The blog of the Urban Institute
December 7, 2020

In Rural Communities, COVID-19 Increases Healthy Development Challenges for Children of Color

December 4, 2020

In the midst of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that it has disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, and American Indian families and communities. Though lack of adequate data makes it impossible to gauge the full impact of the pandemic, there is also ample evidence of COVID-19’s move from large cities to rural communities—where it continues to spread.

Mirroring the pandemic’s profile in urban areas, several of the rural communities in which COVID-19 rates have been disproportionately high are also home to large or majority populations of color, as illustrated below. Threats to healthy development that the pandemic poses for urban children of color, including family income loss, housing insecurity, and learning loss, are likely to be multiplied in rural settings, which already experience (PDF) higher levels of persistent child poverty than urban areas, with significant long-term implications for families and communities. In addition, rural families of color face health care challenges (PDF) unique to rural areas, such as coverage barriers and health system deficiencies. Economic decline and social disruption also affect many rural places. 

Protecting the rising generation of rural children of color will depend on rapid, expansive action by stakeholders across policy and nonprofit sectors to narrow the racial and ethnic disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

COVID-19 hit Black and Latinx people in the rural South and West hard

A snapshot of national COVID-19 death rates illustrates its deadly path through rural communities of color. In the two-week period from August 1 to August 14, 2020, five rural communities in Texas, four in the South, and one in California had the 10 highest rates of new COVID-19 deaths. Nine of the communities were predominantly Latinx or African American. Many were also characterized by high rates of children experiencing poverty, ranging from 22 to 45 percent for children younger than 18 (as of 2014–18).

New COVID-19-Related Deaths, August 1–14, 2020

Rank (deaths
per 1,000)
Metro- or
micropolitan area
Majority racial or
ethnic group
Children younger
than 18 below the FPL
1 Rio Grande City, TX 87% Latinx 45%
2 Brownsville-Harlingen, TX 93% Latinx 44%
3 Albemarle, NC 65% white 22%
4 Dublin, GA 64% Black 37%
5 El Centro, CA 82% Latinx 32%
6 McAllen, TX 85% Latinx 43%
7 Corpus Christi, TX 63% Latinx 23%
8 Eagle Pass, TX 97% Latinx 34%
9 LaGrange, GA 49% Black 27%
10 Opelousas, LA 75% Black 42%

Source: American Community Survey.
Note: FPL = federal poverty level.
 

The situation in Texas illustrates the multiple factors that we know exacerbate the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic in rural communities of color. Rio Grande City and the other Texan communities on the list are Latinx-majority rural counties characterized by higher-than-average numbers of children experiencing poverty and by limited options for medical care and medical coverage. Texas is home to 20 percent of all uninsured children in the US.

Like many rural areas, southern Texas is a place of hard labor and low pay where working from home is often unfeasible. Many Latinx residents of southern Texas work in service industries, such as restaurants and hotels, or in the informal economy. The counties are dotted with teeming colonias, or communities that often lack paved roads and sewer connections, so once the coronavirus arrived, it spread easily. And residents who are undocumented are excluded from the social safety net, including proposed federal COVID-19-related economic relief packages.

These circumstances affect every family member. The ramifications of low wages, job losses, and lack of a safety net and relief trickle down to children. 

What can be done for rural children of color?

As evidence accumulates that COVID-19 may be contributing to social inequality, experts are concerned that the pandemic will generate a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty and poor health conditions. So although we do not know the extent of the equity gaps exacerbated by COVID-19, we do know that narrowing them is critical to ensuring a path to a more equitable future that promotes shared prosperity. Investments in children are especially important for helping them reach their full potential.

Policies and programs that lay the groundwork for healthy, thriving, and equitable living conditions for rural children of color and their families include building more affordable rental housing, expanding the availability of quality child care and other social services, addressing the digital gap by expanding access to high-speed internet, creating opportunities for economic mobility as a pathway from rural poverty, and using telehealth and other strategies to address the shortage of rural hospitals. People of color living in rural areas deserve the same attention as people living in cities. Solutions tailored to their unique needs can help ensure an equitable recovery for all.


This post was updated to reflect that Texas, California, and four (not two) southern communities had the 10 highest rates of new COVID-19 deaths from August 1-14. Also, that El Centro, California, is not in California’s Central Valley. (Corrected 12/7/2020).

Members of the Larson family, who have no running water in their home, collect water from a distribution point in the Navajo Nation town of Thoreau in New Mexico on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Mark Ralston / AFP via Getty Images)

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