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 recession across America (see the note on data sources). This page will be updated as information becomes available.

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 large 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 8.7 percent on June 30.

By June 30, 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, and the West. Less affected areas generally included more 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 and members of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. Some tourist areas also have had high COVID-19 prevalence, including ski resort areas in Colorado, Utah, and Idaho.

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. However, even excluding meatpacking-dependent counties, COVID-19 case rates are highest in manufacturing-dependent counties. The nonmetro counties with the lowest COVID-19 case rates include mining-dependent counties and recreation counties.

Among metro counties, COVID-19 case rates are highest among those ERS classifies as nonspecialized economic type (those with a diverse economic base), which includes many of the country’s largest urban centers, such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Case rates are also relatively high in metro recreation counties and in Federal and State Government-dependent counties, while 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, stimulated by 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 restrict 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 reached a seasonally adjusted rate of 14.7 percent. By the week of May 12, the national unemployment rate had fallen to 13.3 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 began to relax 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 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, according to preliminary county-level estimates, the unemployment rate had fallen to 13.3 percent in metro areas and 11.0 percent in nonmetro areas.

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 April varied substantially across counties in the United States, ranging from a low of 1.2 percent to a high of 41.0 percent. Generally, the highest unemployment rates were evident in the Great Lakes region, Appalachia, the Northeast, and large parts of the South, Midwest, and West (including Hawaii and parts of Alaska). The lowest unemployment rates were evident in the Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West, though high unemployment rates occurred in many counties in these regions as well.

High unemployment is evident in some regions where there are high COVID-19 case rates, such as parts of the Great Lakes region, the Northeast, and the South. There are also many regions with high unemployment but low COVID-19 case rates—including much of Appalachian West Virginia and Kentucky, northern Minnesota and Michigan, Alaska and Hawaii. Much of the Great Plains and significant parts of the Mountain West have both low unemployment and low COVID-19 case rates.

The unemployment rate in April varied more across county economic type than between metro and nonmetro counties within these types, though the unemployment rate was higher in metro than in nonmetro counties for almost all county economic types. The exception is for Federal and State Government-dependent counties, in which the unemployment rate was slightly higher in nonmetro counties.

The highest unemployment rates occurred in recreation counties, followed by manufacturing-dependent counties and nonspecialized counties. 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 increased substantially from levels reported in February.

The highest unemployment rates occurring 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 much 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 appears to be 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, July 31, 2020

For more information, contact: John Pender