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Redefine rural?

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Federal officials should pause move to reclassify communities

Kelty GarbeeKelty Garbee, PhdBy Kelty Garbee, Ph.D.

How do you know if you live in the city or the country? For some, any place without a Whole Foods is rural. For others, a stoplight is a harbinger of urban sprawl.

The federal government has more than ten definitions of what is and isn’t rural. One of these, however, may be changing. And it could have big implications for our counties in Texas.

The federal Office of Management and Budget defines areas as urban if they contain a community of at least 50,000 people, known as a metropolitan statistical area. In January, OMB proposed to change the minimum population threshold for MSAs from 50,000 to 100,000. This new definition would move 251 counties nationwide — and 14 in Texas — out of the metropolitan category.

With the flick of a computer key, nearly 820,000 Texans in cities such as San Angelo, Longview, Wichita Falls and Victoria would be recategorized. In the popular vernacular, they would switch from urban to rural. I have visited a lot of rural Texas and can tell you: None of those cities are rural. Each has a Target, at least one Starbucks, and other non-rural characteristics.

But does it really matter how a federal agency categorizes a place? The trouble is that this definition is used by federal agencies to distribute funds. Even though OMB insists that agencies not use the definitions to make grants, money for highways, housing and community block grants are all issued based in part on OMB’s definition of metropolitan. We don’t know exactly how many federal agencies use OMB’s definitions to allocate funds, but a few examples include the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Housing and Finance Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, so it’s clear there will be broader implications.

Texas Rural Funders is a funder collaborative focused on bringing attention and resources to rural Texas. We are deeply immersed in rural Texas and the issues impacting rural Texans, their businesses, their families and communities. We’re a welcoming bunch, but we want Texas communities to know the potentially far-reaching impact of this seemingly innocuous move.

OMB’s new definition has been in the works for years. The current metropolitan definition was devised after the 1950 Census. The nation’s population has doubled since then, so OMB reasoned the minimum population size for a metro area should double, too, from 50,000 to 100,000.

No one knows what it will mean to all the federal programs using this definition. It appears that OMB made its recommendation for statistical reasons. However, there will likely be real-world consequences. It could alter federal reimbursements for health care costs in already underserved communities. It could mean fewer mortgages in rural areas, which are identified as underserved by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and less public transportation.

According to the Brookings Institution, the current non-metropolitan county has an average of 23,240 people. The proposed reclassification means that non-metropolitan areas would have an average of 75,533 people. Towns of those average sizes are different in most every way.

In Texas, the 14 counties that would be re-classified are 3.6 times larger than the counties currently in the rural category. And the new definition of non-metropolitan areas would encompass communities ranging from 10,000 to 100,000 people. However, despite the differences across such a large range, they would be considered the same when applying for federal grant money from some government programs. There will likely be unintended consequences for communities, both small and large, on either end of the newly defined category.

There is a simple fix to this issue. OMB should postpone any action on its proposal. It should convene stakeholders, rural experts and local leaders to examine the consequences of such a change. Let’s find out what effect this new definition of rural would have on 170 Texas counties before it is made official.

Dr. Garbee is executive director of Texas Rural Funders, a philanthropic coalition that works with rural communities to develop and implement solutions to their unique needs.

 Texas Rural Funders is a coalition of funding organizations that believe the future of Texas depends on strong, successful rural communities. We are dedicated to working with rural communities to develop and implement solutions to their unique challenges. Learn more and find online tools and resources for rural Texas communities at texasruralfunders.org.

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There’s saying thanks, and being thankful

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FromEditorsDesk TonyMany of the people I know, and quite a few that I don’t, aver that their favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.

There is a lot to be said about it, when families come together and celebrate the things that make like great. There’s also not a lot of pre-Thanksgiving falderol to clog up the airwaves.

Aside from maybe some extra turkeys in the food aisles, you don’t see tons of Thanksgiving-related merchandise clogging up department store aisles, either.

I’ll admit that I’m one of those guys, one that enjoys Thanksgiving more than other holidays (Please don’t tell my wife. She will punish me by buying more Christmas decorations and making me put them up.)

My favorite part is family, hanging out with my loved ones enjoying good food and terrible football (I’m a long-suffering Cowboys fan. Thanksgiving is always a time for mixed emotions.) The naps are pretty legit, too (I’m just sayin’).

Don’t get me wrong, here. Christmas is amazing, what with the birth of Christ and the music and celebration. Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller has completely energized my enjoyment of Christmas music, and the old Rankin Bass television specials, the stop-motion animation of Rudolph and the Heat Miser and the Bumble — all those wonderful memories.

The issue for me is the forced feeling I get participating in the Christmas holiday. The relentless buybuybuy on the airwaves, the putting out of Christmas items in September all combine to create a feeling of capitulation to the season, instead of trying to embrace it for what it is.

Seriously, the fistfights on Black Friday alone should clue us all into the idea that Christmas is less of the holiday than it once was.

Thanksgiving, though, still remains the same, so in that vein, let’s all remember what there is to be thankful for.

I’m thankful, so very thankful, that there is a just and loving God in Heaven.

I’m extremely thankful that my children, both teenagers, actually want to spend time with me, and not, as is kinda normal, want to fight. Another bonus: they tend to like a lot of my music (they still cheat at slug bug, though).

I’m over the moon about my wife. There’s nothing like the feeling of coming home to someone who loves you.

I have a really cool family — brothers, cousins, dad, nieces — that are a comfort, even though I’m elsewhere.

I am thankful that I had the opportunity over the last year to pepper you with my screeds, and that most of you appreciate my point of view. I’m also thankful that, for the time being, that I live in a country that has enough freedom left to allow me to write and voice my opinion.

I’m thankful for working in a county like this in East Texas, a really blessed state, where despite what the folks on TV will tell you, we’re a welcoming state.

More than most, I’m thankful for this time of year because at least for a few months, the thermostat is at a respectable level.

Tony Farkas is editor of the Trinity County News-Standard. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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The real world

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Jim OpinionBy Jim Powers

No, I’m not talking about the MTV series featuring a bunch of hyper-sexualized young adults thrown into an upscale house with cameras in every room that invited the world to watch what happened (big surprise, huh?). My focus is the 3D world, the one we walk around in, which still exists when we turn off our computers and smart phones, and the meaning of “reality” in the 21st century.

Modern neuroscience, through the use of very sophisticated imaging techniques, is now able to look into the brain in real time, while it is thinking, imagining and solving problems. Neuroscientists have constructed many experiments, confirmed hundreds of times, that reveal some interesting things about the brain, the nature of consciousness and the concept of self. You can find interesting reading about this on the Internet. An exhaustive account is well beyond the scope of this column.

Scientists have observed through this research that when faced with a specific task, areas of the brain register activity up to several seconds before the thought to initiate the activity appears in consciousness. When a subject was asked to tap any numbered square in a stream of numbered squares scrolling across a computer monitor, the brain registered the decision to select a particular square before the thought to select that square appeared in the subject’s consciousness…before she was aware of making a decision to select that particular square.

The simple take on this is that thoughts appear in our consciousness from an area of our brain that we have no direct access to. They simply appear, persist for a while, we either act on them or not, then they disappear. And while this research and these conclusions involve some very high-tech tools, this knowledge has actually been around over 2,000 years. Understanding this concept is one of the primary points of meditation.

Don’t worry, I’m not going all metaphysical here. Meditation, in what has become known in the West as Mindfulness Meditation, but is an outgrowth of Vipassana, or Insight Mediation, is used in business, in education, and by many individuals to increase the ability to focus on tasks. As we are barraged with an ever-increasing stream of information, we are all looking for ways to manage our ability to pay attention to what needs to be done. Meditation practice has been a solution for many people.

The short explanation of Mindfulness Meditation is pretty simple. Sit in a quiet place, eyes open or closed, and concentrate on your breath.  While that sounds simple, it is initially very difficult for most people, who quickly discover that their mind is very busy. It is constantly thinking. Thoughts pop into consciousness over which there seems to be no control. Many people can’t get beyond one breath before they discover their mind is thinking about the grocery list, the angry words they said to someone five years ago, or thoughts that seem to make no sense to them at all. “Monkey Mind” the Buddhists call it.

The goal is that every time the mind strays from concentrating on the breath, and as soon as you notice it has strayed, you pull concentration back to the breath. Eventually, and for some people it takes a long time, you will be able to stay with the breath longer and longer, and the distracting thoughts will decrease. The side effect of this practice that most people are looking for is that your ability to focus on a specific task increases.

The other thing that happens is that, by watching your thoughts so intently, you come to the realization that thoughts appear in the mind, persist for a time, and disappear. If you have a thought, but do not grasp onto that thought, it will vanish as mysteriously as it appeared. Which is exactly what the high-tech tools of neuroscience appear to confirm.

This column, though, isn’t an attempt to convince you to meditate.  When you see directly that your days are made up of a constantly moving stream of thoughts, some of which you act on, and many which you wisely don’t, you can begin to understand the real implications of the unlimited information that we are subjected to each day. We see thousands of images, and hear hundreds of messages in commercials, music, movies and TV each day. 

Many of these images and messages are created by entities that are using the findings of the most cutting-edge neuroscience to influence our thinking. They understand that we are a stream of thoughts constantly passing almost unexamined through our minds, and that if they can inject their own message into that stream, among the thousands of other messages that we have no time to process objectively, that we are likely to assume their thoughts are, in fact, our thoughts…our desires, and that we will act on them.

The result is familiar. We buy stuff we can’t afford; we accept ideas that are inconsistent with our core values, we make life choices that decrease rather than increase happiness, we vote for people whose stated goals are inconsistent with our own beliefs or aspirations. This is not a new problem, of course. What is new is the overwhelming amount of information we are forced to process every day, and our resulting failure to make time to edit the good from the bad.

I believe this is one of the biggest existential threats of the 21st century: that we will get so caught up in our rhetoric that we fail to grasp reality.

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Learning more than just play

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FromEditorsDesk TonyI’m sure that by now most of you know that football season, the regular part, has ended, and that our intrepid school kids have moved on to the next phase of school sports — basketball season.

Many will probably lament the season records, or not, but the one thing no one will lament is the benefits of organized sports.

At least at the high-school level.

For years, I was involved with Little League, as a coach and a board member, because more than anything, I wanted to give kids the same benefits I got during my time in “uniform.”

More than just baseball, I got improved hand-eye coordination, timing, strategy skills, team-building and teamwork skills and I was in a heck of a lot better shape that I am now, plus, I learned to play baseball. (I’ve even learned not to dine out anymore on those games where I was incredibly magnificent. Sort of.)

I also learned appreciation. 

I learned that coaches and board members and umpires and concession stand workers and even groundskeepers are volunteers who gave a lot of their time and talent to give me talent and training.

Since my time in the sport was while my dad was in the Air Force, and we were overseas, I learned that the space for fields wasn’t easy to come by, and that the generosity of people allowed us to play.

I learned to be patient and have fun, particularly when playing against a team from a different country.

Mostly, I learned that this, and all the other sports, couldn’t and wouldn’t exist without the efforts of all sorts of people coming together.

Much like sports from every level, including schools and even professional teams, and just like most things in life.

When I see or hear about things like Lebron James, one of the best players in the NBA, criticizing teams or using his celebrity as a sports hero to spout nonsense about social issues, I see it as a betrayal of those ideals that are defined by organized sports.

Even more so, this continued kneeling and disrespect for the country during the national anthem, particularly at the Olympic Games, is something that only shows us as whining, over-entitled narcissists.

Whatever happened to the joy of being part of something bigger than ourselves?

Some of the most exciting things I’ve seen, particularly this year, is how even with a losing record, players still stood up, gritted their collective teeth, and pushed through to the end of each game. And as anyone ever involved in sports will tell you, learning to lose the right way is equally as instructive as success.

Imagine the kind of city, and state, and country we would live in if that kind of dedication was applied in any and all endeavors. Progress would be so amazing, and the things we create would double as monuments to teamwork.

While all that hardware in the cases at the front of every school is impressive, what is equally as impressive is the amount of work that goes into each and every one, from the benchwarmers all the way to head coaches, school boards and, of course, parents and booster clubs.

From that point of view, everyone is a winner.

 Tony Farkas is editor of the Trinity County News-Standard. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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