The Context of Rising Rates of Rural Violence and Substance Abuse:
The Problems and Potential of Rural Communities

Daryl Hobbs, Director
Office of Social & Economic Data Analysis
University of Missouri System, Lincoln University
Columbia, Missouri

In a recent national poll commissioned by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and conducted by the Roper Organization (NRECA, 1992) rural people described the five greatest threats to the future of rural America as alcohol abuse, an increase in crime, increased use of illegal drugs, loss of family farms, and lack of jobs. The significance of these responses lies not in whether they are valid, but in the fact that nearly 50 percent of rural residents believe that they are threats. Since W.I. Thomas, sociologists have been taught that if something is perceived to be real it produces real consequences. If rural people believe that increasing crime and drug and alcohol abuse are serious threats, they will respond to these threats, if only by further dividing their communities into "good people" and "those people." Such social divisions can lead to a diminished sense of community and may impede a community's ability to evoke cooperation in achieving common goals.

It would have been useful if the survey had asked respondents what - or who - they blame for these threats and what they think should be done about them. Do they blame the substance abusers and criminals? Do they blame the abusers' families? Or the national media? Or do they look to the social and economic environment in which the behavior occurs for an explanation? What rural residents perceive as the "causes" of these problems will affect what, if any, actions they believe will mediate them. If residents blame the individuals who engage in the behavior, they likely will devalue these individuals in the local social environment and look to specialized therapists and programs to restore them to acceptable behavior. On the other hand, if respondents consider the causes to lie outside the community, they likely will do nothing - a typical response in many contemporary rural communities. Several recent analyses (e.g., Bellah et al., 1986; Padfield, 1980) of rural communities have referred to a growing sense of "powerlessness" as more forces that affect rural community life are perceived to lie beyond local control. For example, most rural residents think they can do little about the loss of family farms or increased criminal activity and substance abuse.

Even if rural residents' perceptions of increased rural drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity are valid (we will visit that question below), this paper will not single out who or what is to blame. It is more likely that the problems have no single cause. However, it is reasonable to speculate thatrecent social and economic changes could be a contributing factor. Assuming this belief to be true, this paper will argue that rural residents can take actions to improve their quality of life and, in doing so, diminish the perceived threats at the local level.

The Local Context for Violence and/or Substance Abuse

The incidence of crime and substance abuse is distributed unevenly across social and geographic lines. Although the growing incidence of these behaviors is widely viewed as a national problem, each act takes place in a particular local context. Crime and substance abuse rates are much higher in some neighborhoods than others. For instance, rates are higher in inner cities than in suburbs. But in rural areas, rates vary greatly between localities, even within the same state and region.

Reasons for this local variation are many and complex; income and everything associated with it, including housing, quality of schools, family organization, etc., are certainly factors. But apart from income, crime and/or substance abuse are more tolerated in some neighborhoods or communities than others. Some communities have a strong normative structure and mechanisms of social control; others have lost this structure, if they ever had it. Some communities are well organized and capable of community action that is aimed at greater self-determination; others simply are acted on by external social and economic forces. Generalizations about rural areas (other than small size of towns and low population density) end with one visit to a particular rural place. Each rural community contributes to a rural average, but none is likely to be "typically" rural.

Because of the socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural variations among rural communities, local prevention efforts - as part of the overall community improvement effort - will vary as well. As the recent study, Healthy Communities; Healthy Youth (Blyth, undated), has documented, otherwise similar communities vary greatly in the "health" of their social environments, which is related to the proportion of "at-risk" youth in the community. Therefore, if they choose, communities can make themselves "healthier" by reducing their number of at-risk youth.

Changes in Rural Communities

As a result of the many changes in rural communities, researchers have documented increasing levels of personal and family stress in rural areas, especially among younger families (e.g., Bellah et al., 1986; Gallaher, 1980; Schmuck & Schmuck, 1992). In addition, residents' social and economic ties to their communities have been weakened as rural America increasingly has become incorporated into a mass society. Both conditions could reasonably be associated with increasing levels of substance abuse and violence in rural areas.

In recent years, sources of economic stress have been pervasive in rural America. The following examples show how vulnerable rural Americans have become to economic change:

What emerges from these and many other examples is a profile of young, rural families that hold two or more jobs - jobs that pay little more than minimum wage and often are located 20 or more miles from home. It is also likely that their jobs provide neither health insurance nor other benefits. The economic marginality of such families can easily translate into personal and interpersonal stress. Further, the effort these families expend to earn a living leaves little time for community, school, and social activities.

Economic and technological changes have not spared the social integrity of many rural communities. At the turn of the century, many small towns provided for the needs of a great number of surrounding farmers. The distance between farms and towns was dictated by the transportation technology of the day. Because farmers relied on the closest small town for their needs, their social interaction with residents was frequent, intense, and limited to a small number of people. Schools, government, and health care were locally controlled as was the behavior of residents. The rural towns were not idyllic, but their social norms and behavior were regulated by the "little tradition" of each community (Gallaher & Padfield, 1980).

Although most of these small towns remain, they have lost many of their economic and service functions as well as a substantial part of their influence on the interaction and behavior of residents. As a result of improvements in transportation, declining numbers of farmers, the influence of a mass society, and the industrial principles of specialization, centralization, and economies of scale, many small-town businesses and services have relocated to larger towns and small cities. Rural people regularly travel to these regional centers for employment, shopping, health care, entertainment, and more - all of which takes time, loyalty, and identity away from the small towns and villages where they live. While rural residents have a functional relationship with the larger towns, these "service communities" do not boast the same degree of social integration as the small towns of an earlier era. In this respect, rural people differ little from urban people; they are just as likely to buy things and obtain services from strangers. These changes have weakened community ties for all rural residents, including youth.

The institutions of a mass society also have claimed some of the social integration of yesterday's rural communities. Not only have regional shopping malls and franchise businesses replaced local general stores, but rural schools and other rural institutions increasingly have become patterned after those found in suburbs. Rural schools have been consolidated into smaller versions of suburban schools, complete with standardized curricula. These curricula socialize students into a national society, not a local one. Yet, schools should not be forced to give up one type of curriculum for another; both are desirable. It is difficult to learn citizenship without the opportunity to be a citizen.

The reach and effectiveness of mass media also compete for the attention of rural residents. As a result, rural people's increasing awareness of national and international events frequently comes at the expense of awareness of local events.

The long-term effects of out-migration also are having an effect on social integration in some rural areas. Because of an absence of high-skill, high-pay jobs in most rural communities, the more highly educated young people tend to leave in search of employment. Consequently, many rural communities have a disproportionately large population of retirement-age people. This inequity often creates a cultural gap between younger and older residents within the same community. Some observers have described a mutual antagonism between the young and the old, even within relatively small communities (Brendtro et at., 1990; Peshkin, 1982). The continued out-migration of more highly educated young adults also reduces the pool of younger and potentially more energetic and creative community leadership.

One consequence of these changes is a decrease in the social influence and problem-solving capacity of rural communities. Unless small-town residents work to make their towns socially active and relevant, they may find themselves living in a town without being a part of a community. A community is more than a place; it involves self-conscious participation with others in cooperative behavior of mutual interest.

Steps to Solve Problems and Build a Sense of Community

"Community" is not something that can be taken for granted, any more than "family" or any other form of social organization can be. All require determination and effort to establish and sustain them. I have argued that community is important, that ideally its members are capable of action and that those actions affect the quality of life and well-being of the members. A community is built when members work together.

It also is reasonable to conclude that the relative strength of a community's social integration affects the prevalence of socially desirable/undesirable behavior in its residents. That point of view considers a community to be more than the sum of its parts. Thus, creating or restoring a sense of community is one strategy for empowering those who lack, or have lost, a capacity to affect their own well-being. While I can offer no prescription for building healthy communities, I can suggest some actions that can be taken.

Make a Local Assessment

A measure of a community's health, strength, or capacity is its ability to identify a problem and organize itself to solve the problem. But the first step is to determine whether or not the community has a local problem.

If residents believe that their community has a problem with increased crime and substance abuse, their first step should be to determine whether or not their impressions can be substantiated or not. This paper began with the results of a survey that showed that rural Americans believe that increasing alcohol abuse, crime, and use of illegal drugs are among the greatest threats to the future of rural America. However, it is not clear whether the respondents' frame of reference was their own backyard or rural America in general. Given the amount of national media attention to these issues, it is possible that rural people may assume that increases are occurring in their communities, too. After helping rural communities to conduct communitywide surveys over several years, I have found that community leaders often perceive a problem that survey results fail to document. Just as frequently, these survey results have uncovered problems that community leaders did not perceive. Even in small towns, community leaders may not have much contact with a true cross-section of the community and, therefore, are unaware of all views and attitudes.

Community actions should be based on the particular needs and resources of a community. To gather such information about the community, residents can conduct school and/or community surveys and they can analyze public arrest records and other sources of information about the community. When assessing community needs, residents can take advantage of outside resources, such as local colleges or university extension services and regional drug and alcohol program specialists.

Translating a Problem Into a Goal

Any attempt to determine whether a community has local violence or substance abuse problems should include an evaluation of what factors may be contributing to these behaviors. If it is found that such behaviors have increased recently, residents should look for changes in the community. Are younger families experiencing increasing levels of social and economic stress? Do young people have the same access to recreation and other constructive activities? Solving a problem obviously begins with identifying the right problem. Rural communities must ask themselves if increased substance abuse is the problem or merely a symptom. If it is a symptom, what is the cause? Addressing symptoms rather than causes is unlikely to ameliorate the problem. Again, generalizations from other places are not likely to be as useful as an analysis conducted within the community, because rural communities differ not only in their levels of substance abuse and/or violence but also in their social and economic circumstances.

Residents can make reducing or eliminating violence or drug and alcohol abuse a community goal, just as they could building a new fire station or a swimming pool. But to make progress toward that goal, they must devote their efforts to the causes of the problem, not to its symptoms. Residents must have a realistic expectation that changes in behavior, more education, cooperative projects, and so on, will make a difference. Yet, many rural communities have experienced a growing fatalism; they believe that they are victims of inexorable, outside forces that have sealed their fate. Hope must replace fatalism, but it must be hope based on realistic prospects for success.

Mobilization of Resources

As rural America has been incorporated into a mass society, rural communities have turned increasingly to specialized programs and outside "experts" to solve their problems. These resources may be helpful and should be used when appropriate and needed. But communities are built on the effective use of their own resources. The most significant of these resources are human: the skills, abilities, and energies of community residents. However, a majority of rural women now work outside the home and many small-town residents have jobs in larger towns. These and many other factors have reduced the amount of time working-age people have to devote to community activities. Yet, the loss of these residents as a community resource has created an opportunity for other residents who usually have not been as involved. For example, a community's youth, with their talent and energy, are a widely overlooked and underused resource.

Recently, some analysts have called attention to a "crisis of unimportance" affecting many of today's youth (Brendtro et al., 1990). The analysts claim that society sends a message to our youth that they are needed and valued more as consumers than as producers and citizens. Thus, it is not surprising that many young people remain in a state of extended adolescence, with little stake in the community or society outside of school. Students who have no plans for a postsecondary education often see little relationship between what is taught in school and what they experience outside of school. Furthermore, they see little reason to remain in school because their towns offer few prospects for higher paying and more interesting employment. These circumstances leave rural youth ripe for substance abuse and petty crime.

Recognizing the lack of connection between school and the real world - especially for "at-risk" students - more educational leaders are calling for experience-based education in which students "learn how to learn." Rural areas provide rich opportunities for such an education. For instance, students can help with studies, analyses, projects, and other "real" community work. High school students are an obvious resource to determine the extent of local substance abuse and violence, and they can help to develop and implement plans and projects to ameliorate these problems, if they are found to exist. Students can undertake community work as a part of both their formal education and their education as community citizens. They can learn economics by studying the local economy to see how it connects with the world outside their town. They can improve their writing skills by writing research and topical papers on different aspects of local life. They can learn to do research and use information sources by reconstructing local history. The possibilities are endless.

Research shows that these approaches are educationally effective and that they make a contribution to the community (Hobbs, 1991). An added benefit is that such work can help students to become stakeholders in the community. Students who do community work gain a sense of fulfillment and gratification. That feeling of gratification is an important source of motivation for future involvement. Students' self-esteem can be expected to increase in direct proportion to their accomplishments. As one author suggests, "You can't learn values without the opportunity to be of value" (Brendtro et al., 1990).

A growing body of research is concerned with the characteristics of "effective" rural communities. The research shows that effective communities not only better utilize their own resources but they are able to identify and utilize specialized, outside resources. According to this research, the most effective rural leaders are those who are involved with networks beyond their communities.


As rural institutions have been incorporated into the mass society, they have become more specialized and separate, even within the same community. Every institution, school, health care organization and government agency, tends to "do its own thing." This pattern of separation is inimical to the idea of community. Ideally, a community is inclusive rather than exclusive and is based on integration and cooperation rather than separation. Effective communities are able to broaden their base of participation and achieve collaboration among their institutions and resources.

Collaboration is essential to solving problems such as increased substance abuse and violence because those problems do not fall within the exclusive domain of any institution or agency. Instead, the problems have educational, economic, health, justice, family, legal, and social implications. A solution created by any one of those institutional sectors will have only limited effectiveness. The keys both to ameliorating the substance abuse problem and to rebuilding and sustaining a community are collaboration and cooperation. Everyone must work together effectively to achieve a common goal.


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Blyth, D. (No date). Healthy communities, healthy youth. Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Brotherhood.

Brendtro, L.K., Brokenleg, M., & Van Backim, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

Gallaher, A. (1980). Dependence on external authority and the decline of community: Chapter 4. In A. Gallaher and H. Padfield (Eds.), The dying community (pp. 85-108). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

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Hobbs, D. (1994, April). Demographic trends in nonmetropolitan America. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.

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National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. (1992, June). Public attitudes toward rural America and rural electric cooperatives. Washington, DC: Author.

Padfield, H. (1980). The expendable rural community and denial of powerlessness: Chapter 7. In A. Gallaher and H. Padfield (Eds.), The dying community (pp. 159-185). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

Peshkin, A. (1982). The imperfect union: School consolidation and community conflict. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Porterfield, S. (1990, June-September). Service sector offers more jobs, lower pay. Rural Development Perspectives, pp 2-7. Washington, DC: USDA Economic Research Service.

Schmuck, R. & Schmuck, P.A. (1992). Small district, big problems. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

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