By Nathan Ohle, RCAP CEO
As I look to my left, I see my wife and two dogs, relaxing on our couch and settled in after another long day. Both of my kids are safely sleeping in their beds. Most nights in our family look like this, yet everything these days feels remarkably different. The past couple weeks, instead of donning a suit and driving my kids to school, I wear sweatpants and my kids get set for their school day in front of their computers. My daughter’s room is now her classroom. My son has set up shop in our basement so that he could have his own area away from the new home offices and classrooms upstairs. In so many ways, we are lucky…we have broadband access that allows all three of us to be on video chats at the same time. My job allows me to work from home and not have to worry about whether it will be maintained as business cycles change. Most importantly, we are all healthy. We often take these things for granted, but with all that is going on around us, no more.
There are hundreds of thousands of families across the country that do not have these luxuries. Families are worried about how their kids will continue learning as schools are shut down, if they may lose their jobs because they are not deemed “essential” or are in a service industry that has lost its market, that they cannot work from home because they do not have internet access, that getting sick may mean having to travel tens of miles to get to the nearest hospital or clinic. Many, if not a majority, of those families live in rural or tribal areas across the country, where poverty rates are highest. When you are living paycheck-to-paycheck, a pandemic like what we are facing with COVID-19 accentuates the gaps that already exist, making response and recovery for those communities much more difficult.
At no time has the interdependence between our health and our economy been more evident.
When we talk about all of the issues confronting families in these trying times, we cannot lose sight of just how much each of these issues impact small, rural and tribal communities. This crisis is an opportunity to confront these realities and to talk openly about them. More importantly, to address the increasing inequities caused by structural and circumstantial gaps across the United States. Over the past decades, these gaps have limited the ability of the people in these places to react and recover in a crisis.
These are all questions that rural Americans are facing each and every day, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow. These are the questions that push me to do more, and that echo throughout rural America.
As Congress weighs additional actions on how to address the
increasing health and income issues relating to the COVID-19 outbreak, it must
create policies with a holistic view toward public health and a collective view
toward our economy. Health outcomes tie into and often result from our social,
economic and physical conditions. The ripple effects from this epidemic can
have detrimental impacts on public health, especially in the most distressed
areas of the country. If decision makers leave rural communities – or any
community – behind, not only will a narrative of rural decline and decay
prevail, actual disparities may worsen. Now, more than ever, decision makers
should focus on lifting communities alongside one another, addressing the needs
of all, and once we rise from this crisis, and we will, policy leaders need to
understand how the continuing disinvestment in these communities leads to
larger disparities in times of crisis. Rural America has always been the
backbone of this country, and in times of need, has always been the fighting
spirit that has epitomized our collective strength and resilience. It is time
for leaders to recognize that importance, and to ensure the prosperity that
will follow this crisis benefits all communities.