The Pandemic Has Dramatically Changed Rural Attitudes toward Government

A new Yale-led study found that the Covid-19 pandemic may have at least temporarily altered some historical anti-government attitudes that tend to be stronger in rural communities, particularly in the West.

In a representative survey of residents in rural counties of the U.S. West, a team of researchers, led by Justin Farrell of the Yale School of the Environment (YSE), identified significant bipartisan support for a range of “big” government interventions to support rural recovery.

“We are only beginning to understand the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but our new survey suggests that a realignment of political preferences is taking place,” said Farrell, an associate professor of sociology at YSE and lead researcher for the project. “If these patterns hold – and we’ll know more after our second wave of the survey with the same people in Spring 2021 – it will have far-reaching policy impacts.

He added: “The pandemic laid bare many of the long-standing problems facing rural communities, yet at the same time, the pandemic has created an opening – among rural residents – for large-scale social and economic reforms to strengthen the social safety net, improve well-being, and speed up our transition to clean energy.”

Among the key findings were:

  • One third of residents in the rural West have had direct experience with COVID-19, either personally or through family, friends, or acquaintances
  • One in five people who were employed full time last year became unemployed by the time of the survey
  • While unemployment spiked for all people in the rural West, it was women and Latino/a residents who saw the largest increase in unemployment
  • Latino/a residents received fewer benefits despite high unemployment levels
  • There was strong bipartisan support for government relief spending on healthcare, housing, infrastructure, small business and direct payment to individuals
  • Less than 15 percent of rural Westerners approve of how Congress has responded to the pandemic

The researchers also found that while Latino/a residents saw large increases in unemployment, their use of unemployment insurance was dramatically lower than non-Latino/a residents. By contrast, the largest increase in the use of unemployment benefits was for non-Latino-/a whites, where usage went from 2.6 percent to 14.3 percent.

The age group with the largest unemployment increase among all ethno-racial groups was the 30- to 39-year-old age group, which saw a rise from 6 percent pre-pandemic to 22 percent at the time of the survey.

Rural Westerners have always had a convoluted love-hate relationship with the federal government, but the pandemic may be breaking down some of these historical political patterns.
— Justin Farrell, associate professor of sociology
While rural communities in the U.S. West have historically relied on federal government programs, they also have tended to express attitudes of self-reliance and anti-federalism. According to the authors, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted these attitudes, revealing that rural Westerners openly support sustained — and/or increased —government spending. In somewhat of a reversal of traditional regional attitudes, the only areas where rural Westerners want to see a decrease in government spending is for large businesses and oil and gas companies.

“Rural Westerners have always had a convoluted love-hate relationship with the federal government, but the pandemic may be breaking down some of these historical political patterns,” Farrell said.

“A critical question is whether political leaders representing rural regions will continue to cling to an outdated and inaccurate narrative, or will they act on behalf of their constituents’ needs, and in accordance with their will?”

The data were based on a representative survey of 1,009 residents from a sample of 278 rural counties in the western U.S. conducted from June 25 to July 22. The sample reflects the sociodemographic makeup of the U.S. West. It was funded by the National Science Foundation.

Authors also include researchers at Utah State University, New York University, as well as Kathryn McConnell and Paul Burow, doctoral students at YSE, and Katie Pofahl, a YSE master’s student.

Read the full report.

– Kevin Dennehy    [email protected]    203 436-4842

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