Friday, August 22, 2014

08/07/2014 at 1:52pm

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images 42nd President Bill Clinton campaigned for U.S. Senate Democratic candidate and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes this week in Hazard, Kentucky. Clinton last spoke in Hazard in 1999, when he introduced his new market initiative.

America needs to stop focusing its development policies on programs that exclude rural areas, former President Bill Clinton told a crowd in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields on Wednesday.

“I know cities are the most prosperous places, … but it’s wrong to try to build a future for America that leaves rural and small-town America out,” Clinton said.

The former president spoke in Hazard, a town of about 5,500, as part of a campaign event for Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. Grimes and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a 30-year Senate veteran, are locked in a close race that has garnered national attention.

Hazard was also the site of a 1999 Clinton speech in support of the then-president’s “new markets” tax-credit initiative – a plan to lure capital investment to rural and hard-hit urban areas. The legislation expired this summer, Clinton said.

Clinton said the 1999 new market initiative was the last time the federal government has done anything of significance to help spur economic development in rural communities. (The Obama administration might disagree with that assessment. Last month, for example, the Obama administration announced a $10 billion private investment fund for rural infrastructure development.)

Current federal policy doesn’t do enough to create opportunity and hope for rural areas, Clinton said. With new communications technology, geography doesn’t have to be an impediment to economic activity, he said.

“New technologies and infrastructure opportunities can create jobs and wealth in any place in the United States,” he said.

He said rural people were ready to take advantage of those new opportunities. “Intelligence is evenly distributed, and the willingness to work is evenly distributed,” he said. “It is wrong to leave any place out and any place behind.”

Clinton shared the stage with families that are part of the United Mine Workers, which has endorsed Grimes.

08/07/2014 at 7:28am

Photographs by Tara Wray "Cat Cheese,” from Come Again When You Can't Stay So Long

Tara Wray’s work ranges from deeply personal documentary filmmaking to photos that display affectionate appreciation of life in rural Vermont.  She began her first film, Manhattan, Kansas, in 2005, when she traveled to rural Kansas to reunite with her mother, with whom she’d had a close but difficult relationship in her childhood.  Since making the film, Wray has moved to Barnard, Vermont (population 1,000), and shifted away from filmmaking toward photography, taking pictures of daily life in her adopted hometown.  She just released a self-published collection of photographs called Come Again When You Can’t Stay So Long as a follow-up to her first film.

Daily Yonder: Tell us a little about your background.

Tara Wray: I grew up in Kansas in a town called Manhattan.  I lived there for the first 20 or so years of my life.  Then I started moving around and didn’t really appreciate it until I left. I went abroad for a while, then I moved to Atlanta for a while, then New York City, and now I live in Barnard, Vermont.

DY: What was it like growing up in Manhattan, Kansas?

TW: It was, and still is a college town with lots of small towns around it that I liked to explore when I was younger.  I made a movie in 2006 called Manhattan, Kansas, and part of it was visiting with my mom who lived in a town that didn’t even have a stop light. It was tiny.  Part of the movie was spending time there and exploring the areas around that.  One of my favorite things to do is get lost on back roads in Kansas where there’s absolutely nothing. I think it’s quite beautiful.

"Those cows got loose from a farm down the road. This was taken at our local ski hill, called Suicide 6. Someone had put a sign in the general store saying that the cows were loose. I saw the sign and then I went looking for the cows. I was following the cows and the farmer as she was leading them back home."

Left: "That is at a local diner here in Vermont called the Locust Creek Diner. It’s wonderful. They make their own maple creemee, which is kind of a soft serve maple ice cream." Right: "Curlers," from Come Again When You Can't Stay So Long

DY: You said earlier you didn’t really appreciate Manhattan until you left.  What didn’t you appreciate that you now do?

TW: I think just the landscape.  People don’t always believe me when I say it’s the most beautiful place on earth.  They think I’m sort of crazy because they’ve maybe only been across the state on I-70, but if you get off the highway and tool around the smaller roads it looks like Italy.  It’s just gorgeous.  The prairies are amazing and I definitely miss that. 

08/06/2014 at 7:34am

Map shows change in the number of jobs in the last year. Click the map to make it interactive and show county-level data.

 

The number of rural jobs rose in May and June. The rural unemployment rate was more than a full percentage point lower than a year ago.

According to the most recent statistics released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the recovery is proceeding in rural counties.

The number of people working for pay in nonmetropolitan and micropolitan counties this June has increased by more than 150,000 from June of 2013.

(Micropolitan counties have towns of between 10,000 and 50,000 people; nonmetropolitan counties have no town larger than 10,000. We combine nonmetropolitan and micropolitan counties when we describe rural America.)

The unemployment rate in nonmetropolitan counties has dropped from 7.9 percent in June 2013 to 6.6 percent this June. In micropolitan counties, the rate declined from 7.8 percent to 6.4 percent.

In metro counties, the unemployment rate for June was 6.3%.

The map above shows where those jobs have been added since June 2013 and where the number of people employed has declined. Click on a county to see the individual statistics on jobs and the June unemployment rate. (Interactive map.)

  • Red counties are rural counties that have fewer jobs this June than a year ago.
  • Green counties are rural communities that gained jobs in the last year.
08/05/2014 at 12:51pm

Photo by Helen Tracey-Noren/The Fresno Bee Michael Gomes and Kayleen Deaver found each other on farmersonly.com and plan to marry in November.

Farmersonly.com is, ironically, not just for farmers. The online dating site, which started in 2005, caters not only to farmers, ranchers, and folks in rural areas, but also to those who respect the agrarian lifestyle, its founder says. Jerry Miller started the site as a way to connect people living in small towns and isolated areas. "When I started, it was a passion because I knew there was a need. When you talk to hundreds of people that are lonely in rural areas, it moves you," Miller said.

+++

A family in rural Maine is offering a scholarship to help a local person learn the plumbing trade, as the worker opens their business in town. Jackman, a town of 700-ish people, lost its only plumber to retirement. The closest plumbers now are 50 miles away. The family providing the scholarship isn’t expecting instant gratification, though:

“We know it takes several years to become a certified plumber, so we consider this an investment not only in the individual, but in the Jackman region itself,” said Sheryl Hughey Harth. “We have an electrician who is very busy, and we believe the community will support a plumber as well.”

08/04/2014 at 12:51pm

Photo by Sharon FarmerClinton speaks in Hazard, Kentucky, July 5, 1999, as part of a national tour to promote business investment in rural communities. “I came here to show America who you are. …  [T]o make a simple point that this is a time to bring more jobs and investment and hope to the areas of our country that had not fully participated in this economic recovery.”

Moses told the burning bush he was no good at making speeches. So the burning bush said, I’ll send help.

On Wednesday Bill Clinton returns to rural America. He is coming to Hazard, Kentucky, to speak for Alison Lundergan Grimes, a lackluster speechmaker and a shaky Moses. She’s out to unseat U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the closest thing Kentucky has to Ramses II.  This senatorial campaign is corrosive by design and numbing by degree. In a race that may spend a record $100 million, every registered voter, every inveterate TV watcher, has been deadened by a steady stream of smear and counter-smear calculated to 1) disgust all but the most fervent supporters and 2) discourage thinking people from going to the polls at all. 

Could Bill Clinton change the subject and change the game? Could he use his moment in this unlikely venue to say something that matters more than who gets elected? He is the explainer in chief, the Big Dog. He’s the guy who finally explained Obamacare. He could be the first president since Bill Clinton to make the case for a transcendent rural America – maybe even explain that hard scrabble communities, urban and rural – have a reason to team up. And he could take this moment to make an honest speech about Eastern Kentucky that gets beyond two candidates squabbling over who loves coal operators more and the EPA less.

In July 1999, then President Clinton came to Hazard and spoke to thousands squeezed shoulder to shoulder in near 100-degree heat.  Cases of bottled water passed overhead and down both sides of Main Street as first responders tended fainters who swooned by the dozen. He was Elvis that day, except that instead of twanging a guitar he was explaining how new market incentives for rural towns and inner cities could change the horizons for poor and working people. Ah, to be young, full of dreams, and on the rope line in Hazard that day.

A sitting president’s visit to the coalfields is rare. LBJ did it 24 hours before declaring the War on Poverty. Several presidential aspirants made pit stops. And an honorable mention goes out to Warren G. Harding, who didn’t come himself, but authorized the Army to drop bombs on striking West Virginia miners at the company’s request.

I interviewed ex-president Jimmy Carter when he and Rosaynn came to Pike County to build houses for poor families. And I helped produce a documentary about Richard Nixon’s visit to Leslie County, his first public appearance after leaving office. As a teen I walked down Liberty Street in Hazard with Bobby Kennedy, and later I drove Paul Wellstone and John Edwards when they re-traced the RFK tour. I helped advance Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Super Tuesday primary speech at the Hazard Bulldog gymnasium: a foot stomper about how we were all like patchwork squares on his grandmother’s quilt and that we should not be discouraged in the face of injustice and insult. He had local politicians and coal operators up chanting against the excesses of local politicians and coal operators. Political church.

Here is what to look for in a Clinton speech. He will count things out on his fingers starting with his thumb for number one. He will tell you something you don’t know about the opponent, and would not like very much if you did know. He will make fun of himself. He will mention a turtle on a fence post, lift up someone in a story, and he will talk about the future in a way that makes you think you can get there.

08/03/2014 at 3:08pm

Photo by Timothy Collins Early morning view looking south on 1600 E toward the Lamoine River in McDonough County, IL. The vantage point shows the nearest trees. A tree-lined Lamoine tributary lies about a mile west and north; this small area of limited tree cover and some grassland covers three to four square miles. The area just to the north covers perhaps 30 square miles of mostly plowed fields, with less than 10 percent of the area in trees and grass.

Western Illinois must be at the eastern end of Big Sky Country. The snow-capped mountains, aspen trees, and rocky streams are far away, but you only need to find a little rise to get a wide view of the usually restrained and constantly changing beauty.

Our backyard is truly Midwestern, without pretension. It is not boring, but you have to be patient and persistent, sensitive to daily changes of light and color, the seasonal cycles of sun, clouds, and sky. You have to know where, when, and how to look.

Glaciers, wind, and water have shaped this region over the past 12,000 years or so. The post glacial prairie environment thrived on deep deposits of rich soil cut by meandering streams. Even now, scattered woodlands and trees along waterways break the horizon. Some places pitch and roll a bit. Others are basically flat, the land of our Big Sky, especially when seemingly endless corn and fields are shorn in the fall.

For generations, Western Illinois has been the buckle of the corn and soybean belt. Human influence is all over this place, sometimes for better, sometimes not. Changes in agriculture scale and operations, especially after the 1960s and 1970s, altered the landscape and communities. Before the 1960s, maps show smaller farms, with houses not all that far apart. Aerial photographs reveal houses and fields with trees around them and their outbuildings.

Today, homesteads are more scattered than there were a generation or two ago, a sign of more concentrated land ownership. Trees sometimes mark the spot of an abandoned house or homestead long gone. In too many cases, the trees are gone, too. A gravel driveway to a grain bin and a dilapidated barn are all that remain.

08/01/2014 at 9:25am

USDA photo by Bob Nichols Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announces the creation of the new U.S. Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund.

 Last week, the White House Rural Council hosted a two-day “Rural Opportunity Investment (ROI)” conference to promote potential investment opportunities that exist throughout rural America. The conference brought together leaders from the business community and financial institutions, senior government officials, rural economic development experts and others to begin the process of developing partnerships that will create jobs, grow small businesses, and invest in critical rural infrastructure.

Speakers to the event included Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew, Ken Wilson, vice chairman of BlackRock, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Besher.

In conjunction with this event, the White House Rural Council announced a $10 billion dollar investment fund to promote rural economic development. The fund is meant to speed up rural infrastructure improvements and access to capital. The USDA hopes more investors will add to the initial $10 billion in available capital.

“The ROI conference and the new investment fund are part of the Obama Administration's ongoing efforts to promote investment in rural America, strengthen the nation’s infrastructure, and grow the U.S. economy," a White House press release stated. "Since the creation of the White House Rural Council in 2011, the president has made historic investments in rural America designed to drive job growth, invest in rural education, provide emergency services, and address health disparities.”

- Whitney Kimball Coe

+++

Coal company Alpha Natural Resources plans to lay off 1,100 West Virginia coal workers in the next two months, according to a story by Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette. The layoffs will occur at 11 surface mines and other facilities around West Virginia.

In another piece published on the same day, Ward says public and coal industry leaders are guilty of wishful thinking in asserting that the state's coal industry would bounce back if the Obama administration just got out of the way.

“The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone,” Ward quotes a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey as saying.

+++

The Guardian (UK) takes a look at gun youth gun ownership in the U.S. and a documentary film about the subject. The piece ,called “Kids, guns and the American way,” tends to lump all of rural America together into one pot, but it’s interesting to see an outsider’s take on this divisive issue.