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Rural America is staggeringly diverse, but one characteristic links our nation’s rural COVID-19 hotspots: a specific community’s willingness to welcome a meat/poultry processing plant or a prison to bring in sorely needed jobs and tax revenues.

Of the ten US counties with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per resident, five have a large “correctional center” and three host massive meat/poultry processing plants. The exceptions are Westchester and Rockland Counties, both suburbs of New York City, an urban hotspot itself (Rockland County does contain the relatively small Sing Sing Prison.)

These eight counties are mostly rural, with populations ranging from 11,000 to about 65,000 residents, with all of the meat processing hotspots in the Midwest (Indiana, Minnesota, and Nebraska) and the prison flashpoints in the South (Arkansas and Tennessee) and Ohio.

The correctional centers typically house 2,000 or so inmates in crowded conditions. Lincoln County, Arkansas, with just three incorporated towns, accommodates the Cummins Unit, a state prison farm known for producing rice, cotton, and eggs. As of last week, it was also known as one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots, with nearly 700 of the prison’s 1,700 inmates and 14 staffers testing positive.

The typical meat processing plants are also sizable—after decades of consolidation, about 50 plants nationally account for 98 percent of the slaughtering and processing of cattle. The same goes for pork and chicken. Smithfield Foods’ pork facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has 3,700 workers; 16 percent tested positive for the virus last week. Similarly, in Texas, which didn’t make the top ten, two of its most infected counties are home to mega-meat-processing plants: a Tyson Foods chicken processing plant along the Louisiana border and a JBS Beef packing plant in the Panhandle, where 169 infections have been found among the 3,000 workers.

In sum, in both the prison and the meat processing industries people live and/or work in terribly close proximity and rarely have decent health care. Meat/chicken processing workers in these rural communities are mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa. Whether felons or undocumented workers, few have the right to vote.

Why Choose Rural Prisons and Processing Plants?

The simple answer is desperation. For decades, rural leaders across the country aggressively wooed prisons, waste dumps, and meat/poultry processing plants to their communities, hard hit as mechanization and globalization decimated their traditional economic engines of manufacturing, natural resource extraction, and agriculture. Local leaders saw prisons as a source of hundreds or more good paying jobs with benefits, and as enterprises that were immune to seasonal and cyclical fluctuations, didn’t pollute, and—if you didn’t drive by—were virtually invisible. Although animal slaughtering, processing, and packing facilities don’t quite bring the same mix of attributes, they were also presumed to bring jobs that paid relatively well, local tax revenues, and multiplier benefits to local businesses. Furthermore, both types of projects meant ribbon cuttings for politicians, with headlines about bringing hundreds of jobs that could replace the hundreds (or thousands) lost to globalization and automation.

Industry Attracts “Success”—After a Fashion

Of the nearly 1,200 prisons built between 1970 and 2000, roughly 70 percent went to rural communities, so that by 1999, one in ten rural communities housed a correctional facility. These communities were far more likely to be persistently poor—on the west Texas plains, in the Mississippi Delta, spread throughout coal country in Appalachia, and dotted along a corridor of south central Georgia. And even though the state and federal prison boom has ended, the federal demand for immigration detention centers has spiked, with most facilities sited in rural places that line the southern border of Texas, Arizona, and California.

Meat packing and processing, attracted by the cheap land, low wages, and nonexistent zoning has also sought out rural communities, hungry for jobs, spillover spending, and tax revenues. Once the domain of big cities like Chicago, these plants migrated to rural places so that by 2000, more than 60 percent of meat packing and processing jobs were located in rural areas.

What Happened?

But as a tool for building the rural economy, prisons and meat processing facilities have not delivered the hoped-for benefits to their hosts. Those economically struggling areas that courted prisons are still among the poorest counties in the US, and communities with large meat processing facilities have been hindered, rather than helped in their economic development efforts over time, as property values plummet and infrastructure costs rise for the host community.

In Iowa, the nonprofit advocacy group Food & Water Watch found that over the past three decades, the counties that sold the most hogs and had the largest farms also had declining countywide incomes, slower growth in median household income, and declining numbers of local businesses compared to the statewide average. Although Iowa farmers sold twice as many hogs in 2007 as in 1982, the total real value of the state’s hog sales was 12 percent lower.

Nationally, real worker earnings at slaughter, processing and poultry plants have fallen; the number of beef cattle operations and hog farms has dropped and the gross farm income of the medium and small sized cattle and hog farms that drive rural economies fell 31.6 percent between 1999 and 2000.

What If…

Better options for rural communities than prisons or slaughterhouses exist (see this US Department of Agriculture website for examples). Just to pick one path, imagine if these communities, rather than scoring a giant prison or processing plant, had the resources and the vision to invest in protecting, strengthening, and expanding its healthcare system. A study in a rural region of New York State concluded:

  • An independent rural health center annually generates 12.6 local jobs and $1.1 million in wages, salaries and benefits.
  • A rural primary care physician practicing in a community with a local hospital creates an estimated 26.3 jobs and nearly $1.4 million in income.
  • A rural surgeon is responsible for about $2.7 million in revenue, $1.4 million in payroll and creates more than 26 jobs.
  • A rural Physician’s Assistant generates 4.4 local jobs and labor income of $280,476 from the clinic. And if there’s a local hospital, the impact climbs to 18.5 local and jobs and nearly $1 million in labor income.
  • The average rural dentist has direct impacts of 5 FTE local jobs and $338.797 in payroll.

In sum, these basic pieces of the rural health infrastructure annually generate about 75 jobs in a rural community—plus substantial payrolls, a sales pitch for retirees and other professionals, the added benefits of dramatically improved healthcare, and the multiplier effects from other medical businesses/practices. And that’s not counting the hospital itself.

Instead, rural communities are hemorrhaging hospitals and spawning their own kinds of hotspots, with little capacity to effectively respond. Moving forward, let’s elevate rural leaders that don’t just look for easy answers for hard problems, and state and federal leaders that invest in healthcare for all.—Debby Warren