Friday, March 27, 2015

03/19/2015 at 9:33am

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles called "Writing Rural," featuring the work and perspectives of writers who focus on rural places and themes. Enjoy a sample of Athena Kildegaard's poetry: "We drove across the high prairie ..."


DY: When did you first start writing poetry?

Athena Kildegaard Athena Kildegaard: "My dad gave me a letter he'd written his mother and included in that letter was a poem I'd written. I was six. I've written poems since then, with varying degrees of attention to it."


DY: Much of your poetry takes place outside in rural settings.  Why are you drawn to writing about nature? 

All the time I was growing up in St. Peter, if the weather was nice, I'd get home from school, hop on my bicycle, and head to the river. I had all sorts of putting-in spots—some just a few blocks from the house, some further. If I had more time, I'd bike to Ottawa, nearly 10 miles up river, a town of maybe 30 people with some fantastic river scenery. Some places I'd have to hide my bicycle in bushes and then hike through woods or around sloughs to get to the river, but I really knew the river. I had a notebook and a pencil and I'd write about what I was seeing. I liked being alone, putzing around, sauntering, as Thoreau would have it, lifting logs or taking a nap on a big rock or just sitting perfectly still hoping that heron across the way would take off and I'd get to see it. I liked that I could get away from all human noises and I felt like I was an explorer, an adventurer, the first human to step foot just there. I still like that.

Poetry seemed like a way to capture that urgency and beauty and brutality I saw and the astonishment I felt.

AK: Prairies in particular make appearances in several of your poems.  Is that a result of living in Minnesota, or does the image of a prairie have special meaning for you?

I have always loved the prairie. And there are some fabulous prairie writers: Paul Gruchow, Bill Holm, Kathleen Norris and others. But it's really since we moved to Morris, which is on the pothole prairie, that I've begun to truly appreciate the prairie. One of the greatest gifts I've been given is to follow a prairie naturalist around and watch her touch the grasses and forbs. It's as good as hanging around a talented potter—that physical witnessing of the earth and its denizens.


Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was it like?

03/17/2015 at 9:53pm

John FlavellCordia High School Coach Rodrick Rhodes huddles with his players before a 2011 game. The former UK star and NBA player has helped bring students from tough urban neighborhoods and a Malaysian war zone to the rural school. The high school athletic association says he’s cheating. He says he’s changing lives.

One of the smallest schools in Kentucky—the Cordia School—nestled deep in an isolated part of the Appalachian Mountains, is known for its fights. 

“Every few years, [school board members] try to consolidate us, so we have to fight against that,” says Alice Whitaker, head of Lotts Creek Community School, which owns the Cordia School building and helps support it. It has been in a vicious, decades-long fight with the coal corporations that want to strip-mine the surrounding mountains. 

“There was a war back then,” Whitaker says of the coal-fights in the ’60s and ’70s.  “You could sit out here and hear the gunshots.”  She tells of her aunt Alice Slone, the founder of the Cordia School.  “Aunt Alice called that mountain ‘Adam,’” she says, pointing to a tall, yellow mountain towering over the school.  “They came in with bulldozers to strip it.  She broke up and called Woodrow Guthrie down the road and said, ‘They’re trying to strip-mine Adam.’  Within a half-hour, there were 20 men out there with guns.  They went away, and haven’t come back yet.”

What the school has never been known for, however, is sports.  That changed three years ago when former University of Kentucky Wildcat star Rodrick Rhodes shocked the basketball world by agreeing to become Cordia’s head coach.  He’s turned tiny, mountain-bound Cordia into a strong basketball school.  Other schools have started to notice, and they’re not happy.

First, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association (KHSAA) banned certain students from playing.  They claim that Rhodes and Cordia are illegally recruiting students to play for them.  They can think of no other reason why students from New York, Canada, Mali and all over would want to come to East Kentucky to play basketball in Cordia.  The cultural difference is too large, and Cordia is not a basketball school.

Robert Cooper, 1972 Protesters stand in front of bulldozers to stop strip mining near Cordia School in 1972. The protest was part of the early anti-strip-mine movement. Fighting for the community is nothing new for the school, says Alice Whitaker.

At first blush, nothing in this story makes sense.  New Jersey native Rodrick Rhodes—who left Kentucky on bad terms the first time—isn’t supposed to be thriving in the hollows of Appalachia. Cordia, known for its activism and its environmentalism, is not supposed to be good at basketball.  What does make sense—in fact, what seems inevitable—is that Cordia is fighting. 

“I’m praying they don’t give us a slap on the wrist,” Whitaker says with a laugh.  She knows Cordia will be outspent, she says, but she hopes they don’t go too easy on them.  “I want them to lower the boom.  We can fight that.”

Three months after she says this, the KHSAA complies, levying unprecedented penalties on the team and the school itself.  They not only banned Cordia from playing any games in the 2014-15 season, any games in the 2015-16 postseason, but also fined the school almost $26,000.  The fine alone could cripple a large school, but it threatens Cordia’s existence going forward.

“I wasn’t wanting that much punishment,” Whitaker says, after the ruling had been laid out.  “I did want enough so I could appeal it.”

Cordia continues its fight with KHSAA, and it can get even more acrimonious.  But this is not a story about the intricacies of high school basketball.  This is about the well-being of children, the future of Appalachia, and whether or not the Commonwealth of Kentucky can stop making the same mistakes it has made over and over.  


03/17/2015 at 12:15pm

NC Rural Health Research ProgramRed pins designate rural hospitals that have closed since 2010, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. Yellow pins designate hospital closures from 2005 to 2009. See complete list of hospitals on the second page of the story.

The following article was published originally by Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit national health policy news service. 

MOUNT VERNON, Texas—Despite residents’ concerns and a continuing need for services, the 25-bed hospital that served this small East Texas town for more than 25 years closed its doors at the end of 2014, joining the ranks of dozens of other small rural hospitals that have been unable to weather the punishment of a changing national health care environment.

For the high percentages of elderly and uninsured patients who live in rural areas, closures mean longer trips for treatment and uncertainty during times of crisis. “I came to the emergency room when I had panic attacks,” said George Taylor, 60, a retired federal government employee. “It was very soothing and the staff was great. I can’t imagine Mount Vernon without a hospital.”

The Kansas-based National Rural Health Association, which represents around 2,000 small hospitals throughout the country and other rural care providers, says that 48 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, the majority in Southern states, and 283 others are in trouble. In Texas along, 10 have changed. 

“If there was one particular policy causing the trouble, it would be easy to understand,” said health economist Mark Holmes, from the University of North Carolina, whose rural health research program studies national trends in rural health care. “But there are a lot of things going on.”

Experts and practitioners cite declining federal reimbursements for hospitals under the Affordable Care Act as the principal reason for the recent closures. Besides cutting back on Medicare, the law reduced payments to hospitals for the uninsured, a decision based on the assumption that states would expand their Medicaid programs. However, almost two dozen states have refused to do so. In addition, other Medicare cuts caused by a budget disagreement in Congress have also hurt hospitals’ bottom lines.

But rural hospitals also suffer from multiple endemic disadvantages that drive down profit margins and make it virtually impossible to achieve economies of scale.

These include declining populations; disproportionate numbers of elderly and uninsured patients; the frequent need to pay doctors better than top dollar to get them to work in the hinterlands; the cost of expensive equipment that is necessary but frequently underused; the inability to provide lucrative specialty services and treatments; and an emphasis on emergency and urgent care, chronic money-losers.

‘Another Disaster’ 

Rural health care experts caution that national and state officials need to address the problems for rural hospitals or they could face a repeat of the catastrophic closings that followed changes in the Medicare payment system 30 years ago. That 1983 change, called the “prospective payment system,” established fixed reimbursements for care instead of payments based on a hospital’s reported costs. That change rewarded large, efficient providers, but 440 small hospitals closed before the system was adjusted in 1997 to help them. Those adjustments created the designation of critical access hospitals for some small, isolated facilities, which are exempted from the fixed payment system.

“And now, beginning in 2010, we’ve had another series of cuts that are all combining to create another expansion of closures just like we saw in the ‘90s,” said Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the Rural Health Association. “We don’t want to wake up with another disaster.”

03/16/2015 at 9:11pm
Robert Scardamalia based on U.S. Census The highlighted counties will shift from getting data based on three-year estimates to five years. The longer data period will make it harder to track important demographic and economic changes at the county and community level, says Robert Scardamalia

“The oil patch giveth, and the oil patch taketh away,” said Oklahoma Commissioner of Labor Mark Costello.  In Oklahoma, 15 non-metro counties have heavy oil and gas activity. Four of them (Beckham, Garfield, Grady and Woodward) will be losing American Community Survey data on employment and income that would allow local officials to analyze the impacts.

The Census Bureau announced recently its intention to eliminate the American Community Survey (ACS) three-year estimates products beginning later this year. The change will go into effect for the expected 2012 to 2014 estimates. As with most federal agencies, the Census Bureau is faced with a tightening budget and maintaining data collection in the ACS and planning for the 2020 census have priority. They need to trim $15 million in the coming year and the three-year estimates are on the block.

The change will affect places that have a population of 20,000 to 64,999 residents. That’s one third of U.S. counties, 39 million Americans, or 12.2 percent of the U.S. population. The change will also affect smaller geographic places – cities, villages and Census Designated Places in that population range. That amounts to 55 million residents or 17.5 percent of the U.S. population. These communities will now get data that covers five-year periods instead of three years. That change can make a big difference.

 For example, the population of Mason City, Iowa, in the 2010 Census was 28,079 but continues to decline slowly. Mason City has a reasonably diverse economy that includes manufacturing, health care and financial services – an economy that one would expect to have some stability in the recent recession. The pre-recession unemployment rate from the 2006-2008 ACS was 4.9 percent, but by 2009-2011, in the depth of the recession, it increased to 8.9 percent. Looking at this same data from the five-year ACS there would be virtually no change with a high of 7.4 percent for the 2007-2011 period and a low of 6.9 percent in 2008-2012.

In Moore City, Oklahoma, population 55,081, the poverty rate was just over 8 percent in the 2007-2009 period, then increased to 13.3 percent by the 2010-2012 period. But a poverty analysis based on five-year data from the ACS would show an increase from 10 percent over the 2006-2010 period to 11.3 percent for 2008-2012.

03/15/2015 at 7:50pm

The trailer for "Rich Hill," a documentary by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, that examines the lives of three young men in rural Missouri. The 91-minute film won the Sundance documentary award last year and was released for Internet streaming this month.

Capturing rural poverty on film is difficult. Media images are never objective; cameras often lie. Sometimes they even exploit. Appalshop filmmaker Elizabeth Barret explored these themes in her film, Stranger with a Camera, by revisiting the murder of a Canadian filmmaker in impoverished Eastern Kentucky during the War on Poverty. “Media images can bring out powerful – and conflicting – emotions,” Barret narrates. “Were those who objected to the images of poor people … afraid they would be blamed for these conditions?”

It’s impossible to ignore Barret’s film while viewing Rich Hill, a documentary by filmmakers Tracy Tragos and Andrew Palermo. The film had its debut last year at Sundance, where it won the grand-jury prize for documentary. After screening nationwide on public broadcasting’s Independent Lens earlier this year, the film is now widely available via online streaming services.

Rich Hill alternates between the stories of Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three deeply impoverished teenagers in rural Missouri. It focuses squarely on their stories. There is little context to their poverty. In some ways this is extremely effective. It allows the filmmakers to meet one of Barret’s criteria for documenting impoverished areas: look past the deprivation and into the lives of the people. Here lies the real wealth of a culture.

Despite this emphasis on character, some parts of Rich Hill feel like they could have been filmed in the early 20th century. Communications technology is largely absent. There is talk of heading out West to prospect for gold and silver. For one family, drawing hot water for a bath means heating it through an appliance that isn’t a hot water heater.

By contrasting these images with the film’s modern trappings, it is at once easier to see how our society is failing these kids and their families. Much like the HBO urban-crime series The Wire, the film’s three subjects represent, in some way, the failures of supposedly democratic systems. We can assume that the characters don’t have access to a well-funded, universal healthcare system that values human life over profit, because that doesn’t exist in America. Instead, the pharmaceutical industry looms over their lives, and they are heavily medicated for a spectrum of mental conditions that are exacerbated by their socio-economic conditions. The ubiquity of bureaucracy is real. Social workers are mentioned like reapers waiting to take people away. The carceral state vacuums up poor working mothers for sticking up for their abused children.

But if there is one truly menacing villain in the film, it is the future. Thirteen-year-old Andrew stresses about it. “I think people expect me to do good things and have a better future than I do now,” he explains. “I don’t even know what to do anymore.” This is an immense amount of pressure to place on a child. It begs the question: When will we stop punishing kids for our sins? When will we finally live up to Thomas Paine’s first principle of civilization, that “the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period”?

03/13/2015 at 11:05am

EDITOR’S NOTE: Daily Yonder correspondent Dale Mackey and visual editor Shawn Poynter have been at the YouthBuild Rural Caucus and Conference of Young Leaders this week in Washington, D.C.  Dale produced these videos with photos that Shawn shot.

On the first day of the Rural Caucus, I watched 21 young people shyly greet each other and make tentative small talk.  Over the next two days, they shared stories about themselves and their communities, discussed how they could become rural leaders, and formed bonds that carried through as 93 other mostly urban students joined them as the Caucus concluded and rolled into YouthBuild’s annual Conference of Young Leaders.  Rather than tell their stories for them, I wanted to let them talk about themselves in their own words.  I asked three pairs of these rural ambassadors to interview each other about their lives and their experiences.



Sharell and Corey

During one session, Sharell Harmon, who lives in Elkins, West Virginia, discussed what it was like being one of the few African Americans living in her town.  She looked across the table at Corey Perkins from McArthur, Ohio, who was wearing a hunting cap and heavy jacket.  “Before, if I saw someone wearing a hunting cap and a hunting jacket, I would think we wouldn’t have anything in common.  But once I started talking to people, I realized we had a lot in common,” Sharell said.  Sharell and Corey discuss similar struggles their towns face and what it’s like meeting such a diverse group of people.

03/12/2015 at 11:05pm
Daily Yonder based on data from from JAMA PediatricsThe suicide rate for males aged 10 to 24 years is on the rise in the smallest rural counties (top line, blue). But the rate for the most urban areas (1 million residents and up) is declining (bottom red line). A margin of error could affect individual years (the confidence interval is 95%), but the trend lines are consistent. Also, the vertical axis starts at 10, not zero. This separates the lines for clarity but exaggerates the slope of the lines. Click the chart to enlarge it.
Researchers have known for years that rural residents are more likely to commit suicide than urban residents.

A new study examines this trend for young people aged 10 to 24 years.

Besides confirming that rural areas have higher suicide rates, the new study shows that gap is getting wider.

NPR and The Atlantic have done some good reporting on the study, which was published in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics (though we could have lived without the dystopic art choices those news outlets made).

To this discussion, we’ll add one chart generated from data in the study. (And, obviously, our rather crude graphic art suffers from its own brand of dystopia.)

The various lines represent the suicide rates per 100,000 residents for eight categories of counties, sorted from most rural to the most urban for males, aged 10 to 24.

The blue line at the very top of the graph shows the suicide rate over the past 14 years for counties at the extreme rural end of the continuum (counties with fewer than 2,500 residents living in Census-defined urban areas).

During the period of the study, not only did these very rural counties have a higher suicide rate for 10- to 24-year-old males, the rate increased by nearly a point, from 18.98 per 100,000 residents to 19.93 per 100,000.

Conversely, the red line at the bottom of the graph shows the change in suicide rates for the largest urban areas – metro areas of 1 million residents and up. In those counties, the suicide rate dropped by about a point and a half – from 11.95 in 1996-98 to 10.31 in 2008-2010. Again, those represent suicides per 100,000 residents.

One line that sticks out is that of group 5. It's the purple line with X's that slopes upward in the middle of the chart. That line represents the male suicide rate in counties that have an urban population of 20,000 or more but are not metropolitan and are not adjacent to a metropolitan area. In those counties, the suicide rate climbed 2.5 points, or nearly 19% for the study period. That's the highest increase out of all the different county groupings.