Thursday, March 5, 2015

03/04/2015 at 9:33pm

I have been writing for years about the success — well, at least mostly — of Native American voters. During recent presidential election cycles the turnout from Indian Country is inspiring, helping to swing elections from Arizona to North Dakota. 

And just last year Alaska Native voters helped dump a hostile state governor and replaced him with Gov. Bill Walker, an ally, as well as electing Byron Mallott, a Tlingit leader, as the Lt. Governor.

But do you want to know something really cool? 

The demographic shift that reflects Native voting power is only beginning. What’s more the landscape is changing faster than expected and should bring about dramatic changes in states as “red” as Alaska and Oklahoma.

A new report looks at the numbers and the results are stunning. In 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president the population of the United States was 80 percent white. Today that proportion stands at 63 percent and it’s likely to be less than 44 percent by 2060. The report, “The States of Change: Demographics and Democracy” is a collaboration of the liberal Center for American Progress, the conservative American Enterprise Institute and demographer William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution. One of the goals is to “document and analyze the challenges to democracy posed by the rapid demographic evolution from the 1970s to 2060.”

One lens that is particularly revealing: States where people of color are the majority. The report said: “Right now, there are only four majority-minority states: California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas. But with the ongoing demographic transformation of the country, our States of Change projections find that this will become more and more common.” So in five years Maryland and Nevada will be in that category. Then by 2060 the number of majority-minority states will reach 22, including seven of the currently largest states, making up about two-thirds of the country’s population.

American Indians and Alaska Natives are very much a part of this new majority because we are younger and growing faster than an older white population.

Alaska is the ideal example. The report says the state will be majority, minority as soon as 2030. Alaska Native voters, Asian Americans, Hispanics and African Americans will make up more than half the population then and by 2040 nearly 60 percent. 

03/04/2015 at 10:43am

Photo via the Herald-Leader A construction crew worked last week inside the new $7 million Commercial Bank building in West Liberty. The bank's previous building was destroyed by a tornado three years ago. The new building will offer space to local businesses at low rents.

West Liberty, Kentucky, is still rebuilding three years after a tornado ripped through town, killing six and destroying a good part of downtown. But they are rebuilding, and people are returning.

Since December, people have been moving back into what is now known as Frederick Place Apartments, a 48-unit complex of federally subsidized units that once housed as many as 70 people. The grand opening of the $6.2 million complex is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday, the third anniversary of the tornado.

The rebuilding strategy, aided by approximately $30 million in private money, includes a new bank building that will also house a business incubator, federally subsidized housing, and a health and wellness center (which will have a climbing wall and bowling alley).

All these visible signs of reconstruction help boost local confidence about a comeback, but they're also important steps in West Liberty's desire to rebrand itself, said Jim Gazay, construction manager for Commercial Bank.

"We're not the town that was hit by the tornado," Gazay said. "Now we're the town that's developing into something else."

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A first-of-its kind rural medicine hackathon hopes to bring together “bright minds” in rural medicine with entrepreneurs, engineers, patients, students and others to create solutions for rural health-care delivery.

The March 20-22 event will be held at the University of Montana in Missoula and is modeled after MIT's Hacking Medicine Program, which will facilitate the event. MIT’s Hacking Medicine brings together diverse groups for short, intensive work geared toward creating products and systems to solve medical-care problems. This is the first time a hackathon will focus on rural healthcare, organizers said in a press release.

The event will explore such topics as telemedicine, community involvement, medical workforce shortages in rural areas, preventing readmissions, hospice and transportation, according to the event’s website.

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Agri-Pulse’s six-part series, “Packing Political Punch in Rural America,” takes a deep dive into farm economics, recent history and ag politics. But the title of the series isn’t on point, because (as so often happens) it conflates “rural” with three things: agriculture, agriculture, agriculture.

03/03/2015 at 9:13pm

Photo by Nidhin Poothully This is the type of lens many people think of when you say "nature photographer." Unfortunately, most of us don't have $12,000 to spend on this 600mm lens.

Sometime during the winter—most likely January or February— our thoughts turn to eagle watching in the part of Illinois between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Why? Because the eagles are landing. Their seasonal jaunt brings them here to congregate along waterways where there is open water with an ample fish supply. According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, about 5,000 birds winter in the state every year.

To see an eagle in flight or perching in a tree along a riverbank comes about as close to a naturalist’s ecstatic center as you can get. It is all the more pleasurable when you remember that the eagle was verging on extinction a generation or so ago. The embarrassment of losing the living version of the nation’s emblem forced Congress to pass the Bald Eagle Protection Act in 1940 with amendments in 1959, 1962, 1972, and 1978. The main threat to the glorious birds’ future was eliminated when DDT was banned in 1972.

During the winter of 2014, with record cold and snow, you had to be pretty hardy and unusually dedicated to go out seeking eagles. Not for me. But this past January, we had a thaw with bright days in the 40s and mild breezes. With a long weekend, I have a ready-set-go kind of day. I stop at our local family restaurant for an omelet (chicken eggs) and head out with high expectations, fairly new camera and telephoto lens and old binoculars for an adventure.

My plan has me heading cross-country to near Oquawka, Illinois, just upriver from Lock and Dam Number 18, a good place with open water. Then, I will go north to cross the Mississippi at Muscatine, Iowa, drive back down the Mississippi to Burlington, Iowa, and head back home to Illinois by early evening.

It is going to be a good day. That is, it is going to be a good day until I am just outside of Biggsville, Illinois, about 10 miles shy of my first planned stop. The low-air-pressure light on my dash flashes. Disbelief. Can’t be. The car was just serviced a few days ago.

03/03/2015 at 6:53am

Photo courtesy of Kelley Snowden The author’s grandparents and their grown children in 1951 in Gilmer, Texas. The author’s mother is on the right in a striped dress and holding a hat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kelley Snowden, a frequent contributor to the Daily Yonder, wrote this essay in response to our series "Rural by Choice." Read more of Kelley's stories here.

I sat on the edge of the bed and watched my mom carefully wrap a crystal penguin I had given her for her birthday. I had spent the day wrapping and boxing the geegaws and books in my room, and now those boxes lined the hallway waiting for the movers.

I looked down at my hands. Somewhere along the line I had cut myself, maybe on the packing tape dispenser. It didn’t hurt, but it was red and raw. Tears welled up in my eyes.

“I don’t want to move.”

Mom kept working, the newsprint staining her hands a pale grey, “I know.”

“Why do we have to move?”

She sighed, stopped what she was doing, and looked at me, frustration evident in her eyes.

“To take care of my mother.”

“But why do you have to do that? Why do we have to move?”

We had had this conversation before, but that didn’t matter. A teenager will ask the same question over and over, always hoping for a different answer.

“Because that’s what you do.”

Because that’s what you do. Fifteen years later these words would echo in my mind as my husband and I prepared to move to East Texas. Years before, my parents had moved back to my mom’s home town so she could to take care of her mother. They had planned that after my grandmother passed away, they would sell their house and retire somewhere else. That didn’t happen.  Homes get paid for, people grow older, and the motivation for a new adventure wanes. Instead, the red clay clung to my mother’s feet after years of walking the family farm, with no exit possible.  And now it was my turn.

Because that’s what you do.

When my husband and I first settled in East Texas, it was hard. Life behind the Pine Curtain is like nowhere else. While I had visited relatives in East Texas all through my childhood, I had never lived here. I didn’t grow up here. My cousins had called me a “city slicker,” although under my mom’s tutelage I could name every tree and bird that wandered the farm, and hold conversations about cotton farming and ranching with the best of them. But despite this knowledge, I lived in the city, and thus was a “city slicker,” an outsider, an alien.

This was not going to go well.

I mourned the loss of bookstores. I searched for a job but was told repeatedly I was “over qualified.” Every time I turned around some relative was giving me unsolicited advice usually laced with religious platitudes.  I had people up in my business with no place to go.

Despite this, I knew my primary job was to look after my parents. We had the same plan as they had had so many years before. When all was said and done, we would pick up and leave and start over again somewhere else, anywhere else, anywhere but here.

03/01/2015 at 8:57pm

Institute for Local Self RelianceRed areas denote 19 states with restrictions on publicly owned broadband networks. Craig Settles, author of “How to Navigate, Mitigate or Eliminate the Impacts of State Restrictions on Public Broadband” also includes California and Iowa in the list, for a total of 21 states. For an interactive map showing the nation's 400 municipal networks, visit Community Broadband Networks.

Communities that want to build their own municipal broadband networks don’t necessarily have to wait on a federal court decision before they get started, according to a report from a community broadband proponent.

That’s because state laws that restrict publicly owned networks frequently contain loopholes that, to varrying degrees, allow for community broadband, according to Craig Settles, a community broadband consultant.

From Nebraska's short-and-sweet ban on public-broadband to Florida's "minefield" of laws that make it hard to raise money for public broadband, to a somewhat obscure and limited provision in California law, the limitations vary greatly. Groups interested in starting a public network should look at the fine print to make sure they know exactly how and where public broadband is prohibited, Settles says.

Last week the Federal Communications Commission voted to oppose laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that restrict publicly owned networks. Everyone expects the telecommunications industry to challenge the FCC in court, so it may be a while before there’s a definitive answer.

In the meantime, state restrictions that remain on the books may not be a complete roadblock for some types of community-owned networks, Settles said.

There’s a general perception that these laws are outright bans, Settles wrote in a report released earlier this year. But only six of the 21 restrictive states actually ban the networks. And even in some of those states, there are still legal avenues for building a publicly owned broadband network.

“One big surprise uncovered while researching these laws is the depth of belief in many of these states that there are total bans when, in fact, many of the barriers are relatively small or at least manageable for cities willing to put in some hard work,” Settles wrote. 

Settles also wrote that rural areas in states with public broadband restrictions were especially vulnerable, because they could wind up with no broadband and only cellular for telephone service.

“Few people are aware of the state‐by‐state stealth campaign by large incumbents [phone companies] to get out from under Carrier of Last Resort (COLR) obligations,” he wrote. “This is a state‐regulation issue, so the national media have given it little coverage, and it is obscure telecom law, so probably not on the radar of local media. However, the issue will loom large in states with anti‐muni network laws.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kentucky could be the latest state to eliminate land-line phone regulations for many customers, following this national trend. 

02/27/2015 at 12:14pm

Photo by KOMUNEWS Former Missouri state senator Wes Shoemeyer speaks against Amendment 1 at a Missouri’s Food for America event in Columbia, Missouri.

“Right-to-farm” initiatives are in the news this week. In Indiana, the state Senate turned down a proposal that would have put right-to-farm language into the state’s constitution. The measure’s sponsor, Senator Brent Steele (R), said it would have protected farmers and ranchers from interference with their “way of life.”

Kim Ferraro of the Hoosier Environmental Council the measure didn’t protect farmers from anything. Rather, the constitutional amendment would have protected a handful of industrial agricultural operations.

In Missouri, opponents of a right-to-farm amendment that passed narrowly in November argued before the state Supreme Court that the amendment should be voided because it contains misleading language. The Missourian reports:

Anthony DeWitt, the attorney arguing against the farming amendment, said Amendment 1's summary told half-truths. The summary purported to protect all Missouri citizens, but it only covers farmers and ranchers — a murky distinction, as the courts haven't defined what makes someone a farmer or rancher. Not all citizens are farmers, he said, nor are all farmers Missouri citizens, as foreign corporations can claim protection under Amendment 1

The state’s solicitor general, who is defending the amendment on the state’s behalf, said the court did not have jurisdiction over the matter. He said that state law allowed the courts to review constitutional amendment language for two weeks in June and that the court couldn’t consider the amendment language after the fact.

Disclosure: One of the plaintiff’s in the Missouri lawsuit opposing the right-to-farm amendment is Richard Oswald, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a columnist for the Daily Yonder.

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According to the annual White House budget proposal, the default rate for Broadband Treasury Rate Loans is 116%. How does a default rate climb above 100%? The answer is neither “magic” nor reassuring. Politico takes a deeper look.

The explanation I eventually got from the Obama administration was not that damning. But it wasn’t exactly comforting, either. The crazy number was apparently produced by flawed execution of a flawed model of a flawed program. In reality, the Agriculture Department expects to recover about 80 cents of every dollar it lends to telecoms to extend high-speed Internet to underserved rural areas. Administration officials couldn’t pinpoint the actual default rate, but it’s much lower than 116%. They say the main culprits for that wrong number were a radically overbroad definition of “default,” as well as some inappropriate double-counting.

Basically, it’s complicated, which is true of all federal credit programs—which is a problem with federal credit programs.

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A recently released study by the Medical College of Georgia finds that teenage girls in rural areas are more likely than teen boys to have undiagnosed asthma and depression, according to a story by Medical Daily.

“There’s a lot of speculation about why females are more likely to be undiagnosed [for asthma],” Dr. Jeana Bush, an Allergy and Immunology Fellow at Medical College of Georgia and the lead author of the study, said in the press release. “Maybe it’s because boys are more likely to get a sports physical for athletics and they catch it then. Or maybe it’s because girls attribute asthma symptoms to something else, like anxiety. That needs further study.”

02/26/2015 at 3:52pm

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, holds hands with FCC Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel at the beginning of today's FCC meeting in Washington, DC.The three voted in favor of exerting FCC authority to address state laws proscribing public networks. They also voted in favor of open-Internet rules.

For years, we’ve heard rural leaders discuss the need for broadband as a critical part of economic development, healthcare, and education. Because we interact mostly with folks who are concerned about rural issues, there’s a temptation to think that metropolitan America has the broadband-access problem all figured out.

But we know better. And we got a timely reminder from the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler, in Thursday’s FCC meeting (February 26).

That meeting will get headlines mostly for the FCC's 3-2 vote in favor of open-Internet rules, also known as net neutrality. But let's not overlook the FCC's other 3-2 decision Thursday -- the one siding with publicly owned broadband networks and against state laws limiting such networks.

To illustrate why he was voting in favor of a petition from two publicly owned broadband networks, Wheeler cited real-life examples of people who were harmed by state laws restricting community networks. In three of the four cases Wheeler cited, the victims, if you will, weren’t from “deep rural” communities far from the city lights. They were communities on the very doorstep – in the front hall, even – of large metropolitan areas.

Wheeler’s examples show that broadband access isn’t an urban or rural issue. It’s an American issue. And rural advocates who are working to improve access in small towns and the countryside should have plenty of allies in places that are “officially” metropolitan.

Take Wheeler’s first example, Holly Springs, North Carolina, a city of about 25,000 in Wake County. Most of Wake County is not what you’d call rural. It’s part of the Raleigh metropolitan area of more than 1 million residents. In any rural/urban data analysis you see in the Daily Yonder, Holly Springs would be considered urban or metropolitan.

But the city suffered an economic setback that might sound familiar to lots of rural leaders. Chairman Wheeler said the city lost a healthcare business because the company needed better Internet access to do its job. Do you need more evidence of the link between broadband and the economy? Ask Jeff Wilson, Holly Springs’ information technology director, about the cost of being stuck in the Internet’s slow lane.