Friday, April 16, 2021

Overcrowding, lack of resources spur rural-jail death spike

An inmate in the Boyd County Detention Center in Catlettsburg, Ky., died of withdrawal symptoms. (Google Maps image)
America's smallest jails have some of the highest death rates in the nation, spurred by overcrowding and lack of resources, Katie Rose Quandt reports for The Atlantic.

"Across the country, an average of roughly three people died each day in local jails of all sizes in 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics — a rate that is almost certainly an underestimate. A disproportionate number of those deaths happen in America’s smallest jails," Quandt reports. "Mortality rates were highest in jails holding a daily average of fewer than 50 people between 2000 and 2012, the last period for which BJS reported mortality by jail size; suicide rates were inversely correlated with jail size from 2000 to 2007. Small-to-midsize jails tend to have fewer resources to provide adequate mental-health and medical care, suicide prevention, and drug treatment—services that many people entering jails need. They also often have less oversight and are more overcrowded than their larger counterparts. In many ways, small institutions are the most troubling example of America’s epidemic of preventable deaths in jails—and they are also the least likely to draw public attention."

Jail deaths are almost certainly underreported, not least because many jails routinely release prisoners who are near death, said Jasmine Heiss, director of the Vera Institute of Justice’s "In Our Backyards" initiative, which studies rural incarceration trends.

Recent criminal-justice reforms have led to slow declines in the overall incarcerated population since its 2008 peak, but that's mostly been in state and federal prisons along with large urban jails. "The opposite is true, however, in the rest of the nation’s 3,134 local jails, which are operated by counties or cities and typically hold people who are awaiting trial or serving short sentences," Quandt reports. "Over the same time frame, jail populations shot up 27 percent in rural areas, and 7 percent in small-to-midsize cities."

One reason for rural jail population spikes: even overcrowded jails are increasingly taking in populations from elsewhere to make money. "Roughly 80 percent of jails around the country rented out bed space in 2013 to other counties, federal agencies like the U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or state prison systems. This especially bloats jail populations in rural areas: In 2013, 46 percent of people in rural southern jails were being held for other jurisdictions," Quandt reports. "This trend has completely changed the landscape of local jailing in states like Kentucky. . . . Instead of de-carcerating, the state farms out half its prison population to county jails for $31.34 a day, leaving people serving multiyear sentences in small jails with worse access to programs, services, and health care. . . . Around the country, state departments of corrections limiting their intake during the pandemic have become yet another contributor to growth in jail populations."

Many Kentucky counties seem to be trying to replace coal-related jobs with incarceration jobs, according to Judah Schept, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who studies rural incarceration. "You have counties becoming reliant on jail infrastructure," he told Quandt. "You have folks who live there anticipating work opportunities at jails and prisons, because coal employment is gone. And you have increasing numbers of people actually going into jail."

"Sometimes, when small counties build massive jails with the intention of housing state and federal detainees, this increased bed space can actually enable more local incarceration," Quandt reports, citing a rural sheriff's quote in a Vera Institute report: "They said, 'If you build it, they will come,' And that’s what happened. The judges knew there was room, so they threw them in jail."

Overcrowding "can mean less programming, fewer services, unsafe conditions, and more time locked down in cells. These problems coincide with other structural difficulties confronting small jails," Quandt reports. That can affect officer retention, the availability of rehabilitative programs, and health-care services.

But jails increasingly serve as first-line resources for mental health, addiction and homelessness in infrastructure-poor rural communities, according to Heiss. "In the absence of broader societal support systems, incarceration has become the catch-all solution in areas hit hard by poverty, unemployment, and the meth and opioid epidemics," she told Quandt.

A Vera Institute data analysis "found that smaller counties are less likely to have resources for programs like pretrial services and diversion programs that keep people out of jail," Quandt reports. "They also use pretrial detention at a higher rate than many jails in bigger cities." About two-thirds of the U.S. jail population is awaiting trial (many because they can't afford bail), compared to 50% before 1993. About 75% of people reported to have died in jail between 2006 and 2016 were awaiting trial.

But pretrial detention doesn't seem to keep the public safer. "A Prison Policy Initiative analysis of bail reforms around the country found that releasing more people before trial does not lead to more crime," Quandt reports. "Pretrial detention does, however, keep people in dangerous and overcrowded jails, instead of allowing them to await trial safely from home."

The story illustrates rural jail disparities with the story of Christopher Hall, a Kentuckian who died in early 2019 from withdrawal symptoms while awaiting trial in the Boyd County Detention Center. Because of previous jail deaths, the county jailer had resigned and the newly elected successor began his tenure just weeks before Hall's death. A corrections expert who analyzed the jail's logbooks said the new jailer had inherited a broken system and hadn't had time to fix the jail's problems. But, Quandt writes, "some structural problems—overcrowding by the courts, an unequal society that often uses incarceration as a solution to mental illness and addiction—cannot be fixed by any one jail or jailer."

Study: Readers' attitudes about news media driven by moral values; suggests ways to better connect with audiences

Media Insight Project graph
A major study by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, opens up a new way of looking at the issue of media trust and may offer new avenues to address it," API reports. "The study finds that not all Americans universally embrace many of the core values that guide journalistic inquiry. And uneasiness with these core values of journalism is more connected to people’s underlying moral instincts than to politics. When journalists say they are just doing their jobs, in other words, the problem is many people harbor doubts about what the job should be."

The study tested public sentiment about five core journalistic values:
  • Oversight: How strongly a person feels there is a need to monitor people in power and know what public officials are saying and doing. The flip side of this value is concern about intrusiveness or oversight becoming a hindrance or placing too much importance on insignificant events.
  • Transparency: The idea that transparency is usually the best cure for what's wrong in the world, and that on balance it's usually better for things to be public than for things to be kept secret. The flip side is that sometimes the need to keep things secret is more important than the public's right to know, and the notion that most problems can be solved without embarrassing facts being aired publicly.
  • Factualism: This value measures whether on balance more facts are always better and facts are the key to knowing what is true. The flip side is that the truth is more than just a matter of adding facts and that this emphasis on factualism can mask bias.
  • Giving voice to the less powerful: This value measures whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t ordinarily heard and if a society should be judged on how it treats the least fortunate. The inverse instinct is that inequalities will always exist and favoring the least fortunate does not always help them.
  • Social criticism: This value measures how important people think it is to put a spotlight on a community’s problems in order to solve them. The flip side puts more emphasis on the value of celebrating things that are going right or working well in order to reinforce them and encourage more of them.
Only 11 percent of those surveyed embrace all five principles and they're mostly liberal. But the widespread distrust goes beyond partisanship. Some groups that tend to be liberal (Democrats, women, or people of color) are skeptical about some core journalism values, while some values resonate with conservatives.

"How people view those core values of journalism, moreover, is closely associated with deeper feelings they have about what moral values are important generally," API reports. "People who put more emphasis on the moral values of loyalty and authority, for example, tend to be more skeptical of some of the core values journalists try to uphold, or at least worry that these values could be taken too far. People who put more emphasis, by contrast, on the moral values of fairness for all and caring for the less fortunate tend to be more aligned with core press values. These differences persist even when we control for a person’s political partisanship and ideology."

Only two in 10 people they surveyed strongly support core journalism principles, which "suggests that some of the traditional framing journalists bring to stories, and many of the traditional marketing appeals journalism organizations use that trumpet traditional journalism values, will only reach so far in rebuilding trust or winning new subscribers," API reports. "If stories are rewritten to broaden their moral appeal, they become more interesting to people in all groups—both those more trusting of media and those more skeptical."

Messaging to reflect readers' core values can help bring in more subscribers, the study found. "To woo subscribers, the media will need to vary its messaging beyond traditional appeals about journalism being a watchdog. The survey also tested different messages asking respondents to financially support a local news organization," API reports. "The findings suggest people’s moral leanings definitely influence what kind of messaging about journalism they find appealing. People who most emphasize care or fairness, for instance, were more motivated by a message that highlighted the outlet’s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable through their news coverage. People who emphasized authority and loyalty preferred a message about the outlet’s long-term service to the local community.

National farming publication wants to hear from its readers about coronavirus vaccinations, in which rural Americans lag

By Katie Pinke
Publisher, AgWeek

Rural folks, we’re independent. We choose when we go to the doctor. We’re not always up on preventive care. We don’t visit specialists very often until we absolutely need to. When the Covid-19 vaccine rollout came this spring to almost all of us, many of you chose to wait to be vaccinated.

The Covid-19 data dashboard, state by state, shows it. This opinion column isn't to shame or politicize. It's simply to address the elephant in the room on vaccinations: Rural Americans don't follow the urban trends.

You didn’t share the enthusiasm I did for the Covid-19 vaccine. And that’s OK. In early March, I wrote about my joy and excitement to receive my first Covid-19 vaccine at Nelson-Griggs Public Health District in McVille, N.D. Since then, both my husband, Nathan and I received our second Covid-19 Moderna vaccine. By next week, we’ll be two weeks past and considered fully vaccinated from Covid-19, and proud to be fully vaccinated.

Our decision to be vaccinated had absolutely nothing to do with politics. My husband has an undergraduate bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry. He worked in pharmaceutical sales and management in the first part of his business career. Our belief and experience are to vaccinate in a pandemic for what we believe is best for the greater good, not only us but our communities, county, state and world. We seek advice from our medical doctors and trust vaccinations.

Not all rural and ag readers of Agweek or my personal friends agree. I've listened to their feedback. They feel no urgency to vaccinate against Covid-19. Some feel it’s not necessary. They’re not anti-vaccines. They’re not all vaccine-hesitant. They simply are independent-minded individuals and families who feel personal choice in their lives, including health care, drives their decisions.

In their rural county, in their job, on their farm or ranch or in their child’s school, they may not have been personally impacted by Covid-19. Maybe masking or social distancing worked for them, or they just did not know anyone who got seriously ill. They view other interventions as sufficient and are not ready for the Covid-19 vaccines.

I sought out this week to have conversations with a few trusted friends who do not think like me on the Covid-19 vaccine. They aren’t upset with me for being vaccinated. They understand why it’s important for our family to be vaccinated and explained why it’s not for theirs. They also do not like be painted like they're uneducated or naïve when they are choosing to wait to be vaccinated for Covid-19.

It leads me to this simple call to action: We want to hear from you in rural America, on farms and ranches, in sparsely populated areas. Your voice needs to be heard. It can vary from what seems like the majority. Rural people tend to not intervene. They prefer to not show up than to have a conflict. Rural people may choose to be a silent majority, rather than take a stand on an issue.

At Agweek, it’s our business to cover the news of agriculture. We give voice to stories otherwise not reported by mainstream media. If you have a story you will go on record to share, contact us at and we’ll be in touch with you.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can also be reached at, or on Twitter @katpinke. A longer version of this column appears here.

Rural Assembly Everywhere coming up April 20-21; White House Domestic Policy Council director is among speakers

Rural Assembly Everywhere
 returns April 20-21 with a diverse slate of national and local leaders, rural experts, artists, and civic organizers, including White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice.

 The free, two-day virtual conference will focus on how to repair a divisive and hurting nation," Tracy Staley reports for The Daily Yonder. "The theme — 'Road to Repair' — is a response to questions about how we build a nation that serves all and to calls for unity and repair, said Whitney Kimball Coe, director of the Rural Assembly, which presents the conference.

Each day will feature a keynote speaker, roundtable discussion, remarks from a national leader, and videos from performers, artists, and cultural organizations. Each afternoon, participants can select a breakout discussion and happy hour to attend. Click here for more information.

Quick hits: Coal states try to rescue coal-fired power plants; rural hospitals often blocked from clinical trials

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

Lawmakers in Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming are weighing plans to rescue coal-fired power plants; analysts say it's a sign of growing resistance in conservative, energy-producing regions against national efforts to transition to renewable energy. Read more here.

Scholars and activists are working to broaden the public's understanding of rural LGBTQ+ people. The story includes maps with state-level data on estimated rural LGBTQ+ populations. Read more here.

Some researchers say more accurate data-collection methods are needed to better understand recreational use of public lands. They say getting a more accurate picture of who frequents public lands, as well as when and why they do so, can help rural counties hone their economic development strategies. Read more here.

A coalition of hundreds of food and agriculture groups calls for an infrastructure package that meets rural needs. Read more here.

In pitching its infrastructure plan, the Biden administration is touting its benefits to rural America and Native American tribes. Read more here.

A new book does a deep dive into the Sackler family and how their company Purdue Pharma brought about the opioid epidemic with OxyContin. Read a review here.

Financial barriers can keep rural hospitals from participating in lucrative clinical trials. Read more here.

Many people who moved to Maine this past year said the pandemic was the tipping point for a decision they'd been considering for a long time. That's according to a recent survey by a non-profit focused on attracting new residents to the state, and could have implications for other rural areas trying to lure new workers. Read more here.

It's hard to plant more trees when we don't have enough seedlings. Read more here.

The pandemic exacerbated anti-Asian sentiment in rural areas. Read more here.

An emergency doctor who owned guns starting when he was a teenager weighs in on why "assault weapons" shouldn't be classified as guns. Read more here.

Everyone's hiring, but small business owners can't find qualified workers because of the pandemic and increased unemployment benefits. About a third of business owners surveyed said they had raised wages recently, and 17% said they plan to raise compensation in the next three months. Read more here.

A multimedia piece from The Washington Post explains how Congressional apportionment works, and who stands to benefit. Read more here.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Why rural broadband means more than any price tag: It's as important as electricity, writes rural co-ops' retired editor

By Paul Wesslund

In a rural Tennessee church in the 1940s a man whose farmstead had just been connected to Tennessee Valley Authority power lines rose to give witness, saying, “Brothers and sisters, I want to tell you this. The greatest thing on earth is to have the love of God in your heart, and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your house.”

It’s a sentiment that resonates today with the ambitious White House infrastructure proposal to spend $2 trillion building things from bridges to railroads to rural broadband. That Tennessee farmer couldn’t have known anything about the internet, but he would have recognized the wonder and respectful awe that goes into thinking big and how realizing dreams can transform the core of daily existence.

Paul Wesslund
I spent a career writing about rural issues, and for two decades it’s been obvious that there’s no way to improve the economies of small-town communities without consistently reliable high-speed internet connections, which they do not have now.

The similarities with rural electrification during the 1940s are almost perfect. The basic reluctance to making either of those services happen was that there weren’t enough customers to make it profitable. In the case of electricity, the doubters asked, what will poor country folks do with it anyway?

The forces that finally broke through the objections were explained in that Tennessee church. The farmer didn’t see electricity as something that would light the bare bulb in his living room, but as a way to connect his life to the rest of the world.

I worked with another man who could articulate how objections to great ideas like rural electrification are overcome. Bob Bergland, President Carter’s secretary of agriculture, who I got to know when he headed the rural electric co-op association, would say that bringing electricity to rural America wasn’t a technical problem, but a social problem. New engineering techniques were certainly required to carry power over longer distances, but the more important issues to resolve were complacency and old habits.

Few people today would dispute the value of reliable electric service in every home. But that wasn’t always so. Profit-making utilities fought hard and dirty against the competition even into remote areas they would never be interested in serving. When investor-owned utilities declined to take advantage of federal electrification loans and farmers formed their own co-ops instead, the upstart utilities were smeared as communists. Across the road from co-op power poles, the utilities built “spite lines” to undermine any possible interference with their business — it was an overreach, and that is why today utilities are regulated monopolies.

What made rural electrification possible was the vision of people who believed. Not just its well-known champions like FDR and Lyndon Johnson, but volunteers who could see the future, riding on horseback from farmhouse to farmhouse, persuading neighbors that no, electricity would not make their hens stop laying eggs, and that yes, they should part with the precious $5 sign-up fee to start a user-owned utility.

The internet takes us into libraries, businesses, government agencies, and even churches like they’re just next door. But in non-metropolitan areas, even the best connections are often spotty and slow, and anyone who’s taken a long car trip knows there are places you can’t even make a phone call in 2021.

The need for rural broadband has been talked about until it’s practically a standard, and empty, campaign slogan. Even piecemeal improvements take forever. No wonder small-town America feels disconnected — it’s because it is, literally and figuratively.

Some call “The American Jobs Plan” too expensive. Others say it doesn’t spend enough to revitalize our infrastructure. The dollar figure is less important than the scope, which President Biden compares to the interstate highway system or the moon landing. Another comparison The White House makes in announcing the plan is that, correctly, “broadband internet is the new electricity,” and it aims for 100% coverage. That’s a goal as lofty, almost, as having the love of God in your heart.

Paul Wesslund is former editor of Kentucky Living magazine, published by the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives and author of the book Small Business, Big Heart — How One Family Redefined the Bottom LineThis was first published in the Louisville Courier Journal.

Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance leaves AppHarvest board after controversial political tweets; may run for Senate

"AppHarvest announced Wednesday that author J.D. Vance is no longer a board member of the Eastern Kentucky mega-greenhouse company, days after he made controversial comments on Twitter," Liz Moomey reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Vance authored Hillbilly Elegy and is the co-founder and partner of Narya, a venture capital firm in Ohio. He was an early AppHarvest investor."

On April 9, Vance tweeted that Fox News host Tucker Carlson was "the only powerful figure who consistently challenges elite dogma — on both cultural and economic questions," which is "why they try to destroy him." In an April 12 tweet, Vance criticized corporations that protest voting-rights restrictions, saying states should "raise their taxes and do whatever else is necessary to fight these goons."

AppHarvest Chief Communications Officer Travis Parman told Moomey it would be inappropriate to discuss Vance's motivation for leaving the board. CEO Jonathan Webb issued a statement thanking Vance and another departing board member for their early support of the company.

Vance, who lives in Cincinnati, is considering a race for the U.S. Senate from Ohio next year.

Webinar at noon ET tomorrow offers tools and strategies for journalists to tackle misinformation, with lessons from 2020

A free webinar Friday, April 16, will discuss tools and strategies journalists can use to address the spread of false information, focusing on lessons learned from 2020. It will run from noon to 1 p.m. ET. 

Andrew Rockway of the American Press Institute will moderate a discussion with Shana Black of Black Girl Media, Anjanette Delgado of the Detroit Free Press, Karen Mahabir of The Associated Press and Nicolás Rios of Documented. Register here; if you're unable to attend, register anyway and they'll send you a recording. The webinar is sponsored by API and the News Leaders Association.

Rockway recently wrote a related article with advice for newsrooms dealing with the spread of misinformation. One tip discussed in the article: look beyond the obvious platforms to track misinformation, because it's not just happening in public posts on Facebook

When the Free Press began looking at other social-media sites such as Parler and MeWe and joined closed groups on Facebook and elsewhere, the paper found a wealth of news tips and sources of misinformation they knew they would need to address, Rockway reports. Read more here.

How church leaders in one Kentucky Appalachian county are fighting vaccine hesitancy and leading by example

Pastor Buddy Simpson at the Wallins Church of God in
Harlan County (Herald-Leader photo by Silas Walker)
Evangelical leaders in in southeastern Kentucky's Harlan County, like many others across rural America, are increasingly "getting peppered with fear-based questions from their congregations and community about the vaccine, which they try to gently bat down," Alex Acquisto reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "As the state strives toward herd immunity — once 70-85 percent of the population is inoculated — public-health experts believe trusted community leaders are vital to diffusing vaccine hesitancy. And in a state like Kentucky, faith leaders often carry more sway than elected leaders."

Kentucky is deeply religious, and its southeast is particularly so. About half the Christians in the state identify as evangelicals, a group that polls have shown widespread concerns about getting vaccinated. "It’s not likely to help overall hesitancy that the federal government asked on Tuesday — and Kentucky agreed — to halt its use of all Johnson & Johnson vaccines after six women in other states developed blood clots within two weeks of getting the shot," Acquisto reports.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has launched vaccine promotion campaigns targeting the state's religious population, but many still hesitate to get vaccinated. Some are unsure whether the vaccines are safe, overwhelmed by the glut of conflicting information from social media and other sources. Some are worried about government overreach "because they don’t trust a government they think manipulated information to rig the most recent presidential election — a falsehood that former President Donald Trump has continued to repeat," Acquisto reports.

“There’s a lot of what we call false doctrine that’s being taught,” Friendship Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Sean Daniels told Acquisto. “I’m not saying any particular church in Harlan County teaches that. But it’s just a conclusion of a lot of the conspiracies and things they’re reading on the internet.”
In their efforts to fight the pandemic, Harlan County pastors have mostly "spoken in a unified voice, both about adjusting their definition of church during the pandemic and, now, receiving the vaccine," Moomey reports. "In many ways, faith leaders have acted as translators, helping people who look to them for guidance discern between what’s true and false." 

Many pastors advocate for a subtle approach. Pastor Buddy Simpson of the Wallins Church of God, who is fully vaccinated, encouraged his congregation to pray about it and decide for themselves, but also told them he believes vaccines are the safest bet. And Carl Canterbury, an EMT and traveling minister, "doesn’t talk about the vaccine from the pulpit, but if asked, he’ll tell. And many in his church have asked," Acquisto reports. He told her, "So many people think it’s a conspiracy, and they want to know, are you getting it? The day I had my shot, I had four members in our church to stop by and ask, did I take the shot, and I told them, yes. Because I did, they did."

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In trip to Burma, CNN was naive, found nothing new, posed a risk to locals, and was self-congratulatory; rely on locals!

Myanmar (Wikipedia map)
A piece about CNN's recent trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma) may not seem like grist for The Rural Blog, but it teaches universal lessons, which many rural journalists and other rural residents already know, about the pitfalls of parachute reporting and the importance of local reporting.

Longtime international-conflict reporter Philip C. Winslow, who once lived and reported in rural Kentucky, writes from Chiang Mai, Thailand, 80 miles from Myanmar, that CNN found nothing new, posed risks to locals and was naive but nevertheless self-congratulatory. 

The trip was "tightly controlled by Myanmar’s junta," and security forces detained women who had talked to correspondent Clarissa Ward, reports Winslow, who has spent much time in the country. "Families spent anguished hours fearing the worst, which in Myanmar is never far away."

Ward acknowledged the issues in a talk with CNN anchors, one of whom bragged about her "getting that exclusive. That's the first time that we are seeing that and hearing that because she's there on the ground." Such is "standard preening for CNN," which "may have missed the weeks of graphic video and photos Myanmar journalists have been filing on their own news platforms and to international agencies," Winslow writes. "CNN has said they were assured they would be able to move around and report freely. It’s an assurance that no one familiar with Myanmar would have bought."

Winslow says "Less turbulent situations may remain suitable for the old news model" of parachute journalism, "but not stories where the presence of a foreign news crew endangers the people whose abuse they’ve come to report, and who know the story inside out. Technology has evolved too. Data and high-resolution video are transmitted any number of ways, which evolve as fast as autocrats try to squash them. Local women and men across Myanmar have been reporting the conflict for years" for The Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse, "and agencies from Europe, Japan and elsewhere in Asia," he notes. "They seldom get public recognition for their work, which is fine with them: getting the story out is all that matters."

Pandemic may have worsened rural teacher shortages; states mull how to address the problem

Rural schools, especially in the West, where they include tribal schools, have long had trouble finding and keeping qualified teachers. "Principals in small towns across the West regularly import teachers from afar, even from abroad. They hire unlicensed teachers and stop offering specific courses. Elementary, fine arts and special education teachers are especially hard to find," Neal Morton reports for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education newsroom.

The pandemic has made it even more difficult, since poor pay is usually part of the problem, and many rural teachers "have had to stretch their low pay even further this year — to cover out-of-pocket purchases of personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other pandemic essentials," Morton reports. "The pandemic also has heightened the solitude of working in isolated settings, making it harder to build a sense of community and belonging. . . . It’s still unclear how much the pandemic will increase the rural teacher shortage, and there’s a sense among some advocates that no one cares."

Some states and districts are trying to figure out how to get hometown graduates to stay in town or return there to teach, and also how to make their schools and towns more attractive to imported teachers so they'll stay longer. "One idea is to stop recruiting people to move and just focus on getting them to stay. Many of the recently funded government efforts have been aimed at convincing people who grow up in these towns to stay and teach," Morton reports. "It’s harder than it sounds, since rural areas tend to produce fewer people with the education levels necessary to become teachers. Those who do earn advanced degrees can be loath to return. And there’s little evidence to say how well 'grow your own' efforts work."

New rural virus cases jumped 10% last week; bigger jump in deaths may be due to cause-of-death reclassifications

Rates of new coronavirus infections, April 4-10
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New coronavirus infections in rural counties April 4-10 totaled 49,690, a 10 percent increase from the week before and the third consecutive week that new infections have increased. New infections in metropolitan counties rose 6%, to about 425,000.

"A sharp increase in Covid-related deaths in rural America last week could be related to reclassification of cause of death" by states, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Covid-related deaths climbed from 835 two weeks ago to 1,502 last week, an increase of nearly 80%," In urban counties, new deaths climbed by 29% to 5,807."

Rural areas of Michigan and the Texas Panhandle had particularly high rates last week. Click here for more data and regional analysis from the Yonder, including charts and an interactive map with county-level data.

Covid roundup: Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause hurts rural areas; suicides have fallen sharply during pandemic

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

The pause on the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is making it harder for many rural residents to get vaccinated, especially those who have transportation issues and can't reliably make it out for a second shot. Read more here.

Four things to know about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause. Read more here.

A native Cherokee speaker says she was wary of coronavirus vaccines, but now says it's important because to protect elders with irreplaceable knowledge of the language and culture. Read more here.

One in three Covid-19 survivors in a study of more than 230,000 mostly American patients were diagnosed with a brain or psychiatric disorder within six months. The researchers say that suggests the pandemic could lead to a wave of mental and neurological problems. Read more here.

Public-health directors want more resources to vaccinate rural communities. Read more here.

Suicides fell nearly 6 percent during the pandemic, the sharpest drop in four decades. Read more here.

Covid-19 has disproportionately hurt Black communities—especially rural ones—but many Black Americans mistrust the vaccine. This article explores why. Read more here.

Native health providers drive Alaska's vaccination success story. Read more here.

A study has found that the B.1.1.7. coronavirus variant, first identified in England and now the most common strain in the U.S., isn't linked to more severe Covid-19 cases or higher death rates than other strains. Read more here.

FERC decision to consider proposed pipelines' greenhouse-gas emissions could have major infrastructure implications

"The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's decision to assess a proposed natural gas pipeline's contribution to climate change could have major implications for gas infrastructure, analysts say, including nearly unheard-of project rejections," Arianna Skibell reports for Energy & Environment News. "For the first time ever, FERC last month weighed greenhouse gas emissions related to a Northern Natural Gas Co. pipeline replacement project running 87 miles from northeast Nebraska to Sioux Falls, S.D. The independent agency ultimately approved the project. . . . The landmark order signals that the five-member commission under Democratic Chairman Richard Glick could begin assessing emissions for all projects in its purview, from interstate gas pipelines to liquefied natural gas terminals. Glick has long called for carrying out such reviews."

The decision could lead to FERC approving fewer pipelines. "Since adopting its natural gas pipeline policy about 20 years ago, FERC has approved roughly 475 pipelines and rejected two," Skibell reports. "The commission weighs a host of environmental factors when permitting natural gas infrastructure under [the National Environmental Policy Act], but commissioners have long argued, largely along partisan lines, about whether and how to weigh greenhouse gas emissions."

This week FERC is expected to consider Enbridge Pipeline's request to intervene in the Northern Natural case; if the request is approved, the company could sue to challenge the decision to account for pipeline greenhouse-gas emissions. "Experts agree the move could lead to FERC denying certification for major natural gas projects, though not for all proposals," Skibell reports.

Jennifer Danis, a senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Skibell: "Chairman Glick has made it quite clear: It doesn't mean zero pipelines will be approved. ... If you really have data that a project would displace a high-carbon-intensive fuel source like coal, then those are data that ought to go into the commission's analysis, along with project-driven emissions."

Report: economy could grow at fastest rate in 40 years, with agriculture sharing in the recovery

American farmers are sharing in a robust economic recovery from the pandemic, according to the most recent quarterly CoBank report. The GDP could grow by 7 percent in 2021, its fastest rate since 1984, the report projects. 

"Many in the agricultural industry are experiencing the best market conditions since 2013," says the report. "Prices are hovering near multiyear highs as strong exports and dwindling supplies have solidified a healthy outlook for much of the farm economy."

The Agriculture Department has projected record exports of $157 billion in 2021, a 16% increase from last year, and overall farm income is predicted to be 20% higher than its 10-year average as farmers bring in more revenue and rely less on direct federal aid, the report says.

Fertilizer prices have almost doubled from a year ago, and "financially strong" farmers are planning to plant 3% more corn, soybean and wheat, which should bring more business to farm supply retailers. But drought remains a concern in a few parts of the Upper Midwest, according to the report.

President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure package could prove transformative to the long-term rural economy if approved, since it would bring hundreds of billions of dollars to expand and upgrade the electrical grid, water systems, broadband connection, and strengthen more traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges and dams, wrote CoBank vice president Dan Kowalski.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

New Mexico's coronavirus vaccination program stands out nationally for its effectiveness and simplicity

New Mexico is one of the poorest states, but its coronavirus vaccination program has been one of the nation's most effective because of thoughtful decisions that kept the program streamlined. 

"New Mexico in recent days became the state first to provide at least one dose to half of its adult population, and a nation-leading 38 percent of adults are fully vaccinated," Dan Goldberg reports for Politico. "It’s also among the top-performing states on equity: Over 26 percent of Blacks, 32 percent of Hispanics and 41 percent of Asians received at least one shot, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation review of the 41 states publicly reporting ethnic and racial data.

The state has the highest ratio of residents enrolled in Medicaid and ranks near the top in terms of premature death rates and poverty rates. "But experts, state and local officials and health care executives suggested that the state’s public-health challenges wound up helping speed vaccine distribution, because public-health officials had so much experience dealing with communities most likely to struggle getting vaccinated," Goldberg reports. "Additionally, a few key decisions early in the vaccine rollout — like a single statewide appointment website, when slow and fragmented registration systems have stymied efforts elsewhere — help explain why New Mexico is ahead of the pack."

Hunger hits lowest point since beginning of pandemic

Hunger in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest point since the pandemic began, though many Americans are still struggling.

"Government support appears to be behind the decline, as Americans who need relief the most finally got it," Stephanie Asymkos reports for Yahoo!Finance. "About 18.4 million — or 8.8 percent American households — reported there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days during the latest Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey period of March 17 - 29. That was down from 10.7% in the first half of March and marked roughly 4 million fewer hungry households."

Households with children, which have been among the hardest-hit during the pandemic, have been doing better too. "The latest data indicates that over 9 million, or 11.2% of [such] households, reported food insecurity over the same time period, a decrease of 2.9 million.," Asymkos reports. "The decline in food scarcity comes as qualifying households and individuals began receiving a third round stimulus payments under President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief bill. The government started delivering the cash injection of up to $1,400 per individual and $1,400 for dependents more than three weeks ago, around the same time the trajectory of food insecurity turned positive."

The Biden administration's "effort to rush more food assistance to more people is notable both for the scale of its ambition and the variety of its legislative and administrative actions," Jason DeParle reports for The New York Times. "The campaign has increased food stamps by more than $1 billion a month, provided needy children a dollar a day for snacks, expanded a produce allowance for pregnant women and children, and authorized the largest children’s summer feeding program in history."

April 22 webinar to discuss lessons from Wyoming and Appalachia on transitioning from coal economy

A free webinar at 12 p.m. ET on April 22 will discuss how Wyoming and Appalachia are faring in transitioning from a coal-based economy to other industries. Register here.

From the website: "Join the Energy News Network and WyoFile for an online panel discussion where we’ll explore the cultural, political, and economic obstacles faced by rural communities hoping to survive and thrive in a world without coal."

Ken Paulman, the director of the Energy News Network, will moderate the following panelists:

  • Mason Adams, journalist, Floyd County, Virginia
  • Shannon Anderson, Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming
  • Heidi Binko, Just Transition Fund, Virginia
  • Dustin Bleizeffer, journalist, Casper, Wyoming
The webinar is produced with funding from the Just Transition Fund.

Biden's rural broadband expansion proposal hinges on success of FCC initiatives

President Biden's $100 billion proposal to expand rural broadband "would hinge largely on the government’s ability to dole out the funding accurately and efficiently — a monumental task that federal officials are beginning in earnest this year," Daniel Moore reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Officials at the Federal Communications Commission face challenges with data gaps in the country’s broadband coverage maps that underpin decisions on what places should receive money, which already has begun flowing."

Essentially, the FCC relies largely on self-reported data from telecommunications companies. Such companies have an incentive to overstate their rural reach to obtain more rural broadband funding, so it's unclear which rural areas truly have broadband access.

Stealth conservative social media messaging aims to influence 2022 election

A conservative nonprofit called the American Culture Project is creating Facebook groups that don't disclose their bias in a bid to bypass the news media in informing and influencing swing-state voters. 

It's "part of a novel strategy by a little-known, Republican-aligned group to make today’s GOP more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 2022 midterms by reshaping the 'cultural narrative' on hot-button issues," Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post. "That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022."

The appeal argues that liberals have more influence in cultural institutions, which gives them more access to swing voters, while conservatives are more isolated in social-media "echo chambers." The group aims to target swing voters by collecting data from petitions and other online tools, Stanley-Becker reports. 

"While data collection and digital ad targeting have become commonplace in political campaigns, what’s unusual about the American Culture Project, experts said, is how it presents its aims as news dissemination and community building. It touts transparency and civic engagement using an online network whose donors remain private — part of a bid to shape public opinion as local news outlets crater and social networks replace traditional forums for political deliberation," Stanley-Becker reports. "The American Culture Project is set up as a social welfare organization exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income taxes but, in exchange, barred from making politics its primary focus. The project is led by an Illinois-based conservative activist, John Tillman, who also oversees a libertarian think tank and a news foundation that recently received grant money to highlight opposition to public health restrictions," Stanley-Becker reports. Tillman wrote in an email to the Post that the group's objectives are "issue education and advocacy (not electioneering)" and that he wants to reach Americans "who can no longer rely on traditional media to become fully informed on a diversity of views on the issues of the day."

Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Stanley-Becker that the American Culture Project's failure to disclose its donors "puts the lie to the public presentation of these nonprofits as public welfare organizations that might happen to do a little politics ... It shows the system is being abused in ways we knew were happening but you usually don’t see quite so blatantly."

Monday, April 12, 2021

High lumber prices, which stem mostly from the pandemic and a pest, aren't helping many timber cutters, landowners

Lumber prices have skyrocketed over the past year, due to scarcity caused by tariffs and a Canadian beetle infestation, but the higher prices aren't necessarily being passed on to timber producers. In the U.S., lumber costs 180 percent more right now than it did in April 2020, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The Federal Reserve Board says it's "the sharpest rise since 1946, when the post-World War II housing boom kicked in," David Brooks reports for the Concord Monitor.

The increase has in turn raised the cost of building the average single-family home by almost $24,000, and nearly 81,000 new homes across the U.S. are awaiting construction partly because of the cost of materials. Samanth Subramanian reports for Quartz.

The pandemic is largely to blame. "Early in 2020, sawmills first ground to a halt, anticipating a crash in demand. Then it turned out that people still wanted wood—to repair or renovate their homes during lockdown, or to build new homes outside cities," Subramanian reports. "Interest rates were, and continue to be, low; it was a good time to finance and construct new houses. So the sawmills started up again around July." But many mills had to shut down after employees were exposed to or sickened by the coronavirus, which in turn slowed lumber output and caused shortages.

The high prices have been "a boon for lumber mills, although the pandemic has complicated their ability to take advantage," Brooks reports. "But issues from the global supply chain to manpower limits to tree-species distribution means the benefit so far has been spotty at best, especially for landowners," at least in New England.

Part of the problem is that New Hampshire, and many parts of New England, are home to hardwood trees like cedar. The construction industry uses mostly fast-growing softwoods like pine, including pressure-treated softwoods that can resist rot. With pine in short supply, builders turned to cedar, but cedar mills are running at top capacity and it can take a year and a half to add significant processing capacity, according to industry consultant Eric Kinglsey. Many mill owners are hesitant to add such capacity, he told Brooks, because it may not pay off if the current boom fizzles out too quickly.

Canadian lumber once provided a pressure-relief valve, with the pine forests of British Columbia providing 15% to 17% of the lumber for U.S. markets. These days it's more like 10% or less, due to the mountain pine beetle. Cold winters once kept its population in check, but a warming climate allowed it to live longer and reproduce more quickly starting in the late 1990s, and the insect has destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of forest in British Columbia, Subramanian reports.

That capacity will take decades to rebuild, and the softwood tariff on Canada, which President Trump imposed in 2017, doesn't help matters, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board: "The Commerce Department cut the levy to 9% from 20% in December. But as long as the orders are in place, this lower rate—what importers are mandated to pay in 'duty'—is merely a cash deposit for what is due next year. Lumber buyers know Commerce can make a new finding of a higher duty, which would apply retroactively on Canadian lumber they have already imported. This backward-looking assignment of duties introduces enormous uncertainty, creating an incentive to rely on domestic supply."

In the meantime, the U.S. must find more wood somewhere. One option "is to import more lumber, particularly from Europe, which has stock in surplus," Subramanian reports. "Over the past five years, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic have had to harvest nearly 250 million cubic meters of spruce damaged by another bark beetle infestation, this too brought on by the warming climate. Ironically, if one beetle has depressed wood supplies to the US, another may yet elevate it."

Film on journalists' rural-America trek premieres Tuesday

Deborah and James Fallows
A new documentary aims to bring to life two journalists' writings about rural America. James and Deborah Fallows crisscrossed the U.S. for five years in a small plane, writing about small towns and their newspapers for The Atlantic. They turned their travels into a best-selling 2018 book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. Eight of the communities they highlighted in the book are featured in a new HBO documentary called Our Towns, which premieres on HBO and HBO Max at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday, April 13.

Directed, produced, shot and edited by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, the documentary "paints a remarkable picture of America and how the rise of civic and economic reinvention is transforming small cities and towns across the country," according to HBO. It "spotlights local initiatives and explores how a sense of community and common language of change can help people and towns find a different path to the future." View the trailer here.

The documentary is "an optimistic, visually-arresting snapshot of life in small towns and cities," Adam Giorgi writes for The Daily Yonder. "t’s impressive how many important issues the film fits into the narrative, hitting upon homelessness, opioid addiction, immigration, global trade, the legacy of slavery, climate change, and even the decline of local news. But for all its sweep, when you get past the big-picture, high-minded concerns on the filmmakers’ minds, the heart of this story is found in the details, when its feet are on the ground. It’s the close-up look at each community, and the people who live there, that animates 'Our Towns' and makes it stick. The message here is ultimately one of optimism, resilience, and reinvention, and it resounds because of the individuals seen putting those principles into practice. The filmmaking team doesn’t paper over or push aside very real and formidable challenges, but they focus their lens first and foremost on those who are working to adapt and overcome them."

Also in the Yonder, Anya Slepyan listens to its "Everywhere Radio" interview with the couple and wonders if the documentary can "help us go beyond red states versus blue states." 

Biden's proposed budget would raise USDA spending 16%

President Biden's proposed budget for 2022 would boost spending on agriculture and rural areas in general. Such proposals don't generally survive intact, but they're useful as a snapshot of the president's priorities. This one raises funding for every major part of the government, and would boost Agriculture Department spending by 16 percent to $27.8 billion for the year starting in October. 

"Biden’s budget request mirrors many of the rural priorities included in his infrastructure blueprint, like broadband access, reclaiming abandoned mines and helping rural communities transition to cleaner energy sources. It also would expand funding for USDA research and education programs," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "Congress can now get started writing the annual spending bills for each agency. But the appropriations process will run parallel to Democrats’ work on a sprawling infrastructure package, which is likely to dominate the agenda for several months."

Rural racial disparities persist during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted not only rural health and economic disparities, but racial disparities as well—especially for rural people of color.

Rural Covid-19 death rates have outstripped metropolitan rates since September, but rural people of color have had it even worse. "From March 2020 through February, rural residents experienced 175 Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with 151 deaths per 100,000 for urban communities. And in highly diverse rural counties where people of color made up at least a third of the population, 258 people died per 100,000," according to a recent report from management consultant firm McKinsey & Company, Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "In rural counties where the largest racial group was American Indian or Alaska Native, the overall death rate was 2.1 times that of White rural counties. In rural counties where Black people predominated, the overall death rate was 1.6 times that in White rural counties. And in largely Hispanic rural counties, the death rate was 1.5 times higher than the White rate."

Rural Americans are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to have easy access to health care for a number of reasons, including hospital closures, transportation issues, and lack of affordable health insurance. They're also more likely to live in states that haven't expanded Medicare under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and they're more likely to be older, poorer, and have underlying health problems—all of which contribute to higher Covid-19 mortality rates. "The situation is especially dire for rural people of color, who have higher rates of premature deaths, poverty and chronic diseases and more often lack health insurance," Wright reports.

Rural and urban racial disparities during the pandemic stem from "long-standing systemic inequalities and structural racism," according to a recent Department of Health and Human Services report. Public-health experts say tackling those issues, especially expanding Medicaid, would make a big difference for low-income rural people of color, Wright reports.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Many reasons why faith affiliation is at low ebb, pastor says

The following is one pastor's explanation of a phenomenon reported recently on The Rural Blog. A week later, he wrote another column giving more reasons for it and putting it into historical context: "It wasn’t until 1906 that membership reached a slim majority of 51 percent." As reader reaction kept pouring in, he wrote a third column lamenting the "anger and arrogance" of his correspondents.
Read more here:

By Paul Prather

For the first time since Gallup began tracking church membership in 1937, Americans’ membership in houses of worship has dropped to below 50 percent of the population, the polling organization announced recently.

In 2020, just 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque. That’s a decline from 50 percent in 2018, and a precipitous fall from as recently as 1999, when 70 percent of us were members.

Membership has declined across all religious, demographic, political and geographic categories: men and women; young and old; Black, white and Hispanic; Republicans, Democrats and Independents; well-educated and less-educated; Protestant and Catholic; conservatives, moderates and liberals; people from the Midwest, South, East and West.

Paul Prather
Additionally, the number of people who say religion is very important to them has fallen to 48 percent, reported Sarah Pulliam Bailey of The Washington Post. That’s another unprecedented low.

This ongoing decline in the role and influence of American houses of worship has become all but unstoppable.

What’s causing the waning of religious allegiance?

I’m no sociologist. But having been a minister for 40 years and a religion writer for roughly 30 years, I do have some theories.

It’s not just one thing, I believe. It’s the perfect storm of things. Here are multiple factors I see, and this isn’t an exhaustive list:

▪ The rise of the internet has made it easy to pick and choose beliefs from around the planet, and to chat informally, even anonymously, with those who see the cosmos—or faith, or God—as you do. The internet exposes us to an endless variety of traditionalists, skeptics and alternative faiths. Connecting live, in-person with the Baptist or Episcopal congregation down the street can, by comparison, feel frustrating and limiting and boring. It requires commitment. It’s messy. For many folks, the internet has become their house of worship. They create their own boutique faith.

▪ As one author pointed out to Bailey in the Post, we’re living in a period in which younger Americans, especially, are distrustful of all types of institutions, including police and pharmaceutical companies. That distrust carries over to religious institutions. Young adults are the least religious of all Americans.

▪ Skepticism and even atheism have become more acceptable, and in some circles de rigueur. The number of atheists is growing and well-documented, and a small subsection of atheists have turned evangelistic themselves in advancing their cause, publicly attacking religion at every opportunity. The unsayable has become sayable. This growing, organized pushback has created embarrassment and disillusionment among some who used to be churchgoers, but weren’t well-versed in their faith to begin with.

▪ Roman Catholic child-abuse scandals have shaken people’s trust in organized religion. Here’s a hint of that: since the late 1990s—roughly about the time the sex-abuse scandals became widely known—Catholic membership has declined at twice the rate of Protestant membership, 18 percent versus 9 percent, respectively.

▪ A seemingly endless succession of big-time Protestant leaders behaving badly has had a similar, if statistically less dramatic, effect on that branch of Christianity.

▪ The alliance of white evangelical Christianity with right-wing politics has appalled some people, who say the congregation or denomination they grew up is now merely a mouthpiece for the Republican Party. They are turned off by a church that they see as less concerned about the gospel of Jesus Christ than the pronouncements of Donald Trump or Sean Hannity.

▪ On the opposite pole of the ideological scale, some liberal churches have gotten so caught up in social do-goodism and wokeism they’ve become indistinguishable from secular charities and community action groups. They’re not distinctively Christian enough (or Jewish enough, or whatever enough) to engage people’s faith.

▪ Sundays are no longer sacred. We play golf. We take hikes. Youth sports leagues suck away parents and kids from church services. Once, youth teams didn’t practice or play on Sundays. Many formerly churchgoing parents find their kids’ soccer or baseball success more important than their spiritual development.

▪ A lot of churchgoers were never that serious about their faith to begin with. Even among active church members, probably no more than 10 to 20 percent really shape their lives around their religion, rather than the other way around. When all the other contributing factors listed above start tugging at these less-dedicated folks, it’s easy for them to simply drift away.

To me, the future doesn’t look promising for organized religion of any variety. We’re riding a downward trend, and it’s hard to see it reversing.

In addition, the pandemic has given everyone new paradigms for worship, and lots of practice staying home from services.

It’s not clear to what extent last year’s voluntary and state-mandated church shutdowns affected Gallup’s 2020 numbers. But I suspect the pandemic will, in the end, prove to have been detrimental long-term. Significant numbers of those who’ve had to sit out for the past year may never return.

In the future, Christianity—historically the country’s largest faith by far—will have to adjust to becoming an ever-smaller slice of the spiritual pie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The earliest Christians were barely more than an obscure splinter group, but they were serious, and they persevered, and they changed the world.

Paul Prather (pratpd@yahoo.comis pastor of Pentecostal Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. This was first published in the Lexington Herald-Leader, for which he was the religion reporter.