Daily Yonder that the election isn't the only reason the Postal Service matters to rural residents. Read more here.

Another op-ed for the Yonder explores the importance of the Postal Service to rural residents.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the head of the board that hired him testified today before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. A leaked internal performance report showed that "on time" delivery of first-class mail was down about 8 percent since DeJoy's arrival, "on time" delivery of periodicals was down about 9.5%, The Rural Blog reports here.

Farmers pessimistic about the present but optimistic about the future as Trump administration tees up for convention

Farmers had hoped 2020 would help them make up for two bad seasons (due to the trade war with China and record wet weather), but amid forecasts of a bumper crop of soybeans and corn in most of the Midwest, the situation has grown worse for many farmers, since prices remain low, Kirk Maltais reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Compared to their "drought-stricken and wind-blown Iowa counterparts," for example, Illinois producers are well off, but the University of Illinois says they will get small returns on soybeans and take small losses on corn— and only if more U.S. Department of Agriculture relief payments arrive, Dan Looker reports for Successful Farming.

The Trump administration will likely tout its support for farmers and rural America during the Republican National Convention this week. Trump "can point to his new trade pact with Canada and Mexico that went into force last month and included some modest wins for dairy producers, wheat growers and other ag sectors, as well as his dismantling of the Obama administration’s waters-of-the-U.S. rule and the unprecedented bailout payments he’s issued to farmers," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

However, McCrimmon notes, Trump's "tariff fights and ethanol policies have been painful for many farmers and manufacturers, and rural communities have been hit hard by the pandemic and recession."

Farmer attitudes nationwide are a mixed bag. According to the latest DTN/The Progressive Farmer Farmer Agriculture Confidence Index, "farmers have a record-low attitude about their current plight but show strong optimism for the future," Greg Horstmeier reports. "The latest survey, conducted Aug. 6-14, also shows some potential waning in support for the Trump administration."

Analysis shows covid's impact on state economies; Thursday, Aug. 27 webinar will discuss more details

A new report provides a wealth of data on the state-level economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic across industries and in terms of overall employment. The report by the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School of Public Policy, is illustrated with plenty of charts, graphs and maps.

Here are the report's key findings:
  • Every state is "well down" from February employment levels. Eleven states have payroll job losses of more than 10 percent, and 47% of states have lost more than 5% of jobs.
  • States with more covid-19 cases in July saw worse job growth.
  • In every state, lower-wage industries have lost far more jobs than high-wage industries.
  • Thirty-nine states are down more jobs than they were during the Great Recession.
A webinar on Thursday, Aug. 27, will discuss the report and will include a Q&A session with the authors. The free webinar will take place at 2 p.m. ET. Click here for more details or to register.