County News

Partnering to Bring Hope to Rural Communities in Crisis

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In Mercer County, W.Va., a community gripped by the opioid epidemic, County Commissioner Greg Puckett spends more each month on his county jail bill than what he has budgeted for economic development in the entire year.  

Greg is not alone.  Our nation is in the midst of a crisis.  And, while no corner of the country has gone untouched, rural communities have been particularly hard hit by this epidemic.

Under the leadership of President Trump and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, we are sharply focused on increasing economic opportunity and improving the quality of life in rural America.  

In carrying out that core mission, we believe that the opioid epidemic and the broader issue of addiction in rural communities is more than a health issue; this is a matter of rural prosperity because it is threatening economic development and changing the very fabric of small towns across our country.    

From Michigan to Montana, the opioid crisis is increasing health care demands, draining social services, and putting substantial stress on limited emergency response and law enforcement resources.  

This issue is also making economic development even more difficult for rural places like Mercer County that are already operating on slim budgets and struggling to attract new business. 

The epidemic is hammering the competitiveness of rural businesses by hindering worker productivity and limiting the availability of qualified employees.  

Lastly, the opioid crisis is impacting the next generation of rural leaders by tearing families apart and leaving children in the chaos of temporary care.

I have seen this firsthand in my travels.  Just last month, I visited with a plant manager in Kentucky who is struggling to keep his manufacturing plant running at full capacity because he cannot find enough qualified workers who can pass a drug test.  

At any given time, he has 40 to 50 open positions — opportunities which go untapped primarily due to the growing challenge of drug use in his region. 

In West Virginia, I met a judge who removed 175 children last year from families where a parent is struggling with drug use.  

With only nine foster families in the county, he is now juggling children between makeshift shelters and hotel space in a neighboring county.  And finally, in Illinois, a local elected official told me that drug calls into his city’s emergency hotline are taking up so much response capacity that callers cannot get through with other emergencies.  

Many of these anecdotes may sound painfully familiar to you in your own community.  

As you stand on the front lines of this battle, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stands with you as a partner in building an effective local response to this monumental challenge.  

From coaching rural leaders to improve the quality of life in their communities through the Rural Impact County Challenge to taking on mental illness in the jail system through the Stepping Up initiative, we are grateful for NACo’s leadership in tackling tough challenges.  

As we look ahead together at the needs of rural communities in facing the opioid crisis, USDA seeks to bolster these efforts with resources for prevention, treatment and recovery as well as building upstream resilience through prosperity. 

We have programs for prevention education, health care facilities and public safety infrastructure, and have given priority to applications that would address the opioid crisis in several of these programs.  

These resources can be used to help leaders build additional treatment capacity and acquire vehicles and equipment.  We also have funding for building distance learning and telemedicine connections that will help small towns connect to training and specialized medical care needs which are often otherwise not available in rural America.  

Beyond these programs to assist in an immediate response, USDA has many resources to address crucial components of long-term prosperity in rural America such as housing, broadband connection and business opportunities.   

To help connect rural leaders to these resources as well as the resources of our partners like NACo, we have established an opioids webpage on the USDA website.  

There, local leaders can find information about funding opportunities, news updates, model practices and links to other agencies. 

We recently launched an interactive opioid misuse resource map on the page to highlight resources for prevention, treatment and recovery from rural communities across the country.

As we build this library of resources, we need your help in lifting up what you have seen in your own county or state.  

Please visit www.usda.gov/topics/opioids and click on “What’s working in your town?” to contribute.   

Lastly, USDA is building strategic partnerships and facilitating the adoption of models that have been effective on the ground.  

In March, we kicked off a series of rural roundtables in Middletown, Pa. 

The first event included Commissioner Ed Bustin, from Bradford County, Pa., a NACo member, who advocated for partnership and collaboration in the wake of this crisis.  

We have since held conversations in Nevada, Utah, Missouri, Kentucky and Oklahoma and will go to Maine next month. 

Through these roundtable events, we have gained a stronger understanding of the unique needs of rural communities in this battle and been able to learn from what is already working on the ground in rural America.  

We are using this information to shape new initiatives and resource tools for rural communities.  We are also sharing this information with other rural interests so together we can be a more effective partner to local leaders on the front lines.    

At USDA, we believe in rural America and in the promise of small towns and the people who call them home.

With a passion for our mission, we are committed to being a strong partner to local leaders to defeat the scourge of the opioid epidemic.  

Together, we can build healthy and prosperous rural communities now and for generations to come.

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