Rural Economy

(Selected research findings from FY21)

The introduction and supply of new opioid drugs, whether through prescription painkillers in the 2000s or illicit opioids such as fentanyl in the 2010s, have been major drivers of the opioid epidemic

The United States is experiencing a drug overdose mortality epidemic marked by the introduction and spread of opioids across rural and urban areas. The epidemic’s effect on adults of prime working age (ages 25-54) has been substantial, with the mortality from drug overdoses more than tripling between 1999 and 2018—from 11.3 to 36.5 deaths per 100,000 people. Research on the geography of the opioid epidemic has focused on the association between declining local economic opportunities and increases in drug overdose mortality since 2000, but the link has not always been strong. This study identifies two phases comprising the epidemic and examines their differing demographic and geographic natures.

Grocery stores outnumber other food retailers, but numbers declined between 1990-2015

ERS researchers examine the landscape of food retailers across the contiguous United States, with a focus on rural America and grocery stores. Changes in food retailers raised concerns about food access have led Federal policymakers to introduce several pieces of legislation to improve access to healthy foods, such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. The report finds that in rural and urban nonmetro counties, grocery stores outnumbered other forms of food retailers, but that grocery stores declined from 1990 to 2015 while dollar stores and supercenters increased steadily. Researchers found that although single location grocery stores outnumbered chains in 2015, they decreased throughout this period, resulting in single location grocery stores as a share of food retailers decreasing from 87 to 82 percent.

Rural U.S. counties were associated with high COVID-19 case and mortality rates

ERS provides up-to-date information on rural economic and demographic trends in an annual series, Rural America at a Glance. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 edition of the report noted conditions resulting from the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession. The report noted that rural areas have 14 percent of the population but accounted for 21 percent of COVID-19 deaths during the last 3 weeks of October 2020. Factors likely contributing to this higher rural share include an older population, more underlying health issues, living farther away from hospitals, and being less likely to have health insurance.

Proximity to others in the meatpacking industry is likely the main factor that influenced the spread of COVID-19

This COVID-19 working paper explores how working conditions in meatpacking plants might have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. ERS researchers performed a county-level analysis on COVID-19 spread, comparing rural counties that are dependent on the meatpacking industry (20 percent or more of the population employed in this industry) to nonmetropolitan counties that are dependent on another single manufacturing industry. The study covered mid-March to mid-September 2020. In mid-April 2020, COVID-19 cases in meatpacking-dependent rural counties rose to nearly 10 times the number in comparison to rural counties dependent on other single manufacturing industries. This difference disappeared completely by mid-July 2020, driven by a reduction in COVID-19 cases in the meatpacking industry rather than an increase in other industries. Analysis of data on occupational conditions in different industries suggests that proximity of workers in meatpacking plants is likely the main factor that contributed to the rapid spread in COVID-19 early in the pandemic. Data from other studies suggest that mitigation efforts by the industry contributed to the subsequent decline in cases in meatpacking-dependent counties.