Saturday, July 4, 2015

06/24/2015 at 2:00am

The population growth in rural counties that depend on tourists and retirees isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still a bright spot compared to other rural population trends, a new analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service shows.

As the Daily Yonder has reported, nonmetropolitan counties overall have lost population for the fourth straight year. But some types of rural counties managed to add population rather than lose it. We’ve already reported on how larger rural counties – ones that have cities of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents – grew in population last year.

The new ERS analysis by John Cromartie looks at other geographic factors in rural population change from 2010 to 2014. He finds that factors that used to contribute to population growth for rural counties aren’t as strong as they used to be.

Urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth. For the time being at least, their influence has weakened. Over the last 4 years, suburban and exurban population growth has contracted considerably—for the first time since World War II—affecting not only outlying metro counties but nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas as well.

The analysis looks at nonmetropolitan population change by “county type”:

  • “Recreation” counties have lots of exceptional natural amenities like lakes, mountains, and rivers (think Park County, Wyoming, the home of Yellowstone National Park, or of counties along the Upper Great Lakes in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota).
  • “Farming” counties are like they sound – counties where agriculture is the dominant economic force.
  • “Manufacturing” counties, where factories still make up a good portion of the economic activity.
  • And “Other” counties, which don’t match one of the other categories.

The analysis found that recreation counties were the only type of rural county to show any appreciable growth in 2010-2014.

06/22/2015 at 4:18pm

Photo via Reuters Walmart and Sam's Club, pictured here, want to be able to share more information with consumers about how the meat they sell is raised.

“Our customers want to know more about how their food is grown and raised, and where it comes from,”

Kathleen McLaughlin
President of the Walmart Foundation and
senior vice president of Walmart sustainability

Kathleen McLaughlin made this comment last month when Walmart announced new positions on the humane treatment of farm animals and the responsible use of antibiotics in farm animals. Their action joins those of other retailers and restaurants like Whole Foods, McDonalds, and Chipotle in setting standards for the food they sell.

As World War II ended and the economy began to boom, consumers were looking to obtain their food as inexpensively as possible. As a result of increasing per capita income and changes in production systems, consumers were soon spending a smaller portion of their income for food purchases than they once had. The portion of the average family income dedicated to the purchase of food dropped to 10 percent or less.

A decade ago, as consumers became more health conscious, meat animal producers were responding to the changing preference of consumers for leaner pork and beef in the face of strong competition from poultry producers. Restaurants and grocery stores began to focus on marketing Angus beef and the fatty pork of the 1960s became distant memories.

While neither of these consumer concerns has disappeared from the equation, consumer preferences have continued to evolve. Today producers, processors, and retailers are finding themselves being pressured by consumers who want to know how and where their food is produced. The announcement of Walmart and its warehouse retailer, Sam’s Club, is a reflection of the power of that shift in consumer sentiment.

06/21/2015 at 10:29pm

Author Ron Rash.

Ron Rash is a teacher, poet, short story writer and novelist whose family has lived in North Carolina since the 1700’s.  Most of his work is set in this part of Appalachia. While his work is distinctly Appalachian, he’s quick to point out that he and his fellow regional authors aren’t “just” Southern or Appalachian writers.

Rash’s impressive body of work transcends region. His writing has been published in more than 100 magazines and journals and translated into 17 languages, winning numerous awards. He's twice been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Two of his novels, Serena and The World Made Straight, have been made into feature films.

In his most recent collection, Something Rich and Strange, his evocative short stories cover time periods from the Civil War to the present.  In this collection, as in most of his work, his characters often find themselves difficult situations, pushed to extreme acts of violence, but just as often demonstrating powerful acts of generosity and empathy. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, will be released this September.

Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background.  Where did you grow up?

Ron Rash: I grew up in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.  That’s in Western North Carolina.  It was a very small town, I think there were a thousand people in it when I was growing up.  It was very rural.

DY: And your family has lived in North Carolina for a very long time.

RR: Yes, since the 1700’s.  My mom’s family, and my dad’s, too.  So we have very deep roots in North Carolina.

DY: And where do you live now?

RR: I’m back and forth between North Carolina and South Carolina.  I work at Western Carolina University, which is in Cullowhee, which is about an hour south of Asheville. It’s a rural area, about 15 miles from the Smoky Mountains National Park.

DY: Do you think the family history you have in the region is what keeps you living in and writing about Appalachia?

RR: Oh, yea. I think it’s the sense of knowing my family has lived in these rural areas for so long. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a farm and I spent a lot of time there.  It was near Boone (North Carolina).  That was very important.  It showed me that life. And one of the sad things is that it’s so hard to make a living that way now. It’s always been hard, but I think it’s even harder now.

DY: The stories in your most recent publication, the short story collection Something Rich and Strange, have been written over the course of 20 years.

RR:  Even longer, I guess.  Probably 35 years.

DY:  How did you go about pulling the stories in the collection together?  They vary in tone, time period, and subject matter, and yet they feel like they fit together.

RR:  In a sense, I wanted those stories to fit together like a quilt.  Patches that, I hope, if the reader reads all the way through will have a sense of the place, and seeing that place over time from pretty much the Civil War on.  I think the connection is the landscape.

DY: Landscape, and the effect of the Appalachian landscape on its people, is such an important part of so much of your writing.  Do you think that effect is truer in Appalachia than in other places?

RR: I’ve seen other writers do that in different places.  I think Annie Proulx really does it well.  She tends to write about Wyoming.  I think there’s something in a rural landscape, because if you’re living in rural area, you’re constantly reminded of that landscape and the natural world.  Writers can certainly write about the landscape within a city and a lot of writers do that well, but I think landscape is really important and it affects the psychology of people.  I think if you go up in the mountains it affects you in a way that’s different from, say, growing up in the Midwest.

06/20/2015 at 8:25pm

If this world needs anything, it is good, old-fashioned dads.

Throughout history, from the Garden of Eden until today, there have been no better role models than those who serve in the distinguished personage of a father.

Of course, most such men would never claim they are held high in anyone’s acclaim. They just work alongside the mother of children, provide a goodly share of financial and moral support for the sustenance of life, and try their best to be the peace-maker when words fly, tempers clash and minds get one-sided.

What fathers lack in perfection, they gain in household bravery. Most look to the simple side of life rather than the lavish. They dance to nature’s music that’s made when they walk across a yard and hear the leaves and acorns crunch beneath their feet.

They crave a chance to tell stories about growing up two generations earlier, and they migrate into old age thinking kids need to slow down, act more like they did as youngsters, and wishing they themselves could serve as replacement troops for many of the personal challenges, problems and wars their children will face.

Fathers sometimes aren’t the best at explaining themselves – certainly not like mothers can do.

Instead, they bite their lips, stand against the wall when the activity grows rowdy, and try to portray the false impression that all is under control.

It seldom is.

A dad’s prayer at the dinner table is about as close to God as you’ll ever get, until you walk through those golden gates someday. And, whether they know it or not, there are little eyes peeking all the while to see exactly how he does it, what he might say next, and whether he will list everybody whose broken life might need such a mention.

06/18/2015 at 9:10pm

Participants at the Tennessee Equality Project's event earlier this week in Cleveland, Tennessee.

A Tennessee marriage-equality group is expanding its organizing efforts beyond big cities to smaller localities, including some rural areas, in advance the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the group started its outreach to small cities because there are fewer support structures for LGBT residents there and because they were tired of hearing that LGBT rights is only an urban issue.

 “There’s one Constitution for the whole country,” Sanders said. “Equal protection needs to matter in Cleveland, Tennessee, as much as it does in San Francisco, California. Getting there is tough, though.”

The High Court is expected to rule any day on whether to uphold or overturn same-sex marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Thirty-seven states now allow same-sex marriage, but the Court’s decision is likely to clarify a national position on whether banning marriage of couples who are the same sex violates the Constitution.

We asked Sanders to share with us the purpose of his group’s rural outreach and why his organization thought focusing on people in small cities and rural areas was important.

Daily Yonder: What prompted you to start a rural outreach program?

Chris Sanders: The idea for the tour really has two inspirations. The first is just the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court decides the big marriage cases this summer, and we wanted there to be a focus on the theme of love throughout the state.

The second inspiration is just something that hit me while driving so much on I-24 and I-40 to bigger cities. I thought, “Why don't we ever stop along the way?”

So it came together and we realized other benefits as we began thinking it through--such as increased influence with the Legislature and a quicker way to get help to people who are enduring bullying, job discrimination, or hate crimes. We're already getting those phone calls, but we have not had a great network of help for people in those situations. So visiting more cities actually gives us more capacity. …

Other progressive issue-focused organizations have asked us about the tour because they are considering similar forms of outreach. 

Many LGBT people living in Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, or Chattanooga came from a small Southern town, so they understand the importance of this kind of work.

06/17/2015 at 9:47pm

An aerial view of Sandpoint, in Idaho's Bonner County.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Historic changes in mineral extraction, agriculture, and manufacturing have transformed rural communities over the past 40 years, frequently resulting in less work, fewer people, and contracting economies. Among the exceptions to this rule is Bonner County, Idaho, in the state’s northern panhandle. The remote micropolitan county has seen growth in employment and income from 1970 until the Great Recession, and shows signs of recovery in recent jobs reports. What’s different about places like Bonner County? Headwaters economist Megan Lawson offers her report below.

While the populations and economies of many rural places are shrinking, some counties are bucking this trend due to booming oil and gas development or travel, tourism, and recreation.

Others, like Bonner County in Idaho’s Panhandle, are quietly sustaining steady growth through a diverse mix of economic activity, and by playing to their strengths. During the most recent recession, Bonner County lost 11 percent of its jobs, but its population remained steady. What has Bonner County done to keep its residents during difficult economic times? A recently released report by Headwaters Economics investigates the reasons why Bonner County’s economy is strong and resilient despite its distance from major population centers and economic hubs.

Figure 1. Growth in population and employment in Bonner County, Idaho, 1970-2012.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce. 2014. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Economic Information System, Washington, D.C. Table CA30.


Bonner County is rural and relatively remote. In 2012 the county population was 40,476, and its county seat, Sandpoint, had a population of 7,412. Sandpoint is 1.5 hours from the nearest large airport in Spokane, Washington. Because of Bonner County’s geography and location, tourism and timber have long been mainstays of the economy. It has headliner tourist attractions in both summer—Lake Pend Oreille—and winter—Schweitzer Mountain Resort—and travel- and tourism-related industries have accounted for a steady 20 percent of county employment over time.

Timber-related jobs, including growing and harvesting, sawmills and paper mills, and wood products manufacturing, made up 13 percent of jobs in the county in 1998 and 4 percent of jobs in 2013, reflecting both a smaller timber sector and an expansion of non-timber jobs.

Today’s Economy

Today, the county’s economic resilience is best understood by looking more closely at manufacturing, the sector that recently has grown the most in terms of compensation, increasing by $28.5 million between 2001 and 2013. Health care and social assistance, the sector with the second-largest growth, added $14.3 million in new compensation.

Figure 2. Net change in compensation by industry, Bonner County, Idaho, 2001-2013.

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce. 2014. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Economic Accounts, Washington, D.C. Table CA06N.

Bonner County’s growing manufacturing sector is an anomaly among U.S. counties, particularly rural ones. The county has experienced the same dramatic decline in forestry-related manufacturing jobs as other communities in the northwest have experienced, from 1,348 jobs in 1998 to 458 in 2013.

06/16/2015 at 10:39pm

Photo by Shawn Poynter The author at YouthBuild USA's Conference of Young Leaders Rural Caucus earlier this year.

EDITOR’S NOTE: At its June 18, 2015, meeting, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on revisions to the Lifeline program, which subsidizes phone service for low-income Americans. The measures would reduce fraud and waste, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, and would allow participants to use their $9.25-per-month subsidy to help pay for broadband instead of a telephone. Below, is a perspective from a Lifeline participant from West Virginia. A second article, from economist Brian Whitacre, examines the potential economic impact of expanding the Lifeline program.

Related Article: Lifeline's Economic Impact

It took a lot for me to get where I am today -- and my Lifeline phone played a huge role in bringing it all together.

The Lifeline program is intended for low-income people who cannot afford a phone. The FCC has supplemented wireless phones with minutes and text messages available for these people to stay connected and develop self-sufficiency. The objective of the Lifeline phone is to provide communication between employers, caseworkers, schools and any other line of business. The hope is that being connected with these important institutions and people will help decrease the low-income population.

Late in 2013 I took on a decent paying job to to help with my expenses as a single parent. Then, the only service I needed from the state was childcare -- it was absolutely impossible to pay childcare expenses. I was hired on at a dealership that was family-owned, making $13.50 an hour. My income only covered my rent and a couple utility bills, not all of them. I was just making it- paycheck to paycheck. Then my childcare was discontinued because I “made too much money”. I had to voluntarily quit my job and stay home with the kids. Slowly but surely, all of our assets disappeared. Our communication went first, house second and car third. I had to start again from the bottom. The first thing I needed was communication. At a minimum, I needed it to communicate with social services to apply for benefits.Then I would need it to apply for jobs (that wouldn’t exceed the childcare income guidelines) and enroll my children into school/daycare. I received a letter in the mail about a free phone that would supplement me with 250 minutes and 1,000 text messages, so I applied. It was perfect timing.

When I received my Lifeline phone in the mail, I was instantly connected again. It was such an easy process applying, receiving and activating the phone. Immediately, I applied for child care again. I had a plan and my Lifeline phone was “the ship I needed to sail. "You never know how important it is to be connected until you are disconnected. Once the kids were in childcare, I was able to apply for a large number of jobs and other services that would aid me in getting back on my feet. In the course of rehabilitating my family’s life, a friend of mine asked me what I thought about Elkins, West Virginia. I was living in Virginia. She mentioned that the cost of living was manageable, and it would be a great way to get our life back on track. At first I thought she was crazy for even suggesting the idea. Then I thought, "What could I lose?" I was on the path that could only gain.