Friday, August 20, 2021

Tom T. Hall, who did 'a rhyming journalism of the heart,' dies

Tom T. Hall (Photo by Robert Oermann)

Tom T, Hall, who chronicled the everyday experiences of rural America in plain language that was always understood, died Friday at his home in Franklin, Tennessee. He was 85.

Hall practiced "a rhyming journalism of the heart that sets his compositions apart from any other writer," Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said. "They are bound by his ceaseless and unyielding empathy for the triumphs and losses of others."

Country-music pioneer dubbed Hall "The storyteller." He "joined Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver in bringing a class of storytelling to country music unlike those before them," writes Matthew Leimkuehler of the Nashville Tennessean. "Hall timelessly an empathetically chronicled the human spirit — from barstool stories to cemetery caretakers — with words that would influence generations of wordsmiths to follow."

Sperling's Best Places map
Hall was born in Olive Hill, Kentucky. He was a performer while in the Army, and wrote humorous songs about Army life. His big break was “Harper Valley PTA” in 1968. "The record skyrocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and County Music singles charts, an impressive feat in a rich music era," writes Bruce Haring of Deadline.

"It freed Hall to record his own work, which included songs about burying a man who owed him 40 dollars [which you don't learn until the song's last line], mourning the death of the local hero who taught him how to drink and play guitar, and 'Trip to Hyden,' a journalistic tale of a drive to the scene of a mining disaster that was part Woody Guthrie, part Studs Terkel," says Rolling Stone's list* of 100 Greatest Songwriters, which ranks him No. 99. ["I guess the old man thought we were reporters," one line goes.] "Hall was an English major who said he learned to write songs by osmosis, soaking up everything from Dickens to Hemingway. His best work was charged with literary irony but unfolded with the ease of spoken language," as he wrote for Jeannie C. Riley in "Harper Valley PTA." Here's the next-to-last stanza:
"Well, Mr. Harper couldn't be here 'cause he stayed too long at Kelly's Bar again.
And if you smell Shirley Thompson's breath you'll find she's had a little nip of gin.
And then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I'm not fit!
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place, and you're all Harper Valley hypocrites."

*Other country writers on the list: 94.John Prine; 89.Felice and Boudleaux Bryant; 87.Kris Kristofferson; 79.Lucinda Williams; 76.Loretta Lynn; 60.Willie Nelson; 43.Johnny Cash; 33.Merle Haggard; 30.Dolly Parton; 28.Woody Guthrie; 13.Hank Williams

More Americans turning to dollar stores, but they may not save consumers much money, analysis finds

Unit prices at Dollar Tree, larger retailers (Chart by The Hustle; click on it to enlarge)
"A growing number of Americans are relying on dollar stores for everyday needs, especially groceries, as the pandemic drags into its 18th month. Chains such as Dollar General and Dollar Tree are reporting blockbuster sales and profits, and proliferating so quickly that some U.S. cities want to limit their growth. The 1,650 dollar stores expected to open this year represent nearly half of all new national retail openings, according to Coresight Research," Abha Bhattarai reports for The Washington Post. "Foot traffic at the largest such chain, Dollar General, is up 32 percent from pre-pandemic levels, far outpacing the 3 percent increase at Walmart, one of the few retail winners of last year, according to, which analyzes shopping patterns using location data from 30 million devices."

But, as a recent article from The Hustle shows, dollar stores may not save shoppers much money. Dollar stores often work with brands to create smaller products that fit the $1 price point. Usually, those smaller products are more expensive per unit than the full-sized versions at other retailers.

"Dollar stores count on customers either not being able to afford buying larger sizes elsewhere, or simply not doing the math," Zachary Crocket reports. "The core demographic of dollar stores — lower-income families who earn less than $40,000 per year — are often living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to buy in larger quantities, even if it means getting a better deal."

Stagnant wages and a shrinking middle class may enlarge dollar stores' core demographic, but rising inflation means they might have to make their products even smaller and further cut back on quality to keep prices at $1, Crockett reports.

Infrastructure bill's roads focus is on rehabilitation, but more than 1/3 of states' capital spending on roads is for new ones

Washington Post chart
While Congress moves an infrastructure bill, many states are still focused on building new roads or expanding existing ones, The Washington Post reports.

"The Federal Highway Administration estimates a $435 billion backlog of rehabilitation needs, while an analysis of agency data by The Washington Post shows a fifth of the nation’s major roads, stretching almost 164,000 miles, were rated in poor condition in 2019. That figure has stayed mostly unchanged for a decade," Ian DuncanMichael Laris and Kate Rabinowitz report. "Yet more than a third of states’ capital spending on roads that year, $19 billion, went toward expanding the road network rather than chipping away at the backlog."

Washington Post chart
That "reflects a desire to connect growing communities and battle congestion at the local and state level in a nation where most people rely on cars," the Post reports. "That appetite for expansion is clashing with new transportation priorities in Washington that seek to bolster existing highways while promoting other modes of travel."

Transportation for America, which lobbies for more spending on road maintenance, "concluded in a 2019 report that many states were continuing to build new roads regardless of whether they could afford to maintain them," the Post reports. "The problem compounds over time, according to the group, which estimated that each lane of new road adds $24,000 in annual maintenance costs per mile."

Herbicides are losing in the battle against 'superweeds'

The winner: Palmer amaranth, better known as pigweed
"Superweeds — that is, weeds that have evolved characteristics that make them more difficult to control as a result of repeatedly using the same management tactic — are rapidly overtaking American commodity farms," H. Claire Brown reports for The New York Times. "By now, it’s clear that weeds are evolving faster than companies are developing new weed killers."

That poses a major threat to global food production. "It’s hard to estimate exactly how much damage has already been wrought by herbicide resistance; the weeds are gaining ground faster than scientists can survey them. But research published in 2016 by the Weed Science Society of America found that uncontrolled weeds could cause tens of billions of dollars of crop losses every year."

Scientists are experimenting with different solutions, but nothing has worked very well yet, Brown reports. More and better herbicides aren't the answer, said Vipan Kumar, a weed scientist from Kansas State University, and growers should not rely so much on them to get rid of weeds, nor pin their hopes on chemical companies inventing a new, more effective one before it's too late. He cites Palmer amaranth, or pigweed, as an example. The notorious weed adapts to new pesticides far more quickly than companies can come up with new ones. And "evidence is mounting that weeds can actually metabolize herbicides, breaking them down before they do their work," Brown reports. "In other words, Palmer amaranth may have evolved resistance to weed killers that have yet to be invented."

Tyson Foods' near-monopoly in Arkansas is analyzed

Arkansas broiler production has risen as farm numbers have dropped. (Union of Concerned Scientists graph)

Cattle, hog and chicken farmers have long complained about the outsized power of major meat processors. An in-depth new multimedia report from the Union of Concerned Scientists illustrates such complaints, showing how Tyson Foods in Arkansas affects farmers, workers and communities.

"Chicken farmers are paid through a complex and competitive contract system that gives Tyson immense power over their operations. As this system has developed over the past several decades, thousands of farms have gone out of business or been forced to consolidate," Rebecca Boehm reports. "Meanwhile, Tyson’s processing plants endanger their workers and outsource the management of billions of pounds of chicken waste, some of which contaminates waterways and threatens public health, particularly in Arkansas’s Hispanic and Native American communities."

The report traces the company's history and how lobbying state politicians helped it win tax breaks. Today, it's the third-largest employer statewide and operates nearly half the slaughterhouses and processing plants in the state. That's no small thing, since Arkansas has the most such plants of any state in the nation, the most meat-chicken contract farms, and third-most total broiler sales from farms.

As Tyson grew more powerful, slaughtering and processing power in the state grew more concentrated, causing significant changes in the agricultural sector. "Arkansas has lost nearly 50 percent of its broiler farmers since 1978, and its broiler farms are larger than ever before," Boehm reports.

The analysis digs into how federal and state laws helped Tyson achieve a near-monopoly in the state, and how lobbyists influenced the Trump administration during the early days of the pandemic to its benefit. It concludes: "Equitable, science-based federal and state policies are needed to curb Tyson’s power, return fairness to the industry, protect workers, and ensure clean air and water for communities."

Farming gets an influx of millennials, with fresh perspective

Zain Shauk, 36, is the CEO of Houston-area hydroponics operation Dream Harvest Farming Co.
(Wall Street Journal photo by Michael Starghill Jr.)

The average American farmer is 57.5 years old, a number that has been steadily rising for decades, but an influx of millennials, many from non-farming backgrounds, have been taking up agriculture and bringing with them enthusiasm, off-beat ideas and high-tech fluency that are changing what it means to farm, Krithika Varagur reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Only 8 percent of U.S. farmers are under 35, according to the Agriculture Department's 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent. But their numbers have been growing: "From 2012 to 2017, the number of producers under age 35 grew 11% to about 285,000, while producers age 35-64 had shrunk by 2%," Varagur reports.

The lingering effects of the Great Recession may have been responsible for the numbers in 2017, since economic crises often create more interest in small-scale farming, said Severine von Tscharner Fleming, founder of Greenhorns, a nonprofit for young farmers. She's seen the same thing happening during the pandemic; in both cases, she told Varagur, widespread unemployment created a larger pool of workers who wanted to give farming a try.

As with their urban peers, many young farmers have side gigs. In 2017, "some 58% of U.S. producers overall, including 65% of those under 35, had a primary occupation other than farming," Varagur reports. Still, farming remains a dicey financial proposition: nearly one-third of small farmers were expected to face bankruptcy by the end of the year, according to a May 2020 survey. That's why some millennials pivot from farming into a related field such as agricultural equipment sales.

Sometimes it does work out, though. Former reporter Zain Shauk, now 36, dreamed up a hydroponic lettuce business with a friend on a trip to Las Vegas in 2014. Today, their Houston-area business, Dream Harvest Farming Co., profitably employs 32 people and operates 7,500 square feet of warehouse space, Varagur reports.

For other millennials considering a farming career, Hauk recommends thinking about your own life experiences for guidance. "I decided to start farming greens after having one too many experiences buying lettuce that went bad before I even got home," Hauk told Varagur. "I would encourage others to think that way, too. If you’re frustrated by the meat, types of fish, fruits, or whatever else you buy week after week, you actually have the option to change that, which is so cool."

Quick hits: A look back at the "Field of Dreams' game; $19M for rural telehealth expansion; Indian may head Park Service

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

The "Field of Dreams" baseball game in Iowa on Aug. 12 put a spotlight on agriculture and the Midwest. Read more here.

The Agriculture Department is seeking public comments on its new IT system for managing civil rights discrimination complaints lodged against USDA programs and partners. Read more here.

A Native American may become the first director of the National Park Service. Charles F. "Chuck" Sams III, whom President Biden nominated on Wednesday, is a Navy veteran who has worked in non-profit natural resource and conservation management for over 25 years. Read more here.

Much of the growth in H-2A visas comes from tobacco mecca North Carolina. That means more immigrant farmworkers are getting nicotine poisoning. Read more here.

Also in North Carolina: Military veterans are lobbying the state legislature to legalize medical marijuana for pain, PTSD and more. It's an advocacy model that has worked in other states. Read more here.

The Biden administration is distributing over $19 million in grants to expand telehealth in rural and other underserved communities. Read more here.

Fall kicks in on the farm with pond-building and cow pedicures. Read more here.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Pandemic roundup: Extension services try to build rural trust in vaccines; former skeptics include a weekly publisher

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

Getting more people vaccinated against the coronavirus will require building trust, so cooperative extension programs across the U.S. are trying to do just that. In June the Extension Foundation announced a federally funded initiative to educate rural and other underserved areas about vaccinations. This story zeroes in on one extension service's efforts in the Black-majority town of Cairo, Illinois. Read more here.

President Biden has ordered the Education Department to take action against governors who ban school mandates. Read more here.

As the coronavirus surges in Florida, some rural vaccine skeptics change their minds, including Roger West, co-owner of the weekly Westside Journal near Jacksonville, Fla. Read more here.

An interactive map shows the percentage of hospital beds in each county occupied by Covid-19 patients. Read more here.

This map shows, by hospital referral regions, where intensive care unit beds are nearly full of Covid-19 patients. Categorizing it by referral region makes it particularly relevant to rural interests. Read more here.

Alabama has no more ICU beds available, state authorities say. Read more here.

Even with the vaccination rate higher than ever, fewer American adults feel confident that they won't become infected with the coronavirus, according to a new Gallup survey. Read more here.

Small incentives go a long way in getting people vaccinated, found a Colorado tourism town whose business owners banded together to offer coupons and other incentives to vaccinated customers. Read more here.

Most private insurers will no longer waive patients' share of Covid-19 hospital bills. Read more here.

It feels a little on the nose, but: August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Read more here for free content, tools, links, and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a guide to advocating for vaccines in one's community and online, and how to encourage more trust in health departments. Read more here.

The CDC also has a guide to addressing misinformation on social media. Read more here.

Feds to require staff vaccinations for nursing homes to keep Medicaid, Medicare $; impact likely heaviest in rural areas

Nursing homes will lose their federal Medicare and Medicaid funding unless all employees are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, President Biden announced Wednesday. 

"The new mandate, in the form of a forthcoming regulation to be issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, could take effect as soon as next month," Zeke Miller reports for The Associated Press. "Hundreds of thousands of nursing-home workers are not vaccinated, according to federal data, despite those facilities bearing the brunt of the early Covid-19 outbreak and their workers being among the first in the country to be eligible for shots."

The new rule will likely have an outsized effect on nursing homes in rural areas, where overall vaccination rates are lower and where seniors are more likely to rely on Medicaid to pay for nursing home stays. "Nationally, about 60 percent of nursing home staff are vaccinated – much lower than the 82.4% of residents who have gotten the shots," Berkeley Lovelace Jr. reports for CNBC. "In some states, the percentage of nursing home staff who are vaccinated is even lower." Without Medicaid or Medicare reimbursement, many would not be able to afford a nursing home. The nationwide median annual cost of a private room in a nursing home was $102,200 in 2019.

Some nursing homes have been reluctant to mandate vaccinations, fearing it would cause employees to quit when there are already widespread staffing shortages.

New rural coronavirus infections have nearly doubled in the past two weeks, and Covid-19 deaths have jumped 140%

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Aug. 8-14
Daily Yonder map; click the map to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

During the week of Aug. 8-14, new rural coronavirus infections rose for the eighth week in a row, to their highest level since the end of January.

"In the past two weeks, new Covid-19 infections in rural counties have nearly doubled, from about 70,000 three weeks ago to 137,204 new cases last week," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "During the same period, Covid-related deaths in rural counties grew at an even faster rate, climbing from 368 in late July to 893 last week – an increase of more than 140 percent."

About 70% of nonmetropolitan counties had higher infection rates last week than the week before, and about 75% of non-metro counties are on the red-zone list, meaning they have 100 or more new cases per 100,000 people in one week, Murphy and Marema report. And more than 400 red-zone counties (shown in black or gray above) had 500 or more new cases per 100,000 last week.

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

EPA to ban chlorpyrifos (Lorsban), pesticide linked to brain damage in children, from most agricultural use

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday a ban on the use of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that has been linked to neurological damage in children, on food and feed crops. 

The new rule, which will take effect in six months, follows an order in April by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that directed the EPA to halt the agricultural use of the chemical unless it could demonstrate its safety," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. "Labor and environmental advocacy groups estimate that the decision will eliminate more than 90 percent of chlorpyrifos use in the country."

Chlorpyrifos has been widely used since 1965, under the brand name Lorsban, but increasing safety concerns and state-level bans have made it much less so in recent years and its leading manufacturer, Corteva, stopped manufacturing it last year. Advocates for farm workers, health, and the environment have long called for a ban after studies linked exposure to the pesticide with developmental problems in children such as low birth weight, reduced intelligence, and more. "The Obama administration began the process of revoking all uses of the pesticide in 2015 but, in 2020, the Trump administration ignored the recommendations of EPA scientists and kept chlorpyrifos on the market. That set off a wave of legal challenges," Davenport reports. In April, a federal court ordered the EPA to either ban the use of chlorpyrifos on food crops or prove that it doesn't hurt children by Aug. 20. The EPA beat the deadline by two days.

"In an unusual move, the new chlorpyrifos policy will not be put in place via the standard regulatory process, under which the EPA first publishes a draft rule, then takes public comment before publishing a final rule," Davenport reports. "Rather, in compliance with the court order, which noted that the science linking chlorpyrifos to brain damage is over a decade old, the rule will be published in final form, without a draft or public comment period."

Agricultural groups such as the Agricultural Retailers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation criticized the decision, saying the EPA is taking away an important pest-control tool, and should have followed normal regulatory procedures.

It's unclear whether imported foods treated with chlorpyrifos will also be banned.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have a new outrider

Editorial cartoon by Bill Bramhill, New York Daily News

Boston Globe package aims to boost vaccination, encourages other papers, public institutions to do the same

Coronavirus vaccination rates and deaths by county as of Aug. 16, 2021.
Boston Globe map; click the image to enlarge it or here for the interactive version.

A special report from The Boston Globe and its collaborators at other news organizations, "The Last Best Shot," aims to educate readers on the coronavirus vaccine and illustrate why getting vaccinated is so important to ending the pandemic. Such a project, and similar efforts, are the responsibility of those with the ear of the public, the editorial board writes.

The package includes charts, an interactive map correlating vaccination rates with deaths, an editorial, myths and facts about coronavirus vaccination, tips on convincing the unvaccinated, testimony from vaccine skeptics who are glad they got vaccinated, and a story on how vaccination blunted the pandemic in a local community. Other newspapers can replicate these elements or cite the Globe's work with permission. Here's how the Globe is highlighting editorials:

Rural vaccinations getting spotty? Overall rate slowed last week, but sped up in more than half of rural counties

Rural/urban vaccination rates as of Aug. 12, compared to the 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.

The pace of new coronavirus vaccinations in rural counties "slowed a bit last week but still exceeded the rate of new vaccinations in mid-July," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Arizona had the biggest percentage point increase in its rural vaccination rate, followed by states hard-hit by the Delta variant: Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.

From Aug. 6 to Aug. 12, some 172,315 rural residents completed their coronavirus vaccinations, compared to 260,295 two weeks ago. "The current rate of completed vaccinations in rural counties is 37.1% of the total rural population. That’s an increase of 0.4 percentage points from two weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. "Metropolitan counties increased their vaccination rate by 0.5 percentage points last week to 48.5% of the metropolitan population."

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

Rural parents more likely than urban and suburban parents to worry about getting their children vaccinated, study finds

Parental concerns about coronavirus vaccination by 
rurality (Covid States Project chart; click to enlarge)
A new study from The Covid States Project analyses parental attitudes about getting their children vaccinated, breaking the numbers down by political party, rurality, educational attainment, age of parent, gender, race, and more. The project is a joint effort of Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities.

In general, "Republican parents, young mothers, African American parents, parents with lower levels of education, parents making less than $25,000 per year, and rural parents" were more likely to be concerned about the vaccine, the researchers report.

More specific numbers about rural parents: "Rural parents are ten percentage points more likely to report whether the vaccine has been tested enough as a major concern (58% vs. 48%), nine percentage points more likely to report whether the vaccine actually works (51% vs. 42%) as well as long-term health effects (56% vs. 47%), and eight percentage points more likely to report how new the vaccine (52% to 44%) is as a major concern than urban parents."

Podcast from agricultural lender explores how rural electric cooperatives can equitably develop clean energy

A recent Cobank podcast explored how rural electric cooperatives can best transition to renewable energy sources in an equitable way. Featured guests included Keith Taylor, a Cooperative Extension assistant economic development specialist from the University of California, Davis, and Gabriel Chan, and assistant professor of science, technology and environmental policy at at the University of Minnesota.

They discussed how rural communities could overcome the pricetag problems that come with transition and how co-ops could work with their communities and federal, state and local governments to facilitate the transition.  Listen to the podcast here.

Utilities nationwide are shifting toward renewable energy, but it's happening more slowly in rural areas served by electric cooperatives. Rural co-ops are much more reliant on coal than the average electric providers, partly because it's more difficult to afford the switch and sometimes because member-customers are sometimes more invested in coal as part of the local economy.

Several rural winners are among the Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association

The Radio Television Digital News Association announced on Tuesday its annual Edward R. Murrow Awards. Here are some rural winners and winners who addressed subjects with rural resonance:

West Virginia Public Broadcasting won the award for video by Small Market Radio stations for a story on struggling apple farmers: Despite Increasing Demand, Some W.Va. Apple Farmers Struggle.

WVPB also received the News Documentary award for Grandfamilies of the Opioid Crisis.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX in Emeryville, Calif., received the Podcast award in the Network Radio category for American Rehab, about a drug rehabilitation company that forced patients to work full-time at chicken plants, factories and more—for free.

100 Days in Appalachia received the Hard News award in the Small Digital News Organization category for Framing Domestic Extremism in Appalachia and Beyond.

Vermont Public Radio in Colchester, Vt., received the Feature Reporting award in the Small Market Radio category for Our Moms Have To Talk': Pocket Dial Connects Grieving Moms.

VPR also won for Podcast for Brave Little State.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution won in the Investigative Reporting category for Large Digital News Organizations for The Imperfect Alibi: The forgotten suspect, the DNA and the church murders that haunted a detective, about a murder in rural Georgia.

Winners will be honored at the Murrow Awards Gala on Oct. 27 in New York.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Senate infrastructure bill has $300 million for rural road safety; some states are already focusing on the problem

The recently-passed Senate infrastructure bill has funding for a longstanding problem: unsafe rural roads. More than 16,000 people died on rural roads in the U.S. in 2019, according to the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data available. That's nearly half of the nation's annual traffic fatalities, though only about one-fifth of the population lives in rural areas, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline.

The Senate bill "would require a study of the issue and launch a new rural road grant program that includes $300 million for high-risk rural road safety programs. And safety analysis should be part of the many individual projects funded by the package, advocates say," Bergal reports. "Relatively simple engineering changes, such as rumble strips, median barriers, pavement markings, better lighting and wider shoulders could make a big difference in rural road safety, transportation experts and advocates say." Another issue that contributes to higher rural road fatality rates: emergency responders often take longer to arrive at the scene and longer to get patients to a hospital.

Some state transportation departments are already tackling the problem.

"South Carolina, for example, is investing $124 million over 10 years to make rural roads safer by installing rumble strips, wider pavement markings, brighter signs, high-friction surface treatments, guardrails and other improvements," Bergal reports. "In Minnesota, the state transportation department has installed technology at dozens of rural intersections to give motorists real-time warnings about traffic conditions."

And in Kansas, "where about 90% of the roads are rural and most are owned by counties, state Department of Transportation officials decided to change the way they viewed crash data and how and where to make changes," Bergal reports. Data showed that roadway departures, or anything that makes drivers unintentionally leave the road, were the biggest contributors to serious or fatal accidents.

The department has allotted $4 million in federal funds each year for the program, including $1 million a year for a consultant to help the state's 105 counties create safety plans for their rural roads. "The plans will recommend engineering changes that local governments can make to prevent crashes, such as flattening slopes, widening shoulders, installing pavement markings and rumble strips and removing trees that may be too close to the road. The state is paying for 90% with federal dollars; local governments are picking up the rest," Bergal reports. "When the program started in 2016, Kansas was averaging 207 severe crashes a year on rural roads ... That number dropped to 189 as of 2018, the latest year data is available."

Low Lake Mead prompts first-ever federal declaration of shortage; farmers' Colorado River water will be reduced

People take pictures of Lake Mead near Hoover Dam on Aug. 13. The lighter layer of minerals shows the high-water mark of the reservoir. (Associated Press photo by John Locher)

"Low water in the Colorado River’s largest reservoir triggered the first-ever federal declaration of a shortage on Monday, a bleak marker of the effects of climate change in the drought-stricken American West and the imperiled future of a critical water source for 40 million people in seven states," report Karin Brulliard and Joshua Partlow of The Washington Post. "Water in Lake Mead, the mammoth reservoir created by the Hoover Dam that supplies the lower Colorado basin, is projected to be 1,065.85 feet above sea level on Jan. 1, nearly 10 feet below a threshold that requires Arizona, Nevada and Mexico to reduce their consumption in 2022. On Monday, it was just under 1,068 feet, or about 35 percent full, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the water that states and Mexico have rights to use." The lake hasn't been that low since it began filling after completion of the Hoover Dam in the 1930s." 

The water-supply cuts triggered by the declaration will mostly affect Arizona farmers—at first. "Beginning next year they will be cut off from much of the water they have relied on for decades. Much smaller reductions are mandated for Nevada and for Mexico across the southern border," Henry Fountain reports for The New York Times. "But larger cuts, affecting far more of the 40 million people in the West who rely on the river for at least part of their water supply, are likely in coming years as a warming climate continues to reduce how much water flows into the Colorado from rain and melting snow."

The mandatory cuts "are part of a contingency plan approved in 2019 after lengthy negotiations among the seven states that use Colorado River water: California, Nevada and Arizona in the lower basin, and New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in the upper basin. American Indian tribes and Mexican officials have also been involved in the planning," Fountain reports. "The shortage announced Monday affects only the lower basin states, but the Bureau of Reclamation may declare a similar shortage for the upper basin, perhaps as early as next year."

Libraries increasingly loaning out items like cake pans, power tools, and more

Libraries all over the country are increasingly loaning out non-traditional items ranging from cake pans and power tools to seed and sports equipment, "a growing movement known as the 'Library of Things' that aims to enrich residents’ lives in new and innovative ways," Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

The items are a boon for residents who don't need such things often or can't afford them. Libraries that launch such collections often start by surveying patrons to see what they want.

Curtis Rogers, a spokesman for the Urban Libraries Council, said Library of Things collections serve the same goals as books. "It’s to support lifelong learning, entrepreneurial thinking, creativity and skill-building for all community members," he told Queram.

What does your local library have? Ask. Report!

Pandemic roundup: Agriculture workers are the most vaccine-resistant; lack of paid time off hurts vax rates

Agriculture workers are the most resistant. (Morning Consult chart; click to enlarge)
Here's a roundup of recent news about the pandemic and immunization efforts:

Sources say U.S. health officials will soon authorize a coronavirus booster shot, and will recommend that fully vaccinated Americans get that extra dose eight months after receiving their second shot. Read more here.

A surge in Covid patients has pushed Mississippi's hospital system to the brink. Read more here.

Viral videos of speakers at school board and city council meetings are proving a fertile source of misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines on social media. The popularity of such videos is leading schools, local governments and tech platforms to weigh the value of freedom of expression against the harm of creating more misinformation online. Read more here.

Many low-wage American workers lack paid time off from their jobs. That makes them less likely to get vaccinated and has contributed to the spread of the virus, surveys and policy experts say. Read more here.

Rates of vaccine hesitancy and opposition have decreased among Black and Hispanic adults but remain unchanged among Republicans, recent surveys say. Another finding: Agriculture workers are the least willing of any U.S. occupation to get vaccinated (see image at right). Read more here.

Here are some easy hacks to make your mask more effective and tips on how to spot counterfeit N95 masks. Read more here.

Here are some tips on how to talk to vaccine-hesitant family and friends about getting their shots. Read more here.

A scientist who claims (sometimes) to be responsible for the invention of mRNA vaccines has amassed an online following questioning the safety of such vaccines. A deep dive from The Atlantic explains what's going on. Read more here.

After just a week in session, a rural county in southeastern Georgia has closed all 11 schools until Sept. 7 because of skyrocketing local coronavirus infections. The vaccination rate in Ware County is about 29%, far below the national average, and about 14% of 15-19-year-olds in the county are fully vaccinated. Read more here.

Republican lawmakers often blame undocumented immigrants for surging coronavirus infections. Blaming diseases on foreigners is an old tactic, and one not supported by evidence, writes a history professor. Read more here.

The pandemic is harming many children's mental health, but therapy is often hard to access. Read more here.

Broadband equipment shortage slows rural buildout

In Missouri and likely elsewhere, broadband equipment shortages are hindering efforts to spend Agriculture Department grant money on rural build-out, and may make some utilities miss out on grants.

"The USDA is allocating $167 million in grants and loans to broadband providers in Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado, Georgia, North Dakota, Arizona, Alaska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia in the latest round of the ReConnect program. The funds are part of $550 million Congress provided for the program in 2020 and 2021," Seth Bodine reports for Harvest Public Media. "Broadband providers already are having a hard time getting equipment. Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the National Rural Broadband Association, says providers says that they can’t get 30 to 40 percent of the needed equipment to install broadband. This includes fiber, which she says companies are waiting up to 71 weeks to be delivered."

Bloomfield said she's asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to extend grant compliance deadlines so providers can get equipment in time, Bodine reports. Vilsack has said the influx of infrastructure funding will encourage providers to increase production.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Rural population loss highlights farmworker shortage, prompts farming lobbies to renew call for immigration reform

"Rural America lost more population in the latest census, highlighting an already severe worker shortage in the nation's farming and ranching regions and drawing calls from those industries for immigration reform to help ease the problem," Gant Schulte and David Pitt report for The Associated Press. "The census data released last week showed that population gains in many rural areas were driven by increases in Hispanic and Latino residents, many of whom come as immigrants to work on farms or in meatpacking plants or to start their own businesses."

In Nebraska, only 24 of the state's 93 counties grew in population over the past decade; increases in white residents drove growth in only eight of those counties, says David Drozd of the University of Nebraska-Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research. The Nebraska counties with meatpacking plants had the greatest racial diversity in the state, he found. "In the rural areas, if you didn't have the Latino growth, employers would be struggling even more just to fill those positions," Drozd told AP.

New Mexico farmers need about 3,000 seasonal workers for the annual chile harvest, but only have about 1,350 lined up. Earlier this week, the state promised up to $5 million in federal relief funds to boost laborers' hourly pay as high as $19.50. "Republican state legislators blamed the labor scarcity on supplemental unemployment benefits, which they say create a disincentive to work because they pay more than some low-wage jobs. Democrats see a persistent labor crisis," AP reports.

North Carolina poultry processing plants are facing a worker shortage too. It will probably get worse as rural areas keep losing population and migrant workers increasingly turn to industries such as construction, predicted North Carolina Poultry Federation executive director Bob Ford. Higher pay and benefits could help, but broad immigration-policy change is the best solution, he told AP. "The National Pork Producers Council is pushing federal lawmakers to change the H-2A visa program so that migrant workers can remain employed longer," Schulte and Pitt report.

Rural areas saw lower rate of fatal shootings by police since 2015, but rate declined less than in urban areas; local data

Screenshot of interactive map marking the site of every deadly shooting in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2015, by a police officer in the line of duty. (Map by The Washington Post; click on the image to enlarge it.) Click here for the interactive version, on which you can filter results by state, gender, race, age, weapon, the presence of a body camera, and more.

"As police shootings have become a flashpoint in U.S. cities, The Marshall Project and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting spent a year examining those urban killings’ little-publicized counterparts in rural America," Alysia Santo and R.G. Dunlop report in The New York Times. "Officers in rural areas fatally shot about 1,200 people from 2015 through 2020, while in cities there were at least 2,100 such deaths, according to the news organizations’ analysis of data compiled by The Washington Post; no comprehensive government database exists."

Though the population-adjusted rate of rural police shootings was 30 percent lower than the urban rate (suburbs were not included), the data analysis found that "the rural incidents mirrored many of the dynamics of police shootings that have come under scrutiny in cities, Santo and Dunlop report. "And even as deadly police shootings declined in cities and rural communities during this time, according to the analysis, the rural decrease was more modest: about 9% versus 19%."

The story largely centers on the Kentucky State Police and its 33 fatal rural shootings, the highest number of any agency in the six-year period studied. Kentucky serves as a sort of microcosm that illustrates "both what distinguishes these encounters from other police killings and how they fit within broader patterns nationwide," Santo and Dunlop report.

In Kentucky and elsewhere, most of the people killed in rural police shootings had common characteristics: Most were men, two-thirds were armed with guns, most struggled with addiction or mental health, and most shootings happened in poorer counties, Santo and Dunlop report.

Most were also white, they report: "White people make up the rural majority in nearly every state, and two-thirds of the people fatally shot by law enforcement in rural areas across the country were white, the data analysis shows; about 10 percent were Black. (In cities, 37 percent were Black and 31 percent white.) Nevertheless, in some states, a disproportionately high number of Black people were shot and killed by the police relative to their share of the rural population, according to the data. These include Alabama, Virginia and — the starkest example — Louisiana, where Black people accounted for about 20 percent of rural residents but almost 37 percent of rural police shootings."

Another commonality: the officers involved in most fatal rural shootings were not indicted or prosecuted. "This holds in Kentucky, where the state police investigate their own shootings without an independent review," Santo and Dunlop report. "That model is changing in many parts of the country, where states and municipalities have set up independent investigative units."

During the six years studied, one Kentucky trooper was fatally shot on the job. His killing highlighted the "frequent reality" that most law enforcement officers must work alone. "Sometimes, policing experts said, solo officers may be more inclined to shoot because they feel at risk knowing that backup could be many miles away," Santo and Dunlop report. In rural Kentucky, and likely elsewhere, friends and family of those killed by law enforcement were more likely to criticize individual officers than KSP as a whole. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits get biggest hike ever; rural families are more likely to be on it

"The Biden administration has revised the nutrition standards of the food-stamp program and prompted the largest permanent increase to benefits in the program’s history, a move that will give poor people more power to fill their grocery carts but add billions of dollars to the cost of a program that feeds one in eight Americans," Jason DeParle reports for The New York Times.

What most people call food stamps is now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Under rules announced today, which will take effectin October, "average benefits will rise more than 25 percent from pre-pandemic levels," DeParle reports. "All 42 million people in the program will receive additional aid. The move does not require congressional approval, and unlike the large pandemic-era expansions, which are starting to expire, the changes are intended to last."

Rural households are disproportionately likely to be SNAP recipients.

Before the pandemic, the average SNAP recipient received $121. Under the new rules, that will increase by $36. "Although the increase may seem modest to middle-class families, proponents say it will reduce hunger, improve nutrition and lead to better health," DeParle reports.

Critics have said for years that SNAP benefits are inadequate. Even after a recent 15% increase during the pandemic, the maximum SNAP benefit can't cover food expenses in over 40% of U.S. counties. But opponents say recipients should better budget the aid they already have, citing research showing that nearly 10% of SNAP benefits are spent on sweetened drinks, DeParle reports. Critics of the increase also say the roughly $20 billion in increased annual spending from pre-pandemic levels is unsustainable, that more money makes the poor less willing to work, and that SNAP isn't meant to cover all food expenses. However, about 40% of SNAP recipients have no net income, according to a new Urban Institute report.

Rural patients can't get transfers to overcrowded hospitals

Skyrocketing Covid-19 hospitalizations mean hospitals nationwide are running out of beds. That's hurting not just Covid patients, but rural patients with other serious ailments who would customarily be transferred to larger regional hospitals.

For example, Zac Oakes of Russell Springs, Ky., told WLEX-TV in Lexington that it took a week to move his grandfather to a larger hospital. His grandfather does not have Covid-19 and does not need an intensive care unit, but it was almost impossible to find a bed, he said.

"These hospitals don't have room, and if they don't have room for somebody who needs medical care quickly, I mean that can be a matter of life or death for some people and it's very frightening that we're at that point," Oakes told reporter Austin Pollack.

That could be deadly for time-sensitive issues such as strokes; rural residents are at a higher risk for them, and rural survival rates are worse in part because rural hospitals don't quickly transfer patients to bigger hospitals that have more specialists and newer treatments. 

Last fall, some states created a system where urban hospitals would send less-critical patients to rural hospitals to make room for critical rural Covid patients; other states and regions could make such arrangements.

In the meantime, large safety-net hospitals are routinely forced to turn down rural patients. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Catherine O'Neal at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow this weekend that Covid-19 patients have taken up 68 of their 90 ICU beds, and that more Covid patients are occupying beds elsewhere in the hospital.

"What we're also seeing now is a waiting list of people who need an ICU bed, and people calling and begging, 'Please put our patient that we can't take care of in our small hospital in your regional medical center.' And we say no. We say no every day to about 25 to 30 patients who want an ICU bed but we don't have any room for them," O'Neal told Maddow. "And that is our job; we're the safety net for the hospital as the largest hospital in the state. We're supposed to take these difficult patients, and we haven't been able to do that in about a month. So all of those people have waited for care, or have driven hours and hours with their disease to hospitals in Houston, hospitals in New Orleans, hospitals in Mississippi that are now also saying no because they are full as well."

Federal relief teams are trying to ease the burden on hospitals by offering outpatient monoclonal-antibody therapy, which can make the disease less serious, but many hospitals are still overrun. O'Neal said her hospital is "creating beds" by asking employees to care for critical patients who had never done so before, "but all that does is leave another person behind," she said. "What you really have to do is stem the tide. This is not a disease where we can take more and more Covid patients without leaving somebody off. The only way to truly create capacity again and undo that gridlock is to stem the tide, and the only way we're going to see that happen is through vaccination.

O'Neal said this fourth wave of the pandemic is not only bringing more hospitalizations, but younger patients. "We have teenagers coming into the ICU to tell their parents goodbye. We have teenagers FaceTiming with their parents to tell them goodbye because they have Covid and can't come to the hospital," she said. "We never saw that amount of young death before. We have people stacking up for care, which we've never had to do. We made it work in previous surges. It was hard, it was taxing, but we made it happen. And now we can't make it happen anymore. We can't just make a bed. We can't make another nurse. It's impossible to do, and we've tried. We tried for the last month, we sounded this alarm a month ago, and this point we do our best every day but we know that people don't get the care they need, we know that people are dying, and we're gonna take care of the person in front of us because that's what health-care workers do, and we're gonna depend on everybody else to do their part to stem the tide. We can't do it for them."

Bigger child tax credit may make quick dent in child hunger

U.S. Census Bureau chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
"The percentage of American families with kids who report not having enough to eat fell dramatically after the first child tax credit payments were distributed last month, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico. "The government’s finding shows that the monthly payments are having a major and immediate impact on millions of households. . . . Before the first tranche of tax-credit payments hit bank accounts in mid-July, about 11 percent of households with children reported that they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the past week. After the money went out, the rate dropped to just over 8% — a decrease of nearly 24% — and the lowest rate recorded since the beginning of the pandemic."

Though researchers warn it's too early to fully understand the drop in hunger rates, it appears closely correlated to the tax-credit payments. "Households with children saw a major decline, while adults in households with no children saw virtually no change over the same period, with about 6 percent reporting a lack of food sometimes or often," Evich reports. "Other factors that are very likely contributing to the decline: An improving economy and also special pandemic food aid payments that kids have received in recent months to help make up for meals missed at school last year."

A study by the Niskanen Center found that the higher tax credit helps rural communities most.