ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: THEY ARE US

By James M. Decker

Last week, I launched a multipart series on drugs in our communities, with sobering details on the opioid crisis in America and why the problem is so prevalent throughout society. If you’ve not read that essay (“Real Problems, Our Problems”), I encourage you to do so. Today, I want to discuss why this issue desperately demands action by our community leaders.

Opioid abuse is called an “equal opportunity” problem because it touches every demographic—all races and ethnicities, backgrounds, and income levels. Many stories have been written about the opioid crisis in poverty-stricken areas, but the problem is far broader. Last year, Admiral James Winnefeld, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the most powerful military leaders in the world, wrote an essay for The Atlantic about his son’s overdose from heroin-laced opioids in college. Stunningly, the American Farm Bureau Federation reports (via Purdue University Extension) that 74% of farmers have been directly affected by opioid abuse in some way.

With that said, opioid abuse still disproportionately affects lower-income groups. According to the CDC, people who are eligible for Medicaid are more likely to be prescribed opioids, receive a prescription at higher doses and for longer periods of time, and, ultimately, die of an opioid overdose. Because rural areas tend to have higher poverty levels than the national average, opioid abuse disproportionately affects rural communities.

The effect on our communities is both obvious and not so obvious. Drug abuse clearly creates crime in our communities. At the West Texas Rural Summit, Sheriff Ray Scifres of Hockley County stated that half of his jail beds are filled by drug charges, and 80% of those are repeat offenders. But the effect extends beyond there. Sheriff Gary Maddox of Lamb County reports that you can ultimately tie almost every jailing back to drugs in some—either a direct drug charges or another charge related to financing a drug habit or arising out of a life of addiction. 

Drug addiction decays the very core of a community. Citizens with addiction are less productive and vibrant. The Atlantic reports that 70% of employers have seen prescription drug abuse impact their workers. The number of people dying on the job from issues related to drug or alcohol abuse is growing by 25% each year. Labor force participation (the portion of the population working or actively looking for work) is at historic lows. Economist Alan Krueger found a relationship between labor force participation and opioid addiction. The biggest declines in labor force participation are in counties where opioid use is most plentiful. Krueger cannot determine whether “addiction breeds joblessness, or vice versa,” but as set forth in The Atlantic, he says “the opioid crisis and depressed labor force participation are now intertwined in many parts of the U.S.”

Drug addiction swallows up family savings and paychecks. Families become broken and children suffer when their parents suffer. Drug addiction in teens and young adults impacts school success and prevents their maximizing their talents and skills for their future. When more people struggle with addiction, fewer people care about improving the community. Folks dealing with addiction are often just trying to survive, much less show concern for high weeds, litter, or other telltale signs of a community in decline.

Make no mistake, this is not an indictment of people suffering from addiction. This is a call to action for us to help our peers. This is not an “us” and “them” thing. They are us and we are them. Until we as community leaders, all community leaders, step up and engage this crisis in our communities, addiction will hold back our communities. It is a stumbling block to our brothers and sisters and it is a roadblock to our overall community prosperity. It is time that we become the people with the solutions.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker.

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