Friday, April 19, 2024

Learn how to investigate the who, what, when, where, why and how of the 2024 elections on Wednesday, April 24

Learn how to prepare for the 2024 elections when news coverage is scarce. You can register for the News Literacy Project's free online educational session on Wednesday, April 24, at 6 p.m., E.T., 

Register here.

As mainstream and local news outlets have shrunk nationwide, more rural Americans find themselves in news deserts, where trustworthy local news is scarce. Particularly for rural residents seeking 2024 election information, navigating away from partisan politics and social media rumors and getting to actual facts might seem like finding a black cat in a coal mine.

As an antidote to no news or fake news, the News Literacy Project is holding an educational session to help residents learn ways to prepare for November's ballot. The session will include advice from three experts – Benjy Hamm, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky; Alana Rocha, editor of the Rural News Network; and Brianna Lennon, county clerk for Boone County, Missouri and co-host of the podcast "High Turnout Wide Margins."

Speakers will walk listeners through how people living in news deserts or other areas with limited access to elections coverage can prepare to vote in 2024. Participants will learn about obstacles to finding credible information and what tools are available to citizens to investigate the who, what, when, where, why and how of the elections.

Some opioid settlement money is used to raise salaries and replace other funding; victims' families say that's wrong

Addiction recovery advocates say redirecting funds isn't
in the 'spirit of the settlement.' (Adobe stock photo)
As opioid settlement funds hit state, county and city coffers, some have been diverted for staff salary increases and already-established budgets. Victims' families and addiction treatment advocates argue the practice, formally known as known as supplantation, is not what the money was intended to do, reports Aneri Pattani of KFF Health News. "Local officials say they're trying to stretch tight budgets, especially in rural areas. But critics say it's a lost opportunity to bolster responses to an ongoing addiction crisis and save lives."

Commenting on what many see as misguided spending, Robert Kent, former general counsel for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Pattani, "To think that replacing what you're already spending with settlement funds is going to make things better — it's not. Certainly, the spirit of the settlements wasn't to keep doing what you're doing. It was to do more."

Opioid disbursements in Scott County, Indiana, are an example of how the money and disagreements on how to spend it are playing out. "In 2022, the county received more than $570,000 in opioid settlement funds," Pattani writes. "According to reports it filed with the state, it spent about 45 percent of that on salaries for its health director and emergency medical services staff. The money usually budgeted for those salaries was freed to buy an ambulance and create a rainy-day fund for the health department."

On balance, throughout the national waves of intense addiction trials -- from prescription to heroin to fentanyl -- many cities and counties redirected thousands of dollars to respond to the crisis. Now that settlement funds are coming in, "They want to recoup some of those expenses," Pattani reports. Some states have "restricted substituting opioid settlement funds for existing government spending, according to state guides created by and the public health organization Vital Strategies."

While community spending can be complex, there are tools to help citizens identify the amount of opioid dollars their community has received to date. Pattani adds, "Use our searchable database to find out. Then, ask elected officials how they're spending those dollars. In many places, dedicated citizens are the only watchdogs for this money."

More than half of American teachers are worried about a school shooting on their campus; parents are worried, too

1 in 4 U.S. teachers experienced a gun-related lockdown
at their school. (Adobe stock photo)
U.S. teachers must deftly manage tasks, lessons and discipline. To get the job done, educators make an average of 1,500 decisions a day. While that description sounds challenging, most teachers have the added worry of facing school gun violence, reports Jennifer Gerson of The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom for social issues.

"The majority of American K-12 public school teachers say they are at least somewhat worried about the possibility of a shooting at their school, according to a new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center," Gerson writes. "Fifty-nine percent told Pew researchers that they were concerned about shootings on their campuses, with 18% saying they were 'very' or 'extremely' worried. Only 7% of teachers polled said they were not worried at all."

More than two decades have passed since the Columbine High School massacre, but those years have not produced an answer to gun threats in schools. Gerson reports, "Last year, roughly 1 in 4 American teachers reported experiencing a gun-related lockdown at their school. Fifteen percent of respondents said they went through one emergency lockdown, with another 8 percent saying that it happened where they teach more than once."

Regardless of party affiliation, most surveyed teachers advocated for student mental health screening as part of the solutions. "A large majority — 69% — said they believed improving mental health screening and treatment for children and adults would be extremely or very effective in preventing school shootings," Gerson explains. "This emphasis was held across party lines, with 73% of Democratic teachers and 66% of Republican teachers saying that investment in mental health resources would be an extremely or very effective prevention tool."

Teachers aren't alone in their safety concerns -- many parents also profess a significant degree of worry. "A Pew Research Center study released last fall found that a third of American parents said they were extremely or very worried about a shooting at their child's school, with an additional 37 percent saying they were somewhat worried," Gerson reports.

Produce is getting a makeover: Branded veggies and fruit hit grocery store shelves and e-commerce sites

Even apples were sent to the 'stylist's chair.'
(Yes! Apples photo via The Wall Street Journal)
What's better than the most perfectly shaped, webbed, orange-spotted fresh watermelon? The same watermelon in splashy packaging. "More farmers and produce companies are now moving to a business model they've seen work in other product categories: differentiate even the plainest products with fun packaging and an interesting back story, gain customers' loyalty and sell more units at higher margins," reports Katie Deighton of The Wall Street Journal. "Branding the previously unbranded helps companies use marketing tools that had been unavailable."

Is it possible to pick out bananas and look trendy? Maybe. Across the United States, branded fruits and veggies are popping up on e-commerce sites and grocery store shelves wrapped in fresh marketing designs that "promote their provenance and sustainable credentials," Deighton writes. Previously, most fruits and veggies were marketed based on price and quality.

This shift has occurred partly because Americans started taking a closer look at where their groceries came from, particularly in the produce aisles. Online grocery sales also increased, as "buyers can't examine the products in person, making brand names a more useful signal of consistency," Deighton reports.

"[Shoppers] also showed a growing tendency to shell out for cool food brands that say something about their lifestyles and tastes, even during a time of food price sensitivity."

So far, produce marketing is growing more slowly than other sectors because its product changes from year to year. Michael Perdigao, president of advertising and corporate communications for the Wonderful Company, told Deighton, "We don't know from year to year how big the crop is going to be. We may have committed to a media buy or bought in the upfront market or something and then don't need it."

Opinion: Don't rush to pass a new farm bill. 'This Congress already has failed. Let the next Congress take it up.'

Art Cullen

By Art Cullen, Editor
Storm Lake Times Pilot

A five-year farm bill was supposed to have been approved last year, but was held up in the House over disagreements on food stamps, conservation, crop insurance and funding. House Agriculture Committee Chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., announced that he will find a way to push a farm bill out before Memorial Day in order to get President Biden to sign a new farm bill by the end of the year.

Don’t bet the farm on it.

Sen. Chuck Grassley said he is pessimistic, and so is Sen. Joni Ernst, both Republican Ag Committee members.

Rep. Randy Feenstra, R-Hull, is optimistic. “So there’s going to be a lot of talk, especially when it comes to SNAP and stuff like that. But I fully believe that we will get it out of the House, and then it’s just a matter of what (Sen. Chuck) Schumer and (Sen. Debbie) Stabenow is going to do in the Senate when it comes their way,” Feenstra told Brownfield News.

If a new farm bill can’t pass this year, it is expected that another one-year extension will be passed. Grassley said farmers would receive protection but not adequate protection. Getting beyond an extension of the same-old would be up to a new Congress, and as of now it is anybody’s guess who will be in charge.

It’s not as if the existing hang-ups are going anywhere. Fights over food stamps in the House stalled the last farm bill by two years. House Speaker Mike Johnson walks on egg shells in his caucus room as he is accused of caving in to Democrats on spending. The same sticking points will be as sticky in 2025.

It’s a huge piece of legislation with terribly complicated politics. You have regional interests from the South and Midwest battling over commodity payments. You have disagreements between commodity and livestock interests. Then you throw in cultural wedge issues like food stamps (SNAP benefits), and it all becomes a mishmash.

What used to be a fairly bipartisan process in the past decade has devolved into a food fight like everything else in Washington. Because so few know or care about the work of the agriculture committees, their work is controlled by the interest groups that fund our politics.

If food is important, the farm bill should be.

Our food security and agricultural resiliency are imperiled by a warming climate. A farm bill with conservation at its core could serve farmers and the environment better.

The farm bill as it is and has been over the past 40 years has resulted in more consolidation, accelerated rural depopulation, more surface water pollution in Iowa, and fewer farmers.

It also has stunted funding for research into livestock disease as pandemics build and bird flu jumps to humans.

Putting a new label on a defective product does not make it better.

But it might make some politicians look better if they can say they actually got some lipstick applied to the pig.

The Farm Bill is entwined with 'terribly complicated politics.'
(Adobe stock photo)
Crop insurance remains intact, as does a safety net for commodity markets. Food stamps too. As Grassley said, the protections are in place. So instead of jamming through an even worse farm bill than we already have, which is likely in this election year, we may all be better off if we take our time and do it right.

Ernst should be the No. 3 Republican in the Senate following the election, and the top woman in the caucus. She could establish herself as a national leader by stating unequivocally that nutrition programs are the most efficient way to fight poverty, which makes all of America stronger. Democrats and Republicans used to join hands over it — Hubert Humphrey and Bob Dole, Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley.

Someone needs to be a voice of reason. The ethanol industry, for example, is openly acknowledging that the future for corn growers depends on capturing tax credits for carbon dioxide pipeline. That’s not a great position for Iowa farmers to be in. But that is where the current farm bill puts us.

We could write a new piece of legislation that enhances soil and water health while directly paying farmers for stewardship. We can make conservation programs a lot more flexible. We can help farmers diversify their revenue streams while cleaning up the Raccoon River, which did not have a nitrate problem before farm programs encouraged planting fencerow to fencerow. And it could cost less if we cut corporations off the teat, which would have a lot of appeal in Iowa. That is not likely to happen by Memorial Day. More of the same is.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

New rule increases royalties for oil and gas companies that drill on public lands; bond will be at least 15 times more

The Interior Department worked to bring oil and gas management
into the 21st century. Drillers are angry. (Photo by J. Evans, Unsplash)

For decades, companies that  drilled on public lands for oil paid the federal government small royalties and spent little on cleanup funding, but that era is about to change. "A suite of regulatory changes from the Bureau of Land Management will increase royalties on oil and stiffen cleanup requirements," reports Heather Richards of E & E News. "The rule caps a multiyear effort by the Interior Department to 'modernize' how the U.S. manages vast resources of oil and natural gas under public lands in states like Wyoming and New Mexico."

Initially, President Joe Biden planned to end drilling on public lands "to shrink the future footprint of the nation’s oil program. . . but he retreated due to legal setbacks early in office," Richards writes. "The rule requires a minimum bond for drilling a federal lease that's 15 times higher than the previous minimum of $10,000. Environmental groups and government watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office have asked BLM for years for stronger bonding requirements to cover decommissioning costs of wells and pipelines when they are abandoned."

The new rule angered drillers who "are already panning the rule as an attack on their industry and threatening to sue," Richards reports. "The final rule suggests the Bureau of Land Management will have a higher responsibility to limit oil and gas in areas that are considered valuable for wildlife or recreation by prioritizing leasing in areas with greater oil potential. Oil companies nominate lands for lease, but BLM decides what acres are ultimately offered for sale."

Environmental advocates praised the action as a good stewardship plan. Emily Olsen, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Region for Trout Unlimited, told Richards, "Energy development and conservation need not be mutually exclusive. The BLM is prioritizing energy development where it will have the fewest resource impacts."

Working-age rural residents are dying at 'wildly higher rates' than their urban counterparts; cause is undetermined

Photo by M. Vistocco
U.S. mortality rates can fall into two very different camps -- rural working-age death rates and everyone else's death rate. "Rural Americans age 25 to 54 — considered the prime working-age population — are dying of natural causes such as chronic diseases and cancer at wildly higher rates than their age-group peers in urban areas, according to a new report from the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service," reports Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez of KFF Health News.

To compare the two groups, "USDA researchers analyzed mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from two three-year periods — 1999 through 2001, and 2017 through 2019," Rodriguez explains. "In 1999, the natural-cause mortality rate for rural working-age adults was only 6 percent higher than that of their city-dwelling peers. By 2019, the gap had widened to 43 percent." 

In reviewing demographic differences, Native American women fared the worst, but overall, a link between younger rural deaths and a lack of Medicaid expansion could be part of the cause. "USDA researchers and other experts noted that states in the South that have declined to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act had some of the highest natural-cause mortality rates for rural areas," Rodriguez reports. "But the researchers didn’t pinpoint the causes of the overall disparity."

Another possible connection could be the lack of rural health care options and rural hospital closures. "Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, and other health experts have maintained for years that rural America needs more attention and investment in its health care systems by national leaders and lawmakers," Rodriguez adds. "It’s unlikely that things have improved for rural Americans since 2019, the last year in the periods the USDA researchers examined. The coronavirus pandemic was particularly devastating in rural parts of the country."

Some states refuse bipartisan aid for school summer lunches; program gives eligible students $40 per month

Some states won't accept aid for summer lunches.
(Photo by Matthew Moloney, Unsplash)
Some states have refused federal support that would be used to provide summer lunch money to families with children who receive free or reduced lunches during the school year.  

"The new $2.5 billion program, known as Summer EBT, passed Congress with bipartisan support. The program will provide families with about $40 a month for every child who receives free or reduced-price meals at school — $120 for the summer," reports Madeline Cass of The New York Times. "The red-state refusals will keep aid from about 10 million children, about a third of those potentially eligible nationwide."

Why would a state governor turn down federal summer lunch money but accept funding while school is in session? Their reasons varied from summer lunches contributing to childhood obesity to insisting that free summer lunches were only part of pandemic aid. Cass writes, "Poor states are especially resistant, though the federal government bears most of the cost. Of the 10 states with the highest levels of children's food insecurity, five rejected Summer EBT: Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas."

In deep-red Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders welcomed the federal provision. "'Making sure no Arkansan goes hungry, especially children, is a top concern for my administration,' she said in a news release," Cass reports. "Arkansas officials estimate the program will cost the state about $3 million and deliver $45 million in benefits."

Early this year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press: "No child in this country should go hungry. They certainly shouldn't go hungry because they lose access to nutritious school meals during the summer months."

But a look at Summer EBT division doesn't bear that sentiment out. Cass explains, "The outcome illuminates the arbitrary nature of the American safety net, which prioritizes local control. North Dakota and North Carolina are in; South Dakota and South Carolina are out. . . .  In the impoverished Mississippi Delta, eligibility depends on which side of the Mississippi River a child lives."

These centers offer specialized care for aging adults that allows them to live at home instead of in nursing homes

PACE centers offer multiple types of care under one
roof. (National PACE Association photo)
As people age, most don't want to live in nursing homes. But when faced with extensive medical needs, many older adults end up in institutionalized care. While some older adults may need that degree of attention, a lesser-known option known as PACE (Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly) is gaining popularity as a cheaper, healthier alternative to nursing homes. "PACE has long flown under the national radar as an elder care option," reports Anna Claire Vollers of Stateline. "PACE centers provide government-funded medical care and social services to people older than 55 whose complex medical needs qualify them for nursing home care, but who can live at home with the right sort of help."

Given the preference of most individuals and their families to avoid nursing homes, considering a PACE center is a logical step. Vollers writes, "By 2030, one in five Americans will be over age 65, and most older adults say they would prefer to remain living in their homes for as long as possible. . . . . [The program has] recently attracted significant interest from lawmakers because it can keep people at home and may cost less than nursing home care."

The PACE model offers companies and health care systems a way to meet clients' health needs without lengthy inpatient stays. Each center provides a range of medical treatments, including physical therapy, vision and dental care, counseling and lab work. Centers also offer opportunities to get out of the house and socialize by providing a dining hall for meals and gathering areas for puzzles and games. Vollers reports, "Center social workers can help clients obtain needed items such as walkers and at-home wheelchair ramps."

Robert Greenwood, senior vice president for communications and member engagement at the National PACE Association, told Vollers, "It's definitely gaining momentum. In the last couple of years, we've had maybe six or seven new PACE programs open a year. In the last couple of months, we've had about four PACE programs open each month. There are 50 organizations in the pipeline for the next two years."

So far, PACE centers have had bipartisan support. Vollers reports, "Tennessee state Rep. Caleb Hemmer, a Democrat representing Nashville, and state Sen. Bo Watson, a Republican representing Hamilton County (which includes Chattanooga), are cosponsoring legislation that would expand PACE across the state." Hemmer told Stateline, "Even I was amazed when I visited. You walk in, and it’s nice and clean, it smells good, and there are activities for people. It’s a place I would want to send a loved one.”

For examples of PACE care in rural communities, click here and here.  To discover more about PACE, click here.

Eye-popping college costs vs. what students actually pay; research report looks at higher education comparisons

Brookings graph, from Department of Education data
Younger generations may be bypassing college due to its eye-popping costs, but research shows that few students pay the "listed" price. "Public discussions regarding rising college costs typically focus on the listed cost of attendance (COA), or 'sticker price.' High and rising college sticker prices are the subject of considerable attention, reports Phillip Levine for Brookings. But the sticker price isn't what families pay. "The average amount students actually pay (the 'net price') has recently stabilized and even fallen in the last few years."

Levine's research concluded that "sticker price is an increasingly poor indicator of college prices for all students, regardless of family income. . . . The growing use of merit-based aid at both public and private institutions accounts for this. At public institutions, the vast majority (79%) of those higher-income students paid the full sticker price in 1995-1996. That share dropped to 47% in 2019-2020."

While the net price for a student attending a public institution has risen, "This upward drift in net prices at public 4-year institutions indicates that they are becoming increasingly more expensive over time for students at all levels of the income distribution. The increase for higher-income families was larger in dollar terms but roughly similar in percentage terms," Levine writes. "That maximum net price is often lower than the sticker price because of the extensive use of merit awards." Net price at private institutions is "consistently higher than at public institutions."

While net prices have increased for all students across all income levels, those increases are smaller than the stated hikes in sticker prices. Levine reports, "Adjusted for inflation, net prices paid by students today at public institutions across the income distribution are similar to those they would have paid at private institutions in the mid-1990s."

Levine adds, "This analysis yields several implications for policy discussions regarding college pricing. First, the nearly universal focus on the sticker price in public discourse is detrimental to our understanding of college costs. It is the easiest measure to track, but it is a misleading statistic that a small and declining number of students pay. Even many higher-income families do not pay the full sticker price."