The term “inner city” conjures images of run-down, dangerous urban areas besieged by crime, drugs, decay, and gun violence. But in the past 30 years, many once-infamous city neighborhoods have seen their property values and desirability skyrocket. Factors such as gentrification, high demand for housing for a growing population, a preference among young people for urban living, the reversal of white flight, the revival of historic architecture, and even the tech boom have made many inner city neighborhoods the hot place to live, work, and play.
Meanwhile, in rural America, problems once associated with city life have taken hold, leading some to call the countryside “the new inner city.”
“Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places,” reported the Wall Street Journal, in a startling analysis that found that “by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).”
A Growing Rural Crime Problem
Crime, one of the key stigmas once attached to urban areas, is now a persistent problem in rural America, due to a host of factors which include the opioid drug epidemic, low educational attainment, and limited economic opportunities. More rural people are going to jail than ever before. A new report finds that incarceration rates are dropping among residents of urban areas, while rural populations are seeing a skyrocketing numbers of residents go to prison.
Millions of Americans are incarcerated, and millions more are on probation. A group called Measures for Justice has analyzed data going back to 1970 and found that rural incarceration rates have spiked in recent years. Ten years ago, people in rural, suburban, and urban areas were about equally likely to go to prison. Today, people in smaller counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in more populous counties, mainly due to drug offenses.
The opioid epidemic is rampant in rural areas. Beginning with prescription painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin, many users advanced to the highly potent and highly dangerous Fentynl and its synthetic versions to cheaper, easier to obtain heroin after easy access to their prescription drugs ended. The CDC reports three out of four new heroin users report abusing prescription opioids before trying heroin. In rural areas, such as the Rust Belt and Appalachia, the physical nature of many jobs leads to workplace injuries that begin the path to heroin.
The crisis is especially worrisome in areas that report poor education levels, the collapse of traditional job opportunities, and the replacement of traditional community-based businesses with low-paying service sector jobs. The 2016 election highlighted this crisis and some analysts see a correction between rural counties that voted for Trump and opioids — noting that a similar connection didn’t exist between Mitt Romney voters in 2012.
In 2016, opioid overdoses killed between 59,000 and 62,497 people, more people than died in the entire Vietnam War. That number is expected to rise in 2017. Meanwhile, while attention is now focused on the opioid crisis, meth is making a comeback in rural areas, which were plagued by the drug in the 1990s. Back then, meth was being produced in makeshift labs across the rural U.S., and fires and explosions would regularly remind communities of its presence. Today, it’s being shipped in from Mexico, and it’s cheaper than ever.
“A lot of people thought if meth labs are down, meth use is down,” said Mark Woodward, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau. He notes that many states tightly regulated the sale of the ingredients that made meth easy to make. “But so much is coming in from Mexico, and it’s just as good as the domestic cooked product. Why risk leaving a paper trail at a pharmacy when you have a buddy coming up from El Paso tonight with a cheap supply?”
Rural Children Born into Drugs
Many woes that have afflicted troubled inner city neighborhoods are attributed to teen mothers, who are ill-equipped for parenthood and, due to the high costs of child care, housing, and other expenses, have difficulty achieving the education needed to rise out of poverty. In reality, the teen birth rate is 63 percent higher in rural areas. In urban counties with large populations, the birth rate for teens age 15 to 19 is 18.9 teens per 1,000, while rural counties with populations of fewer than 50,000 people reported a significantly higher teen birth rate of 30.9 per 1,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (2015).
Babies are being born to teenagers living in rural poverty, where lack of public transportation, job opportunities, comprehensive sex education, and access to family planning resources make it even harder to break the cycle of poverty.
“Young people in rural areas were less inclined to say, ‘I’m going on to college,’ and that is significantly linked to a higher teen birth rate,” said Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “Having a child or fathering a child and trying to complete your education is challenging to say the least. But if you have decided that ‘I’ve done my high school and that’s where I’m stopping’ perhaps delaying childbearing may not be as pressing.”
High rates of teen pregnancy combined with high rates of opioid abuse mean that high numbers of parents are unable to care for their children properly. Across the U.S., the foster care system is overwhelmed with children who have been removed from homes with drug abuse or overdose deaths.
In a 2016 policy brief called “Families in Crisis,” the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration said that the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Health Services “is concerned that the opioid crisis could exacerbate child abuse and neglect given that we’re seeing a link nationally. State child welfare systems have reported that they are experiencing an increase in families coming to their attention with substance use problems impacting their ability to safely parent.”
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