Friday, June 25, 2021

Biden announces plan to improve firearms enforcement, says it won't affect responsible gun owners

Gun deaths by county type (Washington Post chart; click on image to enlarge it)

President Biden announced a plan to improve enforcement of gun laws Wednesday, in response to soaring violent-crime rates and gun deaths. The plan "includes a new Justice Department policy that will allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to revoke federal licenses of gun dealers the first time they violate federal law," Joey Garrison reports for USA Today. "Violations could include selling firearms to a prohibited buyer, failing to run required background checks or falsifying firearm transaction forms or other records."

In 2020, cities saw a bigger spike in gun deaths than suburbs did, and rural areas had a small increase. Rural gun deaths are more likely to be from suicide, but the trend holds true even when suicides are excluded. "Through the first 172 days of 2021, gun violence killed 9,420 Americans, an average of 55 people a day, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a research nonprofit. The figures include homicides and accidental gun deaths but not suicides," Garrison reports.

Biden said the new plan won't affect responsible gun owners, and "painted the gun reform plan as a common-sense solution to the crime issue," Maeve Sheehy reports for Politico. "He pointed out that the Second Amendment always restricted who could own a gun and what type it could be." Biden said "Folks, this shouldn’t be a red or blue issue. It’s an American issue. We’re not changing the Constitution. We’re enforcing it, being reasonable."

Infrastructure deal has $65 billion for broadband, but nothing for water and sewer work or 'human infrastructure'

Biden and senators (Reuters photo by Kevin Lamarque)
President Biden and a bipartisan group of centrist senators announced on Thursday a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that would be "the first major increase of federal public works spending since President Barack Obama’s 2009 economic rescue plan," Jonathan Weisman, Emily Cochrane and Jim Tankersley report for The New York Times.

"It would include some existing infrastructure programs, but also provide $579 billion in new money over eight years to patch cracking highways, rebuild crumbling bridges, speed rail traffic and more equitably spread high-speed internet access," the Times notes. "The plan would also pour billions of dollars into waterways and coastlines washing away as a warming planet raises sea levels, and $7.5 billion into financing a half-million electric vehicle charging stations, all part of Mr. Biden’s climate pledges."

Biden wanted to raise corporate taxes to pay for the plan, but the deal avoids raising taxes. It would be paid for by repurposing unspent pandemic relief funds, selling petroleum reserves, and $140 billion to be generated by a $40 billion hike in the Internal Revenue Service enforcement budget.

The compromise required big concessions from Democrats, and "its passage through Congress was thrown in doubt later Thursday, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized a two-track plan to pass a second spending bill later," likely with only Democratic votes, Reuters reports. Biden said he would not sign the bipartisan bill unless the other bill also come to his desk.

Here's how major parts of the deal compare to the American Jobs Plan that Biden unveiled in March:

  • The new agreement calls for $65 billion for broadband expansion to rural and other underserved areas, rather than the $100 billion Biden proposed.
  • Biden's proposals to modernize drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems were eliminated from the deal.
  • Also eliminated was "human infrastructure": $400 billion for Medicare to fund home care for seniors and the disabled, and $200 billion for free universal preschool and other childcare.
  • Biden's proposal had included $213 billion for affordable housing, but that funding was not included in the compromise. It could be included in the Democrats' budget package.
  • The compromise has a $49 billion increase in public-transit funding, compared to the $85 billion Biden originally proposed.
  • Passenger and freight rail would get $66 billion in new funding, down from the $80 billion proposed by Biden, the leading fan of passenger rail.
  • Electric vehicle technology would get $15 billion, not the $174 billion Biden wanted.

USDA releases thousands of historical watercolors of American fruit and nut cultivars for free download

Arkansas Black apples paintings from 1895 to 1921. More than half the images in the USDA archive are apples.

Between 1886 and 1942, the Agriculture Department commissioned artists to document quickly changing fruit and nut cultivars across the United States at a time when color photography wasn't widely available, Sebastian Smee reports for The Washington Post. A recently published book features many of them, but the USDA has also made the more than 7,500 paintings in its Pomological Watercolor Collection available to the public, downloadable in high resolution to capture every gorgeous detail.

Yenjerto bananas; most bananas sold
today are Cavendish (USDA image)
The most striking aspect of the collection is the "extraordinary diversity" of the cultivars. That's comforting at a time when broad cultural forces often drive us toward homogeneity, in cuisine and elsewhere, Smee writes: "You probably won’t find Arkansas black apples, Coloway mulberries or Belle Angevine pears in your local supermarket ... So to be reminded, as this book does, of the astonishing diversity to be found in a sphere that uniquely combines nature and culture is uplifting. Long live the Fraud plum, the Golden Gate strawberry, the Memory grape, the Chinese Shaddock pumelo, the Wagner avocado, the Paradise banana, the Dancy tangerine and the Lisbon lime. Let their irregular shapes, their unique aromas, their blushing colors and their gorgeous names remind us of all that we stand to lose if we don’t value precisely what is strange, singular, foreclosed upon and factored out." Read more here.

Quick hits: Rural libraries could become telehealth hubs; book details Black Appalachians' coal camp experiences

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 heather.chapman@uky.edu.

A new book details the overlooked experience of Black Appalachians in coal camps. Read more here.

Commentary: Rural libraries could use newly available funding opportunities and technologies to become a major player in providing telehealth access. Read more here.

Many rural high-school students want to take Advanced Placement courses, which can award college credit, but school staffing, budgets, and broadband access can make that difficult. Read more here.

More states are considering and passing bills to grant overtime pay to farmworkers. Read more here.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Federal judge blocks USDA debt relief for minority farmers

A Florida federal court issued a preliminary injunction Wednesday blocking the Biden administration's program to forgive agricultural debts to farmers of color. 

"The program was already temporarily on hold, due to a separate restraining order in a case by a white farmer in Wisconsin. However, even if that Wisconsin order is reconsidered or even reversed in July, when a ruling is expected, this new nationwide injunction would still keep the program on hold for some time," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "The Florida case is considered the first nationwide preliminary injunction, said lawyers for the group Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit in May" for white Florida farmer Scott Wynn, who says he also needs debt relief and is being discriminated against him due to race.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard wrote in her decision that Congress "must heed its obligation to do away with governmentally imposed discrimination based on race," but "also made clear that the Agriculture Department could continue to prepare to deliver the debt relief until the program is found to be “constitutionally permissible," Reiley reports. 

At Rural Health Journalism Workshop, Vilsack makes case for extending pandemic-related food programs

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the case for more federal support for nutrition programs June 23 in the virtual Rural Health Journalism Workshop of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Melissa Patrick reports for Kentucky Health News.

Vilsack said he hopes that two pandemic measures, the one-year summer food program for children and universal access to free or reduced-price school lunches, will be continued permanently through the Biden administration's $1.8 trillion American Families Plan pending in Congress. "We know these nutrition programs do make a difference in terms of health and educational outcomes," he said.

Also, Vilsack said the USDA is looking at the formula for calculating benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. "There are significant gaps and barriers to accessing full and complete food security during an entire month," he said. A USDA study released the same day found that nearly nine of 10 SNAP participants face such barriers.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor in his second stint as secretary, noted that Congress has the last word on many changes USDA is considering and that the "onus is on us" to make the case for them.

"We know from studies, that SNAP does reduce poverty. We know that it does improve health outcomes. We know that it reduces obesity rates among children of low income families. We know that it provides a better opportunity for these youngsters to be better learners, which results in higher graduation rates," he said, adding that SNAP helped farmers and rural economies.

Vilsack touched on several other topics at the workshop, including issues around climate change, rural hospitals, and meat-industry safety standards. This item may be updated.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

An epicenter of the Delta variant in the West shows its threat; hospitals are filling up there and in rural Missouri

The threat of the stronger Delta variant of the coronavirus among unvaccinated Americans is being illustrated in several states and areas such as Grand Junction, Colorado, which has become an epicenter of its spread in the rural West.

Mesa County (Wikipedia map, adapted)
“At this point nationally, we see that about 10% of cases are due to this Delta variant, but here in Colorado it’s about 40%, and here in Mesa County it’s approaching 100%,” State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy told locals on a Tuesday visit to Grand Junction. “In addition, it causes more severe illness, so we’re seeing double the hospitalization rate with this Delta variant.”

"State officials have targeted the county in their efforts to step up vaccination rates. But while they have identified a variety of ways, they are still looking for more," reports Charles Ashby of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. "Gov. Jared Polis came to town Tuesday to ask area medical officials and business leaders for ideas on how to do more, especially now that the Delta variant of the virus accounts for nearly all of the new infections."

Polis told the locals, “Mesa County is an epicenter for the Delta variant, and we also have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state . . . We want action before it hurts the economy and hurts more people or fills up your hospitals, which are already rapidly approaching being full.”

Only 40 percent of Mesa County's eligible residents are fully vaccinated, and 44% are partially vaccinated. The county's hospitals are 95% full, Dasha Burns of NBC News reports from Grand Junction: "It seems like a case of deja vu," resembling the crisis of the early pandemic.

Elsewhere, "The new strain is already taxing hospitals in rural Missouri, and caseloads and hospitalizations are on the rise in states such as Arkansas, Nevada and Utah, where less than half of the eligible population has received a vaccine," The Washington Post reports.

Vaccines work against the Delta variant, but not enough people are vaccinated, physician and medical-school professor Dhruv Khullar warns in The New Yorker: "People who’ve been fully vaccinated can, by and large, feel confident in the immunity that they’ve received. But those who remain susceptible should understand that, for them, this is probably the most dangerous moment of the pandemic."

New rural coronavirus cases fall to 14-month low

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, June 13-19
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version

Last week, new rural coronavirus infections fell to the lowest level in 14 months and Covid-19-related deaths fell to the lowest rate in a year, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

Rural counties saw 14,200 new coronavirus cases from June 13 to 19, a 15 percent decrease from the week before and nearly 95% lower than the pandemic's January peak. "The last time there were so few new cases in a one-week period in rural counties was mid-April 2020, when more than half of the nation’s 1,976 rural counties still hadn’t reported their first case," Murphy and Marema report. Rural deaths fell 25% from the week before to 395.

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

Ike Adams, chronicler of Appalachian culture, dies at 72

Ike Adams
Funeral services were held Wednesday evening for Ike Adams, whose byline was familiar to readers of many newspapers in Appalachian Kentucky and beyond. He died Friday, June 18, at 72, of complications from Parkinson's disease.

Adams often "worked as a grant writer, especially for the Christian Appalachian Project and fundraising events," his widow Loretta wrote in his obituary for The Mountain Eagle in his native Letcher County. He also had been development and marketing executive for the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, which serves housing needs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. It's based in Berea, 10 miles east of Paint Lick, where he lived.

Adams' humor-laced newspaper column was usually about the simple treasures of Appalachian culture, such as wildlife, fishing, gardeningheirloom vegetables and storing potatoes. But he also wrote about Appalachian books and good causes, and his long article for FAHE about Appalachian housing in 2001 was produced with the deep knowledge of someone who grew up in the region and had become familiar with the facts and figures needed to get grants.

Reviewing the 2006 novel Dark and Bloody Ground, by Roberta Hayes Webb, Adams wrote, "The reading experience is an emotional roller coaster ride that comes as close to capturing the Appalachian experience as anything I’ve ever read. Readers familiar with and appreciative of our culture will find themselves at home — but do keep a box of tissue handy and be equally prepared to run to wherever you go when you’re terribly frightened."

"Ike loved writing because he loved people," Loretta Adams wrote in what served as his final column. "He felt an intense obligation to the papers and to the folks that followed his columns. He loved writing about his family and friends in eastern Kentucky and growing up on Blair Branch. Those tales were most often filled with humor and love for those mountains and the people who lived there."

Memorial gifts may go to the American Diabetes Association or Hospice Care Plus. Memories and condolences can be posted on his tribute page at www.ramsey-young.com.

Scientists seeking answers in mysterious bird deaths in South and Midwest, ask public to clean bird feeders

Sick blue jay (Ky. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources)
"Hundreds of birds are dying without explanation in parts of the South and Midwest. Wildlife experts in at least six states and Washington, D.C., have reported an increase in sick or dying birds in the past month. The most commonly afflicted birds are blue jays, common grackles and European starlings," Deon Hampton reports for CBS News. "Symptoms include crusty or puffy eyes, neurological signs of seizures and an inability to stay balanced. Experts said the birds have been behaving as if they are blind and exhibit other abnormalities, such as not flying away when people get close."

Wildlife officials in Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Washington D.C., and West Virginia are working together to figure out what's going on. "Some theories about what's causing the birds to become sick and die include a widespread infectious disease, the cicada outbreak and pesticides," Hampton reports. 

In the meantime, "wildlife experts are asking the public to report any suspicious bird deaths. They also urge bird lovers to remove their bird feeders since birds often exchange germs," Hampton reports. "Bird feeders and baths should also be cleaned immediately with a 10 percent bleach solution, and people should avoid handling birds, officials said."

States using federal relief/stimulus money to address park maintenance backlogs made worse by pandemic visitors

"Nearly every state saw a surge in visitors to its state parks during the pandemic, which brought attention to the maintenance and upgrades necessary to deal with the record crowds," Alex Brown reports for Stateline. "Now, with state budgets suddenly flush with billions of dollars in federal relief and longstanding parks issues getting newfound attention, many governors and lawmakers of both parties are directing massive investments toward their state parks." 

State and national parks typically have large maintenance backlogs that were made worse by the pandemic. Many visitors to state and national parks have been first-timers who don't know park etiquette, and many visitors (new or not) have sprayed graffiti on natural formations, left human waste and trash all over the place, and damaged soil by going off designated trails. 

But parks haven't had the funds to deal with that backlog. "State park leaders say their agencies are among the first to be targeted for budget cuts during tough economic times. "Between 2008 and 2019, spending on state park operations fell from $3 billion to $2.5 billion nationwide, according to the Property and Environmental Research Center, a Montana-based free market environmental think tank," Brown reports. "State park leaders across the country say it will take anywhere from a year and a half to five years to complete the projects their states are now funding. But they expect the legacy of that work to extend further." One noted that many state parks still have buildings and trails built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

AppHarvest stakes 2 more greenhouses in Appalachian Ky.

Tomatoes growing at AppHarvest's flagship site in Morehead (Image from WKYT-TV )

AppHarvest
, the company building huge, high-tech greenhouses in Kentucky to grow vegetables and fruits, wants to have 12 sites by the end of 2025, and new locations announced Monday near Somerset and Morehead "will put the company nearly halfway there," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A 30-acre greenhouse near Somerset will grow strawberries and a 15-acre one in Morehead will have leafy greens."

The venture-capital company, which went public in February, has grown by leaps and bounds since forming in 2017. Its 60-acre flagship site in Morehead has been growing tomatoes since 2020, and there are two other sites under construction: a 15-acre facility in Berea that will grow leafy greens and a 60-acre facility in Richmond for vine crops, Chris Radcliffe reports for Business Lexington.

AppHarvest employs nearly 500, mostly at its Morehead site; those under construction will employ hundreds more. Co-founder Jonathan Webb has said that bringing high-paying jobs to Eastern Kentucky, which has suffered a steep decline in coal jobs, is a key goal of the company. None of the sites are in the state's eastern coalfield, but are close to it, and are in "official Appalachia."

Webb also emphasizes environmental sustainability. "AppHarvest uses recycled rainwater to grow vegetables and fruit with 90 percent less water than field agriculture, producing more food with fewer resources, according to the company," Estep reports.

Another goal: bringing large-scale produce production back to the U.S. and protecting it from drought. Much of the nation's produce comes from California and Mexico, which are frequently hit with droughts. "Imports of strawberries to the U.S. have increased 70% in the last four years," Estep reports. "There is an opportunity for AppHarvest to replace some of those imports, Webb said."

Fed chair and other economists point to falling lumber prices as evidence that inflation isn't a big threat to the economy

Lumber prices skyrocketed over the past year, with futures exceeding $1,600 per thousand board feet in early May. "But since then, the prices of those same plywood sheets and pressure-treated planks have tumbled, as mills restarted or ramped up production and some customers put off their purchases until prices came down," Matt Phillips reports for The New York Times. Lumber futures "are down more than 45 percent from their peak, slipping below $1,000 for the first time in months. That’s still high — between 2009 and 2019, prices averaged less than $400 per thousand board feet — but the sell-off has been gaining momentum over the last few weeks. The price has fallen in 11 of the last 12 trading sessions, including a 0.5 percent drop to settle at $900.80 on Friday."

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and other economists say the lumber market illustrates why they're not worried about sustained price increases for other goods such as cars and groceries. Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, told Phillips: "Many of the extreme price spikes we’ve seen in recent months are likely to reverse for Econ 101 reasons."

The lumber market's cooling off "offers lessons that are likely to guide policymakers as they run the economy at full throttle, accepting what they regard as a temporary bout of inflation in hopes of generating more than 10 million new jobs," David Lynch reports for The Washington Post. "Lumber’s wild gyrations show that today’s hiring troubles and shipping delays reflect short-term reopening kinks, not a lasting shift that will push prices higher and higher."

Study says farm consolidation hurts rural areas by limiting opportunities for young farmers, limiting soil conservation

Change in cropland held by large farms. Union of Concerned Scientists maps; click to enlarge.

For decades, rural population has shrunk along with the number of farms and farm families, as farms have gotten bigger. That has changed the landscape of rural America, in many ways not for the better. Now a study from the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzes the change in another way.

Researchers studied farm consolidation trends between 1978 and 2017 and concluded that "rural communities are at risk," Grace Connatser reports for the Wisconsin State Farmer. "The study found that half of the Midwest's midsize farms have disappeared in nearly four decades – nationally, nearly 700,000 – while large farms have increased in scale by about 100 million acres in the same timeframe. A midsize farm is between 50 and 999 acres, while a large farm is 1,000 acres or more."

Those midsize farms are historically the "backbone of the rural economy," said study author Rafter Ferguson. Larger farms aren't a problem in and of themselves, but their proliferation makes it harder for smaller, beginning farmers to compete and be profitable, the study says: "The energy, innovation, and initiative that new practitioners bring are crucial to the future of any profession—and farmers are no different. Our food system is going to be facing huge challenges over the coming decades, and we need an expanding, diversifying, creative community of farmers to meet those challenges. Consolidation operates in exactly the wrong direction."

The study also sees environmental impacts: "Because more farmland in larger farms tends to be rented rather than owned, there is less incentive to invest in measures to improve farmland for the long term by building soil health. In short, when farms grow bigger and farmers grow fewer, bad things happen."

"Ferguson called for a leveling of the playing field for smaller farms compared to large farms because of the challenges associated with trying to run them," Connatser reports. "He said many federal policies in the past have done more to help large farms than small ones."

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Many superintendents quitting after pandemic school year; rural districts may have a harder time finding replacements

A wave of school superintendents are "leaving their posts, far more than in a typical year, a result of the extraordinary challenges of keeping kids learning after schools closed in spring 2020 and serving as crisis managers for months on end while dealing with pandemic pressures on their own families," Joe Heim and Valerie Strauss report for The Washington Post. "The departures are from the top spots in large cities . . . but also in many midsize and smaller districts in suburban and rural areas," according to the American Association of School Superintendents.

Some superintendents are moving to other districts, some have been forced out by school boards, and some are retiring, often with years left on their contracts. "The turnover this year has been unprecedented, superintendents say, with the usual job responsibilities and tensions exacerbated by crisis management and debates with communities and school boards over when and how to reopen schools during the pandemic. Conflicts over equity and education that addressed racial issues also boiled over, with superintendents often feeling the brunt of the disputes," Heim and Strauss report. "Changes in district leadership can always be problematic, but never more so than now, as plans are being made to reopen schools fully in the fall at the same time that a new coronavirus variant known as delta is becoming more common in the United States and is, according to President Biden, 'particularly dangerous' for young people."

Rural school districts may be particularly vulnerable after a superintendent departs, since not many potential replacements are eager to step up. It takes a special skill set, a tolerance for extra-long work days, and a love of small towns to be a rural superintendent. But, though rural principalships have some of the highest turnover rates in education, rural natives tend to stick around longer in rural education jobs. Rural educators and administrators are frequently graduates of the schools they work for as adults, or graduates of other rural schools.

Study finds three essential elements state governments need to effectively expand high-speed internet in rural areas

States all over the country have created programs aimed at expanding broadband connectivity; the most successful ones have three core components, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts study.

The first is a dedicated broadband office, meaning a centralized entity with a full-time focus on expanding broadband access, including distributing funds and working with local governments to plan and build capacity and support.

Providing planning and technical assistance for local and regional entities is the second element, the study says. That includes strategic planning with defined goals, cultivating stakeholder buy-in and identifying existing assets. Technical support should encompass network design, business planning, and more.

Competitive grant programs are the third key element the study highlights. Such programs provide internet service providers with limited subsidies to expand service to rural and underserved areas. Well-designed grant programs should ensure that applicants' proposals meet local needs, reduce deployment costs in high-cost areas, and (ideally) match funds from the applicant with eligible partners, such as local governments, to cover the project's costs.

Former U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico nominated for USDA undersecretary of rural development

Xochitl Torres Small
Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico has been nominated as the Agriculture Department's undersecretary of rural development.

When President Biden announced her nomination on Friday, he cited her previous work in economic development in rural communities New Mexico, Algernon D'Ammassa reports for the Las Cruces Sun News.

"Throughout her career, Torres Small has employed her experience organizing in vulnerable, rural communities to achieve lasting investments that combat persistent poverty," said a White House statement.

The granddaughter of migrant farmworkers, she eventually became an attorney focused on water issues before winning a seat in Congress on her first run for public office. She served on the agriculture committee during her single term from 2019 to 2021.

"If confirmed, Torres Small would be in charge of a mission area with wide-ranging responsibilities, including rural electric cooperative loans, broadband expansion, community development and infrastructure funding, value-added producer grants, and funding for renewable energy and biofuel projects," Jacqui Fatka reports for National Hog Farmer. "The rural development undersecretary position was previously eliminated under a restructuring of USDA when establishing the trade undersecretary but re-established under authority in the 2018 Farm Bill."

Pandemic roundup: Delta variant likely to dominate soon; public-private partnership gets ruralites vaxed in Ohio

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

The delta variant will likely become the dominant coronavirus strain in the U.S. in the coming weeks, according to a new analysis. Read more here.

In Athens County, Ohio, pop. 65,000, the health department has gotten nearly 25,000 locals vaccinated through a partnership with Ohio University and the Athens City School District. Read more here.

In California's Salinas Valley, once a Covid hotspot, more than two-thirds of farmworkers are vaccinated against the coronavirus thanks to efforts public-private partnerships. Read more here.

State and local governments in the South are trying to get more people vaccinated; that takes overcoming economic barriers to access, like a lack of transportation, and fighting misinformation that makes many wary of vaccines. Read more here.

For some people, grief for a loved one who died from Covid-19 is complicated by misinformation and attitudes about the virus among family and friends. Read more here.

In a recent American Medical Association webinar, the chief medical officer of the Marshfield Clinic Health System in Wisconsin discusses challenges to vaccinating rural communities. Read more here.

Millions of Americans racing to get federal rental assistance before moratorium expires; see county-level map

"Millions of Americans are in a 'race against the clock' to receive rental assistance before the end of the month, when a federal eviction moratorium designed to help people cope during the coronavirus pandemic expires," Amanda Holpuch reports for The Guardian. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium ends on 30 June, and some states will still have local renter protections in place. But in the vast majority of states, rental assistance – an essential lifeline for millions – could arrive too late, according to housing advocates."

Some rural households may have a leg up in beating the clock: because of the way the assistance is being allocated, rural white residents are more likely to get emergency rent assistance, according to a USA Today analysis. See your state and county's rent debt on this interactive map by the University of Southern California's Equity Research Institute.

In mid-May, 7.49 million American adults said they were behind on rent or mortgage payments and weren't likely to be able to make the next month's payment, according to a Census Bureau survey. "So far, the eviction moratorium has kept many of these families housed. There were 1.55 million fewer eviction cases last year than would be filed in a typical year, according to an estimate by the Eviction Lab," Holpuch reports. "Without the moratorium, they will need access to the $46.55 billion in rental assistance allocated by the government to help renters and landlords – though its distribution got off to a slow start."

On President Trump's last day in office, the Treasury Department issued guidelines requiring applicants to provide more documentation to prove they qualified for the program. That made it more difficult for many to access the program. The Biden administration revised the guidelines in March and in May issued new rules that made application easier, Holpuch reports,

Monday, June 21, 2021

First-of-its-kind interactive map from feds shows gaps in broadband service, in some cases at the neighborhood level

Screenshot of the Indicators of Broadband Need interactive map. Click the image to enlarge it.

The Biden administration's first-of-its-kind interactive map shows the rural-urban broadband gap in sharp relief from different perspectives and sources that you can choose. The county-level map, a product of the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, allows users to explore different datasets about broadband access and toggle layers to show data about racial minorities, tribal lands, poverty, and more.

Broadband datasets include average download speed, smartphone usage, and overall internet access. NITA also offers state governments more in-depth tools for analyzing broadband access.

Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel lauded the project: "Broadband is no longer nice to have. It’s need to have. To ensure that every household has the internet access necessary for success in the digital age, we need better ways to accurately measure where high-speed service has reached Americans and where it has not."

Surveyed rural bankers still optimistic about economy but worry about drought, inflation and federal bank regulations

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

A June survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwest states that rely on agriculture and energy found they still have strong expectations for the economy, but are concerned about cybersecurity, inflation, drought, and more. The Rural Mainstreet Index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The overall index remained above growth-neutral for the seventh straight month, falling to 70 on a scale of 100 from last month's record 78.8. For the first time since it began in 2013, the index recorded nine straight months of farmland prices above growth-neutral. Almost half the bankers reported that their local economy expanded from May to June. Federal stimulus/relief funds, strong grain prices and expanding exports played a big role, writes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. 

Despite recent job gains, overall non-farm employment in the surveyed states is 2% lower than pre-pandemic levels. Employment in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

Bankers raised other concerns about the future (see chart below). The largest share, about one-fourth, predicted rising government regulations as the greatest threat to bank operations in 2021-22. A downturn in farm income was a close second, followed by cyberthreats.

Contrary to Biden's remark, reporters don't need a negative attitude, but a problem-solving stance, rural journalist says

"Look, to be a good reporter, you’ve got to be negative. You’ve got to have a negative view of life, it seems to me," President Biden told reporters last week. "You never ask a positive question."

That prompted Paul Stevens, moderator of the Connecting email newsletter for retirees and friends of The Associated Press, to ask, "Is negativity toward life a requirement to be a good reporter?"

John Wylie
John Wylie, retired publisher of the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma said no, from the perspective of a rural editor and reporter who recently joined the Oklahoma Press Association's club for members with 50 years in journalism and still does freelance investigative reporting:

"I say that just the opposite is true. I crossed the Rubicon Saturday and am now officially a part of the OPA's Half Century Club. Throughout those 50 years, I've said or thought every day that I have the best job in the world. I get up each morning with no idea what the day will bring. Maybe I'll be talking to a police officer who saved a little child from wandering into a busy street, discovered the child was alone because Mom worked a day job and a night job to keep her family fed, clothed and housed, but sometimes the overnight sitter fell asleep early. The cop found a place for the child to spend the nights safely. I got to write about it, spreading the word about an important service. Maybe I'll get to see a major figure make a surprise visit to town and make a speech that makes history, which I get to record. Maybe I'm able the next day to follow up on an elderly lady who was swindled and in the process found she had a lot of company. Maybe I missed a day's sleep following up tips, but in the end we wrote the story, the swindlers were jailed and the victims' money was returned. Each day I have had the chance to go into the world, follow the news where it takes me and when I'm satisfied the facts are solid and I can write a compelling story explaining what those facts mean -- and how they can be used to fix a problem. I love history, I love talking to people, and I love history -- especially writing about it.

"That's my job every day -- studying history, talking to people, looking for documents and places to research, writing about it and hopefully create something that will make the world a little better place. It sounds corny, but I still wonder how I got lucky enough to work doing what I love, actually get paid to do it. If I'm really lucky, maybe I'll inspire another young historian/story teller/collector of fascinating people with fascinating stories to share. If that's having a negative view of life, then perhaps we all should adopt it? I prefer that sometimes those 'negative' questions are asked because the reporter or editor has the same joy about going to work in the morning -- that when the sun sets in the evening the world will be just a little bit better place."

AP retiree Lee Mitgang wrote that Biden's comment "brings to mind a panel I was on in the early '90s at Teachers College, Columbia University, discussing how education reporters were covering the hot topic of school choice and vouchers. The audience included some pretty media savvy folks, among them the heads of a number of Washington-based education lobby organizations, most of whom I'd dealt with many times. At some point in the give-and-take, one of them said that our primary purpose as reporters should be the betterment of schools generally, and public education specifically. I recall replying that we all want better schools but as a reporter, my first responsibility was to supply our readers with the best and fairest information I could about the taxpayer-funded institution I was covering. As such, I said, 'I'm not your enemy, and I'm not your friend.' To this day, I'm amazed at the blowback I got from this supposedly sophisticated audience who -- like thin-skinned presidents -- either don't fully understand or don't accept what reporters do for a living. I still stand by my answer."

Prisoners working in meatpacking plants may have spread the coronavirus between those two risky settings

Many meatpackers hire prisoners in work-release programs. Prisons and slaughterhouses have been two of the highest-risk settings during the pandemic, and such workers may have spread the coronavirus from one facility to another, reports the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

"Nearly 400,000 prisoners in the U.S. have contracted coronavirus and about 2,700 have died, according to the Marshall Project. Investigate Midwest tracking has found that at least 50,000 meatpacking workers have gotten sick since March and 259 have died," Madison McVan reports. "It is unclear how widespread the connection between Covid-19 cases in jails and meatpacking plants might have been. Some work release programs were suspended early in the pandemic . . . but isolated incidents were reported across the country."

It's often difficult to prove a cause, but a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from April "determined incarcerated workers at two Idaho food processing plants — CTI Foods and CS Beef — contracted Covid-19 at work and carried the virus to the correctional facilities where they lived," McVan reports. The Idaho Department of Corrections barred prisoners from working at CTI until after the pandemic because the plant didn't follow the department's required safety standards. 

"The CDC study described how collaboration among Idaho departments resulted in more testing availability, reassignment to safer worksites and a shared pool of information," McVan reports. 

Bruce Wells-Moore, deputy chief of Idaho's probation and parole division, told McVan, "We had to go and say, 'We want to continue to work with you. But if you can’t impose and implement these protective measures — masks, social distancing — we aren’t going to be able to send our folks to do your work. I know that we’re small, and we’re rural in many ways . . . but if this can help establish a pattern or a process for other states to follow, I think that’s brilliant and I want to be part of that."

Rural-urban poverty gap narrowed over the past decade; USDA offers a database with county-level maps

"The rural poverty rate has exceeded the urban rate ever since the government began tracking both in the 1960s. The difference, 4.5 percentage points in the 1980s, has narrowed to an average of 3.1 points over the past 10 years, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture in updating its Rural Poverty and Well-being webpage," Chuck Abbott reports for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

"According to Census Bureau data, the rural poverty rate was 15.4 percent and the urban rate was 11.9% in 2019. The recent peak for rural poverty was 18.4% in 2013, during the slow recovery from the Great Recession. Poverty rates are highest in the South, including the Mississippi Delta, and in Appalachia," Abbott reports, noting that the rural poverty rate was 33% when the Census Bureau began tracking it in 1959, twice as high as metropolitan areas' 15% rate.

The Rural Poverty & Well-being page has data breaking down rural-urban poverty rate comparisons over time; regional analysis of poverty, including maps; demographic break-downs of rural and urban poverty by race and age, state-level fact sheets, and maps at the state and county level.