Rural America, meet COVID-19

Rebecca sits down with Gbenga Ajilore and Greg Kaufmann for a deep-dive on why many rural communities — and the Black rural south in particular — are extra vulnerable amid the pandemic — and what we can do to ensure they aren’t left behind in our COVID response. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

While major metropolitan cities are being hit incredibly hard by COVID-19 and may have the largest outbreaks in terms of raw numbers, the pandemic has begun to spread in rural communities as well. And due a range of factors, from being home to an older population with a higher proportion of people with disabilities and chronic health issues, to the lack of health care infrastructure stemming from hospital closures as well as states’ refusal to expand Medicaid, and a long history of disinvestment — particularly in the Black rural south — many rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

So, continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series on poverty and inequality in the age of coronavirus… Gbenga Ajilore and Greg Kaufmann on how COVID-19 is impacting rural America — and what we can do to ensure rural communities aren’t left behind in the COVID response.

This episode’s guests:

  • Gbenga Ajilore, senior economist, Center for American Progress (@gbenga_ajilore)
  • Greg Kaufmann, founder of TalkPoverty.org and poverty reporter at The Nation (@gregkaufmann)

For more:

TRANSCRIPT:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.

While major metropolitan cities are being hit incredibly hard by COVID-19 and may have the largest outbreaks in terms of raw numbers, the pandemic has begun to spread in rural communities as well and due to a range of factors from being home to an older population with a higher proportion of people with disabilities and chronic health impairments, to the lack of healthcare infrastructure stemming from hospital closures as well as many states’ refusal to expand Medicaid. And on top of all of that, a long history of disinvestment, particularly in the Black rural South, many rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. So, continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series on poverty and inequality in the age of coronavirus, I’m thrilled to sit down virtually, of course, with two friends and colleagues to take a look at how COVID-19 is impacting rural America and what we can do to ensure rural communities aren’t left behind in our COVID response. Gbenga Ajilore is a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. He’s also the author of a recent report titled Rural America Is Starting to Feel the Effects of the Coronavirus. And Greg Kaufmann is the founder and former editor in chief of TalkPoverty.org and of course, a longtime poverty reporter. He’s the author also of two recent pieces looking at how COVID-19 is impacting the rural South and Black farmers in particular. Gbenga and Greg, thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the show.

GREG KAUFMANN: Great to be with you, Rebecca.

GBENGA AJILORE: Thank you for having me.

VALLAS: So, Gbenga, starting with you just to kind of be careful with our definitions up top, rural is a term that gets thrown around in a lot of different contexts. But it actually has a pretty specific meaning, and that’s especially the case when it comes to a lot of the analysis that you did in your recent report, looking at how COVID-19 is impacting rural America. Explain kind of what the term “rural” means, and talk a little bit about what’s playing out in rural America so far amid the pandemic.

AJILORE: So, thank you for asking me about the definition of rural. Because there’s so many different definitions, and there’s so many ways that people look at rural America. And so, one of the things that we do in our work here at CAP is to kind of dispel the myths about rural America, that it’s not just the quote-unquote “heartland” or the rural Midwest, but it encompasses so much more. Every state in this country has rural areas. And so, one of the things I do in my report is that I break it down by regionals. So, you have certain areas like the South, which is highly African-American and very rural. But then you also go to say like the Southwest. And so, you have a lot of Latinx population, but you also have many tribal communities, and also some tribal communities are up in the Great Plains area. So, there’s a number of things that I do is to break it down to see what’s happening. And because of the nature of these different areas, the impact of the coronavirus is very different.

And so, one of the things that I highlight is that there’s certain areas that were hit hard early, and so early in terms of the rural community. So, in early March, places that are kind of like recreation counties that have a lot of tourism were hit hard early. This place also has high number of age of retirees. So, that was one of the things that was particularly concerning about these early outbreaks that with the older population, with a lot of co-morbidities, that the coronavirus is going to hit them and hit them hard. And then other places again, where we call the heartland or rural mid-America, so places like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, they also started to get hit pretty hard, too. But one of the places that struck really fast and really hard was in the rural black South. It was one of the later places to actually get their first cases. So, this is sometime in mid-March. But then the number of cases skyrocketed. But more importantly, it wasn’t just that the number of cases grew faster than other rural communities, but they also had a higher number of deaths. So, people who caught the virus ended up more likely to die. And that goes into the issues of healthcare and the rural healthcare infrastructure.

VALLAS: And there has been an increasing level of attention, not nearly enough, but at least more in mainstream media on the immense and really horrifying racial disparities in terms of who is both contracting the virus and also who’s losing their lives to the virus. African-Americans are losing their lives at rates that are astronomically higher than other Americans. But your analysis finds specifically that African-Americans in rural Southern communities are more likely to contract the virus. They also have a higher death rate, and really kind of horrifying numbers even compared to older Americans, which is sort of the stereotype that I think people have in their mind in terms of who’s most at risk. Talk a little bit about why rural America is so especially vulnerable, both to the spread of the virus and also to the worst of the potential health consequences and why, in particular, the rural Black South is so incredibly vulnerable right now.

AJILORE: So, it’s basically, you look at three different factors that you have people who have chronic health conditions, people who are older, and then poor infrastructure. And so, those three things kind of this interactive effect that makes it harder for people to actually combat this virus. So, one of the biggest things is this healthcare infrastructure. So, over the last 10, 15 years, 90 percent of hospital closures that have occurred have been in rural communities. So, you don’t have hospitals, or you have to go further to get care. So, that’s, problems with access. But then also if you know that you have to go an hour, you’re not going to take care of your issues. You’re going to sit there, and say, OK, I’m going to just try to work through it. Or it’s just too much effort to go out there.

The other thing is you look at the infrastructure — and this is something that we see not just in African-American communities, but we’ve seen this in tribal communities, especially Navajo Nation in New Mexico and the Arizona area — you think about when this outbreak happened, people were talking about, OK, well, you need to wash your hands constantly. But you have areas, neighborhoods, communities that don’t even have running water. So, how are you going to protect yourself against this virus if you can’t even wash your hands? You know, you think about other issues like the hospitals and critical centers, access health centers, that you don’t have those things that you can’t combat this virus. And so, then once the case comes, once the virus hit your community, it’s going to spread like wildfire, so places like the African-American South, places like Navajo Nation and other tribal communities.

And then now, one of the things that we’re seeing, especially in the Midwest, you think about what’s happening with meat packing plants. So, you have these places that have immigrant communities, people from Mexico, from other South American communities who are being forced to work because they don’t have the strong worker power to be able to combat what the employers are wanting. And so, you have places that have 400, 500, 600 outbreaks at one plant. And so, you have these places in South Dakota, Missouri, Iowa, there’s huge outbreaks, massive outbreaks because of this poor infrastructure, because you don’t have strong worker powers, things like that that make this so much more difficult.

VALLAS: And Greg Kaufmann, I want to bring you in here because you have both been reporting specifically on the impact of the pandemic so far on the Black rural South in particular. But you’ve also been reporting on an incredibly long history of disinvestment in the Black rural South that kind of is exactly the sort of pre-cursor to where we are now in and is sort of the how we got here prequel to the story that is COVID’s impact on these communities. Talk a little bit about your reporting and some of the people that you’ve spoken to who have been studying and putting some really pretty horrifying numbers to what’s been going on that put the rural Black South in the position to be so incredibly vulnerable in the ways that Gbenga was just outlining.

KAUFMANN: Yeah. Well, one thing that I’ve been thinking about as this pandemic has spread to the rural South is one of the stories I worked on, a few weeks ago, is about the Southeast Crescent Rural Commission, the SCRC. And that was created in 2008, in part to make investments in healthcare infrastructure. And as Gbenga’s report pointed out — and I’m not sure if you might’ve just said it. I was having a little problem with audio on my end, but it’s fine now — 9 of the 14 states that haven’t expanded Medicaid are in the South. And this commission, which was created in 2008, was supposed to be getting $30–33 million a year to invest in part in healthcare facilities, because you have so many healthcare deserts. In broadband, which people are having a hard time getting information without broadband. In basic infrastructure: running water, sewage systems, these kinds of things. And they never got their money.

And what makes it even more outrageous that, at the same time, in 2008, the Northern Border Regional Commission was created, and that was for northern border states — Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont — primarily white states that have received steady funding, including $25 million in 2019. And it’s not just that $30 million a year that the Southern Commission’s been missing on. It’s the monies that are leveraged with that, right? So, you’re talking about over 10 years, $300 million in funding. Other commissions use that money to leverage hundreds of millions of dollars more in private investment. So, the fact that this investment never happened, and nobody’s talking about it at all on either that really — Sorry. You know what? Congressman Clyburn, Majority Whip Clyburn, has spoken about it a bit — is pretty infuriating as you see people suffering with lack of healthcare facilities, lack of transportation to get to healthcare, lack of broadband to get information. These are investments that we had a formal body to at least make a down payment towards, and certainly, these investments haven’t been made for four generations. So, that’s one thing I’ve been thinking about and writing about.

And then on another level, I’ve talked to, last week, I wrote about Black farmers trying to get U.S. Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, assistance. In the CARES Act, more than $23 billion was appropriated to help farmers. And the Department of Agriculture has a horrible history of excluding Black farmers from accessing aid, and it’s contributed to massive land loss and a decline in farmers from nearly a million farmers in 1920 to 45,000 farmers remaining today. And as this $23 billion was appropriated, farmers were asking, you know, “How do I qualify? What determines eligibility?” And both they and I tried to call local, state, and federal offices. Couldn’t get any responses. So, I spoke with this couple, for example, Loretta and Sam Adderson. They’re in East Georgia. They have an organic farm there. She’s 75. He’s 74. And their operation’s been shut down. They sell to farmers markets that’ve been shut down. They sell to grocery stores that’ve been shut down. And they also lost a family member. So, they themselves have decided they really need to social distance, particularly because they see in their communities that people aren’t practicing social distancing. And so, these are folks who are going to suffer tremendous losses and who can’t get the most basic answers to how to get assistance! So, how is the USDA reaching out to people who don’t have broadband?

And then there’s this other problem — and you can cut me off here if I’ve gone on too long, but it’s pretty significant, actually, for Black farmers — you know, for generations it was really hard because of legal hurdles to pass title to the land on to your family. So, people just inherited the land, and there was no title because you couldn’t get that done. And so, people have been eliminated from qualifying for USDA loans because they don’t have clear title, even though the land’s been in their family for generations. So, in 2018, in the 2018 Farm Bill, that was supposed to be addressed through a new rule. And not surprisingly for people who follow this kind of systemic racism, that rule has not been implemented. 2018 Farm Bill still not implemented. And 60 percent of African-American farmers don’t have clear title. They have it’s called Heirs’ Property. So, this is a huge problem that needs to be addressed.

VALLAS: Well, and Greg, I mean, I didn’t want to cut you off because you’re offering kind of so many of the parts of the story that all connect. But I want to stay with you for just one more moment to say, you’re describing the way that black farmers are being sort of left behind in this moment. But your reporting also has really uncovered over the past many months that Black farmers were already facing really significant challenges. And so, it seems in many ways, and as is true of many other groups that were already struggling pre-pandemic, but the coronavirus impact seems poised in really tragic ways to push even more Black farmers out of the farming business at a time when the numbers, according to your reporting, are that there are now around 45,000 Black farmers remaining in the U.S., which is down from nearly a million in 1920.

KAUFMANN: Right. Yeah. And it is pretty stunning, and it is, as you said, these disparities exist. I mean, we’re seeing it in all aspects of this crisis. The disparities already existed. They are just becoming plain for everyone to see and quite acute and sort of with life or death stakes, literally. So, if people are paying attention at all, you can’t miss these things, really. So, yeah. And I appreciate your highlighting it on your show.

VALLAS: And I want to actually give voice to some of the words you quote of Loretta Adderson, who is one part of that Georgia couple that you mentioned you interviewed for one of those pieces that that you wrote, which we’ll, of course, have on our syllabus page. But Loretta Adderson asks the question, quote, “Are we, like always, not going to get any funds?” That’s the sort of plaintive call of an aging Black farmer in this moment.

Gbenga, I want to go back to you to sort of get back to the policy side of this, right? I mean, a big kind of through line through Off-Kilter’s ongoing series around how various marginalized groups and groups of low-income individuals in this country are being impacted by coronavirus. The through line is sort of in every single conversation: it didn’t have to be this way and we could be experiencing an entirely different set of circumstances if the policy landscape looked different. This is very much in that category as well. Talk a little bit about some of the policy decisions that got us here. And this connects very much to other conversations you and I have had on Off-Kilter in the past around structural racism as sort of another through line.

AJILORE: Yeah, it’s been such a disheartening thing to follow, that you just look at this, as Greg was mentioning, this disinvestment, particularly in the agricultural markets, but in basically a lot of the markets. And so, you think about things like unions and union busting, things like that so that workers don’t get this protection. I mentioned before about meat packing plants. You have these firms that left major metropolitan cities, moved to these small towns so they could become the sole employer in that town, and then they can exercise their market power so that they could have suppressed wages. They don’t have to follow OSHA rules on worker health. And so, we’ve just seen that play out now within this pandemic. And so, I kind of want to reiterate what Greg was saying, is that these things already, these disparities already existed. It’s just that this pandemic is showing the cracks in these structures and showing it so that these outcomes, because of the structure that produces unequal outcomes, now we have this pandemic, the outcomes are going to be unequal again, and we’re going to have these disparities.

And so, one of the things I want to kind of talk about is that now we’re in a position to actually make positive difference. And we think about Congress has actually passed three different bills to try to combat this pandemic. However, they haven’t gone far enough, and they haven’t hit the right things. And one of this, you know, I’m going to go into too much detail, but one of the things that’s been missing is federal funding to state and local governments that’s been so crucial to help these individuals out, help residents out. States have to follow a balanced budget, most of these states. And so, one of the things is because of this crisis and the money that you’d have to put to combat this crisis, they are having to figure out, well, where do they cut, you know, cut spending? We see it in Medicaid. We see it in education. We see it in a lot of things that we see over time. The federal government could spend money to help these states fight these budget issues, but they haven’t done that. The only thing they did was in the CARES Act, they had $150 million that go to the states and then about 30 million that go to localities that have a population of 500,000 people or more, which necessarily excludes rural communities.

And so, one of the things that people have been pushing for is one, just more spending to the states because that 150 million does not go to help cover budget deficits. It’s only for coronavirus spending. So, even the money that you do get is not going to be that helpful to the states. So, more money needs to go to states. Monies need to go to localities, not just limited to the ones with 500,000 population, but to actually those local areas. More money for health, more money for infrastructure. Greg had mentioned broadband is an issue. You have all these communities that, in order to get broadband, they put Wi-Fi hotspot on school buses, drive to a certain place so that people can drive to a parking lot and get Wi-Fi. Which is just mind boggling that in 2020, for people to be able to access the Internet, they have to drive to a place where they have a hotspot. And so, there’s all these things that policy wise that we could be doing right now to help these rural communities, to help them keep up, to help them combat that, but were not even do that. We’re not even debating these things. And it’s frustrating.

VALLAS: And you mentioned and Greg mentioned, and it really feels like it’s worth calling out and lifting up all on its own, but there’s a big part of this that also has to do with state decisions. And that’s vis-a-vis states refusing to expand Medicaid even in this day and age. Many of those states, I think I’m getting this right, 9 of the 14 states in the U.S. that still have refused to expand Medicaid are in the South, in the region we’re talking about right now. That’s going to play a huge role in terms of not just who has coverage, but also what states are looking down the barrel of when it comes to their budgets in the wake of all of this. And that plays into also that state and local aid piece that you’re mentioning, Gbenga, which Medicaid is a huge part of the conversation or should be when it comes to ways that the feds can help out the states when it comes to the costs that they’re having to bear right now.

AJILORE: Exactly. So, as you mentioned before, Medicaid is not just about covering people and helping lower the uninsured. It also helps these hospitals and these facilities to be able to become more financially viable. So, one of the biggest problems, especially in the southern states, is that they have so much money to spend in uncompensated care. There was an example, a story I heard about this one facility in Texas that has $6 million of uncompensated care in the past year. And this is where expanded Medicaid can help with that. And so, they help cover those costs, and that makes the hospital more financially viable and able to help people out. So, that’s one of the biggest issues. And so, the other thing in terms of state decision making is stay-at-home orders. And we know that this is a public health crisis. And a way to combat this public health crisis is through social distancing and making sure that people stay at home. But you have, just this past week, a number of states, southern states that have reopened their quote-unquote “reopened their economy” to have business go on. And so, that’s actually going to make this worse.

So, you have all these things that are, instead of trying to push towards solving the crisis, it’s actually going to make the crisis worse. And so, one of the things to combat that is just to have a national stay-at-home order so that we don’t leave it up to the states and states that make the wrong decision. And that way, people stay at home. We’re able to combat this virus, you know, reverse it, and then take care of the public health crisis and then take care of the economic crisis.

VALLAS: And Greg, I want to bring you into the policy conversation as well, because that’s always a big part of your reporting, and it’s certainly been a big part of your reporting on the still-unfunded Black Belt Regional Commission and other strategies for correcting the long history of disinvestment in this region. Talk a little bit about the policies that the advocates that you’ve been speaking with are calling out for in this moment and have been calling for, long before this moment.

KAUFMANN: Yeah. And I have to correct something I said. I said nobody’s really talked about this except for Congressman Clyburn. Stacey Abrams, has talked a lot about the need to fund a Black Belt Commission. She thinks it should be bigger than, I believe she thinks it should be bigger than the one that’s already been created, but this would be a start. Anyway, your question about what advocates are saying, at least in terms of the commission, they would like to see investments in so many things from — And Dr. Womack, I mentioned before, she said she’d start with education from early childhood to higher education. She talked about the need for infrastructure development, including broadband. She also talks about investments in startups and rural entrepreneurships. A lot of young people would like to stay in their communities in the rural Black Belt, but they just don’t see the opportunities and the economic development and the investment that’s needed. And then obviously, the need for healthcare services in these healthcare deserts, really, is tremendous. You know, another thing: I don’t want to make these commissions sound like a silver bullet either. For one thing, when I say this should’ve received $33 million a year, that commission’s for seven states. So, it’s really a drop in the bucket compared to the scale of investment that’s really needed.

And the other thing is, and I know Gbenga’s talked about this, the commissions that exist now like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, there’s a criticism, there’s a critique that they’re somewhat disconnected from the communities themselves, from the people on the ground. And, for example, the Southern Crescent Regional Commission would be run by the seven governors. They don’t have a great track record of responding to rural Black communities and the rural Black Belt. And so, you really need to set up some kind of system where people with a documented connection to these communities would be involved in the decision making and making sure that the funding is going to where it’s most needed. So, these are some of the things I’m hearing.

With regard to farming, the farmers, I mean, I mentioned the problem of title, but there’s also just I mean, come on, there’s a basic communication problem that they don’t seem to have the will to address. I mean, and I get that it’s hard right now with social distancing maybe to get to people in person. But this is something that’s gone on, again, well before the pandemic. And so, it’s just unacceptable that you can’t get any information on just how to apply who is eligible. And certainly no proactive efforts to reach African-American farmers in ways that they haven’t done in the past.

VALLAS: And Gbenga, back to you before we close out — and I wish I had a lot more time with you guys, but there’s so many different aspects we could talk about — but one that I really want to make sure that we don’t leave out is what we can learn from the Great Recession. And Gbenga, this is part of actually what you discuss pretty extensively in your report that I mentioned before, and I want to quote. You say very clearly, “Policymakers need to find a way to provide resources to rural communities if they want to avoid a repeat of the lackluster recovery from the Great Recession.” And just to sort of underscore how lackluster you mean, you actually, you show in this incredibly stark chart — here I am doing my signature move, which is acting out a chart as a person that no one can see — but your chart shows that rural communities have really been left behind in prior recessions, especially the Great Recession. And specifically, employment rates — here’s the chart I’m acting out — employment rates still haven’t recovered since the Great Recession in rural areas, whereas they have in metro areas. Of course, where we’re a decade out from the Great Recession, and you’re looking at data prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Talk about the lessons we can learn from the Great Recession. How do we not leave behind rural communities?

AJILORE: So, I think this twofold our kind of approach to this is one, one of the problems with the response to the Great Recession is that after we got out of that initial dip, we had Congress start imposing austerity measures. So, they were “concerned” about the deficit. I put “concerned” in quotes. And they were cutting spending and saying, OK, well, we can’t run up debt too much. So, they didn’t finish helping the economy recover in general. So, that was the first problem. The other problem is that the policies that were implemented were very broad, and it was like, OK, let’s just try to get the economy to turn around. So, we’re looking at national aggregate numbers. And one of things that we have to look at now, one of the things that I really try to do in my work is to really pinpoint areas that are doing poorly. And so, I think we need to be intentional about where and intentional about targeting our spending. So, the policy recommendation is twofold, is spend a lot, spend big, and spend for as long as it’s necessary to recover, and then target that money to places that are always left behind. And so, looking at these places in the rural South and Black areas of the rural South, tribal communities.

One of the things that I’ve been reading about is that there was $8 billion that were allocated to specifically for tribal communities, but that money hasn’t been allocated. It’s just still sitting in the federal coffers. And so, it’s things like that where it’s like even when we allocate the money, we have to make sure that money gets there, gets targeted, it gets targeted to the right people, and that we keep spending until we see the outcomes change. We monitor these indicators, indicators that are locally relevant, not just these aggregate national ones. And then look at that to say, OK, now when that’s recovered, now when it’s going up at the same rate as metro areas and the big cities, then we can start saying, OK, well, maybe we need to pull back. So, basically, we need to spend more money and target it to places that are always left behind.

VALLAS: Spend more money and target it to places that are always left behind. There’ve been a lot of different approaches to do that. I feel like that itself could be the subject of a podcast and maybe should be at some point because I feel like we have an adequately nerdy listenership.

Greg, in the last couple of minutes that we have, and before I sort of let you guys both offer some closing thoughts, one of the things that you have reported on extensively over the years is the myriad ways that our safety net, programs that help people afford the basics in moments of pandemic or otherwise in hard times personally, has been really tremendously eroded, and in particular, in red states like many of the states that we’re talking about in this region. Talk a little bit about kind of the picture for why we don’t have the response that we should be seeing from programs that otherwise would be there for people if they hadn’t been neglected so thoroughly.

KAUFMANN: Yeah. So, yeah. I mean, over decades, we’ve seen the safety net deteriorated, but basically, by portraying people who need to turn to assistance as somehow undeserving, by othering them by pulling out all the tropes that say we shouldn’t have these programs. And certainly in the South, not just the South though, portraying those who would turn to the safety net as, using race to denigrate people who need assistance. I mean, there’s one hope that I had in the Great Recession was that people would say, would see how much we all do need a strong safety net in place. And I know, Rebecca, I’ve heard on your show, you have amazing statistics about how many people turn to the safety net during a lifetime. And that didn’t happen, though, with the Great Recession. I don’t think that people that became stronger politically, or at least our political leaders, didn’t embrace the need for the safety net any more than they really had before. And so, you’re reading articles now about how everybody’s waking up to see how we need these programs for the basics: for housing, for healthcare, for education, for income security. People say that there’s a growing awareness of that, but I got to say, I’m very, very jaded about that. I just don’t think you can count on people changing without serious political organizing and education. I just don’t. That’s the way change has always happened, right? So, I don’t think it’s going to be any different in this case.

VALLAS: Yeah, and obviously, the racial aspect of the narrative and the debate around the safety net is nothing new and really, is one of the many through lines of the way that programs that provide food and housing and healthcare and other basics to families when they need them has, it’s been incredibly racialized and has really been about sort of the undeserving/deserving along racial lines in ways that, Greg, you’re describing, but in ways that long, long, long predate the political moment even that we were living in before this crisis. That’s part of what makes me sort of ask that question, thinking about that the Black rural South and the many, many ways that it’s been left behind, but also the way that race plays in sort of both directions in that context.

Gbenga, in the last kind of minute that we have here, would love to kind of hear you share any closing thoughts that you have about kind of what you’re hoping policymakers take away. And there’s such a battle for attention, for airtime in this moment, and so many groups are being left behind. What should people be watching in the weeks ahead if we do end up seeing policymakers come back to the table, and as we see policymakers at every level of government trying to get their hands around on this issue?

AJILORE: I think the biggest thing is to look at what’s happening with the number of cases and the number of deaths. One of the things is because it’s been so prevalent that sometimes, we might even be looking at this that the number of deaths are being undercounted. It’s actually more. And so, we have to look at what’s happening, because if we have an outbreak similar to the kind of outbreaks that’s happening in New York and L.A., where we’re having thousands of cases. These rural communities are not that big, and you get something that’s similar kind of spread, it could wipe out these communities. And that’s the kind of thing that we need to look at, is that these rural communities can’t afford our lackluster response that we’ve had in larger cities that have higher populations. And so, we have a record of poor responses to economic crisis just from 10 years ago in the Great Recession. We know what we did wrong there. We know what we need to do now. Just do that. And if we don’t, we could see the outcome of that with the number of cases. We’re already nearing 70,000 deaths, and we already blew past a million cases. And so, if that’s not enough to get us motivated, I don’t know what will.

VALLAS: And Greg, you’re going to get the last word.

KAUFMANN: I just think, you know, I’ve been participating and listening during this conversation, and I just…. There was a period during this call when I’m glad you weren’t asking me any questions because I was so angry I thought it would be hard to speak. And I just, you know, with all of these policies, it’s like our political leaders are saying, “This is good enough for you. You don’t have healthcare? Too bad. You don’t have infrastructure? Too bad.” The lack of any dialogue, and the lack of really fury, fury over the state of things is deeply troubling, to say the least. So, I mean, not to, I guess I am repeating myself. I don’t — [chuckles] I’m slipping out of journalism mode. My hope when I report these stories is that people will use them to get involved with people and groups that are working on these issues. And the need for that’s never been greater in my lifetime than it is right now, And I’m 52.

VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Greg Kaufmann. He’s the former editor in chief and the founder of TalkPoverty.org. He wanted you to know he’s 52. He’s also a longtime poverty reporter.

KAUFMANN: [laughs]

VALLAS: And I’ve also been speaking with Gbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress and the author of a recent report titled Rural America Is Starting to Feel the Effects of the Coronavirus. Greg was also speaking about, and I was asking him about, a couple of pieces that he has written recently, including for Spotlight on Poverty and MSN as well as Facing South. All of this will be on our nerdy syllabus page, so you can read along with our fabulous guests from this week. Gbenga, Greg, thank you so much for taking the time and for all of the work that you’ve been doing to shed a light on this issue.

AJILORE: Thank you.

KAUFMANN: Thanks, Rebecca.

VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Transcripts are courtesy of Cheryl Green. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.

Off-Kilter is the podcast about poverty and inequality—and everything they intersect with. **Show archive 2017-May ‘21** Current episodes: tcf.org/off-kilter.