Sunday, February 1, 2015

01/30/2015 at 11:59am

Photo by The Cable Show FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaking to the cable industry in April 2014.

Big broadband providers are talking out of both sides of their modem, says the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

The big guys like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T opposed the FCC’s decision yesterday to up the definition of broadband to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. (The old standard was 4 Mbps for downloading and 1 Mpbs for uploading.)

In opposing the change, the corporations said consumers don’t need higher speeds.

But when they advertise their products, the communications giants are singing a different tune, Wheeler said.

“Somebody is telling us one thing and telling consumers another,” Wheeler said before the FCC voted 3-2 along party lines to change the broadband definition.

Wheeler gave several examples of big broadband providers telling consumers they need speeds of 25 Mbps, 45 Mps and even 50 Mps to really enjoy video, music, gaming and other online activities. But they told the FCC that increasing the broadband definition would “serve no purpose.”

The FCC’s broadband standard is used to determine how well the nation is doing in providing digital access.

Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel joined Wheeler in voting for the new standards. Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly opposed the change, saying it was moving the goalposts on Internet providers.

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Depending on your point of view, a Twitter hashtag game provides commentary on -- or ridicule of -- rural Southerners. Hashtag.org reports on #redneckabook, which reached a peak of 24,000 tweets an hour Wednesday. Participants were supposed to take a book title and give it a redneck angle, as in "To Roadkill a Mockingbird" or "Fifty Shades of Camouflage." 

Hashtag.org says the Twitter game provided humorous commentary on social stereotypes, although it admits there were "many inappropriate uses of the hashtag."

Ya think?

Take a look. Wry social commentary or ethnically focused invective that we would never tolerate if the target were any other subset of Americans?

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The Atlantic looks at the “silent crisis” in rural housing, where federal aid is on the decline and the lower-cost of living is offset by even lower average income levels.

It’s great to see an urban-centric publication like the Atlantic venture past the last subway stop into the heartland.  The piece interviews some of the right folks – David Dangler with the rural program of the housing network Neighborworks, Jim King with the Appalachian-focused housing coalition Fahe, and Sheila Crowley with the policy group National Low-Income Housing Coalition.

But assumptions of what people know and don’t know about urban and rural America make the piece jarring at times.

Here’s one example:

Few people think about rural communities—not only when it comes to housing issues, but at all. It’s mostly a numbers game. … [O]nly about 21 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, which means that not many people outside those areas … probably feel much association with rural issues. And that can make it difficult to shed light on the problems that happen there. Making the case to divert funds and attention to parts of the country that house a mere 20 percent of the total population can be an uphill battle, especially in difficult economic times.

A “mere” 20 percent of the U.S. population is 63 million people. And since when do we talk about any minority population as mere? You wouldn’t write about New York as a city of merely 8.4 million people.

As for diverting public funds, that makes it sound as if housing funding belongs to urban areas and spending it anywhere else is an extraordinary move. In reality, the diversion has occurred the other way around – the Obama administration has diverted rural housing money to urban programs.

And we’d love to know the source of the statement that “not many people outside [rural] areas … feel much association with rural issues.” Public opinion polls frequently tell us otherwise. Take just this one from the American Planning Association, which found 40% of respondents would prefer to live in a small town or out in the country, if they had the choice.

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Now that the 2014 congressional election is history, it’s time, of course, to look toward 2016. The Washington Post examines the daunting task facing Democrats who are talking about retaking a majority of the seats in the House.

Party leaders acknowledge that’s a long shot, and that's an optimistic assessment.

What party leaders don’t acknowledge is the geographic challenge Democrats face with voters. Republicans won 82% of the nation’s counties in the November election. They generally outperformed Democrats everywhere except the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

As Bill Bishop reports, it’s not a rural/urban divide; it’s a major-city and everyplace-else divide. Democrats will need to expand support beyond core cities if they want enough votes to make a dent in the Republican majority. So far, we haven’t seen an analysis that acknowledges this fact, let alone one that examines how Democrats might pull that off.

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Bloomberg Business reports on the pressure on Whole Foods to keep performing well in the market they created.

On the strength of its share price, Whole Foods briefly became the second-most valuable food retailer in the U.S., behind Wal-Mart Stores, in the fall of 2013. But Whole Foods, unaffectionately known as Whole Paycheck, had a lousy 2014. Same-store sales growth fell from 8 percent to 4 percent, and its share price tumbled 10 percent. Meanwhile, competition is squeezing Whole Foods like an organic lemon over a bowl of quinoa.

01/29/2015 at 2:35pm

The president and Congress will start battling over a new budget proposal next week. But for rural counties that lost federal funding for schools in December, there’s unfinished business in the current budget.

Rural and smaller counties were hurt worse by the elimination of the Secure Rural Schools program in December.

“Overall, rural counties would lose a disproportionate share of payments, and would feel the effects of the declines more steeply,” reports Headwaters Economics researcher Mark Haggerty in an analysis he released last month.

Prior to being zeroed out of the 2015 budget, the Secure Rural Schools program had been around for about 15 years. It helped local governments pay for school-related expenses.

The rationale for the program, and its related funding stream called Payments in Lieu of Taxes, is that counties with a large amounts of federally owned land miss out on revenue because federal land is untaxed, even though that land can generate revenue for the federal government through activities like commercial logging.

In 2013 Secure Rural Schools had $346 million in funding. The current budget has nothing for the program.

The funding cuts won’t be a complete loss for U.S. counties. That’s because Secure Rural Schools payments are based on a complex set of formulas that also include Payments in Lieu of Taxes. Some counties will make up part of the loss in Secure Rural Schools funding through increased payments from the other funding program. And in future years, the funding bumps will smooth out a little because of how the formula works.

But overall, there’s less money to go around. And some rural counties are going to feel the pinch this year.

Haggerty ran the numbers through the federal formulas and issued a report that projects just how much funding each county will lose (and in a very few cases, gain). It won’t come as a surprise that rural areas, which are more likely to have large swaths of federal land, will bear a disproportionately large share of the cuts.

01/29/2015 at 6:53am

Illustration by Stephanie Untz Scully and Mulder investigate the underbelly of small town America.

An anonymous source obtained the following document through unknown means and forwarded it to the Daily Yonder.  We reprint it here without comment.  Despite repeated attempts, we have not been able to verify this document’s authenticity.

TO: Fellow Extraterrestrials
FROM:   Mitchel, Your Leader

In preparation for our imminent invasion of planet Earth, we have compiled the following primer to help gain an understanding of rural life on the land mass known as America.

As outlined in previous correspondence, urban America will be relatively easy to colonize because of the dense populations, their reliability on easily dismantled and astoundingly fragile infrastructure, and their limited mobility due to “skinny jeans.“  Our greatest challenge lies in the vast rural regions, where natural resources are abundant, the population is more dispersed, and they seem to be able to fix or do without damn-near anything we’ll be able blow up.

Our information about rural America has been gleaned exclusively from the Fox television series The X-Files. The show, which was originally broadcast in the 1990s, has become popular again via video streaming (a technology humans consider cutting edge – ha).  This new craze of “binge-watching” is one reason we are moving up our invasion date (please check the group calendar for more details).

Below are the five key lessons we have learned about rural America by watching The X-Files.

Lesson 1: Rural Americans Are Distrustful of and Disconnected from Urban America

From The X-Files, we learn that the rural and urban sectors of the United States rarely interact.  In Home (Season 4, Episode 2), Sherriff Andy Taylor of the fictional town of Home, Pennsylvania, describes how some of the town’s inhabitants (later revealed to be “feeble” in-breeders) raise their own food, aiding their ability to stay disconnected from the outside world. This same sheriff expresses his desire to remain isolated from urban society.  He says, “I knew that we couldn’t stay hidden forever, that one day the modern world would find us, and my home town would change forever.“  We remain eager to confirm his prediction.

In another episode, Theef (S7, E14), an uneducated Appalachian man uses “backwoods voo-doo” to murder the family of a doctor he wrongly believes is responsible for the death of his daughter. 

Sheriff Andy Taylor, mistruster of outsiders, talks to outsiders Scully and Mulder.

Lest we worry that urban citizens will flee to the county during our invasion, The X-Files shows we have little to fear in this regard. Agents Mulder and Scully seem to have so little understanding of rural terrain that they regularly find themselves impeded by sartorial hindrances and the inability to navigate rural roads.

01/28/2015 at 7:00am

From the movie Warrior's Way The American people seem to be ready to take off the blindfold and see where our meat is coming from.

Your family is hungry.

They rely on you to feed them.

And you want to provide them with healthy, safe, good-quality food that is free of contamination.

Now, picture a room full of doors. Behind each door, you’re told, is food from all over the world. It could be from anywhere – Brazil, Mexico, Canada, China. But the doors are blank – no labels. Finally, even though you’re not sure what you’re getting into, you choose a door, looking for that safe, nutritious food to feed your family. But before you can step over the threshold, the people in charge make you put on a blindfold.

That adds a whole new dimension to picking door number 3, doesn’t it?

For years, opponents of your right to know where your food comes from have been trying to convince Congress and the American people to keep the blindfold on. The less you know about food, they say, the better it is for everyone.

They’re saying we might be blinded by the light.

Now, most Americans don’t feel this way. That’s why Congress passed a law in 2008 requiring Country of Origin Labeling, or COOL. It requires food sellers to put some labels on those doors so we can know more about what’s in there. And COOL is supposed to prevent anyone from putting a blindfold over consumers’ eyes.

But some food producers and foreign governments have been fighting the law for years. One claim is that labeling meat with its country of origin violates trade agreements we have with countries like Canada and Mexico.

As evidence of this economic harm, COOL opponents have pointed to a study that purported to show that COOL cost the Canadian cattle industry $1 billion.

But a new study by C. Robert Taylor, Ph.D., of Auburn University disproves some of this decidedly one-sided, behind-closed-door claims by foreign governments and big business.

01/27/2015 at 12:39pm

Photo by Daniel James Utility lines in Texas.

Telephone giant Verizon has agreed to a $5 million settlement with the Federal Communications Commission over issues related to the phone company’s service to customers trying to call landlines in rural areas.

The settlement over rural calling is the largest the FCC has made with a phone company since 2013, when the regulatory agency started scrutinizing the problem of “rural call completion” in response to phone company and consumer advocate complaints.

Verizon will pay a $2 million fine and spend another $3 million on a three-year plan to improve long-distance service to rural areas.

“All Americans, no matter where they are located, have a right to make and receive phone calls,” said Travis LeBlanc, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau in a release.  “Phone companies are on notice that the FCC will hold them accountable for failures to investigate and ensure that calls go through to the rural heartland of the country.”

The FCC said that Verizon failed to investigate complaints that its customers were having trouble placing long-distance calls to rural landlines.

Three other phone companies have settled with the FCC over their long-distance service to customers who are placing calls to rural areas. Those are Matrix Telecom (an $875,000 settlement), Windstream ($2.5 million) and Level 3 (nearly $ 1million).

 In 2013 the FCC approved a rule that will require phone companies to track their rates of dropped long-distance calls to rural areas.  (For a more complete description of the “rural call completion” problem, see Harold Feld’s Daily Yonder article from 2013.)

01/27/2015 at 7:16am

Democrats won less than one in five counties in the November election of all 435 members of the U.S. House of Representative.

And Democrats did best in the most densely populated counties. (Density is measured as people per square mile.) Even in large metro areas, Democrats generally won the counties where people lived close together and lost the counties with lower levels of density.

The House vote in November showed an American electorate divided geographically and clustered into places that were overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. Here are some highlights of a Daily Yonder analysis of the House vote:

  • Democrats won only 18 percent of the nation’s counties.
  • Democrats got most of their votes in urban areas, but even in the metropolitan regions, the party won only 29.5 percent of the counties.
  • In the counties Democrats won, people lived close together. Democratic counties nationally averaged 856 people per square mile. Republican counties had 127 people per square mile. Democratic counties were 7 times more densely populated than Republican counties.
  • A whopping two-thirds of all Democratic and Republican voters live in a county where one party or another won the House vote by more than 20 percentage points — 60 percent to 40 percent or better. (In the last presidential election, 53 percent of voters lived in a county won in a landslide by one or the other party.)

In an earlier Daily Yonder article, we saw how in the recent House race Democrats gained a majority only in the nation’s largest metro areas, made up of a million or more people. What we see in this set of numbers is how Democrats and Republicans live in two different worlds based on population density.

This is true even in the counties located in the nation’s largest urban centers, those with a million people or more. In big-city counties won by Democrats, the population density was 3,369 people per square mile. In the major metropolitan counties that voted Republican, density was 449 people per square mile.

01/26/2015 at 6:55am

Darker colors represent areas where manufactured housing is a greater percentage of the housing stock. The Southeast has a higher percentage than the rest of the nation. (Click map for an interactive version.)  

While the health of the U.S. housing market is still in flux, one particular segment appears to be improving -- at least on the surface. For the third consecutive year, the number of new manufactured homes sold in the United States grew. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of new manufactured homes “placed” (an equivalent to new sales) in 2014 will increase to an estimated[i] 58,000 homes -- up from 56,300 in 2013. 

The tepid rebound comes after a long and sustained downturn for the manufactured housing industry. Distress in the manufactured housing market actually predated the recent national housing crisis. After experiencing dramatic growth throughout much of the 1990s, sales and shipments of manufactured housing spiraled downward into a sustained slump for more than a decade. An overextension of credit and risky financing backfired after record-high foreclosure rates produced a glut of manufactured units, depressing the market. In the latter 2000s, placements of new manufactured housing units declined to their lowest levels in decades, and many large manufacturers and retailers exited the market or declared bankruptcy.[ii]

Manufactured housing sales (green line) started dropping before the drop in conventional housing sales (blue line). (The sales figures are charted on different scales to make them easier to compare.)

Manufactured homes – commonly referred to as mobile homes or trailers, are an often overlooked and maligned component of our nation’s housing stock.  But manufactured homes are an important source of housing for millions of Americans, especially those with low incomes and in rural areas. There are approximately 6.8 million occupied manufactured homes in the U.S., comprising about 6 percent of the nation’s housing stock. More than half of all manufactured homes are located in rural areas around the country. Also, roughly half of manufactured homes are located in Southeastern states.

An Affordable (Yet High Cost) Housing Option

Affordability and convenience make manufactured homes a popular housing option. The average sales price of a new manufactured home in 2013 was $64,000 (excluding land costs) compared to an average of $269,000 for a newly constructed single family home.[iii] [iv] While the purchase price of manufactured homes can be relatively affordable, financing them is not. The majority of manufactured homes are still financed with personal property, or “chattel,” loans.[v] With shorter terms and higher interest rates, personal property loans are generally less beneficial for the consumer than conventional mortgage financing. Roughly 60 percent of manufactured home loans in 2013 were classified as “high cost” (having a substantially high interest rate) which is more than eight times the level of high cost lending for newly constructed single family structures.[vi]  Manufactured homes are typically sold at retail sales centers where salespersons or “dealers” receive commissions, often exacerbating these finance issues. In some cases, dealers resort to high-pressure sales tactics, trapping consumers into unaffordable loans.[vii]