COVID and Rural America

We think first of hard-hit cities, but rural areas are getting smacked, too, and need a different kind of help.

By Olugbenga Ajilore

Tagged coronavirusEconomicsInequalityRacismRural Americaworkers

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the United States with both a public health crisis and an economic one. It has also revealed cracks in the existing economic structure that made the crisis worse than it should have been. In the aftermath, any recovery must create a new framework that removes existing systemic barriers that have left so many behind. While more attention has focused on urban hotspots, this is also true in rural America, which has been hit hard.

To understand how rural America has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to grasp that rural America is not a monolith. Communities are diverse both in terms of race and ethnicity, and in economic profile. People have a tendency to equate rural America with the agriculture industry even though only one in five rural counties is dependent on it. Mining and mineral extraction is dominant in other parts of the Appalachian region and in the West. Yet the largest employer in rural communities is actually in the service sector. Specifically, employment in rural areas is dominated by the education, health, and social assistance industries. This shift to the service sector has been driven by several factors that have led to a proliferation of low-wage workers. Many smaller metros and rural towns experienced negative employment growth in the aftermath of the Great Recession and have seen a proliferation of dollar stores and similar chains catering to their low-income residents.

Another important thing to note is that rural America is not all white, either, though the media have led us to believe that to be the case. Every four years, the media horde descends on farms in Iowa and diners in New Hampshire to interview white people on the issues that matter to them. This happens due to a quirk in the electoral schedule that shines the brightest light on those places deemed the “heartland.” This spotlight provides a very narrow view of the wide swath of individuals who comprise an actually very diverse rural population. This means that we ignore the fact that one in ten African Americans lives in a rural community, or that the majority of Native Americans live in rural areas throughout the West. This also ignores the important fact that a lot of the reversals in population decline in rural areas are due to the influx of immigrants from Central and South America countries.

African Americans are most well represented in the South. Native Americans, through decades of racist mobility policy, were forcibly removed from their homes and are sequestered to reservations primarily in the Great Plains, but also live in many other regions in the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast. Finally, there is also a notable Latinx population, mostly concentrated in the Southwest region but elsewhere, too, wherever there are apples or cherries or peaches to pick—or, as we’ve learned in a more tragic context, meat to slaughter. These communities were ravaged by the coronavirus, highlighting the lack of basic public infrastructure and sufficient health-care institutions that would have helped mitigate the spread. As in the rest of the country, the decades-long exertion of market power and corporate consolidation has been instrumental in exacerbating the pandemic’s impact on rural America.

Take the meatpacking sector as an example. Major COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at meatpacking plants in rural communities. Many of these plants used to be in major metropolitan cities like Chicago, but they were moved in search of lower labor costs, non-union workers, and local tax inducements. Being the only major employer in a town makes it easier to skirt OSHA rules, suppress wages, and exploit workers, which is made especially easy given that many of these workers are immigrants. The industry’s monopoly concentration has been associated with lower earnings among livestock producers, who now face markets with fewer buyers than ever before. Corporate consolidation has also played a role in the health-care industry as a spate of mergers among health-care firms led to rising hospital closures, particularly in rural communities. Ninety percent of hospital closures since 2010 have been in rural counties. These rural hospital closures made it more difficult for residents to seek care, particularly impeding access to critical care.

The lack of broadband in rural communities has put all the residents at a severe disadvantage as everything that wasn’t already online has gone that way, from education to employment. As the pandemic led to stay-at-home orders, rural areas had to come up with clever solutions like the creation of mobile hotspots to expand Internet access. In one Utah community, where more than 50 percent of the population is considered economically disadvantaged, schoolchildren with Chromebooks literally had to board Wi-Fi enabled school buses stationed near a mobile home park to complete their work. However, this is an inequitable solution that exacerbates outcome gaps between urban and rural areas. Kids with limited or no broadband access are virtually certain to fall behind their more privileged peers.

What’s Next

In the aftermath of this pandemic, what can we do to support rural America as it recovers? First, the most immediate action that will benefit rural communities, especially in the South and Midwest, is the expansion of Medicaid that was a critical part of the Affordable Care Act. The uninsured rate is 15.5 percent in rural areas, in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid, while in rural states that have done so, it is under 10 percent. Individuals without coverage are less likely to seek medical care for minor issues, which often flare up into major medical emergencies. Second, Medicaid expansion also lowers the levels of uncompensated care for hospitals. This is a crucial issue for rural hospitals that struggle with financial viability. Finally, it is essential that we make it easier for immigrant health professionals to remain in this country so they can continue to practice in rural communities. Restrictions on visas, inefficient work authorizations processes, and residency requirements are making it difficult for physicians to remain in these places.

Second, we must strengthen worker power in these areas, where so many workers don’t enjoy essential benefits like health care, paid sick leave, and paid leave more generally. This has put many workers in a bind, as they cannot take leave from work even if they feel they are at risk of contracting the virus. Nor can they take off time to care for a family member. We need permanent, comprehensive, and paid family and medical leave and paid sick leave that covers all workers—regardless of the size of their workplace or the type of work they do—so they don’t have to make the choice between work and health, or work and caregiving responsibilities. This also brings to light the importance of strengthening worker power by making it easier for workers to collectively bargain. This can be done by banning right-to-work laws. The establishment of wage boards can also strengthen worker power by giving labor a seat at the table in making decisions about earnings and benefits within the industry. These may be moon shots politically, but there are already states and localities putting these policies into action, including California and New Jersey. The federal government can follow their leads.

Third, something must done about monopoly power. There has been a wave of corporate consolidation in the agricultural markets, like the cattle and hog markets, that have made it difficult for small farmers and ranchers to get a fair return on their labor. Moreover, items such as seeds are rising in price, in tandem with market concentration. Antitrust policy needs to be reinvigorated to address this, as this market concentration has facilitated rent extraction. This would mean stricter scrutiny of proposed mergers and acquisitions in the food sector.

And fourth, discrimination must be addressed head on. Rural communities bear the mark of structural discrimination as clearly as any city, particularly in Southern rural areas with high African American populations. Through forced displacement and massive disinvestment, Native communities have likewise suffered and have struggled to get ahead. Latinx people have been exploited in the meatpacking and agricultural industries. The structural barriers crafted decades ago, either never removed by law or removed but perpetually unenforced, continue to harm rural America and contribute to its lack of economic growth.

There are several regional commissions that use federal money to combat economic distress through the funding of various local development projects. However, this funding is not always allocated in a way that supports communities of color. For example, the Delta Regional Authority, which covers 252 counties in eight Southern states, was given $30 million for economic development, while the Denali Regional Commission, which covers only the state of Alaska, was allocated $15 million. Likewise, the Department of Agriculture presided over the precipitous decline of African American farmers from 14.2 percent of all farmers in 1910 to only 1.5 percent in 2017.  Even now, African American farmers struggle to receive the COVID aid that has been promised to all farmers. To tackle structural racism, we must be intentional in our policies to dismantle these barriers and provide significant resources to communities of color in rural America.

What Does the Future Hold?

This moment requires a renewed commitment to investing in our rural communities to ensure that they have a place in America’s future. We need to rethink our current rural development policy and create a new framework that can revitalize rural communities and help them transition into the twenty-first century. To revitalize rural America, policymakers need to move away from a top-down approach to a bottom-up model that takes advantage of local assets to revitalize rural communities. These local assets are its people, including its immigrant populations, who flourish in small towns; the natural resources that attract retirees and tourists alike; the innovation and adaptation of enterprising farmers and small business owners; and the social capital of communities that have created strong bonds between residents. An example of the adoption of this kind of approach is the work being done by the non-profit Center on Rural Innovation (CORI). CORI has supported the development of high-speed Internet in communities like Emporia, Kansas, Independence, Oregon, and Traverse City, Michigan to facilitate remote work, close homework gaps for children, and allow small businesses to compete in a global market. This model of leveraging local assets to provide services should be adopted by the federal government as a means of promoting rural development. To make sure that rural America can thrive in a post-COVID world, we need to build resilient communities by tackling systemic inequality, supporting local development organizations through capacity-building and technical assistance, and most importantly, investing in the people and institutions that are vital to America’s competitiveness.

Read more about coronavirusEconomicsInequalityRacismRural Americaworkers

Olugbenga Ajilore is a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

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