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. In per capita terms, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases has been greater in metro than in nonmetro areas until recently. The prevalence of COVID-19 cases is now slightly greater and growing more rapidly in nonmetro areas than in metro areas. The share of all COVID-19 cases in nonmetro areas has been growing since late March, increasing from 3.6 percent on April 1 to 14.2 percent on November 2.

By November 2, 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 Midwest, the Great Plains, and the West. Recent growth in COVID-19 prevalence has been especially rapid in the northern Great Plains and parts of the Upper Midwest and the Mountain West. Less affected areas generally include many areas of the Northeast, Appalachia, the West, and Hawaii—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, students at some colleges and universities, 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 farming-dependent and manufacturing-dependent counties. The high prevalence of COVID-19 in manufacturing-dependent counties is due partly to higher 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. Nonmetro recreation counties have the lowest COVID-19 case rates.

Among metro counties, COVID-19 case rates are highest among mining-dependent counties and lowest in farming-dependent counties.

Unemployment During the Pandemic

After the beginning of the pandemic, U.S. unemployment surged to levels not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s. 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. This surge resulted from 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.

The unemployment rate began to decline after April 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 recession; several States relaxed restrictions put in place to control the pandemic; and consumers began to increase spending. By the week of October 12, the national unemployment rate had fallen to 6.9 percent.

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 about 13.6 percent in nonmetro areas by the week of April 12. After April, the unemployment rate declined in both metro and nonmetro areas. By the week of August 12, the unemployment rate had fallen to 8.8 percent in metro areas and 6.8 percent in nonmetro areas. According to preliminary BLS estimates for September, the unemployment rate continued falling to 7.9 percent in metro areas and 6.0 percent in nonmetro areas by the week of September 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 August varied substantially across counties in the United States, ranging from a low of 0.4 percent to a high of 22.0 percent. Generally, the highest unemployment rates were evident in the Northeast, Appalachia, and large parts of the Great Lakes region, the South, Midwest, Southwest, West Coast, Hawaii and Alaska. The lowest unemployment rates were evident in the Great Plains and much of the Mountain West, though high unemployment rates occurred in many counties in these regions as well.

The unemployment rate in August was higher in metro than in nonmetro counties for all county economic types. Farming-dependent counties had the lowest unemployment rate in both metro and nonmetro counties (5.0 percent in nonmetro and 5.3 percent in metro farming-dependent counties).

The highest unemployment rate occurred in metro recreation counties (9.4 percent), followed by metro nonspecialized counties (9.1 percent). Among nonmetro counties, the highest unemployment rates occurred in mining-dependent counties (7.8 percent).

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.

In general, nonmetro counties have lower unemployment rates than metro counties, while the prevalence of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents is now slightly larger and growing more rapidly in nonmetro areas. It appears that variations in unemployment rates are more closely related to the dominant economic sectors in local economies than are variations in COVID-19 prevalence. Nevertheless, the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in nonmetro areas appears to be associated with some economic activities, particularly farming and 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. Not all cases are assigned to specific counties in the JHU-CSSE data (1.7 percent of total cases were not assigned to specific counties on October 7); these cases are not included in the analysis of case rates by metro status or county economic types.

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: Monday, November 16, 2020

For more information, contact: John Pender