The National Science Foundation’s Division of Social and Economic Sciences has awarded a $200,000 rapid-response grant to Iowa State’s David Peters, associate professor of sociology and rural extension sociologist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, along with the University of Iowa’s Mark Berg, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology, and Nicole Novak, assistant research scientist in the Department of Public Health.
The team will use the funds to document the health, socioeconomic and emotional impacts of COVID-19 in Iowa’s rural communities. According to the researchers, the pandemic’s impact on small towns has been largely ignored in academic and policy discussions, as attention has focused on large metropolitan areas.
“This makes small towns statistically invisible and creates a false sense of rural immunity, even as projections anticipate rising numbers of cases and deaths,” Peters said. “For example, COVID-19 outbreaks in rural meat-packing communities caught public health and government officials off-guard. Policies and programs are being rapidly developed to address the pandemic.”
If such policies are not informed by timely social research, Peters said, they may fail to address pressing rural needs or be ill-suited to rural contexts. As rural communities become more ethno-racially diverse due to changes in agriculture, more information is needed to better target health and economic recovery programs in these unique towns.
An advisory panel of representatives from local government, public health and other relevant community and business organizations will help guide the research project. This team will survey over 12,000 residents across 65 small Iowa towns using an existing longitudinal rural panel from the Iowa Small Towns Project.
“Three of these communities are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19 because they are home to large meat-packing facilities,” Peters said. “Early reports from these places suggest outbreaks may exacerbate preexisting racial and economic marginalization.”
Two organizations—the League of United Latin American Citizens and Solidarity with Food Processing Workers—will assist the research partners in these communities. The project will start later this month and conclude in July 2021.