The image of rural America is often one of bucolic innocence. In fact, for much of the 20th century, rural families were larger, more stable and younger than urban ones. But in the last quarter of the century, farms and rural communities began experiencing a host of “urban” problems.

Over these years, rural families became more like urban ones with higher rates of divorce than before and fewer children. Both parents and children began commuting more, parents for jobs in town and children for classes in consolidated schools. With more parents working in town, many rural kids became “latchkey” kids spending long hours after school alone. Satellite TV and rural Internet connectivity opened up unprecedented access to media depictions of sexuality, drugs and urban lifestyles. These influences, in combination with isolation, chronic boredom and limited economic opportunities, have driven “urban problems” into rural communities.

Drugs. In many areas of rural America, marijuana grows wild. In others, marijuana “farmers” seek out isolated regions to produce their crops, particularly on the West Coast. In 2008, the National Park Service said they had found and destroyed marijuana farms in remote parts of at least six national parks and recreation areas. These farms destroyed acres of natural and endangered habitat, dammed and diverted streams and polluted the area through fertilizers, herbicides and human waste. Some of the “farmers” had armed confrontations with legitimate campers.

However, “meth” is the fastest growing illegal drug in the country and methamphetamine is a particular problem in rural areas. According to the large 2004 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, young adults (age 18-25) in the smallest rural areas use meth at a rate nearly twice that of urban adults (2.9% vs. 1.5%).

One reason meth is so prevalent in rural areas is that it can be formulated, or “cooked,” by small producers and one of the ingredients is readily found on most farms – anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. Both farmers and chemical suppliers have experienced thefts of anhydrous particularly in the Midwest. Others suggest that meth’s stimulation of the nervous system is especially attractive to rural youth where there are fewer entertainment outlets than in urban settings.

Suzanne Ratzlaff (left) says that drugs are present in her community of Henderson, Nebraska, but that alcohol is a bigger problem. “I do know that drugs are in rural Nebraska,” she says. “[But] it tends to be more drinking, I think, than drugs because maybe that’s a little bit more acceptable to do wrong than to do drugs. That [drugs] would be less acceptable.”

film_derr_RHeather Derr (right) is one of those who is concerned with drugs in rural America. “Oh, it’s bad,” she says. “You like to think you’re out in the middle of nowhere and nobody’s going to hurt you. And then you find out they’re using your anhydrous to create their drugs. They’re everywhere!”

News stories about meth prompted a huge public outcry. A 2005 Gallup poll suggested that meth was near the top of the American public’s concerns about crime. When 1,000 citizens were asked, “How concerned are you about each of the following happening in your local community?” two out of three respondents said they were “very concerned” about the use or sale of crystal meth. That was the second highest concern of the six presented to the respondents, following sexual molestation of children. Concern about meth was ranked higher than the use or sale of cocaine, identity theft, violent crime and terrorism. In rural America, the concern about meth went up from the overall rate of 66% to 75%.
But there are others who suggest that meth is not as big a problem as the public believes. In 2006 the advocacy group The Sentencing Project noted that meth was very rarely used – even in the rural rates outlined above, less than 3% of young adults used meth. Nationally, less than 1% of all Americans “regularly” use meth. Four times as many Americans use cocaine on a regular basis and 30 times as many use marijuana.

In the same study, rates of meth use in high school students declined between 1999 and 2005. Contrary to public perception, drug treatment programs have been shown to be effective in getting meth addicts sober.

Alcohol & Tobacco. Legal drugs are an even bigger problem in rural America than the abuse of illegal one, particularly by teens.

Five times as many rural teens (age 12-17) admit to binge drinking than rural young adults (age 18-25) admit to using meth. Fifteen percent of teens in the most rural areas say they have binged on five or more drinks on a single occasion. An additional 4% say they have binged five or more times during the past month. That is considered heavy use of alcohol and it’s happening in groups of rural kids who can’t buy alcohol legally.

Even more disturbing is that in areas where going to town means long road trips, at least 7.2% of teens admit they have driven while under the influence of alcohol in the last month.

In addition, a California study suggested that rural youth are four times as likely to smoke cigarettes frequently than urban youth.

Homelessness. Perhaps surprisingly, there are now homeless people in rural America. The rural economic downturn of the 80s and early 90s, contributed to a rise in homelessness, especially in rural women. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 840,000 very low-income rural households were living in “severely inadequate” housing. As the millennium ended, federal housing assistance dollars dried up and significant numbers of the rural poor were eliminated from welfare rolls.

So, in the last years of the 20th century, more and more families with women at their head moved in with relatives, rented decrepit shacks or moved in to domestic violence shelters with their families.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2009. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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