From October through Thanksgiving, many rural Americans died of “Covid-19”, nearly twice the rate of their urban peers. Although this dismal difference has narrowed somewhat since then, it is clear that an epidemic previously associated with dense cities will inflict some of the most serious damage to the countryside. A recent US Department of Agriculture report adds to a growing body of research showing that rural areas will be burdened by the virus – economic, medical and social impacts – for many years to come.
Yet, despite all of their vulnerabilities, some of these regions were already thriving before the pandemic. The crisis may open new opportunities to address some of the problems that have long been neglected.
Before the emerging corona virus hit, some rural areas had come up with a promising new formula to revitalize themselves. In particular, provinces in other than large cities, where the tourism industry was dominant, had the fastest rates of personal income growth between 2010 and 2017. This was no accident: over the past decade and a half, small cities have invested $ 20 billion in city centers, helping to create nearly 28,000 new companies. This type of growth typically includes public-private investment in assets, such as classic Main Street buildings.
Rock Springs, Wyoming, is a good example, as in 2005 it was a damaged mining town that wasn’t getting enough attention. But that year, the city formed an urban renewal agency that has since worked with local officials and companies to renovate old buildings in the city center, provide grants to attract new companies (through rental assistance and other concessions), and draw development plans. The results are strong: Rock Springs is now a tourism hub that attracted more than $ 2.3 million in private investment between 2015 and 2019. For a city of less than 25,000 inhabitants, this was a great boon that an entire region benefited from.
Places as diverse as Emporia and Laramie in Wyoming have achieved similar successes in recent years, with bars, restaurants, boutiques and tourist attractions dotting the newly bustling main streets. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has stopped much of this activity. According to the USDA, counties in non-large cities, in which industries are based on entertainment, now have an unemployment rate of 7%, compared to about 5% in counties with agricultural-based industries. Even this disparity is likely to reduce the damage, as unstable jobs – such as tour guides who work part-time – lose their clients significantly.
That’s bad enough, but there are concerns that the slowdown could be particularly harmful in these areas. For one thing, the long-standing shortage of mental health services in rural America means that the expected rise in anxiety, depression and other conditions related to unemployment may go largely unaddressed. The risk is that the newly unemployed become unemployed in the long run.
Fortunately, this is not the only possible outcome. Kelly Ashe, a researcher at the Center for Rural Policy and Development in New London (Minnesota), points out that areas other than large cities, many of which have been lacking in population for decades, are becoming more attractive. For urban residents looking for open spaces during the pandemic, especially those who no longer need to come to their offices in large cities.
Attracting long-term urban resettlements will not help preserve progress in creating vibrant rural business districts. It could also renew pressure on Washington to address problems – such as a lack of quality health care – that plagued rural areas in America long before the outbreak.
The Biden administration can help catalyze this transition by supporting additional financing for rural town centers through the US Economic Development Administration. Local redevelopment agencies can provide assistance to small businesses seeking grants and technical assistance, such as helping to meet new health requirements related to the Coronavirus. Congress should also consider creating an institution to finance rural development that can search for innovative long-term strategies for revitalization.
These efforts can help reduce the immediate damage the Coronavirus has wrought in these areas and help restore prosperity and pride to those communities.
* An American writer
To be published in a special arrangement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.