Rural Americans Are OK With 'Outside' Help To Beat Opioid Crisis And Boost Economy

Oct 25, 2018
Originally published on October 25, 2018 12:27 pm

Rural Americans can take a dim view of outsiders from Washington, D.C., (or even from the state capital) meddling in their communities.

Ronald Reagan summed up the feeling when he was president: "I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.' "

But rural Americans have come across scarier phrases since then, like "the opioid epidemic."

"So what you have are some very serious problems — particularly around the economy and opioid and drug abuse — that really worry people," says Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Small towns face big problems. In rural America, rugged individualism is still prized, but so is the pragmatism that has begun to trump traditional disdain for government.

When NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the T.H. Chan School of Public Health polled rural Americans this summer, 58 percent said they want outside help with community problems.

"I think that's a surprise for a lot of people," says Blendon, "that there is a willingness — by most, not all — to reach out for outside help."

Many rural communities are facing two big, persistent issues: drugs and economic stagnation. Take Belle, Mo., with its population of 1,500.

"Money is a big problem," says Kathy Stanfield, who is in her late 60s and raised her children here. "You don't have the tax base anymore that you used to have."

Stanfield says Belle has struggled since the shoe factory closed decades ago. It was once the town's biggest employer.

Increasingly, the town relies on grants to pay for basic maintenance, like replacing crumbling sidewalks or fixing faulty water lines. And that money is getting harder to come by.

Belle has a drug problem, too, and Roxie Murphy, a newspaper reporter who covers Belle for the Maries County Advocate, says drug-related crime is on a lot of people's minds.

"Even though we're rural, the idea that we're safe isn't really there anymore," says Murphy.

But she also calls Belle a proud town — one that isn't giving up.

That's consistent with NPR's rural poll results. Blendon says fully half of those surveyed say their community problems can be solved within five years.

"It is not all a world of hopelessness, as many others have described," Blendon says. "There's a great deal of optimism that 'we can deal with these issues if we can get outside help.' "

Blendon says that of those looking for outside help, three in five expect it to come from the government — state government, mainly.

The problem is, many state governments have been cutting taxes for years and are short on funds.

Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, says state budget cuts are taking a heavy toll on small towns that depend on government funding far more than their residents realize. And with state funding drying up, he says, appreciation for those funds may be growing.

"This is symptomatic of a country that is re-evaluating itself, and re-evaluating these decisions, and realizing the importance of civic infrastructure and the importance of being part of a community and part of a state where we're all pulling in the same direction," Hladik says. "I think this could be a positive sign."

If rural hostility toward government is in fact easing, Hladik says, the optimism many rural residents feel about solving persistent drug and economic problems may be justified.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Some of the most troubled parts of this country are rural areas. And in those places, disdain for government typically runs pretty high. But this summer, NPR, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed a broad group of rural Americans. And that poll turned up some surprises about how many rural people want government help. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Rural America can sometimes feel like a country apart. Thirty-two years ago, Ronald Reagan summed it up with this clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.

MORRIS: But rural Americans have since come across some even scarier words, like opioid epidemic.

ROBERT BLENDON: So what you have is some very serious problems, particularly around the economy and opioid and drug abuse that really worry people.

MORRIS: And Robert Blendon at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that of 1,300 rural adults surveyed by NPR, 58 percent said their towns need outside help.

BLENDON: I think that's a surprise for a lot of people, that there is a willingness by most - not all - to reach out for outside help.

MORRIS: Take the proud little town of Belle in central Missouri.

KATHY STANFIELD: There's a big struggle going on in this small town (laughter) right now.

MORRIS: Kathy Stanfield, a feisty, compact woman pushing 70, looks up from her front porch at a town of 1,500 corralled by green rolling hills and farm fields and split by opposing views of outside involvement.

STANFIELD: People wanting it to grow and wanting it to be the best it can be and people that would prefer that everyone back off and let them do what they want.

MORRIS: It's pressing here because this town is struggling with the same issues plaguing much of rural America.

STANFIELD: Money - you don't have a tax base anymore that you used to have.

MORRIS: The shoe factory in Belle, a big employer, and many local shops closed decades ago. Career options are scarce. Some petty crimes go unpunished. And, like in much of rural America, drug abuse is widespread.

ROXIE MURPHY: Even though we're rural, the idea that we're safe isn't really there anymore.

MORRIS: Roxie Murphy covers Belle for the Maries County Advocate newspaper.

MURPHY: There's no way that this community will be able to fix the drug problem by themselves. In order to do that, they would need more money and more resources that they don't have.

MORRIS: But it's not like Belle's giving up. And that's another thing that popped out in NPR's rural poll. Robert Blendon says fully half of those surveyed say their community problems can be solved within five years.

BLENDON: It is not all a world of hopelessness, as many others have described. There's a great deal of optimism that we can deal with these issues if we can get outside help.

MORRIS: And Blendon says that, of those looking for outside help, 3 out of 5 expect it to come from government, especially state government. Problem is state money is getting harder to come by.

STANFIELD: This is - used to be the Rock Island Railroad.

MORRIS: Kathy Stanfield again, standing on a grassy right-of-way cutting straight through town where she says the state once promised to build a major cross-state bike trail.

STANFIELD: The people that wanted this trail to go through could see so many possibilities for this town growing by having people from out of the city coming in here and spending their money here in Belle. And now, we've basically been told no. It's a big disappointment. It really is.

MORRIS: The state does spend quite a bit in Belle paying public school salaries, providing grants that mostly cover things like new sidewalks, drainage projects and hopefully a new water tower. But Barb Schaller, City Hall, says the city is often turned down.

BARB SCHALLER: Because it's so competitive. A lot of communities, a lot of places, need help. Sometimes it's pretty slim.

MORRIS: Johnathan Hladik at the Center for Rural Affairs says state budget cuts are taking a heavy toll on small towns that depend on government funding more than their residents tend to realize. And he says that with state funding drying up, appreciation for it may be growing.

JOHNATHAN HLADIK: This is symptomatic of a country that is re-evaluating itself and re-evaluating its decisions and realizing the importance of civic infrastructure and the importance of being part of a community and part of a state where we're all pulling in the same direction. I think this could be a positive sign.

MORRIS: Hladik says that if rural hostility toward government is in fact easing, the optimism that many rural residents feel about solving persistent drug and economic problems may be justified.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Belle, Mo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.