Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg

In Backyard of RNC, Drugs, Vanishing Jobs Strain Rural America

  • Farm agency finds itself on frontline of fight against opioids
  • Drain of people from countryside picks up pace with job loss

Hannah Harmon’s children are playing outside the clinic in southeast Ohio where she gets family counseling twice a month. Staff keep an eye on them as the parking lot fills up with patients seeking dental fillings, pain pills and sympathy. Harmon has five children now: This month she took legal custody of three more kids, siblings from a relative’s family wrecked by drugs.

The government agency helping fund the clinic Harmon visits? The U.S. Department of Agriculture. Created in the mid-19th century to ensure the future of farming, it’s becoming Uncle Sam’s lead tool to fight a social emergency -- soaring drug use, rising suicide rates and deepening poverty -- spreading across the heartland. “We’re charged with the responsibility of filling the gap to make sure rural America hasn’t been forgotten,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says.

That’s a daunting task at a time of many-headed crisis for largely white, rural communities like Pomeroy, a town of about 1,800 people about 200 miles south of Cleveland, where the Republican convention gathered this week. The opioid epidemic has accompanied an ebbing-away of jobs and, among some demographics, an unprecedented drop in life expectancy. Any Norman Rockwell idyll of white-picket fences and unlocked front doors has long since been upended by globalization.

Near downtown Pomeroy
Near downtown Pomeroy
Photographer: Ty Wright

What’s more, the tapping of the Department of Agriculture for the job underscores a broader point: The government, like the wider culture, is much more attuned to the problems of urban areas where most Americans live. That’s why Donald Trump’s message -- repeated at the Republican National Convention up the road in Cleveland, where he accepted the nomination last night -- of fighting for the small-town folks has resonated so much in rural parts of swing states like Ohio.

“Most people in cities are now several generations away from life on the farm, and some even think of rural areas as our dumping ground,” said Daniel Lichter, a sociologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “It’s where we send our prisoners, our garbage and our toxic waste.”

When the Pomeroy facility first opened, according to Hopewell’s chief executive Mark Bridenbaugh, clinicians spent much of their time extracting teeth from people who’d never seen a dentist. Since then it has grown, expanding mental health services for addicts -- and for their relatives, people like Harmon, whose lives have been turned upside-down.

“It was us or foster care, and we have to give it the best shot we’ve got,” the 26-year-old said. “I’m exhausted from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. There have been times when I didn’t want to live. But I have to, for these kids.”

On the Friday she visited the clinic, staff were turning away patient after patient asking for pain pills.

Judy Sisson, a retired court clerk and treasurer of the local Republican Party, remembers when the drugs arrived. It was when the jobs left.

Meigs County’s economy is traditionally farm-based. Sweetcorn and tomato harvests were under way this month, piling up on roadside stands. It also experienced a mining boom, before shutdowns in the 1990s took away 2,000 jobs, almost one-tenth of the population.

‘Parents Stealing’

The rise of fracking cushioned the blow. Harmon’s husband got a job as manager of waste water at a fracked well. Still, one-fifth of Meigs residents -- and a third of under-18s -- live in poverty, both figures slightly above the national rate.

“When those mines went down, it was a blow to all of us,” Sisson said. “The kids grow up, they don’t have a future here, and they need instant gratification. And now you see parents stealing their kids’ Ritalin.”

Such social problems have changed the government’s conception of rural development, says Vilsack, who’s under consideration by Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as a possible running mate.

Five years ago, “we might have made a grant for a fire station,” he said in an interview. “Now it might be a substance-abuse center.”

On Friday, speaking about the opioid crisis in Missouri, Vilsack urged local health managers to make use of USDA nutritional programs for women and children as part of their efforts “to stem the tide of this epidemic.” He also called on Congress to boost funding for addiction treatment.

‘Building Blocks’

It’s telling that the USDA, created primarily to help farmers, is taking the lead, according to Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Past efforts were much broader: President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which targeted Appalachia, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal both had prominent rural components.

“When your government is based on the assumption that the country is going to be 90 percent urban, you’re going to concentrate resources on urban areas,” Davis said. “The USDA becomes the ‘rural’ agency that’s left with this wide mandate, even if it’s not always the best fit.”

With federal help, Meigs County is gradually reinventing itself, according to Perry Varnadoe, its director of economic development. A community college has expanded into Pomeroy, and new stores have opened there since the mining crash: The main street along the river is nearly full of businesses.

“That big new plant isn’t just going to show up,” said Varnadoe. “You work on the building blocks: health care, education, infrastructure.”

‘He’s Scary’

Rural America’s political clout is declining with its population, as district lines are shifted. But this year, heartlanders may be slightly over-represented -- and more likely to vote for Trump than their city counterparts.

For the Republican to have a chance in crucial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania or Iowa, he’ll have to dominate among rural voters, Davis said. In the March primary, even though Ohio Governor John Kasich scored his sole victory in his home state, Trump won Meigs County, 47 percent to 33 percent.

Sisson, the retired clerk, says area voters are ready to throw out what they see as self-serving politicians. “I like Trump because he’s never held political office,” she said. “He’s scary, but he’s making people say ‘Oh my, we can’t do business as usual’.”

For Harmon, business as usual has gotten harder with more mouths to feed. Some weeks she spends $500 on groceries; some days the laundry piles high. She’s discovered that hand sanitizer gets magic-marker scribbles off the wall.

Other problems are tougher to erase. The kids she took in -- twin six-year-old girls and a nine-year-old boy -- have behavioral problems, scarred by their parents’ drug use.

“Before they moved in, we never had holes in the wall of our house,” Harmon said. “Now we have three. I look at them and I just cry, because we worked hard for that home. But it’s not their fault. There was no one there to teach them.”

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