Prior to the onslaught of the COVID-19 Pandemic, rural areas of the United States were seeing modest economic growth, while most populations stayed at 2010 levels. The national total of rural residents was some 46 million or about 14% of the US total., These statistics rather sharply contrast with the urban data, which showed considerably higher increases in both categories.
In terms of poverty rates, there was a similar result. Rural poverty rates declined from a high of 18.4% (2013) to 16.1% (2018), still higher than urban rates at the time, on average about 12.6%.
And then Covid struck in the winter of 2019 – 2020, leading eventually to over 1 million American deaths and a national economic crisis that only began to abate in spring 2022. In July 2022 the economic concern is inflation. The spread of Covid infections and deaths over the past 2 plus years has also differed at different times in rural and urban regions
Initially, the cities were harder hit, while the non-metro regions reflected a more predictable 14% of national cases and 11% of the deaths. These figures eventually rose to 21% and 27% respectively in 2021.
The general explanations offered for the later, persistent spikes in rural areas, include: (1) more residents with underlying health conditions, (2) fewer people with health insurance, (3) longer distances to hospitals and (4) substantially fewer vaccinated/boosted people. Other contributing factors creating “super spreader” situations in both city and farm country, has been crowded work and home environments and too many mask-less people at indoor holiday and other events.
Yes, the Pandemic severely affected lives in Kent, Somerset, Dorchester and Talbot Counties, but it only exacerbated conditions existing in the four. It is those conditions that over years can and do lead to shrinking demographics. The following chart provides background data on each county, offering facts to review and tentative answers to be offered.
The following provides four important national and Maryland data points from the 2020 Census to provide a partial basis for comparison with the counties.
One common measure of a community’s health and well being is its “viability”, that is will it continue to work as a functioning place for people to live. The answer is “it depends” because age, health, job opportunities, available training and education, affordable housing and quality of life all affect residents’ opinions.
All four counties are losing residents and those remaining are, to a significant extent, senior citizens. These are not, per se, encouraging viability factors. Economic development in all four is something of an issue, but particularly for Dorchester, Somerset and Kent, as is evident by their lagging median incomes.
These three have also lost businesses, i.e., employers, that have not been replaced, nor have many new ventures opened. Affecting the latter, may be the level of skill sets and experience offered by local work forces.
The relatively high poverty rates and median ages translate into heavier demand for county, city and town public services. In 2022, the costs of providing them are rising, particularly for public school systems. Shrinking numbers of taxpayers, clearly impact public revenue streams.
It is clear, these counties need to understand the dimensions of the work required to reverse current adverse demographic trends and to satisfy the shifting needs of their populations in the decades ahead. I have no doubt their leaders comprehend the work that lies ahead and will meet the viability tests.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.