NEW REPORT: Austerity Has Failed Rural South, Policies Must Change to Support Black and Brown Families Left Behind

October 26, 2021

Today, Groundwork Collaborative and Insight Center released a new research paper, “The Rural South: Where Austerity Thrives and Black and Latinx Americans Perish” authored by Aisa Villarosa, Jhumpa Bhattacharya, and Azza Altiraifi. The paper uses Mississippi as a case study to highlight how government disinvestment in rural southern communities has marginalized Black and Latinx households, pushing them into poverty, and adversely impacted the overall health of our economy.

Later this week, Groundwork Collaborative and the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) will release new polling building on these findings that demonstrate the strong support that voters in the south have for key progressive priorities. The poll finds broad support for key elements of the Build Back Better agenda such as robust investments in health and climate and ending tax breaks for corporations and the ultra wealthy.

“Black and brown families living in the rural south are far too often ignored, undermined, and abandoned by their government,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, vice president at the Insight Center and one of the co-authors of the report. “ Our new paper highlights how this has happened in Mississippi, what that means for rural families across the south, and what should be done to begin addressing the damage that’s been done.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated communities of color and disabled people across the South. The magnitude of this public health and economic crisis exposed the harms of austerity and the resulting disinvestment in public infrastructure and social safety net programs,” said Azza Alitraifi, senior program manager at Groundwork Collaborative and one of the co-authors of the report. “Black and brown people overwhelmingly bear the brunt of the consequences of austerity.”

The poll results will be released during an October 28 webinar at 11 a.m. ET, hosted by SEAP, Fair Count, and the National Conference on Citizenship. You can register for the event here. 

Key excerpts from the new paper below:

“We are the economy, so we must ensure our people are taken care of all over the U.S, particularly those who have been ignored and forgotten like rural Black southerners.”

“Rural Mississippi had not recovered from the Great Recession over a decade ago when COVID-19 hit. With an aging population, some of the country’s worst health outcomes, an underfunded and failing healthcare system, and high unemployment, rural counties were woefully unprepared for the outbreak…With Mississippi holding the 4th largest rural population in the country and a substantial Black population, there is a lot to learn about how austerity politics impact rural Black communities in America.” 

“It is only when we bring to the center those who have been pushed to the margins of our economy that we will truly heal as a nation from this pandemic. Austerity measures and disinvestments will continue to worsen outcomes for rural Black households during the pandemic and resulting recession without urgent action.”

“When legislatures don’t allocate resources and build infrastructure to protect the lives of Black and brown people, and guarantee that Black and Latinx children have enough food to eat and a roof over their heads, they are admitting that they don’t believe Black and Latinx individuals and families are deserving of public investment. Failing to act with big, bold policies — and refusing to use public dollars to protect the public while never delaying a corporate bailout  — is a continuation of unchecked white supremacist thinking in our government.”

“Since the start of the pandemic, Black COVID-19 mortality rates have outpaced white deaths by as much as 200 percent. Virus outbreaks have been most severe in rural Black-majority counties like Tunica, Bolivar, and Wilkinson, where there are few or no ICU beds, and in some cases, no hospital. These counties’ large agricultural operations, including catfish and meat processors employing mostly Black and Latinx people, quickly became hotspots for the virus.”

“Throughout the pandemic, disinvestment in relief for rural communities has weakened or eliminated economic lifelines for Black and brown families, working people, and small businesses. This disinvestment stems from a long history of deliberate policy choices that ignore the needs of Black people, and label them undeserving…Months and possibly years away from the pandemic’s end, COVID-19 unemployment funds and business loans have failed to provide Black rural communities with what they need to endure economic depression.” 

“Health care system disinvestment harms all people, especially people of color in the rural South, creating daunting geographic and economic barriers to accessing quality care. Long before COVID-19, rural Mississippi hospitals were at limited capacity and high risk of closure, while broadband issues impeded the effectiveness of telehealth and virtual visits. As the pandemic wears down medical facilities and professionals, racialized health disparities due to COVID-19 further magnify long-standing inequities facing Black and brown people in rural Mississippi.”

“Rejecting austerity measures, and the racist fearmongering behind them, will allow for the space, imagination, and resources to build shared prosperity for everyone. The only way for us to overcome COVID-19 and its economic fallout is to equip working people and their families with what they truly need to make it through crisis. This must start with immediate and inclusive monetary relief, a continued moratorium on evictions, and adequately-resourced support programs.”

About the authors 

Aisa Villarosa currently serves as the Senior Director of External Affairs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Previously, she was the Associate Director of Policy and Research at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. In this role, she applied her advocacy, law, and policy expertise to Insight’s workforce development and economic security initiatives.

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is the Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. In this role, Jhumpa is a key contributor to the thought leadership of the Insight Center, provides cross-program content support and strategic guidance, and oversees the racial, gender and economic equity and narrative change portfolios. She directly leads work identifying policy and narrative solutions to racial and gender wealth inequities.

Azza Altiraifi is the Senior Program Manager for the Campaigns and Partnerships team at the Groundwork Collaborative. Prior to joining Groundwork, Azza was a research and advocacy manager at the Center for American Progress’ disability policy initiative. In that role, Azza spearheaded advocacy campaigns as well as researched and published articles on mental health policy, surveillance, and advancing economic security for disabled people.