Roundup: Hospitals As Economic Engines

Coal's "hillbilly" problem • Size matters in chopstick selection •  No new regulations for West, Texas •  Police "busts" in rural China •  Rockin' the suburbs •  Private funds to invest in rural businesses

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Towns that have retained hospitals and other health-care facilities “have emerged as oases of economic stability across the nation’s heartland,” reports Dionne Searcey of the New York Times.

At a time when most of what we read about rural hospitals is decidedly bad news, this article reinforces the strong economic role successful hospitals play in rural communities.

The story looks at Beatrice, Nebraska, where the hospital and its associated clinics are the town’s second-largest employer, with 512 workers and an annual payroll of nearly $28 million.

And rural hospitals don’t necessarily have to be located in thriving economic areas to make a go of it, the story says.

Even in the poorest communities, small hospitals can thrive. In Centreville, Miss., about 130 miles northwest of New Orleans, more than one-third of residents live below the poverty line. But in May the hospital in the town of 1,600 plans to open a new, $21 million facility, said Chad Netterville, chief executive of the Field Memorial Community Hospital, a quasi-public institution run by the two counties it serves.

To afford the new 16-bed operation, officials turned to a federal economic development program intended to increase investments in low-income communities.

“A lot of times in the rural communities your health care systems are your economic drivers, and that’s true here,” Mr. Netterville said.

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Photo by Getty Images
A strip mine in Appalachia.

Despite the environmental and natural dangers and health risks associated with strip mining, the industry is not as regulated as it should be, according to Jeff Biggers, writing for The Guardian newspaper. Biggers thinks this is at least in part due to the ease with which the nation dismisses locals as “hillbillies.”

The region has been forever mired by depictions of hillbilly poverty and depravity and no amount of Big Coal-bankrolled politicos spinning a misplaced nostalgia about once thriving but now vanished coal mining towns can undo that. Appalachia always ranks at the bottom of federal attention until a regulatory crisis erupts into a man-made disaster – such as the violation-ridden Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion or last year’s coal chemical disaster on the Elk River. And then the federal attention, like the media swarms, is fleeting. 

This disregard for the inhabitants of the region is a big reason why – despite a mounting health and humanitarian crisis – there has still not been federal intervention to put an end to the public health disaster wreaked by mountaintop removal mining.

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As West, Texas, rebuilds two years after a devastating fertilizer-plant explosion, hopes of new regulations for similar plants around the state are dwindling. The Austin American-Statesman reports that the Legislature, in its first full session since the West explosion, hasn't made progress on any new laws. 

…Two years after the blast, [West, Texas] is still trying to recoup money it says the fertilizer company owes them and lawmakers in Austin are still grappling with what role state government should play in regulating the 70-odd similar facilities scattered across Texas, many of them in rural communities like West.

The current legislative session is the first full one convened since the explosion, yet it appears lawmakers will stop short of mandating any new major safety rules at the facilities.

Lawmakers could rally around a bill, by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, that enjoys some fertilizer industry support; it would allow fire marshals to enter and examine ammonium nitrate storage facilities.

That bill stops short of a proposal by state Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, that would authorize the state commissioner of insurance, in consultation with the state fire marshal, to adopt fire protection standards for ammonium nitrate storage.

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There’s an odd-seeming funeral tradition shaping up in rural China. Families are hiring strippers to perform at the ceremony. Government officials are not happy with the trend and are cracking down on the practice, calling it a “type of illegal operation [that] disrupts order of the cultural market in the countryside and corrupts social morals and manners." 

So why are people risking trouble, and in some cases heavy fines, to have dancers at their loved-ones’ funerals?

Typically, rural families do it to drum up crowds. A 2006 story by the state-run New China News Service said villagers in parts of Jiangsu believed that "the more people who attend the funeral, the more the dead person is honored." For other families, the displays are a way to show off wealth and filial piety for the deceased.

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With all the talk of drought and water restrictions in California, Utah Public radio looks back on a time when the whole country seemed obsessed with a type of garden that needed little maintenance and even less water. The rock garden.

Across the country, Americans competed to create the coolest rockery in the neighborhood. People in some states sold rocks to people in other states. People bought rocks for their size and color. It was neighbor against neighbor, with backyards as battlegrounds. Folks were rocking the suburbs.

"My earliest memory of a rock garden was when I was a little girl at my grandmother's house on a slope that was not able to be mowed near her front walkway," says Linda Antonacio-Hoade of the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences extension services. "It had beautiful rocks and plants with a color palette that played off the rocks. It was low maintenance and upkeep." The Penn State Extension offers suggestions for fashioning your own rock garden.

Antonacio-Hoade believes that this was the reason rock gardens were so popular in the early 20th century. "When you think about the lack of modern conveniences," she says, "folks had many other things that needed to be done in order to live … and garden maintenance was not high on the list."

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Ag. Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week the creation of two private investment funds, called Rural Business Investment Companies, that aim to raise $125 million to invest in rural businesses.

The USDA is working to get big private money behind agricultural investments as large institutional investors, like pensions funds, are searching for investments that offer better returns because interest rates across the developed world are at zero — even negative. In 2013, Mr. Vilsack enlisted the help of Matthew McKenna, a former PepsiCo executive, to help find a way to tap the swelling coffers of pensions and private money.

Rural Business Investment Companies were created by Congress in 2002 to promote job creation and economic development in rural America. Originally, every dollar raised by such an entity would be matched with three borrowed dollars guaranteed by U.S.D.A. The managers of these companies were required to pitch a specific rural area where they wanted to invest and demonstrate how their investment would benefit the local community.

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And finally, this item transcends geographic labels like rural and urban.

Size matters, at least when it comes to chopsticks. An article in Psychological Reports says that participants in a study enjoyed their food more when they used long, rather than short, chopsticks. Using long chopsticks also “caused people to slow down when eating, resulting in greater eating duration and a higher number of mouthfuls,” the study found.

 

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