A report co-authored by a Utah State University professor sheds light on how people in the Western U.S. have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, including their views on government assistance and what the future holds.
Tom Mueller, assistant professor of sociology, worked with New York University and the Yale School of the Environment on “Impacts of COVID-19 on the Rural West,” which surveyed 1,009 people in 278 counties throughout 11 Western states, including Utah, between June 25 and July 22. The survey included sampling residents in Rich County but not Cache County or Franklin County.
In a university news release, Mueller said the study was needed because so many others are “biased toward urban populations or the eastern parts of the country.”
“I think the reason (the West) gets less attention is simply because there are fewer people, and people tend to be attracted to where most people are,” Mueller said in an interview, adding that the COVID outbreak in the U.S. started in urban areas, which led to research focusing on those spots. “It’s kind of difficult, sometimes, to shed light on the rural issues. The rural issues are often kind of assumed, they’re kind of forgotten about — sometimes for no good reason.”
Mueller said the report he co-authored has “helped fill in some of the gaps in the picture” when it comes to COVID-19’s impact on the U.S.
“Impacts of COVID-19 on the Rural West” is intended to be a resource for policy makers in the region as they help their constituents, according to the study’s introduction.
Rep. Kera Birkeland, a Republican who represents Rich County in the Legislature, was glad to see a study on COVID-19 surveying the Western U.S.
“I’m very glad Rich County was included, but it’s kind of unfortunate that it’s a big deal Rich County was included,” she said. “We’ve got to start looking at how these rural counties are solving their problems, because they’re innovative. These farmers, these ranchers — it’s pretty impressive; they use a lot of common sense, practical thinking.”
According to the study, nearly 30% of those surveyed said they either had COVID-19 or knew someone that did. To Mueller, that’s a high percentage.
“That means the experience is fairly widespread, and this was in June through July so it’s likely only gone up since then,” he said.
Rich County has had the fewest COVID-19 cases of the counties covered by the Bear River Health Department — and unlike Box Elder and Cache, has had zero deaths, according to the latest figures.
The low statistics for the area were something Birkeland noted when talking about the USU study.
“Even other rural counties have different outbreaks than we’ve had,” she said. “Rural communities are like their own little village, in some ways.”
According to the COVID-19 rural West report, a fifth of those surveyed were not employed at the time it was taken, compared to the same time a year ago.
The group with the largest unemployment increase — from 5% to 24% — was people between the ages of 30 and 39. Women and Latinos were among the hardest hit, with their unemployment rate rising at least 10 points since the pandemic began.
The study not only examined quantitative data, but people’s attitudes, too. Mueller and his colleagues reported that many of those surveyed believed in “strong bipartisan support” for government spending on direct payments to people, as well as relief for things like small businesses and health care.
Those beliefs come from a survey population that largely voted in 2016 for President Donald Trump — whose popularity is now split among them going into the fall presidential campaign, according to the COVID-19 rural West report.
What’s more, Westerners wanted either the same or an increased amount of relief from the government paid directly to individuals.
The support for government relief was the finding that was most surprising to Mueller.
“You often hear people talk about the rural areas in the U.S., particularly the rural West, being fiercely self-reliant,” he said. “What we found is that, while it’s probably still true, they also recognize this is a time where we need relief.”
Also bucking conservative orthodoxy, the population surveyed in the study said they wanted spending reduced only among two groups: oil and gas companies and large businesses.
“I think it speaks to where people think money is going and where they want money to maybe stop going from various government relief packages,” Mueller said. “People want it to go to places they think it will be valuable.”
Birkeland noted the fact that rural Westerners surveyed didn’t want money thrown at big companies.
“The stimulus and all these relief packages, they got sucked up by all these large corporations before the rural farmer even had a chance to know that they were available,” she said. “The rural communities are saying, ‘Give us a chance … we’d like to show you what we can do.’”
The study also examined rural Westerners’ outlook for the future — most expect it to be “slightly good” this time next year. However, Democrats and Republicans surveyed were divided on whether the economy was in good shape prior to the pandemic.
Asked whether the study examined how optimistic people are about vaccine development or how the pandemic will end, Mueller said “that has to be a little bit captured” in the survey’s responses.
“People assume things are going to get better. Part of that might be a vaccine,” he said.
Since the data contained in the study is not broken down by county, Mueller could not talk about what the study’s results say specifically about Rich County. But he offered this message to those residents.
“Our results suggest that counties like theirs have been hit really hard by the pandemic and we’ve been able to bring light to how hard communities like those in Rich County have been hit,” Mueller said. “We found that counties throughout the West, like Rich County, people who live in those areas have had a lot of experience with COVID-19; many people have lost their jobs; many of them have moved to part-time work or totally lost their jobs. We’ve also seen that these impacts are not necessarily equal across the entire population.”
Cache and Franklin counties were not sampled, Mueller said, because both areas are considered metropolitan counties and it was the study’s aim to examine rural ones only.
Asked what he’d say to policy makers in Cache Valley and the Bear Lake area about the report, Mueller responded, “I think it’s honestly tough, because what this report identifies is that a lot of these issues are really difficult to solve at the local level.
“It needs larger, more powerful intervention from either the state or the federal level — but there is stuff they can do,” he said.