What Seems Like the New “Normal” Family Life is Out of Reach for Many Rural Americans

April 9, 2020 | Blog

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.[1] 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.

  • Hospitals are located nearly twice the distance from rural residents, compared to people in urban and suburban areas. Some rural residents have to drive more than a half hour, according to the Pew Research Center. The Government Accountability Office found that rural hospitals are closing at an accelerated rate because of financial distress.  What happens if you start to feel sick, but there is not a doctor within 30 miles of where you live? Do you wait to get treated, thus risking others in your family or community, or making your own condition worse?
  • Rural communities have struggled to keep qualified water operators and are facing a potential shortage. What happens to a rural community with a single operator for the town’s water system management who falls ill? Who will be there to maintain the health and safety of the community’s water?
  • Rural residents are more likely to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The average rural drive to a food store was 3.11 miles in 2015. In many rural areas, there is no public transportation, making it harder to reach important resources. Rural grocery stores have continually been closing while dollar stores have proliferated, which many believe had decreased rural access to healthy foods.[2] What happens when the already limited rural shelves are not stocked, or what is available is not fresh or healthy? What if elderly or disabled rural residents don’t have the means to get to a store?
  • This pandemic is making the digital divide clear, for students, employees and employers. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 63 percent of rural Americans reported having internet access. More than 75 percent of rural Americans fail to meet the FCC’s minimum threshold for service, meaning their internet access does not meet minimum requirements to define accessibility. What happens when you must practice social distancing, forcing most employers to provide telework opportunities, but an employee does not have internet access or a computer? What happens to students that cannot access the internet to continue their learning while schools are closed, and what does that mean for their long-term development? What if no employees of a small business have internet access at home? What impact does that have on each of those families? On that community? On that business?
  • Over the past 20 years, more than half of the nation’s banks have closed, including a 28% decline in the past decade alone[3]. The Federal Reserve found that bank closures between 2012 and 2017 have significantly affected rural communities, especially those with low incomes, people of color, and lower education rates. The shift to online banking is occurring more slowly in rural communities, and consumers and small business owners can’t access all of the same services online that they did in-person. What happens if you receive a $1,200 check from the government in response to this crisis, but there is not a bank in your town, and you don’t have a means for online deposits? Do you turn to a payday lender to cash that check and bear the fees associated with that service? How do small businesses and entrepreneurs keep their businesses afloat if they do not have online banking setup and cannot access the services they need readily?

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.

[1] https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/95341/eib-212.pdf?v=5832

[2] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2019/10/02/as-rural-groceries-fade-away-lawmakers-wonder-whether-to-act

[3] https://www.mercatus.org/bridge/commentary/historical-rise-and-recent-decline-number-banks