With a Focus on Equity, Geography No Longer Has To Be Destiny

A father and son pick raspberries at an orchard in Michigan, July 2008.

Regardless of where people in the United States live—rural, urban, or somewhere in between—the COVID-19 pandemic has affected their lives and livelihoods. Certain groups are suffering disproportionately, including people of color, workers with low incomes, front-line workers, and people living in places that were already struggling financially before the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic. Many rural, tribal, and parts of metropolitan areas fall into the “already struggling” category—places that were dealing with health, economic, and social inequities long before the coronavirus arrived.

Likewise, the police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans, one of the flashpoints sparking the most recent calls for racial justice, has affected the entire country. And while the focus of the protests has been on major urban centers, the media began compiling cases where predominantly white, small-town America—in Ohio, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Maine, and beyond—marched in support of the movement for Black lives. In these moments, people tend to forget that rural America encompasses the lands and peoples of more than 560 sovereign Indigenous nations; Black and Latino hubs in the Deep South and Southwest; and refugee communities across the Midwest.

With the pandemic calling for racial justice, the challenges of rural communities may seem at first glance unrelated; looking just a bit closer, however, it becomes clear that this issue and these regions are intimately connected. Advancing health and racial equity in America requires a broad set of stakeholders, such as researchers, lawmakers, and on-the-ground advocates, to make significant investment in rural areas in order to move policy and build power. To that end, policymakers must build a more comprehensive equity analysis that accounts for economic, racial, health, as well as geographic inequities. 

When considering the question of how to drive action on this new approach, policymakers at all levels must factor in the following key insights and understandings:

  • When advocates and lawmakers prioritize policies that are good for rural communities and for people of color, the nation as a whole benefits. The pandemic has revealed glaring structural failures in U.S. public policies. Those who are hurting the most today have also suffered the most historically—from income inequality, discrimination, lack of health insurance, lack of access to paid leave and child care, significant job loss, and so much more. U.S. policymakers need to invest in health and social infrastructures, including safe housing, income support, food security, paid sick leave, Medicaid expansion, and comprehensive health insurance coverage, to name some of the most pressing concerns. Equity-driven principles and policies will benefit not only rural, tribal, and other places in were already struggling, but communities across the board.
  • When breaking down the data, it is possible to see where deep inequities intersect in rural and tribal communities. While the Electoral College map has drawn much attention over the past few months, other maps provide a truer portrait of the peoples, cultures, and opinions in this nation. These maps lean on data that are disaggregated—showing differences across geography and across race and ethnicity. The Index of Deep Disadvantage, for example, maps income, health, and social mobility variables across U.S. cities and counties, while the mapping done by the American Communities Project in its “New Portrait of Rural America” report captures the diversity of rural community types. By disaggregating findings by race and place, a recent national poll on the impact of COVID-19 on households revealed that the vast majority—85 percent—of Black or Latino households in rural areas are grappling with serious financial challenges due to the coronavirus, depleting savings and struggling to pay for food and housing. If equity leaders and researchers look only at state trends and fail to understand patterns at the local level and across racial and ethnic groups, they will miss the mark every time.
  • When advocates, researchers, and policymakers bridge gaps across silos, communities and regions advance together. It’s time to rethink how to approach health, economic development, community-based organizing, and so many other fields important to advancing equity. Among many rural advocates, there is keen interest in building strong and lasting multi-issue, multiracial alliances—understanding and appreciating the unique mechanics of rural organizing on the ground owing to economic inequities and lack of infrastructure. Thrive Rural is one such effort that bridges health with community and economic development to focus on racial, economic, and geographic inequity in rural America. These coalitions are needed for all peoples in all places— to build equity and reinforce the notion that “geography is not destiny,” as Brian Dabson asserts in the report “Thriving Together: A Springboard for Equitable Recovery and Resilience in Communities Across America.” Once united in strategy, equity advocates for communities of all sizes, researchers, policymakers, and funders create a force multiplier.

As the nation prepares to mount a slate of policy demands to address the pandemic, racial justice, and economic recovery, it is crucial that rural—and geographic—equity is a key part of the vision. Why not revise the approach and be more inclusive? Why not strive for crosscutting policies that address the nation’s deepest inequities? If advocates and researchers indeed leverage disaggregated data to shape policies and align and grow community power in rural places, fewer communities are left behind. It bears repeating: What’s good for rural communities and for communities of color is good for the nation as a whole.

Olugbenga Ajilore is a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. Katrina Badger is a program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.