Friday, December 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Support rural journalism in your end-of-year giving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Study: Americans trust local media more on the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

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

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

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

Other measures in the $748 billion bill:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural counties reported record new coronavirus infections and Covid-19 deaths last week, but surge could be leveling

New coronavirus infections, Dec. 6-12
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it and click here for the interactive version.

Rural counties reported a record number of new Covid-19 deaths and infections last week, but a more modest rate of growth in new cases could be a sign that the current surge is leveling off," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "More than 3,800 rural residents died of Covid-19-related causes in the week of Dec. 6-12, an increase of 6 percent from the previous week."

Rural counties reported nearly 221,000 new infections last week, 4% higher than the record of 216,000 set the week before Thanksgiving. "Since Thanksgiving, the rate of increase in new infections has leveled off a bit in rural counties. Metropolitan counties, however, have not had a similar reprieve," Murphy and Marema report. Click here for more data and graphics from the Yonder, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Jump in net farm income driven by government payments, at a level that is unsustainable, agricultural economists write

The Agriculture Department's final 2020 Farm Sector Income Forecast predicted an increase in net farm income from $83.6 billion in 2019 to $119.6 billion in 2020. That's the good news. The bad news: that increase "did not come from the market. Instead, it took a $24.0 billion increase in federal- government direct farm-program payments to achieve this result," Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray of the University of Tennessee write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

The payments came mainly from pandemic relief programs (the Coronavirus Food Assistance Programs and the Paycheck Protection Program) as well as Market Facilitation Program payments meant to help farmers hurt by the trade war with China. "In this context, what is important is the near certainty that ad-hoc and disaster-assistance payments of this magnitude ($32.4 billion) will not continue very far into the future. It is also important to note that despite these large payments, 2020 farm debt increased by $16.6 billion (4.0 percent) between 2019 and 2020," Schaffer and Ray write. "This represents the continued increase in farm debt totaling $119.8 billion since 2013 and is relatively unrelated to the coronavirus."

It's noteworthy that farm debt is rising. "In 2013 the farm debt-to-equity ratio was 12.86 percent reaching a forecast 16.20% in 2020. Similarly, the debt-to-asset ratio increased from 11.39% to 13.95% over the same period," Schaffer and Ray write. "While this level of debt is not catastrophic for any given farm operation, it is not the farm at the average that is of critical concern, but rather the farm on the upper end of the debt spectrum where an event like the coronavirus and a spouse’s resulting loss of an off-farm income and health insurance could be enough to push a farm family into bankruptcy."

American farming families will be at risk until the government adopts policies that help farmers prosper without so much direct aid, Schaffer and Ray write.

USDA releases America's Diverse Family Farms report

On Friday the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service released the 2020 edition of its America's Diverse Family Farms report, which provides the latest statistics on farm production, financial performance, and household characteristics by farm size. Family farms are those where the majority of the farm is owned by the principal operator. The report uses data from the 2019 Agricultural Resource Management Survey, an annual USDA poll of about 14,450 farms.

Among the report's findings: 
  • 98 percent of U.S. farms are family farms.
  • Family farms accounted for 86% of farm production in 2019.
  • 90% of family farms are small, meaning they have a gross cash farm income (GCFI) of less than $350,000.
  • Small farms accounted for 49% of land operated by farms and 22% of production in 2019.
  • 10.7% of small family farms had principal operators who reported retiring from farming in 2019, but said they continued to farm on a small scale.
  • 41.4% of small family-farm operators reported having a primary occupation other than farming.
  • 32.4% of U.S. farms are small family farms whose principal operators report farming as their primary occupation and make less than $150,000 in GCFI.
  • 5.1% of U.S. farms are small family farms whose principal operators report farming as their primary occupation and make between $150,000 and $349,999 in GCFI.
  • Almost half of U.S. farms had production valued at $6,000 or less. 
  • Between 62% and 81% of small family farms have a high risk of financial problems based on their operating profit margin. However, that figure can be deceptive because many small farmers rely on off-farm jobs, and that income is not reflected in the profit margin.
ERS hosted a free webinar Friday to go over the major points of the report. Click here to watch it.

Oklahoma governor threatened hospitals for talking to press about pandemic; Yuma physician briefly fired for tweets on it

Health-care workers all over America are speaking to the news media and posting on social media in an effort to show the public how badly the coronavirus pandemic is straining lives and resources; a few are getting pushback from elected officials who don't like the optics of their woes.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt "has complained to multiple hospital leaders about their employees — doctors and nurses — giving interviews with media outlets on the challenging conditions they face as the state continues to struggle with the Covid-19 pandemic, according to multiple sources with health-care facilities and the governor’s office," Ben Felder reports for The Frontier, a nonprofit new outlet.

On a recent call, Stitt reportedly complained to Jim Gebhart, the president of Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, about news stories quoting doctors from the hospital. "On that call, Stitt said if doctors didn’t stop 'fearmongering' about capacity issues it could force him to impose a ban on elective surgeries, which would be a financial hardship for many hospitals," Felder reports. Stitt has made similar threats to other hospital leaders, according to an anonymous source in Stitt's office.

Stitt spokesperson Charlie Hannema said the governor wasn't trying to strongarm hospitals into being quiet, but was frustrated because hospital employees were telling news media different information than they told him. Stitt considered halting elective surgeries to increase capacity after learning from news reports how bad things are in hospitals, Hannema said, but won't pursue that because doctors have told him it's a bad idea. “There was never a threat of, 'We’re going to knock out your elective surgeries to punish you for talking to the media’ or ‘for saying the situation is one way or another',” Hannema said.

Meanwhile, Yuma Regional Medical Center fired emergency physician Cleavon Gilman after his tweets about severity of the pandemic, Jamie Landers reports for The Arizona Republic. After Gilman tweeted about his firing, the hospital faced widespread blowback on social media, and insisted that there had been a communication error and that Gilman had not been fired. "News to me," Gilman tweeted.

Brookings paper: Viewing America as rural vs. urban is inaccurate, and has real consequences for rural places

Viewing America as a rural-urban binary is not only inaccurate, it has real consequences for rural places, Hannah Love and Tracy Hadden Loh write for the Brookings Institution. The consequences can be split into four major categories, they write. Love is a senior research analyst at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. Loh is fellow at the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking.

"First, it prioritizes the political concerns of an imagined, white rural monolith and erases the needs of rural people of color during a pandemic which is disproportionately devastating rural Black, Latino or Hispanic, and Native American communities.

"Second, it furthers misconceptions about rural economies which devalue the role of rural places in American (and urban) prosperity.

"Third, it propagates a myth of place-based poverty that erases people living in a range of high-poverty geographies, justifying oversimplified antipoverty policies.

"And finally, the binary-based narrative obscures effective policy and practice solutions for rural economic development that embrace the interdependence of rural and urban economic futures." Read more here.

Monday, December 14, 2020

States ranked by percentage of threatened rural hospitals just before pandemic; they're likely worse off now

Parkway Regional Hospital in Fulton, Ky., closed in 2015;
in 2019, the Tennessee company that owned it said it was
getting out of the rural-hospital business. (Read more)
The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the fortunes of many rural hospitals, but many were already stretched thin. Stacker, a data analytics news site, used data from a 2019 Navigant study to rank states with the highest percentage of threatened rural hospitals. The study analyzed the financial viability of about 2,000 rural hospitals, based on their operating margins, cash on hand, and debt-to-capitalization ratios. Stacker's rankings include extra observations and data about each state.

The Stacker story also provides a cogent summary of rural health and health-care disparities, facts about rural hospitals, and how rural hospital closures: "In Navigant’s analysis, 21 percent, or 430 hospitals across 43 states, are at high risk for closure without changes to improve their finances. If these hospitals were to close their doors, they would take away 21,547 staffed beds, 707,000 annual discharges, 150,000 jobs, and $21.2 billion in total patient revenue," Dani Leviss reports.

States that rank high on Stacker's list aren't necessarily the states with the biggest rural-health problems; Connecticut, the state with the highest percentage of rural hospitals at risk of closing, is only in the top spot because it has so few rural hospitals (five) and three of them are at risk. Comparatively, Alabama, the state with the second-highest rate, has 21 of 42 rural hospitals at risk of closing. Alabama's rural residents are overall sicker and older than Connecticut's rural residents, and must generally travel further to access medical care. However, Southern states and those with large rural populations comprise most of the top 10: 

1. Connecticut (3 of 5, or 60%, of rural hospitals in danger of closing)
2. Alabama (21 of 42, or 50%)
3. Mississippi (31 of 64, or 48.4%)
4. Georgia (26 of 63, or 41.3%)
5. (tie) Alaska (6 of 15, or 40%)
5. (tie) Maine (8 of 20, or 40%)
7. West Virginia (10 of 27, or 37%)
8. Arkansas (18 of 49, or 36.7%)
9. Florida (8 of 23, or 34.8%)
10. New Hampshire (5 of 17, or 29.4%)

Some nursing-home residents and workers skeptical of coronavirus vaccine, worry it was approved too quickly

"After 110,000 deaths ravaged the nation’s nursing homes and pushed them to the front of the vaccine line, they now face a vexing problem: Skeptical residents and workers balking at getting the shots," Bernard Condon and Matt Sedensky report for The Associated Press. Some worry that seniors "could be put at risk again by vaccines sped into development in months rather than years. Some who live and work in homes question if enough testing was done on the elderly, if enough is known of side effects and if the shots could do more harm than good."

Public-health officials say the Pfizer vaccine is safe for the elderly. "In an ongoing study of nearly 44,000 people, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found the vaccine was safe and more than 90% effective across recipients of different ages, including older adults and those with health problems that put them at high risk of Covid-19," Condon and Sedensky report. "But the undercurrent of doubt in nursing homes persists, sometimes fueled by divisive politics, distrust of institutions and misinformation. And so far, the workers are the ones being heard the loudest. . . . Internal surveys by groups including the American Nurses Foundation suggest many workers in long-term care facilities are so concerned about the vaccine they would refuse it."

Though nursing homes account for 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths, less than 1% of the nation's population lives in long-term care facilities, according to The Atlantic's Covid Tracking Project. Nursing homes are a significant vector for spreading the infection in rural areas, but federal rules changed in September relaxed employee-testing requirements for many rural nursing homes. 

Papers close offices, partly to keep from closing entirely

One version of a widely adapted poster, dated 1933
When the only local newspaper also served as the only local job printer, many people would refer to them as "the printing office." Job printing went elsewhere long ago, and few papers do their own printing. Now many of them don't even have offices.

Publishers were already selling their real estate, their greatest hard asset, and moving to smaller quarters. Then the pandemic hit, forcing most news work to be done remotely, and that seems to have made more publishers question the basic idea of a newsroom.

Many news outlets have abandoned their newsrooms in recent months, "amid pandemic workplace restrictions that had already left them empty," Thomas Urbain reports for Agence France-Presse. "But many journalists say the loss of the newsroom has changed the nature of their work and worry that newspapers may not re-establish newsrooms even after the pandemic."

Photos via; click to enlarge
That's happening to weekly newspapers, too. Paxton Media Group, based in Paducah, Ky., has closed several of its weekly papers' offices. One of those was across the Ohio River from Paducah, where The Metropolis Planet lost its office and its Superman-themed icon. It was given to the local Chamber of Commerce, which placed it next to the statue of Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the "Superman" TV show. She was a frequent guest at the town's annual Superman Celebration, and moved there shortly before her death in 2016, the Chamber reported in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors newsletter in October.

Newsrooms have long been central scenes in movies and TV shows, Urbain notes, quoting Marijke Rowland of The Modesto Bee: "There's a sort of alchemy that happens when you have a lot of reporters in a room together. There's nothing quite as interesting, vibrant and at times weird as working in a newsroom That's an incalculable loss, for local journalism particularly."

Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy told Urbain that major dailies will reopen newsrooms after the pandemic, "but smaller local and regional newspapers are in more difficult straits and may struggle to get their newsrooms back, he noted." Kennedy said, "I just hope that any newspaper owner who is committed to doing a good job understands the importance of having a newsroom."

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Vilsack didn't want to be agriculture secretary, Biden says; quite a few other Democrats didn't want him, either

Vilsack at Biden's announcement of his appointment (Associated Press photo by Susan Walsh)

In announcing that Tom Vilsack would have another go at being secretary of agriculture, President-elect Joe Biden went off script and said, “He wasn’t anxious to come back. He wasn’t looking for this job. Well, I was persistent, and I asked him to serve again in the role because he knows the USDA inside and out.” Only the part of the last sentence after the comma appeared in Biden's prepared remarks, report Alex Thompson and Theodoric Meyer of Politico.

"Vilsack has had a long kinship with Biden," The Associated Press notes. "The two native Pennsylvanians met in Vilsack’s adopted Iowa home in 1986 when Biden had begun making connections ahead of the 1988 Iowa caucuses. Then mayor of Mount Pleasant in southeast Iowa, Vilsack volunteered for the up-and-coming Biden before he exited the presidential race. Despite that, in 2007, after his own brief presidential campaign, Vilsack endorsed Hillary Clinton, even with Biden also running. In 2016, Clinton seriously considered him to become her vice presidential running mate but chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine instead."

When Biden's presidential bid was on the edge of doom, Vilsack stuck with him, carrying the main rhetorical load on a bus tour of Iowa, The New York Times recalls. Biden's selection of Vilsack and other longtime associates "are a vivid illustration of how central personal relationships are to Mr. Biden’s view of governing," Sydney Ember and Katie Gleuck write.

Biden picked the former Iowa governor, a white man, over a white woman (former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota) and a black woman, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, who wanted to focus USDA on nutrition. Most of its budget is for food programs.

Biden's "admission isn’t likely to soothe those who’d pushed for Fudge to get the job," Politico reports, noting that Fudge will be secretary of housing and urban development, a post often filled by African Americans. "Fudge, herself, had made no secret that she wanted to be agriculture secretary." She would have been the first Black woman in the job.

National Black Farmers Association President John Boyd told the AP that “far too little” was done for them during the Obama administration and Vilsack must change a “culture of discrimination” at USDA. AP reports, "Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group focused on climate change that had pushed for Fudge, called his nomination 'a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden'."

In accepting the appointment, Vilsack said he would have a “diverse and inclusive senior leadership team” in the department, and “continue the important work of rooting out inequities and systemic racism in the systems we govern and the programs we lead.”

UPDATE, Dec. 16: Vilsack reached out recently to Shirley Sherrod, an African American he fired from USDA on the basis of a misleading Breitbart report. “I told him, ‘It’s been 10 years ago,’ that ‘I accept your apology’,” she told MSNBC’s Joy Reid. "But Sherrod offered some conditions for her grace, saying she would like to see the department make a concerted effort to help groups such as Black farmers who have been disadvantaged, and at times lost their land, because they’ve been unfairly denied loans," The Washington Post reports.