Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Lapse of bigger child tax credit will hurt rural families more, especially in WV, but Manchin may not get much blowback

Rural families will be disproportionately hurt when the expanded child tax credit expires at the end of the year, but the holdout vote on the bill may not face much political blowback from his constituents.

The wildly popular program, enacted in March as part of the American Rescue Plan, marked the first time the federal government tried to reduce poverty through widely available direct payments. It was particularly effective because it made the credit accessible for the first time to those too poor to file federal taxes. "Before the credit was expanded, an estimated 56 percent of all rural children didn’t receive the entire tax credit because their families didn’t earn enough money to qualify," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "In metropolitan areas, about 48% of children lost some or all of the credit. The American Rescue Plan eliminated the income threshold and expanded the credit from $2,000 per child to $3,000, with an additional $600 for children under 6," Marema reports. "The changes raised an estimated 4.1 million children out of poverty, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. All but 15% of the poverty reduction was because of elimination of the income requirements to receive the tax credit."

The Build Back Better Act had a one-year renewal of the tax credit, but Congress adjourned for the year without voting on it, and the credit expires Dec. 31. Even if Congress does pass the law in the new year, tax credit payments would likely be disrupted, Marema reports.

At the heart of the struggle over the program is Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Since all Senate Republicans oppose the bill, Democrats need all 50 votes (and a tie-breaker from Vice President Kamala Harris) to pass it. But Manchin said he couldn't support the bill. In private talks with President Biden, Manchin laid out a version of the bill he would vote for that included universal pre-kindergarten for 10 years, expanded Obamacare and had hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change, Jeff Stein and Tyler Pager report for The Washington Post. Notably absent was an extension of the child tax credit.

Manchin has cited worries about the cost of the bill, but private comments point to general concerns that low-income people would abuse benefits received through the package. "Specifically, Manchin said parents would use child-tax-credit money to buy drugs and workers would abuse the paid-family-leave program in the legislation to get out of work and go on hunting trips," Grace Panetta and Joseph Zeballos-Roig report for Business Insider.

"Recent Census data shows that more than 90% of families that have received payments from the expanded Child Tax Credit have spent the money on basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, and utilities," Marema reports.

Manchin recently said in a Fox News Sunday interview that he can't vote for the bill if he "can't go home and explain it to the people of West Virginia." However, Marema notes: "Manchin’s constituents in West Virginia are especially vulnerable to the elimination of the expanded tax credit. The state has one of the highest child poverty rates in the U.S. About 48% of children 17 and under live at 200% of the poverty rate, considered an indicator of serious financial challenge. West Virginia's rate of children living at or below 200% of poverty is the fifth highest in the U.S. In West Virginia, expiration of the Child Tax Credit expansion will eliminate or reduce the credit for approximately 72,000 low-income rural children and nearly 100,000 low-income children who live in metropolitan areas."

Even so, West Virginians may not punish Manchin for not supporting the package. Though West Virginians are some of the nation's most-dependent on direct government payments, they see themselves as "flinty and self-reliant" and that "partisan tribalism, cultural issues and an attachment to the vanishing coal industry drive voter sentiment there, creating what is a paradoxical hostility to government," Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty writes.

But, Manchin "is also well aware that government has a vital role when it comes to bettering the lives and futures of his constituents. Which means things might not be over yet for some version of the Build Back Better bill," Tumulty writes.

How to close rural vaccine gap? Facts, teamwork, respect and patience, with no politics or confrontation, experts say

Rural Virginia couple Everett and Kristin Jiles got Covid-19 in July, but only she was vaccinated. After he had a much harder time recovering, the conservative Christian couple became crusaders for vaccination. Here, they talk about their story. (Assn. of American Medical Colleges video)

"Many people in rural and conservative areas remain frustratingly resistant to vaccination, challenging public health officials to come up with more convincing — and sensitive — approaches to promoting greater vaccine uptake," Beth Howard reports for the Association of American Medical Colleges. "It’s not enough to refute misinformation, experts say. To reach the vaccine-hesitant, public-health officials urge a combination of approaches, from connecting with local physicians to having respectful conversations."

The problem is persistent. A recent University of Pittsburgh study shows that, although overall vaccine confidence rates have increased nationwide since Covid-19 vaccines became available early this year, the same percentage of people who strongly opposed vaccination in January felt the same way in May. Even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, race, employment status and education, people in very rural counties were 23 percent more likely to be vaccine-hesitant than urbanites.

Partisanship is also strongly correlated with attitudes toward coronavirus vaccination. "People in counties with the highest support for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election were 44% more likely to be vaccine-hesitant," Howard reports. "Those living in a state with a Republican governor were 34% more likely to be hesitant than people living in a state with a Democratic governor."

Rural emergency medicine doctor Edwin Leap, who grew up in West Virginia, told Howard that the pandemic has exposed cultural rifts that go back generations. Because of that, mandates won't work, he said: "People in rural America are a culture. They tend to be fiercely independent. . . . The very last way you’ll get them to comply is by telling them they better do what’s right. They’re not going to have you tell them what to do."

Health and communications experts suggest the following approaches to increase coronavirus vaccination rates in rural areas:
  • Just provide the facts. Rural Americans resist mandates because they want to make their own decisions. So providing unbiased, basic information that will help them make an informed decision is the way to go.
  • Leave politics at the door. The coronavirus has been deeply politicized, so it's important to avoid saying anything even remotely political in discussion vaccination. One expert told Howard that, if the subject of politics comes up, the best way to respond is something along the lines of "This virus does not care who you are or what you believe." That removes the discussion from politics and enables you to address the other person's concerns.
  • Team up with community influencers. Rural Americans trust local health-care professionals much more than outsiders, so they're more likely to listen to fact-based vaccine recommendations from a community doctor, nurse, pharmacist or community health worker.
  • Don't refute false claims about the vaccines. By bringing up misinformation, even if you do so to disprove it, you end up reinforcing the belief in the person's mind. So don't repeat falsehoods when providing vaccine information. "For instance, if someone says that vaccines give you Covid-19, you don’t have to say they don’t give you Covid-19," Howard reports. "Instead, provide an answer that addresses the vaccine’s overall safety — why and how they’re safe."
  • Treat people with care and respect. Regardless of what someone believes, take their concerns seriously and treat them with respect. Don't talk down to people or make them feel judged or shamed.
  • Be prepared to play the long game. It will likely take more than one conversation to change someone's mind about vaccination. When you're wrapping up a discussion about vaccination, "give them a call to action, such as offering additional resources to learn about the efficacy of the vaccine and inviting them to come back and talk about it more so that you can answer any other questions," Howard reports.

Americans not paying much attention to news of Omicron variant, one of most contagious viruses ever discovered

"New data shows that the Omicron variant is not jumpstarting Americans' engagement in Covid news, despite indications that it may be one of the fastest-spreading variants to date," Sara Fischer and Neil Rothschild report for Axios. That matters because "a lack of widespread appreciation of the threat could hamper the response."

Americans' social media interactions on news articles about the coronavirus have fallen from an average of 1,171 per article in March 2020 to 326 in December 2020, to 108 over the past three weeks. Engagement spiked when the Delta variant was first identified, but that hasn't happened with the Omicron variant yet, Fischer and Rothschild report.

The decline in news interactions likely stems from pandemic fatigue, and a perception that Omicron is no more dangerous than previous variants, University of New Haven political science professor Chris Haynes told Axios.

The reasons for not paying attention vary: Vaccinated people may believe there's not much more they can do or need to learn, while unvaccinated people may believe the coronavirus isn't a threat or is inevitable, Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson told Axios.

But, Fischer and Rothschild note, "as the Omicron variant spreads, interest in Covid news could start to spike in coming weeks, especially as it pertains to holiday travel."

EPA says label changes for weed killer dicamba didn't cut damage reports, and can't make changes in time for 2022

A new Environmental Protection Agency report says last year's label changes for three herbicides didn't reduce reports of dicamba drift and injury this year, and "said the agency cannot move fast enough to make regulatory changes to dicamba use by the 2022 spray season,"reports Emily Unglesbee of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "But in the report, EPA promised to help states 'restrict or narrow the over-the-top uses of dicamba' if state officials found it necessary for over-the-top herbicides XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium. The agency also said it would not allow states to expand the use of dicamba for next year."

In 2021 EPA received about 3,500 reports of dicamba-related incidents, "including reports of alleged injury to more than 1 million acres of non-dicamba-tolerant soybean acres, as well as other crops such as sugarbeets, rice, sweet potatoes, peanuts and grapes," Unglesbee reports. "The agency also described damage to non-agricultural landscapes, such as a 160,000-acre wildlife refuge, and called out 280 incident reports in counties where endangered species are present." The true amount of dicamba-related damage is likely much higher, the agency said.

The Center for Food Safety and other environmental groups are likely to use the report in their federal lawsuit against EPA; they're seeking "to vacate the current dicamba registrations of XtendiMax, Engenia and Tavium, just as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did in June 2020," Unglesbee reports.

Biden administration will provide up to $1.5 billion to mitigate disruptions to schools' food supply chains

"The Biden administration will provide up to $1.5 billion to states and schools to help them deal with costs driven by supply chain disruptions, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Friday. School lunch operators are grappling with both goods shortages and rising costs as the nation contends with broader supply chain and inflation difficulties," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "Under the newly announced initiatives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will funnel $1 billion for schools to purchase food for their meal programs and another $300 million for food that states will distribute to schools. The $1 billion will be distributed as cash payments known as Supply Chain Assistance funds. USDA said it anticipates that money going to as many as 100,000 schools in all 50 states." The administration will provide another $200 million for schools to buy local foods from farmers, especially historically underserved producers. 

Schools, and the state and local governments that fund them, have been hammered by rising costs and shortages. "A School Nutrition Association surveyed about 1,200 school nutrition directors between October and November about supply chain issues," Lucia reports. "Those findings, released this month, showed that top challenges school lunch programs faced—cited by over 98% of respondents—included shortages or insufficient quantities of menu items, other supplies or packaging, as well as discontinued menu items. Over three-quarters of respondents said those challenges were 'significant.'"

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

This year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards winners feature a 'ninja prairie dog' and more

Two of this year's winning Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards entries (Photos by David Eppley, left, and Arthur Trevino)

The bald eagle is usually an awe-inspiring sight, but it's looking a little less so in two winning entries in this year's Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Wildlife photographer Paul Joynson-Hicks created the annual competition in 2015 in an attempt to "widen understanding and engagement with global conservation - for the preservation of biodiversity and the health and enrichment of everyone on Earth," according to the website. Click here to see all the winners.

This year's winning photos span the globe, from some Taiwanese mudskippers doing an impression of Sesame Street Yip Yips, to a raccoon pulling some Mission: Impossible moves on a screen window. And, of course, the eagles: one face-planting into a branch during a botched landing, and the other getting menaced by a 'ninja' prairie dog.

If you'd like to submit your funny wildlife photos for next year's competition, click here for more information.

Bipartisan Senate bill would protect small rural TV stations from being bumped off air by big stations' interference

A new bipartisan bill in Congress aims to strengthen protections for small, rural television stations. The Low Power Protection Act, introduced by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), would increase spectrum rights for some low-power television stations.

"LPTV stations usually provide locally oriented or specialized service in their communities, the senators said. However, LPTV is currently considered a secondary broadcast service by the Federal Communications Commission. As such, LPTV licensees are not granted protections from harmful interference or displacement, and must accept harmful interference or displacement from full power television stations," George Winslow reports for TV Tech.

The bill builds on a 1999 law that opened a one-time filing window for LPTV stations to apply for Class A status. Class A stations are protected from being bumped off the air by harmful interference. The bill would require the FCC to open a new filing window for Class A status, Winslow reports.

"That, in turn, will help ensure they are able to continue providing local coverage, and allow them to better protect existing investment and incentivize further investment in their stations and communities, the Senators said," Winslow reports. "The bill has garnered support from numerous broadcast organizations and advocacy groups, including the LPTV Broadcasters Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Missouri Association of Broadcasters, the Oregon Association of Broadcasters, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Public Knowledge."

Weekly rural coronavirus vaccinations rose a bit last week; metro rate is 27% higher, causing higher rural death rates

Vaccination rates as of Dec. 16, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

About 172,000 rural Americans completed their coronavirus vaccinations during the week of Dec. 10-16. That's an increase of about one-third of a percentage point from the week before, one of the slowest growth rates since vaccines became widely available this spring, Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Through last week, 21.5 million rural Americans were vaccinated, or 46.8 percent of the rural population.

"In metropolitan counties, the vaccination rate grew by about 0.7 percentage points to 59.5% of the metropolitan population. That’s 27% higher than the rural rate," Murphy and Marema report. "Rural America’s lower vaccination rate is the primary cause of its disproportionately high number of Covid-19 deaths, according to Carrie Henning-Smith, deputy director of the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center. Rural residents are currently dying of Covid-19 at more than twice the rate of metropolitan residents. The gap between rural and urban death rates has gotten worse with each successive wave of the pandemic, the Daily Yonder has reported."

Monday, December 20, 2021

Opinion: News media must focus on systemic cause-and-effect in pandemic coverage, not just individual choices

Shutdowns in response to the Omicron variant are reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic. But journalists shouldn't cover it the same way they did then (and still do, in many cases), Jon Allsop writes for Columbia Journalism Review.

U.S. news media have tended to emphasize personal responsibility in preventing infection, and though that's important, systemic and institutional factors must also be acknowledged, Allsop writes. That includes availability of tests and vaccines, and fear of losing work from vaccine side effects. "Even coverage that centers systemic risk sometimes treats it as a separate phenomenon from individual action. But systems are made up of individuals, whose choices rebound beyond themselves," he writes. "We don’t yet know exactly what will happen with Omicron, but as we wait to find out, coverage must conceive of individuals’ decisions not only as discrete calculations tailored to their personal circumstances, but as component parts of society-wide chains of transmission and response."

Focusing coverage on individual choice and repercussions means missing the pandemic's greatest impact, Allsop writes: "What we know of Omicron so far suggests that its biggest risk is at this systemic level: most vaccinated people who get it will probably be more or less fine, but so many people could get it that a relatively small percentage of severe cases might overwhelm hospitals anyway—and if that does happen, by the time we can see it, it’ll be too late to stop it." (Throughout Covid, news outlets have struggled conceptually with such lags between cause and visible effect.) Even coverage that centers systemic risk sometimes treats it as a separate phenomenon from individual action. But systems are made up of individuals, whose choices rebound beyond themselves."

Allsop advises, "Coverage must conceive of individuals’ decisions not only as discrete calculations tailored to their personal circumstances, but as component parts of society-wide chains of transmission and response." His report has links to other articles about Covid-19 and coverage of it.

Rural Vermont weekly goes fully remote, puts building up for sale, relies on citizen journalists to survive pandemic

Photo courtesy of the Hardwick Gazette

A 132-year-old weekly newspaper in Vermont is going fully remote and seeking volunteer journalists in an attempt to turn the paper's finances around. Ray Small, editor-publisher of the Hardwick Gazette, recently put its building up for sale. If it sells, he "plans to use to use part of those profits towards continuing its online platform, which the paper pivoted to during the pandemic," Mary Engisch reports for Vermont Public Radio.

The Gazette is no stranger to bold action for the sake of the paper. In 2016, longtime editor-publisher Ross Connelly held an essay contest to find a new owner. He charged $175 per entry and hoped to get 700 entries, enough to ensure the paper's financial health. Connelly abandoned the idea when entries fell short, entries, but Small, an entrant, fell in love with the paper and bought it. The business analyst and his wife, Kim, moved from Stamford, Conn., and took over the paper in February 2017.

The Gazette was losing money when they took over, but until the pandemic "we were slowly clawing our way back to at least break even," Small told Engisch. "Covid wiped out 90% of our revenues, ad revenues. They really haven't come back." Going online-only has saved costs, but it had its downsides: Fewer local businesses wanted to buy digital ads, so their advertising revenue went down. And many paid public notices no longer ran in the Gazette, reducing revenue even more.

So Small is trying several tactics to keep the paper afloat. Besides going online-only and trying to sell the building, he's trying to secure non-profit status so the paper can fundraise through donors. He's also trying to focus more on selling subscriptions than bringing in ad revenue.

He's also recruiting volunteer journalists to help cover the community. The approach proved popular with residents when the Gazette tried it out a few years ago. "We ran some special sections once a month in the towns of Greensboro and Craftsbury. And have the local residents cover their towns," Small told Engisch. "We had great response. I still edited every piece and we did the professional layouts and residents choosing the topics do a much better job than a Gazette correspondent who has limited bandwidth to cover any particular town."

Pandemic roundup: Interactive graph shows death disparity; hospitals sound the alarm; rural pharmacies struggling

Deaths per 100,000 residents per week, March 7, 2020 through Dec. 11, 2021
(Daily Yonder graph; click on the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)

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

The Covid-19 death rate in rural America is twice as high as the urban rate, and has been higher than the urban rate since the second wave back in late summer 2020. That's mostly because of rural America's lower coronavirus vaccination rate, but other factors are also in play, Liz Carey and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. Rural Americans are also less likely to wear masks, socially distance, or take other precautionary measures. They're also, on average, older and in poorer health than Americans in metro counties, and have less access to health care.

The Yonder digs further into rural-urban pandemic death toll disparities in a series of interactive charts. Read more here.

In Vermont, Pennsylvania, and other states, an influx of Covid-19 patients is straining resources in rural hospitals' intensive care units.

As hospitals fill up, paramedics spend more time moving patients and have less time to treat them. Read more here.

Rural pharmacies are struggling, and the pandemic has made it worse. Here's how some rural pharmacists bucked the trend.