Rural America's collective economic and physical health has suffered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with much of the pain coming recently. Even so, rural areas have fared better in some ways than their metro counterparts, a new federal government report says.

On the health front, "The rural share of COVID-19 cases and deaths increased markedly during the fall of 2020. Rural areas have 14% of the population but accounted for 27% of COVID-19 deaths during the last three weeks of October 2020," according to "Rural America at a Glance: 2020 Edition" from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, or ERS.

The report also finds that in some ways rural America, particularly farming-dependent counties, has held up relatively well economically. For example, the unemployment rate in farming-dependent nonmetro counties was 5%, substantially less than the jobless rate in metro countries dependent on government, mining, recreation or manufacturing.

But the report also points out that rural America continues to face many of the same problems that it has in the past. Rural America's population is increasing much more slowly on a percentage basis than metro America's, employment is growing much more slowly in rural America, and the poverty rate in rural America (16.1%) is considerably higher than it is in metro America (12.6%).

Typically, the annual report focuses primarily on economic and demographic trends in rural areas compared to metro areas. This year's report dealt heavily with the pandemic and its effects on rural America, though many of the numbers in the report reflect conditions before the pandemic hit its hardest.

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The report, written by John Cromartie, Elizabeth Dobis, Thomas Krumel, David McGranahan and John Pender, noted, "Comparing COVID-19 case rates across time and space is sometimes problematic because infection with the coronavirus can result in a wide range of outcomes, ranging from no symptoms to serious illness and death."

The conclusions include:

  • Limited rural health care facilities, the relatively advanced age of rural residents overall and the higher percentage of rural Americans who lack health care insurance all contributed to the year-ending surge in rural COVID-19 cases. One example: Nonmetro America rated a 15.9 "vulnerability" score in the "old adult population scale," nearly four times greater than the 4 vulnerability score in that category for metro America.

  • Unemployment in rural America had been declining, but has risen during the pandemic. Even so, rural unemployment generally is lower than joblessness in metro areas —at least partly because employment has held up relatively in farming-dependent nonmetro counties.

  • COVID-19 cases in counties dependent on meatpacking have been a major concern, although the situation began to improve in late summer.

Defining terms

The report uses terms such as "nonmetro" and "rural" that can have different meanings to different people. The ERS provides these county-based definitions:

  • Metropolitan — A county with at least one urban area with 50,000 or more people.
  • Metropolitan area — An urban core area with at least 50,000 residents and that also has "outlying counties that are economically tied to the core counties as measured by labor-force commuting."
  • Rural — A county with open space and settlements of fewer than 2,500 people.
  • Nonmetro — A county with open spaces, rural towns with fewer than 2,500 residents and at least one urban core with 2,500 to 49,999 residents.