Roundup: Shivering in the Shortage

Rural areas most affected by lack of propane for heating • FCC to consider expanded funding for rural broadband • Vilsack speaks between Pork and Beans duo and “Duck Dynasty” cast member: a sign of new times? • Rural “couponers” face special challenges • Hunger amid plenty.

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Lack of Propane. A national shortage of propane has rural residents shivering and politicians pointing fingers.

About 5.5 million American homes heat with propane, and most of those are in rural areas, the Associated Press reports. Some members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the Dakotas, where 90% of residents heat with propane, have moved to public shelters to keep warm.

Midwestern and Southern states are taking a number of steps to ease the crunch. Many have lifted transportation restrictions on the fuel. Others are going after price-gouging and making it easier for customers to get access to fuel from other vendors. And some are increasing aid for low-income residents who heat with propane.

The Star-Press reports on the shortage in Indiana, where “half a million Hoosiers” heat with propane. Near Muncie, retired gear cutter Philip Watson and his wife Becky, are down to about 9% in their 500-gallon tank.

The couple and their son, David, a laid-off cabinet maker, are conserving as much as possible: turning the thermostat down to 60 degrees, running three kerosene heaters during the day and operating four electric space heaters at night.

The couple bought a space heater — an infrared cabinet model resembling a fireplace — at Walmart after finding empty shelves at three other big-box stores.

“We went to several places and all we found were empty shelves because everybody is in this predicament, not just us,” said Becky Watson. “We are not alone.”

Schools are also being affected by the shortage, an Alabama television station reports.

And a Canadian newspaper reports that rising propane prices are causing increased demand at food pantries.

There’s also a small-business story in the propane shortage. Rural propane providers worry they are going to lose customers in the long run because of the crisis. Here’s one example in Colorado.

“Rural Broadband Trial.” The Federal Communications Commission will consider a “rural broadband trial” at its meeting today. The plan, if approved, would allow the commission to provide support to a new set of rural broadband providers to help them get service to residents with slow Internet connections or none at all.

Farmer Resentment Turning on GOP? The Atlantic’s Molly Ball sees Democrats making inroads in rural America because of congressional dysfunction caused by the tea-party wing of the GOP.

Part of Ball’s evidence was the tone at a recent meeeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation in San Antonio. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke between appearances of the “acoustic-ag duo” Pork and Beans and an appearance by “Duck Dynasty’s” Alan Robertson. Ball writes:

The farmers’ disenchantment with Washington is about more than just a special interest angry that its traditional government assistance is threatened. It’s about the deepening divide between rural and urban America. Isolated, shrinking in number, and cast out of the cultural mainstream, rural America now finds itself politically abandoned as well, as the party that once represented its interests is increasingly dominated by a more urban, libertarian, ideological strain.

In the three days I spent talking to dozens of farmers and their representatives at the Farm Bureau convention, a sense of grievance and resentment was a steady undercurrent.

The resentment is nothing new. If, as Ball says, Democrats can direct that resentment at Republicans, that’s a different story.

Wisconsin Rural Schools. The Wisconsin Assembly Speaker’s Task Force on Rural Schools continues its listening tour in Wisconsin. Most recently the task force was in Pepin, on the Mississippi River southeast of Minneapolis:

“This has been an ongoing study group to see what obstacles rural school face compared to larger districts,” said Rep. Warren Petryk, R-town of Pleasant Valley, a member of the legislative group touring the state. “We will make a series of recommendations when we’re all done. Everywhere we’ve gone, there are common themes: transportation challenges, declining enrollment and funding problems.”

Rural Couponing. Among the many economic activities that are tougher in rural areas, here’s one that escaped our attention until now: couponing.

Amy M., in Seneca, Oregon, writes about her difficulty getting good deals using coupons:

The stores in my area are not very accepting of printable coupons. I have an inexpensive phone because we don’t have service up here. Even if I could afford one, the stores here are not equipped yet to use smartphone technology for couponing. I wrote to one sugar manufacturer, who was great and sent me four coupons, but those didn’t last long.

Columnist Jill Cataldo of CTW Features sympathizes and sums up an aspect of rural consumer economics concisely:

Amy is in one of the most challenging situations that a couponer can face. When you’re limited to shopping at just one store, you do find yourself at the mercy of their sales cycles. If something’s not on sale, but it’s an item you need now, what options do you have? Only one: You buy it at the higher price.

Rural Hunger. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the opening of a new food pantry in rural Pennsylvania set in “the rich and cultivated Chester County landscape.” The story juxtaposes themes of idyllic rural living (including Amish buggies) with increased incidences of hunger and poverty.

 

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