Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Feb. 2 is entry deadline for Scripps Howard Awards, including a $10,000 prize for community journalism

Entries for the 2017 Scripps Howard Awards, which include a category for community journalism, will be accepted through 11:59 p.m. local time Friday, Feb. 2.

First place in each of the 16 categories carries a $10,000 prize. New this year is the Impact Award, formerly called Public Service, which will honor the year's best work from all winners. Finalists will be announced Tuesday, Feb. 27; winners will be announced Tuesday, March 6. The awards are sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation, started by the E.W. Scripps Co., parent firm of Scripps-Howard Newspapers. For more information click here.

Walmart fires about 3,500 store co-managers

In the days since Walmart announced that it was raising its starting wage, giving out employee bonuses and expanding paid parental leave, the mega-chain has quietly tightened its belt in other areas. On Jan. 12, the company announced it is laying off about 3,500 salaried store co-managers, replacing them with 1,700 lower-paid assistant store managers, Matthew Boyle reports for Bloomberg.

Hours after Walmart's Jan. 11 announcement about the wages, which it credited to the recent corporate tax cut, the news media got wind that Walmart had abruptly closed 63 Sam's Club stores across the nation, with 9,400 employees. Some workers only found out that they had lost their jobs when they showed up to work to find a sign printed on the barred door. Ten of the Sam's Clubs will be turned into distribution centers for online orders, and employees will have the opportunity to apply for jobs there.  

Business Insider reporter Hayley Peterson, who broke the Sam's Club story, said on NPR, "It's highly unusual for companies as big as Walmart to not give employees notice about store closings," but that focusing on its online operation is a sound strategy for competing with Amazon.

Private grain buyers working with senators to change tax-overhaul provision that favors grain cooperatives

"Republican U.S. senators are working with some of the world's biggest agricultural merchants to undo a last-minute provision in the tax overhaul that threatens to distort the grains market and starve private firms of corn, soy and wheat supplies," Tom Polansek reports for Reuters. "The provision gives farmers a 20 percent deduction on payments for sales of crops to farmer-owned cooperatives, but not for sales to private or investor-owned grains handlers." The language was intended to help co-ops and their farmer-owners because the tax overhaul eliminated a part of the tax code that had benefited them for more than a decade.

"If legislators do not address the provision by the autumn harvest, private grain companies could lose out on deals to buy billions of bushels of corn and soybeans," Polansek reports. "Farmers already are looking at how they can transfer grain stored at private elevators to co-ops to take advantage of the new law."

Co-ops defended the new tax law. "Chris Pearson, chief executive of the South Dakota Wheat Growers co-op, said on Twitter on Wednesday that the law 'gives farmers some nice tax advantages when doing business with the ORGANIZATION THEY OWN!'" Polansek reports.

Large private grain traders like Cargill Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co., which would lose out with the provision, have urged senators to change it, and it looks like they're listening. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the National Grain and Feed Association have been working with Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota, John Thune of South Dakota and Pat Roberts of Kansas to find a more palatable solution. The Department of Agriculture said last week that it expects a solution soon.

Trump's Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity calls for connectivity, quality of life, other goals

Agriculture Secretary Perdue on RV listening tour (USDA photo)
On Jan. 8 the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity gave President Trump its report on ways to improve life in rural America. The report identified five "Calls to Action": Achieving e-Connectivity for Rural America, Improving Quality of Life, Supporting a Rural Workforce, Harnessing Technological Innovation and Developing the Rural Economy. Each call to action included a list of recommendations for legislative, regulatory and policy changes to help implement each call to action.

"To achieve the objectives set out in the report, the task force also recommends the president establish a federal commission on agriculture and rural prosperity that would meet at least bi-annually and prepare regular reports to the president on its progress," Jenny Schlecht reports for AgWeek. "It also recommends establishing a stakeholder advisory council to advise the commission and establishing a managing director to oversee both the commission and the advisory council."

Trump established the task force April 25 and made Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue its chair. It solicited public feedback by holding listening sessions and taking comments from the public online. Perdue also went on a 30-state RV tour.

"Many of the recommendations throughout the report involve improving cooperation among federal agencies, establishing additional task forces, reducing regulatory burdens and finding better ways to utilize existing resources," Schlecht reports.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Transportation Secretary Chao tells automakers not to forget about rural areas as they develop self-driving vehicles

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
(Detroit Free Press photo by Kathleen Galligan)
As it develops self-driving vehicles, the automobile industry must keep rural communities in mind, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told industry leaders Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Chao said autonomous vehicles have "tremendous potential" to improve safety and drive economic growth, "but she also said that automakers need to ensure that self-driving cars are accessible to people who live outside big cities," Nathan Bomey reports for USA Today.

"We want to be inclusive as well and consider how this technology can benefit rural America," Chao told Bomey in an interview. Self-driving cars are likely to be first available in ride-sharing fleets in metropolitan areas in 2019, "but not everyone lives downtown," Chao said in her speech. "And it is worth noting that rural America accounts for a disproportionately large share of highway fatalities. So, automated technology (has) an important role to play in rural mobility and safety."

Chao is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, one of the more rural states.

Farmworkers getting older; many have chronic ailments and spotty health coverage; production in California slows

Farmworkers harvesting in California, the No. 1 agricultural state (Photo from University of California, Davis)
As immigration from Mexico slows, "Harvesting U.S. crops has been left to an aging population of farmworkers whose health has suffered from decades of hard labor," Sarah Varney of Kaiser Health News reports for the Los Angeles Times. "Older workers have a greater chance of getting injured and of developing chronic illnesses, which can raise the cost of workers' compensation and health insurance."

Federal data show that the average age of a farmworker in the U.S. is 45, and that fewer have migrated from Mexico in recent years. "Researchers point to a number of causes: tighter border controls, higher prices charged by smugglers, well-paying construction jobs and a growing middle class in Mexico that doesn't want to pick vegetables for Americans," Varney reports.

Varney gives several examples of injuries and ailments that can result from working in the fields. "Many farmworkers don't have health insurance and pay what they can for medical care. Those who have immigration papers rely on Medicaid," she writes. "Only workers with legal status agreed to be interviewed for this story. Most farmworkers, however, are not working in this country legally, and their health coverage is spotty. They are employed by subcontractors who are supposed to offer them health insurance, but seven years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, there's no good accounting for how many employers are complying with the law."

Farmer Brent McKinsey told Varney, "You start to see your production drop, but it's difficult to manage because there aren't the younger people wanting to come in and work in this industry." McKinsey "says farmers are trying to mechanize planting and harvesting to reduce their labor needs. But machines can only do so much, McKinsey said. You can replace the human hand in a factory, perhaps. But out here, the fields are bumpy and the winds are strong, and you need people to bring the plants to life."

Northern Utah daily runs reported Trump quotation, with a note directing reader complaints to the president

President Trump's vulgar comment about African countries and Haiti forced news organizations to decide whether they would report the verbatim quotation reported by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, and if so, how they would handle it. Perhaps the most interesting approach was taken by The Herald Journal of Logan, Utah, which ran the Associated Press story with a headline that used the verbatim quotation and followed it with an editor's note:

"Since President Donald Trump's statement about immigrants from certain areas of the world is taking over the story on the immigration deal being negotiated in Washington, we will be using the president's language verbatim in print and online. Feel free to direct your complaints about the president's choice of language via postal service to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500, online at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ or via Twitter @realDonaldTrump."

Readers' limited comments on the story were favorable. One called it "priceless."

The Herald Journal is published by Seattle-based Pioneer News Group, which also has papers in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Some of its larger papers, such as the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana, ran the story with the headline but without an editor's note.

Jan. 30 is deadline to seek Hillman Prizes, which recognize journalism that advances social and economic justice

Jan. 30 is the deadline for nominations for the 2018 Hillman Prizes, which honor investigative journalism and commentary that advance social and economic justice. "Winners exemplify reportorial excellence, storytelling skill, and public service impact," says the Sidney Hillman Foundation, named for a pioneer of the labor movement.

The categories for work published or premiered in 2017 are newspaper reporting, magazine reporting, nonfiction book, web journalism (material that appeared online but not in print), broadcast journalism, (at least 20 minutes in total package length) and opinion and analysis journalism in any medium. Each carries a $5,000 prize.

There is no fee to enter. A cover letter and the nominated material are the only requirements. View the entry form and instructions. See previous winners here. Winners will be announced in April 2018. Each honoree is awarded travel to New York City for the awards ceremony on May 8.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Work requirements, likely coming to Medicaid in several states, will be problematic in rural areas short of jobs

The Trump administration gave Kentucky the power to impose work requirements on Medicaid beneficiaries Friday, granting the first of what are expected to be many "waivers" of normal Medicaid rules under a new policy the administration declared days earlier.

Kentucky has many rural areas that are short of jobs, so state officials say they plan to phase in the program, reaching such areas last, under federal rules that "allow states to account for local conditions, such as high unemployment in certain areas or other factors, to provide exemptions from a work requirement," Dylan Scott reports for Vox.

Rural areas could have "less robust transportation, and fewer social support services, all things that might lead a state to provide an exemption from the work requirement," Scott writes. Because rural areas are "more likely to be white . . . the result, intentional or not, is that black people on Medicaid — because they are more likely to live in urban areas, where those grounds for exemption are less likely to be found — could face a higher burden under these waivers."

UPDATE, Jan. 15: Phil Galewitz and Pauline Batrolone of Kaiser Health News explain why implementing work requirements will be complicated.

The Kentucky plan will require Medicaid members to report changes in their income, employment or volunteer status, and require them to pay small, income-based premiums, or be dropped from the program for six months. They could re-enroll more quickly by taking a health- or financial-literacy course, but critics of the plan say the reporting and payment system (to be handled by managed-care companies) will be a bureaucratic obstacle that will keep some people from getting health care.

“Documenting compliance will often not be trivial, and even small hassle costs can discourage people from signing up for insurance coverage,” Matt Fiedler, who covers health care policy for the Brookings Institution, told Scott. “Higher hassle costs will likely cause meaningful reductions in Medicaid coverage even among people who are working.” Kentucky's waiver proposal predicted that without it, the state's Medicaid rolls in five years would have about 95,000 more people than with it, the only reasons given being "program non-compliance" and "participants are expected to transition to commercial coverage," but doesn't explain how they will be able to afford that.

"Any approved waivers are expected to be swiftly met with legal challenges," Scott writes. "The issue hinges on whether requiring work for Medicaid can be construed as furthering the goals of the Medicaid program, which contains no explicit reference to encouraging work." Most Medicaid beneficiaries work. Among those who don't, here are the reasons they give:

At a rural GOP listening post, Trump's fitness is questioned, but Minn. poll shows majority support in largely rural areas

Grassley listens (Register photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes)
In a reliably Republican county in southwest Iowa, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley "faced relentless questioning about President Donald Trump’s fitness for office and his own handling of the investigation into Russian election meddling," Jason Noble reports for the Des Moines Register.

Asked in the Harrison County seat of Logan, population 1,500, if he was concerned about Trump's behavior, Grassley said "he wasn’t qualified to make a psychiatric assessment," Noble reports. “I’m not president of the United States,” Grassley said. “I’m a check on the president of the United States. That’s my constitutional responsibility. I’m going to do what I can under our constitution to make sure that nothing bad happens to our country.”

The town meeting was Grassley’s first on his annual tour of all 99 Iowa counties, "was a striking scene, not least because of where it was playing out: in a rural western Iowa county where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-1 and where Trump carried 65 percent of the vote in 2016," Noble notes. "And in contrast to the crowds that packed into lawmakers’ town meetings last year, the anti-Trump contingent was not obviously organized. . . . They appeared, by and large, to be from Logan and the small communities immediately surrounding."

While the questions were mainly anti-Trump, the crowd was more evenly divided. When one woman stood and said “I just love our wonderful President Trump,” she drew "a chorus of mocking laughter mixed with sincere applause," Noble reports. The woman told onlookers, Nejedly said, “I don’t know you, but don’t hate so much. We’ve got to come together and stop hating so much.” Another woman replied, “We’re not hating. It’s not that we hate Trump.We are recognizing behavior that’s not normal. We’re not psychiatrists, but we can see abnormal behavior when we see it.”

Noble reports, "Grassley largely remained above the fray, answering specific questions as they were asked of him but declining to engage in the more open-ended critiques of his conduct or the president’s behavior." The senator said comments attributed to Trump, questioning immigration from "shithole countries," “detracts from the very important issue we’ve got to get solved by March 5,” the deadline for Congress to preserve protections for immigrants brought to the country as minors.

UPDATE, Jan. 15: In adjoining Minnesota, which Trump narrowly lost in 2016, he still had a 60 percent approval rating in the southern part of the state, and 59 percent in the north, "a region hit hard by the steel slump and layoffs in the iron mines, [where] 70 percent approved of the way Trump is handling the economy and job policy," Jennifer Brooks reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which sponsored the poll, taken Jan. 8-10, before the latest controversy.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Weekly kicked off new year with a front page all about health

The week or two after Christmas is a slack time for weekly newspapers; some still take a week off. But the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., took the period as an opportunity to spotlight personal stories about local residents' efforts to improve their health.

"We try to be prepared for slow weeks during the holidays by making sure we have options, but it really would have taken something pretty massive to kick these stories off the front," Editor-Publisher Sharon Burton said in an email to Kentucky Health News.

"A lot of people refocus on their health during the new year, so we knew these articles would be timely and draw interest," Burton wrote. "My assistant editor made a major healthy lifestyle change in his life several years ago and is passionate about this topic. I think it shows in these articles."

To read the stories, click here. For the jump page where the articles are continued, click here.

For an editorial by Burton that was also a good way to begin the year, with her sharing some philosophies of life, click here.

Republicans in Congress promise action on rural broadband

Democratic officials from 8 rural heartland states, 6 carried by Trump, tell their national party, 'You're killing us'

Indiana Rep. Terry Goodin (Politico photo by Patrick Brown)
Democrats have a rural problem. Most of them know it, and at least some care about it. Though they have won recent off-year and special elections, "The number of Democrats holding office across the nation is at its lowest point since the 1920s and the decline has been especially severe in rural America." That's from a recent report by U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, who was re-elected in her blue-collar northwestern Illinois district by a 20-point landslide last November.

Bustos knew Democrats needed to gain ground in rural areas, so she commissioned a study to see what rural Democratic politicians in heartland states had to say. The report, Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington, was just released, and will be distributed to local and regional party leaders and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill. It's based on interviews with 72 current or former local Democratic officials from mostly rural areas of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. All voted for Trump but Minnesota (which was close) and Illinois.

The report features advice from people like Indiana state Rep. Terry Goodin, a pro-gun, anti-abortion, Pentecostal cattle farmer who is the last Democrat in the state to represent an entirely rural area. His district went heavily for Trump in 2016, but many Trump voters voted for Goodin, at 17-year legislative veteran, partially because of his pragmatic relatability, Michael Kruse reports for Politico.

In the report, "The quotes from the 72 rural Democrats . . . read like a pent-up primal scream. And Terry Goodin’s comments pop out in particular," Kruse reports. "In the report, he says the Democratic Party is 'lazy,' 'out of touch with mainstream America,' relying on 'too much identity politics' where 'winners and losers are picked by their labels.' The Democrats in his district, he laments, 'feel abandoned'."

His success, Goodin told Kruse, comes from his ability to focus on the things he agrees with his constituents about instead of writing off people who disagree with him about a few things. "In a nutshell, this is the advice of Bustos’ report: Widen the definition of Democrat." Kruse reports. Bustos told him, "If we call ourselves a big tent party, then we should act like it."

Official forecast: Coal will keep losing out to natural gas; pro-drilling policies don't help coal

"Just a day after federal regulators nixed a major Trump administration proposal to shore up the struggling coal industry, the nation’s top energy forecaster predicted continuing, slow declines in U.S. coal production and in the burning of coal for electricity in 2018 and 2019, thanks to cheap natural gas and coal plant retirements," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post.

The Energy Information Administration's monthly report projected that coal production will decline from 773 million short tons in 2017 to 759 million in 2018 and 741 million in 2019. Burning coal for electricity, its main use in the U.S., will also decline steadily. By 2019, the report predicts that gas will generate 34 percent of electricity in the U.S. and coal will produce 28 percent. In 2003, coal accounted for 51 percent and gas 17 percent.

"The report offers the latest evidence that while the Trump administration’s focus on energy production may advantage some fossil fuels — the report also predicts a record U.S. crude oil production of 10.3 million barrels a day in 2018, followed by 10.8 million in 2019 — it’s proving more difficult to change the trajectory for coal," Mooney reports. "That’s because it’s a carbon-intensive fuel that faces not only adverse policies but also market forces, such as the booming production of natural gas thanks to fracking."

Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Mooney that cheap natural gas, not Obama-era regulation, is killing coal: "If anything, the policies of the current administration are going to exacerbate that, in the sense that they’re opening up lands for more drilling, which is likely to generate more oil, but can also generate more natural gas — which might be the final nail in the coal coffin, if you will."

Tariffs on Canadian newsprint will raise prices

The price of newsprint likely go up soon, though not as much as newspapers originally feared. The Department of Commerce announced Jan. 8 the first of a new round of countervailing duties on uncoated groundwood paper that range from 4.42 percent to 9.93 percent. The new duties will begin affecting Canadian paper producers on Jan. 16, and will give American producers room to raise prices.

Countervailing duties are a kind of tariff levied on imported goods to offset subsidies given to producers in the exporting country. "This is the first of two announcements on duties, as the Department of Commerce is also expected to release a preliminary decision on anti-dumping duties on March 8. Anti-dumping duties are described as a 'protectionist tariff' that is imposed on imported goods that a domestic government believes are priced below fair market value," the Wisconsin Newspaper Association reports.

The National Newspaper Association and the News Media Alliance are encouraging newspapers to contact their congressional representatives to protest the tariffs. The U.S. International Trade Commission will conduct a final investigation on the case in late spring and is expected to reach a final decision by September. The tariffs will be essentially permanent, barring a separate agreement under the North American Free Trade Agreement that eliminates them, which is not likely.

The petitioner for the new duties is the North Pacific Paper Co., which is owned by a New York hedge fund operator and has a single paper mill in Washington state. "We are stunned that a single U.S. mill in Longview, Wash., has been able to manipulate the trade laws to their gain, while potentially wreaking financial havoc on newspapers and other commercial publishers across the country," said David Chavern, president and CEO of NMA. "This decision and its associated duties likely will lead to job losses in U.S. publishing, commercial printing and paper industries."

Trump administration ends registry for evidence-based mental health and substance abuse programs

"The Trump administration has abruptly halted work on a highly regarded program to help physicians, families, state and local government agencies, and others separate effective 'evidence-based' treatments for substance abuse and behavioral health problems from worthless interventions," Sharon Begley reports for Stat, the national health-and-science website of The Boston Globe. The move has implications for rural areas because behavioral-health services are less available there.

The program, launched in 1997, is called the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices; its website lists 453 programs aimed at helping issues including opioid addiction, depression, parenting and HIV prevention. "Mental health and addiction specialists say they rely on this database as a key source for finding appropriate and effective therapies," Lena Sun and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. "Since 2015, the registry has also included evidence that certain interventions do not work, which helps practitioners avoid wasting resources on those programs.

NREPP is run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. During the Obama administration the maintenance of the database was hired out to independent contractor Development Services Group Inc. On Dec. 28, 2017, Development Services was notified that SAMHSA had terminated its contract. The website is still up, but no new entries or modifications are being entered.

"In an online statement, SAMHSA said future work on the registry, including vetting new applications, would be moved in house 'to reconfigure its approach to identifying and disseminating evidence-based practice and programs,'" Begley reports.

SAMHSA has provided no details about how and when it will pick up the registry work. Meanwhile, the decision could throw a monkey wrench into some state health policies, since some states require that public programs only use evidence-based interventions vetted by NREPP.

New GMOs use edited genes, not those from other organisms; countries debate whether to regulate them

Jason McHenry on his South Dakota farm.
(Photo by Antonio Regalado)
Genetically modified crops usually focus on increasing the yield per acre, but a new generation of  GMOs could turn that on its head with a different focus, different technology, and possibly different regulations.

Traditionally, genetically modified crops are created by splicing in genes from a soil bacterium to help them resist herbicides, boosting yields by suppressing weeds. The new wave of GMOs focuses on altering native characteristics of a plant using only the DNA it already has—a technology known as gene editing. The creators of these new GMOs argue that their plants are just like those produced by conventional breeding, just faster.

"To many scientists, the potential of gene editing seems nearly limitless, offering a new way to rapidly create plants that are drought-resistant, immune to disease, or improved in flavor," Antonio Regalado reports for MIT Technology Review. "A supermarket tomato that tastes good? That could happen if scientists restore the flavor-making genes that make heirloom varieties delicious. What about a corn plant with twice as many kernels? If nature allows it, scientists believe, gene editing could let them build it."

For example, Minnesota start-up Calyxt markets a soybean that creates an oil more like olive oil than typical soybean oil. That’s important because soybean oil has lost a lot of market share since the U.S. banned trans fats (which are present in partially hydrogenated soybean oil). South Dakota farmer Jason McHenry told Regalado he was persuaded to plant the Calyxt soybeans because "You have to keep your finger on what the consumer wants, and as a farmer, you have to differentiate yourself. If you are looking at a market that could be gone, you have to think about alternatives."

Some consumers and scientists are alarmed about the new GMOs, saying they might be unsafe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that the plants won’t be regulated like traditional GMOs since they don’t have foreign genes in them. That means Calyxt can get its new beans to market more quickly and cheaply, without having to go through the battery of permits, inspections and safety tests usually required of GMOs.

The question of whether gene-edited GMOs should be regulated like traditional GMOs is playing out across the world. “New Zealand decided that the new plants are GMOs after all, and so did the USDA’s own organic council. The Netherlands and Sweden don’t think they are. China hasn’t said. The European Union still has to make up its mind. Billions in global grain exports could ultimately hang in the balance,” Regalado reports.

Citing tax cut, Walmart hikes basic wage, gives bonuses, boosts childbirth leave, then closes 63 Sam's Club stores

"Walmart is boosting the minimum hourly wage for its U.S. employees to $11 and dishing out bonuses of up to $1,000, crediting President Trump's tax cut for enabling the move," Nathan Bomey reports for USA Today. The corporate tax rate will drop from 35 percent to 21 percent under the new law. Walmart is the nation's largest private employer with more than 1 million hourly employees in the U.S., and has a heavy presence in rural America.

Big changes are also coming for Walmart employees who are welcoming a new baby. "The company is also boosting its paid maternity leave policy for full-time hourly workers to 10 weeks at full pay. Previously, birthing mothers got six to eight weeks at half pay," Bomey reports. "Walmart is also increasing its paid leave policy for new fathers and non-birthing mothers to six weeks at full pay for full-time hourly workers. Previously, the company didn't offer any paid leave for them."

The company will benefit from looking more attractive to workers, since unemployment is at a 17-year low, meaning other companies could woo away dissatisfied or potential Walmart employees. University of Michigan business professor Erik Gordon told Bomey that "Walmart would have had to go to at least $11 in many markets in order to retain reliable employees [but] the tax cut made it easier for the company to swallow."

The move shows that Walmart is betting on solid economic growth for the next few years, according to Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect. He also told Bomey that it meant that Walmart recognized that it needed to treat their employees better because "they can't take them for granted anymore."

The minimum-wage hike will take effect in February. The one-time bonuses will cost the company $400 million and will be based on the length of service. Most will get up to a few hundred dollars, but employees who have worked for at least 20 years will get the full $1,000.

UPDATE, Jan. 12: After announcing the wage hikes, Walmart announced hours later it will lay off thousands of workers as it closes 63 Sam's Club stores, some without advance warning to employees, who showed up for work and found the stores closed.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Fears of undercount spur states to check census databases

"Amid fears that a lack of money will prevent an accurate count, states are gearing up to identify the people the 2020 U.S. census is most likely to miss," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline, the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. "The current task for state and local officials is to verify the Census Bureau’s residential address list: Starting in February, the bureau will turn over address lists to states and local governments for double-checking that must be finished within 120 days."

Checking databases like property-tax rolls and 911 records can help state governments correct errors in the bureau's databases, but small, local sources might help the most. "In New Mexico, for example, some small towns have used holiday-turkey distribution lists to prove to census officials that new addresses are real," Henderson reports.

States have good reason to make sure every citizen is counted, since $590 billion in federal funding and apportionment of Congressional seats depends on census data. People in rural areas, immigrants, minorities, migrant workers, and people who don't trust the government are among the most likely to be under-counted, especially because of the bureau's new system that will rely heavily on using the internet.

Trump order aims to reduce suicide among new veterans

Trump before signing the executive order Tuesday
(Associated Press photo by Evan Vucci)
President Trump signed an executive order Jan. 9 to expand mental health care for veterans who are transitioning from military to civilian life in an effort to reduce suicides in that group.

"The order will take effect March 9 and is expected to provide all new veterans with mental-health care for at least a year after they leave the military," Dan Lamothe reports for The Washington Post. "Trump gave the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Veterans Affairs 60 days to iron out details and develop a joint plan, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said in phone call with reporters."

New veterans are particularly at risk of suicide, and 60 percent of the 265,000 service members who transition out of the military each year don't qualify for care until the government establishes that a medical issue is related to their military service. Shulkin told Lamothe that people who have been out of military service for less than a year are 1 1/2 to two times more likely to commit suicide than any other age group. About 20 veterans a day commit suicide.

The full details of the plan aren't yet clear, but will likely include making peer-group therapy sessions available at all VA Whole Health facilities; such sessions are now only available at 18 of the facilities. An anonymous source told Lamothe that the Defense Department will expand the services of its Military OneSource program to allow veterans to access its counseling and 24-hour call line services for a full year after leaving the military instead of the current 180 days. The source said that the Pentagon will look for ways to start the transition process for service members while they are still in uniform.

Shulkin said the program is expected to cost a few hundred million dollars a year from the Defense and VA budgets, but will be paid for with existing money.

New projection says reauthorizing CHIP will save money in the long run; lawmakers say they're close to a deal

A new projection from the Congressional Budget Office says that reauthorizing the Children's Health Insurance Program for 10 years would save the government $6 billion. CBO says a five-year extension would cost the government $800 million, down from earlier estimates of $8 billion.

CHIP provides insurance to 9 million children whose parents make too much to qualify for Medicaid but can't afford private insurance. The CBO's projection is anchored on the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's individual mandate in the recently passed tax overhaul.

"To summarize the CBO’s complicated line of reasoning that led to this outcome, no mandate means fewer people will enroll in the Obamacare marketplaces, meaning fewer low-income folks will get federal subsidies," Paige Cunningham reports for The Washington Post. "Some of those people leaving the marketplaces would instead enroll their kids in CHIP. And on the federal government’s end, paying for CHIP coverage is actually cheaper overall than funding subsidies for private marketplace plans. So the government, the argument goes, would actually save money on CHIP in the future."

With such a projection, Cunningham writes that it would be "truly shocking" if Congress doesn't renew CHIP soon. Lawmakers in both parties say they've almost resolved the disagreement and could reauthorize the popular, bipartisan law as soon as next week. The measure could be attached to a short-term government funding bill that must pass before Jan. 19, Peter Sullivan reports for The Hill.

House Energy Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) told reporters he didn't think paying for the five-year extension would be a problem, but said whether CHIP is added to the spending bill next week is up to the leaders who are negotiating what goes in it, Sullivan reports.

The deal will come not a moment too soon. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said the stopgap funding already provided to CHIP may not last through the end of March, Cunningham reports. Several states, such as Virginia and Alabama, have sent letters to parents warning them that the program will end soon unless Congress funds it.

Three South Dakota tribes sue opioid makers over addiction

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, the Flandrew Santee Sioux Tribe, and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe in South Dakota have sued 24 drug manufacturers and distributors, alleging that the drugmakers hid and minimized the risk of addiction in tribal communities that have been hard hit by opioids.

"While 200,000 Americans died from prescription opioid overdoses from 2000 to 2016, the national epidemic has hit Indian reservations particularly hard," Sari Horwitz reports for The Washington Post. "Native Americans suffer the highest per capita rate of opioid overdoses, and one in 10 American Indian youths age 12 or older used prescription opioids for nonmedical purposes in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s double the rate for white youths."

The suit accuses the defendants, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan PLC, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Corp, of failing to comply with federal prescription drug laws meant to prevent the abuse of opioids. "The lawsuit accuses the companies of violating federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations laws, deceptive trade practices, and fraudulent and negligent conduct," Horwitz reports.

The case is the latest in a string of tribes filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors. In April 2017 the Cherokee in Oklahoma was the first tribe to file suit. Three other tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina have filed similar suits in the past three weeks. The South Dakota suit is the first involving multiple tribes and the first representing the Lakota Sioux.

Jurisdiction may be a sticking point in the suits. In the Cherokee case, the defendants argued that Cherokee tribal courts don't have jurisdiction over them and therefore can't sue; the judge is still deliberating on whether to keep the case in tribal court or transfer it to federal court.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

RFD-TV to recap Trump's Farm Bureau trip; channel's site has speech analysis, interviews with state federation prexys

RFD-TV's Mark Oppold interviews Trump
RFD-TV, which got an exclusive interview with President Trump at the American Farm Bureau Federation convention, will have a special program Thursday, Jan. 11, at 10 p.m. ET with Trump's speech to the convention, "feedback from ag and commodity experts, alongside rural Americans, farmers and ranchers," RFD-TV Marketing Vice President Heather Huston says in an email.

The cable/satellite channel's interview with Trump is here; Trump’s speech is here; Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s speech is here; and interviews with state Farm Bureau presidents are here. Also, here is an analysis of the speech by Catherine Boudreau of Politico, veteran agricultural journalist Jerry Hagstrom, commodity broker and consultant Chris Swift, and RFD-TV Executive Producer Katie Dehlinger.

County-level map shows how school test scores changed

Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it. For the interactive version with county data, click here.
"A new study that examines educational progress of millions of U.S. pupils over a five-year span finds that there are few patterns for predicting how geography or socioeconomic status affect student improvement," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. Click here for the interactive map to see how your county stacks up.

The Stanford University study looked at standardized test scores of the same students in the third and eighth grades. A child who has completed five years of school would ideally advance five grade levels on test scores. The results show that metro and rural schools averaged about the same at raising students' test scores over that five year period. Rich and poor districts had similarly varied results. 

Some areas stand out, though: students in much of Central Appalachia, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and rural Illinois performed below average, while students in most rural and metro Tennessee counties performed above average.

Head researcher Sean Reardon "collected some 300 million standardized reading and math test scores from 45 million students in over 11,000 school districts spanning the school years 2008-09 to 2014-15, Bishop reports. "Reardon was able to devise a national standard by comparing state test scores to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a long-running test of students across the United States."

Study finds nutritional value of pastures has declined; could stymie trend for grass-fed beef

Iowa Beef Industry Council photo
Most beef cattle in the U.S. are finished on feedlots, bulked up with grains instead of the grass they evolved to eat. But more and more consumers are demanding grass-fed beef, saying it's healthier to eat and better for the environment. "Sales have soared from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016. And industry analysts say grass-fed beef could make up 30 percent of the market within 10 years," Alex Smith reports for NPR.

There's a problem with the growing trend of grass-fed beef though: the grass they eat is becoming less nutritious. Researchers at Texas A&M University and Boulder, Colo.-based ecology outfit Jonah Ventures studied cow manure collected from all over the country between 1994 and 2016 and found that crude protein in grass has dropped by almost 20 percent since the mid-90s. That's causing the cattle to gain less weight on grass than they would have in years past. The less-nutritious grass could hurt even conventional cattle, since many are grass-fed before finishing.

Jonah Ventures co-owner Joe Craine told Smith there are two theories on the cause for the drop. One is that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be the other reason, since increased CO2 levels are have been linked to fewer nutrients in other grass plants like rice and wheat. The other is cattle that are moved to feedlots don't defecate on the prairie anymore, delivering nutrients to the soil.

"Craine thinks this may be happening on a large scale in the prairie, and that it's just a matter of time before prairie grasses simply don't have enough protein to support grazing," Smith reports. The researchers studied cow manure collected from all over the country between 1994 and 2016. "Somewhere on the order of 50,000 cow pies got shipped to Texas for this study," Smith reports.

Rural women start having sex earlier, are likelier to have more kids, and use more reliable methods of birth control

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
A new analysis of federal data by the National Survey of Family Growth found that women in the rural U.S. tend to have sex earlier, and have more children than their urban counterparts. They are also more likely to report choosing long-term or permanent methods of birth control because more reversible methods like condoms are less likely to be accessible. The researchers analyzed responses from in-person interviews with more than 10,000 women ages 18-44, between 2011 and 2015.

"On average, women living in rural areas said they had their first sexual encounter earlier than women living in urban areas, according to the survey. The mean age of first sexual intercourse among women living in rural areas was 16.6 years old. For women living in urban areas, the average age of first intercourse was 17.4," Patti Neighmond reports for NPR.

About 41 percent of metro-area women had no children, significantly more than the 30 percent in rural areas. And women in rural areas are slightly more likely to have two or more children than women in urban areas are.

"When asked about contraception, one in five women in both groups reported they'd had sexual intercourse without using contraception. And, notably, more women in urban areas reported using less effective birth control methods to prevent pregnancy (a condom or withdrawal, for example) than their rural counterparts, who were more likely to use one of the most effective contraceptive methods — an IUD or sterilization," Neighmond reports.

Eleanor Bimla Schwarz, a research epidemiologist at the University of California, Davis, who wasn't involved in the study, told Neighmond that the difference in birth-control methods likely stems from the fact that women in rural areas can't access reversible methods of birth control as easily. "If we really want to help young women and teens have a healthy and safe sexual life, we need to get effective resources and education to them before 16," she said.

Administration has fulfilled most of requests by nation's largest coal operator, who was a big supporter of Trump

Murray
President Trump has been famously friendly to the coal industry in his first year of office, and a confidential memo suggests coal magnate Robert Murray may be responsible.

Murray, who supported Trump's campaign donated $300,000 to the inauguration, owns the country's largest coal company, Murray Energy. He sent the memo soon after the inauguration; it included a detailed list of 14 policy actions that would benefit him. Almost a year later, almost have been completed or are on track to be completed.

"The March 1 memo, which was obtained by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and shared with The New York Times, is addressed to Vice President Mike Pence. The sweeping wish list of regulatory overhauls includes ending regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and ozone and mine safety, as well as cutting the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency 'at least in half' and overhauling the Labor Department’s office of mine safety," Lisa Friedman reports for the Times. Murray sent a similar memo to Secretary of Energy Rick Perry on March 23.

Murray wrote in the memo to Pence that his wish list is geared toward "getting America's coal miners back to work." It included requests to cut funding for carbon capture and sequestration technology and eliminate a 2009 EPA ruling that was the legal basis for most of President Obama's climate change policy.

In a recent interview with the Times, Murray said that the memo outlined measures that would help provide "reliable, low-cost electricity in America" and praised the Trump administration for "being bold, being passionate and being correct in addressing a lot of these issues that were on my list here."

Friedman reports, "The Trump administration has had an unusually close relationship with Mr. Murray. He and 10 of his miners were invited to watch the president sign an executive order to rollback President Obama’s climate change regulations. He has met with Mr. Perry to discuss the needs of coal producers. His longtime attorney, Andrew Wheeler, is awaiting Senate confirmation to the No. 2 slot at the EPA, and David Zatezalo, the nation’s new top mine safety and health regulator and previously the president of a coal mining company, told his hometown paper that Mr. Murray had encouraged him to put his hat in the ring for the job."

Despite Murray's influence, on Jan. 8 the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected Perry's proposal to subsidize coal and nuclear power plants, which would have mostly benefitted Murray.

U.S. child mortality highest among wealthy nations; most deaths among infants (especially rural) and late teens

Washington Post charts; click on the image to enlarge it.
"American babies are 76 percent more likely to die before they turn a year old than babies in other rich countries, and American children who survive infancy are 57 percent more likely to die before adulthood, according to a sobering new study published in the journal Health Affairs," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post.

Ashish Thakrar, an internal-medicine resident at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and lead author of the study, writes that "persistently high poverty rates, poor educational outcomes, and a relatively weak social safety net have made the U.S. the most dangerous of wealthy nations for a child to be born into." U.S. policy decisions could play a big role in those conditions. Policy decisions explain at least 47 percent of the differences in life expectancy between countries, according to a 2010 study. And a 2007 study found that about 20 percent of the difference in infant mortality rates can be explained by policy decisions.

Thakrar "notes that while the U.S. spends more per capita on health care for children than other wealthy nations, it has poorer outcomes than many. In 2013, the United Nations Children's Fund ranked the U.S. 25th in a list of 29 developed countries for overall child health and safety," Ingraham reports.

In the 1960s the U.S. had a much lower childhood mortality rate than the average of 19 other wealthy countries in the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, but that began to change in the 1970s and the gap widened dramatically in the 1980s (coinciding with a rise in childhood poverty). The gap today translates to about 20,000 deaths a year. Since 1961, that means about 600,000 deaths. The U.S. has ranked last in the OECD for child mortality since the 1990s, Sarah Kliff reports for Vox.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chart
About 90 percent of the U.S. deaths were among infants from birth to age 1 and teens 15 to 19; comparatively few deaths occurred between ages 1 and 14. Among infants, the leading causes of death are premature births (which have risen dramatically in recent years) and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Infant mortality has decreased since the 1960s, but declined more in other OECD countries. In the U.S., the infant mortality rate in rural areas is 25 percent higher than in urban areas.

The two leading causes of death for 15-to-19- year-olds in the U.S. were motor vehicle accidents and assault by firearm. "Teenagers were twice as likely to die from motor vehicle accidents and 82 times more likely to die from gun homicide in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations," Thakrar writes. Though overall gun ownership is higher in rural areas of the U.S., urban teens are more likely to die from shootings. But rural drivers are far more likely to die in car wrecks than their suburban and urban counterparts.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

UV light kills bat-killing fungus; research continues

A brown bat suffering from white-nose
syndrome. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service photo)
Bats decimated by white-nose syndrome could one day be saved by ultraviolet light, a study suggests. "Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of New Hampshire have discovered that UV light kills the fungus that is responsible for the precipitous declines over the last decade of many bat species in 33 states" and two Canadian provinces, Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The fungus infects hibernating bats, causing them to use twice as much energy to maintain bodily functions, which makes them burn through body fat and die of starvation. It can also kill infected bats when they become so uncomfortable from the disease that they wake up and venture outside into the cold before succumbing to the elements. The Forest Service recently declared white-nose "the most catastrophic wildlife disease of the century," Hopey notes.

“This research has tremendous implications for bats and people,” Forest Service researcher Tony Ferguson told Hopey. A UV cure would be a boon to agriculture, or at least the prevention of a bane, since bats help with pollination, seed dispersal and insect control. "According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bats eat enough insects to save U.S. corn growers more than $1 billion a year in crop damage, and all farmers more than $3 billion," Hopey notes.

"The Forest Service has already started a follow-up study with researchers at Bucknell University in Lewistown, Union County, Pa., to determine if and how UV light can be used to treat bats," Hopey reports. The study "will measure the survival of 45 little brown bats from Wisconsin with white-nose syndrome that have been shipped to artificial hibernation chambers at Bucknell and treated with UV light." The fungus has killed almost all the little brown and northern long-eared bats in Pennsylvania; here's a Post-Gazette chart showing its impact in the state:

Regulators reject plan to help coal and nuclear power plants

"In an order Monday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s sweeping proposal to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants in the name of keeping power grids dependable. Instead, the commission asked grid operators to suggest their own ideas to make the system more resilient," Catherine Traywick and Ari Natter report for Bloomberg.

It's a surprising unanimous vote from an agency in which four of the five commissioners were appointed by President Trump, and three of them are Republicans. In the order, the regulators said they appreciated Perry's efforts to reinforce the resilience of the power grid and said it's "an important issue that warrants further attention."

Perry's plan proposed to raise electricity prices paid to any power plant that has a 90-day fuel supply on hand. That would benefit coal, especially coal magnate Robert Murray's plants, since natural gas and renewable energy are more expensive to store.

U.S. Energy Information Administration graph; click here for the interactive version

The natural gas industry criticized the plan, saying it would undermine competition in wholesale power markets. Natural gas now makes up the largest part of the nation's energy mix, and coal is unlikely to catch up.

FERC's order "gave regional grid operators 60 days to submit feedback on how grid resilience should be assessed, if at all, and whether the commission should take any action on the matter at this time," Bloomberg reports.

Official who improperly helped Redskins owner cut down trees tapped as National Park Service deputy director

"A former National Park Service official who improperly helped Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder cut down more than 130 trees to improve a river view at his Potomac, Md., estate has been chosen by the Trump administration to be one of the agency’s highest-ranking leaders," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post.

Google Maps view of Snyder's home next to the Potomac River
P. Daniel Smith was expected to replace acting director Mike Reynolds yesterday, according to an internal memo obtained by the Post and National Parks Traveler. Smith most recently served as superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park before retiring in 2014, but met with controversy in his role before that, as a special assistant to the Park Service director.

In 2004 he helped Snyder cut down 50,000 square feet of trees in a national park that stood between Snyder's house and the Potomac River and planted saplings to replace them, Terence Cullen reports for the New York Daily News. "Smith pressured lower-level officials to approve a deal that disregarded federal environmental laws, harmed the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park and left the agency vulnerable to charges of favoritism, according to an inspector-general report," Fears reports.

Trump brags to farmers, avoids specifics on NAFTA and immigration, offers help with rural broadband

Bloomberg photo by Luke Sharrett
In his speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the American Farm Bureau Federation conference in Nashville yesterday, President Trump hit on a familiar litany of topics. He "bragged about his accomplishments and cast himself as the leader of a movement restoring respect for the national anthem, the American flag and the forgotten man," Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan report for The Washington Post.

Trump took credit for the booming stock market and economy, and said his tax overhaul bill was a victory for farmers and promised expanded access to broadband in rural areas. "Trump signed an executive order following his speech on rural broadband, aimed at easing the process to put private broadband infrastructure on federal property. "Those towers are going to go up, and you are going to have great, great broadband," he said.The White House described the move, along with a memorandum directing the Interior Department to work on a plan to increase access to its properties for broadband deployment, as 'incremental,' but the start of an effort to make progress on the issue," Zeke Miller reports for The Associated Press.

As expected, Trump steered largely clear of  controversial topics such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and immigration, which helps farmers harvest crops. In an interview before the speech, when RFD-TV asked him what he might do about low crop prices, he blamed them on bad trade agreements. Actually, American farmers have been one of the main beneficiaries of NAFTA. He said in his speech that he would make the agreements fairer.

Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, "While some farmers may have wanted to hear more on trade or other topics, the president's speech allowed him to soak up the adulation of an adoring rural audience. Trump said he was pleased to be the first president to speak to the group in more than 25 years, but was disappointed to hear it was the 99th annual meeting." Trump said, "You understand; one hundred is so much cooler, I have to be honest. So I will be back next year."

Monday, January 08, 2018

'Power of Public Records' webinar set for 2 p.m. Wednesday

Think you know all you need to know about public records and how to use them in journalism? That's like thinking you have collected all the records that might help you write a complicated story. There is always more to learn, and News University at The Poynter Institute offer a good opportunity in a webinar at 2 p.m. Wednesday.

"The Power of Public Records" will "explore ways you can use records to inject authority into on-the-ground reporting," Poynter says. "We’ll also talk about what kinds of records exist and how to get them.  . . . This webinar is an introduction to what’s possible with public records, geared toward reporters, digital producers, bloggers, storytellers and anyone who is interested in digging into information that is readily available."

Poynter says participants in the one-hour webinar will learn how public data and documents can pack power into an interview-driven story; how to navigate local, state and federal records laws; how to troubleshoot denied requests; how to get into a records routine; how others have used records in creative ways to cover universities; and how to think outside the box if a record isn’t public.

The instructor will be Alexandra Zayas, an investigative reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns. She won the 2013 Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism and the America’s Promise Journalism Award for Action for her yearlong, three-part series “In God's Name,” which uncovered abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes across Florida. She has taught classes at the Poynter Institute about developing sources and telling untold stories.

The webinar fee is $29.95 for an individual, $34.95 for a group of two to five, and $44.95 for six or more. To enroll, click here. Participants will have online access to an archived version of the webinar.

Missouri School of Journalism's small daily takes a deep dive into how the lack of broadband hurts rural Mo.

Slow, spotty or absent internet service is a known problem in rural areas, but a story package from The Columbia Missourian brings it into sharper definition, saying "Lack of reliable access to the internet manifests itself in ways that touch on nearly every aspect of life."

Missouri ranks comparatively low in connectivity and broadband speed. "In many cases, people are left with speeds of only 0.5 Mbps," or megabytes per second, Dylan Jackson reports. "Forget Netflix or music — with those speeds business owners can’t keep their stores operating, residents sometimes can’t send email. That leaves some Missourians looking for expensive alternatives, such as checking into hotels so they can access Wi-Fi to operate their online business."

One story addresses how the lack of broadband hurts farmers, who "rely on internet access for up-to-date information on everything from crop prices to wind patterns. Data stored in online cloud-based servers allows for detailed soil analysis," Lydia Nusbaum reports. "Experts say that Missouri farmers need high-speed internet access to remain competitive in an increasingly technology-reliant field. But studies have shown that about 60 percent of rural Missourians lack broadband access."

The Missourian went to Hickory County
(in red) for the story. (Wikipedia base map)
Another story zeroes in on Hickory County, which ranks 92nd out of 115 in the state for broadband speed. In the small town of Flemington, convenience-store owner Cindy Gilmore must often shut down the credit-card readers at her gas pumps because internet service is down. If shoppers can't give her cash, she must use a Square card reader to take credit or debit cards. That means she has to pay a 2.75 percent fee on every transaction. "Even then, it’s common for the credit-card information to fail to process when the internet starts working again, Gilmore said. She then has to track down the people who spent money at her store, or take a loss. This has been a problem since she and her husband, Randy, purchased the store six and a half years ago," Kathryn Hardison reports.

Rural schools struggle with limited broadband. At Fatima High School in Westphalia, teachers have to plan carefully to make sure bandwidth is shared carefully among staff and students, since too many users at once can cause the whole thing to crash or slow dramatically. And if a certain class needs to take an online test, the rest of the school must stay offline, Annika Merrilees reports.

Unreliable internet also hampers telehealth services, a growing industry that has been a boon to rural communities that need greater access to health care specialists, Mica Soellner and Trevor Hook report. The Missourian is published by the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Though Missouri ranks 42nd in the U.S. for internet connectivity and 30th in broadband speed, state lawmakers have thus far failed to take effective action to improve the situation, the Missourian reports. "The last completed state initiative to improve broadband coverage in rural Missouri was during Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration with MOBroadbandNow in 2009," Hardison reports. The initiative submitted its last report in June 2015, and since then there has been no completed or successful legislation to bring more and better broadband to Missouri.

Gov. Eric Greitens proposed a plan in April 2017 to equip every school in the state with broadband, using $6 million in state funding and $39 million in federal funding. "Since April, the administration has received federal approval of the program and began working with local school districts to apply for state and federal assistance under the program, according to Parker Briden, Greitens’ spokesman. He said in an email that work has begun to prepare for fiber-optic cable installation," Hardison reports.

An unofficial working group called the Missouri Broadband Initiative has been helping the effort to improve broadband in the state. It has representatives from the University of Missouri as well as state departments like Economic Development and Agriculture and the Missouri Farm Bureau. The group held a meeting in July that more than 100 people attended, representing sectors such as health care, education, recreation, fire, safety, economic development and government, Hardison reports. The meeting helped them realize that there was no one-size-fits-all solution for the state. They continue to work with Greitens on the issue, and have recommended that he create a state office to coordinate broadband efforts.

Substance abuse about as common in rural areas as urban, but rural users are less likely to get treatment, studies find

In some ways, substance abuse is worse in urban areas, but rural drug users are less likely to get treatment, according to two studies by the Rural and Underserved Health Research Center at the University of Kentucky and reported by Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News.

One study found that the percentage of adults with substance-use disorders was about the same in rural areas as in metropolitan areas. However, researchers Tyrone Borders and Hefei Wen note that there are "statistically significant" differences that indicate more serious problems in urban areas. For example, the share of urban adults with an illicit drug-use disorder in the previous year, 3.33 percent, was significantly higher than the rural rate of 2.86 percent. Also, the share of urban adults with any type of drug-use disorder in 2014-15 was significantly higher than in 2011-13, when it was 3.07 percent.

The number of adults with heroin-use disorders in the past year was "significantly higher" in metropolitan areas, 0.31 percent than rural areas, 0.20 percent. Disorders involving prescription painkillers were more common in rural areas, involving 1 percent of the rural population and 0.87 percent of the urban. Overall opioid-use disorders were virtually the same in urban and rural areas, 1.07 percent and 1.09 percent respectively, and those rates have been stable over time.

Rates in 2014-15 of perceived need for treatment, and use of treatment,
among rural Americans with drug use disorders in the previous year.
The other study, by the same authors, looked at the perceived need for treatment of substance-use disorders, compared to the actual use of treatment. They found that overall, the rates of perceived need for treatment and actual use of treatment were low among rural residents with drug-use disorders, and have changed little since 2008, despite the implementation of policies to increase access to treatment.

They found that the rates of perceived need for treatment for use of illicit drugs and opioid-use disorders were about the same in urban and rural areas, but the perceived need for treatment in rural areas more than doubled between 2008-10 and 2011-13, from 7.8 percent to 18.5 percent. The rate declined to 13.4 percent in 2014-15.

The study found that 26.7 percent of urban adults with an opioid-use disorder got treatment during the study period, significantly higher than the 17.9 percent among rural adults. The gap almost disappeared in 2014-15, when the urban and rural rates were 24.3 and 24.1 percent, respectively. The difference was even greater in treatment for heroin use, 48.6 percent for urban adults and 25.7 percent for rural ones.

There was little difference in treatment rates for abuse of prescription painkillers: 19.5 percent for urban adults and 20.6 percent for rural. However, the perceived need for treatment of disorders related to prescription painkillers was significantly higher in rural areas, 13.2 percent, than the urban rate of 8.1 percent.

The researchers suggest "a need for improved insurance reimbursements for screening and treatment in rural primary care; a need to address the limited access to behavioral-health and substance-abuse treatment in rural areas; the need for targeted substance-abuse treatment, needle exchanges, and safe-sex education programs in areas with rising heroin use; and issues around the limits on the number of patients that can receive medication assisted treatment for opioid use," Patrick reports. "They also say that stimulating positive perceptions about treatment among illicit drug users and their families and friends could  encourage them to get treatment."