Utah State University Assistant Professor of Sociology Tom Mueller, was involved with a Yale University-led study on the impact of COVID-19 on rural communities, particularly in the West.
“I was invited onto this project by the lead investigator, Justin Farrell, due to my expertise on issues of rural economic development, natural resources and quantitative survey methods,” Mueller said. “The goals of this survey were quite broad. We wanted to not only document the social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural Westerners, but also document the way rural Westerners feel about various forms of relief, their community and the government response to the pandemic.”
A total of 1,009 residents from a sample of 278 rural counties in the western United States between the ages of 18 and 92 were surveyed from June 25 to July 22. The final weighted sample included 50 percent male and 48 percent female. Among the key findings were:
- Nearly 30 percent of residents in the rural West have had direct experience with COVID-19, either personally or through family, friends or acquaintances.
- In 2016, President Donald Trump won 75 percent of counties in the rural West. Approval for his handling of the pandemic was split, with 43 percent of respondents approving and 44 percent disapproving.
- There was strong bipartisan support for government relief spending on healthcare, housing, infrastructure, small business and direct payments to individuals. The only exceptions to this broad support for spending were for oil and gas companies and large businesses, for which rural Westerners wanted a cut in spending.
- One in five people who were employed full-time last year became unemployed by the time of our survey.
- While unemployment spiked for all people in the rural West, it was women and Latino/a residents who saw the largest increases in unemployment.
- Use of unemployment insurance was very uneven, with Latino/a residents receiving fewer benefits despite high unemployment levels.
- Among those who were uninsured before the pandemic, 27 percent gained health insurance coverage by the time of our survey.
- Of households that have children younger than 16 years old, 18 percent did not have access to high-speed internet in their homes.
- Despite high levels of individual and community impact, respondents were positive about the future: over 45 percent believe that their county’s economy will be healthy at this time next year.
Farrell, of the Yale School of the Environment (YSE), led the team of researchers, which also included scholars from New York University.
“We hoped to gain a better understanding of the impacts of this pandemic on rural populations in the West,” Mueller said. “So much of what we know is biased toward urban populations or the eastern parts of the country. We believe we were successful in generating valuable insights into how this pandemic is affecting Americans living in the rural West. The pandemic is not just an urban issue and has hit the rural West hard. Many rural Westerners have either gotten sick themselves, had a family member get sick, or had a friend or acquaintance come down with COVID-19.
“Further,” Mueller added, “there have been massive impacts to employment, with one-fifth of those who were employed full-time in 2019 not being employed full-time when we administered our survey. In response to this, we find that there is broad bipartisan support for increased federal spending on relief, both direct to individuals and indirect to things like small business, health care, and infrastructure. The only form of government relief rural Westerners want the government to spend less on was relief to large businesses or oil and gas companies.”
The study was funded by the National Science Foundation. Read the full report at https://www.covidruralwest.org/.
Mueller started his position at Utah State on Aug. 1. The native of Kansas City, Kansas, did his undergraduate work at the University of Montana, and his master’s and doctorate in rural sociology at Penn State.