According to a study recently released by the University of Arkansas Division of Arkansas, Van Buren County’s population has gotten older and slightly better paid in recent years. Its infrastructure shows an expected need for more and better broadband access.
The study is constructed to determine the differences between urban and rural communities in Arkansas and how these environments have changed over time. Included in the study was the effect of COVID-19, although data points reflected more long-term trends.
Van Buren County is part of the “Highlands” area, per the study, the mostly central and west to Fort Smith portion of the state, with an urban area in its center surrounding Little Rock and extending into neighboring Faulkner County, and to the west into the greater Fayetteville metro as far south as Sebastian County. The very south and eastern portions of the state are listed as Coastal and Delta, respectively, with three additional urban counties there.
The study was authored by Professor Wayne Miller and Program Associate Ellie Wheeler, both of University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperation Extension Service.
Like most of rural Arkansas, the population of Van Buren County continues to decline, dropping 4 percent from 2010. This same decline is shared with neighboring Cleburne County, while Stone County to the north rose 1 percent and Faulkner County, to the south, seeing an 11 percent increase.
Northwest-most Benton County rose 25 percent or the same time period. In the state, population increased 3 percent, compared to a 6 percent national population increase.
“The population decline in the Rural region of the state was primarily due to out-migration of people, whereas, both in-migration and natural increase resulted in population growth in the Urban region,” the study states.
During this same period seniors, those 65 and over, grew as a percent of population throughout the state, showing 27 percent of the population of Van Buren County for 2019, the last year available. The median age in the county is 49.2, also based on 2019 numbers.
From 2010 to 2019 the Hispanic population grew from 6.4 percent to 7.8 percent of the state population, showing only a slight, but present, increase in the Highlands region.
The state had been on-track with growing employment numbers since the 2008 recession. This was, however, interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on employment. At the same time, while employment growth in Arkansas took place, it was primarily in urban environments, with rural employment staying more-or-less flat post 2008 recession where a drop took place.
Despite this, Van Buren County saw a 1 percent increase in employment from 2007 to 2018. This is much better than its surrounding Highland counties, with the worst-case being Searcy County which saw a 10 percent decline in the same time period. Urban Faulkner County saw an 8 percent increase in the same time period.
Van Buren County continues a positive trend on a 2010 to 2018 time frame, showing a 5 percent employment increase.
The southern, rural, Coastal Plains saw the greatest decline in employment.
Overall, employment moved away from manufacturing sector jobs to service sector. The Highlands region saw a significant downturn in construction.
From the study: “The Construction and Farming & Forestry sectors exhibited job losses in both the Rural and Urban regions during this time period. Construction losses were -17 percent in rural counties and -6 percent in urban counties. Among the Rural regions, the losses were particularly high in the Highlands region (-20 percent). Losses in the Farming & Forestry sector were milder, decreasing 2 percent in rural counties and 1 percent in urban counties.”
Arkansans earn about 24 percent less than the national average, in 2018 being $47,272 compared to the national $62,321, with the wage growth of 1.9 percent from 2007 to 2018 compared to the national growth rate of 4.2 percent. As expected, earnings in urban environments were on the whole higher than rural environment.
In Van Buren County, the average earnings per job is $32,741 from 2018, a number that grows in adjoining counties to the south, and declines to the north. For example, Conway County shows $41,943 while Stone County shows $28,799.
For this same period, Van Buren County shows a 1 percent increase in household wages from 2010 to 2018. Interestingly, central Arkansas urban counties show an overall decline in household income during this same period.
The COVID-19 pandemic increased national unemployment from 4.5 percent to 7.7 percent from March to September in 2020. In Arkansas, for the same period unemployment moved from 4.9 percent to 7.7 percent with an interesting statistical note.
From the study: “However, the Arkansas labor force also declined 3.0 percent during this five-month period. If those dropping out of the labor force were added to the officially unemployed, the adjusted Arkansas unemployment rate would be 9.8 percent or two percentage points above the official August rate.”
For August 2020, Van Buren County showed an 11.1 percent unemployment rate.
The Van Buren County poverty rate, measured in 2018, is 19 percent, lower than the north-adjoining Searcy and Stone counties at 21 percent and 22 percent respectively, and above the south-adjoining Conway and Faulkner counties respective 18 percent and 17 percent.
Van Buren County showed only 14 percent of its population has access to 25/3 Mbps or faster internet broadband service, one of the lower numbers in the state. (Calhoun County, well to the south, has a 7 percent access rate.)
(Note that Petit Jean Electric Co-Op recently announced plans to provide county-wide broadband access in coming years.)
The county bridges show 3 percent as being graded “Poor” per Federal Highway Administration statistics for 2019. This places it slightly worse than neighboring Cleburne and Stone counties, at 0 percent, and Conway and Faulkner at 1 percent. Adjoining Searcy to the north shares the 3 percent ranking.
Drinking water shows a bright spot, with no drinking water violations listed for Van Buren County per the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. Roughly half the counties in the state did not meet this standard. Figures for 2018 were used in the study.
The Conway VA Clinic was the first stop for Sen. John Boozman on Thursday, April 1, as he toured the region in a series of one-hour stops.
The Conway Clinic, the only VA Facility on the tour, was a chance to review its vaccination program, including the VA’s mobile vaccination program outreach. Other stops included public hospital vaccine clinics in Russellville, Fort Smith and Springdale. Boozman, a retired optometrist, is a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations and Veterans Affairs committees.
Boozman was given a tour of the facility, including its optometry center where he had a chance for hands-on time with equipment, as well as a review of health care scope, including the growing importance of telemedicine, all-the-more important during a pandemic with its ability to offer “hands off” care.
Central Arkansas VA Medical Center Director Dr. Margie Scott explained to Boozman the growing importance of telemedicine in providing care, including mental health care, for patients. This included the VA distributing iPads to patients in some cases in order to promote access.
What followed was an exchange between Scott and Boozman about the importance of broadband infrastructure, coupled with the need to “incentivize telehealth,” Boozman said.
Vaccination included Boozman speaking with a patient there, a veteran, receiving his first dose of the vaccine as well as the clinicians in the vaccination process.
Boozman and Scott also discussed the recently signed-into-law VA SAVE LIVES Act. The act, signed by President Joe Biden on March 24, allows spouses of VA patients to receive COVID-19 vaccine at VA facilities as well as expanding eligibility for veterans able to receive vaccine through the VA.
The act, coupled with the mobile clinics, has allowed Central Arkansas VA to give more than 30,000 COVID-19 vaccinations to date, Scott said.
Such access provided “the quickest path back to normalcy,” Boozman said.
Access to health care for veterans continued as Boozman and Scott succeeded the Mission Act, signed into law in 2018, which allows veterans to seek treatment with local providers when VA wait times are too long. Additional funding has permitted the VA to have eight clinics in the Central Arkansas region. This, in turn, is being leveraged in the VA’s increased emphasis on mental health, including suicide prevention.
Boozman indicated additional legislation could be expected to promote access to suicide prevention care for veterans. This is especially important in light of the majority of veteran suicides being among those who are not enrolled in the VA health care system, he said.
The 93rd General Assembly of the Arkansas State Legislature has been no stranger to controversial bill proposals this spring. An outright near-total abortion ban, a stand-your-ground law and a law which bars transgender women from competing alongside other women in school sports are just a few of several pieces of legislation that have passed one or both chambers of the state legislature to much pushback from lobbying and advocacy groups this session. And on Monday, the legislature signaled its intent to keep up the pace of divisive legislation with the state senate’s passage of House Bill (HB) 1570.
HB1570, or the “Save Adolescents from Experimentation Act (SAFE),” aims to bar health care professionals from providing gender transition medical procedures and surgeries to Arkansas transgender children under the age of 18. Procedures and surgeries outlawed for minors in HB1570 include gender reassignment surgery and the use of cross-sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Additionally, the bill also bars the use of state funds for gender transition health care for minors and allows insurance companies to deny coverage for gender transition procedures and surgeries for transgender Arkansans of any age.
Advocates for HB1570, including bill cosponsor State Sen. Alan Clark, say the bill protects children.
“[HB1570] protects children from making mistakes that they will have a very difficult time coming back from,” Clark said, referencing gender transition surgeries and procedures as “mistakes” on the floor of the state senate on Monday.
Critics of HB1570 in the state senate pushed back on the bill on multiple fronts. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield questioned Clark on the ethics of taking the decision-making process away from Arkansas parents, while State Sen. Greg Leding pleaded with the legislature to take more time to consider the bill’s impact on transgender youth around the state. State Sen. Clarke Tucker, as he has with other controversial legislation this session, cited his belief that HB1570 would be struck down in any potential court battle following the bill’s passage.
“We have to be aware of the message that is sent when we pass a piece of legislation like this,” Tucker said. “Whatever [HB1570’s] intent, elsewhere in the country it is portrayed as a message of discrimination.”
State Sen. Jason Rapert spoke in favor of HB1570 and described it as “common sense.”
“We ought to vote for [HB1570] and show [people] that somebody still knows common sense,” Rapert said.
In the ensuing vote which followed Monday’s debate, the state senate passed HB1570 by a 28-7 vote along mostly party lines. State Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent, voted against the bill with the senate’s other democrats, while State Sen. Larry Teague, a democrat, voted with the chamber’s republicans in favor.
As the bill heads to Gov. Asa Hutchinson for his signature, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson released a statement criticizing HB1570’s passage.
“Medical decisions belong to trans youth, their parents, and their doctor – not the government,” Dickson said. “This bill flies in the face of common decency, basic human rights, and the advice of every major medical association – not to mention federal law. What could possibly be more cruel than trying to take away a child’s access to the care that could save their life?”
The governor has yet to offer a suggestion of his willingness to sign HB1570, but he previously signed SB354, a bill which limits transgender women from competing alongside other women in school sports.
LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday vetoed legislation that would have made his state the first to ban gender confirming treatments or surgery for transgender youth.
The Republican governor rejected legislation that would have prohibited doctors from providing gender confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment.
The Republican Legislature could still enact the measure, since it only takes a simple majority to override a governor’s veto in Arkansas.
Hutchinson’s veto follow pleas from pediatricians, social workers and the parents of transgender youth who said the measure would harm a community already at risk for depression and suicide.
It was the latest measure targeting transgender people that easily advanced in the Arkansas Legislature and other states this year. Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee’s governors have signed laws banning transgender girls and women from competing on school sports teams consistent with the gender identity.
Hutchinson recently signed a measure allowing doctors to refuse to treat someone because of moral or religious objections, a law that opponents have said could be used to turn away LGBTQ patients.
A March 27 ATV collision claimed two on a Van Buren County road, per a Van Buren County Sheriff’s Deputy report.
Deceased are Sarah Elizabeth Shaw, of Lamar, Arkansas, and Timothy Luke Stalnaker, of Conway, Arkansas. Ages were not given in the report. A report from a GoFundMe fund-raiser site was that Shaw died at the scene, and Stalnaker died “a few hours later.”
Per the report, Shaw was a passenger on an ATV driven by Stalnaker on Brock Lane in Scotland when it hit the back of a second ATV which had stopped on the road. The rider of the ATV that was hit was knocked off the machine, but got back on it to ride up a nearby hill in order to gain cell phone service and call for help, the report stated.
The reporting deputy was not able to speak with Stalnaker due to his injuries. He was taken to St. Vincent Hospital in Morrilton.
The reporting deputy arranged with a Johnson County deputy to inform Shaw’s parents. The deputy also spoke with Stalnaker’s brother by phone, telling him where his brother had been taken for treatment.
An online obituary for Stalnaker states Shaw was “the love of his life.” A joint funeral was held for the pair April 1, per the obituary. A GoFundMe page has been created for Shaw https://gofund.me/331f6dd4