We understand that connection with others is good for our health, longevity, and even the resilience of our community. We less often consider the physical places and structures, or the “social infrastructure,” that supports that connection. Traditional forms of social infrastructure are declining, particularly in rural communities. Researchers at University of Michigan and Princeton University find that a lack of “things to do” in rural America is not only leaving communities feeling disconnected, but is helping to fuel drug use.
According to the American Medical Association, every state has reported a spike or increase in drug-related issues, like overdoses, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with opioid use driving much of the challenges. Yet the opioid epidemic is nothing new and has been problematic in many rural communities where prescription rates are incredibly high.
Through a study titled, “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage,” researchers find evidence that in America’s most disadvantaged communities, people are turning to drugs, in part, due to isolation.
After completing hundreds of interviews with residents in highly disadvantaged rural communities, researchers consistently heard the same complaint: “There’s nothing to do.” The roller rink closed down, the movie theater became a church, and nearly all the stores had shuttered. Residents also commonly complained about rampant drug abuse in their communities. They believed the two issues were connected; the severity and widespread nature of drug use is partly due to the fact “there is nothing to do but drugs.”
The decline in “things to do” that interviewees report fits with national trends in the numbers of public places traditionally used for casual and frequent interaction and leisure. For instance, the Census reported that the number bowling alleys declined 25% nationally between 1998 and 2012. Over a similar period, barber shops — spaces important to the social fabric in predominantly Black communities — declined by approximately 23%. This trend strikes rural communities hard. Rural and small towns tend to have particularly few sites for shared leisure, due to declining and aging population, geographic isolation, and financial challenges. Moreover, rural small businesses, which often act as social infrastructure, entered into the COVID-19 pandemic already vulnerable and faced widespread closures in the past year.
Academics and journalists alike support observations from rural residents interviewed for the “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage” study that a lack of “things to do” can lead to increased drug use, increased risk of death from overdose, and a decrease in the likelihood of recovery from addiction. In Palaces for the People, Eric Klinenberg reports on growing evidence from the medical field that opioids give the brain the chemicals it needs to feel connected with others. In 2017, researchers from Harvard and Baylor universities found evidence that strong networks of relationships between residents can protect communities against drug overdose. And writer Johann Hari gave a popular TED Talk in which he concludes that the opposite of addiction is connection (rather than sobriety).
The closure of key forms of social infrastructure and the resulting toll it has taken on relationships is complicating efforts to prevent drug use and overdose everywhere. Yet it is having a relatively large impact in rural places where the community faces higher than average rates of opioid prescription and have fewer and fewer public places for connecting with others.
To enhance the health and resilience of rural America, it is time we act more intentionally about literally building opportunities for neighbors to bump into one another, allowing the formation of a network of mutual support that benefits all.
Some ways to get involved:
- Support libraries, either by investing in an organization like the American Library Association or directly into local libraries. Libraries are a classic example of social infrastructure, providing programming and access to resources vital to building connectivity across people of all ages.
- Invest in the building, maintenance, or enhancement of community recreation centers, community sports facilities, and parks.
- Support local downtown commercial corridor revitalization strategies, and/or main street programs that provide place-making efforts and support new and existing small, local businesses.
Original contribution by Karen Ann Kling, Senior Strategic Projects Manager at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, a university-wide initiative that partners with communities and policymakers to find new ways to prevent and alleviate poverty through action-based research.
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