Saturday, March 13, 2021

America's failing infrastructure includes broadband, an infrastructure that was never built – or built inadequately

Washington Post chart based on five-year estimates from the Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey, using county density definitions of National Center for Health Statistics and comparing California counties mentioned in story

The lack of high-speed internet in much of rural and even suburban America is one example of a nation that has failed to invest in basic infrastructure, headlines The Washington Post over a story by Griff WitteAbigail Hauslohner and Emily Wax-Thibodeaux:

"America can put a rover on Mars, but it can’t keep the lights on and water running in the city that birthed the modern space program. It can develop vaccines, in record time, to combat a world-altering illness, but suffers one of the developed world’s highest death rates due to lack of prevention and care. It spins out endless entertainment to keep millions preoccupied during lockdown — and keep tech shares riding high on Wall Street — but leaves kids disconnected from the access they need to do their schoolwork."

Experts told the Post that the disparities "reflect a multitude of factors," the biggest being these: "Compared with other well-to-do nations, the United States has tended to prioritize private wealth over public resources, individualism over equity and the shiny new thing over the dull but necessary task of maintaining its infrastructure, much of which is fast becoming a 20th century relic."

In the case of high-speed internet, that is infrastructure that in many places has never been built, or built recently but inadequately as the definition of "broadband" has become speedier. The first major subsection of the Post's report is titled "Narrowing the digital divide," a phrase that has been of concern to rural Americans for almost two decades.

"The federal level is not the only place where lawmakers will be wrestling with the country’s gaping disparities this year. In 38 states and Puerto Rico, legislators will be weighing whether to spend more to bring broadband Internet to poor and rural communities," the Post reports. It says the effort in California gained steam partly because of an outcry over a photo of two girls doing their homework outside an fast-food restaurant in Salinas, "their Chromebooks wobbling on their laps as they tried to connect to high-speed Internet" provided by the restaurant because they don't have it at home.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Postmaster General promises not to close rural post offices

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy promised a House subcommittee that he would not close small or rural post offices as part of planned cost-cutting to help the financially floundering Postal Service.

However, DeJoy acknowledged that there are still "extreme delays" in some mail deliveries and said a 10-year strategic plan will revise existing service standards. "The USPS faces a $160 billion projected loss over the next decade and is looking to cut costs as it faces shrinking first-class mail volumes, DeJoy told a hearing," David Shepardson reports for Reuters. "The reorganization would keep existing six-day delivery and would not close rural or small post offices. But he acknowledged service standards will be relaxed as part of the plan. . . . The USPS faces shrinking volumes of first-class mail, increased costs of employee compensation and benefits, and higher unfunded liabilities."

Specifically, the Postal Service reported net losses of $86.7 billion from 2007 through 2020. One reason is 2006 legislation mandating that it pre-fund more than $120 billion in retiree health care and pension liabilities, a requirement labor unions have called an unfair burden not shared by other businesses," Shepardson reports. "Draft House legislation in circulation includes eliminating a requirement to pre-fund retiree health benefits and have employees enroll in government-retiree health plan Medicare for a saving of $40 billion to $50 billion over 10 years."

Dollar General may administer coronavirus vaccines

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exploring a partnership to administer coronavirus vaccines at Dollar General stores, Nathan Bomey reports for USA Today, noting that Dollar General is one of the nation's largest retailers and has considerable rural presence.

"As of August 2020, Dollar General had more than 16,720 stores in 46 states," reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. "That’s nearly twice the number of stores as the next largest private retailer working on vaccine rollout. The company said that 75 percent of all Americans live within five miles of a Dollar General store, and that 75% of its stores serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people."

The CDC is already working with Walmart, Walgreens and CVS to provide vaccines, but "when compared with big box-stores, Dollar General’s size alone could provide more access," Carey reports. "According to, there are only 4,756 Walmart stores across the country. Walgreens and CVS have 9,277 and 9,967 stores respectively."

"In rural areas, residents often don't have access to big-box stores," CDC director  Rochelle Walensky said at the Health Action Alliance's virtual National Business Summit on Tuesday, Bomey reports. "We're exploring a promising collaboration with Dollar General Stores, which have locations that include refrigeration capacity within 10 or 15 miles of our rural communities in all but four states."

Beyond the lack of access to vaccinations, rural America may see a lower percentage of compliance because of vaccine hesitancy. A January Kaiser Family Foundation report noted that rural Americans are "significantly less likely to say they will get a Covid-19 vaccine that is deemed safe and available for free than individuals living in suburban and urban America."

Sunshine Week starts Sunday; here are resources, such as stories about delays getting records during the pandemic

Sunshine Week starts Sunday, March 14, so it's time to tell the public. The observance, coordinated by the News Leaders Association, is a celebration of open government and freedom of information, and an opportunity for news media to tout their role in both.

The Associated Press churns out Sunshine Week stories each year. AP's David A. Lieb reports, "A year after the first coronavirus shutdowns, public records have become harder to get in many U.S. states and cities. Governors, legislatures and local officials have suspended or ignored laws that set deadlines to respond to records requests. Many officials have cited obstacles for staff members who work from home or who are overwhelmed with crisis management. Some requests that used to take days or weeks now take months. New data shows that government agencies saw a six-fold increase last year in the time spent on records requests."

Click here to learn more or access a content toolkit with a special reporting package free for republishing. The Sunshine Week site has other tools, including op-eds, editorial cartoons, logos, story ideas, work from past Sunshine Weeks, a list of participants and a calendar of events.

Sunshine Week 2021 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by generous donations from the Gridiron Club and Foundation. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit Follow Sunshine Week on Twitter and Facebook. You can find or create social-media posts by using the hashtag #SunshineWeek.

Quick hits: Gray TV stations' series explores rural issues; clean energy passed coal as electricity source in 2020

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

A new investigative journalism project from Gray Television's local stations is exploring the extent of rural disparities in Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, starting with health. Read more here.

The Interior Department has reversed a Trump-era policy that sought to restrict which scientific research its employees could use in making decisions and rules. Read more here.

Renewable energy pulled ahead of coal as an electricity generation source for the first time in 2020. Read more here.

Op-ed says rural Americans are the future of the clean-energy economy, and policymakers must catch up. Read more here.

Relevant for rural areas that rely on tourism: a look at how bad the numbers were for tourism in 2020. Read more here.

A webinar series held on Tuesday evenings in March offers guidance on managing the everyday stressors of rural life. Read more here.

Here's a good backgrounder with updated information about rural emergency medical services and trauma. Read more here.

Going to daylight saving time this weekend could be especially hard because of pandemic-related sleep loss

"The clock springs forward one hour on Sunday morning, March 14 for most people in the U.S. That is not an appealing thought for those who have suffered sleep problems because of the pandemic," Michael Jaffee writes for The Conversation. "Sleep this past year has been affected by a variety of factors, including anxiety, inconsistent schedules and increased screen time. This affects our health, as getting adequate sleep is important to assure our immune system can fend off and fight infections. Even before the pandemic, about 40% of adults – 50 to 70 million Americans – got less than the recommended minimum seven hours per night."

Scientists are increasingly concerned about how the twice-yearly time change affects people's bodies. "The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the largest scientific organization that studies sleep, in October 2020 suggested nixing daylight saving time and moving to a year-round fixed time," Jaffee reports. "That way, our internal circadian clocks would not be misaligned for half the year. And it would eliminate the safety risk from sleep loss when transitioning to daylight saving time."

Jaffee, the vice chair of neurology ay the University of Florida, has studied how the lack of sleep can impair the brain, and believes we have cause for concern: "In the 1940s, most American adults averaged 7.9 hours of sleep a night. Today, it’s only 6.9 hours. To put it another way: In 1942, 84% of us got the recommended seven to nine hours; in 2013, it was 59%. To break it down further, a January 2018 study from Fitbit reported that men got even less sleep per night than women, about 6.5 hours."

Lack of adequate sleep can cause more problems than being tired, Jaffee reports. It's associated with higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, depression, and lowered memory retention, attentiveness, and ability to fight off infections.

"States advocating for permanent daylight saving time are typically those that rely on tourism," Jaffee reports. "Environmentalists, favoring less energy consumption from morning heating and evening air conditioning, often support permanent standard time. Religious groups, whose prayer times are linked to sundown and sunrise, also tend to prefer permanent standard time. So do many educators, opposed to transporting children to school during mornings when it’s still dark."

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Will enough of us get a shot to create herd immunity? That depends partly on media messages; here's some advice

Shutterstock illustration via American Medical Association
By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

We're about to get all the coronavirus vaccine we need. Will enough of us take it for herd immunity? Or will the politics of the pandemic, atop already widespread skepticism about vaccines, thwart that?

The answers to those questions will depend partly on local news media, the most trusted part of the news business, especially in rural areas, where vaccine hesitancy may be greater. Journalism to address vaccine hesitancy is tricky, Aspen Digital Executive Director Vivian Schiller writes for Columbia Journalism Review, after discussing it with many experts.

They came up with 10 things to do, which I've boiled down to five major points for rural journalists:

Address the unfounded public concern that the speedy development of vaccines means they’re not safe. "Operation Warp Speed" wasn't the best name for a process that used technology that had already been developed and was waiting for a big funding stream, Schiller writes: "Decades of research informed the development of these breakthrough gene-based vaccines, which have been shown to be remarkably effective, and come with comparatively low levels of risk." Also, the vaccines' different efficacy rates aren't exactly comparable, and even less so when it comes to mutated strains, and "Overemphasizing the rare instances of adverse reaction undermines trust," she writes.

Vaccine hesitancy is normal and natural. "Respond with compassion and information," Schiller advises. "After a year of mixed messages — many of which came from the highest levels of government and were amplified through social media — it’s entirely reasonable for people to have legitimate questions and concerns . . . The key is to debunk claims without repeating them. Also: Don’t conflate “vaccine hesitancy” with “anti-vaxxers,” she writes. "One is a reasonable emotion; the other is a harmful ideology."

Leverage trusted, local voices. "All news outlets should consider voices beyond national public health experts who can build trust and acceptance of the vaccine, such as clergy members, veteran groups, service clubs, and other community leaders," Schiller advises. "Varying your sources of reliable information can be more persuasive for wary populations. Building vaccine trust with audiences means trying and sharing new ways to engage."

Don’t accidentally undersell vaccine effectiveness. Warnings "that vaccinated individuals shouldn’t alter their pandemic routines — social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding indoor spaces — may inadvertently encourage vaccine hesitancy, as the advice appears to conflict with the benefits touted around the vaccine," Schiller writes. "The science is still unsettled on whether vaccinated people can transmit the disease to the unvaccinated. . . . The message needs to be: Get the vaccine for your own protection — and the sooner enough of us make that critical, individual decision, the sooner all of us can go back to something approximating our pre-pandemic lives."

Fill the data voids. "News organizations might consider the practice of 'pre-bunking'—that is, actively debunking or anticipating public questions and concerns rather than only reacting once false narratives have been popularized," Schiller suggests. "Publish explainers in advance to protect against misinformation; explain the safety of the vaccine for children or pregnant women; share the commonality of side effects that most people experience, especially after a second dose. There is a growing body of evidence that it works."

FCC finalizes new broadband subsidy plan; who qualifies?

The Federal Communications Commission has finalized a $3.2 billion program to provide a monthly discount for internet access to Americans in need. The emergency subsidies were approved by Congress in December as part of the relief-and-stimulus package.

"The first-of-its-kind emergency program aims to support families who are at or near the poverty line, workers who have recently lost their jobs, and students who receive some federal assistance to subsidize their higher-education costs. Many of these Americans will see their Internet bills reduced by as much as $50 a month in credits paid to their Internet service providers, and residents of tribal areas are eligible for even larger discounts," Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post.

"Discounts are limited to one per household. Some families also may be eligible for a one-time credit of $100 to help them purchase a device to access broadband service. They will have to apply to receive the aid, which will be paid directly to Internet providers that register with the U.S. government and obtain permission to participate. Companies are not required to accept the benefits."

Longtime FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, now acting director, said she is especially concerned about poor and rural students' relative lack of internet access and hopes the new program will help close the "homework gap" (a term she coined), Alyson Klein reports for Education Week.

Who qualifies for the program? Here's a short list, from Clare Duffy of CNN Business:
  • Households with at least one member who qualifies for the FCC's existing Lifeline support program, which serves low-income Americans, including those on Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps);
  • Households whose children qualify for free or reduced-price school meal programs during the current or previous school year;
  • Recipients of Pell grants for postsecondary education;
  • Households that have suffered a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020, if their total income for last year fell below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers;
  • Households that meet eligibility criteria for another low-income or coronavirus-discount program from a participating provider.

USDA extends free school meals through September; meal providers say they need more money to cover packaging

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week it will extend several waivers to allow all children, regardless of income, to receive free school meals through Sept. 30 via the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option program. The waivers had extended only to June 30. The programs allow meals to be served outside of the normally required group settings and meal times, and allow parents or guardians to pick up meals, including in bulk to cover several days, USDA says.

"However, Tuesday’s announcement did not come with increased per-meal reimbursements for providers," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "During the pandemic, most school-meal programs have operated at a loss, with significantly higher costs and no increased per-meal reimbursement."

Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at hunger charity Share Our Strength, said it's more expensive for schools to implement these programs. "Schools have needed boxes and bags and shrink wrap," she told Reiley. "There has needed to be added refrigeration to store meals safely. Then there were supply-chain issues, transportation costs went up, and certain foods were harder to come by and at a premium. Staffing costs went up as districts started paying hazard pay, bringing in temporary support and providing PPE."

National Rural Health Association announces 2021 awards

The National Rural Health Association has announced its 2021 Rural Health Awards, to individuals and organizations in rural health care who have "dedicated their time and talents to improving the health and well-being of others."

Jennifer McKenney
One winner may be familiar to readers of The Rural Blog: Jennifer Bacani McKenney, who was recognized as NRHA's Rural Health Practitioner of the Year. McKenney is a family physician in her hometown of Fredonia, Kansas, pop. 2,500, and has owned and managed a practice with her father for the past decade. "Dr. McKenney truly embodies the attributes of a strong, dedicated health care provider deserving of our trust," said Joyce Grayson of the University of Kansas Medical Center. "Dr. McKenny says it best by describing herself as a 'people-connecting family doc doing cool stuff for the future of Fredonia.'" The Rural Blog mentioned McKenney in a February item about health-care workers who battle social-media misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Coalfield Health Care in Logan County, West Virginia, was named this year's Outstanding Rural Health Organization. "Coalfield helps bolster the health of a community that has some of the worst outcomes in the country. Coalfield has served not just as a primary care center for patients regardless of ability to pay, but as an educational, research, and community outreach hub for more than 10 years," NRHA said.

NRHA's Outstanding Rural Health Program award went to Northeast Kentucky Substance Use Response Coalition, a formal network of health care and social service organizations that represents 18 counties and is focused on building a community-based approach to address the region’s opioid crisis. The organization aims to create educational, clinical, and preventive interventions for those who struggle with substance use disorder.

Alana Knudson won NRHA’s Outstanding Researcher Award. She leads the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis, and has become a nationally recognized leader in developing and evaluating demonstration projects for the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Her teams' research helps improve sustainable rural access to high-quality services.

Douglas Snow won this year’s NRHA/John Snow Inc. Student Leadership Award. The Michigan State University medical student plays an integral role in student leadership for NRHA as chair of the association’s Student Constituency Group. One medical school official said: "At national, state, and local levels, he has made a lasting impression on rural health leadership and student involvement as well as community and public health."

The NRHA/John Snow Inc. Student Achievement Award went to Kelly Dougherty. The University of Missouri medical student has re-established the university’s rural medical interest group and highlighted the need for rural providers, and is also an active member of the Rural Scholars Advisory Board. 

Pat Schou is NRHA’s Volunteer of the Year. The executive director of the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network, Schou is also a longtime NRHA member and past president of the association. She helped guide and represent the association during the pandemic and ensured rural America's voice was heard on a national level. "She is a role model for how to lead in the worst of times in the most honorable way," according to the NRHA.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Thinking about news, citing 'problem solvers and pioneers charting new ways to live up to enduring responsibilities'

The paymasters of journalism scramble every day to adapt to the digital revolution. For most, the bottom line is always top of mind, and public service often takes a back seat. But there are sharp observers and thinkers about the news business and journalism (which are not the same thing), and they can help the paymasters serve not just the shareholders but all the stakeholders: the public.

Tom Rosenstiel
One of those observers and thinkers is Tom Rosenstiel, head of the American Press Institute and author with Bill Kovach of The Elements of Journalism, a book that is a guide for the press and public. He recently started a series of columns with The Poynter Institute about journalism, politics, culture, news-media ethics, technology and the search for sustainability for news. In his first column he made several points, two of which are most relevant to readers of The Rural Blog; in the second column he asked several questions, one of which was particularly relevant.

Rosenstiel began his second column, "It is fashionable in some quarters to say local journalism is dying. But look closer. Amid the difficult search for a new economic model, a skeptical, polarized public and serious reflection over longstanding practices, the field is also full of dreamers, problem solvers and pioneers charting new ways to live up to enduring responsibilities. I hope to highlight the dreamers here from time to time."

One of his questions was, How do journalists contend with public officials who are lying? That's nothing new, but has been elevated to new levels in recent years, he notes, and gives one example of how to confront the liars: WITF, the public radio and television station in Harrisburg, Pa., which
"has promised it will regularly hold accountable those who played a role in perpetuating the falsehood that the presidential election was stolen." One way: Identify “how elected officials’ actions are connected to the election-fraud lie and the insurrection.” For example, if a legislator introduces a bill, WITF will note that they “signed a letter asking members of Congress to delay certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes despite no evidence to call those results into question.”

One of Rosenstiel's points in his first column was, "The press must be a fair watchdog and prepare to be hated for it. A few weeks ago one of the best editors in the country wrote a note to his readers promising to hold the Biden administration accountable just as he would any other. The only response he received from readers, he told me, was to be attacked. You are about to fall into false equivalency and both sides-ism, he was scolded. He won’t be the last to hear it. In the coming months, the political left will complain to journalists locally and nationally about false equivalencies — the idea that any missteps by Joe Biden or other Democrat leaders pale by comparison to the sins of Trump and the GOP. The political right will be quick to accuse the press of being soft liberal hypocrites, arguing it spent the last four years trying to hound Trump from office. Hard as it will be, we must take our licks and do our jobs. The press should be tough when necessary, but not performatively so. It should be guided by telling the truth and reflect humility about how much it knows. And it should describe with evidence, not label or stereotype."

Another key point was, "One story now is more important than any other. Sarah Alvarez, the founder of Outlier Media in Michigan, has developed criteria for deciding where to apply her limited reporting resources. She asks: 1) What is affecting the most people? 2) What is the level of harm? 3) Where are there gaps in what people need to know? By Alvarez’s smart criteria, one story matters most today: the pandemic. The coronavirus threatens everyone in the country. . . . People are misinformed about it, and the economy cannot recover until it is under control. . . . Cover it for what it is — the defining story of our generation, and focus on what the public needs. Get inside local health-care systems, identify possible solutions and not just problems, tell stories we have not heard. To survive in a networked world, journalism must be a service — not just a product — one that meets people where they are and helps them make their lives better."

Studies highlight social-media platforms' misinformation problem, reminding us of the key role of the news media

Recent studies show misinformation is rife on popular social-media platforms, pointing up the importance of the traditional news media as a source of information and the difficulty of journalists as Americans seek confirmation of belief more than information that may run contrary to belief.

Instagram recommended posts containing misinformation about the pandemic last fall, according to a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, based in England. It created 15 profiles and found that the app recommended 104 posts with false claims about the coronavirus, Covid-19 and the 2020 election. "The study is the latest effort to document how social media platforms' recommendation systems contribute to the spread of misinformation, which researchers say has accelerated over the past year, fueled by the pandemic and the fractious U.S. presidential election," Shannon Bond reports for NPR.

"Facebook, which owns Instagram, has cracked down more aggressively in recent months,:" Bond reports. "It has widened its ban on falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines on its namesake platform and on Instagram in February. But critics say the company has not grappled sufficiently with how its automated recommendations systems expose people to misinformation. They contend that the social networks' algorithms can send those who are curious about dubious claims down a rabbit hole of more extreme content."

A new study by New York University-based group Cybersecurity For Democracy "found that far-right accounts known for spreading misinformation are not only thriving on Facebook, they're actually more successful than other kinds of accounts at getting likes, shares and other forms of user engagement," Michel Martin reports for NPR. After studying more than 8 million Facebook posts from nearly 3,000 news and information sources over a five-month period, the researchers confirmed "what some Facebook critics — and at least one anonymous executive — have been saying for some time: that far-right content is just more engaging. In fact, the study found that among far-right sources, those known for spreading misinformation significantly outperformed non-misinformation sources."

Laura Edelson, who helped lead the study, told NPR that misinformation peddlers in other partisan categories don't gain as much traction. "There could be a variety of reasons for that, but certainly the simplest explanation would be that users don't find them as credible and don't want to engage with them," she said. The researchers called this the "misinformation penalty."

A Facebook spokesperson told NPR that extreme partisan content isn't as pervasive as studies suggest, and "engagement" isn't the same as how many people actually see a post. Edelson said Facebook should back up that assertion by being transparent with how it tracks impressions and promotes content. "I think what's very clear is that Facebook has a misinformation problem," Edelson said. "I think any system that attempts to promote the most engaging content, from what we call tell, will wind up promoting misinformation."

Facebook cracked down on misinformation after the election, demoting posts and known misinformers. The move served as proof to many that Facebook could do more to halt the spread of misinformation but generally chose not to in the name of getting more traffic, The Washington Post reports.

"All of these changes may, in fact, make Facebook safer. But they also involve dialing back the very features that have powered the platform’s growth for years. It’s a telling act of self-awareness, as if Ferrari had realized that it could only stop its cars from crashing by replacing the engines with go-kart motors," Kevin Roose writes for The New York Times.

And Facebook's efforts arguably didn't help much, the Post reports: Facebook users who wanted to read that type of content responded not by consuming less of it but by decamping to Parler and other social-media apps popular with conservatives. 

Journalists have warned readers for years about the growing threat of QAnon, the Proud Boys, and other extremist groups that routinely organize on social media, but such warnings don't do much to sway Americans who distrust the news media, Rob Tornoe reports for Editor & Publisher.

"Most of these people aren’t just going to suddenly start reading real news. It’s not going to happen," Ben Collins, who covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News, told Tornoe.

New rural coronavirus infections, deaths fell 20% last week

Rates of new coronavirus infections, Feb. 28 through March 6
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version
There were 20 percent fewer rural coronavirus infections and deaths during the week of Feb. 28 to March 6 than the previous week, "continuing a dramatic decline that began eight weeks ago," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. In that week, there were 44,528 new rural infections and 1,640 Covid-related rural deaths. 

"Since the peak of the winter surge in rural counties eight weeks ago, the number of new infections and deaths has dropped by 80% and 60% respectively," they report. Nonmetropolitan counties "had a lower infection rate than metropolitan ones – 97 new cases per 100,000 residents versus 125 new cases per 100,000. The rural rate has been lower since the end of December."

Click here for more data, analysis and graphics from the Yonder, including an interactive map with county-level data.

What's in final relief-and-stimulus package for rural America

American Farm Bureau Federation chart
Today the House began debate on the $1.9 trillion pandemic stimulus-and-relief bill, as amended by the Senate, and President Biden could sign it as early as tomorrow. The package made it out of the Senate on Saturday after a party-line vote. Republicans criticized the size of the package and said the funding wasn't targeted enough toward the current crisis; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted in a floor speech that rural health-care grant funding would be spread out through September 2024, and said agriculture-related funds would "trickle out over the next decade."

  • The $15-per-hour minimum wage hike was scrapped. after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that it couldn't be included in a bill passed by reconciliation.
  • A new provision would provide $1.5 billion over two years to counties with large swaths of federal public land not subject to property taxes. The funding would be distributed based on the county's economic needs.
  • Expanded federal unemployment benefits would be extended through Sept. 6, but at the current rate of $300 a week, not $400, as in the House version. The first $10,200 of benefits would be tax-free for households earning under $150,000 a year.
  • Eligibility requirements were tightened for the $1,400 stimulus checks.
  • Struggling rural health-care providers who have not yet received their share of pandemic relief money would get $8.5 billion.
  • 100% of health-care premiums under the COBRA law would be subsidized through September, to ensure that laid-off workers can keep their health insurance. The House version capped premium subsidies at 85% of the cost. 
  • The $350 billion in direct aid for state and local governments can only cover costs incurred by the end of 2024, and that money can't be used to offset tax cuts or create a pension fund.
  • Restrictions on aid to governments were broadened to give them more flexibility to pay some workers more hazard pay.
  • Small states must get at least as much direct aid as they got from the relief package passed in March 2020.
  • States, territories and tribal governments will receive $10 billion under a new "critical infrastructure projects" program.
  • Funding for the Economic Development Administration would rise to $750 million to help communities hurt by job and revenue losses related to the decline in tourism, travel and outdoor recreation.
  • The Senate greenlit $510 million more than the House to fund the Federal Emergency Management Agency's program for homeless services programs and food banks.
  • The extra FEMA funding would also provide one month's rent or mortgage payment to help prevent evictions, as well as one month's utility payments to prevent service cutoffs.
  • Increased funding for the United States Digital Service would help meet high demand from agencies that need help providing services such as vaccine distribution, unemployment assistance and stimulus checks.
  • Any student loan forgiveness law passed between Dec. 31, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2026 would be tax-free, ensuring that the forgiven debt could not be treated as taxable income.

Nearly a third of rural family caregivers say they won't take their older relatives to get a coronavirus vaccine

"Nearly one-third of family caregivers in rural communities say they won’t take their older relatives to get a Covid vaccine, according to a new survey commissioned by SCAN Health Plan," Adam Cancryn reports for Politico. "That 31 percent is almost double the refusal rate of urban and suburban caregivers — a sign of the vaccine distrust in already isolated parts of the U.S. And that could slow the nation’s progress toward herd immunity."

The caregivers' reluctance is mostly because of safety concerns about the vaccine. More than a quarter of rural caregivers surveyed said they were "not at all" confident in the vaccine's safety, compared to 9% of their urban and suburban counterparts, Cancryn reports.

The survey's findings overlap with recent polls underlining Republicans' greater hesitance about the vacccine, as rural areas tend to be more conservative. Though overall resistance to vaccination is waning, it remains "relatively high" among Republicans, The Washington Post reports; over a third of Republicans in a recent survey said they will definitely not get vaccinated.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Investment firms buy trailer parks, squeeze them for profit

Mobile homes as a share of each county's housing units as of 2017. Washington Post map; click the image to enlarge it.

Mobile-home parks are a critical source of affordable housing, especially in rural areas. Increasingly, investment companies are buying them up and, in efforts to extract maximum profits, making it harder for the poor to afford living in them.

About 20 million Americans, many seniors, veterans, and people with disabilities, live in mobile homes. Manufactured housing, common in rural America, is one of the largest sources of unsubsidized low-income housing in the U.S. Sheelah Kolhatkar reports for The New Yorker

"According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there isn’t a single American state in which a person working full time for minimum wage can afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair-market rent. Demand for subsidized housing far exceeds supply, and in many parts of the country mobile-home parks offer the most affordable private-market options," Kolhatkar reports. "In the past decade, as income inequality has risen, sophisticated investors have turned to mobile-home parks as a growing market. They see the parks as reliable sources of passive income—assets that generate steady returns and require little effort to maintain. Several of the world’s largest investment-services firms, such as the Blackstone Group, Apollo Global Management, and Stockbridge Capital Group, or the funds that they manage, have spent billions of dollars to buy mobile-home communities from independent owners."

Absentee investors that buy mobile-home parks often extract more profit by raising the rent on lots, charging residents for services that were once included, and requiring residents to be responsible for more upkeep on the grounds. One seminar for potential trailer-park owners, Mobile Home University, "recommended that owners regularly raise rents, but not so much that it would drive out desirable tenants," Kolhatkar reports. "They also told investors to avoid 'tenant-friendly' states such as California and New York, where evictions can take months, and urged them to concentrate on areas where there is a shortage of reasonably priced rental apartments." 

Esther Sullivan, author of Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans' Tenuous Right to Place, attended one of the seminars and told Kolhatkar its advice can be summarized as: "Look for a park that’s got high occupancy and that doesn’t need a lot of investment. Take out any possible amenity you’d ever need to invest in, such as a playground or a pool that’s going to need insurance. Make sure it’s got a nice sign, and pawn off any maintenance costs onto your tenants." HBO's John Oliver was more frank, describing the program as "a crash course in how to be an asshole."

Because mobile-home dwellers usually own their home but rent the land it sits on, they're often excluded from basic legal protections for renters, Kolhatkar reports. In theory, such residents can simply move their home if they don't like conditions in a trailer park, but in practice it can cost as much as $10,000 to move a mobile home, leaving residents hostage to predatory lot owners. Some states have passed laws closing those loopholes, but trailer-park residents in many states remain vulnerable.

Victims of Eastern Kentucky flooding will benefit from telethon held Monday, Facebook fundraiser set Wednesday

A new coalition called Appalachians for Appalachia is holding a virtual fundraiser tomorrow to help support people in Eastern Kentucky who have been affected by recent flooding, which set records in some places. It follows a short telethon on a Lexington's WKYT-TV Monday night that raised more than $1.1 million, $500,000 of it from the founder and CEO of the region's new mega-greenhouse.

"Love Thy Neighbor: An Appalachians for Appalachia Flood Relief Show" is set for 7 p.m. ET March 10 on Facebook Live and will feature performances and readings from Silas House, Senora May, SG Goodman, Robert Gipe, and more. All proceeds will go to the Southeast Kentucky Flood Relief Fund.

House, The Local Honeys and other Kentucky Appalachian artists performed on the telethon, which was arranged by nine organizations, including AppHarvest, the greenhouse firm. Toyota gave $200,000, and $100,000 came from coal company Alliance Resource Partners; CEO Joe Craft and his wife Kelly Knoght Craft, a Republican political figure, made two appearances on the hour-long show.

"Eastern Kentucky is defined by faith and grit," AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb told The Lane Report, a Kentucky business publication.  "Our region is home to the hardest working people who have long powered America, and they consistently rise to meet every challenge and move every obstacle created. Seeing how quickly people have banded together to help is a constant reminder why Appalachia is a region unlike any other." To donate to the relief fund, visit

Nonprofits say redefinition of metro areas could hurt rural funding, mount campaign to urge a delay and more study

Proposed changes to the Office of Management and Budget's metropolitan/nonmetro definition
Daily Yonder map; click the map to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

"A group of researchers, service organizations, and nonprofit leaders are organizing a national campaign to urge the Office of Management and Budget to delay redefining metropolitan statistical areas, the county categorization system that underlies many rural-focused federal programs,” Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. The change would increase the minimum population of core cities for an MSA from 50,000 to 100,000, classifying of about 140 metropolitan areas as "micropolitan," which now applies to areas with core cities of 10,000 to 49,999. That would "about 250 counties with 18 million residents, according to an OMB estimate based on 2010 census data," Marema reports.

The proposal is open for comments through Friday, March 19, The OMB's Federal Register announcement about the proposed change, made in the closing days of the Trump administration, says federal agencies shouldn’t use its classification system to determine program and funding eligibility, but many federal agencies use the classification system, as well as other ways of categorizing places.

The Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution are asking groups to sign a joint letter highlighting concerns about the proposal. "The letter says that increasing the number of nonmetropolitan counties could increase competition for scarce rural funding,” Marema reports. “The sign-on letter says OMB should take a comprehensive look at the metropolitan definition, instead of changing just the population criterion. That would give the agency the opportunity to review the non-statistical consequences of any changes.”

USDA: Supermarket prices spiked in 2020 but might go back down some in 2021

The average cost of prices at grocery stores and in restaurants spiked in 2020 but might go back down some in 2021, according to a new report by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service

"According to USDA data released last week, the Consumer Price Index for grocery store or supermarket food purchases last year was up 3.5 percent: That's not only a significant jump from 2019, where these retail "food-at-home" prices were up only 0.9% from the year before, but also well above the 20 year annual average of 2.0% and the highest annual increase since 2011," Mike Pomranz reports for Food & Wine. "Meanwhile, the cost of restaurant purchases saw a similar spike, up 3.4% over the past year, meaning Americans were likely paying more for food wherever they went."

The price increases were driven partly by the pandemic's affect on supply chains and labor, but also by changes in consumer habits. "Stay-at-home mandates in 2020 increased demand for several food products in retail stores, rather than at restaurants and schools," said the report. "Supply chains struggled to adapt to this transition, which put upward pressure on retail prices."

Meat prices showed an especially dramatic increase, though almost all other food categories went up in price except fruit, the report says. Meatpacking plants were hard-hit during the pandemic and were often obliged to temporarily close or reduce production for safety reasons, Pomranz reports.

Monday, March 08, 2021

Herd immunity may depend on reluctant Republicans; could mean complications for rural areas, and thus for the nation

Timothy Shea showed his fishnet mask at the recent Conservative
Political Action Conference. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)
Whether or when the nation develops herd immunity to the novel coronavirus may depend on Republicans, almost a third of whom tell pollsters that they will definitely not get vaccinated. That could have implications for rural areas, which became more Republican under a president who politicized the pandemic. Among other groups, "hesitancy has started to wane while GOP resistance to the vaccines remains relatively  high," Dan Diamond of The Washington Post reports after moving from Politico's health beat.

Describing the reluctance of an elderly Trump voter in Oklahoma who would be interviewed only if her last name wasn't used, Diamond notes, "Polls have repeatedly found that nearly one-third of Republicans share her staunch resistance to the coronavirus vaccines, although for a variety of reasons. Some, like Margaret, worry they were developed too quickly. Others argue without evidence that many vaccines are unsafe or will make them sick. Still more echo Trump’s repeated contention that the coronavirus threat is overblown and simply don’t trust the government’s involvement."

Public-health experts have focused persuasion efforts on communities of color, "worried their historical distrust of the medical establishment might lead to low vaccination rates," Diamond reports. "But there’s been less focus on winning over Republicans." The de Beaumont Foundation has hired Republican pollster Frank Luntz to "crack the code" for Republicans, as Luntz put it. He said the most common thread is “They simply don’t trust the government to do the right thing.” But Diamond writes, "Vaccine-hesitant Republicans defy easy categorizations," and gives examples.

"The Biden administration is also researching how to reach holdout Republicans, said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss in-progress efforts," Diamond writes, quoting the official: “The most trusted messengers are doctors, nurses, faith leaders. We want to talk to everybody.”

Robert Coon, a Republican political consultant in Arkansas who has polled on the subject, todl Diamond, “I don’t think you’re going to end up with 70 percent adoption in some states, where you’re not going to have the majority of the biggest political party.” Diamond writes, "The proportion of people who need to be immune to reach herd immunity with covid-19 isn’t known, but experts estimate it between 70 to 85 percent."

Diamond offers an important caveat: "It’s too early to see those views play out. Health officials in eight rural counties that Trump won handily — in states ranging from Georgia and Pennsylvania to Texas and West Virginia — said that demand is still outpacing scant supply." Deborah Baker, health director in Missouri’s Pulaski County, which Trump carried by 46 points told Diamond, “We’ve had a huge outpouring of people wanting the vaccine here. . . . I don’t think the political environment has mattered.”

Biden taps director of Wisconsin's Office of Rural Prosperity as one of his key agriculture and rural policy advisers

Kelliann Blazek
President Biden has appointed a Wisconsinite with extensive rural-policy experience as a special assistant for agriculture and rural policy. Kelliann Blazek will serve as one of 21 advisers on the Domestic Policy Council.

Blazek was appointed first director of Wisconsin's Office of Rural Prosperity in April 2020. But "before returning to Wisconsin, Blazek worked as counsel to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and helped include provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill that supported local food economies, organic agriculture and food-waste reduction," Mitchell Schmidt reports for the Wisconsin State Journal. "She also taught food law and policy at the Antonin Scalia Law School and spent time at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. She grew up on a small beef farm outside of Bangor in La Crosse County, which her family still runs."

Blazek's appointment will likely be welcome news to those who want more rural voices in the Biden administration. A recent panel of rural policy experts at Kenyon College, for instance, agreed that not having such voices has resulted in "major structural problems" in nationwide policy. 

"It’s worthy of note that Wisconsin was not only one of the states Biden flipped to defeat Trump, it’s the site of Katherine Cramer’s research about rural resentment of urban, governmental and media elites," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. Cramer, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of The Politics of Resentment, a book that chronicles how rural Wisconsin voters felt disrespected, misunderstood, and left behind by city-dwellers and liberal elites.

Natl. Newspaper Assn. postpones Community Newspaper Summit and Country Editors Forum that were set this week

The National Newspaper Association has postponed its Community Newspaper Summit and Country Editors Forum scheduled for the next two weeks.

"This is a time like no other in our business," NNA said. "Again and again, we hear from you that you want to attend but are inundated with work, coping with emergencies and helping staff to produce a newspaper in challenging circumstances. We hope our programs are helpful and inspiring.  We are asking our speakers to plan to be with us for special programs later in the year when we hope our industry is settling into our new ways of doing business."

Sunshine Week is next week; here are resources, including a Ken Paulson column: 'Let government know who's boss'

Sunshine Week is coming up on March 14-20, so it's time to start letting the public know. The observance, launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) is a celebration of open government and freedom of information.

Click here to learn more or access a content toolkit with a special reporting package free for republishing. The Sunshine Week site will provide other tools, including op-eds, editorial cartoons, logos and a list of open-government questions that journalists can ask federal candidates. The site also features freedom-of-information story ideas and work from past Sunshine Weeks, a list of participants and a calendar of events.

Use of open-government laws is a good way to "Let government know who's boss," writes Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, a lawyer and a former editor-in-chief of USA Today. "It’s too easy for officials who have failed us to point fingers, blame the media and wait for their side of the partisan fence to rally to their defense. We deserve better. We all pay taxes to support the work of government. We should get our money’s worth."

Sunshine Week 2021 is made possible by an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and by generous donations from the Gridiron Club and Foundation. For more information about Sunshine Week, visit Follow Sunshine Week on Twitter and Facebook. You can find or create social-media posts by using the hashtag #SunshineWeek.

Hazardous 'forever chemicals' found in common pesticides

"Forever chemicals" are present in many common pesticides, according to new testing by an environmental watchdog group. The findings raise concerns about public health and food safety, and could motivate the Environmental Protection Agency to address the issue. 

"The testing done by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs) — a class of chemicals tied to a wide range of health concerns, including cancer — in a handful of publicly available herbicides and insecticides," E.A. Crunden and Ariel Wittenberg report for Energy & Environment News. "The tests found PFAS in Talstar P, an insecticide manufactured by FMC Corp. that kills over 75 types of pests. The company website says the product 'is approved in multiple use-sites, so you can use it almost anywhere: indoors and out, in industrial, commercial and food-handling areas.' The tests also found PFAs in mosquito and tick control agent Mavrik Perimeter, made by Zoecon. Initial testing revealed PFAs in at least two other pesticides, although further analysis is required to confirm those results."
Many questions remain. "It is unclear how the PFAs are getting into the pesticides, and whether manufacturers are intentionally adding the chemicals, as opposed to accidental contamination from equipment used to manufacture or transport the pesticides," Crunden and Wittenberg report.

Other testing has found PFAs in hundreds of drinking-water sources in 43 states, especially near military bases and places that use fire-fighting foam. The chemicals, which are used in everything from nonstick cookware to raincoats, have been linked to serious health problems including birth defects, cancers, infertility and weakened immune systems in children, and they've been dubbed "forever chemicals" because they like to stick around in the environment and in the human body.

Study: Wildfire smoke worse than car pollution for the lungs

2021 wildfire risk map from
Click the image to enlarge it or click here for interactive county- and state-level data

Wildfires are more harmful to human lungs than many other sources of air pollution, including car exhaust. That's according to newly published research from the University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "The research, published in the journal Nature Communications Friday, paints a worrisome picture for Americans living on a fire-prone continent, especially as climate change amplifies fire risk worldwide," Nathan Rott reports for NPR.

Air pollution has been decreasing in some parts of the U.S., but not in wildfire-prone areas, according to study co-author Rosana Aguilera. "Aguilera and co-author Tom Corringham looked at hospital-admissions data over 14 years in Southern California and compared that to spikes in air pollution during strong wind events," Rott reports. "They found that pollutants from wildfire smoke caused up to a 10 percent increase in hospital admissions."

Air conditions were especially bad last year, when wildfire smoke blanketed many areas of the U.S. "An NPR analysis of air quality on the West Coast found that one in seven residents experienced at least one day of unhealthy air conditions last year," Rott reports. "For weeks, the smoke was so thick in parts of Oregon, Washington and California that public health officials urged people to stay indoors and avoid physical activities."

The recent uptick in wildfire activity makes the findings all the more concerning, Corringham said. "We're pretty aware of the physical costs of wildfire, in terms of firefighting costs and damage to property," Corringham told Rott. "But there's been a lot of work that has shown that the health impacts due to wildfire smoke are on the same order of magnitude, or possibly even greater, than the direct physical cost." In addition to wider action to mitigate global warming, which increases the risk of wildfires, Corringham suggests improved air-monitoring systems and public-health programs, as well as financial aid for at-risk populations and low-income households to purchase air filters.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Weekly honored after filling revenue gap with sponsorships, grants and relief money, and collaborating with J-schools

Chatham County is next to the Research Triangle of  Raleigh,
Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C. (Click on map to enlarge it.)
A weekly newspaper in the heart of North Carolina is showing that a small news outlet can develop new sources of revenue to maintain the quality of its journalism.

"This is the story of a $120,300 juggling act involving human capital, dollars and sense," University of Kentucky journalism professor Buck Ryan writes in the latest installment of his case study of the Chatham News + Record, a 3,800-circulation weekly.

The paper won 28 news awards in the 2020 North Carolina Press Association contest for 2020, more than any other small weekly and more than any other newspaper except for three metro dailies, Ryan reports: "But alas, the awards carry no fiscal benefits. The cruel reality for community newspapers is that quality is necessary but not sufficient for profitability. Every day is a street fight for sustainability."

Ryan tells how Editor-Publisher Bill Horner III and two partners bought and combined two money-losing newspapers, the News and the Record. "From the start, Horner was consumed by the juggling act facing every community newspaper leader: revenue and staffing. He remains the only original staff member on the news side and the head worrier about plugging holes in a sinking advertising-revenue ship, bleeding up to $2,000 a week."

Horner filled the gap with $37,300 in grants from Facebook and Google, $18,000 from local sponsorships and $60,000 in a forgivable Covid-19 relief loan, "plus $5,000 in underwriting from the Missouri School of Journalism to support an innovation intern." The paper has also worked with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Ryan gives details in a narrative and an interview with Horner, available here.