Friday, April 30, 2021

Virus spread more slowly in counties without interstates

The coronavirus spread primarily along interstate highways, according to a study published in the Journal of Rural Health. That could explain why its major impact in remote rural areas came late in the pandemic.

"Counties that are intersected by interstates had an earlier arrival than non‐intersected counties," the researchers report. "The arrival time difference was the greatest in the most rural counties, and implicates road travel as a factor of transmission into rural communities."

The study was done by two professors at West Virginia University and one at the University of Texas. They looked at data through May 17, 2020 and concluded, "Interstate travel restrictions and road travel restrictions would have supported stronger mitigation efforts during the earlier stages of the Covid‐19 pandemic and reduced transmission."

Because of pandemic, Appalachia unseated the Permian Basin as the biggest methane-emitting region in 2020

The Appalachian Basin surpassed the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico to became the biggest source of methane emissions in the U.S. last year, according to analytics firm Kayrros. That's largely because falling energy demand hit the Permian a little harder than Appalachia: emissions fell by 20 percent in Appalachia and 26% in the Permian in 2020, Jamison Cocklin reports for Natural Gas Intel. It's the first time methane emissions from coal have been comprehensively quantified.

"Kayrros said recent data show emissions from fossil fuel production in the Appalachian Basin hit 3 million tons (Mt) in 2019 and 2.4 Mt in 2020," Cocklin reports. "Excluding emissions from coal mines, emissions from natural gas produced largely from the Marcellus, Utica and Upper Devonian shales declined from 1.9 Mt in 2019 to 1.4 Mt in 2020. Methane from oil and natural gas production in the Permian declined from 2.7 Mt to 2.0 Mt over the same time." Some of the methane is from oil and gas, but some is from coal. It's tricky to figure out the source of Appalachian methane emissions since coal, gas and oil extraction sites are intermingled throughout the basin. 

The analysis shows "Large methane emissions cannot simply be considered as an unavoidable side effect of production but rather the avoidable consequence of various factors such as insufficient or poorly maintained infrastructure for natural gas gathering, processing, and transportation," World Oil reports

The report coincides with the Senate vote this week to restore regulation of methane emissions, as well as a major United Nations report calling for deep cuts in methane emissions to slow global warming.

USDA research agencies to stay in K.C., Vilsack confirms

"One and a half years ago, the Trump administration controversially relocated two Department of Agriculture research agencies out of the Beltway—a move that many suspected was an attempt to undercut their findings, which at times conflicted with the president’s political stances," Jessica Fu reports for The Counter. "Now, the Biden administration has announced that it will not reverse the move: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this week that USDA will keep the agencies headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, to maintain stability for staff."

Vilsack said the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture will stay put in order to minimize further disruption to staff. After the move, ERS lost two-thirds of its staff. Representatives for the union representing ERS employees said Vilsack's decision was "well-received" and said they hoped work-from-home agreements during the pandemic could be extended, Fu reports.

Plight of pregnant Native women in Montana is one of the worst cases of poor access to obstetric care in the rural U.S.

Native American women in Montana were 20 times more likely than white women in the state to give birth at a hospital without obstetric services, and they had less access to complex obstetric care. So says a study in the Journal of Rural Health, which looks at birth data in the state form 2014 through 2018. It's one of the worst manifestations of an increasing problem in rural America.

"Pregnant women across the rural United States have increasingly limited access to obstetric care, especially specialty care for high‐risk women and infants," the researchers wrote, noting that there has been little research on obstetric access for rural American Indian and Alaskan Native (AIAN) women, "a population warranting attention given persistent inequalities in birth outcomes."

The researchers put their work into context, noting that Black and AIAN women "are two to five times more likely to die from a pregnancy‐related complication compared to white women. Over 2.2 million childbearing‐aged women live in maternity care deserts (a county bereft of a birth center, obstetric provider, and hospital‐based obstetric unit), and another 4.8 million women live in counties with limited access to maternity care. . . . Access to obstetric services has declined, particularly in rural counties with a higher percentage of racial minority women of childbearing age."

AIAN women are in some ways the worst off, the researchers write: "Compared to women of other racial backgrounds, AIAN women comprise the smallest percentage of childbearing‐aged women who live within an hour of their nearest hospital‐based obstetrics services (83.2%, compared to 97.3% for the overall U.S. population of childbearing‐aged women), and that nearest hospital is often one that provides only basic perinatal care." The Indian Health Service "is severely underfunded, contributing to AIAN health disparities." Montana has seven reservations with 12 Native nations.

The research was done by three professors at Montana State University, one at the University of Missouri and an obstetrician-gynecologist for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Covid roundup: Rural readers share vax experiences; rural vaccine hesitancy narratives may be over-simplified...

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

Idaho public-health districts are trying to boost rural vaccination efforts by targeting hard-to-reach populations. Read more here.

Rural vaccine providers worried about vaccine hesitancy caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause. Read more here.

News media narratives about rural vaccine hesitancy are over-simplified and don't tell the whole story about supply chains, poverty, lack of access to resources, and more, writes a researcher. Read more here.

Lower rural coronavirus vaccination rates may be due to logistical issues such as transportation or broadband access as much as fears or antipathy toward the vaccine, writes a bioethicist. Read more here.

Rural readers share their vaccination experiences with The Daily Yonder. Read more here.

The public's concerns about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are widespread, a poll found. Read more here.

Public health officials in rural Minnesota work to assuage locals' concerns about the coronavirus vaccine. Read more here.

Quick hits: Supreme Court to hear major gun rights case; thieves use drones to case farms and ranches...

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

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case about the right of licensed gun owners to carry a firearm outside the home. It's the first major Second Amendment case the court has taken up in more than a decade. Read more here.

A New Yorker who moved to rural Vermont during the pandemic reflects on what she loves about her new home. Read more here.

At a recent hearing, tribal officials spoke to the House Natural Resources subcommittee about lack of access to broadband, utilities and other infrastructure on reservations. Read more here.

Thousands of tourists head to Tennessee, North Carolina and West Virginia year to see Appalachia's synchronous fireflies. Ecologists and park officials are trying to figure out how to protect the beetles from harm while letting tourists enjoy the display (and help local economies). Read more here.

For decades, some flood-damaged communities were deemed too poor to receive federal flood protection, but a new section of the federal water law could change that. Read more here.

The Society of Environmental Journalists is now accepting applications for environmental journalism grants. The deadline is June 15. Read more here.

Drones now help some thieves survey rural farms and ranches to find their next target. Read more here.

THC potency is the next big debate in legalizing marijuana. Read more here.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Senate votes to revert methane rules to Obama era; research says cutting its emissions could slow warming

The Senate voted 52-42 Wednesday voted to restore regulation of methane emissions, rolling back a Trump administration rule. "The bill would reinstate the 2012 and 2016 Oil and Natural Gas New Source Performance Standards set by the Obama administration," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. Oil companies such as BP and Shell have signaled support for the measure, which now goes to the House. It passed the Senate under "a 1996 law that allows Congress to reverse federal rules implemented in the last days of a past administration with a simple majority," Volcovici notes.

Along with Senate Democrats and independents, three Republicans voted for the measure: Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rob Portman of Ohio. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the measure would help the Biden administration reach its goal of halving U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions over the next decade, Volcovici reports. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan "said in a recent interview that new methane rules, due by September, would likely exceed the goals of Obama-era regulations and play a significant role in helping the United States achieve its near-term climate goals."

The vote "comes ahead of the release of a major United Nations report next week that will call for deep cuts in methane emissions to slow the rate of global warming and keep it beneath a threshold agreed by world leaders," Volcovici reports.

Moving quickly to cut methane emissions could slow global warming by as much as 30 percent, according to research recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. According to the study, "a full-scale push using existing technologies could cut methane emissions in half by 2030. Such reductions could have a crucial impact in the global effort to limit warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared to preindustrial levels — a central aim of the Paris climate accord," Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post. "In human terms, that could translate into fending off the most severe sea level rise, preventing more profound damage to animal habitats and ecosystems, and delaying other extreme climate impacts."

Report for America places 300 journalists in its 2021-22 reporting corps; here are some with rural resonance

Report for America announced Wednesday the placement of 300 journalists in over 200 local newsrooms for its 2021 reporting corps. Sam Kille reports. Report for America, a nonprofit initiative of The GroundTruth Project, founded by Steven Waldman in 2017, places journalists in newsrooms to report on issues and communities that probably wouldn't get much coverage.

Some of this year's journalists are continuing their second or third year in a position, but many are new to the program. Here are some with rural resonance:
  • The Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama: A corps member will report on rural communities in the state's Black Belt.
  • KUCB in Alaska: Theodore Greenly will do regional reporting in the Eastern Aleutians.
  • The California News Desert & Trust Initiative/Victorville Daily Press: Charlie McGee will do watchdog reporting in Barstow and Victorville.
  • The Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho: Kyle Pfannestiel will report on rural health care in the state.
  • The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky: Silas Walker will continue to do photojournalism in rural Kentucky.
  • The Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts: Daniel Jin will continue reporting on legislative coverage affecting the rural western part of the state.
  • Kansas City PBS in Missouri: Catherine Hoffman and another corps member will continue reporting on rural issues in the state.
  • The Montana Free Press: Chris Aadland will continue reporting on Native American issues in Montana.
  • Yellowstone Public Radio: Taylar Stagner will report on Native American issues in Montana and Wyoming.
  • Valley News in New Hampshire: Alex Driehaus will do general-assignment photography and Claire Potter will report on climate change and the environment in the Upper Valley.
  • The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead: Michelle Griffith will continue reporting on rural issues in North Dakota and Adam Willis will cover business trends and the legislature.
  • WSKG Radio, Binghamton: Phoebe Taylor-Vuolo will report on rural healthcare in New York state.
  • The Columbus Dispatch: Ceili Doyle will continue reporting on rural issues in Central Ohio.
  • KOSU Radio, Oklahoma: Seth Bodine will continue reporting on agriculture and rural issues in the state.
  • KERA/The Texas Newsroom: Keren Carrion will continue to cover news deserts in exurban and rural Texas.
  • The Victoria Advocate in Texas: Mark Rosenberg will cover rural counties surrounding Victoria.
  • The Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia: Emily Allen will do watchdog and community reporting in rural areas, Lauren Peace will cover public health threats in the state, and Amelia Ferrell Knisely will continue covering poverty in the southern part of the state.

Rural Colorado schools want their own athletic association, say state association doesn't adequately serve rural areas

Most rural school districts in Colorado are considering creating their own high school sports association because they believe the state association isn't adequately serving their interests. The move reflects growing nationwide rural-urban tensions in high-school athletics. 

"About 50 rural school districts have asked the Colorado High School Activities Association to address what they called inequities, including claims rural communities are not adequately represented and hold little influence over decision-making, The Associated Press reports. "The districts also said there were issues with the association’s communication, financial transparency and grievance procedures, only made worse by the coronavirus pandemic."

Rural districts said they hadn't been included in decision-making about changes to protocol, such as a recent incident where they say they weren't properly notified about mandatory coronavirus testing at the state wrestling tournament. "A dispute arose recently when the association made a decision to move all of the state title football games to one location without consulting rural or urban schools," AP reports. One rural superintendent "said rural schools were upset because their community-driven teams were not able to benefit from local attendance."

Rural superintendents met with the CHSAA board of directors earlier this month to share their grievances and present a preliminary plan that includes hiring a new commissioner and forming a separate advisory council and board of directors for rural schools, AP reports. The board balked at creating a rural subset of the association, but had other suggestions. Discussions are ongoing. If the groups can't come to an agreement, rural superintendents say they're prepared to move forward with a separate association.

'Adulting 101,' weekly online class for teens, teaches basic skills they need to mange time, stress, money, health, etc.

The University of Kentucky will offer an eight-week online course this summer that aims to teach teenagers nationwide about basic skills they'll need as adults, including time management, personal finance, stress management and physical health, study skills, and more, Carol Lea Spence reports.

This is the second year for the class, led by the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the UK Cooperative Extension Service. More than 580 students attended in 2020, and this year organizers are including new topics and expanding lessons from last year based on participant feedback.

The class will begin June 15 and meet every Tuesday via Zoom. Registration is $29.99 and capacity is limited so organizers recommend signing up soon. Read more here.

Biden lays out an ambitious agenda for a more activist government, strays from the facts with some assertions

Attendance in the House chamber was limited due to the pandemic. (Photo by Doug Mills, The New York Times)
"President Biden laid out an ambitious agenda on Wednesday night to rewrite the American social compact by vastly expanding family leave, child care, health care, preschool and college education for millions of people to be financed with increased taxes on the wealthiest earners," Peter Baker reports for The New York Times. "The succession of costly proposals amounts to a risky gamble that a country deeply polarized along ideological and cultural lines is ready for a more activist government."

Biden's speech to a limited-attendance joint session of Congress had a couple of lines aimed at rural voters, saying his infrastructure plan "creates jobs, connecting every American with high-speed internet including the 35 percent of rural America that still doesn't have it," and would pay farmers for helping thwart climate change.

The speech also included some misleading claims, according to fact-checkers. One came early: "The economy created more than 1,300,000 new jobs in 100 days. More new jobs in the first 100 days than any president on record." That's misleading, the Times' Jeanna Smialek wrote:

"That is extremely fast by historical norms, but it’s also a function of the state of the economy. About 8.4 million jobs are still missing compared to the employment level before the pandemic started to weigh on the economy in March 2020. Most people who lost jobs in the downturn are expected to come back fairly quickly as reopening gets underway, because they presumably want to work, but have been thrown out of jobs by state and local lockdowns. It doesn’t make sense for Mr. Biden to seemingly take credit for the rapid rebound in his bragging point, because it is partly or mostly the result of economic reopening."

Biden also claimed that “a broad consensus of economists, left, right, center . . . agree that what I’m proposing will help create millions of jobs and generate historic economic growth.” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, giving the Republican response, contradicted him, saying unspecified "experts" say the plan would lower the average wage and shrink the economy. Scott appeared to be referring to projections by The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

A more optimistic projection came from Moody's Investors Service, which Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post cited: "The infrastructure plan would especially spur job growth in 2024 and 2025, after a slight decline in jobs because of the impact of Biden’s proposed tax increases to fund the plan," according to Moody's. The Associated Press said Biden was "glossing over the naysayers."

Biden made many ad libs to his prepared text, some of which strayed from the facts. Mentioning the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, he said "the vast majority [are] overstaying visas."  There is no official count, but Daniel Dale of CNN said that was true of the newly undocumented until 2017, and AP cited an expert who figures the overstay share in 2018 was 46 percent, "not a majority, let alone a 'vast majority'."

Finally, two style points, perhaps also attributable to ad libs: Biden asked Congress to send him a bill "which I will gladly, anxiously sign," and said the U.S. is "the most unique idea in history." First, if he was glad, he wouldn't be anxious; what he surely meant was "eager." It's a common mistake.

Also common, but more irritating to those of us who put a premium on clarity of language, was his misuse of "unique," which should take no modifiers of degree. Otherwise, we lose a unique word, the only one that means "one of a kind." We need that word. Let's treat it with respect and accuracy.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

New federal guidelines will let almost all providers prescribe buprenorphine for opioid-use disorder, a boon to rural areas

The Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it will allow most medical providers to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid-use disorder without first being trained and getting a waiver. "For years, many addiction physicians and public health advocates have argued that the 'X-waiver,' as the special buprenorphine license is known, poses a barrier to basic care for patients with opioid addiction," Lev Facher reports for Stat. "Many have argued that if a doctor can prescribe potentially addictive prescription pain drugs, they should also be able to prescribe the medicine used to treat the addiction."

Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine said in the press release that increasing overdose deaths, especially during the pandemic, show the need for more access to medication-assisted treatments. Rural patients seeking such therapy can have a hard time accessing it because of transportation issues and the relative lack of qualified prescribers. But buprenorphine can be prescribed for a month at a time and taken at home, meaning rural patients don't have to travel so much, and can easily get it even at mobile clinics. About 40 percent of U.S. counties don't have a health-care who is approved to prescribe buprenorphine, an active ingredient in Suboxone, the preferred drug in medication-assisted treatment for substance-use disorder, according to a federal report.

"The move comes amid a worse-than-ever drug overdose crisis, which has taken a dire turn amid the Covid-19 pandemic," Facher reports. "More than 87,000 Americans died of overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in September 2020, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control. Data for the full 2020 calendar year isn’t available yet, but most addiction policy officials expect the death toll will climb even higher."

The clinicians with X-waivers "more than doubled between December 2017 and July 2020 . . . but more than half of small and remote rural counties lacked one," says the report of a study published in the Journal of Rural Health.

Summer may bring fuel shortages due to tanker-truck driver shortage, could raise farming costs and inhibit tourism

Gasoline may be in short supply at the pump this summer. There's plenty of crude oil and gasoline, but refineries can't find enough qualified tanker-truck drivers to get it to the gas stations.

"According to the National Tank Truck Carriers, the industry's trade group, somewhere between 20% to 25% of tank trucks in the fleet are parked heading into this summer due to a paucity of qualified drivers. At this point in 2019, only 10% of trucks were sitting idle for that reason," Chris Isidore reports for CNN. "Drivers left the business a year ago when gasoline demand ground to a near halt during the early pandemic-related shutdowns."

NTTC executive vice president Ryan Streblow told Isidore that driver shortages have been a long-standing issue, but the pandemic "metastasized it" and caused it to grow "exponentially."

Oklahoma tanker-truck executive Holly McCormick cited another factor: "We're also working with an aging work force. Many said 'I might as well take it as a cue to retire.'" She also said the shutdown of many driver schools early in the pandemic disrupted the pipeline of new drivers who would have taken many retirees' places. "And then there's a new federal clearinghouse that went online in January 2020 to identify truck drivers with prior drug or alcohol violations or failed drug tests, which knocked about 40,000 to 60,000 total drivers out of the national employment pool," Isidore reports.

Truck drivers have been in short supply for about 25 years, a problem that has grown more acute in the past five years or so. But tanker-truck driving is more specialized, requiring extra certification and training. "And while the jobs are more attractive than some long-haul trucking jobs that can keep drivers away from home for days or weeks at a time, it is strenuous, difficult work," Isidore reports, adding that a gas shortage and higher prices could raise farming costs and grocery prices, and, if vacationers can't afford to hit the road, that could hurt rural areas that depend on tourism.

Wheat, corn and soybean prices are the highest since 2013; grocery prices could go up

A crop rally in the U.S. is making essential food commodities dramatically more expensive, and the costs could soon spill over onto grocery store shelves," reportKim Chipman and Megan Durisin  of Bloomberg. "Wheat, corn and soybeans, the backbone of much of the world’s diet, are all surging to highs not seen since 2013 after gains last week had some analysts warning that a speculative bubble was forming."

Bad weather is the biggest reason: rain in Argentina is hurting the soy harvest, and dryness is hurting wheat and corn crops in Canada, France and the U.S. And many scientists predict drought in the American Farm Belt this summer. "Meanwhile, China is gobbling up the world’s grain supplies and is set to import the most corn ever as it expands its massive hog herd," Chipman and Durisin report. "Rumors are swirling that the Asian nation is working on 1 million metric tons of new corn purchases."

Since staple crops are a big factor in consumer food prices, the rally has prompted fears of food price inflation. "Pricey crops are also helping to drive even broader gains across the commodities complex, with metals such as palladium and copper rallying on a comeback in industrial operations around the world," Chipman and Durisin report. "Still, soybean, wheat and corn futures in Chicago are all trading in overbought territory with their 14-day relative strength indexes above 70, indicating that prices may have risen too far, too fast. Values declined in China, signaling a possible calming of shortage fears as summer crop plantings progress and hefty purchases of foreign supplies continue to arrive at ports."

New rural coronavirus infections down 15% last week

Rate of new coronavirus infections, by county, April 18-24
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New rural coronavirus infections fell from almost 51,000 two weeks ago to 44,620 last week, a nearly 15 percent drop. Rural Covid-19 deaths fell by more than 10% in the same period, from 711 to 65, the lowest death toll since mid-July, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

Though nearly 900,000 rural residents were newly vaccinated April 18-24, rural vaccination rates are still about 10% lower than those in metro counties. About a quarter of rural residents are fully vaccinated. Click here for more data and regional analysis on coronavirus infections, deaths, and vaccinations, including graphs and an interactive map with county-level data.

Land O'Lakes starts fellowships for young adults to help governments, nonprofits expand rural broadband access

Farm cooperative Land O'Lakes announced this week creation of the American Connection Corps, a fellowship program aimed at closing the rural broadband gap, "which places many farm communities at a disadvantage to their urban counterparts for delivering education and health care services and growing their local economies," Liz Fedor reports for Twin Cities Business Magazine

The 50 young adults will chosen for paid, two-year fellowships "will focus on improving broadband connectivity and work on community capacity-building projects," Fedor reports. They will be chosen, trained and placed by civic leadership nonprofit Lead for America. Applications are due by May 15.

Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford said in a statement that millions of Americans lack broadband, a service that has "become a necessity in today’s world and, frankly, a fundamental right."

The company has long been on the broadband bandwagon. "Land O’Lakes stepped forward early in the pandemic to provide free wi-fi service to help students in rural areas gain access to internet service from their family vehicles," Fedor reports. "Land O’Lakes enlisted other companies in that effort, and in 2020, free wi-fi was being offered in about 2,300 U.S. locations." The company also "initiated formation of the American Connection Broadband Coalition, which now consists of more than 150 major companies and trade associations. It is seeking at least $80 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure."

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Pandemic and 2020 elections spur some state legislatures' efforts to assert more control over local governments

Over the past year there has been "a trend toward states pre-empting local laws and ordinances, a movement fueled by the twin calamities of Covid-19 and the chaos surrounding the 2020 elections," Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. "The pandemic provoked conflicts between state and local governments—particularly in cities run by Democrats and states controlled by Republicans—when it came to Covid-19 rules such as mask ordinances and regulations on when businesses could open and at what capacity. And the false claims by former President Donald Trump of widespread election fraud emboldened state elected officials to wrest control of elections from local officials."

Georgia illustrates the trend, which is essentially a rural-urban conflict. Last year in Athens-Clarke County, commissioners proposed cutting police funding and spending the money on preventive measures such as mental health and social services. "The bill didn’t pass, but the idea alone so outraged the Georgia legislature that lawmakers decreed it would not happen on their watch," Povich reports. "The legislature passed a bill that would restrict similar measures in Athens or any other Georgia county or city." Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, has indicted his support for the bill but hasn't signed it yet.

Republican Rep. Houston Gaines, who represents Athens and sponsored the bill, told Fox News he supports local control, "but when you have local governments that are out of control and they’re putting their communities and families in those communities at risk, that’s where I believe we have to step in."

Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Mariah Parker, a Democrat who supported the funding resolution, told Povich: "You have to admire the contradiction in terms when these members of the Republican Party ... claim a desire for smaller government. . . . To have that from folks who might not have their ear to the ground in our local community is frustrating."

Georgia also recently strengthened the state's control over how counties run elections, a move emulated by South Carolina's legislature, Povich notes. Other state governments have stepped in to pre-empt local control over issues including local housing regulations, plastic-bag bans, and firearm restrictions.

Local news site links to Extension Service list of farmers who sell to the public; good idea for community papers

During the pandemic, food-supply chains were disrupted and many farmers began selling directly to the public. In a recent column, Jennifer P. Brown, editor and publisher of the Hoptown Chronicle in Hopkinsville, Ky., lauded (and linked to) a directory of local food producers who sell to the public.

"Part of Hoptown Chronicle’s public service mission has always been to cultivate a broader appreciation for traditions and institutions that are truly local and unique to this community," Brown writes. "Independent businesses help define Hopkinsville and Christian County — and I believe the people who grow food and decorative plants are a big part of our local identity."

"Every local news outlet should consider running a directory of local food producers who sell directly to the public. It could also be a revenue opportunity," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. He notes that every county is served by the Cooperative Extension Service, which created the digest Brown writes about, and that your extension office may have its own list, or at least the information for you to compile one.

Biden workgroup calls for broadband, reallocation of federal aid, to boost areas most hurt by fossil-fuel job losses

Map highlighting areas highly dependent on fossil-energy activities and jobs

In January President Biden appointed an interagency working group to study how to boost local economies in areas hurt by a decline in fossil-fuel jobs such as mining, drilling, processing, refining, and power generation. Its first report, released earlier this week, "calls for more spending on high-speed internet, environmental clean-up and other efforts to create jobs," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The report did not propose any new pots of money to accomplish those goals. Rather, it identified more than $37 billion in existing funding that could be used for projects in 'energy communities' affected by the job losses."

The group recommends prioritizing coal-reliant communities for federal aid, and identifies the 25 most in need of aid; the top four are all in Central Appalachia. It also recommends prioritizing tribal energy communities and "fenceline communities," those near energy or industrial facilities. Their residents are often people of color and disproportionately exposed to pollution and other environmental impacts from such facilities, but without the benefit of energy employment, the report says.

The report also recommends a series of town-hall meetings in affected communities within the next three months to hear residents' perspectives and ideas. The group's next steps include increasing federal funding and identifying ways to ensure that funding makes it to energy communities. "The group also expects to compile a list of projects that could be funded, and is supposed to set up a 'one-stop shop' for energy communities seeking access to federal help," Estep reports.

Millions of Americans missing second coronavirus vaccine

A growing number of Americans are missing the second dose of their coronavirus vaccines. "More than five million people, or nearly 8 percent of those who got a first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, have missed their second doses, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is more than double the rate among people who got inoculated in the first several weeks of the nationwide vaccine campaign," Rebecca Robbins reports for The New York Times. "Even as the country wrestles with the problem of millions of people who are wary about getting vaccinated at all, local health authorities are confronting an emerging challenge of ensuring that those who do get inoculated are doing so fully." 

Some who missed their second shot told interviewers that they worried about side effects; some said they thought they were protected enough with just one dose. But sometimes it was a problem with the vaccine provider not getting expected vaccine deliveries, forcing rescheduling of appointments. Rescheduling can be more difficult for those without reliable transportation or whose jobs have strict hours. However, now that vaccination uptake has slowed, most states are accommodating walk-in patients without appointments,

Census data show rural population lagging, and giving a slight Republican tilt to reapportionment of House seats

Rural and urban population change by county over the past 50 years and past 10 years
(Daily Yonder maps; click the image to enlarge them or click here for the interactive version)

U.S. population growth over the past decade slowed to its lowest rate since the Great Depression, according to data released Monday by the Census Bureau. Population growth has mostly concentrated in cities and suburbs, especially in the South and West. That gives Republicans a slight edge in the reapportionment of U.S. House seats, but it's a mixed bag, politically.

"The first numbers to come out of the 2020 Census show the U.S. population on April 1, 2020 — Census Day — was 331.5 million people, an increase of just 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020. It is the second-slowest rate of expansion since the government began taking a census in 1790. In the 1930s, the decade with the slowest population growth, the rate was 7.3%. Unlike the slowdown of the Great Depression, which was a blip followed by a boom, the slowdown this time is part of a longer-term trend, tied to the aging of the country’s white population, decreased fertility rates and lagging immigration," Tara Bahrampour, Harry Stevens, and Adrian Blanco report for The Washington Post. "Most of the loss there has been in rural areas, where job losses and outmigration started several decades ago and continue to reverberate."

For the first time in five decades, more than half of U.S. counties have lost population. Two-thirds of rural counties lost population over the past decade, compared with just over one-third of metropolitan counties. "The geographic inequality that developed over the last 50 years has intensified and broadened in the last 10," Robert Cushing reports for The Daily Yonder. "The traditional areas of population loss have metastasized. Much of the Deep South 'Black Belt' shows losses, as does the Appalachian region all the way to New York. The losses in the Plains have spread and now much of the Midwest and Upper Midwest also record a decline in population."

The Post notes, "West Virginia shrank most radically, losing 3.2% of its population. That continued a decades-long downward trend and reflects out-migration and aging of the population. The state, which is more than 90 percent white, is the only one to have a smaller population compared to 1950, when it peaked at slightly over 2 million people. West Virginia is also one of just two states where the deaths exceeded births over the decade (the other is Maine, which grew because it had a higher rate of in-migration)." Maine is the most rural state. West Virginia's median age is "between 42 and 43, compared to the national average of 38," the Post reports. "The state is projected to keep shrinking through 2040, according to the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service." The Yonder has more data and analysis on the rural numbers, including an interactive county-level map and lists of counties that have gained and lost the most.

Population change and House seat change over last 10 years (Washington Post maps; click the image to enlarge them)

What does the population shift mean politically? Texas is gaining two seats, and Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, and Oregon will each pick up one seat. Meanwhile, California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are each losing one seat. It's unclear how the pandemic has affected population shift because much of it, including city-dwellers' flight to rural areas, happened after Census Day. It could have made a difference, though; New York lost a seat by 89 people and Minnesota held onto one by only 26 people, the Post reports.

"On balance, Republicans should benefit from these changes — not necessarily by doing better in the states losing seats, but rather by potentially picking up the lion’s share of the new seats in the states gaining districts," Kyle Kondik writes for Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Though more granular reapportionment data won't be out until later this year—the Census Bureau's deadline is Sept. 30—Kondik offers a state-by-state breakdown of how the reapportionment process may play out. Read more here.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Amid pandemic budget cuts, many rural ambulance services in some states are in danger of closing

"The ambulance crews that service much of rural America have run out of money and volunteers, a crisis exacerbated by the demands of the pandemic and a neglected, patchwork 911 system. The problem transcends geography: In rural, upstate New York, crews are struggling to pay bills. In Wisconsin, older volunteers are retiring, and no one is taking their place," Ali Watkins reports for The New York Times. "Many of the disappearing ambulances are staffed by volunteers, and some are for-profit ambulance providers that say they are losing money. Still others are local contractors hired by municipalities that, strained by the budget crisis of the pandemic, can no longer afford to pay them."

The story focuses on Wyoming, where the situation is particularly bad. "Nearly half of the population lives in territory so empty it is still considered the frontier. At least 10 localities in the state are in danger of losing ambulance service, some imminently, according to an analysis reviewed by The New York Times," Watkins reports.

One independent rural ambulance provider is losing its contract with the county in June because of pandemic budget cuts. The owner suggested transitioning the private company to a public, tax-supported service funded by the county, but the county didn't have the money, Watkins reports. So after June 30, the regional hospital nearby will have to respond on its own to emergency calls.

Another rural Wyoming ambulance service, bought out by national for-profit company American Medical Response in 2016, is shuttering because AMR says it's no longer profitable to stay in rural Wyoming without government subsidies, Watkins reports. The low call volumes meant there wasn't enough revenue to support the company, a spokesperson said.

The pandemic only hastened the current crisis in rural ambulance services, but low or sporadic call volumes are a big part of the problem, say experts who have warned for years that unreliable revenue streams endanger the nation's emergency medical services. "Critical to an ambulance’s survival is its ability to transport patients to hospitals, which allows it to bill for a transport," Watkins reports. "That limited revenue stream dried up during the pandemic, according to workers across the country, when crews were discouraged from transporting all but the sickest of patients." Instead, crews were told to provide care on scene, for which they are not paid.

"At the same time, many of the standard sorts of medical emergencies that helped keep ambulances afloat disappeared, either because people were moving around less, or were fearful of going to a hospital and exposing themselves to the coronavirus," Watkins reports. "In dense urban areas like New York or Los Angeles, there are enough people and everyday maladies that an ambulance service can come closer to sustaining itself, and enough of a tax base that cities can support it. But in places like Wyoming, the least populous state and one notoriously averse to tax increases, each missed transport in 2020 was critically lost revenue."

Adding to the problem, many states don't consider ambulances essential services, and only a few states require local governments to provide them. "For most of the country, access to an ambulance is a lottery. Some municipalities provide them as a public service, funded by taxpayers, while some contract with for-profit ambulance companies. Most rely on the willingness of volunteer companies," Watkins reports. "But across the country, E.M.S. professionals say fewer and fewer people are willing to volunteer for the job, a phenomenon accelerated by the stress of the pandemic. Many municipalities expect volunteers to take time away from work, something few people can now afford to do."

Interior nominees would put an environmentalist in charge of public lands, a Native American high up in Indian Affairs

Bryan Newland and Tracy Stone-Manning
On Earth Day last week, the White House announced nominees for major Interior Department positions that underscore administration goals to go greener and put more Native Americans in charge of Native American policy.

Tracy Stone-Manning, a National Wildlife Federation senior adviser for conservation policy, was nominated last week as the Bureau of Land Management director. She is NWF's former associate vice-president for public lands. "If confirmed as land bureau chief, she would preside over all of America’s onshore oil, gas and coal reserves and manage more than 244 million acres of federal public land, mostly in the West," Bobby MaGill reports for Bloomberg. "The potential for her to lead the agency drew skepticism from industry. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group representing oil and gas companies operating on land bureau land, said the choice showed environmental activists were running the Interior Department."

Before working at NWF, Stone-Manning was former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's chief of staff and was an adviser and regional director for Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont, Magill reports.

Former Ojibwe chair Bryan Newland was nominated for assistant interior secretary for Indian affairs. Newland was tribal president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and served as a policy adviser for Indian affairs at Interior under former President Barack Obama. He also served as the chief judge of the Bay Mills Tribal Court. "In February the Interior announced Newland's appointment to principal deputy assistant secretary of Indian Affairs," Indian Country Today and the Associated Press report. "The next step is for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to confirm Newland. If he is confirmed by the committee, the vote moves to the full Senate."

In Nomadland, about a homeless rural migrant worker, 'a ghost of a Western' and maybe 'The Grapes of Wrath'

Frances McDormand in Nomadland
Nomadland, which won big at the Academy Awards last night—Best Picture, Best Lead Actress (Frances McDormand), and Best Director (ChloĆ© Zhao) — presents a complicated portrait of the rural West and the gig economy.

The film follows Fern, a widowed former teacher in her 60s, who becomes a van-dwelling migrant gig worker after the factory shutters in her rural Nevada town. It's based on the 2018 nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Jessica Bruder, who lived in a van for three years and followed itinerant gig workers to research it.

Critics and Nevadans have praised the film for its authenticity, saying it faithfully depicts rural Nevada. And if the characters are realistic, it's because many are actual migrant gig-workers, not actors. Nomadland also manages to avoid common Hollywood tropes that show rural areas as full of simple bigots, dangerous freaks, or salt-of-the-earth down-home folks; a feat Oscar contender Hillbilly Elegy could not duplicate, Stephen Humphries writes for The Christian Science Monitor.

But the film pulls its punches in showing how dangerous menial gigs can be, especially for seniors, and ignores Bruder's pointed economic critiques. In the book, she describes the nomads as "plug-and-play labor, the epitome of convenience for employers in search of seasonal staffing. They appear where and when they are needed. They bring their own homes … They aren’t around long enough to unionize. On jobs that are physically difficult, many are too tired even to socialize after their shifts." One 77-year-old worker told Bruder that "They love retirees because we’re dependable. We’ll show up, work hard, and are basically slave labor."

"Because the film is primarily a character study of [Fern], it exchanges Bruder’s sharp indignation over capitalist exploitation for a muddled message about individual freedom that downplays the real stakes of gig labor," Wilfred Chan writes for Vulture.

Anthony Lane wrote in The New Yorker in November, "Somewhere, inside this lovely and desperate movie, there’s the ghost of a Western. Though people still gather around a campfire, their talk is of cancer and P.T.S.D.  Instead of cowboys driving cattle to high pastures, Fern and her kindred spirits converge, in certain months, on an Amazon warehouse—still obeying the rhythm of the seasons, I guess, as they bubble-wrap junk and box it in time for Christmas. . . . It maintains a fierce sadness, like the look in its heroine’s eyes, alive to all that’s dying in the West. That is why Zhao so often films at daylight’s decease, catching enormous skies of violet and rose, and why her fable speaks to us, in 2020, as John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” did to audiences eighty years ago. Fern’s needs and rights are as basic as those of the Joad family, yet there was a breadth and an uplift to their yearning that has since dwindled to a speck. “Fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul,” Tom Joad said. “The one big soul that belongs to everybody.” Some hope. Fern has her own soul, and it’s hers alone, packed away tight in the van, together with her toothbrush and her chicken-noodle soup. On she goes."

Study: Closing of rural hospital delivery rooms puts Black and indigenous moms and babies at far higher risk of death

"A new study from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center has found that when rural hospitals close their obstetrics units, it puts Black and indigenous mothers at a far greater risk," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "That’s because the hospitals that close their obstetrics units are more likely to be located in counties where the majority of residents are non-white or Hispanic," and they're more likely to be small and/or critical access hospitals. 

Fewer than half of rural counties in the U.S. have hospitals that deliver babies. Obstetrics, which has high malpractice-insurance costs, is among the first to be cut when hospitals tighten their belts. 

But pregnant people still need obstetric services even when the local hospital doesn't offer them. In rural hospitals with shuttered obstetrics units, almost half had the same number of births as most rural hospitals that still had the service, Carey reports.

"What we see are issues with systemic racism. And we see general, overall health is poor among BiPOC communities particularly black and Indigenous moms," study co-author Julia Interrante told Carey. "And I think you have this combination then when you have an obstetrics unit closing in those same areas that need potentially more care for patients. It’s a compounding problem."

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said his department will provide $12 million over the next four years for the Rural Maternity and Obstetrics Management Strategies program. "The grants will be used to test models that address unmet needs for rural Black moms," Carey reports. "For the first time, HHS said, applicants are required to focus on populations that have historically suffered from poorer health outcomes, health disparities and other inequities."

Biden seeks repeal of longstanding tax-code provision that reduces estate-tax burden for family-owned assets

President Biden's plan to finance infrastructure and increase spending on social programs includes repeal of a longstanding tax-code provision that allows heirs to avoid capital-gains taxes, and "Farm groups say elimination of the tax break would impose a burden on agriculture," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

The issue is stepped-up basis. The term “means that when property passes to an heir, it is assessed at its current value, and taxed at that rate when it is sold, rather than the increase in value from when it was originally acquired by the family,” Abbott explains. Because of large exemptions, “Few farm families pay estate taxes but the 'death tax' is a perennial target of farm groups,” he notes. “There is an $11 million exemption per person from the estate tax, due to a provision in the 2017 tax cut law. The exemption will revert to $5 million in 2026.”

Biden's proposal is part of a tax plan that includes an increase in the capital-gains tax. Hans Nichols of Axios reports, “The White House thinks that change could lead more individuals to liquidate assets before they die, allowing the IRS to tax them then instead of encouraging families to keep passing on them for more favorable tax treatment.”

UPDATE, April 28: Stephanie Leiser of the University of Michigan explains capital-gains taxes, in a piece for The Conversation, a site for journalistic writing by academics: "The basis is the original price you paid for the asset. Let’s say you invested $100,000 in some stock and held on to it until you died, at which point it is worth $300,000. If your heirs eventually sell the stock for $700,000, their basis wouldn’t be $100,000 but $300,000, meaning they would pay taxes on only $400,000 in capital gains. But no one will ever pay tax on the $200,000 in appreciation that accrued before you died. Biden’s plan would eliminate this basis step-up and require heirs with incomes over $1 million to pay taxes on the entire amount of their capital gains."