Connecting state and local government leaders
Leaders from Appalachian counties shared their experiences battling the opioid epidemic, and pointed to economic opportunities for residents as an important part of the recovery effort.
Recovery from opioid addiction takes more than just treatment of the disease. Local leaders from the Appalachian region hit hard by the drug crisis say it also means making employment attainable for rural residents struggling to get back on their feet.
Local leaders from Appalachian counties discussed the obstacles encountered by people recovering from addiction and solutions they are trying to deploy at a panel discussion Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
“If you’ve got a society of addiction, how do you change that addiction?” Greg Puckett, a commissioner for Mercer County, West Virginia, said at Tuesday’s event. “A good job can change a lot. But unfortunately, we have to provide the environment where those jobs can effectively come in, especially in rural communities.”
For some, that may mean outreach to local businesses to encourage them to hire people who have drug convictions or are still in treatment. For others, it could mean improving transit options in rural communities so residents who have lost their drivers’ licenses as a result of substance abuse have a way to get to work.
The opioid epidemic has been acutely felt in Appalachian counties, where the death rate from opioid-related overdoses was 72% higher than counties outside the region, according to a report released last year by the National Association of Counties and the Appalachian Regional Commission, which jointly sponsored the event.
In Clinton County, Pennsylvania, bus transit has provided a way for residents to get around, both to jobs and to recovery services.
“We did not have public transportation until a little over a year ago, that has helped us tremendously,” said Clinton County Commissioner Jeffrey Snyder.
Research has shown a correlation between drug abuse and lack of access to jobs. One recent study found areas of the United States with declining economic opportunities suffered higher opioid-overdose mortality rates. Meanwhile, getting and keeping a job has been shown to improve a person’s chances of recovery from substance abuse.
But ensuring that businesses want to move to or remain in Appalachian communities, so that residents have jobs, has proven challenging at times, local leaders said at Tuesday’s event.
In Mercer County, community leaders started a roadside clean-up initiative to help build more pride in the local community and make it more attractive to businesses. Puckett said the county is also reexamining zoning laws to see what could be done to make the area more business friendly.
David Connor, executive director of the Tennessee County Services Association, said some Appalachian areas have struggled to retain businesses when companies are unable to find qualified workers who do not use drugs.
Local leaders can help by reaching out to local businesses to find those willing to hire people recovering from drug addictions, he said. Several sheriff-backed reentry programs across Tennessee have been extremely helpful at connecting residents with work opportunities, Conner said. The state also touts the federal bonding program, which offers employers who hire ex-offenders a bond that can reimburse the employer for any loss due to the employee’s theft of money or property.
Improving broadband access for residents could also open up new areas of employment, Conner said. Improved internet access and job training could enable companies to hire Appalachian residents to do remote work, like data entry or software development. The scenario would be a win for both sides, Conner said, with the region gaining good paying jobs while businesses would be able to save money by paying workers less than if they lived in more expensive parts of the country.
“Lots of people want to live there, so look at what your strengths are,” he said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.