Drug Abuse, Government Dependency, and Rural Decline

December 13, 2013

One alarming fact about America’s rural communities is that many of them are dying. Demographically, the major challenge facing rural towns is demographic winter, i.e., exhibiting more deaths than births.

One third of all counties in the U.S. exhibit this phenomenon. Even in fervently pro-life, pro-family Oklahoma, 27 of the state’s 77 counties are experiencing demographic winter.

As rural towns statistically “die,” they fail to provide enough young entrepreneurs and workers for private-sector growth. As these towns have failed to attract private-sector investment to replace the manufacturing and farming enterprises that have dwindled, government has slowly crowded out the private sector in these rural communities.

In previous work with J. Scott Moody, I show that in 2012 Oklahoma had the 12th smallest private sector in the country at only 67.1 percent—down from 92.8 percent in 1929. Given that these towns are small to begin with, at some point the calamities that occur as a result of crowding out by government may be such that towns may never recover.

As a city dweller drives through America’s bucolic countryside, the last thing on his or her mind is the alarming drug use that is ravaging America’s heartland. Heroin, meth, bath salts—these drugs are destroying former agricultural and mill towns.

In a November cover story for The Weekly Standard, Geoffrey Norman discusses the unnerving heroin epidemic ravaging the back-road hamlets in Vermont.

Vermont seems, in the abstract, all wrong for this sort of thing. Isn’t heroin the drug of the urban underclass, project housing, and street gangs? Vermont is among the whitest states in the union, and not so many years ago it had more cows than people, more miles of dirt roads than paved. It is, in the general imagination, the home of Ben & Jerry’s and a place where people don’t cook cough syrup for meth, they boil maple sap for syrup.

And yet:

The chief of police of Burlington, the state’s only true city, recently estimated that some 15 to 20 organized dealer operations are working his part of the state. Most have ties to gangs in cities that include Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. They move enough of the drug to bring in almost a million and a half dollars every week. Not a lot by big-city standards but, then, the population of the entire state is barely more than 600,000 people.

As these rural towns have lost their character, which has historically been steeped in an ethos of hard work, pride, and ambition, Norman says these communities have been overrun with “unemployment, welfare, illegitimacy, and drugs.”

What is interesting is many addicts are recipients of public assistance, enabling their drug addictions. For example, one of the employees at the Mandala House, a private drug-treatment house for women, tells Norman: “If you are a single mom in Vermont and you have a cell phone, then you just need to dial 211 and you will be talking to a real person who will tell you what the [welfare] programs are and how you can get on them. You can be an addict and a mom and be taken care of.”

Dialing 211 opens the door to food stamps, child-care financial assistance, long-term care assistance, emergency basic needs, fuel assistance, housing assistance, TANF, and much more. As another Mandala House employee says, “We are enabling these people. We make it too easy for them.”

Norman also notes that of the 60 drug dealers nabbed in a recent bust in Bennington, Vermont, 50 of the dealers are on public assistance.

Though it is heroin that is currently wreaking havoc in small towns all across Vermont, Oklahomans could read Norman’s article and nod knowingly, simply substituting “methamphetamine” for “heroin.”

And as rural towns in Oklahoma and all over the country continue to die statistically and wither economically, paternalistic government programs replace what used to be thriving private-sector communities characterized by personal responsibility. Where government thrives at the expense of economic growth, the people populating these communities suffer as they become addicted to government assistance. Without work to build skills and character, rural towns are breeding generational poverty and hopelessness.

Until taxpayers and their elected officials get serious about policing welfare benefits so that they are only available to the neediest and most deserving, our rural communities will continue to decline and be increasingly undesirable places to live.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”