CANTON, Ohio — Despite his gaunt frame and sunken eyes, he walks with a distinct swagger down Tuscarawas Street. At the intersection with Cherry Street, he turns and faces the road with a blank stare; the "ink" on his neck and hands suggest he's spent time in prison.
There are small, faint bruises on one bare arm.
His eyes dart back and forth; he is clearly agitated as he heads toward a McDonald's parking lot on Tuscarawas, the same McDonald's where police tried to revive Christopher J. Burris with two doses of Narcan in September. It took two more doses from paramedics to save him.
Burris overdosed on the potent opioid carfentanil, which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to sedate elephants. Eventually he was sentenced by a Stark County judge to the maximum 12 months in prison for drug possession.
The passenger in his car, also passed out, pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated possession of drugs, a fifth-degree felony; he awaits sentencing.
For most of the past century in America, urban blacks seemed to disproportionately fill prison cells, more than rural or suburban whites. But that trend has begun to reverse in the past decade, according to a New York Times analysis of the National Corrections Reporting Program last year.
The New York Times reported that white, rural Americans are going to prison more often and for longer sentences than urban blacks — a giant leap from 10 years ago, when people in urban, suburban and rural areas, on balance, went to prison at the same clip.
Now, according to the New York Times study of prison data, people who live in rural regions, like Stark's neighboring Guernsey County, have seen incarceration rates go up 36 percentage points in that decade.
Much of that coincides with the opioid epidemic that is crippling all of rural America.
It also coincides with a bipartisan push from Washington to decrease the mass incarceration numbers of large cities. While blacks still comprise a disproportionate number of inmates, that number has fallen; the same goes for Hispanic inmates. But the federal data show that white inmates have not decreased similarly.
In short, if you are rural and white and break the drug laws, you more than likely will go to prison for a longer period than your suburban and urban cousins.
Part of that is due to how rural law-enforcement officers and judges view who should go to prison and for how long.
East Liverpool, Ohio, police chief John Lane has seen one of his own officers overdose on drug residue that clung to his uniform after he arrested a suspect; Lane is all for drug users going to prison for a very long time.
"My job is to keep the bad guys off of the streets," he said. "I wish we could find more money for drug treatment. Bigger cities have those resources to fight addiction outside of jail, and prison, and we don't."
In larger cities, Lane explains, a bad actor caught with small quantities of drugs can be sent to a drug treatment program; such programs aren't as readily available in poor, cash-strapped counties.
Also growing in rural America is the poverty rate. Since the end of World War II, Americans living in rural counties have had a higher rate of poverty than those living in concentrated urban areas.
The urban-rural poverty divide is most prevalent in Appalachia, especially in the South, where rural poverty is 8 percent higher than in urban areas.
As with the drug problem, social services for rural people in need are difficult to access, mostly because of geography: Many of the neediest families are hindered, by lack of public transportation or by extreme weather conditions, from accessing nutritional, healthcare, or mental health services.
Or any other services — like say, a library. Things that we all take for granted that are available everywhere else.
The ghosting of rural America did not happen overnight. The escalation of drugs has escalated incarceration; the de-escalation of opportunity has fed into both the former and the latter.
And the industrialization of farming, as well as the loss of manufacturing to both foreign countries and technological advances, has stripped a very important cog in the wheel of what makes up the fabric of America.
It's no one's fault, and it is everyone's fault. It is as simple as that.
If rural America continues to diminish, all of America will diminish because the countryside is as much a part of America's identity as New York City's skyscrapers and Silicon Valley's sprawling technology campuses. Rural America's deep-rooted cultural traditions, religiosity, music and history of storytelling, its belief in the nobility of hard work that includes getting your hands dirty, all make up who we are in this country.
The decline isn't hard to miss if you drive 15 minutes beyond any major urban area. And if you think that decline doesn't impact you in the city, you're wrong; it impacts the entire country, economically, culturally and environmentally.
So how do we save rural America?
Subsidies from Washington aren't the answer – they just neutralize that rugged, self-reliant, innovative spirit that has been part of the rural character for decades.
A broader economic solution would be to provide incentives that attract entrepreneurs back to invest in their former hometowns and to find civic leaders who understand we can't bring back an industry or a population that existed 50 years ago — but we still can adjust to that shift in ways that make both economic and societal sense.
For decades, in an effort to right past wrongs and injustices for urban dwellers, our political class has ignored our sprawling rural population. That ignorance led to rural Americans becoming a cultural joke: They're slow, they're uneducated, they live in the past, their time has come and gone.
Our politics has been just as ignorant: To many Democrats, rural Americans are just bitter and deplorable; to many Republicans, they are just votes to be lulled by religion or false job-creation promises.
We cannot continue to allow poverty, drug abuse, decaying towns and economic collapse to be an acceptable part of rural America. We need to care more, to innovate more, and we need to pay attention — or we will lose the people and the culture that have been the backbone and the fabric of everything that our nation has done well since our very beginning.
Such a loss would be devastating to the entire country.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.