Don't leave rural America behind in coronavirus recovery

Coronavirus is spreading fast in small-town America. As COVID-19 began to ravage densely populated metro areas, some hoped the distance inherent to rural communities would act as a shield against the same fate. Now that the pandemic has reached nearly every county and most rural places across the nation, we see how wrong that hope was. Even the New York Times has started running headlines that read, “This Is Going to Kill Small-Town America.”

The shortage of hospitals, doctors and health care workers and nearly no access to testing, has led to significant underreporting of rural cases. That may explain why some governors have hesitated on quarantines and Congress passed three emergency spending bills without a clear focus on rural programs and needs. For instance, as the stay-at-home orders started to pile up, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service programs, which serve more than half a million rural Americans, received no supplemental funding in the CARES Act. 

The maps showing coronavirus hotspots are chilling. We knew going into this pandemic that the place a person is born is a powerful predictor of how we live and die. We also knew that federal programs, policy and spending contribute heavily to which communities thrive while others wane. Suburbs do not spring naturally from the earth, complete with Amazon deliveries, organic supermarkets and broadband for home-office quarantine. Nor do rural places decline into poverty unless the infrastructure is in disrepair; the family farms, shops and markets are squeezed out; and the internet is too slow to Zoom into work.  

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Much has been written about rural America’s decline in the last decade. Rural communities were by-and-large left behind in the recovery following the Great Recession. Rural incomes stagnated, community banks closed and access to capital dried up, young people were forced to leave for proverbial greener pastures, and rural capacity and services dwindled. Some may think of poverty as an urban issue, but 86 percent of persistent poverty counties – those with poverty rates of 20 percent or higher over the past 30 years – are rural. 

My organization works to improve housing in rural places. The demand for quality affordable places to live has never been more apparent. Nor has it ever been easier to see how housing is inextricably connected to health outcomes. Rural families struggle with the same housing issues that plague the nation. Unfortunately, rural homes are also older and in need of more repair and rural incomes are lower and less stable. Public programs, philanthropy and private markets have all failed to keep up with the need. USDA rural housing programs have suffered from funding cuts and bipartisan neglect for decades; foundations grant less than 8 percent of their funds in rural places; and rural America has suffered disproportionately from private industry closures of health clinics, manufacturing facilities, newspapers and bank branches.

While the pandemic is laying bare the inequality built into the geography of America, we don’t have to live like this going forward. Among the things that could help, Congress can address the critical and immediate needs of rural residents in the next round of coronavirus stimulus funding, including the need for increased rural housing assistance and funding to preserve rural rental properties. Public and philanthropic investments can help establish local housing and community development organizations in small towns like those we see operating in other areas of the country in this time of need. Healthcare providers, banks and other industries can maintain a presence in small towns. 

Vulnerable and underserved populations are feeling the impacts of coronavirus deeply, and unless proactive and deliberate steps are taken to bolster rural communities, they are at risk of seeing a repeat of the lasting damage done by the Great Recession.

David Lipsetz is the CEO of the Housing Assistance Council. He has previously worked at both HUD and USDA, and the Housing Assistance Council is a grantee in several HUD and USDA programs.