Saturday, August 28, 2021

The latest American dead in Afghanistan reflect small towns' ties to the military and the diversity of the United States

A community member lowers a flag to half-staff for Max Soviak, one of 13 U.S. service members killed in the airport suicide bombing in Kabul, at a home in Berlin Heights, Ohio, estimated population 636. (Photo by Megan Jelinger, Reuters)

The Pentagon has released the names, ranks, ages and hometowns of the 13 service members killed by the suicide bomber in Afghanistan. The list reflects the disproportionate share of U.S. service members that come from small towns and rural areas, and also the geographic and cultural diversity of our huge country. In the order listed by The Washington Post, which has brief profiles of each one, the heroes are:
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee McCollum, 20, of Jackson, Wyo., population 11,000, a resort town next to Grand Teton National Park. He was a newlywed expecting a baby next month.
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared Schmitz, 20, of Wentzville, Mo., a St. Louis suburb in St. Charles County.
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David Espinoza, 20, of Rio Bravo, Texas, pop. 4,800, on the Rio Grande, which folks on the other side of the river call Rio Bravo del Norte.
  • Navy Hospital Corpsman Max Soviak, 22, of Berlin Heights, Ohio, a village near Lake Erie with an estimated population of 636 in 2019.
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez, 22, of Indio, Calif., a date-growing city of 80,000 in the Sonoran Desert and home of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem Nikoui, 20, of Norco, Calif., in Riverside County. The town of 27,000 requires buildings to "reflect a desired Western theme," including qualities "described as rural, informal, traditional, rustic, low-profile and equestrian oriented."
  • Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin Taylor Hoover, 31, of Utah. The Pentagon listed no town, but his Facebook page says he attended high school in Midvale, a near suburb of Salt Lake City.
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan William-Tyeler Page, 23, of Omaha, at 475,000 by far the largest hometown on the list.
  • Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Knauss, 23, of Corryton, Tenn., a Knoxville suburb, also the hometown of several country musicians, including Kenny Chesney. In second grade, he wrote in his yearbook, “I want to be a Marine,” the Post reports.
  • Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario, 25, of Lawrence, Mass., a Boston suburb of 80,000 that was one of America's first manufacturing centers. She was of Dominican heritage.
  • Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto Sanchez, 22, of Logansport, Ind., a town of 18,000 in the north-central part of the state that is a suburb of Kokomo, pop. 58,000.
  • Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole Gee, 23, of Roseville, Calif., pop. 141,000 and the largest town in Placer County, which extends across the Sierra Nevada to the state line.
  • Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola, 20, of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., pop. 180,000. The second word of its name is a Native American term meaning "sandy place." Many young Americans have died in sandy places in the last 20 years.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Some state fairs cancel again, or delay, while others forge ahead, many 'requiring' masks but not enforcing mandate

Thousands, few of them masked, packed the Iowa State Fair. (Des Moines Register photo by Bryon Houlgrave)

Most state fairs are back on this year after 2020 cancellations, but with the Delta variant driving record coronavirus infections across the country, things looked a little different than usual.

Many fairs trimmed down on rides so attractions could be spread out in the service of social distancing, and introduced options for buying food without cash or contact. Most Midwestern fairs offered opportunities for people to get vaccinated, David Pitt reports for The Associated Press.

Pharmacist fills syringe at the Iowa fair (AP photo by Charlie Neibergall)
Some states required fairgoers to wear masks, but anecdotal reports are that such mandates weren't enforced much. Midwestern states such as Minnesota and Iowa encouraged but didn't require masks (Minnesota fair officials said it was because they couldn't figure out how to enforce it). After the Wisconsin State Fair, which clocked 841,000 visitors and had no pandemic restrictions, 46 coronavirus infections were confirmed in connection with the fair and eight more were suspected to be connected.

Kentucky's state fair requires masks indoors, but the mandate is toothless since they aren't enforcing it and most people aren't obeying it anyway. Fairgoers get unlimited free rides if they get a coronavirus vaccination at the fair, though.

California and Washington delayed their fairs for months in an attempt to duck the worst of the Delta variant surge, and Ohio closed its fair to outside visitors altogether, only allowing in agricultural and educational competition entrants.

Fact-checking Biden and Republicans on Afghanistan

President Biden has made remarks "that haven't always squared with the facts" in defending how he has handled withdrawal of U.S. forces and citizens from Afghanistan, FactCheck.org reports.

Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that his decision to withdraw completely went against the advice of top military advisers, who wanted him to keep about 2,500 troops. "It was split," Biden said. "That wasn’t true." Stephanopoulos asked, "They didn’t tell you that they wanted troops to stay?" and Biden replied, "No. Not at — not in terms of whether we were going to get out in a timeframe all troops. They didn’t argue against that." Stephanopoulos pressed the case, and Biden denied that he could not recall anyone telling him that 2,500 troops should remain.

"We don’t know what exactly Biden’s top military advisors may have told him in private conversations, or whether their recommendations may have changed over time," Fact Check reports, but says Biden’s account is contradicted by reporting from The New York TimesThe Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and a public Feb. 3 report from the Afghanistan Study Group created by Congress recommended against troop withdrawal unless the Taliban met conditions set in a withdrawal agreement the Trump administration reached with the Taliban in February 2020.

Biden asked at one point, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” but there's lots of evidence show that al Qaeda isn't gone, FactCheck notes: "A February report by the Defense Department inspector general's office said 'members of al-Qaeda were integrated into the Taliban’s leadership and command structure.' And in May, U.N. sanctions monitors reported that al Qaeda 'is resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, southern and south-eastern regions.'"

Biden claimed that the concept of “nation building” in Afghanistan “never made any sense” to him, but he publicly favored it in the early 2000s, FactCheck notes: "In a 2001 interview, he was asked if the U.S. should “be in the business of nation building” in Afghanistan 'if and when the Taliban falls.' Biden replied, 'Absolutely, along with the rest of the world.'"

Biden's handling of the withdrawal, and Thursday's suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. service members and 60 Afghans, has drawn attacks from Republicans, and some were outrageous, Chuck Todd and crew at NBC News say in today's "First Read" newsletter: "It wasn’t too long ago when, after a devastating attack, the United States united around its president, grieved, vowed retribution and saved the political finger-pointing for later. But that didn’t happen yesterday."

First Read cited Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn's tweet that “Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Antony Blinken, Lloyd Austin and General Milley should all resign or face impeachment and removal,” North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn's request that the Cabinet invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Biden, and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley's demand that Biden resign. The barrage "only served to polarize an already polarized country," First Read says. "It cheapened the legitimate criticism that Biden has gotten (and will continue to get) for his handling of the U.S. withdrawal; and it’s not serious at all. Do Blackburn, Hawley and Cawthorn really want Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi as president?"

Fertilizer runoff hurts poor communities more, report says

Runoff of nitrates from fertilizer disproportionately harms low-income communities, especially since treating the water is often too expensive for cash-strapped towns and counties, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found.

"Nitrogen contamination is linked to livestock production as the tons of nitrogen-rich manure produced by animal feeding operations is used as fertilizer in crop fields," Madison McVan reports. "While livestock operations must account for nitrogen levels in the soil and in the manure when applying manure to crop fields, the manure combined with commercial fertilizer can result in too much nitrogen being applied to the ground." Heavy rains often ferry the excess nitrogen into bodies of water where communities get their drinking water.

Nitrates are usually undetectable, and consuming large quantities can lower blood oxygen, especially among vulnerable populations such as children and immunocompromised people. Water treatment plants aren't generally equipped to filter them out, and adding such a system could cost millions, McVan reports.

Quick hits: Reaching rural students with school breakfast; mental health-care assistance hard to find in rural areas

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 webinar discusses how to help mitigate rural hunger with school breakfast. Read more here.

Alabama's rural electric co-ops are way behind on the solar curve, says a new report. Read more here.

A podcast discusses how mental-health care is often difficult to access in rural areas, with a focus on Missouri. Read more here.

Journalist reports that the Sackler family took $10 billion out of Purdue Pharma before the company declared bankruptcy. Read more here.

Rolling Stone has a feature on high-tech Kentucky greenhouse company AppHarvest, which has lost $28.5 million so far. Read more here.

Rural residents with head and neck cancer are significantly more likely to die by suicide, a study has found. Read more here.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Misinformation roundup: Facebook hid unfavorable report; health agencies fight fire with fire, using social media

Misinformation about coronavirus vaccines is widespread, partly because many holdouts don't trust the government or large, mainstream news-media sources for information. For better or worse, that means people are most influenced through friends, family and social media, whose algorithms often turn platforms into echo chambers that boost even extreme opinions.

A report from Facebook showed that, from January through March, an article casting doubt on coronavirus vaccines was its highest-performing link, and a site boosting vaccine misinformation was one of its most-visited pages. The company shelved that report for fear of public blowback; the Biden administration has criticized Facebook for allowing such misinformation to flourish.

Some state and local health departments, adopting an "if you can't beat 'em" philosophy, are seeking to boost vaccination rates among the under-40 crowd by paying social-media influencers to post pro-vax content on Facebook, TikTok and Facebook, Kate Queram reports for Route Fifty.

Some influencers live a little closer to home, though: faith leaders, medical professionals, friends and family also have some sway over vaccine skeptics, though they acknowledge often it's difficult to make headway.

Public-health officials have voiced hope that more religious leaders would encourage their congregations to get vaccinated, particularly among white evangelicals, some of the most resistant. But Southern pastors Politico interviewed said they didn't want to bring up such a divisive subject and risk alienating their flock.

In southeastern Kentucky, where vaccination rates are low and infection rates are high, health-care workers say they're trying to fight misinformation without being too confrontational, writes Jamie Lucke for Kentucky Health News.

For example, Dr. Shelley Bundy Stanko, chief medical officer at CHI Saint Joseph London and medical director of the Laurel County Health Department, said she's frustrated by how politicized vaccination has become, and said she works hard to reassure patients that it's safe and necessary. A few patients are willing to listen, but many (probably the majority) are "sort of shutting down and not absorbing the information," she told Lucke. Stanko said she continues trying to reach patients non-judgmentally, because "confrontation does not help." Instead, she urges people to research facts instead of relying on neighbors, social media, or television.

New rural Covid cases up 18% last week; deaths up 70%

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Aug. 15-21
Daily Yonder map; click the map to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

During the week of Aug. 15-21, nonmetropolitan counties saw 161,326 new coronavirus infections, an 18 percent increase from the week before, and 1,513 deaths, a nearly 70% spike from the previous week, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. About two-thirds of the new infections and half the deaths were in the South.

"New infections spread more quickly in rural counties than in metropolitan ones last week, resulting in a rural infection rate that is 25% higher than the metropolitan rate," Murphy and Marema report. "The current rate of Covid-related deaths is more than two times higher in rural counties than metropolitan ones."

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


Arizona student journalism package recounts the history of child sexual abuse in Native American communities

Journalism students at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication have produced an outstanding multimedia package on child sexual abuse in Native American communities. "Little Victims Everywhere" also explores where the federal government, which is responsible for investigating such cases, has not been held accountable for its track record since it wasn't required to publicly disclose the disposition of such cases until about a decade ago. 

The stage-setter of the package explains how widespread the problem of child sexual abuse is in many North American indigenous communities. "Some experts estimate it could impact as many as half of all children," it reports. The second chapter recounts how many cases fall through the cracks of the justice system. The third shows how tribal courts and police have limited authority and resources to sufficiently investigate cases and hold abusers accountable. The fourth shows how some Native Americans are trying to find their own ways of bringing healing and justice to their communities. The final chapter steps back for a longer view, discussing how intergenerational trauma dating back to the colonization of North America has contributed to the problem of sexual abuse in Indian Country.

Podcast explores how Biden broadband infrastructure plan could address rural poverty and help close digital gap

A recent Brookings Institution podcast discussed how President Biden's broadband infrastructure plan could address rural poverty while helping bridge the rural-urban digital gap.

Only 72 percent of rural Americans have home broadband internet service, and those who do are likely to pay much more for it than suburban or urban dwellers. Rural Blacks and Latinos are even less likely than other rural residents to have home broadband, Nicol Turner Lee reports for Brookings.

The podcast addresses rural/urban and white/minority broadband disparities, as well as what local challenges communities will face in building out broadband, and what policymakers, industry insiders, and others can do to support it. 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Court allows postage-rate increases to take effect Sunday; newspapers and other mailers will keep up court fight

A federal court is allowing postage-rate increases to take effect as scheduled Sunday, Aug. 29.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit denied a petition by the National Newspaper Association, the News Media Alliance and others to block the increases, averaging 9 percent. They had had argued that the Postal Regulatory Commission’s authorization of the increase was flawed, so it should be delayed until a court decides whether that is the case.

"The court simply issued a statement that the petition was denied, without providing any reasoning for the decision," NNA said in a news release. “The court rarely issues such stays,” NNA Chair Brett Wesner, president of Oklahoma-based Wesner Publications, said in the release. “This was always the longest of long shots to try to delay the increase. We felt the impact of a double-digit increase, between last January’s rate hike and the second one of the year coming this month, was overwhelmingly damaging to community newspapers.”

Wesner added, “This decision does deliver a blow to newspapers that are struggling to stay afloat. It does not diminish the basis of our original lawsuit. The oral argument on that case will proceed on Sept. 13. We expect a decision by the court by the end of the year. That decision could send the whole matter back to the PRC for reconsideration, and the PRC has the authority to roll back this increase if it so chooses. Congress also has the authority to take action here. I think our members have led the industry in reaching out to Congress about the financial distress of USPS and the need for postal reform.”

NNA and other mailers hope for passage of a bipartisan postal-reform bill that would resolve persistent financial issues of the U.S. Postal Service. A summary of the committee-approved bill is circulating among members, indicating that it is being lined up for a vote in the full House. An identical bill has bipartisan support in the Senate. Among the bill's many provisions is a huge expansion of newspapers' ability to mail sample copies to non-subscribers, a potentially great boon at a time of declining print circulation, which remains the principal source of revenue for almost all newspapers.

As the nation's climate warmed over the last 30 years, most of the West got drier and most of the East got rainier

Change in annual average precipitation, in inches, over the past 30 years compared to 20th century overall
(New York Times map; click on the image to enlarge it)

Over the past three decades, the U.S. has seen increasingly extreme weather. In the East, that tends to come in the form of flooding and storms; in the West, droughts and wildfires. 

"The map above, created using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows the eastern half of the country has gotten more rain, on average, over the last 30 years than it did during the 20th century, while precipitation has decreased in the West," Aatish Bhatia and Nadja Popovich report for The New York Times. "Thirty-year averages are often used by scientists to glean big-picture climate trends from temperature and precipitation data that varies substantially year to year."

"It’s not yet clear whether these changes in precipitation are a permanent feature of our warming climate, or whether they reflect long-term weather variability," the Times reports. "But they are largely consistent with predictions from climate models, which expect to see more precipitation overall as the world warms, with big regional differences. Broadly: Wet places get wetter and dry places get drier."

That shows on the map. The boundary between drier and wetter in the Southern Great Plains lies roughly along the 100th meridian of longitude, the traditional boundary between dry-land farming and more typical agriculture.

USDA won't appeal order blocking debt-relief program for minority farmers, but says it will keep fighting in court

In an unusual move, the Department of Justice is not appealing a judge's order blocking an Agriculture Department program to forgive debt for some minority farmers, due to past USDA discrimination. At least 12 white farmers, in concert with conservative and libertarian groups, filed suit, insisting that the program is racially discriminatory, and won preliminary rulings, Politico reports.

"While the Justice Department has filed appeals within hours to defend the administration’s high-profile priorities in areas like immigration, this time federal government lawyers let the 60-day appeal period run — and then run out," Josh Gerstein and Ximena Bustillo report. A USDA spokesperson said the administration would continue to defend the program in district courts.

Some minority-farmer advocates are disappointed that the Justice Department didn't appeal, but it may have been a long-game move to protect other programs for minorities, Gerstein and Bustillo report. If they had appealed the hold, they risked a higher court ruling that would have established unfavorable legal precedent. The minority farmer relief program will likely remain in limbo while the Justice Department continues arguing the cases in lower court, a process that could take months or even years.

Texas' solar-power boom alters landscape, sows rural ire

Texas Farm Bureau photo shows construction of solar site.
Solar energy is the fastest growing source of electricity in Texas, with the state projected to become one of the nation's top solar-power producers by the end of next year. But the proliferation of solar panels in rural areas has sparked controversy among residents, Julie Tomascik reports for the Texas Farm Bureau's Texas Agriculture Daily.

Solar energy development companies are offering farmers, ranchers and other landowners "lucrative leases, around $450 to $1,200 per acre per year with incremental increases. The leases range from 20-40 years, with the option for additional long-term renewals," Tomascik reports. "The steady income can help smooth out the financial roller coaster of growing crops and raising livestock, and there’s no cost to the landowner for 'raising' solar panels."

Detractors say they're not necessarily against solar energy, but they don't want it taking up valuable farming and ranching land. Less farming and ranching means less money for area businesses that sell fertilizer, feed, tractors, and more, they say. Also, "critics say development of these projects stresses rural infrastructure," Tomascik writes. "Farm-to-market and county roads built for occasional heavy loads are subjected to an onslaught of heavy machines and loaded gravel trucks. Crop fields and pastures once lush with livestock and new growth are covered with rock and guarded by chain-link fences topped with razor wire."

One of those critics, a farmer named Robert Fleming, organized a successful grassroots effort to convince the local school district to reject a tax abatement program for solar projects. A bill to extend the statewide solar tax-abatement program past 2022 failed in the legislature earlier this year.

The controversy over solar panels comes months after extreme winter weather knocked out power to much of Texas. The state mostly depends on natural gas for power, but poorly insulated pipelines left the power grid vulnerable. Solar panels work fine in winter as long as there's sun or sufficient battery storage, a technology that is still developing.

New rural vaccinations rose by a third last week; the rural vaccination rate is still lower but increased faster than metro

Vaccination rates as of Aug. 19, 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.

New coronavirus vaccination in rural and urban counties increased dramatically last week. Rural counties still have a lower overall vaccination rate than metropolitan areas, but the rural rate for new vaccinations was higher than in metro counties last week.

During the week of Aug. 13 to 19, about 237,000 rural Americans became fully vaccinated for the coronavirus, up about one-third from the previous week's 172,000 rural residents. That bumped the overall rural vaccination rate up half a percentage point to 37.6%, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The overall metro rate was 49.1%, up one-fourth from the previous week's rate.

"The increase in new vaccinations was widespread" Murphy and Marema report. "Of the nation’s 1,976 nonmetropolitan counties, 1,450 (73%) had more vaccinations last week than they did two weeks ago. In metropolitan counties, 995 of 1,165 counties (85%) had higher numbers of vaccinations."

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

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Permian Basin wells leak huge amounts of methane; plugging them could help slow climate change

A tank battery near Big Spring, Texas, spews methane through an open hatch, visible only with infrared cameras. (Photo and video by Sharon Wilson; image on right is a screenshot of the video, in which the gas emission is more apparent.)

A recent United Nations climate report stressed the need to cut back fossil-fuels emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change. A Harvard University postdoctoral student's research found that one measure could go a long way toward doing that: find and plug methane leaks in hydraulic fracturing wells in Texas and New Mexico, Zachary Mider reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Yuzhong Zhang, now at Westlake University in China, found that fracking operations in the Permian Basin were dumping 2.9 million metric tons of methane into the air each year, enough to negate most of the environmental gain from burning natural gas instead of coal. "By one measure, that cloud of gas is contributing as much to global warming as Florida—every power plant, motorboat, and minivan in the state," Mider reports. "Identifying and plugging these leaks could do more to slow climate change than almost any other single measure. Unlike carbon, methane breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere. That means efforts to curtail it can pay off within a generation."

Permian Basin (Bloomberg map)

One recent estimate found that reducing human-caused methane emissions could stave off nearly one-third of the global warming expected in the next few decades without having to cut overall consumption or invent new technology. That would involve plugging leaky wells and reducing emissions from other sources such as landfills and cattle feedlots, Mider reports. But plugging Permian oil and gas wells could offer the biggest payoff for the least money.

Though companies such as BP have significantly reduced their emissions, state and federal laws haven't really forced drillers to take action. That's changing, little by little. A federal methane rule, which applied to a limited number of oil facilities, was restored this year after being gutted by the Trump administration. "Now the Environmental Protection Agency is crafting a rule that would apply to more wells," Mider reports. 

And "Senate Democrats plan to include a 'methane polluter fee' in their $3.5 trillion budget resolution that would hit energy producers that vent or burn off excess methane and compressors used to pressurize and transport natural gas," Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

At the state level, the New Mexico Environment Department is phasing in limits on flaring and methane. Texas has not taken significant action on either front, Mider reports.

And, as Inside Climate News notes, Texas is diverting one-third of the money meant for clean-air initiatives to widening highways in order to reduce congestion. Vehicle licensing and sales fees and surcharges generate as much as $250 million a year for that fund. The state has about $2 billion in unspent funds meant to mitigate air pollution.

Covid roundup: Facebook groups, ads fight misinformation; vax mandates don't violate Nuremberg Code, as claimed

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

Because of worldwide emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine, the Food and Drug Administration has never before had so much evidence to confirm a vaccine's safety. Read more here.

Rural health clinician shortage threatens care access as hospital admissions soar. Read more here.

Pfizer's permanent FDA approval is triggering a flood of vaccine mandates from schools and businesses. Some pandemic misinformation sources claim that such mandates violate the Nuremberg Code, a set of ethical guidelines on human subjects in scientific research. One such tenet prohibits forcing people to participate in trials for an experimental drug. However, coronavirus mandates do not violate the Nuremberg Code because the vaccines are not experimental: All have received at least emergency FDA approval, which requires substantial proof of safety and efficacy. Read more here.

Smaller rural hospitals are as overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients as urban hospitals are, but the rural hospitals have to face it with fewer resources. Read more here.

Rural Georgia hospitals say they're flooded with Covid patients, most of whom are unvaccinated. Read more here.

As more employers and schools require vaccination, more people are trying to use phony vaccine cards (some imported from China). It will be difficult to crack down on the practice. Read more here.

A Pennsylvania farmer refused the coronavirus vaccine at first, but later caught the virus and was admitted to the hospital. Now he's created a video imploring other skeptics to get vaccinated. Read more here.

A group of moms on Facebook is waging a grass-roots war on pandemic misinformation, seeking to inform skeptics and convince them to get vaccinated. Read more here.

Groups are buying targeted Facebook ads meant to counteract pandemic misinformation. Read more here.

Mississippi residents can now face jail time or fines if they refuse to self-isolate after getting a positive coronavirus test. Read more here.

A new study projects how pandemic surges could hurt rural residents and hospitals. It also highlights key vulnerabilities in rural populations and health-care systems, discusses their implications, and suggests In short: rural areas' generally lower vaccination rates, coupled with rural hospitals' unique organizational, clinical and financial vulnerabilities could mean bad news. Read more here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided in May to only track breakthrough infections that lead to hospitalization or death. That has made it harder for public-health authorities and researchers to understand the coronavirus's impact on the vaccinated. Read more here.

The more remote a county, the greater the 20-year job loss, but more educated and recreation-based economies grew

Gain or loss of jobs by county metropolitan or non-metro status, 2000-19
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

The nation gained 20.2 million jobs from 2000 to 2019, a 14.8 percent increase. But rural America lost jobs overall, with half of all counties losing jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But rural-urban differences aren't the only factor influencing job trends.

The data shows "there are two different countries — one that is gaining jobs and people and another that is losing both," Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing report for The Daily Yonder. "The division between those two countries is created not only by the difference between the city and the countryside, but by the structure of local economies and local levels of education."

Bishop and Cushing analyzed job numbers in light of other factors that seem to influence job creation. They found that, in general, the bigger the city, the bigger the percentage increase in jobs over the past 20 years, and vice versa: the more remote the county, the bigger the jobs loss.

Local economies also made a difference, they found. Counties that depended mostly on agriculture lost nearly 3% of their jobs, while manufacturing counties saw a 5.3% increase. "The biggest job gainers in rural America were recreation counties, such as Gallatin County, Montana, and Hawaii County, Hawaii," they report. "In fact, the counties, urban and rural, with the fastest growing job base over the last two decades, according to the USDA Economic Research Service, were places with strong recreation economies. Across the country, recreation counties increased their jobs by just over 25% from 2000 to 2019."

Bishop and Cushing also found that, the larger the share of college-educated adults a county had in 2019, the larger its job gains since 2000. "Counties with 23% or less of the adult population having B.A. degrees in 2019 increased their jobs by just 6% since 2000," Bishop and Cushing report. "Those where more than 40% of the adults had B.A. degrees had a 21.4% increase in jobs over the two decades."

Small Minnesota towns push back against dollar stores

Redwood County (Wikipedia)
Dollar stores are seeing explosive growth nationwide, targeting low-income areas and food deserts in cities and rural areas. But local businesses suffer, especially grocery stores, when dollar stores move in. That's why two two towns in Redwood County, Minnesota—and many others—have blocked the discount chains from setting up shop.

This year in Wabasso, pop. 765, the City Council "passed a one-year commercial development moratorium, shortly after declining a request by Dollar General to annex a piece of adjacent farmland where it wanted to build a new store," Patrick Condon reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

In nearby Morgan, pop. 872, "officials and residents banded together" to get Redwood County's planners and its governing board to reject rezoning for Dollar General to build on farmland just outside the city, Condon reports: "A petition against Dollar General's plans to set up in Morgan drew several hundred signatures in a matter of days." One business owner told Condon that a nearby community's independent grocery store went bankrupt within six months after a Dollar General opened there. Though dollar stores typically lack fresh meat and produce, it has some supermarket-style stores.

Many communities worry about the proliferation of dollar stores, Kennedy Smith, senior researcher for anti-corporate-consolidation nonprofit the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Condon, who reports, "This year alone, towns and small cities in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Alabama have rejected dollar store development plans, according to ILSR's research. Critics see not just threats to existing businesses but also a disincentive to prospective new retailers once a dollar store has set up in town. An ILSR report in 2018 on the spread of dollar chain stores cited studies that found local grocers typically see a 30% sales drop after a Dollar General opened, a decline that makes it tough for businesses that operate on thin profit margins."

As Kennedy noted and an analysis from The Hustle shows, shoppers at Dollar Tree often don't end up saving, since the unit price of dollar-store items is often higher than those at larger retailers.

Tourists during pandemic overwhelming parts of Appalachian Trail, other national and state parks

Hikers the stretch of the Appalachian Trail known as the Roller Coaster took in the view of State Highway 7 at the Bears Den Overlook in Northern Virginia this month. (Washington Post photo by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)

The Appalachian Trail has always been a popular destination for day-trippers and tourists, but during the pandemic, interest has skyrocketed, overwhelming local officials' ability to maintain some parts of the trail, Lizzie Johnson reports for The Washington Post.

"Sandi Marra, the president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, said the increased usage is most obvious on the trail itself: abandoned banana peels and aluminum cans, four-foot-wide trails that have suddenly doubled in size, the overflowing parking lots," Johnson reports.

At Max Patch, a popular campsite in North Carolina's Pisgah National Forest, the damage was especially bad. Marra said it looked like "a field at a music festival. . . . People were up there with their dogs and tents and coolers and pavilion tents." The field has been shut down, and it will be two years before the damage is repaired and camping can resume.

Big national parks like Yellowstone have tried to limit visitors with tactics such as timed entry tickets and a reservation system, but crowd control is more difficult on the Appalachian Trail because it runs through 14 states and has hundreds of access points, Johnson reports.

The throngs of visitors to national parks all over the country prompted a Senate subcommittee hearing in July to discuss congestion and overcrowding. "We can accidentally love our parks to death," said subcommittee chairman Angus King, I-Maine, who said he couldn't think of any immediate solutions other than encouraging tourists to visit less-crowded parks and places. "Watching the sun rise from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a wonderful experience," he said, referring to a feature in Acadia National Park in his home state. "Staring at the taillights of the car in front of you as you’re trying to get up the mountain and find a parking place? Not so much."

Monday, August 23, 2021

Digital divide narrows; fewer than 1/3 of rural adults in poll said government should get all connected in pandemic


"Rural Americans have made large gains in adopting digital technology over the past decade and have narrowed some digital gaps. However, rural adults remain less likely than suburban adults to have home broadband and less likely than urban adults to own a smartphone, tablet computer or traditional computer," reports Emily Vogels of the Pew Research Center, citing its latest polling on the topic.

"While broadband adoption has not significantly increased for urban and suburban Americans in the last five years, rural residents have seen a 9-percentage-point rise in home broadband adoption since 2016," Vogels reports, but "rural residents are still less likely than those living in suburban areas to report having home broadband," by 72% to 77%.

They are also less likely to have internet-connected devices, and less likely to have multiple devices, Vogels reports: "Three in 10 adults who live in rural communities report owning or having a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone, a home broadband connection and a tablet computer, compared with 44% of urban and 43% of suburban adults."

Also, "Rural residents go online less frequently than their urban counterparts. Eight in 10 adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared with roughly nine in 10 of those in urban areas (88%)."

While much of the talk about the digital divide has focused on what federal and state governments can do about it, "Only 29% of rural adults say the government has a responsibility to ensure that all Americans have a high-speed internet connection at home during the coronavirus outbreak," Vogels reports. "In comparison, 50% of urban residents and 35% of suburbanites say the same, according to previously unexplored data from an April 2020 Pew Research Center survey."

Feds create portal to forgive PPP loans after banks drag feet; top banks opt out, leaving businesses at their mercy

Three major lenders participating in the Paycheck Protection Program have opted out of a new process that would allow the Small Business Administration to directly forgive businesses' loans. Lenders representing only half of all outstanding PPP loans have opted in. That leaves small businesses with no other recourse if their bank won't forgive the loan or drags out the process, Bryce Covert reports for The Intercept. Click here for a searchable database of PPP loan applications.

Small-business owners were urged to take out PPP loans early in the pandemic; the loans, the SBA promised, would be forgiven if spent mostly on payroll, and would essentially become grants. But many small-business owners have had a hard time getting their lenders to forgive their loans. "Banks were incentivized to issue PPP loans through the fees they generated, but they don’t receive any fees to push forgiveness through, and they’ve dragged their feet," Covert reports. "Of the total PPP loans that have been issued, less than half have been forgiven thus far."

The SBA announced in late July a portal that would allow some small-business owners to do an end-run around such banks and get direct government forgiveness of their loans. But the portal was opt-in, and "Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, and PNC have all decided to opt out, according to emails shared with The Intercept," Covert reports. "As of the end of May, JPMorgan Chase was the top PPP lender, followed by Bank of America in the No. 2 spot; PNC is No. 11."

The three banks have touted their streamlined forgiveness processes and implied that the SBA portal was unnecessary. However, "for some business owners, being cut off from the SBA’s direct program could mean they can’t get some or all of their loans forgiven at all," Covert reports. "Some banks have been contacting small business owners in recent months and telling them that they shouldn’t have received the original amount they received — which the banks themselves approved — and requiring the owners to pay back the difference. But many told The Intercept that they used the money correctly and had fully expected to have their entire loans forgiven."

Rural Midwestern bankers still optimistic about economy, but worry about drought, hiring shortages, and infrastructure bill

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

A July survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy showed slightly declining but still strong optimism about the economy, with the overall Rural Mainstreet Index falling slightly to 65.3 from July's 65.6. The 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.

Record-low interest rates, solid grain prices, and growing exports are key to rural economies in the areas surveyed. Agriculture Department data show that 2021 agriculture exports are more than 25 percent higher than from the same period in 2020, reports Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index.

The home-sales index hit a record 84.4 from July's 77.4, while the retail-sales index dropped from July's 64.1 to a still-positive 54.7. The farmland price index rose to 76.6 from July's 71.0, marking the first time since 2012-2013 that the survey has recorded 11 straight months above growth neutral. The farm equipment sales index declined to 64.7 from July's 67.2, but the readings over the past several months have represented the strongest consistent growth since 2012, Goss reports.

However, the confidence index for local economies six months out fell to 59.7 from July's 65.6. That reflects bankers' worries about drought, rising coronavirus infections, political turmoil in Afghanistan, and widespread dislike among the surveyed bankers about the $3.5 trillion social-infrastructure spending bill before Congress. Only 9.4% of surveyed bankers support the bill (see chart below). And, though the new hiring index rose to 70.3 from July's 67.6, many bankers worry about continuing labor shortages that hinder rural businesses' growth.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

The Everly Brothers are both gone now; Don passes at 84

Suzanne Feliciano, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, via The Associated Press and The New York Times)

Don Everly, who with his brother Phil influenced popular music well beyond their first stint as a duo, and are in both the rock and country music halls of fame, died in Nashville Saturday. He was 84.

Don was born in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, made most famous by John Prine's "Paradise" and next door to Ohio County, the home of Bill Monroe. That's in the West Kentucky Coalfield, not the one to the east, but there are other similarities with Appalachia, and they all tapped into the culture of the rural upper South; the Everly famiily also lived in Indiana and Iowa.

The brothers' "fusion of Appalachian harmonies and a tighter, cleaner version of big-beat rock ’n’ roll made them harbingers of both folk-rock and country-rock," “Bye Bye Love”, spent four weeks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No. 1 on the country chart. of their early recordings, including the No. 1 pop hits 'Bird Dog' and 'All I Have to Do Is Dream,' 'Bye Bye Love' was written by the husband-and-wife team of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant." Don wrote hit songs before they recorded their own; he "tapped into a strain of Appalachian gothic despair that was absorbed by audiences as teenage heartache,"  notes RJ Smith of the Los Angeles Times.
The duo "rivaled Elvis Presley and Pat Boone for airplay, placing an average of one single in the pop Top 10 every four months from 1957 to 1961," Friskics-Warren notes. Even as they faded, "They influenced generations of hitmakers, from British Invasion bands like the Beatles and the Hollies to the folk-rock duo Simon and Garfunkel and the Southern California country-rock band the Eagles."

“The Everlys were there at the crossroads of country and R&B. They witnessed and were part of the birth of rock 'n' roll.” They sang on the title track of Simon's Graceland and were guests on Simon and Garfunkel's reunion tour in 2003-04. In 1986 they were inaugural members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Some of the duo's influence stemmed from Roots, a 1968 album "that found the duo interpreting material by pioneer Jimmie Rodgers and contemporary star Merle Haggard," Chris Morris writes for Variety. "Some critics rank it with the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released the same year, as among the most important early country-rock albums. A 1958 album that was a commercial dud but an artistic success, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, which "a pronounced impact on country-rock, alt-country and Americana performers of all stripes," Morris writes. Their parents were musicians Ike and Margaret Everly, who survives; Ike was a contemporary of fellow singer-guitarist Merle Travis and Mose Rager, who taught Travis the thumb-picking style popularized in the coalfield by Black musician Arnold Schultz, who had taught it to Bill Monroe, Smith notes. Ike's regular trade was barbering, and one of his customers in Nashville was Boudleaux Bryant.

The downside comes most from Terence McArdle of The Washington Post, who reports that Don "twice attempted to kill himself with an overdose during an English tour in 1962," during addiction to uppers and downers. "When they returned stateside, he received electroshock therapy, which he said blocked his ability to write songs for several years." After long-simmering conflicts, they broke up at a 1972 concert where Don "came onstage drunk. Irate, the venue’s manager stopped the duo in the middle of the show, causing Phil Everly to smash his guitar and walk offstage." They reunited in 1983, and Don told the Sydney Daily Telegraph, “We have separate lives, but when we walk out onstage, it comes back, and it amazes me that we can do it. It’s like riding a bicycle. I don’t know how it’s done but I know it can be done.”

Sense of community, common sacrifice missing among many in pandemic, especially politicians, Silas House writes

House (Berea College photo)
In a 1,634-word article for The Atlantic, Appalachian writer Silas House explores the resistance to masking to fight the coronavirus. He begins by recalling his grandmother's stories of sacrifice during the Great Depression and World War II, and his parents' help for the less fortunate, and the lessons he learned from them.

"I was taught to sacrifice my own comfort for the good of others, whether it be by volunteering my seat to elders in a crowded waiting room, letting a pregnant woman go in front of me in the grocery line, or giving half of my sandwich to a hungry classmate," House writes. "Sacrificing for the common good was something most of us were taught when I was growing up. Just a few decades later, I’m seeing people in my hometown, and all over the country, thinking only of themselves. They’re not just unwilling to make sacrifices for others during a pandemic; they’re angry about being asked to."

House's object example is Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's mask mandate for schools, and he goes beyond his usual craft to commit journalism, interviewing upset parents and Science Hill Independent Schools Supt. Jimmy Dyehouse, who called Beshear a "liberal lunatic" in a message to parents. "He said that many studies had proved that masks were ineffective," House reports. "He didn’t cite any sources, but at least 49 scientific studies go against his claims."

Conversing with parents on Facebook, "Two of them said that their children broke down in tears at the news of having to go to school in a mask," House reports. "Others say the masks hamper social life, hinder education by being a distraction, and keep students from understanding their teachers. Several told me the masks are making kids sick because they are breathing in the same carbon dioxide repeatedly, a claim that has been widely debunked."

After noting recent statements of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, House says his grandmother "would have been disgusted by the politicization of a virus that has now killed more than 620,000 Americans. . . . Maybe too few people today understand the necessity of putting aside one’s own comforts to help others. Perhaps our sense of community has suffered in the digital age. It seems to me, however, that most of the blame should go to politicians who care more about stirring up fear to defeat their opponents than they do about people’s lives or the economy. And I blame anyone who intentionally spreads misinformation to further their own agenda."