As the Nation’s “Drug Czar,” I regularly travel around the country to understand how the addiction crisis is affecting local communities. People often ask me, “What can I do?” As a person of faith, my first response is simple: “Pray.” However, in my belief, I am also reminded that my faith is brought to life with action.
Perhaps nowhere is the need for action more evident than in rural America — especially now. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented rural communities with new challenges. Jobs in fields such as manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism have seen a significant economic impact in recent months, and many who work in jobs in these sectors do not have the luxury of working remotely.
The impact of addiction is great, but resources are few. In 2018, more than 67,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. Many of those deaths occurred in rural America. A survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union, two leading farm organizations, found that nearly 50 percent of adults living in rural America have been directly impacted by the opioid crisis.
One reason rural America is suffering is because there is a significant gap in many communities in the services needed to help people struggling with an addiction get healthy and stay well. I have seen this firsthand in my travels throughout rural America to places like Wise county, a rural county in southwest Virginia. This spring, I met with leadership from the Health Wagon, a faith-based clinic that provides critical care for this mountainous region that has been hard hit by poverty and addiction. Beyond its core mission of primary care, the Health Wagon has started providing medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction because there is literally no other organization that can meet the overwhelming need in their area.
Sadly, this story is not uncommon. Helping rural leaders to fill these gaps is a top priority for the current administration and our team at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). We believe that the most effective answers to addiction are built at a community level and have focused our efforts on creating tools to empower rural leaders to take action.
To this end, we first built a Community Assessment Tool that provides county-level data about drug-related deaths and overlays that data with information about socio-economic factors that might be driving local trends in substance use such as education levels, disability rates and unemployment. In June, we released an update to the tool that includes new data layers for broadband availability, transportation, health profession shortage areas, persistent poverty, and other factors that disproportionately affect rural communities. We also added a rural prosperity index that helps local leaders look at the resilience or vulnerability of their community to addiction. Stakeholders in rural communities are now empowered with comprehensive data and information that allows local law enforcement and community leaders to target and address the areas of greatest need.
Once a rural leader knows the scope of the problem in their community, the next question is often what to do about it. To help rural communities know where to begin, ONDCP joined 18 rural stakeholder partners to write a Rural Community Action Guide. The guide offers background information, recommended action steps, and success stories on a wide range of topics related to addiction, from stigma to recovery housing and transportation. Each topic in the guide was written by a rural partner who has the frontline experience to help local leaders tackle this specific need in their community.
Recognizing how important the faith community is to rural prosperity, we included a chapter written by the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There, the Center provides specific actions that faith leaders can take to support families with drug use prevention, treatment, and recovery needs and offers promising practices from states such as California, Maine, and Pennsylvania.
Finally, to help rural leaders find the funding needed to move from vision to action, we created the Rural Community Toolbox, an online resource that provides details on all Federal funding opportunities to help rural communities with drug addiction. The website allows local leaders to find resources from 16 different Federal departments and agencies — all in one place.
Throughout our Nation’s history, courageous men and women of faith have helped rural communities weather the storms of natural disaster, economic downturn, and other public health challenges like the COVID-19 public health emergency. The role of the faith community in addressing the addiction crisis is no different. With a shared passion for our faith and rural America, the Trump Administration is strongly committed to equipping faith leaders with the tools needed to take action in the fight against addiction. Together, we can build strong, healthy, and drug-free rural communities now and for generations to come.