Saturday, March 20, 2021

Rural regional hubs, not metropolitan but micropolitan, are key political battleground as parties look to 2022 midterms

Suburbs have been America's main political battleground lately, but another sort of battleground has developed: exurbs, smaller cities that are outside metropolitan areas but aren't really rural. The Census Bureau has a classification for them: micropolitan, with a core city of 10,000 to 49,999. "Small-city America" is what the Democratic Party considers its "new frontier," reports Thomas Beaumont, an Iowa-based national political correspondent for The Associated Press.

"As Democrats continue to lose votes in small towns, they've seen clear gains in regional hubs that dot stretches of rural America," Beaumont writes, noting that many of the 60 or so counties that flipped from Trump to Biden in the 2020 election "were places anchored by a mid-sized or small city that is trending Democratic," usually with a university and/or medical center that draw "educated and racially diverse newcomers. Their economies are better than average. And in 2020, their voters showed a bipartisan streak — voting for Biden for president and Republicans down-ballot in large numbers."

Beaumont's object example is Mankato, Minn., pop. 40,000 and a 37-year-old registered nurse at a branch of the Mayo Clinic: "Mary McGaw grew up in a Republican home on the rural prairie of south central Minnesota. But as she moved from her tiny town of Amboy to the nearest city of Mankato to study nursing, her politics migrated too. McGaw was moved by the plight of underinsured and became concerned about the viability of safety programs. She cast her vote for Democrat Joe Biden in November, and nearly 3 months later, she is pleased with how hard the new president is fighting for his priorities." She told Beaumont, "He's trying to get something done, even though there's pushback from all sides."

Friday, March 19, 2021

Al Smith, who co-founded the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and left a broad legacy, dies at 94

Al Smith in 2010
Albert Perrine Smith Jr., a noted Kentucky journalist, public citizen and co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog), died peacefully Friday, March 19 at home in Sarasota, Florida. He was 94.

Smith, who was born in Sarasota and grew up in Hendersonville, Tenn., once owned seven weekly newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee. For 33 years he was the host and producer of Kentucky Educational Television’s “Comment on Kentucky,” the longest running public-affairs show on a PBS affiliate, taking leave in 1980-82 to serve as federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission for Presidents Carter and Reagan.

After selling his newspapers in 1985, Smith broadened his civic work. He and his friend Rudy Abramson, who died in 2008, thought up the Institute for Rural Journalism in the late 1990s, and he persuaded his onetime intern, Hodding Carter III, to take it past the study stage with a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which Carter headed, to the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. He was chair emeritus of the institute’s Advisory Board. He was a charter member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and a fellow of the national Society of Professional Journalists, and former chairman of the Kentucky Arts Commission and former president of the Kentucky Press Association.

At 15, Al beat out 100,000 contestants to win the American Legion’s national oratorical contest. He traveled the country for a year speaking to raise money for the war effort. After high school, he proudly served stateside in the Army during World War II. He attended Vanderbilt University (spottily) before beginning his journalism career in New Orleans, where he was an editor and reporter for two daily papers. Though his 10 years in New Orleans were colorful and fueled a lifetime of stories, alcoholism derailed his career there. He relocated to Russellville, Kentucky, where he became the editor of The News-Democrat, and quit drinking in 1963. He went on to accompany countless others to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and was a “friend of Bill W.” for 58 years.

In 1966, he met his future wife, Martha Helen. They married in 1967. The next year, he left the News-Democrat to start his own weekly, The Logan Leader, and soon purchased The News-Democrat. Through the 1970s, Smith was editor and publisher of the Russellville papers, and with partners acquired other weeklies. The papers took strong stands on public issues, particularly education. In 1974, he began a broadcasting career, hosting “Comment” on Friday nights. The show featured a panel of Kentucky journalists discussing and analyzing that week’s news and soon became popular.

In the 1970s and 80s, Al became involved in several statewide public-service organizations. He was founding chair of the Kentucky Oral History Commission and chaired both Leadership Kentucky and the Shakertown Roundtable, a forum on challenging issues facing Kentucky. He hosted and produced a daily radio show, “Primeline,” from 1990 to 1996, and wrote two books, Wordsmith and Kentucky Cured. He was always an advocate for rural journalism, as noted in this sidebar.

Smith’s greatest legacy was the many people he helped along the way. He mentored younger journalists and others who crossed his path. He was a kind, generous man and a wonderful (if long-winded) storyteller, with a Shakespearean grasp of political foible and triumph. His curiosity was more than a journalist’s quest for a story; it was a wider curiosity that reflected his love for humanity and its condition. That quality brought him a wide circle of friends from all walks of life. He loved his family, Kentucky, political stories, his dogs Chloe and Coco, chocolate and Willie Nelson. Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big” transported him to the snowy rifle range at Fort Sill, Okla., or to New Orleans, where he loved the food, the music and the people.  
Smith received honorary doctorates from the UK and eight other colleges and universities. He was a Distinguished Rural Kentuckian of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives and a Rural Hero (for journalism) by the National Rural Assembly. He received the Medallion for Intellectual Achievement from the UK Library Associates, the Media Award of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, the Kentucky Press Association’s Lewis Owens Award for Community Service, the Kentucky Broadcasters Association’s Ralph Gabbard Distinguished Kentuckian Award, and the Flame of Excellence Award from Leadership Kentucky.

Two statewide awards are named for him. One is given by the rural-journalism institute and the Bluegrass SPJ Chapter for public service through community journalism (he was its first recipient); the other is a $7,500 award from the Arts Commission to a Kentucky artist who has achieved a high level of excellence and creativity.

He was the son of Albert Perrine Smith and Elvira Mace Smith. Survivors include his beloved wife of almost 54 years, Martha Helen Smith; his children, Catherine McCarty (William) of Birmingham, Ala.; Lewis Carter Hancock of Louisville and Virginia Major (William) of West Hartford, Conn.; an “adopted” son, Huaming Gu of Shanghai, China; and his sister, Robin Burrow, of Abilene, Texas. He is also survived by five grandchildren, Evan and Connor (Ikue) McCarty, Lauren Hancock, and Susannah and Ava Major; and numerous cousins.

A memorial service will be held at a later date. The family suggests instead that memorial contributions may be made in Al’s honor to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, 343 S. Martin Luther King Blvd., #206 BLD, Lexington KY 40506-0012, and to The Hope Center.

Al Smith was exemplar, advocate for rural journalism

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

If you're a regular reader of The Rural Blog, you understand the sort of rural journalism exemplified by Al Smith, who died Friday, March 19.

It's rural journalism that keeps public service at top of mind, providing insight and leadership to the community, and going beyond the county line to help the audience understand state, regional and national issues and actors that affect their communities.

Al Smith accepts the first Al Smith Award
Award from IRJCI Director Al Cross in 2011.
That's the sort of journalism Al Smith and I practiced when I worked for him. I learned how to write about controversial people in a way that you could hold your journalistic head high and still look them in the eye and exchange a greeting the next day. That was the basis for what I teach students today, that the key to real success in community journalism is managing the ever-present conflict between your professional obligations and your personal comfort. It's not for everybody, but Al Smith knew how to do it, and even make it fun.

His newspapers campaigned for better schools, which didn't sit well with farmers who didn't want higher taxes. When one who was upset with Al's crusading walked into his office one day and started giving him a lecture, Al turned to his typewriter, recorded the visitor's thoughts, whipped out the paper, handed it to the farmer and said something like this: "You just wrote a letter to the editor. Sign it and we'll put in in the paper." He loved the clash of ideas.

He had a preternatural curiosity that was more than a journalist’s quest for a story, or knowledge of how things worked; it was a human curiosity that reflected true care about humanity and its condition, and it brought him a wide circle of friends. One called him “a collector of humans.” 

Several years ago he reflected on his approach as small-town editor and publisher: "Because I have a certain combativeness about social issues, it didn’t take me long to decide that part of my job was to conduct the paper with an urgency rooted in a conviction that if we didn’t build more jobs, there would be grass in the streets instead of people on sidewalks. I became a total resource person, devoted to all kinds of proposals for bettering the community—all of them, I liked to think, of a progressive nature."

When I started working for Al, he was president of the Kentucky Press Association, which was halfway through a campaign to give Kentucky some of the nation's best open-meetings and open-records laws. He went on to be Kentucky's greatest public citizen, leading, guiding and supporting a wide range of causes, and left a national legacy with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. He liked to say that "It has a long name because it's the caboose that drives the train: the issues."

Always remembering Al's example, the Institute stands for the proposition that rural Americans deserve good journalism as much as urban Americans. I would like to think that his example, and the Institute, have raised the bar for rural journalism in Kentucky and the nation.

Al was chairman emeritus of the Institute advisory board, now co-chaired by community journalist Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, Ky., and retired daily newspaper executive Nancy Green.

Nancy wrote: "Al Smith was a first-rate journalist, publisher, mentor, coach, friend, lover of his adopted state of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues encouraged and established recognition programs for smaller community editors doing good work, not just in Kentucky but around the nation. So many small newspaper publishers like Al successfully address serious issues with limited resources. Al believed in recognizing these successes.  . . . Thanks to Al's tenacious attention to the good work of rural journalists, we are able to have a better picture of what is happening in rural America."

Jennifer wrote, "More than anyone I know, Al Smith made it possible for rural journalists to see the merit and meaning of their work. He set an example to pursue stories about people and issues in small towns with the same purpose and drive as a reporter working for a metropolitan paper. Al treated rural communities as places worthy of our best efforts in storytelling and watchdog reporting. More than ever, I think we need his example to strengthen rural newsrooms and the communities they cover. Knowing Al made me a better journalist. I was fortunate to know him and to have his support."

We welcome other recollections and tributes to Al Smith, to be added to this post. Click the Comment pencil at the bottom of this post, or send an email to Here's a start:

Steve Beshear, Democratic governor of Kentucky from 2007 to 2015, told the Lexington Herald-Leader that most people considered Smith an icon in journalism, “but he also actively worked to make life better for Kentuckians.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a press release, "Al Smith was the gold standard of community journalism in the Bluegrass. On radio, on television and in print, he covered everyone from Kentucky’s most famous to those who wouldn’t be known outside their small town. In short, Al told our story. . . In writing about his human vulnerability, he became an inspiration for his readers to face their own. It’s my hope others will follow Al’s path of integrity and professional excellence."

The first quote in the Louisville Courier Journal's obituary was from a foreword to one of Al's books, buy O. Leonard Press, founding director of Kentucky Educational Television: "The essence of Al Smith is that he was born to be a public figure, in print and in person. And in one way or another, he always has been."

KET Public Affairs Managing Producer Renee Shaw, who co-produced "Comment on Kentucky" with Smith for 11 years, told the Herald-Leader that Smith was “my personal hero who saw my potential, nurtured it, and at times challenged it, convincing me to bloom where I was planted. Often a stem-winder orator, Al, to me, was gentle in his mentoring pep talks and believed more for me than I could see. . . . I, and others, will cling to memories of his feisty spirit, fervent intellectual curiosity and deep passion to connect our experiences and elevate rural communities.”

Retired Kentucky journalist Art Jester wrote, "It can’t be overstated that Martha Helen was crucial in Al’s getting his life back together from his worst days as an alcoholic, and was truly his partner in everything, most notably running their newspapers. I have always thought that Martha Helen stayed anchored —cheerfully and skillfully so — thus enabling Al to sail around to his many interests, meetings, interviews, and obligations, not to mention his endless, long telephone conversations. (I was just one of many who benefitted from his unselfish chats and advice.) In short, Al could not have become the man that he was without Martha Helen’s love, support and partnership in everything they did. Al had the talent and drive, but Martha Helen’s steadfastness made his greatest accomplishments possible. They were an incredible team."

Former Paducah Sun political writer Bill Bartleman wrote, "Al Smith truly understood the role and importance of community journalism. He overcame challenges in his life to be one of Kentucky’s most influential leaders who never held public office. He worked tirelessly to improve education at all levels, to demand accountability of elected officials and demand that reporters work diligently to be aggressive and honest in their work and maintain the highest level of integrity. As moderator of “Comment on Kentucky,” he did more to influence a positive state agenda than any person or group. He used his show to inform Kentuckians from Paducah to Pikeville of state news and called on journalists from throughout the state to give perspectives on major events. Even though he was friends with presidents, senators, congressmen, governors and the rich and famous, he never forgot his rural roots and days in poverty. I, like many others, was a better journalist and a better Kentuckian because I knew Al Smith."

Alice Brown, former president of the Appalachian College Association, was one of many people outside journalism but in other forms of public service whom Al helped: "Al called me "a beggar for beggars." He sent me to DC to beg at the Appalachian Regional Commission. After the Appalachian College Program became an independent association, Al guided me in the area of personnel development; as I hired new employees for that new office, Al reminded me about the importance of hiring people familiar with the culture of Appalachia and about the importance of giving them a lot of praise to soften whatever negative criticism I might need to share with them. . . . Like a guardian angel, he seemed to appear at many right moments in my life. And he always came with subtle suggestions about where I might find funding to support my work or how I might better communicate the mission of that association. While I remember only a few of the specific actions Al took on my behalf, I will never forget his spirit intent on helping all those with whom he came into contact. And I will always be grateful that I was one of those with whom he came into contact.'

Mark Neikirk, former managing editor of The Kentucky Post, wrote that Smith was "Kentucky's poet laureate of public policy. By his marshaling words, whether in print or broadcast, he guided his adopted state toward a better Commonwealth."

David Thurmond writes, "One of the first people to befriend Al Smith when he moved to Russellville in 1958 was my dad, Hal Thurmond Sr., who grew up in Russellville and had set himself up in a pretty successful business in Hopkinsville, two counties to the west. They found themselves to be kindred spirits. Both were die-hard, gregarious liberals swimming in a sea of Southern Kentucky conservatism. . . . My dad had great admiration for Al, for kicking the bottle and for his open expression of liberal thought in his newspaper. The admiration was mutual, as Al couldn't believe how a businessman could be so successful while aggressively pushing a Western Kentucky civil-rights agenda from Hopkinsville. They say one measure of a truly great man is honest humility. So in the summer of 1968, I find myself the subject of an unsolicited public apology from this man that I so looked up to.  As the war in Vietnam was raging, I had asked him for his help when, as the newly self-appointed, 18-year-old chairman of the Christian County Citizens for McCarthy, I privately reached out to him for advice and support. He very politely, being the gentleman he was, brushed me off. Then, a week or so later, he published an apology for it in The Logan Leader, came out in favor of Senator McCarthy, and against the war in Vietnam, all at once! Needless to say, we became fast friends, and I followed him to this very day. Common sense, high intelligence,  compassion, remarkable leadership, an easy, "front porch" way of conversing,  and  remarkable journalistic  skill are some of the qualities by which I will remember him. Al Smith embodied what is truly the best of Kentucky.

By Keith Runyon
Retired opinion editor, The Courier-Journal (posted Nov. 11, 2021)

When I was a young journalist in the early 1970s, Barry Bingham Sr. often said that three things hold the Commonwealth of Kentucky together: the governor, University of Kentucky basketball, and The Courier-Journal. Before much longer, there was a fourth – Kentucky Educational Television, and most of all, its foremost newsman, Al Smith.

The influence of The Courier-Journal would, before Al died earlier this year, wane, but KET’s role became even more important. “Comment on Kentucky,” which Al and Len Press created in November 1974, has become the glue of commentary that manages to meld all 120 counties. Or at least it tries to. And under the remarkable leadership of Ginny Fox and then Shae Hopkins, it has matured, expanded and now become must-viewing for us all.

My friendship with Al and Martha Helen began a few months before “Comment” made its debut. We were part of a weekend hiking trip to the Red River Gorge, a few days after the Great April 3 Tornado, along with a band of now legendary Courier-Journal staffers including Carol Sutton and Charles Whaley, John Finley and Linda Stahl, Chris Doughty Johnson, and Jean Howerton.

During the day we hiked in the woods, but at night we ate lasagna, sat by a roaring fire in a cabin at Natural Bridge State Park. Sang. Played Pictionary. Charades. And drank way too much. All of us but Al. His personal victory over alcohol was an inspiration, one that I, a 23-year-old guy, dazzled with all of this energy and fun and talent, couldn’t comprehend.

Al was liberal.
Al was literate.
Al was loving.Al was loaded with righteous indignation.
Al made life real, and honest, and it is still hard for me to turn on Comment without expecting to see him there…and once in a while, me with him. Reading from that damned teleprompter…Al, never Keith!

More comments appear in the Comment section of this post.

Fla. House tries to kill legal ads, which are now essential to many newspapers; similar bills pending in other states

Paid public notices, which have become an essential piece of many newspapers' revenue as commercial advertising goes digital, are under attack again in state legislatures, which are getting an early start.

The Florida House passed a bill Thursday that would "repeal a part of current Florida law that requires certain public notices — tax increases, special elections, etc. — to be published in print newspapers," reports Kirby Wilson of the Tampa Bay Times. Those notices provide Florida’s more than 100 newspapers with millions of dollars in revenue every year."

The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote of 85 to 34. Its companion bill is scheduled for a committee hearing next week in the Senate, where similar bills died the last two years, Wilson reports.

Bills to repeal public-notice laws have been filed in at least 10 states, the Public Notice Resource Center reported last month, identifying four crucial states: Florida, Connecticut, Missouri and South Dakota. In the latter two states, newspaper associations are supporting bills that would require public notices to be posted online. Most of the associations have sites that publish notices without charge.

The Missouri bill would relax some public-notice laws, in an attempt to forestall more damaging bills, PNRC reports. The South Dakota bill would raise fees for public notices, establish a mechanism to automatically increase rates, and increase minimum type size and line spacing for public notices.

The pressure to reduce public-notice requirements comes mainly from local governments.

Public Notice Resource Center 2-pager makes arguments.

House passes bill to create pathway to citizenship for farmworkers in U.S. illegally and their family members

The U.S. House passed a bill Thursday that "sets out a path to citizenship for farmworkers in the country illegally and their family members, reports Siobahn Hughes of The Wall Street Journal. It passed 247 to 174, "with 30 Republicans in favor and a single Democrat against."

Nevertheless, the bill's fate in the Senate is uncertain, partly because it passed along with a bill to "create a path to citizenship for young immigrants known as Dreamers who came to the U.S. before the age of 19 and have lived in the country illegally, as well as hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the U.S. under a humanitarian program that provides temporary protection to people suffering from extraordinary conditions like war or natural disasters," Hughes reports.

That bill's passage was narrower, by 288-197, and some Republicans lumped it with the farmworker bill, saying they would send the wrong message at a time when the U.S. is dealing with a surge in migrants at the Mexican border. “These bills are . . . advertising that people who come here legally are suckers, and we’re going to give preference to people who didn’t come here legally,” said Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin.

Hughes quotes Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., a former state agriculture official who supports the bill: “The timing is unfortunate. It’s distracting people from what the issues are.” And she notes, "Agriculture Department data show that nearly 50 percent of hired crop farmworkers in the U.S. lack legal status." Cornell University offers experts to discuss both bills. One is Richard Stup, a farm-workforce specialist who serves as liaison between the industry and employment regulators and says the bill would be a major step toward stabilizing the nation's agricultural workforce.

Rural bankers in 10 heartland farm-and-energy states have highest level of economic confidence since 2006

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

A March survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on farming and energy showed continued optimism for the economy, with nearly 69 percent of bank CEOs surveyed reporting an expanding local economy. The overall confidence index was growth-positive for the fifth time in the past six months and jumped from February's 53.8 to a record 71.9, the highest level recorded since Creighton University launched the survey in January 2006. The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Sharp gains in grain prices, federal farm support, and the Federal Reserve’s record-low interest rates have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy," writes Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. "Only 3.1% of bank CEOs indicated economic conditions worsened from the previous month. Even so, current rural economic activity remains below pre-pandemic levels."

The farmland price index remained above growth-neutral for the sixth month straight, the first time such a thing has happened since 2013, hitting its highest level since November 2012. The farm equipment-sales index likewise had its highest reading since February 2013, marking the fourth month that index has been growth-positive after 86 straight months of below growth-neutral readings. And bankers reported an expansion in loan volumes in March for the first time since last September,.

The new hiring index jumped to 72.9 from February's 51.9, but the region is still playing catch-up. "Despite recent solid job gains for the region, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that nonfarm employment levels for the Rural Mainstreet economy are down by 218,600 (non-seasonally adjusted), or 5%, compared to pre-Covid-19 levels," Goss reports.

USDA hemp rules finalized after much push and pull

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has finished its review of a final rule for industrial hemp production, with an effective date of March 22. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp but sparse regulations led to widespread confusion and problems for producers and processors. The new rule is meant to address those concerns after much feedback from growers, state agencies, and industry groups nationwide.

"The final rule includes provisions for the USDA to approve hemp production plans developed by states and Indian tribes including requirements for maintaining information on the land where hemp is produced, testing the levels of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, disposing of plants not meeting necessary requirements and licensing requirements," Robert Hoban, an attorney who specializes in the cannabis industry, reports for Forbes. "It also establishes a federal plan for hemp producers in states or territories of Indian tribes that do not have their own USDA-approved hemp production plan."

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, whose feedback about potential problems with the interim final rule resulted in several adjustments to the final rule, said he is encouraged by it, but warned, "Additional challenges remain for the nation’s hemp industry, especially in light of the continued lack of action by the Food and Drug Administration. If this industry is to be successful, we need FDA to deliver clarity on hemp-derived cannabidiol products and their guidance cannot come soon enough."

Quick hits: register for Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit March 22-24; programs help young rural entrepreneurs

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

Two programs from Kansas and Mississippi are noteworthy examples of how to help young rural entrepreneurs thrive with training and tools. Read more here.

Fires, deteriorating infrastructure, and unusually cold weather strain rural Alaska's already-fragile water systems. Read more here.

Congress is launching an investigation into the "clean-coal" tax credit after evidence emerged that coal plants using the chemically treated fuel produce more smog than others. Read more here.

There's still time to register for the 2021 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit, coming up on March 22-24. Guests include Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall. Read more here.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice's companies owe millions more in environmental fines. Read more here.

The Rural Health Information Hub has updated its information guide on rural long-term care facilities, including a new FAQ on how the pandemic has affected such facilities. Read more here.

A recent book discusses the reasons estrangement commonly happens in farming and ranching families and how to find a way to reconcile. Read more here.

The Brookings Institution has an in-depth analysis of how an Office of Management and Budget proposal to redefine metropolitan statistical areas would affect rural America. Read more here.

An artist explores the intersection of Black culture and Appalachia. Read more here.

The Women of Appalachia Project dispels stereotypes with poetry, visual art and song. Read more here.

A new report from the Anti-Defamation League found that efforts to spread white supremacist propaganda almost doubled last year in the U.S. Read more here.

Seed and fertilizer make up more than half of the operating costs for corn and soybean producers, according newly released Agriculture Department data. Read more here.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Sunshine Week example: It can make a difference when journalists are around to cover public agencies' meetings

The tower a tax could save
By Lauren McCally and Al Cross
Midway (Ky.) Messenger

This is Sunshine Week, which reminds Americans of the importance of open government. It’s promoted by the American Society of News Editors, because journalists play a primary role in keeping government open and holding it accountable.

Sometimes, that watchdog role and the drive of journalists to seek the truth and report it can change the course of government business.

That happened this week in Midway, Kentucky, when the mayor proposed doubling the city’s insurance-premium tax to improve the town’s infrastructure, starting with repairs to the city’s iconic water tower, known as "the Tin Man" for its resemblance to the character in The Wizard of Oz.

The mayor suggested that Midway is so small that insurance companies do not pass the tax onto buyers of insurance policies, and one council member cited that in asking for a first reading of the tax ordinance. The council scheduled a special meeting for three days later for second reading and final passage to meet the state’s annual deadline for setting the tax rate.

The mayor acknowledged that he didn’t really know how insurance companies handle the tax. After the meeting, we checked with the state Department of Insurance and found that state law requires companies to note the tax on their bills, indicating that they do include it in the premium charge.

When we told the mayor that, he said: “We don’t need the revenue, but the Tin Man is a very expensive cosmetic project and we are currently leaving money on the table with these rates.” The city’s 5% rate is low compared to those levied by other Kentucky cities.

Our online Midway Messenger story reporting all this was published 24 hours before the special meeting. Less than three hours after publication, the mayor canceled the second reading of his plan, saying that he had been “under the impression that this kind of tax isn’t necessarily always passed on to the consumer. It appears I was incorrect.”

All this happened as The Woodford Sun, the weekly newspaper in the county seat of Versailles, was awaiting delivery of its print edition, after which it posts stories online. Its story, published after the cancellation, quoted a Versailles insurance agent as saying that the tax is passed on to customers.

Midway Mayor Grayson Vandegrift told us the next day that after we told him about the law, "I started doing a little more research, and that was confirmed by other sources."

This episode shows how journalists are watchdogs who keep citizens informed about what their elected officials are doing, and sometimes take a deeper dive and find information officials that don’t have.

That happens less often these days, because newspapers have fewer reporters to be watchdogs. Ten years ago, the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing exorbitant salaries that officials of Bell, Calif., had given themselves after community newspapers no longer covered their meetings. Who knows what else has gone on in other places like that?

Newspapers have taken some heavy hits in recent years, but their numbers have been declining for many reasons for more than a century. Midway lost its newspaper in 1942. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky created the Midway Messenger mainly to give students real-world reporting experience, but also to provide hometown journalism for a community that wanted it – and to set an example for online journalism by community newspapers. We do Facebook posts before stories; that was the first notice that the 1,800 residents of Midway had of the mayor’s proposal, unless they were among the relative few who watched the City Council’s Zoom meeting on Facebook Live.

Newspapers have declined partly because most young people want their news delivered in 280 characters or less. They want their news fast and as it happens. In this case, a local government was acting quickly, requiring us to do likewise. And it all happened in the space of two days, in Sunshine Week.

Lauren McCally is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and the spring intern for the Midway Messenger, a publication of UK’s School of Journalism and Media, in the College of Communication and Information. Al Cross is a professor in the school and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes the Messenger.

Rural drug OD death rates fell below urban rates recently, but meth ODs are nearly one and a half times higher

Rural-urban differences in age-adjusted drug overdose deaths by jurisdiction of residence in 2019
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map; click the image to enlarge it
Drug overdose death rates skyrocketed in the U.S. in the past 20 years. Though overall age-adjusted rural rates fell below urban rates recently, driven by a reduction in opioid deaths, rural overdose deaths from methamphetamines and other psychostimulants remained much higher, according to a study newly published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 1999 through 2019, the drug overdose death rate rose from 6.4 per 100,000 to 22 in urban counties and from 4 to 19.6 in rural counties. However, in 2019 rates in rural counties were higher than urban counties in California, Connecticut, North Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, the study says. 

Death rates from natural and semisynthetic opioids (such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine) were higher in rural counties from 2004 through 2017 but were similar in 2018 and 2019, the CDC reports. Death rates from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl followed a similar pattern: From 2001 through 2014, death rates were higher in rural counties, but from 2015 through 2019, rural rates were lower than urban counties. Death rates from heroin were higher in urban counties from 1999 through 2019.

However, drug overdose death rates involving psychostimulants remained higher in rural counties from 2012 through 2019, and by 2019 the rate in rural counties was nearly one and a half times higher than in urban counties, the report says. Cocaine overdose deaths remained higher in urban counties from 1999 through 2019.

Violence Against Women Act revision has provisions with rural resonance; Senate gun ban for stalkers is an issue

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act which would make significant changes that aim to mitigate abuse and violence against women through grant money. Domestic violence has increased in rural America during the pandemic, and rural women may generally have a harder time seeking help because of isolation.

"First authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and the late Rep. Louise Slaughter in 1994, VAWA has been updated multiple times since then in order to best address current needs that people face. In 2013, for instance, lawmakers pushed through changes that would extend the provisions of the law to cover same-sex couples,"  Li Zhou reports for Vox. "In the latest reauthorization, lawmakers aim to strengthen protections for women facing sexual violence by ensuring that non-tribal offenders on tribal lands can be held accountable, and by closing the so-called 'boyfriend loophole,' which would bar anyone convicted of stalking from obtaining a firearm. Additionally, the bill includes funds for housing vouchers, so survivors in federally-assisted housing are able to relocate quickly if they need to. It guarantees, too, that people will be able to obtain unemployment insurance if they have to leave a job because of concerns for their safety."

The bill will face an uphill battle in the Senate because of the gun-loophole closure, Zhou reports.

Farmers invited to take survey on employee pay; participants will get access to results, invitation to webinar

Cornell University is looking for farmers to take a short survey about farm employee pay. Though pay isn't the most important factor in retaining and motivating employees, it does matter, but it can be difficult for farmers to find recent, accurate information about how other farmers pay employees. Cornell researchers are gathering the information to help farmers evaluate and offer competitive pay, and also to provide insight about farming to other stakeholders such as researchers or lawmakers.

The survey takes about 10 minutes to fill out. Participants are not paid, but will receive a summary of the results and will be invited to a webinar discussing them. Only aggregate data with no identifying details will be published or shared. Click here for more information about how to participate and a link to the survey.

Much of Western U.S. still gripped by mega-drought as precipitation window closes; more wildfires expected

Drought conditions in Western U.S. as of March 16, 2021;
darkest colors are driest. (U.S. Drought Monitor map)
"Almost 80 percent of the Western U.S. is in drought, with nearly 42 percent of the region in 'extreme' or 'exceptional' drought," Becky Bolinger and Andrew Freedman write for The Washington Post. Bolinger is assistant state climatologist for Colorado and a Colorado State University research scientist.

"Much of the region experienced developing drought in the summer, following a warm and dry spring. Since then, conditions have deteriorated, and the precipitation deficits continue to build," they write. "At its maximum extent in January 2021, 47 percent of the West was in extreme drought or worse. Nearly a quarter of the area was in the worst drought category, an event with a probability frequency of once every 50 to 100 years."

Though the Pacific Northwest got more than 10 inches of precipitation last month, "much of the interior Rockies through Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado received between 1 and 5 inches of moisture for the month," Bolinger and Freedman report. "The Sierra Nevada in California received between 2 and 6 inches, much of that in the form of snow." 

However, many areas are still facing a significant deficit in precipitation. "The evidence is clear — February was beneficial for many, but it was not a drought-buster, and drought continues to maintain its stranglehold on the West," Bolinger and Freedman report. "It’s increasingly likely severe drought will continue in other parts of the West as we head toward summer. Agriculture, water supplies, and forests are likely to be impacted. Expect crop losses and selling of livestock; watering restrictions may begin as temperatures warm, and the risk of large wildfires will return again this summer."

Rural West Virginians discuss their hopes and fears over the minimum-wage increase debate

"While an effort to raise the national minimum wage from its current $7.25 level without Republican votes was blocked in the Senate this month, congressional Democrats have signaled they plan to try again," Jason Lange and Makini Brice report for Reuters. "The stakes are perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in West Virginia. Its 16 percent poverty rate is among the nation’s highest and its low wages - half its workers earn less than $16.31 an hour - mean it could see some of the biggest risks and rewards of such a move."

Raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 would cost the nation between 1.4 million and 2.7 million jobs, as businesses struggle to cope with higher operating costs, according to a February estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. But "in Republican-dominated states, where wages are generally lower than in Democratic-leaning states that are home to America’s biggest cities, the biggest concern is retaining jobs, not raising wages." Lange and Brice report. West Virginia's unemployment rate rose above 15% during the pandemic, higher than the national average. The state's current 6.5% unemployment rate is also higher than the national average. 

"Some experts said job losses could be sharper in rural areas because it will be harder for businesses in small-town America to raise prices enough to offset dramatic increases in pay," Lange and Brice report. For instance, one restaurant owner told Reuters that raising the minimum wage to $15 would be the "death knell" for her business. She couldn't raise the prices on her food enough to cover that wage, and expects she would have to lay off workers.

However, proponents of raising the minimum wage say it won't necessarily result in job cuts, and note that the CBO study projected that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 would raise the incomes of 17 million Americans and bring 900,000 out of poverty, Lange and Brice report. 

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, "a moderate Democrat who opposes the $15 target ... is emerging as a key force in the narrowly divided chamber. Manchin, whose support would be crucial to the success of any legislation on the issue, says he would back an $11 minimum wage, still a more than 50% increase from where it has stood since 2009," Lange and Brice report. "Five Senate Republicans - including West Virginia’s other senator, Shelley Moore Capito - have proposed an increase to $10, suggesting compromise of some kind is possible."

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

T-Mobile to launch home broadband; rural areas a target

T-Mobile is launching its long-promised 5G home broadband service later this month, and aims to target rural areas. "The home internet option will come to 'rural, small town and suburban' areas first, said Dow Draper, T-Mobile [executive vice president] of emerging products," Sascha Segan reports for PC Magazine. "Capacity isn't a problem; 20 percent of the customers on the home internet pilot have been using more than 500GB a month, even on 4G, he said."

"T-Mobile isn’t alone in its attempt to solve the rural internet availability problem and disrupt traditional broadband providers. Verizon launched its own commercial 5G broadband internet service in 2018. Separately, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service—which also targets rural users—has already signed up more than 10,000 subscribers, a figure poised to increase as the company launches more satellites into orbit," Mack DeGeurin writes for eMarketer's Insider Intelligence. "As 5G networks expand, T-Mobile and other telecoms possess a unique ability to fill connectivity gaps left by traditional broadband providers in rural areas. A 2020 report by research group Broadband Now found that 42 million US residents lack the ability to purchase broadband internet. With that figure in mind, it makes sense why the company’s 5G home internet option would come to 'rural, small-town and suburban' areas first, according to ... Draper. By prioritizing underserved rural areas, T-Mobile can make steady inroads into home broadband while continuing to strengthen its 5G network."

New website helps remote workers find towns offering cash incentives for new residents

"Dozens of cities are offering up to $16,000 in cash incentives, homebuying allowances, tax credits and money toward local goods and services in hopes of enticing pandemic movers to relocate there., an online directory launched in December 2020, aims to connect remote workers with such offers around the country," Jennifer Liu reports for CNBC.

"City- and statewide workforce development groups have long incentivized new residents to move there, often by offering tax breaks and loan forgiveness when they buy a home. But with the pandemic spurring a wider acceptance of remote work, plus a greater affinity for physical space beyond dense urban areas, these programs are pushing recruitment into overdrive."

Many of those workers are looking to relocate to small towns, according to surveys and real estate data. The infusion of new workers could help local economies (though it could also trigger growing pains). 

The MakeMyMove website has several smaller communities seeking to attract new residents. That includes Newton, Iowa, a town of 15,254 east of Des Moines; local leaders are offering new residents $12,500 to move there. Harmony, Minnesota, pop. 1,020, is offering transplants $12,000. Some of the offers aren't for a specific dollar amount, but note that the local government offers homebuying grants, tax breaks, local co-working spaces, and money to spend at local small businesses, Liu reports.

"The site also has a 'Design Your Own' feature where remote workers can list their ideal location as well as relocation incentive package," Liu reports. "MakeMyMove cofounder Evan Hock says his team can then talk to local economic development programs to create new opportunities where there is demand."

Pandemic telehealth boom has significant ramifications, including more competition for local providers

"A year into the pandemic, telehealth has become widely accepted," Matt Volz reports for Kaiser Health News. "Some states are now looking to make permanent the measures that have fueled its growth. But with it have come some unintended consequences, such as a rise in fraud, potential access problems for vulnerable groups and conflicts between out-of-state and in-state health providers."

Volz's object example is Montana, where largest behavioral provider of behavioral health care worries that it could lose a significant number of its privately insured patients to the Minnesota-based Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, which doesn't accept patients covered by Medicaid and "expects to offer telehealth services in all 50 states within two years."

Citing Rimrock CEO Lenette Kosovich, Volz writes, "The difference in insurance reimbursement rates between the two is so great that the loss of those privately insured patients would hamper Rimrock’s operations. . . . She would like to see rules in place ensuring that out-of-state providers that enter Montana via the relaxed regulations of the pandemic meet the same licensing requirements as in-state providers."

Behavioral health care is already scarce in many rural areas. "A federal government survey estimated that a shortage of mental health providers exist in 5,800 geographic areas," Volz notes.

UPDATE, March 19: A new lobbying coalition has formed to make the shift to telehealth "more permanent," reports Erin Brodwin of Stat News. "The telehealth boom has made one thing clear: The era of health care provided exclusively within the confines of a clinic or hospital is over."

New rural coronavirus infections at lowest level since July

Rates of new coronavirus infections, March 7-13
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

Rural counties reported 39,120 new coronavirus infections from March 7-13, the fewest since last July. The number was down 12 percent from two weeks ago and has dropped nine weeks in a row.

"Since their peak during the second full week of January, new weekly cases have dropped by 83%. The number of weekly deaths has fallen by two-thirds during the same period," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "The number of Covid-related deaths also fell for the ninth week in a row. Rural deaths declined by 15%, falling to 1,398."

Meanwhile, 30 states reduced the number of rural counties in the red zone last week, with Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma showing the largest declines. Red zones are those averaging 100 or more new infections per 100,000 residents in one week. "The number of rural red-zone counties fell to 525, a decline of 154 counties," Murphy and Marema report. "Only a quarter of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties were in the red zone last week, compared to 95% of rural counties at the peak of the winter surge in mid-January." Click here for more data, graphics and in-depth analysis from the Yonder, including an interactive map with county-level data.

Report notes pandemic challenges to rural community colleges, opportunities to strengthen programs

A new report from the Association of Community College Trustees does a deep dive into how the pandemic has disproportionately hurt rural areas, both economically and from a health standpoint, and has exacerbated already existing disparities.

"For community colleges, the public health crisis comes hand in hand with an enrollment crisis," the report says. "As the world moved online, rural colleges struggled to reach and retain students with no access to the Internet or to personal computers necessary to do coursework. Rural community colleges also reported trouble recruiting new students, as their pre-pandemic recruitment relied on taking advantage of in-person venues such as local clubs, churches, and high school football games. Without local television or radio stations, and with in-person events cancelled, many rural colleges have been left with few methods to promote their services."

Rural community colleges also must deal with longstanding struggles to enroll rural students. Rural high school graduates are less likely than their suburban and urban peers to enroll in any college at all, let alone a community college. "Rural students are more likely than their urban and suburban peers to be first-generation, and may see the prospect of immediate employment as more appealing and less stigmatized than attending college," says the report, produced with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Additionally, many rural residents aren't convinced community college (or any college) is a good investment. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, rural residents are less-likely to believe a college education provides skills necessary to one's career. Also, "there is a strong perception in many rural communities that college is for 'others.' Young people in rural communities, especially young men , feel obligated to support themselves immediately after high school. Attending college often is seen as a barrier to working full time, and those going to school may be seen as selfish, a burden to their families, or shirking real responsibility," the report says. "Going to college can also be associated with leaving the community, a decision that carries with it its own set of economic and social implications. Rural community colleges can mitigate some of this by providing flexible education opportunities for rural students without going far from home."

Rural residents who want to attend a community college must deal with obstacles such as lack of public transportation, broadband connectivity, and affordable childcare, the report says.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Rural areas worry they're being left behind in vaccine push

Some state and local officials say the federal government's decision to punt the coronavirus vaccine rollout to state authorities resulted in delays and mismanagement that hurt hard-hit rural areas, often because states didn't sufficiently involve local authorities. Rural leaders say the rollout would have gone better if they had been more involved.

"President Joe Biden has emphasized getting the Covid-19 vaccine to those most affected by the pandemic, with a focus on racial and ethnic minority groups, such as Blacks and Latinos, who have been dying at higher rates than whites and have thus far been less likely to receive the vaccination," Shannon Pettypiece reports for NBC News. "But in that push, some rural health-care providers say they are being left behind, with many of the steps the White House has taken so far disproportionally benefiting urban areas and not the unique challenges rural areas have been struggling with."

Health-care providers across the nation have complained about not getting enough vaccines for their patients, but in rural areas the need is especially acute. "Rural states have been some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic: The death rate for rural areas was 48 percent higher in December than that of urban areas, according to a study by the Agriculture Department. In North Dakota, about 1 in 500 residents have died from the virus," Pettypiece reports. "Rural areas have borne a greater brunt from the virus in part because they tend to have older populations and a high prevalence of underlying medical conditions, the Agriculture Department report found. People in rural areas may also be more vulnerable because of a lack of nearby medical care or health insurance."

Some county officials say rural outreach would have been better if they had been more involved, especially since access to mass vaccination sites is limited in rural areas, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene report for Route Fifty. "How to make the vaccine accessible to people is a big issue and you can’t do that from a higher level of government. You can only do that from governments that are closest to the people," Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, told Route Fifty. "If we had been involved earlier and given more local discretion, we could have helped in reaching communities of need."

Deb Haaland confirmed as Interior secretary with support from four Republican senators

Deb Haaland at her confirmation hearing 
(Photo by Leigh Vogel, Getty Images)
After a weeks-long confirmation process, on Monday the Senate confirmed U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., as President Biden's secretary of the Department of the Interior, marking the first time a Native American has held any cabinet-level position. Haaland, 60, is a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation and in 2018 was one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.

Four Republican senators crossed the aisle to vote for Haaland in the 51-40 vote: Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska (the state with the highest proportion of Native Americans), Susan Collins of Maine (the most rural state), and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, reports Timothy Puko of The Wall Street Journal.

"Along with energy leases on federal land, Haaland will oversee the national parks and endangered-species protections. She will also lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a role that her supporters say will help reconcile long-troubled relations between Washington and America’s Indigenous peoples," Puko reports. Haaland's history of environmental activism and skeptical eye toward fracking triggered significant resistance from Republican senators during the confirmation process.

Presidential historian Heather Cox Richardson provides more context for Haaland's historic confirmation, including the Interior Department's history with Native Americans and energy.

Sackler family offers $1.5 billion more than previously to settle Purdue Pharma opioid lawsuits

"In a bid to resolve thousands of lawsuits stemming from the opioid epidemic, the Sackler family pledged to contribute $1.5 billion more than previously promised, roughly $4.3 billion paid out over nine years from their personal fortune," Meryl Kornfield reports for The Washington Post. "After months of negotiations, Purdue Pharma agreed late Monday to a milestone plan to reform the OxyContin maker into a public trust company overseen by an independent board no longer controlled by members of the billionaire Sackler family. In exchange, the members would be released from opioid-related litigation — a contentious point as many suing the company blame the Sackler family, in part, for the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 450,000 people in the United States in the past two decades, following Purdue’s development of OxyContin in 1996."

Under the new plan, which must be approved by a bankruptcy court and will likely face legal challenges from creditors, trusts would distribute the money to state, local and tribal governments, Kornfield reports. The money would fund opioid abatement programs and compensate hospitals, insurers, and individuals who have been affected by opioid abuse, such as family members of overdose victims or guardians of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

The trusts would get $500 million after Purdue emerges from bankruptcy, plus about $1 billion through 2024. "According to Monday’s filing, about 130,000 personal injury claimants, including family members who lost relatives to overdoses from OxyContin, would receive compensation up to an estimated maximum of $48,000," Kornfield reports. "That dollar amount, to families torn apart by addictive opioids, is insufficient, said Charlotte Bismuth, a former New York assistant district attorney following the bankruptcy case."

"I am absolutely appalled, disgusted and angered by the paltry payments reserved for personal injury victims,” Bismuth wrote in an email to Kornfield. "Families were devastated emotionally and financially: $48,000 doesn't even begin to cover funeral costs and lost wages. It is an insult to those families who lost their reason to live overnight."

Biden EPA says Trump administration dicamba decision was political; future for the herbicide is unclear

The Environmental Protection Agency's 2018 decision to reauthorize dicamba formulations was unduly influenced by political interference and ignored critical scientific evidence on the herbicide's risks, Emily Unglesbee reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. That's according to internal EPA email obtained by DTN and verified by the agency. Dicamba is notorious for drifting to nearby fields and killing crops and trees that aren't genetically engineered to resist it.

Michal Freedhoff, acting assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, sent an email to all OCSPP employees March 10 saying "political interference sometimes compromised the integrity" of the agency's science. "In 2018, OCSPP senior leadership directed career staff to: (1) rely on a limited data set of plant effects endpoints; (2) discount specific studies (some with more robust data) used in assessing potential risks and benefits; and (3) discount scientific information on negative impacts," she wrote. "This interference contributed to a court's vacating registrations based on these and other deficiencies, which in turn impacted growers' ability to use this product." 

Freedhoff is referring to a court decision in June 2020 that essentially banned sales of dicamba-based herbicides for the next six months after finding that EPA hadn't done its due diligence in 2018 when reauthorizing the chemical through December 2020. The decision caused widespread uncertainty among farmers who needed to make decisions about buying seed for the next year. But soon afterward, EPA told farmers they could use existing stores of dicamba through July. A federal appeals court upheld that call, but it was unclear whether dicamba would be legal in 2021 until October, when EPA reauthorized three dicamba formulations and limited states' ability to further restrict dicamba use.

"It's not immediately clear what EPA's new view of its 2018 dicamba registrations will mean for how the agency will manage its most recent dicamba re-registrations," which were released in October, Unglesbee writes.

Pandemic roundup: Independent druggists fill gaps in vaccination efforts; pandemic trauma haunts health workers

Here's a roundup of recent news stories about the pandemic and vaccination efforts.

Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., introduces legislation to provide continued funding to rural clinics that have suffered financially during the pandemic. Read more here.

The American Hospital Association warns that, without continued government support, many rural hospitals will shutter because of additional financial strain brought on by the pandemic. Read more here.

Traveling nurses say "war doesn't even compare" to their jobs during the pandemic. Read more here.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is boosting the reimbursement to providers for administering coronavirus vaccinations. Read more here.

Pandemic trauma haunts health-care workers. Read more here.

Covid-19 cases among nursing home staffers have fallen 83% from late December, despite vaccine hesitancy. Read more here.

A Virginia farmer is getting nationwide attention for planting one flag in his fields for each Virginian who has died from Covid-19. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released long-awaited guidelines for how vaccinated people may safely interact with others. Read more here.

Here's a good explainer about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Read more here.

Independent pharmacists, many of them rural, fill gaps in vaccination efforts. Read more here.

Fighting vaccine hesitancy means addressing "a constellation of motivations, insecurities, reasonable fears, and less reasonable conspiracy theories." Read more here.

The pandemic has magnified health disparities in Appalachian Ohio. Read more here.

A federal program is filling an education gap for rural migrant students during the pandemic. Read more here.

The number of people hesitant to get a coronavirus vaccine is dropping rapidly. Read more here.

A focus group of Trump voters discussed their reasons for hesitating to get the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Rural people more hesitant to get shots or follow pandemic guidelines, but finding trusted messengers may help

deBeaumont Foundation chart; for details, see

Rural Americans are less likely to practice coronavirus-prevention measures and less likely to get vaccinated, but education and messaging from trusted people may change their minds, according to recent research.

A Texas A&M University study "found that rural American were less likely than those who lived in urban areas to wear masks and work from home," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "While 52 percent of urban residents reported working from home, only 36% of rural residents reported working from home. And while 82% of urban residents reported wearing a mask, only 73% of rural residents said they had worn one.

"Rural residents were also less likely to avoid restaurants, change travel plans and disinfect their homes and work areas. But, the researchers also found that there wasn’t a big difference between rural American and their urban counterparts when it came to social distancing, hand washing and canceling social engagements."

Timothy Callaghan, a health-policy professor who helped lead the study, said political trends and the remoteness of rural communities may explain their differences in behavior, Andy Krauss reports for KBTX-TV in Bryan and College Station, Texas. "People in rural America tend to be a little bit more conservative. The Trump administration and others on the Republican right have at various times downplayed the severity of the virus. . . . Conservative individuals across the country are going to listen to that message and might take things like wearing a mask less seriously."

Callaghan told Krauss that rural residents may also disregard health guidelines because their isolation gives them a false sense of security. "They’re not as concerned as being densely packed together for the possibility of spread to happen," he said.

"The study also found other personal characteristics that correlated with a higher or lesser likelihood of listening to public health guidelines," Krauss reports. "For example, older Americans, those who are more highly educated, and women were more likely to adopt certain behaviors. Those who said they trusted experts or were worried about contracting the virus were also more likely to follow guidelines."

The researchers said that those who don't trust medical experts must receive education and messaging about pandemic health guidelines from a different source, Carey reports.

Mistrust has also led rural residents to be more hesitant about getting the coronavirus vaccine, and finding trusted messengers may be the key to overcoming that disparity as well. "Another study from the de Beaumont Foundation found that one in five rural Americans do not want the vaccine against Covid-19, and that finding those trusted communicators will be key in making sure they do get it," Carey reports. The foundation has published a cheat sheet with communication tips that could improve vaccine acceptance, including language that vaccine-hesitant people may find more convincing.

deBeaumont Foundation chart

Expansion of child tax credit, which could cut child poverty rate in half this year, is 'big deal' to many rural residents

In a legendary hot-mic moment in 2010, then-Vice President Biden told President Obama that passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a "big f----ing deal." The same might be said for the child tax credit expansion in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, according to some in rural southeastern Kentucky, writes Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"It is such a big deal ... it’s making me want to cry," Letcher County bakery owner Gwen Johnson told Blackford. "A rising tide lifts everybody, and this will enable families to do things they’ve not been able to do before, so they can live a little better." Nearly half the county's children live in poverty.

A Columbia University study found that the tax credit, if made permanent, could cut the nation's child poverty rate in half, Blackford reports. The plan increases the current $2,000 per-child credit to $3,000 for each child 6 to 17 and $3,600 for those under 6. More low-income parents qualify, since they no longer have to owe taxes in order to get it. The payments will likely be available as soon as July, and could be distributed monthly rather than as a lump sum.

Dee Davis, director of the national Center for Rural Strategies in the Letcher County seat of Whitesburg, said the change will make a big difference in Kentucky's longstanding child-poverty problem. "It’s crazy, you can’t justify it, but nothing ever happens," he told Blackford. "Then all of sudden in 50 days, Biden passes a law that will cut child poverty in half in counties that voted against him four to one. That’s all the social math in the world right there. It changes the horizons these kids can look to, it changes what’s possible for the families. It changes everything."

Though no Republicans in Congress voted for the relief bill, Blackford doubts voters in deep-red southeastern Kentucky will penalize longtime Rep. Hal Rogers, since "cultural issues like abortion or gay marriage" are usually ascendant, but the credit could move the needle in the long run, and it highlights a stark contrast in the two parties' governing styles—and how effective they are.

"Republicans prefer top-down aid, like tax cuts for rich people, which have been their modus operandi for 40 years, the trickle-down economics that have created the greatest income inequality since the Gilded Age," Blackford writes. "According to an analysis by the Washington Post, the last round of tax cuts in 2017 accrued the most benefits for the top 1 percent, while the American Rescue Plan will give the most benefits to the lowest income quintile. Of course, some of the money may get spent unwisely, and on the other hand, no, it’s not enough. We still need to address other issues like raising the minimum wage and forgiving some college debt. But like the pandemic, this new benefit has the power to show why government can do good and help people, especially the most vulnerable ones."

Journalists offered tips for covering courts during pandemic

Just in time for Sunshine Week, which began Sunday, here's some advice for reporters on how to cover courts during the pandemic.

Over the past year, courts have made many changes meant to keep people safe and keep court cases moving. Some of those changes, like barring extraneous attendees or holding hearings via phone or video conference, have made it more difficult for reporters to cover court cases.

"As more U.S. courts introduce such changes — and some courts expand these initiatives — journalists need to understand how they will influence legal processes and affect criminal defendants’ civil rights," Denise-Marie Ordway reports for The Journalist's Resource. "We asked experts at the National Center for State Courts, an independent research organization focused on the state judiciary, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, an organization aimed at correcting flaws and inequities in the criminal justice system, what journalists should know and do when covering these issues."

The article has six broad, well-researched tips for journalists, each with plenty of supporting evidence and background information. For example, they advise journalists to "examine how the pandemic has affected jury selection." Some jurisdictions have had trouble getting residents to show up for jury duty during the pandemic, which legal experts worry has affected jury composition. Read more here.

S.D. bill would put more focus on missing Native Americans; federal pilot program to start in Oklahoma

"Nobody knows how many indigenous people go missing or are murdered every year. There's just not a lot of comprehensive data. But on long neglected reservations . . . tribal members are convinced the crisis is worsening everyday," Kirk Siegler reports for NPR. "Tribal governments are renewing pressure on federal and state authorities to devote more resources to the crisis, and there are signs that's starting to happen."

South Dakota state legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill last week that would create a full-time missing indigenous persons specialist in the state attorney general's office. "Of the 109 people currently listed as missing in South Dakota, 77 are believed to be indigenous," Siegler reports. "Last month alone, 19 native people went missing, according to state figures."

State Rep. Peri Pourier, the bill's sponsor and a Democrat who represents the Pine Ridge Reservation, told Siegler that missing people are often human-trafficking victims, and that cases are falling through the cracks as perpetrators take advantage of jurisdictional gaps. Native American women and children are especially vulnerable to human trafficking, but many don't feel comfortable filing a missing person report with law enforcement, she said. The law would build on a 2019 state law that required the state Division of Criminal Investigation to collect data on missing and murdered Native Americans.

Indigenous people, especially women, are at a higher risk of going missing or being murdered, but efforts to address the problem have been sparse until recently. In December, the Justice Department unveiled a pilot program that aims to help federal, state and tribal agencies better coordinate such investigations. After the program rolls out in Oklahoma, it will expand to Alaska, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana and Oregon.