The COVID-19 Pandemic and Rural America

Recent county-level evidence on the prevalence of COVID-19 and local unemployment rates, while no means a complete picture, provides indication of the spread of the virus and ensuing economic recession across America (see the note on data sources). This page will be updated monthly.

Spread of the Pandemic to Rural America

COVID-19 has spread to nearly every nation in the world and to every State and nearly every county in the United States. The virus initially spread most rapidly to large metro areas, and most confirmed cases are still in metro areas with populations of at least 1 million. This is consistent with most of the U.S. population living in large metro areas; however, even in per capita terms, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases has been greater in metro than in nonmetro areas since the initial appearance of the pandemic in the United States.

Although the prevalence of COVID-19 cases remains lower in nonmetro areas, since late March, the rate of spread has been faster in nonmetro areas than in metro areas. The share of confirmed COVID-19 cases in nonmetro areas grew from 3.0 percent on March 19 to 10.1 percent on August 7.

By August 7, the regions with the highest prevalence of COVID-19 cases included much of the eastern coastal region, most of the South, and large parts of the Great Lakes region, the Midwest, Texas, and the West. Less affected areas generally included many rural areas of the Northeast, Appalachia, the Great Plains, the Mountain West, Hawaii, and Alaska—though many exceptions are evident in these regions.

Higher COVID-19 case rates have been observed in some subpopulations, such as people confined to prisons and nursing homes, and in some minority populations, including African Americans, Hispanics, and some American Indian populations, such as members of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest.

Higher COVID-19 prevalence is also associated with some industries. The Economic Research Service (ERS) classifies counties by economic type, based primarily on the dependence of employment and income on specific types of industries. Among nonmetro counties, the highest COVID-19 case rates are found in manufacturing-dependent counties. This high prevalence is due partly to high COVID-19 case rates in meatpacking-dependent counties (those in which 20 percent or more of employment is in the meatpacking industry), almost all of which are manufacturing-dependent counties. Excluding meatpacking-dependent counties, COVID-19 case rates in nonmetro areas are highest in Federal and State government-dependent counties and second highest in manufacturing-dependent counties. The nonmetro counties with the lowest COVID-19 case rates include recreation counties and mining-dependent counties.

Among metro counties, COVID-19 case rates are highest among mining-dependent counties, nonspecialized counties (those with a diverse economic base), and recreation counties. Case rates are lowest in farming-dependent metro counties.

Unemployment During the Pandemic

Since the beginning of the pandemic, U.S. unemployment has surged to levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Present levels are a result of government restrictions on non-essential economic activity, social distancing requirements, temporary closures of some facilities due to infection concerns, effects of illness on availability of some essential workers, and voluntary decisions by consumers to limit travel and other activities.

In March, the unemployment rate began to rise. Monthly unemployment estimates reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) refer to the week that includes the 12th day of each calendar month. By the week including April 12, U.S. unemployment peaked at a seasonally adjusted rate of 14.7 percent. By the week of July 12, the national unemployment rate had fallen to 10.2 percent. This occurred as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, other new Federal laws, and the Federal Reserve made trillions of dollars in funds available as part of efforts to address the impending recession; several States relaxed restrictions put in place to control the pandemic; and consumers began to increase spending.

Based on BLS estimates of county-level employment and unemployment, the unemployment rate rose rapidly in both metro and nonmetro areas in March and April. The (not seasonally adjusted) rate reached almost 14.6 percent in metro areas and exceeded 13.6 percent in nonmetro areas by the week of April 12. By the week of May 12, the unemployment rate had fallen to 13.3 percent in metro areas and 11.0 percent in nonmetro areas. According to preliminary BLS estimates for June, the unemployment rate continued falling to 11.6 percent in metro areas and 8.8 percent in nonmetro areas by the week of June 12.

Note: These rates are not seasonally adjusted because the BLS county-level estimates of employment and unemployment are not seasonally adjusted.

Estimated unemployment rates in May varied substantially across counties in the United States, ranging from a low of 1.3 percent to a high of 34.0 percent. Generally, the highest unemployment rates were evident in the Great Lakes region, Appalachia, the Northeast, and large parts of the South, Midwest, southern Great Plains, and West (including Hawaii and parts of Alaska). The lowest unemployment rates were evident in the central and northern Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West, though high unemployment rates occurred in many counties in these regions as well.

The unemployment rate in May varied more across county economic types than between metro and nonmetro counties within these types, though the unemployment rate was higher in metro than in nonmetro counties for all county economic types.

The highest unemployment rates occurred in recreation counties, and the lowest unemployment rates occurred in farming-dependent counties, both in nonmetro and metro areas. Even in the county economic type that has been least affected by unemployment so far during the pandemic (farming-dependent counties), unemployment rates in May were much higher than levels reported in February.

The highest unemployment rates being in recreation counties is consistent with the fact that, nationally, employment in the leisure and hospitality sector declined 42 percent between February and April. This is the largest percentage decline in employment in any major sector during this period. By contrast, employment in agriculture declined only 1.2 percent during the same period, helping to explain the lower unemployment rate in farming-dependent counties.

In general, the differences between metro and nonmetro areas in the prevalence of COVID-19 cases are larger on average than the differences between these areas in unemployment rates. It appears that the impacts of the pandemic on unemployment rates are more closely tied to the dominant economic sectors in local economies than are the impacts of the pandemic on COVID-19 prevalence. Nevertheless, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in nonmetro areas is associated with some economic activities, particularly manufacturing activities.

Note on Data Sources

The county-level data on COVID-19 cases are from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (JHU-CSSE). The number of cases in each county are divided by the 2019 population of the county to compute case rates, using the 2019 U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census population estimates. The JHU-CSSE case data are based on case reports provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and by State and local health departments. 

The county-level data on unemployment rates are from the BLS Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program. These data are model-based estimates based mainly on the monthly Current Population Survey employment and unemployment estimates and unemployment insurance claims data from State workforce agencies. The county estimates are controlled to sum to State-level estimates, which are controlled to sum to national estimates.

The LAUS estimates are considered preliminary in the first month after release, as additional information is incorporated into subsequent estimates. Significant changes in estimated county-level unemployment rates can occur between the initial preliminary estimate and subsequent revised estimates. For example, the maximum change in the unemployment rate for a single county between the preliminary estimate for March 2020 provided in the LAUS data released on April 29, 2020, and the revised estimate for March 2020 provided in the LAUS data released on June 5, 2020, is 1.94 percentage points. Across all counties, the mean difference in the March 2020 unemployment rate between the preliminary and revised estimate was -0.06 percentage points (i.e., the mean rate was 0.06 percentage points lower in the revised LAUS estimates), and the median difference was -0.08 percentage points.

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Last updated: Friday, August 28, 2020

For more information, contact: John Pender