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Rural America Is Feeling The Pandemic Pain

Problems that existed in Illinois small towns and across rural America have been made worse by the coronavirus outbreak, said the director of the Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

Christopher Merrett, who’s been with the institute for 25 years, said reliance on remote learning and working from home during the pandemic has proved more difficult for those living in rural areas.

“Learning gaps that existed prior to the outbreak have been exacerbated. There’s the digital divide where some rural communities don’t have broadband at all. The service can be more expensive in rural areas and, if you do have it, that service is often slow,” he said.

This isn’t a problem exclusive to rural homes but also exists in the inner city, said Merrett. “It’s a problem with income. Rural areas tend to have higher poverty rates than the national average,” he said.

The virus outbreak has also compounded retail challenges for small towns, said Merrett. “We all heard about the retail apocalypse before COVID-19 hit. During the pandemic, e-commerce got even bigger,” he said.

“Some rural businesses have figured out working online but the ability to pivot really varies,” said Merrett.

“To compete in the online economy, you need to understand social media, manage a website, rethink your whole operation. Are business owners willing to take on that challenge?” he asked.

Another problem is that a higher percentage of Americans, 65 or older, live in rural areas than in urban communities with rural residents having less access to healthcare facilities, said Merrett.

The political culture that exists in some small towns has also been a factor during the pandemic, he said. “Early on, there was resentment over the lockdown in some downstate areas. The feeling was: ‘big-city folks, this is your problem,’” said Merrett.

“I know in Hancock County (just west of Macomb), there were a lot of ‘Pritzker Sucks (the life out of small business)’ signs,” he said, referring to opposition over Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s lockdown orders.

With infection rates rising in some small downstate communities, some of those signs have come down, said Merrett, who credited the Institute's Sean Park for addressing the food desert issue with so many Illinois small towns having lost local grocery stores.
"Park ran an IGA store in Rushville for 10 years. As someone who knows what's involved to run a store, he's helped area residents establish food co-ops in both Winchester and Mt. Pulaski," he said.
While many national firms have left rural communities behind, one that hasn't is the Dollar General chain, said Merrett, noting that the company, with its mix of household goods and food items, has seen business boom during the pandemic—in both rural and urban communities--with second-quarter sales up 24% over the same period last year.
Dollar General’s impact on rural economies has been both praised and criticized, said Merrett, one of the presenters in a free University of Illinois Extension webinar on Dollar General’s rural rise at noon on Thursday, Oct. 8.

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