NOEL KING, HOST:
Some of the most troubled parts of this country are rural areas. And in those places, disdain for government typically runs pretty high. But this summer, NPR, along with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed a broad group of rural Americans. And that poll turned up some surprises about how many rural people want government help. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Rural America can sometimes feel like a country apart. Thirty-two years ago, Ronald Reagan summed it up with this clip.
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RONALD REAGAN: I've always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.
MORRIS: But rural Americans have since come across some even scarier words, like opioid epidemic.
ROBERT BLENDON: So what you have is some very serious problems, particularly around the economy and opioid and drug abuse that really worry people.
MORRIS: And Robert Blendon at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that of 1,300 rural adults surveyed by NPR, 58 percent said their towns need outside help.
BLENDON: I think that's a surprise for a lot of people, that there is a willingness by most - not all - to reach out for outside help.
MORRIS: Take the proud little town of Belle in central Missouri.
KATHY STANFIELD: There's a big struggle going on in this small town (laughter) right now.
MORRIS: Kathy Stanfield, a feisty, compact woman pushing 70, looks up from her front porch at a town of 1,500 corralled by green rolling hills and farm fields and split by opposing views of outside involvement.
STANFIELD: People wanting it to grow and wanting it to be the best it can be and people that would prefer that everyone back off and let them do what they want.
MORRIS: It's pressing here because this town is struggling with the same issues plaguing much of rural America.
STANFIELD: Money - you don't have a tax base anymore that you used to have.
MORRIS: The shoe factory in Belle, a big employer, and many local shops closed decades ago. Career options are scarce. Some petty crimes go unpunished. And, like in much of rural America, drug abuse is widespread.
ROXIE MURPHY: Even though we're rural, the idea that we're safe isn't really there anymore.
MORRIS: Roxie Murphy covers Belle for the Maries County Advocate newspaper.
MURPHY: There's no way that this community will be able to fix the drug problem by themselves. In order to do that, they would need more money and more resources that they don't have.
MORRIS: But it's not like Belle's giving up. And that's another thing that popped out in NPR's rural poll. Robert Blendon says fully half of those surveyed say their community problems can be solved within five years.
BLENDON: It is not all a world of hopelessness, as many others have described. There's a great deal of optimism that we can deal with these issues if we can get outside help.
MORRIS: And Blendon says that, of those looking for outside help, 3 out of 5 expect it to come from government, especially state government. Problem is state money is getting harder to come by.
STANFIELD: This is - used to be the Rock Island Railroad.
MORRIS: Kathy Stanfield again, standing on a grassy right-of-way cutting straight through town where she says the state once promised to build a major cross-state bike trail.
STANFIELD: The people that wanted this trail to go through could see so many possibilities for this town growing by having people from out of the city coming in here and spending their money here in Belle. And now, we've basically been told no. It's a big disappointment. It really is.
MORRIS: The state does spend quite a bit in Belle paying public school salaries, providing grants that mostly cover things like new sidewalks, drainage projects and hopefully a new water tower. But Barb Schaller, City Hall, says the city is often turned down.
BARB SCHALLER: Because it's so competitive. A lot of communities, a lot of places, need help. Sometimes it's pretty slim.
MORRIS: Johnathan Hladik at the Center for Rural Affairs says state budget cuts are taking a heavy toll on small towns that depend on government funding more than their residents tend to realize. And he says that with state funding drying up, appreciation for it may be growing.
JOHNATHAN HLADIK: This is symptomatic of a country that is re-evaluating itself and re-evaluating its decisions and realizing the importance of civic infrastructure and the importance of being part of a community and part of a state where we're all pulling in the same direction. I think this could be a positive sign.
MORRIS: Hladik says that if rural hostility toward government is in fact easing, the optimism that many rural residents feel about solving persistent drug and economic problems may be justified.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Belle, Mo.
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