Week’s End Roundup: Meteors Tonight

Was Kristof right about what he saw in E. Kentucky? • Duluth paper asks, "Where's the outrage from rural America?" • Death on the rails • Assault with a tractor

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There has been a lot of discussion this week about a column written by New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof from Jackson, Kentucky. 

Kristof wrote that “parents here in Appalachian hill country (are) pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability.”

If children are found to be disabled, then families can receive $698 a month from Supplemental Security Income, on until the child turns 18. If the child is illiterate, Kristof writes, “then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month.”

Kristof sees a culture of dependency and social dysfunction — which is the oldest journalistic analysis in the book when it comes to Appalachia. Kristof sees evidence of hopelessness everywhere. Kristof says he sees “teenage girls hanging out by the bridge over the north fork of the Kentucky River, seeking to trade their bodies for prescription painkillers or methamphetamines.”

The column set off a discussion across the country about the merits of social service programs and journalism? Do some social programs perpetuate the ill they were created to end? And how accurate are depictions written by journalists who parachute into complicated territory, write their story and then leave. How, after all, could Kristof tell just by looking what those youngsters were doing by the bridge in Jackson?

Katie Carter with Kentucky Youth Advocates wrote in the Louisville paper that only 29,922 Kentucky children are on SSI, in a state with over a million children and with 100,000 students with some kind of disability. “If a handful of families are misusing SSI, we should target the abuse but not do away with the entire program that helps so many families make ends meet,” Carter writes. 

There were several letters in the New York Times today. Peter Edelman, a former health official in the Clinton administration, writes:

If some parents are doing what Mr. Kristof reported, that is unacceptable. But the real villain is the lack of job opportunities that results in deep poverty. It’s no accident that Mr. Kristof’s report comes from the heart of Appalachia. Breathitt County has a median income a little more than half that of Kentucky as a whole and  unemployment and poverty more than 50 percent higher than the levels for the state.

S.S.I. is only for people with proven, severe disabilities, but it is also (with food stamps) the only source of income for thousands of families in eastern Kentucky, including families with two parents and no prospect at all of finding a job. We need to end child poverty. Slashing a program that is making a difference for disabled children will only make matters worse.

Another writer agrees with Kristof, that the program provides fundamental disincentives to succeeding in school and at work.

Great discussion.

Assault With A Tractor — In the strange crime news category, we have Michael A. Rose of Graves County, Kentucky, who was arrested after charging state troopers in a tractor. 

A woman called the state police saying a man (Graves) was threatening to destroy her vehicles. When the authorities responded, he fled on a tractor. The report reads:

Police say the man tried to hit their cars and came at them when they followed him on foot. They shot out a tire of the tractor and hit the driver with a stun device, but still had to wrestle him out of the cab.

Officers charged 45-year-old Michael A. Rose with two counts of attempted murder of a police officer, evading police and resisting arrest. 

Big Surprise — Americans aren’t following the government’s dietary guidelines. Big shock, right? 

The USDA reports that consumers just aren’t buying healthy foods. “The results showed that overall across America, there is a pretty poor degree of adherence to the dietary guidelines,” said Richard Volpe, an economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service who co-authored the study. “All Americans, whether they are white, black, Asian or Hispanic, have a lot of work to do.”

Record Prices for Farmland — Farmland prices in Iowa continue to hit records. 

An Iowa State professor tracks farmland prices and his latest survey shows a 24 percent rise, to an average of $8,296 per acre. 

Prof. Mike Duffy says, however, that within a few years other big ag producers (Brazil, Argentina, Russia, etc.) will respond to high prices and begin producing enough to lower the prices for corn and soybean. That will cool off land prices in the States.

“It won’t be a crash, like we saw in the 1980s, but a slow decline,” Duffy said. Values dropped by two-thirds between 1981 and 1986.

Too Big To Fail, Farm Version — DTN’s Marcia Zarley Taylor writes about concerns of what might happen when “juggernaut farms” — grain operations that cover more than 10,000 acres — come back to earth. 

Higher grain prices have led some farms to super size. But what happens when prices moderate?

“Crop producers have been flying high for the last five years. Now we wonder how it’s all going to land,” said Robert Craven, director of the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota.

Meteors Tonight — The Geminids meteor shower will be at its peak Thursday and Friday night, and without a moon to obscure things, this should be one of the best showers of the year. 

Look straight up; things will be best after midnight. 

Western Water Shortages — The Denver Post’s Bruce Finley reports that a drier climate is worsening water shortages in seven Western states where 40 million people live. 

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the completion of a three-year study of water in the West. Finley writes:

“The study projects a future of falling river flows, shrinking snowpack, wilting crops and an intensifying struggle for wildlife.”

Millions of people would be affected by shortages, Salazar said.

“We are in a very troubling trajectory,” Salazar said in a phone conference with journalists and senior officials. “We need to reduce our demand. We also need to look at increasing our water supply through practical, doable, common sense measures such as re-use.”

One of the solutions is to pipe water from the Missouri River to the Denver area. Salazar, however, said the river diversion scheme is both technologically and politically infeasible.

Meanwhile, in Texas, water shortages in another Colorado River are pitting cities against rice farmers. Upstream state legislators are vowing to block releases from lakes if the water is to be used by rice farmers in southeast Texas. 

The lakes are less than half full after several years of drought.

Charter Schools and Vaccinations — Charter schools in Arizona have much lower vaccination rates than regular public schools, the Arizona Republic reports

Generally, white, middle-class families are choosing to exempt their children from vaccinations. 

Death on the Rails — The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has published a long series on the numbers of people who are killed each year by trains. The full series is here

More than 7,200 pedestrians have been struck and killed by trains in the U.S. since 1997, about 500 a year.

Who’s Representing Us? — The Duluth News Tribune editorial page asks, “Where’s the outrage from rural America?”  We quote the whole dang thing: 

In what he thought was a private moment during his presidential bid, Mitt Romney confided to a supporter that 47 percent of Americans were unlikely to vote for him so he wouldn’t be campaigning too hard to reach them.

And what happened? Romney got blasted — and rightfully so, no doubt. “He doesn’t care about us!” “He won’t represent us!” went up the cry from those who felt snubbed.

In contrast, in a speech at a very public forum sponsored by the Farm Journal this month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told agricultural leaders that rural America was “becoming less and less relevant” to government and to politicians. He suggested little effort was being made, or had to be made, to reach and advocate for people on farms, in the woods or in small, isolated towns.

And what happened? Just a whole lot of cricket-chirping. Where were the tractors rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue in protest? Where were the ranchers and farmers and outdoors-lovers demanding to be heard? No one would have blamed rural America, including nearly all of Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, for being up in arms. What Vilsack was saying, essentially, was that the U.S. government and its elected leaders aren’t bothering to represent rural areas because there’s no political payoff or ballot-box support.

Vilsack has a point, of course. A farm bill is stalled in Washington for the first time in recent memory, as the Associated Press’ Mary Clare Jalonick reported after covering Vilsack’s speech. More people are living in cities and suburbs. And President Obama, a Democrat, retained the White House in spite of overwhelming Republican support from the nation’s rural areas.

But none of those are reason enough for elected leaders to ignore an entire segment of the population, as Vilsack said is happening. Elected representatives and others in government are supposed to work for all, not just for those who support their elections and re-elections. When they don’t represent all, those snubbed are entirely justified in expressing their strong disagreement.

And they should do so at least as loudly as those who feasted on Romney’s insensitive statement. Romney, after all, was only talking about campaigning. Vilsack was referring to those supposedly representing and governing us.

 

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