RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Drug addiction and the economy - according to a new poll, that is what is on the minds of rural voters as they go to the polls this election season. The poll was done by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But NPR's Alison Kodjak reports that even with those real challenges, many rural Americans are optimistic about the future.
ALISON KODJAK, BYLINE: If you want a picture of the troubles that face some rural communities, you can call Brenda, a self-described homemaker from the heart of Appalachia. She's 57 and married to a former coal miner.
BRENDA: He's suffering with black lung and having a real hard time breathing, so it was time for him to come out anyway.
KODJAK: And drug addiction has hit her family - especially her two grandsons - hard.
BRENDA: My daughter and her husband have got two sons, and he walked off and left them because he couldn't give up his drug habit.
KODJAK: He's still alive. But some of her other relatives aren't, including her niece.
BRENDA: They found her in her home last September. She was 33 years old, and she left behind three boys.
KODJAK: Brenda - NPR is not using her last name to shield her grandchildren - lives in Coeburn, Va., a town of about 2,000 people near the point where Virginia meets Kentucky and Tennessee. Her experience fits into the findings of our new poll, which shows that in rural America, drug abuse ranks with the economic outlook as residents' top worry. Almost half of rural Americans have been personally affected by the opioid crisis. When we asked if they personally know someone who struggled with addiction, 49 percent said yes. Brenda says it's worse in her community.
BRENDA: If you were to approach 10 families randomly and give them a piece of paper and have, do you have someone in your immediate family on drugs? - 8 out of 10 would say yes.
KODJAK: Brenda says in Coeburn, jobs and opportunities have dried up. State officials have been promising to bring in economic development, but none of it has reached her community yet.
BRENDA: If you come out of college with a degree, you're more than likely going to leave this area to find work.
KODJAK: But experiences in rural America vary widely, and our poll bears that out. The survey of 1,300 adults all living in rural areas shows that many people are optimistic about the future of their communities. Most of the people we surveyed say they're better off financially than their parents, and a majority think their children will do better still. Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard Chan School, directed our poll.
ROBERT BLENDON: They're optimistic about the future, and they're also optimistic that things can be done to pull them out of these economic problems that they face.
BLENDON: While some rural communities are suffering, others are thriving, says Christopher Thornberg, the founder of Beacon Economics in Los Angeles.
CHRISTOPHER THORNBERG: You might have a coal town and an oil town. Well, the coal town is doing terrible because coal can't compete in this era of cheap natural gas. On the other hand, because of fracking, these rural communities sitting on shale oil are booming. And incomes are up dramatically as a result of all that new money flowing into the region for oil exploration and drilling.
KODJAK: The economy in Grenada, Miss., a city of 14,000 about halfway between Jackson and Memphis, Tenn., is doing well, says Akail Powell.
AKAIL POWELL: There's a lot of job opportunities.
KODJAK: Powell is a 24-year-old truck driver who grew up in Grenada. He says the town has a drug problem, but its economy is growing.
POWELL: It's almost like a thriving town that's starting to expand farther. And bigger restaurants are being put here now. Within the past two years, we have really developed.
KODJAK: And Brenda says she's seeing flickers of hope in Coeburn. The town's high school has a new football coach, and the community has come together to support the players.
BRENDA: You know one of the inflatable helmets that the kids run through? We bought them one of them. It was $2,600. We've refurbished their weight room all in one year. So there's good people. There's good, hardworking people.
KODJAK: Even though sometimes things still look bleak, Brenda says her view of her community is getting better.
Alison Kodjak, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio version of this story mischaracterizes the NPR poll by saying it was limited to rural voters. The poll surveyed a representative sample of all rural Americans.]
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