Covid-19 and the Rural Fear of ‘Taking Advantage’ – The New York Times

CLINTON, Ark. — After a brief shutdown to hinder the coronavirus’s spread, Arkansas began opening up, slowly and cautiously, on May 11. Businesses are placing limits on the number of customers they will serve at any one time, and social distancing and mask wearing is still required in establishments like restaurants. The state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, has been critical of businesses and customers that don’t follow these rules. Even so, Arkansas has seen a second peak of coronavirus infection, as cases surge especially among younger people and the Latino population in northwestern counties. On Thursday, Governor Hutchinson announced the largest single-day increase in community transmission — 261 cases.

Despite this, and despite predictions that the virus will take a “crushing toll” in rural areas like ours, this part of Arkansas has so far been spared the worst health effects of Covid-19. Van Buren County, where I live, has fewer than 17,000 people and has had only 28 confirmed cases of the coronavirus to date. Two people died, but the rest have recovered. Early cases were concentrated in bigger cities, like Little Rock and a suburb of Memphis, and were disproportionately among black Arkansans. There have been more than 6,500 cases in the state — about a fifth of them have been in prisons, and those cases weren’t even added to official totals at first, all of which is a human rights disaster — but most families haven’t been affected. Any death is a tragedy, but death from Covid-19 hasn’t personally touched very many people here. At least not yet.

I moved back here to my hometown two and a half years ago to write a book about it. Since returning, I’ve become more active on Facebook, which is both a source of local gossip and official news; county officials and offices often post important updates, especially about the coronavirus outbreak, to their Facebook pages. I’m also a member of three local news groups that are a source of insight into how my neighbors think about current events. I’ve found that a vast majority of people here approach political issues, whether local or national, with suspicion of taxation and government spending, even when such spending is for their own benefit. This has remained true even during these unprecedented times.

We have been hit with the economic devastation caused by the pandemic. The median household income in the state is $45,726; for the county it’s $34,428, so there are many people who live paycheck to paycheck. While a large majority of Americans — 74 percent — support continued efforts to slow the virus’s spread, and there are plenty of well-off Americans and business owners eager to get back to work, the divide over whether lockdowns should continue is a strongly partisan one. Many Republicans, including low- and middle-income whites think businesses should reopen now. For the most part, the people I’ve spoken to and seen commenting online here accept as a given that the only way to be able to pay their rent or to feed their kids is to return to work: They don’t think it’s possible to protect our health and our economic well-being at the same time.

Many people I spoke with here were happy with the $1,200 economic-impact payments, but it wasn’t enough to replace incomes. And yet, many were eager, as the Senate debated, to include a $500 billion pot of money for the biggest corporations in the country. They thought sending a lifeline to gigantic, publicly traded corporations would be the key to holding on to their jobs. I asked a woman who lives in my county whether she thought that was the only way to ensure her well-being. “Yes, ma’am,” she said, before bowing out because the discussion became too political. “It’s the trickle effect.”

There were arguments over whether unemployment insurance should have been enhanced by $600 a week. Many of my friends here were upset that people could make more by not working — and indeed, that has happened for some. A friend of mine, Amy Johnson, who grew up here but lives in Little Rock, applied for unemployment insurance when the restaurant she works at closed down. She says she makes a little more right now, $2,720 a month, compared with about $2,300 during her busiest months bartending.

The state of Arkansas hasn’t moved to help workers, like initiating payment moratoriums on rent or utilities. During a public conference call with our state representative, Josh Miller, I asked whether there had been any discussion with lawmakers about taking measures like those. He said he hadn’t been part of any such conversations.

“A lot of our work force is able to continue to work,” said Mr. Miller, whose district includes parts of Cleburne, Van Buren and Faulkner Counties. “And so they’re being paid like normal. You don’t want folks taking advantage of a crisis situation.”

Though obviously not every one holds this view, I’ve found that fear of others’ “taking advantage” is the dominant operating mode of even charity at the individual level for many people here. It is largely driven by ideology that says working for a paycheck is good but seeking government assistance is bad. Governor Hutchinson has been holding almost daily news briefings since the pandemic began, and state residents can watch on Facebook and comment as the briefing unfolds, a sort of virtual town hall.

Early on, in March, as other states began issuing lockdown orders and Arkansas remained a holdout, one commenter summed up the attitude well when she said: “Maybe some people who are pushing for a mandatory stay-at-home order want to get paid for sitting around and doing a bunch of nothing. Which is what they would do on a normal day anyway. It’s a way of life for them.”

The attitude that some people just don’t want to work is often linked to racism: A 2017 Urban Institute study found that states with larger black populations were less generous with their welfare benefits. Indeed, Arkansas was one of the first states to tie Medicaid benefits to a work requirement, though that has since been struck down by a judge. Food-stamp beneficiaries in the state also must meet work requirements. The hesitation to support those out of work seems linked to the fact that black and Latino Arkansans have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus. Indeed, when asked whether the rise in cases among the Latino population was tied to work sites, Governor Hutchinson responded: “They want to work. They’re hardworking.”

Perhaps people here would rather support the idea of local charities because they can control where benefits go. During the holidays, I saw many people on Facebook posting generous offers to buy meals for “truly deserving” families in need, whole boxes of turkeys and vegetables and cranberry sauce. The people who did so spent at least an extra $30 at the grocery store to provide a holiday meal for someone else. But it was on a small scale: one individual giving to one family her or she could personally screen.

The community as a whole votes against food stamps, disability payments and other social safety net programs, and often laments that people are “taking advantage” of them. It’s a weird idea: The entire point of charity, and of social safety nets, is that people are meant to take advantage of them. I wanted to respond to those posts and say, “What if I told you that you could spend $30 a year to help feed families year-round through the food-stamp program?”

There have been similar personal efforts now: The food bank connected to a local church is busier than usual, and other churches are passing out boxes of food at lunchtime.

The school is sending the lunches it would otherwise be serving in the cafeteria out to families via school buses. Early on, before the state issued guidelines to the contrary, the teachers and bus drivers were hopping out to hug the kids and their families, taking pictures and posting them on Facebook. There’s a sense that anything labeled “government” is cold and distant, while handing a family a box of food feels warm and good.

Individual good will is unlikely to meet Arkansas’s need, however. Some jobs and businesses simply won’t return. This will be even truer if case numbers start rising again and the full force of the pandemic hits this community.

I wonder whether people will then begin to see the limits of hard work and revise what it means to “take advantage” of help when it’s offered. I wonder whether their sense of empathy will grow, or whether they’ll just see themselves as exceptional victims of unusual times.

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