Friday, May 14, 2021

Corn growers demand Biden climate plan prioritize ethanol

President Biden’s infrastructure plan has "massive investments in electric cars" but the biofuels industry thinks it's getting shortchanged, Ryan McCrimmon and Kelsey Tamborrino report for Politico. "Corn growers and producers of ethanol, the corn-based renewable fuel that has long enjoyed special status as a government-mandated ingredient in gasoline, would get only a tiny slice of the funds ... despite Biden’s assurances that he views them as key to reducing dependence on fossil fuels. So now they’re turning to their traditional allies in Congress to get themselves written in."

The issue is a good example of the political tightrope Biden must walk in appealing to Corn Belt biofuels producers while pursuing environmental goals. "Ethanol production supports more than 300,000 jobs concentrated in rural areas and added about $43 billion to U.S. economic output in 2019, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, a lobby group for ethanol producers," McCrimmon and Tamborrino report. "Reminders of its political importance come every four years, as presidential candidates in both parties fawn over ethanol during the primary campaigns ahead of the crucial Iowa caucuses."

After legislature balks, Mo. governor breaks promise to back Medicaid expansion approved by 53% of voters last year

"The battle over Medicaid expansion in Missouri reached a new boiling point Thursday as Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, announced that the state will not implement expansion, in defiance of a ballot measure passed by voters last year," Becky Sullivan reports for NPR. "The decision stems from Republican state lawmakers' refusal to appropriate funds for the expansion to the state's Medicaid program, called MO HealthNet, in the state budget bill passed last week."

Parson had promised to support the Medicaid measure if it passed, though he never personally supported it. This week he said he couldn't approve expansion without a way to fund it. He acknowledged that his decision would likely face legal challenges.

Last August, 53% of voters "approved a ballot measure to raise the limit to 138% of the federal poverty level, roughly $17,774 for a single adult and $37,570 for a family of four," Sullivan reports. "It would have made Missouri the 38th state to expand Medicaid access under the Affordable Care Act."

Ad agency promotes advertising to support local news media, saying ad folks are culpable in journalism's decline

Boston-based advertising agency Allen & Gerritsen has a new initiative called "Protect Our Press" to support and preserve local, professional newsrooms across the nation through advertising. 

"Protect Our Press calls on agencies, brands, publishers and individuals to take a pledge," Evelyn Mateos reports for Editor & Publisher. "It asks agencies to create a meaningful target, such as 20 percent of their programmatic budget to news sites; brands to review and rethink their approach to local news investments; publishers to create smarter, better value for Protect Our Press participants, and individuals to subscribe to one or more local news publishers."

"It’s time to admit that the advertising industry has been culpable in the decline of local journalism," A&G Senior Vice President of Media Will Phipps said in a press release. "Agencies have been complicit by excluding 'news' from clients' plans, fearing the unpredictable nature of the category. But the reality is that there’s a great opportunity in the local news community, and when we start to collaborate with our clients to seize these moments, we have the ability to help build back this critical pillar of journalism."

A&G is partnering with Boston Globe Media and other organizations on the project, Mateos reports.

First-of-its-kind study links air pollution from farms, mainly livestock, estimating nearly 18,000 U.S. deaths a year

Washington Post graphic breaks out estimates produced by study; click on it to enlarge.
Air pollution from farms is responsible for 17,900 deaths per year in the United States, according to a first-of-its-kind report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Animal agriculture is the worst emitter, researchers say, responsible for 80 percent of deaths from pollution related to food production," Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post. Gases associated with manure and animal feed produce small, lung-irritating particles capable of drifting hundreds of miles. These emissions now account for more annual deaths than pollution from coal power plants. Yet while pollution from power plants, factories and vehicles is restricted under the Clean Air Act, there is less regulation of air quality around farms."

Meat industry representatives questioned the study. National Pork Producers Council spokesperson Jim Monroe said in an email to the Post that the findings were "highly suspect" and that the study "irresponsibly draws conclusions based on modeling and estimates." Monroe cited a 2019 study that found significant reductions in ammonia content from pig farms, Kaplan reports.

Jason Hill, lead author of the report, said this is the first major report to link specific foods to air-pollution deaths. "While greenhouse gases cause the same amount of warming no matter where on the planet they’re produced, the health effects of air pollution are dependent on atmospheric chemistry, local weather, and the size and health of communities living nearby," Kaplan reports. "Only with advanced new air-quality models has it become possible to pinpoint the consequences of pollution produced hundreds of miles away."

Quick hits: Wyoming may sue to protect its coal markets; farmers switch tax status as benefits in Subchapter C shrink

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

A new law in Wyoming created a $1.2 million fund to be used to sue other states that choose to use renewable energy instead of buying its coal. Read more here.

A bipartisan Senate bill aims to improve health-care access for new and expecting mothers in rural America. The bill was introduced in 2019, but died in committee. Read more here.

The deadline to apply for the National Science, Health and Environment Reporting Fellowships has been extended through Monday, May 17. Read more here.

Farmers are converting from Subchapter C corporations as C-corp tax benefits shrink. Read more here.

Study: Covid reporters report emotional trauma and stress from the demands of the job. Read more here.

An op-ed from prison-reform organization Vera Institute for Justice talks about why reimagining safety looks different in rural America. Read more here.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Manchin says he favors a scaled-back bill on elections

ABC's Rachel Scott interviews Sen. Joe Manchin
Democrats had better scale back their expectations of passing an omnibus bill on elections and voting, since Sen. Joe Manchin said yesterday that he favors a more modest measure.

"The Democrat from West Virginia told ABC News exclusively that he intends to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a more narrowly tailored piece of voting rights legislation that he said he believes could muster bipartisan support even as voting legislation is becoming a flash point between the two parties," Rachel Scott reports.

"I believe Democrats and Republicans feel very strongly about protecting the ballot boxes allowing people to protect the right to vote making it accessible making it fair and making it secure and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, if we apply that to all 50 states and territories, it's something that can be done -- it should be done," Manchin told Scott. "It could be done bipartisan to start getting confidence back in our system." That bill, named for the civil-rights leader and former House member who died last year, would restore federal monitoring of election laws in states with histories of racial discrimination.

Manchin spoke after the Senate Rules Committee voted 9-9 on the Democrats' reform bill, moving the debate to the full Senate. "Democrats have championed that bill as a necessary step to combat state-level changes to voting laws in largely Republican states that they say are aimed at oppressing largely minority, poorer and young voters," Scott notes. The bill would enact "reforms that lower barriers to voting, including automatic voter registration, requiring voter registration on the day of an election and reforms to gerrymandering and campaign-finance laws." Republicans have called the bill "a power grab" that would weaken democracy.

Census showed slow population growth, but also displayed continued movement among states in their rankings

Washington Post graph shows changes in population rank of states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. To enlarge, click on it.

"The story of the U.S. population is one of fluidity," report Harry Stevens and Nick Kirkpatrick of The Washington Post. "Of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, more than half jumped ahead or fell behind others this year, despite state population totals that showed the nation’s slowest population growth since the 1930s. Compared with a century ago, the shifts are even more significant, with states rising by as many as 33 positions or falling by as many as 16. No single explanation can capture the complexity of these population shifts. Within any given region, some states have flourished while others declined. As some economies faltered, new industries sprung up and attracted migration from inside and outside the country."

EPA finally says changes in the environment show climate change is intensifying, partly because of human activity

"The destruction of year-round permafrost in Alaska, loss of winter ice on the Great Lakes and spike in summer heat waves in U.S. cities all signal that climate change is intensifying," the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday in a report that languished under the Trump administration for three years," The Washington Post reports, noting that this is "the first time the agency has said such changes are being driven at least in part by human-caused global warming."

The report joins "a growing body of evidence that climate effects are happening faster and becoming more extreme than when EPA last published its 'Climate Indicators' data in 2016," Dino Grandoni and Brady Dennis report. "EPA Administrator Michael Regan said he wants to make clear to the entire country the dangers of rising temperatures in the United States."

“We want to reach people in every corner of this country because there is no small town, big city or rural community that’s unaffected by the climate crisis,” Regan said. “Americans are seeing and feeling the impacts up close with increasing regularity.” Along with the report, EPA updated its climate webpage to inform the public on how climate change is affecting communities.

Low-income households can get $50 federal discounts on home broadband, $100 on computer purchases

The Federal Communications Commission is offering a $50 discount on your home broadband bill, reports Mike Snider of USA Today.

The benefit is "part of the roughly $900 billion Covid-19 relief package passed by Congress in December," Snider writes. It gave the FCC $3.2 billion for the program, in which more than 800 wireless and broadband providers are participating.

You qualify "if you also qualify for the Lifeline program, the program that helps low-income Americans purchase broadband access. You also qualify if you are on Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP," Snider reports. "Any household with income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines is eligible, as are those in the free and reduced-price school lunch program and school breakfast program. Also eligible: those who had a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020 and are at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers."

The program offers a discount of up to $50 a month toward broadband, up to $75 a month on tribal lands. Snider reports, "Eligible households also can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to buy a laptop or desktop computer or a tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase." Signup for the program opened Wednesday.

"Internet connectivity has been vital during the coronavirus pandemic as more Americans worked from home and more students attended school at home," Snider notes, quoting acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel: "We all know that Internet access is essential for modern life. This pandemic has made it abundantly clear that broadband is no longer nice to have, it’s need-to-have, for everyone, everywhere."

Rep. Greene chases, taunts Rep. Oscasio-Cortez

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Rome, Georgia, "aggressively confronted Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Wednesday and falsely accused her of supporting 'terrorists,' leading the New York congresswoman’s office to call on leadership to ensure that Congress remains 'a safe, civil place for all members and staff'," The Washington Post reports.

Two Post reporters "witnessed Ocasio-Cortez exit the House chamber late Wednesday afternoon ahead of Greene, who shouted 'Hey Alexandria' twice in an effort to get her attention. When Ocasio-Cortez did not stop walking, Greene picked up her pace and began shouting at her and asking why she supports antifa, a loosely knit group of far-left activists, and Black Lives Matter, falsely labeling them 'terrorist' groups. Greene also shouted that Ocasio-Cortez was failing to defend her 'radical socialist' beliefs by declining to publicly debate the freshman from Georgia."

“You don’t care about the American people,” Greene shouted. “Why do you support terrorists and antifa?” The object of her taunts didn't stop, "only turning around once and throwing her hands in the air in an exasperated motion. The two reporters were not close enough to hear what the New York congresswoman said, and her office declined to discuss her specific response."

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Bipartisan postal-reform bill includes provision to let papers send many more sample copies in their home counties

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and U.S. Rep. James
Comer, R-Ky. (Photo from Government Executive)
After a decade or so of fits and starts, Congress may be ready to pass a postal-reform bill, and a bipartisan measure introduced by key committee leaders has a provision that would help rural newspapers.

A three-line section of the bill, labeled "Rural newspaper sustainability," would let papers mail many more sample copies to non-subscribers in their home counties at the same rate they pay the Postal Service to deliver papers to subscribers. The current limit is 10 percent of annual home-county circulation; the bill would make it 50%.

The 10% limit has been in federal law "for more than a century," said the National Newspaper Association, which lobbied for the change as part of a broader reform of the Postal Service. NNA Chair Brett Wesner, an Oklahoma publisher, said the provision would help small newspapers recruit subscribers.

As newspaper circulation has declined, papers reach the sample-copy limit sooner, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, which publishes The Rural Blog. He said the higher limit would make papers more attractive vehicles for advertising and public service, as some have done with sample-copy editions in the pandemic.

NNA said it was "cautiously optimistic that the Postal Service Reform Act of 2021 would finally clear the many hurdles to enactment." It thanked the sponsors "for recognizing the need of community newspapers to regain subscribers lost to poor postal service and the effects of the pandemic."

The bill is sponsored by the leaders of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which has postal issues in its jurisdiction. The chair is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York; the ranking Republican is Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, who pushed for the sample-copy provision. Comer said the bill, combined with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's 10-year plan, 'will help put USPS on the road to fiscal stability, make it more efficient and sustainable for generations, and ensure continued service to the American people."

UPDATE, May 13: The committee approved the bill without amendments, then moved on to a related bill with more contentious issues such as mailed ballots. Comer told the panel, "In this bill, Republicans have ensured rural Americans continue to have access to their local newspapers and not be forced to pick up a national paper because the local paper went bankrupt." The committee is scheduled to mark up the bill Thursday, a session that may reveal dissension in both parties over issues that have long been contentious. The bill is co-sponsored by Government Operations Committee Chair Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and member Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.).

The bill would continue the mandate for six-day delivery, a major concern in rural areas. It would require the Postal Service to have an online, publicly available dashboard to track its performance. Maloney said that adds "transparency to ensure the Postal Service provides the high quality of service Americans expect and deserve." NNA had hoped for specific measurement of on-time rural mail delivery, but it said the dashboard would allow "any person could look up a specific address to determine service performance to that address," so research could measure rural delivery times. 

The bill's major financial boost to the Postal Service would be elimination of the "2006 mandate to fund retiree health benefits well into the future, a significant cost for USPS, at least on paper. The agency has defaulted on billions of dollars in annual payments to the retiree health fund," Jory Heckman of Federal News Network reports. "The legislation would require postal employees to enroll in Medicare when they turn 65. The bill wouldn’t require current retirees to enroll, but would give them a three-month grace period from late-enrollment penalties if they opt to do so."

UPDATE: NNA issued a news release in which Wessner said, "“This bill does not give us everything we want, nor one thing we really need, which is some assurance of postage rate stability,” Wesner said. “But it does open the door for much-needed postal reform and it sets us on a path for refinements as a bill moves through Congress. What is most important to us is that Congress acts and acts quickly to shore up universal service. The very real effects of the delays on Capitol Hill are being felt in our business, as we lose subscribers to poor service and we are forced to recognize that the mail system has become much less dependable than in the past. To the extent this deterioration is because of USPS’s financial weakness, it is incumbent upon Congress to get moving to help fix it.”

Commercial fishers push back against mask mandates

Commercial fishing crews are fighting mask mandates they say are impractical and unsafe. 

In February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention required that anyone on public transportation wear a mask, and the Coast Guard applied that to all vessels, including small commercial fishing crews, Paige Winfield Cunningham reports for The Washington Post

In a hearing with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Tuesday, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., asked CDC director Rochelle Walensky to change the rule. "Not only is a wet mask dangerous out on the open water — these guys are used to relying on sign language on the boat, and with the mask it’s a real safety issue," Hassan said. Murkowski said fishermen had told her they only wore masks because they worried about getting caught by the Coast Guard and fined or otherwise penalized.

"Walensky seemed aware of the issue during yesterday’s hearing but didn’t give any specific answers. She said the agency is working on new agency guidance," Cunningham reports.

United Fishermen of Alaska executive director Frances Leach told Cunningham that most operations are small and family-owned, which means people mostly interact with those inside their bubble. Leach said the group supports mask mandates for larger boats like ferries.

Some rural areas in East run short of gasoline from panic buying after cyberattack on major pipeline

The Clinton County News in Albany, Ky., ran these photos of lines at local gas pumps.

Rural areas, which are more likely to be at or near the end of fuel-truck routes and have many long commuters who fill their tanks more than once a week, have seen panic buying due to the shutdown of a major fuel pipeline from a Russian cyberattack, and some are running short.

"More than 1,000 gas stations in the Southeast reported running out of fuel," The Associated Press reports. "Government officials acted swiftly to waive safety and environmental rules to speed the delivery of fuel by truck, ship or rail to motorists and airports, even as they sought to assure the public that there was no cause for alarm."

"Gasoline has been in short supply at stations in several Southern Kentucky towns," reports Lexington's WKYT. "It started Monday in Clinton County, then spread to Wayne County." Both are on the Tennessee border and get most if not all of their wholesale fuel from Tennessee. The Clinton County News headlined, "Out of gas: Monday's run at local pumps leaves tanks empty."

Recent problems may have made motorists more wary of supplies. Darrell Smith of Priceless Gas in Monticello said that in recent weeks his station has "had rolling outages because there’s no drivers to drive the trucks to bring the gas in. It’s a two-fold problem right now."

New rural coronavirus infections fell 12% last week, to lowest level since July 2020, when surges began

Daily Yonder interactive map showing county-level data for new coronavirus infection rates
Rate of new coronavirus infections, by county, May 2-8
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

Last week, there were 27,502 new coronavirus cases in rural areas, a 12 percent drop from the previous week's total of 42,462 — the lowest level seen since July. Likewise, additional deaths related to Covid-19 fell 14% to 677 from the previous week's 734 deaths.

"The declines in cases and deaths came as rural counties surpassed 4.5 million total cases of Covid-19 and 90,000 Covid-related deaths since the start of the pandemic early in 2020," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

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

Water wells at more risk of drying up; researchers have recommendations to help

As drought grips much of the Western U.S., farmers and municipalities increasingly rely on groundwater wells. But many are in danger of going dry, Debra Perrone and Scott Jasechko write for The Conversation. Both are assistant professors at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Perrone and Jasechko write: "We are a water resources engineer with training in water law and a water scientist and large-data analyst. In a recent study, we mapped the locations and depths of wells in 40 countries around the world and found that millions of wells could run dry if groundwater levels decline by only a few meters. While solutions vary from place to place, we believe that what’s most important for protecting wells from running dry is managing groundwater sustainably – especially in nations like the U.S. that use a lot of it."

In previous studies, Perrone and Jasechko estimated that as many as 1 in 30 wells are already going dry in the western U.S., and as many as one in five are going dry in the southern Central Valley and southeastern Arizona. Wells are also running dry in states such as Maine, Illinois and Oregon.

They recommend several tactics for households whose wells have run dry, including:
  • Dig a new, deeper well
  • Sell the property if digging a new well is unaffordable
  • Divert or haul water from alternative sources like a nearby river or lake
  • Reduce water use to slow or halt groundwater level declines
  • Limit or abandon activities that require a lot of water, such as irrigation
Perrone and Jasechko also recommend proactive steps households and communities can take to keep wells from running dry. Read more here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Farmers seek specifics from Biden administration on carbon-cutting agriculture measures, which could be pricey

A White House goal to slash U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions hinges in part on farmers and agriculture companies changing the way they manage fields and feedlots," Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The Biden administration effort outlined in April has drawn support from agribusiness giants including Tyson Foods Inc., JBS SA, Cargill Inc. and CF Industries Holdings Inc., which have been pursuing their own environmental commitments. Individual farmers, whose participation is critical to meeting the administration’s goals, are weighing the potential costs and benefits to their bottom lines, and say government support will be needed."

Farms produce about 10 percent of the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions, especially from fertilizer application and livestock operations. President Biden wants to cut emissions in half by 2030, and has said farmers can both help achieve the goal and benefit from it. But such practices can be pricey. One Oklahoma farmer told Bunge that he's followed carbon-reduction practices for years, and while his harvests have increased, so have his expenses. 

"With often-thin profit margins, individual farmers have tended to be wary of regulations that add costs and complexity to their operations," Bunge reports. "Concern about tighter environmental rules was one reason some farmers said they backed Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections." Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Bunge that farmers generally support emissions-reduction efforts, but they need more specifics before they can get behind it. The Agriculture Department "has been seeking input from farmer and food groups on potential new programs, and the process of developing those remains in early stages, an agency spokesman said," Bunge reports.

Residents in a rural Maine community—including a veteran journalist—pitch in to save the local monthly paper

Harpswell is in Cumberland County, Maine,
across Casco Bay from Portland. (Wikipedia)
Here's a heartwarming story out of Harpswell, Maine, pop. 4,740, where locals recently banded together to save their beloved monthly paper, Jim Iovino reports for The NewStart Alliance, a West Virginia University program that aims to find, train and support buyers for community newspapers.

Fisherman Bob Anderson ran the Harpswell Anchor for 22 years, mostly as a one-man operation. He never had to solicit ads because people usually brought them to him. "Sadly though, after the pandemic arrived and most happenings in this fishing community on Casco Bay were put on hold, Anderson decided to stop the presses," Iovino reports. "That was in October. But by the end of 2020, a group of residents felt the loss of their community news source was too big of a blow, and started working on a way to bring the Anchor back to life."

One big help was nearby resident Doug Warren, who grew up nearby and retired there after a 32-year career at The Portland Press Herald, The Miami Herald, and The Boston Globe. "In a short amount of time, Warren and this group of concerned residents were able to put together enough funds [about $30,000] to purchase from Anderson the name, archives, website and other pieces of the now-defunct Anchor, and are planning to revive it as a nonprofit publication by the end of this month," Iovino reports.

The group plans to fund the publication through ads, donations and grants, and is revamping the website. In an effort to secure more community support, they also sent a survey to every household in the area to ask what kind of stories they want to see the Anchor cover. Meanwhile, they're looking for a full-time editor, though Warren is pinch-hitting for now. Read more here.

Covid roundup: FAQs about Pfizer vaccine for tweens; stories from all over rural America about vaccine hesitancy

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

The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine has just been approved for ages 12 and up. It was once more difficult to obtain in rural areas than other vaccines, but recent shipping adjustments have helped make it more accessible. Read more here.

During the pandemic, poor infrastructure and medical access exacerbated mental-health problems in rural Colorado. Read more here.

Kentucky adults who get vaccinated at a participating Kroger or Walmart can get a free lottery ticket. Read more here.

Montana's state government will offer free vaccines to Canadian truck drivers from Alberta who regularly travel to the U.S. Read more here.

Hospice and long-term care organizations are in talks with the Biden administration to expand palliative care Medicare coverage for long-haul Covid-19 patients. Read more here.

Anderson County, Texas, has the lowest coronavirus vaccine rate in the state, with only 15 percent of residents age 16 and up vaccinated. A local doctor and former mayor has spent months trying to get her rural neighbors vaccinated, but it hasn't been easy because of widespread suspicion. Read more here.

Rural Georgia sees vaccine hesitancy as supply outweighs demand. Read more here.

As vaccine demand dips, community health centers take the lead. Read more here.

Vaccine hesitation drives lower rates in rural Missouri. Read more here.

Families and communities are divided over the vaccine in rural Montana. Read more here.

Rural community colleges could get a financial boost from restoration of Pell grant access to prisoners

Newly restored federal funding for prison education could benefit not only prisoners, but rural colleges and the communities around them (since prisons are disproportionately in rural areas).

Higher education programs in prison have been scarce for the past 16 years "because the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (commonly referred to as the 1994 crime bill), which was sponsored by then-Sen. Joe Biden and achieved bipartisan support, prevented incarcerated people from accessing Pell Grants, which was the primary funding source for prison education," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder. President Obama began and President Trump expanded a program to restore Pell Grant access to select prisons, including dozens in rural areas, and in December Congress voted to restore full access by 2023 to an estimated 463,000 eligible prisoners.

Prisoners and taxpayers benefit from such programs in multiple ways: The presence of the programs reduces violence within prisons, and a college education could help create upward mobility for the former prisoners' families and break generational poverty cycles. Also, "participants are 48 percent less likely to return to prison after being released, and the Vera Institute estimates that providing postsecondary opportunities to incarcerated people could reduce state prison spending around the country by $365.8 million annually," Slepyan reports. "Other studies show that as an investment, 'prison education is almost twice as cost-effective as incarceration,' and that taxpayers save $4-5 for every $1 spent on prison education. This is partially because earning a college degree in prison open opportunities for returning citizens who are often locked out of employment and further educational opportunities through background checks and other hiring policies that discriminate against the formerly incarcerated."

Rural colleges benefit because prisoners' tuition gives them much-needed funding, which could enable them to not only stay open, but possibly expand programs or hire new instructors. That means more jobs and educational opportunities for non-incarcerated locals too, an appealing prospect for rural community colleges where enrollment has tanked during the pandemic.

Now that funding is restored, "rural colleges around the country are gearing up to provide higher education opportunities to incarcerated students," Slepyan reports. "Many of the colleges are focusing on providing degrees that will lead to practical career paths for incarcerated students."

Package looks back on meatpacking workers through the pandemic, what's happening now, and what's next

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has done an outstanding job reporting on the meatpacking industry over the past year. Now, they've published a large package that looks back on the pandemic's effect on workers, what's happening now, and what they predict for the future. 

The package includes a timeline, stories from workers in their own words, first-person retrospectives from the reporters, and more. It's a worthy read.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Rural N.C. publisher starts journalism nonprofit to cover issues in four poor counties, gets $495,000 grant

Les High (photo provided)
A rural North Carolina newspaper publisher has founded a nonprofit journalism organization that will begin reporting on regional issues this month, Teri Saylor reports for the National Newspaper Association. Les High publishes The News Reporter in Whiteville, a Pulitzer Prize-winning twice-weekly with a circulation of more than 8,100. The new nonprofit is called The Border Belt Center, and will begin publishing online as the Border Belt Independent.

"Using a $495,000 grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust over the next three years, High will build a team of journalists who will publish in-depth stories about issues facing Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in southeastern North Carolina, one of the poorest areas in the state," Saylor reports. "On the Border Belt Independent’s website, High explains that the new organization will focus primarily on the challenges faced by rural North Carolina counties, such as education, poverty, health, mental health and issues that adversely affect individuals based on age, race and the economy."

The Border Belt (NNA map)
Saylor's article features an in-depth interview with High about the new initiative, how it came about, and how the Border Belt Indepdent will collaborate with other rural papers that cover the four-county area. High may be familiar to rural journalists as a frequent example in the studies of Penny Abernathy at the University of North CarolinaRead more here.

Rural health journalism workshop online June 21-23

The Association of Health Care Journalists will host a free, virtual summit June 21-23 that aims to help journalists find and cover health stories in rural America. Attendees will get access to health-care and health-policy experts who focus on rural needs, and can attend various breakout sessions. Recordings of the sessions will be available afterward.

The workshop is open only to AHCJ members, but it's easy to register, and memberships are $60 a year for most. "Judging from past such workshops, it will be worth the price of membership," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, and editor and publisher of Kentucky Health NewsClick here for more information about the workshop and how you can sign up.

Small size of most local law-enforcement agencies makes police reform harder for them, say experts

Police reform is a hot topic. Metropolitan police departments have gotten most of the attention, but most police forces serve smaller communities, and the smaller size may make reform more difficult.

"Experts say that while smaller departments have their benefits, including being able to adapt to their communities and hire officers with local ties, these agencies also are typically able to avoid the accountability being sought as part of the national movement to restructure and improve policing," Mark Berman reports for The Washington Post. "These departments’ often limited resources and the decentralized structure of American law enforcement complicate efforts to mandate widespread training and policy changes, experts say."

Smaller police departments are the norm: Almost half of local police departments have fewer than 10 officers, and three-quarters have fewer than 24 officers. Smaller departments often find it more difficult to schedule officers for training to learn newer practices or tactics because there are so few officers on the streets to begin with, according to former Charlotte police chief Darrel Stephens. "I don’t want to denigrate them, because there’s a lot of good people doing things in the right way for the right reasons," Stephens told Berman. "But their capacity is just limited."

Another issue that hampers change is the "remarkably localized nature of American policing," Berman reports. "Policies and practices can vary significantly from department to department. These differences can include how departments approach the use of force as well as the levels of training and specialization involved." Many other developed nations have national standards for policing, but policing in the U.S. is decentralized and has no national standards, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based group that works with police departments. That fragmentation means it can take a lot longer for recommended changes in training or policies to reach smaller departments.

Tuesday, May 11 webinar to go over twice-yearly update of commodity price estimates

At 3 p.m. May 11, the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service will host a free webinar to go over the newly released Commodity Costs and Returns estimates. From the website: "Updated twice a year, these estimates are useful for informing stakeholders, including policymakers, agribusiness, and researchers, of current and historical costs and returns associated with major U.S. commodities. The estimates are also featured in numerous ERS reports and serve as the basis for research."

During the webinar, ERS economist Samantha Padilla will provide an overview of the Commodity Costs and Returns data and walk participants through accessing and using the data product. Click here for more information or to register for the webinar.