Saturday, June 12, 2021

Local businesses can play a big role in getting customers and neighbors vaccinated; organizations offer help

Map by Tim Murphy and Tim Marema for The Daily Yonder, adapted by The Rural Blog

"A return to regular, small-town living will require a continuous effort to get residents vaccinated for Covid-19, according to the head of the Rural America Chamber of Commerce," Adilia Watson reports for The Daily Yonder. But do employers know how crucial they are to making that happen?

“A lot of business leaders, small business owners . .. see this as a critical issue,” Sherri Powell, the Rural Chamber’s executive director, said during the recent online National Rural Business Summit, which "explored outreach tools that business leaders, public health officials, and elected officials can use to share information in rural communities about Covid-19 vaccination," Watson reports.

Employers are important sources of information for their employees, and they can cut through medical and public-health terminology to “describe what science says in an accessible way,” said Maria Elena Castro, a health equity program analyst with the Oregon Health Authority

"As part of the online summit, the National Rural Health Association released a toolkit for communicating about vaccination in rural areas," Watson notes. The Health Action Alliance, which sponsored the event, has a checklist for rural employers who want to do more to educate workers and community members about coronavirus vaccination.

Without herd immunity, estimated at 70 to 80 percent of a population, “We will never get back to normal, even as small towns,” Powell said. “We can’t gather at the local baseball team’s games, or we can’t head into summer camp. These things are just not going to happen in a safe way until we take this seriously and get the shots.”

Friday, June 11, 2021

Federal judge in Wisconsin blocks debt relief for farmers of color; says specific, intentional bias must be shown

A federal judge in Wisconsin has issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Department of Agriculture from implementing the loan-forgiveness program for farmers of color, passed as part of the latest pandemic relief bill. 

District Judge William Griesbach noted that the relief bill said Congress had determined that the minority groups eligible for the debt write-off “had suffered discrimination in the USDA programs and that had been largely left out of recent agricultural funding and pandemic relief,” but he said USDA had not shown “that the loan-forgiveness program targets a specific episode of past or present discrimination,” a key standard. He said the program also doesn't meet the case-law rule that there be evidence of intentional discrimination, and that such programs be "narrowly tailored."

Griesbach, a George W. Bush appointee, gave USDA until Friday to respond to the motion for an injunction in a lawsuit filed by farmers from 12 states including Wisconsin. They are represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, which says it favors conservatism and personal freedom.

The Rural Coalition, a liberal group, issued a statement saying in part, "No serious observer of USDA’s role in American agriculture can doubt that the Department has engaged in decades of intentional, and systematic, discrimination based on race and ethnicity. The results have been catastrophic and have completely reshaped farming by eliminating a wide swath of farmers. If ever there was a constitutional basis for taking race into account when making policy this is it. In its decision the Court appears oblivious to this history, and hostile to efforts to achieve true racial justice."

Public radio station at Ky. university wins award for public service via community journalism; first broadcasters to get it

Station's signal blankets and helps define West Kentucky.
The journalists at WKMS-FM at Murray State University are the winners of the 2021 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

“We usually think of ‘community’ as one county, town or neighborhood, but there are geographic communities, and there are communities of interest. West Kentucky is a geographic community of interest, and WKMS has the only newsroom that covers the whole region and its interests,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky (and publisher of The Rural Blog). “It does it well.”

The institute presents the award with the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Chapter President Tom Eblen, a former Lexington Herald-Leader managing editor and columnist, said “WKMS has a history of reporting important stories in its region accurately, thoroughly and without fear or favor. It is a model for courageous public-service journalism, especially at a time when citizens are looking more to public radio to fill voids left by shrinking commercial media outlets.”

The station was nominated by Constance Alexander of Murray, a columnist and playwright who is on the Institute’s advisory board. She wrote, “With a consistent record of reporting on important events and community issues -- and editorial leadership that dares to address controversial subjects and hold power accountable -- WKMS serves the informational, cultural and community needs of the region, exemplifying the values represented by the Al Smith Award.”

The station is being honored for years of work and maintaining its high quality despite getting less money from the university. It has covered its paymasters forthrightly, reporting in 2013 that a quorum of the Board of Regents discussed official business, including an extension of the president’s contract and the station’s funding, at a social gathering the night before its official meeting.

In 2018, the station revealed that a Murray High School teacher’s predatory sexual behavior had been under investigation by the Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board for five years, with no public disclosure. After two suspensions, the teacher resigned.

In 2020, WKMS reported that the Marshall County judge-executive had refused to sign a grant application for more school resource officers after a deadly school shooting, while giving two employees raises totaling nearly $30,000, the amount the county would have had to contribute for the grant if awarded.

In daily and enterprise reporting on the pandemic, WKMS has been “a beacon of information, companionship and understanding in a time when we needed it most,” Alexander wrote. But the station also continued its accountability journalism. Assistant News Director Liam Niemeyer won a regional Edward R. Murrow Award for a story about a Paducah school official who appeared in blackface for Halloween. Rather than make the school official the main focus, Niemeyer framed his story within the context of the larger experience of the Black community in Paducah, giving a richer view of the city’s racial history, and a deeper understanding of why use of blackface by a trusted public official was so hurtful. The story launched an occasional series, “Black Lives in Red States,” that is continuing at Ohio Valley ReSource, a consortium of public radio stations in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Chad Lampe
WKMS Station Manager Chad Lampe, who moved up from news director in 2015, said, "I am so incredibly proud of our newsroom and our station staff as a whole. We take an ‘audience first’ approach to all of our work and this is why we remain committed to telling stories that matter. I am particularly proud of our Murray State student journalists who we bring into our newsroom, train and mentor to produce professional news right alongside the work of our staff."

The station is an affiliate of National Public Radio. “WKMS is unique in our region as our only full-service provider of public media news,” noted Berry Craig, retired history professor at Paducah Community College. “The closest NPR affiliates to Murray are at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale – almost 114 miles north – and Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, nearly 119 miles east.”

WKMS punches above its weight by partnering with other news outlets in the region, which was once served by the Louisville Courier Journal and occasionally by papers in Tennessee and Indiana.

“WKMS has met the challenge, and then some, to report more deeply on stories about local governments, race relations, education, the environment, culture and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Hoptown Chronicle Editor-Publisher Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, a WKMS partner and a previous Smith Award winner.

The award is named for the late Albert P. Smith Jr., who published newspapers in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, was founding producer and host of KET’s “Comment on Kentucky” and federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He was the driving force to create the Institute, headed its advisory board and was its chair emeritus until his death in March at 94.

Smith was the first winner of the award. This is the first time it has gone to broadcasters or a news outlet at a university.

The award will be presented at the Al Smith Awards Dinner in Lexington Oct. 28. The dinner was not held in 2020, due to the pandemic, so 2020 winner Becky Barnes, editor of The Cynthiana Democrat, will receive her award at the dinner, too. Winners of the Institute’s national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism will also be recognized at the event.

Previous winners of the Smith Award, with their affiliations at the time, are:
2011: Al Smith
2012: Jennifer P. Brown, Kentucky New Era; and Max Heath, Landmark Community Newspapers
2013: John Nelson, Danville Advocate-Messenger
2014: Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery, The Daily Yonder
2015: Carl West, The (Frankfort) State Journal
2016: Sharon Burton, Adair County Community Voice and The Farmer’s Pride
2017: Ryan Craig, Todd County Standard, and the late Larry Craig, Green River Republican
2018: Stevie Lowery, The Lebanon Enterprise
2019: David Thompson, Kentucky Press Association
2020: Becky Barnes, The Cynthiana Democrat

Some states relax restrictions on police records as part of reform movement, but in 35 states they're still hard to get

Gateway Journalism Review graphic; click the image to enlarge it

Legal experts say transparency of police misconduct records is a key part of police reform, but such records are either secret or hard to access in 35 states and Washington, D.C. Law enforcement agencies "claim they are personnel matters, privacy violations, or ongoing investigations that could be compromised," Kallie Cox and William Freivogel report for Gateway Journalism Review in the St. Louis area. "They are backed by strong law enforcement unions and the law enforcement bills of rights that protect the privacy rights of officers over the public’s right to know."

Change is coming, but slowly. "Seven big states have opened records in recent years: California, New York, Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon and Maryland. Now 15 states have laws that allow these records to be mostly available to the public, up from 12 a few years ago," Cox and Freivogel report.

Many of those new open-records laws are recent, "the result of a combination of court decisions and reform laws passed since the murder of George Floyd. New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon and Maryland enacted laws in the past year opening records that were previously closed. California passed a law opening some records in 2018," Cox and Freivogel report.

But barriers to accountability are still a problem in many states, even some that have passed some open-records laws. For example, "in Illinois, a widely touted police reform law passed this year included a provision that closed the state Professional Conduct Database of officers who resigned, were fired or were suspended for violating department policy. Not only are the names withheld but also the supporting documents. To get statewide records, a person would have to contact each of the almost 900 police departments and request these misconduct records individually," Cox and Freivogel report. And in Pennsylvania, "Gov. Tom Wolf signed a bill into law in 2020 that created a database to track police misconduct statewide and force agencies to check the database before hiring an officer. But the legislature closed the database to the public."

Click here for more examples of states' open-records laws and discussion of how less-accessible states make it hard for journalists to get records. The story is part of a project on police accountability funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Children on farms pick up risky behaviors from parents, Canadian study confirms; U.S. experts say it applies here

Farm kids learn how to farm from their parents, grandparents and sometimes even great-grandparents. They may also learn risky behaviors that get passed from generation to generation, according to a Canadian study that U.S. researchers say applies south of the border.

The study in the Journal of Rural Health surveyed farmers Saskatchewan farmers. It concluded, "Occupational health and safety risks and protections experienced on farms appear to be transferred between generations. This suggests the need to target farm owner-operators, the responsible authority on the farm, as a focus of primary prevention strategies aimed at injury risks to children and young workers."

The researchers at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Alberta wrote, "Family farms provide an opportunity to pass down traditions of hard work, valuable occupational skills and abilities, and family values. Some of these traditions, however, can have a negative side with respect to rural health. There is a quiet epidemic of traumatic farm injuries that are disproportionately experienced by farm children, which may be related to cultures of safety and risk-taking that are also passed down through generations."

Two leading farm-safety researchers in the U.S. told The Rural Blog that the study is valuable.

“This inquiry into the intergenerational aspects of farming practices is critical in broadening and deepening our understanding of how the social-cultural aspects of risk impact current and future generations of farmers,” said Casper Bendixsen, director of the National Farm Medicine Center at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Marshfield, Wis. “While the study is based on Canadian farmers, the findings resonate with me as a U.S. researcher and as the son of farming and ranching. It also grounds what is theoretical, and sometimes mythical, into concrete, quantitative findings.”

Dennis J. Murphy, Nationwide Insurance Professor emeritus of agricultural safety and health at 
Penn State, wrote, “This research is innovative and very applicable to farm and ranch operations in the United States. I think agricultural safety and health researchers and educators have always thought along these lines but there is little, if any, direct research that supports these notions. Their suggestion that injury prevention strategies for the protection of children and young workers should target the responsible authority on the farm or ranch is certainly applicable throughout the U.S.”

Democratic senators file bill to forgive up to $250,000 in USDA debt owed by farmers with incomes under $300,000

Resentment of the debt-relief measure for Black farmers could spur a new proposal by five Democratic senators that would forgive up to $250,000 in debts small farmers owe the federal government. The prime sponsor, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who had a similar bill last year, "said she would try to include debt relief in the upcoming infrastructure bill," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming

"The proposal comes three months after Congress approved $4 billion to pay off money owed by socially disadvantaged farmers" to the Department of Agriculture or to banks with USDA loan guarantees," Abbott notes. "One of the cosponsors of the new debt relief bill, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, was a leader in the push for loan forgiveness for minority farmers. Some white farmers have filed suit against that program, saying it is unconstitutional." Other sponsors are Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

About 40,000 farmers with USDA debt would meet the bill's criteria of an average adjusted gross income under $300,000, Abbott reports: "If all got the maximum relief of $250,000, the program would cost $10 billion. The debt relief would be nontaxable. Farmers would have one year to apply for forgiveness and would be obliged to stay in agriculture for two years if they receive relief."

Quick hits: dumpster program can help stymie CWD; ND farmer goes viral for helping fawns cross the street...

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

USDA spending nearly doubled during the pandemic. Read more here.

A Kentucky opinion columnist speculates on why conservatives should value critical race theory. Read more here.

In a House subcommittee hearing on climate change, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, asked if the National Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management could change the orbits of the moon and Earth to mitigate climate change. The question was an apparent attempt to peg climate change as a natural phenomenon, rather than one caused by human activity. CNN has a good fact-check on the notion. This book might also serve as a good resource for Rep. Gohmert.

A New York Times reporter reflects on how his recent piece about a mostly-rural Wisconsin county's debate over a diversity and inclusion ordinance caused more local strife. Read more here.

A rural North Dakota farmer has gone viral on TikTok for helping newborn fawns cross the road. Read more here.

The emergence of the Brood X cicadas has spawned a weird spate of articles about eating them. Here's one that advises air-frying them to make them less "gushy." Read more here.

The loss of a family member changes the dynamics on a farm. Read more here.

A dumpster program gives rural hunters a way to help fight the spread of chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. Read more here.

An innovative program, fueled by federal money and local ingenuity, is bringing broadband internet to a rural Black community in South Carolina. Read more here.

The Journalist's Resource has an updated primer for journalists to make sure they get the facts and terminology correct when covering guns and other firearms. Read more here.

Politicians getting more free rides from local news media with 'news' that's not news and often calls for reporting

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

Local news media need to be more careful about running press releases from politicians, says Jim Pumarlo, former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, who does training for community newsroom and writes a regular column to help them.

Jim's latest column starts out by noting an unnamed Minnesota congressman who called the American Rescue Plan Act bloated and wasteful but "took credit for the millions of dollars allocated for local projects courtesy of the $1.9 trillion economic relief package. . . . The lawmaker staunchly defended both his vote and taking credit for the local funding. He was a longstanding advocate for the projects, but opposed the federal plan as full of spending unrelated to Covid-19."

This isn't the first such episode, but "Most incumbents can get by with having it both ways without constituents playing close attention," Jim writes. And in an email, he said, "I see a lot more press releases and other column submissions on a variety of fronts being published verbatim – no attempt whatsoever to edit."

Jim and I agree that politicians deserve to take credit for policies and funding that help their constituents, but reporters and editors need to judge their press releases, editorial columns and other public statements by a basic standard: Is it newsworthy or thought-provoking? In other words, does it tell us something we didn’t know? Are facts on a topic presented in a different way than we have been doing it, offering useful perspective? Or is the officeholder expressing a view he or she has not previously expressed?

To his object example, Jim writes, "Funding for local projects delivered by the federal relief bill is news. The reports may well warrant mention of a local member of Congress, but it’s highly questionable whether that is the story lead. A quote is likely sufficient coverage unless there are extenuating circumstances."

The episode "draws attention to the broader issue of when to acknowledge a connection between the 'whom' and 'what' in everyday reporting," Jim writes. "There is no universal right or wrong, but decisions demand consistency. Newsrooms should develop general guidelines, keeping in mind that all circumstances must be reviewed on their individual merits."

Jim is author of Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage, Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage and Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers. He can be reached at and welcomes comments and questions at

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Twice in three weeks, W.Va. weekly warns it's in trouble

The Examiner's June 2 front page
The latest newspaper to (purposely) print a front page without any news is the Moorefield Examiner of Hardy County, West Virginia. Or maybe there was news: about itself. Last week's edition was the second in three weeks to warn the county's 14,000 residents that the weekly is at risk.

In a long editorial column on May 19, headlined "You'll miss us," Publisher Hannah Heishman said that reading social-media discussion about a local controversy made her realize that "People in Hardy County do not realize the newspaper is a valid, formal source of information." After a bit of a primer about the civic role of newspapers ("helping keep your government honest by ensuring you know what they're doing"), the virtues of local ownership ("zero reason not to tell the truth about what we see and hear"), and debunking various myths about journalism, Heishman gave readers the bottom line: "Fewer people read the paper, so fewer people advertise; less money comes in; I can't pay staff, postage or printing, so the paper gets smaller, and the cycle repeats until we close. Once we close, there is no one behind us. No one. No local or county government coverage. . . . No youth or school sports. No Hardy-specific obituaries." Papers in other counties "can't afford to cover us any more than we can afford to cover them."

Hardy County (Wikipedia map)
Ending her bit of a rant, Heishman wrote: "Here's the thing: We can't make you care. We can't make you decide to read a local newspaper, so you really know what's actually happening in your community . . . We cover things so you don't have to attend every government meeting, to save you time and protect you from rumors, actual lies and the he said, she said -- and you still won't engage until it's too late, and then you insult us with half-assed excuses about how the paper is worthless trash and you 'don't read that junk,' while blaming us: 'Why didn't you tell us?' We did. You didn't care; didn't believe us; weren't paying attention. You'll miss us when we're gone."

Explaining the June 2 edition, Heishman wrote, "Front-page stories are elsewhere in the paper and there will be a paper next week. If we all don’t start caring and enabling local news, though, the future is grim, and not far off — not just in Moorefield, but for any locally owned, community newspaper." After the paper came out, she told Don Smith of the West Virginia Press Association, “We are taken for granted. . . . We made them think about it today. We have gotten calls and emails about the newspaper, about subscribing and advertising. They care today, but how will they feel in six weeks?”

Bill to expand background checks for gun purchases stalls, more on the overall politics of gun control than any policy

UPDATE, June 10: Sen. John Cornyn of Texas has dropped out of negotiations, reducing chances that there will be an agreement, Laura Litvan reports for Bloomberg.

"Senators said they are struggling to find a bipartisan agreement on expanding background checks for gun sales after weeks of talks, with many Republicans wary of backing new efforts to regulate firearms," Kristina Peterson reports for The Wall Street Journal. "A handful of Senate Democrats and Republicans have been working to strike a deal on an expansion of background checks that could garner the 60 votes needed for a bill to advance in the Senate. Lawmakers said they were taking a pragmatic approach, trying to reach a narrower agreement than the legislation that passed the House in March that would expand background checks to nearly all gun sales, aimed at flagging people with criminal or mental-health histories that disqualify them from gun ownership."

The discussions have centered on expanding background checks to all commercial sales. Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced legislation in 2013 that would have mandated such, but the Senate voted it down in a close vote. Toomey told Peterson he was skeptical that nine other Republican votes could be found in the Senate for the new bill.

"The biggest sticking point isn’t a policy detail, but the contentious political nature of any legislation touching on gun restrictions, according to a person familiar with the discussions," Peterson reports. "Lawmakers said they were also discussing other gun-related legislation, including safe-storage measures and efforts to pass red-flag laws aimed at allowing courts to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous."

15 states passed 40% rural full-vaccination threshold as of Tuesday, up from seven states two weeks ago

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of June 7, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

As of Tuesday, 15 states had fully vaccinated more than 40 percent of their rural residents, surpassing the nationwide metropolitan vaccination average. Two weeks ago, only seven states had done so. 

"Nationally, 32.5% of the 46 million residents who live in nonmetropolitan counties are completely vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and selected state health departments," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The rural-urban vaccination gap is still hovering around 7.5 percentage points. The trend is difficult to pinpoint because the Yonder included county-level data from Texas and Hawaii in this week's report for the first time. A recent Harvard University study and interactive tool has more insight on the rural-urban gap.

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

'Waters of the U.S.' definition, widened under Obama and narrowed under Trump, in line for expansion under Biden

"The Biden administration has plans to roll out a new proposal for federal clean-water regulations, working to undo moves by the Trump administration that had eased permit requirements for landowners," Gabriel Rubin and Katy Ferek report for The Wall Street Journal. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday said it plans to start a regulatory process alongside the Justice Department to revise a Trump administration rule that the Biden administration says has reduced clean-water protections. A new rule would restore protections put in place by prior administrations, with a special emphasis on projects in arid Western states like New Mexico and Arizona."

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement, “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations.” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulators said "the Trump-era EPA rule has led to a 25 percentage-point reduction in 'determinations of waters that would otherwise be afforded protection,'" Rubin and Ferek report.

The Trump administration narrowed the definition of the term in the Clean Water Act in all but one state in June 2020, saying the new rules were clearer and would save landowners time and money. "The Trump rule rescinded an Obama-era one that expanded federal oversight to protect wildlife and the country’s drinking-water supply from industrial runoff and pollution in 2015," Rubin and Ferek report. "The expansion meant more landowners and developers needed to apply for permits. It also put them at greater risk of steep fines for polluting the country’s smaller waterways. Farmers, property developers, chemical manufacturers and oil-and-gas producers had fought the expansion, saying it inappropriately curtailed property owners’ rights."

UPDATE: American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall issued a statement saying that the nation's main agriculture lobbying group was "extremely disappointed" to do away with a rule that he said "brought clarity" to farmers and ranchers, Todd Neeley of Progressive Farmer reports.

Developers officially scrap Keystone XL pipeline project

Wikipedia map
TC Energy, the firm behind the Keystone XL pipeline, officially scrapped the project on Wednesday, months after President Biden revoked a cross-border permit for the controversial pipeline and more than a decade after political wrangling over its fate began," Brady Dennis and Steven Mufson report for The Washington Post. "The pipeline, which would have stretched from Alberta’s boreal forests to the refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast, became the center of a broader controversy over climate change, pipeline safety, eminent domain and jobs. Those same concerns have spawned similar battles to stop pipelines in states including Montana, Minnesota and Virginia, part of an effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground."

Anti-pipeline activists and many Democratic lawmakers lauded the news; one activist told the Post that it was a sign that protests against "Big Oil" work. Republican officials and petroleum industry officials criticized Biden for rescinding the pipeline's border permit on his first day in office, saying he essentially guaranteed the death of a project that would have provided thousands of construction jobs. "However, with most of the pipeline construction complete, including the fully operating southern leg, relatively few jobs are still at stake," the Post notes.

Public-health experts warn against conservatives' efforts to get local officials to shutter syringe-exchange programs

A large crowd watched commissioners in Scott County, Indiana, vote last week to end their rural county's syringe exchange by the end of the year, despite objections from public-health experts. (Photo from Louisville Courier Journal)

"Recent efforts to shutter needle exchanges in Republican-led areas could indicate renewed GOP backlash to the controversial programs aimed at preventing outbreaks of HIV and hepatitis, public health experts are increasingly warning," Dan Goldberg reports for Politico. "The pushback against needle exchanges, which allow people using drugs to receive clean syringes without fear of arrest, is happening at a perilous moment for the nation’s long-running drug epidemic. Overdose deaths over the past year have climbed to record levels, exacerbated by a pandemic that has pushed the drug crisis from the headlines. HIV outbreaks spurred by use of injectable drugs are also plaguing major American cities, and rates of hepatitis, which often spreads through injection drug use, were climbing before the Covid-19 pandemic."

Many Republican lawmakers say such "harm reduction programs" encourage addiction, but years of studies show they reduce infectious disease transmission rates and do not promote drug use. "Their opposition softened in the last decade as the opioid epidemic devastated communities and Trump pledged to defeat the crisis," Goldberg reports. "But public-health experts fear the country is witnessing the start of a broader Republican rebellion against these programs — one that’s partly fueled by anti-science backlash to Covid restrictions."

In Southern Indiana, Scott County commissioners voted 2-1 this month to close a syringe exchange that quelled an internationally recognized rural HIV outbreak in 2016. Commissioner Mike Jones said, “I know people who are alcoholics, and I don’t buy them a bottle of whiskey. And I know people who want to kill themselves, and I don't buy them a bullet for their gun.”

"Commissioners rejected pleas of local law enforcement, state officials and former Trump administration Surgeon General Jerome Adams in voting to shutter the exchange," reports Chris Kenning of the Louisville Courier Journal. "The move comes amid a nationwide increase in drug overdoses attributed to the pandemic, leading supporters to argue there could scarcely be a worse time to abandon the harm-reduction program serving a one-time epicenter of the U.S. opioid crisis."

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

Outreach appears needed to help many rural poor learn about the newly expanded child tax credit, paid monthly

The expansion of the child tax credit by President Biden and Democrats in Congress is the first time the federal government has tried to reduce child poverty through widely available direct payments. It could cut child poverty in half, but only if the poorest families can access it. That poses a problem. 

"It’s clear that delivering on that assurance is going to demand a complex, multi-agency effort quite unlike anything the federal government has done before," Chabeli Carrazana reports for The 19th, a newsroom that focuses on women. "To get there, the administration has to devise a plan to reach the nation’s lowest wage earners, who qualify for the money for the first time. It has to reach the people who don’t pay income taxes and aren’t known to the Internal Revenue Service. It has to reach communities that don’t have permanent addresses or contact information. It has to reach undocumented folks whose children now qualify for the money."

The expansion increased the amount per child and made the payments monthly instead of annual, with the filing of tax returns. It also made the credit fully available for the first time to the lowest-wage families, who don't pay income taxes, Carrazana reports.

"But many don’t know the expansion happened. Even if they do, information about what they have to do to get it is still scarce. Many lack access to a computer or don’t have the digital literacy to fill out the form and provide the necessary paperwork. Making a mistake is costly — it could bar them from getting the credit for two or 10 years, depending on whether the mistake was careless or intentional. "The work of finding those people, educating them and helping them through the process is going to fall on hundreds of community organizations who are taking on the task — sometimes as volunteers. And the timeline to do it is short: The first monthly checks under the expanded credit will begin rolling out on July 15."

Another problem, especially in rural areas, is that the portal can't be viewed on a smartphone. Rural residents who have internet access, especially the poor, are more likely to access it via a smartphone.

USDA report: Rural and urban non-metro counties saw more dollar stores and fewer grocery stores from 1990 to 2015

Rural residents have faced a host of challenges in accessing groceries, according to a new report about rural food retailing from 1990 to 2015 by the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. One issue is the trend of large chain stores replacing small independents. Higher travel costs to access food are another problem, especially for residents in high-poverty areas with shrinking populations. Here are some other findings as of 2015, the most recent data available:

  • 23 U.S. counties were left without any food retailers; all were outside metropolitan areas.
  • 44 counties had no grocery; 40 were rural nonmetro and four were urban non-metro (counties with an urban population of 2,500 or more).
  • 41 non-metro counties had one food retailer and 115 non-metro counties had one grocery.
  • The median non-metro county had 16 food retailers and seven grocery stores.
  • Grocery stores were the most prevalent food retailer in non-metro counties. The next-most prevalent, in order, were convenience stores, specialty food stores, dollar stores, and supercenters.
  • Single-location grocery stores were more prevalent than chain stores, but had lower average sales and employment than chain stores.
And here are some trends over the 25 years covered by the report:
  • Dollar stores and supercenters were the only types of food retailers whose rural numbers increased; the counts of grocery stores and convenience stores peaked in 2009 and have been declining since then, and the number of specialty food stores has been falling since its 2011 peak. 
  • The percentage of rural non-metro counties with fewer than eight food retailers per 10,000 people increased from 11% in 1990 to 27% in 2015. 
  • The number of food retailers per capita decreased by 19 percent in rural non-metro counties.
  • The percentage of rural non-metro counties with no food retailers increased from 1% to 3%.
  • The median number of grocery stores per capita decreased by 40% for rural and urban non-metro counties.

Former ag secretary says he was 'the most assaulted Cabinet member in history,' by food when it became issue

Dan Glickman, who was a Kansas congressman
before becoming U.S. secretary of agriculture,
checked out a wheat field. (Photo via Politico)
Why would the secretary of agriculture be "the most assaulted Cabinet member in history," as Dan Glickman, who held the office under Bill Clinton, writes in Politico Magazine? Because food is easy to throw.

"I have never heard of any past agriculture secretaries being subjected to the same volume of projectiles as I was during my time at USDA. To my knowledge nobody has had any memory of a Cabinet member who came close to my record," writes Glickman, a congressman before and a movie-industry lobbyist after his time at the Agriculture Department, from 1995 to early 2001. 

At the time, "There was a large debate about organic food. Activist groups were energized on food issues, and for whatever reason, I bore the brunt of it," Glickman writes. "I had all sorts of things tossed at me . . . organic seeds by naked men and women in Rome, bison guts in Montana and tofu pies in D.C. It turns out people really care about their food. In a way, I think my career was a preview of the incivility that would eventually engulf our politics; only instead of barrages of hateful tweets and public harassment, I got food thrown in my face."

The job is less risky now, at least in a physical sense. "In the years that followed my tenure at USDA, Cabinet members’ security increased, so I’m sure Cabinet members, including the Agriculture secretary, are subject to much less of these kinds of attacks now."

Glickman is a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center. His entertaining piece is excerpted from his new book, Laughing at Myself: My Education in Congress, on the Farm, and at the Movies.

Rural coronavirus infections and deaths are lowest in a year

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, May 30-June 5
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

New coronavirus infections and Covid-19 deaths in rural America have fallen to their lowest levels in a year during the week of May 30-June 5. "The total number of new cases in non-metropolitan counties dropped by about 25 percent, from 21,179 two weeks ago to 15,766 last week. During the same period, the number of Covid-related deaths in rural counties dropped by more than a third, from 849 to 538," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Metropolitan counties saw similar declines."

The number of rural counties in the red zone (with 100 or more infections per 100,000 residents) likewise hit its lowest level in at least a year. "Last week only 119 rural counties were on the red-zone list," Murphy and Marema report. "At the height of the pandemic’s surge in January, 95% of the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan counties were in the red zone. The Daily Yonder began tracking red-zone counties in the first week of June last year, when 138 counties were on the list.

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

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Study finds rural seniors less likely than urban ones to follow Covid-19 prevention advice, especially social distancing

Rural adults 65 and older were less compliant than their urban peers when it came to following some of the suggested strategies to slow the spread of the coronavirus, especially social distancing.

So says a recent study published in The Journal of Rural Health, which looked at whether "community dwelling" seniors (those not living in assisted living, nursing homes or other congregate settings) had adopted preventive measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the virus.

Following the CDC's advice is especially important for seniors because they have a higher risk of dying from Covid-19 if they get it. 

The study researchers used self-reported data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, conducted from June to October 2020, which asked about eight different risk-mitigation behaviors. The survey included nearly 3,000 community-dwelling urban and rural seniors.  

The researchers found that seniors' compliance with each of the eight behaviors to limit the spread of Covid-19 was high, but rural seniors were less likely to report compliance on five: social distancing, limiting gatherings, avoiding restaurants and bars, not touching their faces, and avoiding contact with those outside their households. 

However, after the data were adjusted for demographic characteristics, only maintaining a six-foot distance remained lower among rural seniors to a statistically significant degree. There were no rural-urban differences when it came to mask wearing, handwashing and limiting shopping.

Still, the researchers said their findings suggested the need for rural-specific messaging when it comes to such public-health emergencies.

Gap in rural and urban death rates tripled from 2009 to 2019

Mortality trends by area type (graph from JAMA study)
"The gap between the death rates of rural and urban U.S. residents tripled over the past two decades as city-dwellers enjoyed robust health improvement and drugs and disease pervaded the countryside," Carey Goldberg reports for Bloomberg. "Death rates dropped in all groups except middle-aged rural white and Native American people, but fell most in cities."

That's according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined age-adjusted all-cause mortality in the U.S. from 2009 to 2019. Though overall mortality rates dropped in rural, suburban and urban areas, suburban and urban death rates fell much further. The researchers classified rurality according to the U.S. Census Bureau definition. 

"The numbers add to disturbing findings in recent years that life expectancy has actually dropped among some Americans, particularly white people with less education, fueled largely by 'deaths of despair' from substance use or suicide," Goldberg reports. 

The trend is "a ripple effect from the economic downturn in rural areas that’s now being manifested as a public health crisis," senior author and Boston heart specialist Haider Warraich told Goldberg. The data, combined with other studies, show chronic diseases, substance use, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, rural hospital closures, and lack of access to quality medical care all contribute to the phenomenon.

Rural folks and conservatives less likely to get coronavirus vaccinations, analysis by congressional districts shows

Percentage of vaccinated population (left) compared to 2020 presidential election margins by Congressional district (Harvard University and Daily Kos maps adapted by The Rural Blog; click the image to enlarge them. The Harvard analysis, linked below, has an interactive version.)

Conservative—and disproportionately rural—Americans are more likely to remain unvaccinated against the coronavirus, and the divide is growing starker. 

"All but one of the 39 congressional districts where at least 60 percent of residents have received a coronavirus shot are represented by Democrats, according to a Harvard University analysis that presents one of the most detailed looks yet at the partisan split behind the nation’s diverging vaccination drive," Dan Goldberg and Alice Ollstein report for Politico. "By contrast, Republicans represent all but two of the 30 districts where fewer than one-third of residents have received a shot."

The 14 least least-vaccinated districts are all Republican and rural (or have a rural population of at least 40%). Missouri, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates of any state, took the bottom four spots.

The gap stems partly from ideological sentiment, but also access issues. "House members representing districts with low vaccination rates and public health experts, discussing their efforts to reach the unvaccinated, described what essentially has become two distinct conversations," Goldberg and Ollstein report. "One is aimed at chipping away at vaccine hesitancy among conservative white Republicans, while the other is centered around reducing socioeconomic barriers to vaccination for poorer populations and communities of color."
Rural/urban vaccination rates as of May 23, compared to national average. Rates are adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Four-part webinar series on rural-urban divide starts tonight

A free, four-part webinar series about the rural-urban divide kicks off tonight from 7 to 8 p.m. ET. Register here. From the description: 

The rural-urban divide is deep, it’s widespread, and it’s getting worse. Liberal people from cities and suburbs think most rural folks are ignorant, racist, stuck in the past, their communities heading towards oblivion. Many in the countryside view urban people, academics, and the government as elitist, contemptuous of rural ways, and dismissive of the people living there. While race and racial resentment play major roles in this polarization, the divide between urban and rural is perhaps the most poorly understood component of our divisions. And it’s killing us, enabling the richest people and biggest corporations to dominate our democracy while the great majority of us fight amongst ourselves. How did we get here, and how do we begin to overcome the divide? More to the point, what role has those who espouse a fair and just world played in exacerbating the divide, and what must we do differently?

Future Generations University, LiKEN Knowledge, and Appalachian Voices are hosting the webinar series and say they'll discuss:
  • Six underlying causes of the divide and how they reinforce each other
  • How the neglect of rural development has enabled the divide and how effective, bottom-up rural development strategies can help reverse it
  • Better, more accurate ways of understanding rural perspectives on regulations, the environment, and the role of government
  • Much better ways to talk about and talk to rural communities
  • Other tools and strategies for overcoming the divide

Most co-ops can't get pandemic relief for small businesses

The Small Business Administration has provided millions in pandemic aid to small businesses and organizations through initiatives such as the Paycheck Protection Program, the Community Navigator Pilot program and more, but cooperatives are largely excluded from accessing it because of pre-pandemic SBA policies, Lydia DePillis reports for ProPublica

"In 2018, Congress passed the Main Street Employee Ownership Act as part of a defense authorization bill, pushing the agency to open its flagship 7(a) loan program to co-ops. Even as the SBA’s then-administrator Linda McMahon expressed support for the concept, Trump administration SBA officials did not change key policies that would have facilitated widespread access. They also failed to implement other parts of the new law, such as a requirement to start a program charged with promoting employee ownership," DePillis reports. "The result: Cooperative businesses are still largely cut out of the mainstream financial system that funds new enterprises, making it extremely difficult for them to scale up." Read more here.

Demand from China boosts American farm economy

Financial Times graphs
Donald Trump’s trade war with China made farmers more dependent on government payments, "but China is now at the heart of a reversal in farmers’ fortunes, as booming exports and soaring food prices fuel a recovery in the U.S. agricultural economy," Aime Williams reports for the Financial Times.

"The U.S. is on course to ship a record $37.2 billion worth of farm goods to China this year, led by sales of soybeans, corn, tree nuts, beef, wheat and poultry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has forecast." That's 23 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports, which USDA estimates will be $164 billion. More Chinese demand, combined with low stocks of corn and soybeans caused by drought in Brazil, "have driven a surge in global food prices, providing a further boost for American farmers."

China imported 9.6 million tons of soybeans in May, a 29% increase from April's 7.4 million tons, Reuters reports.


Monday, June 07, 2021

GOP-run states push back at national Democratic control with bills reflecting values, priorities of rural Trump voters

Republican governors and state legislatures are advancing one of the most conservative agendas seen in years, apparently in response to Democratic control of Congress and the White House, Ron Brownstein reports for The Atlantic. The fallout is not only changing the daily lives of red-state residents, but widening the partisan gulf (or at least illustrating the trend).

"Republican legislators and governors have operated as if they were programming a prime-time lineup at Fox News," Brownstein writes. "They have focused far less on the small-government, limited-spending, and anti-tax policies that once defined the GOP than on an array of hot-button social issues, such as abortion, guns, and limits on public protest, that reflect the cultural and racial priorities of Trump’s base. GOP legislators appear to be operating more out of fear that Trump’s base of non-college-educated, rural, and evangelical white voters will punish them in primaries if they fail to pursue maximum confrontation against Democrats and liberal constituencies, particularly on issues revolving around culture and race."

Recent high-profile issues include allowing guns to be carried without a permit, banning "critical race theory" from classrooms and abortion restrictions such as protecting fetuses with a heartbeat.

"The other pattern evident in the surge of conservative legislation is the continuing separation of red and blue America," Brownstein writes. "As Biden and the Democrats controlling Congress are advancing an ambitious progressive agenda at the national level, almost all of the red states are responding with what amounts to a collective cry of defiance. On a lengthening list of issues, the rules that govern daily life in red and blue states are diverging—and at an accelerating pace. The chasms are deepening not only between states, but within them, as GOP legislators centered in preponderantly white rural and exurban areas more aggressively annul the policy choices of racially diverse, Democratic-controlled metro centers. Bill by bill, this year’s red-state offensive is measuring the continued unraveling of a country that appears to be unrelentingly pulling apart."

Cyberattacks like one at JBS are a rising threat to America's food supply chain, but federal oversight remains sparse

The cyberattack that temporarily crippled JBS, the nation's top beef processor, came a week and a half after University of Minnesota security analysts warned the Agriculture Department that ransomware could hurt the U.S. food supply more than the coronavirus pandemic has. Experts have been warning about the threat for years, but they have gained little traction.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said cyberattacks were part of food producers' "new reality," but "federal oversight of the industry’s cybersecurity practices remains light, despite years of warnings that an attack could bring consequences ranging from higher grocery prices to contaminated food," Politico's Ryan McCrimmon and Martin Matishak report. "Virtually no mandatory cybersecurity rules govern the millions of food and agriculture businesses that account for about a fifth of the U.S. economy; just voluntary guidelines exist. The two federal agencies overseeing the sector include the USDA, which has faced criticism from Congress for how it secures its own data. And unlike other industries that have formed information-sharing collectives to coordinate their responses to potential cyber threats, the food industry disbanded its group in 2008."

Farmers' and processors' increasing reliance on automation and other high technology makes them more vulnerable to hackers. "In November, the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike said in a report that its threat-hunting service had witnessed a ten-fold increase in interactive — or 'hands-on-keyboard' — intrusions affecting the agriculture industry over the previous 10 months. Adam Meyers, the company’s senior vice president of intelligence, said that of the 160 hacking groups or gangs the company tracks, 13 have been identified in targeting agriculture," Politico reports. "A 2018 report from the Department of Homeland Security examined a range of cyber threats facing the industry as it adopts digitized 'precision agriculture,' while the Federal Bureau of Investigation said in April 2016 that agriculture is 'increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks as farmers become more reliant on digitized data.'"

Food supply chain cyberattacks could result in higher meat prices, financial consequences for producers, injury or death of plant workers, and unsafe food being sold to the public, according to the Food Protection and Defense Institute. In public comments to USDA, the group noted that "large parts of the industry rely on decades-old, custom-written software that is essentially impossible to update, along with outdated operating systems like Windows 98," McCrimmon and Matishak report.

Campaign-finance probe of combative Postmaster General Louis DeJoy could put bipartisan postal-reform bill at risk

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy at a House committee hearing
(Pool photo by Tom Williams via The Associated Press)
The Justice Department said last week that the FBI is investigating possible campaign-finance violations by Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in his private business before he was hired. That "threatens to fray a fragile bipartisan and cross-industry coalition that supports financial relief legislation for the U.S. Postal Service," reports Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post.

The bill includes a key provision for community newspapers, which would let them send up to half their mailed circulation to non-subscribers in their home counties at the preferential rates the USPS charges for mailing to in-county subscribers. The current limit, more than 100 years old, is 10 percent of annual in-county mailed circulation.

"Congressional and industry officials say his legal position could imperil bills advancing in the House and Senate that would relieve the Postal Service of $44 billion in debt, as well as its annual $5 billion retiree health-care payments," Bogage reports. "Postal legislation has failed on lesser controversies, congressional officials noted. Some House Democrats late last week privately considered dropping their support for the measure in light of the DeJoy investigation, said four people with knowledge of the talks, reasoning that the chamber could advance more aggressive legislation on a party-line vote."

However, that would complicate passage in the Senate, which has a bipartisan bill identical to the House bill that is awaiting a green light from the House Ways and Means Committee to go to the full House. Supporters of the bill worry that partisanship will get in its way. Leo Raymond of Mailers Hub, which serves commercial mailers, told Bogage, “If you’re just going along to get along, if you’re not ardent, this could make you say, ‘Well, I’m not working with this guy.’” On the other side of the coin, Republicans who like DeJoy could balk because President Biden's Justice Department is investigating him.

DeJoy's profile and political pedigree don't help. "The postmaster general may be the closest thing to former President Donald Trump left in the nation’s capital," Will Weissert of The Associated Press writes. "Democrats are particularly worried that he’s purposefully undermining the post office, which is critical to the conduct of elections and is one of the few federal agencies a vast majority of Americans like."

Soon after taking over a year ago, DeJoy made changes to save money that also reduced service levels, including cutting overtime and removing mail-sorting machines. "Mail slowed enough that Democrats worried about an electoral crisis," Weissert notes, but the fears "mostly proved unfounded."

Still, DeJoy's combative nature makes him a target. “I’m not a political appointee,” he told a House committee hearing. “I was selected by a bipartisan Board of Governors and I’d really appreciate if you’d get that straight.” Asked how long would keep the job, he replied, “A long time. Get used to me.”

International report says climate change will likely make invasive insects, plant diseases bigger problem for farmers

Invasive insects and plant diseases already cause nearly $300 billion in annual losses for the world's farmers, but climate change could make that worse by making many areas more hospitable to pests, according to a new report from the International Plant Protection Convention, hosted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

"Warmer and drier conditions favor disturbances by insects, whereas warmer and wetter conditions favor disturbances from pathogens," said the report. "The same trend is expected for many crop diseases, insect pests, and weeds, with increasing pest risk in most cases. Thus preventive, mitigation, and adaptation measures are needed in the future to reduce the projected increases in pest risk in agriculture, horticulture, and forestry as well as in urban areas and national parks."

For example, global warming will expand the territory for pests like the fall armyworm, which eats corn, sorghum, and other grains, according to the report, Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

Colorado drought conditions worsen farmers' suicide rates

Drought map of the United States as of June 1; red areas are in 'Extreme Drought' and maroon areas are in 'Exceptional Drought' (U.S. Drought Monitor map; click the image to enlarge it)

Drought conditions in Colorado are correlated with a rise in farmers' suicide rates over the past decade, according to newly analyzed data, Southwestern NPR affiliate KSJD's Lucas Brady Woods reports for Arizona State University's Cronkite News.

Over the past decade, farmer suicide rates have risen and fallen along with drought conditions in the state, according to data compiled by Colorado-based suicide-prevention group Celebrating Healthy Communities. That's of particular concern right now as much of the Southwest, along with Oregon, some of the Upper Midwest and the Sacramento Valley, are experiencing extreme drought conditions, Woods reports.

Increasing financial stressors over the past decade are also linked to spikes in suicide rates in farming communities, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg told Woods. "Greenberg said her department is working with local partners across the state to get more resources to rural areas. What works in a city might not translate to agricultural communities. So, she said, resources such as online training manuals or public service announcements should be written with that in mind. Colorado also maintains a crisis hotline — a free and confidential mental health resource that’s available 24/7," Woods reports. "But as climate change continues to heat up and dry out the West’s farmland, Greenberg said the stress that comes with water scarcity will remain a challenge in keeping agriculture viable, and those who do it mentally well."

Here are some farmer suicide prevention and mental-health resources: