Covid-19 hot spots continue to spread across rural America. Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., President
told lawmakers this week to stop debating proposals for the next federal relief bill. That debate couldn’t be more urgent. Enhanced federal unemployment benefits have expired, while tens of millions remain out of work, facing increasingly precarious financial circumstances.
At the core of this high-stakes debate is a narrative as American as apple pie: the ideal of “Main Street America” inhabited by the “everyman” who, as the narrative goes, doesn’t want government handouts, they want to work—and government welfare risks luring them into complacency. They’re self-reliant bootstrappers who oppose big government and decline federal assistance.
This portrait is often deployed by politicians to justify reduced government spending. But it is also a deeply held personal identity for many Americans, especially in rural communities.
But there is a big problem with this entrenched American narrative: It no longer holds. In a matter of months, its power to shape public attitudes has withered under the weight of the pandemic.
New data suggest that Covid-19 is overturning even the most entrenched and proudly self-reliant views about federal intervention, especially in rural areas long thought to be antigovernment strongholds.
Our rural research group based at Yale University recently measured these attitudes through a statistically representative survey of rural residents in 11 states across the U.S. West. We chose this region because, as home to small-government policies, a limited social safety net, the Sagebrush Rebellion, Malheur Occupation, and armed militia groups, the rural West has long been considered a bellwether for America’s antigovernment sentiment. Politically, these attitudes have been channeled into support for the GOP, with Trump winning the 2016 popular vote in three-quarters of the counties we surveyed. The region trends conservative, white, and older.
If any region were to remain staunchly libertarian, even amid a global pandemic, it would be the rural American West.
But, even here, it seems that the pandemic is breaking down historic political patterns.
Our survey results showed an astonishing degree of support for sustaining—and often actually increasing—the amount of federal aid spending across a range of areas. And this is true in a region where self-identified Republicans outnumber Democrats by a margin of 2 to1.
Remarkably, 8 out of every 10 rural residents want the same or an increased amount of federal relief paid directly to individuals compared to current levels. Nearly half of rural residents said they want an increase in these direct payments. Similarly, 81% want the same or increased government spending toward rent or mortgage relief. Sixty-four percent of respondents wanted more spending on health care, and 55% wanted more spending on infrastructure.
But support for higher government spending wasn’t universal. Residents of the rural West strongly supported a reduction in spending for only two areas: 63% wanted less government spending for large businesses and 56% wanted less for oil-and-gas companies. Notably, these industries had some of the largest windfalls from previous Covid-19 stimulus packages and pandemic-related government tax relief.
Residents did have strong preferences for increased government spending in other industries: 79% wanted more relief for small businesses and 66% wanted more relief for farmers. Across these areas where there was strong support for higher government spending, on average, only 14% of respondents wanted reduced government spending. Most who didn’t favor more spending still preferred to keep federal aid funding at the same level.
These preferences are a far cry from traditional notions of small government often espoused by rural Westerners and their political leaders. In a 2017 poll by the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation, an overwhelming majority of rural residents thought federal government programs aimed at improving people’s standard of living generally had either no impact or actually made things worse.
In reality, rural communities have never been as independent from the government as many might believe. In fact, Western states—especially those without large urban centers—tend to receive more federal funding per capita than what they pay in federal taxes. Furthermore, within these states, many rural local governments rely on state funding generated in metropolitan areas.
But now, as Covid-19 rages on, the majority of rural residents in these 11 statesopenly support widespread government spending, especially funding that goes directly to people and small businesses.
We are only beginning to understand the social and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, but our new survey suggests that a realignment of political preferences may be taking place. With the need for a new federal relief bill growing more urgent by the day, 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?
Justin Farrell is an associate professor at Yale School of the Environment, and author of Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West.
Kathryn McConnell is a Ph.D. candidate studying sociology at Yale School of the Environment, where she researches the socioeconomic impacts of climate change.
Paul Burow is a Ph.D. candidate studying anthropology at Yale School of the Environment, where he researches the cultural dynamics of environmental change in the American West.