Friday, May 21, 2021

More Oregon counties vote to pursue idea of joining Idaho; it's doomed, but shows growing rural-urban political divide

Citizens for Greater Idaho map; star denotes Idaho's capital, Boise. California counties are not part of the current proposal.
Counties on board, sort of (Wikipedia base map)
Voters in seven rural counties in Oregon have approved ballot measures more or less endorsing the idea that they become part of Idaho. Five voted for it Tuesday, following two that had voted earlier. The notion is almost certain to remain a fantasy, since Congress and the states' legislatures would have to agree to it, but it's another illustration of the growing rural-urban divide in American politics, and backers of the idea are already talking about second phase, to take in some Northern California counties.

"This election proves that rural Oregon wants out of Oregon," said Citizens for Greater Idaho President Mike McCarter. "If we're allowed to vote for which government officials we want, we should be allowed to vote for which government we want."

"Supporters of the plan say extending Idaho's western boundary far into Oregon would benefit people and lawmakers in both states. They say people in rural Oregon have values and economies that more closely align with those in Idaho," reports Bill Chappell of NPR. "The ballot initiatives that were endorsed this week stop short of demanding an immediate departure from Oregon. Voters in Sherman County and Grant County, for instance, backed measures that urge officials to discuss the idea of relocating the border and to promote the plan if it's in the counties' best interests."

Voters in Malheur County were asked: "Shall the County Court meet three times annually to discuss promoting Malheur County's interests regarding relocation of the Oregon-Idaho Border?" The vote in favor was 3,050 to 2,572, the weakest of this week's five counties. Malheur County shares most of Oregon's border with Idaho and is near its capital, Boise, but has a fresh tie to the rest of Oregon: "The county recently saw a spike in tax receipts from the $10 million of cannabis sold there each month," Chappell notes. "Cannabis is legal in Oregon but not in Idaho." 

Senate's bipartisan postal-reform bill mirrors the House's, increasing likelihood that Congress will pass it this year

The Senate now has its own version of a bipartisan postal reform bill, identical to the one recently approved by a House committee, making more likely that Congress will pass the measure this year. The bill, S. 1720, was introduced by Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chair Gary Peters of Michigan, ranking Republican Rob Portman of Ohio and 18 other co-sponsors.

The bill "would provide financial relief to the U.S. Postal Service by reforming retiree health-benefit funds and also set up new public-reporting requirements on mail-service on-time delivery," the National Newspaper Association said in a press release. "For the first time in a decade, we have a realistic hope of support from Congress for universal mail delivery," said NNA Chair Brett Wesner, president of Wesner Publications in Cordell, Okla. 

The bill continues a guarantee of six-day mail delivery and an NNA-lobbied provision that would let newspapers to increase the use of sample copies to recruit new readers and reach all households in their home counties. The new limit would be 50 percent of a paper's annual home-county circulation; the current limit, in place for more than 100 years, is 10 percent.

"For community newspapers, the opportunity to regain subscribers that we have lost through service disruptions over the past few years will be a welcome indicator from the Postal Service and Congress that newspapers in the mail are important to American civic life and literacy," Wesner said.

Neither bill would limit postal rate increases, and that worries community newspapers and other large mailers because the Postal Regulatory Commission recently gave the Postal Service authority to raise rates substantially.

“We hope that reform of the onerous employee benefits obligations will remove a substantial amount of the pressure on postal finances,” Wesner said. “One aspect of the anticipated postage increases was to cover retiree health costs. Once Congress comes up with a more rational payment system for those costs, we expect both USPS and the PRC to recognize a need to dial back the plans for big postage increases.”

Sheriffs who obtained military equipment have been more likely to be re-elected, researchers find

"Sheriffs in counties that get more military surplus equipment from a federal program have a better chance of getting reelected than sheriffs whose counties get less equipment, or less lethal equipment, from the same program," researchers report in The Conversation, a site for journalism by academic researchers. "Sheriffs are often reelected with large margins. But our analysis found that in close elections, the amount of military equipment received by a county may have made the difference in who won."

The study shows that received Defense Department equipment, in ranges of amounts, from 1990 to 2015. "We found that military transfers increase the sheriff’s reelection likelihood," the researchers write. "For instance, transferring equipment of total value of $188,579 to a county that actually received no equipment made it, statistically, 8% more likely that the sheriff would be re-elected." The research found no significant difference based on the size of a county's population.

The researchers used several statistical methods to control for other factors, and concluded, "The results on the role of equipment on re-election outcome is statistically and economically significant." One factor they did not address, and which would be difficult to measure, is the possibility that sheriffs who are enterprising and ambitious enough to get military equipment also have enterprise and ambition that makes them successful politicians. 

The research was done by three British academics: Christos Mavridis of Middlesex University, Maurizio Zanardi of the University of Surrey and Orestis Troumpounis of the University of Padua in Italy and Lancaster University.

Study finds no real difference in outcomes of rural residents' colon-cancer surgeries at rural and urban hospitals

Colon-cancer patients who are concerned that their rural hospital won't be as good for surgery as an urban hospital can take some reassurance from a recent study of Medicare data that found no difference in the outcomes of colon-cancer surgery for rural residents at rural and non-rural hospitals.

"Given that colon cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosis in the United States and colon resection is considered an intermediate risk surgery, identifying whether it can be safely performed in rural settings is a priority for both health care providers and policymakers," the researchers write in The Journal of Rural Health. "Many patients who live in rural settings may prefer to have surgery performed locally if operative mortality is equivalent at rural and nonrural hospitals. In turn, data from the current study strongly suggest that safe and affordable care can be delivered at rural hospitals for patients in need of colectomy for colon cancer. . . . While complex surgical procedures are best performed at high-volume centers, some investigators have suggested that more common low-risk operations can be performed in rural communities with comparable outcomes as high-volume urban centers."

The study designated as "rural" counties that are in the top three categories of the Department of Agriculture's nine-step index of rurality. It looked for post-operative complications in 3,937 surgeries, ranging from infection to death within 30 days of the surgery. It found that the risk-adjusted probability of a post-operative complication was 16.3% at a rural hospital and 15.4% at a non-rural hospital. The risk of death was 3.5% in rural hospitals and 2.9% in non-rural hospitals. The differences are not statistically significant.

Covid-19 vaccination gaps mainly in South and rural areas; health experts say that leaves room for variants to develop

Washington Post map shows vaccination rates; to enlarge, click on it.
A month after every American adult became eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine, "a distinct geographic pattern has emerged," The Associated Press reports. "The highest vaccination rates are concentrated in the Northeast, while the lowest ones are mostly in the South. "The divides aren’t just limited to states — there are marked differences between urban and rural places, from county to county and from one neighborhood to another."

The disparities are even more glaring when looking at individual places around the U.S.," Collin Binkley, Jay Reeves and John Seewer report. "Vermont has four counties where 75% of the residents have had at least one dose, while there are 11 Mississippi counties with under 25% vaccinated. . . . Experts say the gap reflects a multitude of factors, including political leanings, religious beliefs, and education and income levels."

The gaps leave openings for the virus, and mutated variants that could be more contagious or deadly, experts say. “Low vaccination rates will leave room for the virus to circulate, re-emerge and possibly form new variants,” Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told AP. “High vaccination rates are critical to keeping the disease under control, especially when we get back to the fall and winter.”

The story notes a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 39% of adults in rural counties had received at least one dose of vaccine, compared with 46% in urban counties as of April 10.

Looking at the racial divide between Black Lives Matter activists and officials in Alamance County, North Carolina

A Confederate monument stands in front of the Alamance County Courthouse in Graham, N.C., on June 29, 2020. Nearby in 1870, the Ku Klux Klan lynched the town's first African-American official. (Photo by Julia Wall, Raleigh News & Observer)
After George Floyd’s death, movements for racial justice arose in places large and small, including North Carolina’s Alamance County, population 150,000, between Greensboro and Durham. "As the 2020 presidential election approached, Black community activists were stymied by law enforcement and targeted by pro-Confederate vigilantes," the Raleigh News and Observer reports. "On the last day of early voting, police used riot enforcement tactics on a crowd that included community elders and children as Confederates watched. Over the past year, dozens of Black Lives Matter activists were sent to jail. Many of the charges were later dropped or dismissed."

The News and Observer, with the help of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, has produced "Sound of Judgment," a video-enhanced report on the movement. Read and watch it here.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Rural electric cooperatives, long dependent on coal, move toward renewable energy: first to wind, and now to solar

National Rural Electric Cooperative Assn. graph shows solar use at co-ops that generate electricity.

Rural electric cooperatives have been relatively slow to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, but they are catching up. They have embraced wind for some time; now a March report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association shows solar is projected to be part of the mix next year at more than half of the co-ops that generate electricity for customer-member cooperatives. The solar share is less at those distribution co-ops (see graph below).

One example of a generating co-op that is gradually embracing solar is Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in central Virginia, written up by Elizabeth McGowan of Energy News Network.

Old Dominion "has 30 megawatts of operating solar, another 135 MW on the way soon, and a pending proposal to add up to another 400 MW in the next four years. That could add up to a tenfold leap, or beyond, by 2025," McGowan reports. Nationally, co-ops had 1,349 MW of solar in their retail fuel mix, NRECA's Dan Riedinger told The Rural Blog.

The Virginia co-op is a national leader in use of renewable energy. "Earlier this year, it became the second generation and transmission co-op nationwide to set a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Since 2005, the co-op has almost halved emissions of heat-trapping gases."

Old Dominion's attitude toward solar has changed due to "tumbling prices, forceful prodding from their distribution brethren, and progressive top leadership," McGowan writes. "For years, solar advocates and utility watchdogs have called out co-ops as laggards on the energy transition front. Critics say co-ops’ three main shortcomings are being too coal-dependent; hamstrung by fossil-fuel-reliant, long-term contracts that can stretch for decades; and failing to deliver on the promise of democracy at the foundation of their governance model because so few members vote for boards."

Oklahoma Electric Cooperative solar farm (OEC photo)
Several other co-ops have built, are building, or have applied for permission from state regulators to build, solar farms. The change is encouraging to John Farrell, who runs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and co-authored a 2016 report on what stymied co-ops and offered solutions. “I’ve definitely seen a shift,” Farrell told McGowan. “It’s a fascinating dynamic because when co-ops decide to move, they can do it really quickly, much faster than an investor-owned utility.”

Farrell said the biggest factor is plummeting prices for solar generation, McGowan writes, "but equally important is peeling back the myth perpetrated by utilities that upping renewables in the fuel mix would interfere with grid reliability."

In some cases co-ops are following state mandates to increase renewable energy sources. They have done that mostly through wind power. NRECA says 19 percent of its member co-ops' retail electricity came from renewables in 2019, the latest year for which figures are available. It didn't have a solar percentage handy, but stay tuned. 

NRECA graph shows solar use at cooperatives that distribute electricity from a generating co-op or other source.

Charts illustrate growing rural-urban political divide

Chart by Robert Cushing, based on Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and data from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Census Bureau (from The Daily Yonder)

A series of charts illustrate how America's growing political divide is rooted in geography. Rural and urban votes have differed for more than a century, a trend that has accelerated since the 1970s, Robert Cushing reports for The Daily Yonder. Cushing is a retired sociology professor at the University of Texas Austin and coauthored, with the Yonder's Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.

"Since the mid-1970s larger cities and their suburbs have grown steadily more Democratic. Meanwhile smaller cities, exurbs, suburbs of medium-sized metros and rural areas have grown steadily more Republican," Cushing reports. The trend has been "alive and well" for nearly 50 years, and shows no sign of slowing. He notes that the divide is not only one of politics, but also "a divide by ways of life."

Click here for more charts and analysis from Cushing on the phenomenon.

Rural women at higher risk of birth complications, death; toolkit can help rural areas plan maternal-health programs

Rural residents are at a higher risk of death during pregnancy or within a year after birth from pregnancy-related causes, according to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. reviewed by the Government Accountability Office. The data covers 2011 to 2016, the most recent data available at the time of the review.

 Overall, pregnancy-related deaths in the U.S. increased about 3% from 2000 to 2015, the GAO reports, and rural women face increased risks.

The pregnancy-related mortality rate in the largest metropolitan counties during that time was 14.6 per 100,00 live births. That's compared to 16.2 in medium and small metro counties, 19.8 in micropolitan counties, and 23.8 in noncore counties, the most rural. Black women were more likely to die or suffer health complications than women of other ethnicities, across population size. Much of this is due to lack of obstetric and prenatal services.

In related news, the Rural Health Information Hub has launched a Rural Maternal Health Toolkit meant to help rural communities learn how to plan, create and fund maternal-health programs. Read more here

Covid roundup: J&J delivery pause hurt vaccine confidence

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

Many rural residents don't want to get the coronavirus vaccine. A health expert with rural roots offers his perspective on why the phenomenon persists, why it's important for people to get their shots, and how to convince more to do it. Read more here.

The pause in use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine did hurt overall vaccine acceptance, a poll found. Now shipments of the vaccine have been suspended for a second week due to production problems. Read more here

The federal government has an Office of Rural Health, but Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi wants one in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read more here.

The fact that kids can't be vaccinated complicates the new masks-off guidance. Read more here.

Only 12 people are behind most vaccine hoaxes on social media, research shows. Read more here.

Here's a profile of Hamilton, N.Y., a tiny, rural county with one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation. Read more here.

Heads up on some pandemic reporting resources: The Agriculture Department maintains and regularly updates pages with data on the pandemic's effect on the meatpacking industry and rural America in general.

Fears of hog lagoon flooding in N.C. raise question of who should fund industry efforts to adapt to climate change

Hogs on a flooded farm crowd on a North Carolina barn roof after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. (Reuters photo)

This year's hurricane season is predicted to be stronger than usual. That has some North Carolina residents and organizations worried that storms will again overwhelm hog lagoons and flood communities with waste. That, in turn, invites consideration of a larger issue: who should fund efforts to keep industry from harming communities because of climate change-fueled disasters.

North Carolina has the most poultry farms and the second most hog farms of any state, and the concentration of such operations on the coastal plain makes them uniquely vulnerable to storm damage, Cameron Oglesby reports for Environmental Health News. Animal waste is stored in open lagoons, and contains harmful bacteria like E. coli or salmonella. When lagoons are flooded, the bacteria can get into local waterways and contaminate groundwater. In 2018, more than 100 lagoons were damaged or flooded by Hurricane Florence, and some state officials and environmental advocates told Oglesby they worried the hog industry has not adequately prepared for future storms since then.

Roy Lee Lindsey, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Producers Council, told Oglesby their lagoons are not outdated, and that the industry has participated in a voluntary state program that buys out hog farms in floodplains, leading to the permanent closure of 43 farms and about 103 waste lagoons since 2000. More hog farmers would participate if the state better funded it, he said.

After Florence, the legislature allocated $5 million to expand the program, Oglesby reports. Will Hendrick, environmental justice advocate for the North Carolina Conservation Network and staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance's Pure Farms program, questioned whether taxpayers should fund buyouts and pollution mitigation instead of imposing and enforcing stricter regulations.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

CDC urges providers to open coronavirus vaccine vials even if doses will go to waste; it's a boon for rural areas

"Now that the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine has been approved for adolescents, hundreds of thousands of parents likely are searching for a place to get their kids vaccinated. Many are expected to call their pediatricians only to find they don’t have vaccines in stock, partly because doctors have been worried about wasting doses," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. "But new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to persuade more doctors to stock the vaccine by assuring them that wasting some doses is an acceptable price to pay for inoculating their patients as quickly as possible. The guidance on vaccine waste is a major policy shift for the agency."

The news is good for rural areas, where physicians in small practices may not have enough patients during a day to use up the doses in a vial before its post-opening shelf life expires.

"Most state and local health departments say they’re preparing to shift more vaccines away from large venues such as hospitals and mass vaccination sites, where demand has plummeted, to the pediatricians and other doctors it’s expected many Americans will contact this week to get Covid-19 shots for their teens and preteens," Vestal reports. "But if pediatric practices and other doctor’s offices aren’t already giving their patients shots, it may take some time for them to gear up. . . . That’s why many state and local health agencies are relying on existing vaccine venues such as pharmacies and schools that already are vaccinating older children and adults."

Changing consumer preferences will further disrupt markets for farm products, agricultural economists write

The recent chicken shortage, spurred by pandemic shortages and consumer demand, makes two farm economists wonder whether the "high prices will cure high prices," as happens in grain markets. 

"But there are significant differences," Harwood Schaffer and Daryll Ray of the University of Tennessee's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column. "In the case of grain markets, farmers have little pricing power because a large number of producers face a relatively small number of buyers. As farmers respond to high grain prices by producing more, prices fall quickly. But with low prices farmers seek to maintain or increase production levels in hopes of reducing their per unit cost of production. In the chicken industry, the landscape looks quite different. On the supply side, a handful of very large firms control a significant portion of total production and on the demand side a relatively small number of firms account for a large percentage of wholesale poultry purchases, giving them a countervailing pricing-power that independent grain farmers lack."

Chicken has become more popular than beef over the past 50 years because of a "healthier" reputation and lower cost. Plant-based "meats" are now gaining market share. Rising concerns about animal welfare and the environment will increasingly drive protein sourcing decisions in the U.S., Schaffer and Harwood write: "Farmers who factor health, environmental, and animal welfare concerns into their production decisions are more likely to maintain their markets than those who don’t. We already see that happening in egg and milk markets. Consumers will pay double or more for products that address their health and ethical concerns."

Farmers' share of consumer food expenditures is shrinking

"A decade ago, farmers received 17.6 cents of each $1 spent on food by Americans. Their share now is barely above 14¢ while processors, retailers, and others in the food chain take a larger share, according to Agriculture Department economists, who have tracked the farmer/marketer relationship for a quarter century," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network. "Their 'food dollar series' says the farmer’s share of the food dollar has averaged 16.4¢ over the long term and the marketing share has averaged 83.6¢. The farm share is highest during periods of strong commodity prices and lower when commodity prices weaken. The share fell below 15¢ in 2016 and was 14.3¢ in 2019, the most recent year in the database."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently noted the trend on social media, saying "Now is the time to transform our food system to create a fairer, more transparent system, so at the end of the day more of that dollar ends up in a farmer’s pocket."

Hundreds of forgivable loans from last year's Paycheck Protection Program went to fake farms, ProPublica finds

The Paycheck Protection Program is meant to help small businesses and employees hurt by the pandemic, but the program has been criticized for emphasizing loans to large businesses at the expense of smaller and rural businesses. Now ProPublica has found that nearly 400 PPP loans worth $7 million were given last summer to fake companies, mostly farms.

"All of these loans to nonexistent businesses came through Kabbage, an online lending platform that processed nearly 300,000 PPP loans before the first round of funds ran out in August 2020, second only to Bank of America," Lydia DePillis and Derek Willis report. "ProPublica found 378 small loans totaling $7 million to fake business entities, all of which were structured as single-person operations and received close to the largest loan for which such micro-businesses were eligible. The overwhelming majority of them are categorized as farms, even in the unlikeliest of locales, from potato fields in Palm Beach to orange groves in Minnesota."

The Kabbage loans are only part of "a sprawling fraud problem that has suffused the Paycheck Protection Program from its creation in March 2020 as an attempt to keep small businesses on life support while they were forced to shut down. With speed as its strongest imperative, the effort run by the federal Small Business Administration initially lacked even the most basic safeguards to prevent opportunists from submitting fabricated documentation, government watchdogs have said," DePillis and Willis report. "While that may have allowed millions of businesses to keep their doors open, it has also required a massive cleanup operation on the backend. The SBA’s inspector general estimated in January that the agency approved loans for 55,000 potentially ineligible businesses, and that 43,000 obtained more money than their reported payrolls would justify. The Department of Justice, relying on special agents from across the government to investigate, has brought charges against hundreds of individuals accused of gaming pandemic response programs."

New rural coronavirus infections at lowest level since July; see maps with county-level data on infections, vaccinations

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, May 9-15
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New rural coronavirus infections last week totaled 31,683, the lowest level since last July and a 16 percent fall from the week before. The 613 new rural Covid-related deaths reported May 9-15 represented a more than 9% drop from the 677 deaths reported the week before.

"New infections and deaths in both rural and urban counties have been falling since the start of 2021," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Current levels of new infections and deaths in rural areas are about 90% lower now than during the peak of the winter surge in mid-January, when a one-week period saw 232,000 new cases and 4,100 deaths."

Click here for more data, charts and analysis from the Yonder, including regional analysis and an interactive map with county-level data. The Yonder also has data charts and an interactive county-level map illustrating data trends from the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report comparing rural and urban vaccination rates.
Rural/urban vaccination rates compared to national average of 34.4%, May 16
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version


Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Wild horses adopted under U.S. program being slaughtered

Population numbers for wild horses and burros are out of control in the West. But popular sentiment against culling the animals has led the federal government to pursue other options, such as paying people to give the horses adoptive homes. But records show that some people who were paid $1,000 a head to adopt the horses are sending them to slaughterhouses once they get the money.

"The Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of caring for the nation’s wild horses, created the $1,000-a-head Adoption Incentive Program in 2019 because it wanted to move a huge surplus of mustangs and burros out of government corrals and find them 'good homes.' Thousands of first-time adopters signed up, and the bureau hailed the program as a success," Dave Philipps reports for The New York Times. "But records show that instead of going to good homes, truckloads of horses were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as their adopters got the federal money. A program intended to protect wild horses was instead subsidizing their path to destruction." 

A BLM spokesperson denied allegations that the practice is allowed, and noted that all adopters must sign affidavits promising not to resell horses to slaughterhouses or their middlemen. But the spokesperson also acknowledged the bureau has no authority to enforce such agreements or track violators.

Story on ills of Brood X cicadas is a reminder that science writing can be fun — and possibly bring more readers

Brood X cicada in 2004; photo by Gene Kritsky, professor at Cincinnati's
Mount St. Joseph University, via the Evansville Courier and Press
A recent article about a fungal infection suffered by some cicadas serves as a reminder that science writing can be fun as well as informative. The writing is a delight:

"This month, as billions of Brood X cicadas emerge from the dirt in Indiana and more than a dozen other states for the first time in 17 years, some of the bugs will suffer a horrific, science-fiction-like fate. There’s no delicate way to do this, so here’s the gist all at once," Jon Webb reports for the Evansville Courier & Press in Indiana. "A fungus laced with the same chemical as psychedelic mushrooms will invade their bodies and eat away their insides until their abdomens crack, fall off and get replaced with a ball of white spores. Because they’re either bombed on psilocybin or under the control of the fungus in some other way, the cicadas won’t even notice. With missing butts and full hearts, they’ll forge ahead with their only reason for existing: finding a mate and reproducing."

Webb continues in this vein for the rest of the story, aided by vibrant quotes from cicada expert John Lill such as one calling the infection a "gender-bending, death-zombie fungus."

The story isn't exactly viral (cough), but an extremely unscientific survey of Facebook found dozens of shares of the story, possibly more than other stories from the Courier & Press. It's a good reminder that well-written content can bring in more readers—certainly a boon for newsrooms any time.

Some Republicans and experts on left and right say plan for free community college needs coupling with reforms

Critics are pushing back against President Biden's $256 billion plan for free community college, questioning whether it will increase access to higher education and asking where the funding will come from. "His proposal—unveiled in April as part of his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan—would waive tuition for two years of public community college," Josh Mitchell reports for The Wall Street Journal. "It would also provide many students more cash to cover living expenses that often deter students from lower-income families from attending."

The Biden administration says increasing funding for community college "will lead to more Americans enrolling, gaining skills and landing well-paying jobs, in turn boosting incomes and the U.S.’s economic competitiveness. By shifting education costs to taxpayers, supporters say, the plan would ease reliance on student debt, which has soared in recent years," Mitchell reports. "Republicans and some academics on both the left and right say that community college is already inexpensive and making it free wouldn’t sufficiently address deep-seated problems with the system: high dropout rates and entering students being unprepared for college-level work."

The U.S. spent $632 billion on colleges and universities in the 2018-19 school year, more than any other developed nation per student and in total. But high dropout rates among community-college students have more to do with being unable to handle the courses, not a lack of money, said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at left-leaning think tank the Urban Institute

Community-college enrollment in rural areas has plummeted since the pandemic began because of financial barriers and because of difficulties with non-course-related issues such as lack of childcare, according to a recently published study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

CDC report shows rural-urban coronavirus vaccination gap

A report today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows how much lower coronavirus vaccination rates were in rural counties than in urban ones through early April. The disparities crossed gender and age groups, and went hand-in-hand with increased rural infection rates. In September, the report notes, coronavirus incidence in rural counties surpassed urban counties.

Through April 10, 38.9 percent of people in non-metropolitan counties had received a first dose of vaccine, compared to 45.7% in metro counties. Non-metro counties saw 29% coverage among adults 18-64, compared to 38% in urban counties. Gender disparities persisted as well: 41.7% of rural women were covered, compared to 48.4% of urban women. Men, especially in rural areas, were some of the least likely to be vaccinated, with 35.3% of rural men covered compared to 41.9% of urban men.

Some very rural residents had to travel to another county for a shot; 14.6% of the residents in the most rural counties reported traveling to a nonadjacent county, compared to 10.3% of the most urban counties and 13.9% of suburban residents. Overall, 67.1% of vaccinated people got a jab in their county of residence, and 98.3% got it in their state of residence.

The lower vaccination rates are concerning because rural residents are at a higher risk of suffering poor outcomes, including death, from Covid-19, says the report. It acknowledges the problems rural residents often face in seeking medical care, such as lack of transportation, and recommends that public-health practitioners collaborate with health-care providers, pharmacies, employers, faith leaders, and other community partners to identify and address barriers to vaccination in rural areas. A persistent rural vaccination gap could prolong the pandemic, says the report.

High lumber prices lead to tree poaching in Canada and do-it-yourself sawmills in Alaska

Sky-high lumber prices during the pandemic have prompted creative responses — some of them illegal — among would-be builders. It may be happening in your area too.

The high prices have led some Alaskans to buy or build their own sawmills, Emily Schwing reports for Alaska Public Media. And on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, officials say at least 100 trees have been illegally cut down, Leyland Cecco reports for The Guardian in a story supported by the Society for Environmental Journalists.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Biden infrastructure plan and pandemic concerns bring more attention, possible solutions, to rural broadband gap

"Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is restricting their economic growth," Ben Casselman reports for The New York Times. "But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, at the same time that President Biden’s infrastructure plan — which includes $100 billion to improve broadband access — has raised hope that the problem might finally be addressed."

Though many have criticized Biden for trying to expand the scope of infrastructure investment to child care, health care, and other areas beyond the traditional roads-and-bridges definition, "ensuring internet access is broadly popular," Casselman reports. "In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62% of Republicans. Businesses, too, have consistently supported broadband investment. Major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have all released policy recommendations in the last year calling for federal spending to help close the 'digital divide.'"

However, it's difficult to calculate the size of the digital divide and what it would cost to bridge because there isn't a widely agreed-upon definition for broadband. "The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 mbps. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 mbps," Casselman reports. "And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server." Further complicating the problem, it's unclear which rural areas lack broadband service because the FCC relies on faulty maps containing data self-submitted by telecommunications companies. 

"Regardless of definition, analyses consistently find that millions of Americans lack access to reliable high-speed internet access and that rural areas are particularly poorly served," Casselman reports. "A recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group whose data is widely cited, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot buy broadband internet service, most of them in rural areas."

Rural community leaders trying to attract younger workers say the lack of broadband makes such campaigns difficult. Marion County, near Des Moines, Iowa, is one such area. "Our ability to diversify our economic base is dependent on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband," Mark Raymie, chairman of the county board of supervisors, told Casselman. "We can say, 'Come and work here.' But if we don’t have modern amenities, modern infrastructure, that sales pitch falls flat."

Jury awards rural Virginia couple $430,000 for land taken by Mountain Valley Pipeline; could invite similar lawsuits

On Friday a jury determined that Mountain Valley Pipeline developers under-compensated a rural Virginia couple for land seized through eminent domain, and ordered the company to pay them $430,000.

James and Kathy Chandler didn't want to sell the 8.6-acre swath of land, half a mile long and 125 feet wide, which passes about 500 feet from the custom-built home on their 111-acre property on Bent Mountain. But when they refused, developers forced the sale through eminent domain in 2018 and paid them $89,343, Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times in Virginia.

During the trial, the Chandlers testified about how they had spent years looking for the perfect piece of land, and called their property a "slice of heaven," Hammack reports. Though the pipeline, now under construction, will be buried, it will occupy a cleared right-of-way through the forest on their land that will always serve as a "visual reminder," James Chandler testified. "Nothing will be normal."

The five energy companies developing the pipeline struck voluntary land-purchase agreements with about 85% of the landowners along the pipeline's proposed path. "In October 2017 — about two weeks after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found there was a public need for the natural gas that will be pumped through the pipeline at high pressure — Mountain Valley sued the owners of about 300 parcels in Virginia who had refused to sell," Hammack reports. "Mountain Valley often makes lowball offers while using its eminent domain authority as leverage over landowners, according to Mark Jarrell of Protect Our Water, Heritage, Rights, an anti-pipeline coalition."

Abandoned mine cleanup in Appalachia might be twice as expensive as thought, but little federal money is left to do it

Cleaning up abandoned mine lands in Appalachia might be twice as expensive as previously thought, but there's little federal money available to do it. 

"The federal AML inventory estimates that the cost of cleaning up all abandoned mine land – land that was mined before the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act in 1977 – is $11 billion," Anya Slepyan reports for The Daily Yonder. "But a new report from the Ohio River Valley Institute shows the cost is more than double what the federal inventory previously claimed: $26 billion."

The 1977 law was the first major federal effort to regulate environmental impacts of coal mining. It "required that coal companies set aside money to pay for the restoration of all land permitted after the law’s implementation. The law also designated any land mined prior to 1977 as abandoned mine land, and set up a fund to reclaim these sites by collecting a small fee on each new ton of coal produced," Slepyan reports. "The AML fund has collected a total of $11.496 billion, of which only $2.23 billion remains." 

The new report shows that's not enough. "According to the report, of the 1.2 million acres designated as abandoned mine land, only 27% has been cleaned up since the 1970s," Slepyan reports. "The cost of reclaiming the remaining 850,000 acres is an estimated $26.3 billion, a price that will only increase if sites are left to degrade for decades more." Unreclaimed mine lands pose a significant environmental and financial threat to local communities, she writes.

CNHI's first purchase in 14 years brings fresh attention to its recent contractions; news VP Ketter says it's stronger now

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. made "its first acquisition of a newspaper in 14 years . . . after a dramatic contraction that included the closure or merger of 16 of the company’s papers since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,"  Dan DeWitt reports for the Brevard NewsBeat in western North Carolina. DeWitt competes online with The Transylvania Times of Brevard, the paper CHNI bought this month.

Transylvania County, N.C. (Wikipedia map)
"Some academic media experts see the shutterings as a troubling willingness to slash coverage by a company that previously had a strong track record of supporting local journalism," DeWitt writes. He quotes Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (publisher of The Rural Blog) as saying that CNHI's reputation as a steward of its news outlets "has gone from good to questionable" because of the recent closures; the ones in Kentucky he called a "permanent solution to a temporary problem."

CNHI is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which has caused it to be lumped in with other investment groups, but Cross told DeWitt that it differs from hedge funds and the like, because it has always been a newspaper company and is journalistically driven, as witnessed by its continued employment of Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bill Ketter as senior vice president for news. "I believe that CNHI believes, as I do, that there is no future for newspapers that don’t have quality," Cross said. "They’ve got to provide journalism that people want and journalism that people need."

University of North Carolina journalism professor Penny Abernathy, who studies news deserts and coined the phrase, has grouped CNHI with other investment-driven chains, but she told DeWitt that the company is less likely to "flip" papers and more likely to keep them to generate long-term income.

Ketter "said the contraction bolstered the company’s finances and allowed it to seek potentially profitable news outlets in attractive markets such as Transylvania County," DeWitt reports. He didn't disclose the terms of the deal but said the Transylvania Times, which has a circulation of more than 7,500, is a "strong, viable and healthy community paper" with a "very integral role in the community," and said the company feels it can do "an enormous amount of good for the paper to assure its long-term future."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to headline Rural Health Journalism Workshop, June 21-23

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be a featured speaker at the Rural Health Journalism Workshop June 21-23. Journalists attending the virtual event can submit questions before or during the live session.

The free workshop is run by the Association of Health Care Journalists. It's only open to members, but membership is $60 a year for most. Click here for more information.

During the workshop, "health journalists will find story after story during the easy-access workshop, designed to bring journalists together with health care and policy experts who focus on medical needs in rural areas and how they differ from urban needs," Jeff Porter reports for Covering Health, a publication of the AHCJ.