Social Work and the North Dakota Oil Boom

Mar 12, 2014

swFor decades North Dakota had been losing population. However, over the last five years, North Dakota has experienced an oil boom based on high oil prices and the use of hydraulic fracturing technologies (fracking). This boom has brought economic expansion and population growth to rural communities that had formerly experienced depopulation. What kinds of changes and problems can such a sudden increase bring about?

While North Carolina has reaped benefits from this boom, especially a low unemployment rate during a time of national employment downturn, the boom has also meant the state must deal with an influx of workers and dramatic impacts on mostly rural social service systems. Views and information on the changing social landscape of western North Dakota swings wildly between euphoria over economic success and hysteria over the rise of crime and the rapid change in social climate. A clear picture of what is happening in the “oil patch” of western North Dakota is vital.

To that end, the authors of a recent article in Social Work, a journal published by NASW, conducted research on the social climate and social services response to the oil patch boom. They used a primary focus group with county social service directors from across the state, and a follow-up focus group with social workers operating on the edge of oil activity; Bret A. Weber, Julia Geigle, and Carenlee Barkdull published their findings in “Rural North Dakota’s Oil Boom and Its Impact on Social Services” in the January 2014 issue of Social Work.

The authors note that extractive industries, e.g., mining, drilling, etc., have long experienced periods of rapid expansion and decline, or booms and busts, with the attendant changes in economic prosperity, population growth, job opportunities, and demands on public services and facilities. Communities that experience sudden booms may also experience long-term declines in the aftermath. Particularly in North Dakota, there have been three cycles of oil booms, and the public sector has dealt with them in various ways. Because of little response during the first boom (1951-1955) to housing shortages and such, the public sector chose to make more public investment in social and physical infrastructure during the second boom (late 1970s through early 1980s). Unfortunately, the subsequent bust left the public sector footing the bill for infrastructure that had become obsolete. Now during this cycle, the public sector has shown reluctance to invest in physical and social infrastructure.

The authors chose to outline their focus group results into three categories: Challenges, Benefits, and Challenges to Solutions. The authors take “community resilience theory” approach toward looking at moving from challenges to solutions, in the hopes that this will give social workers more usable tools to help in the situation in the western North Dakota oil patch, and in other similar boom situations.

Of particular note to the authors is the problem of housing in the area. Prior to the boom, western North Dakota had faced a steady decline in population for almost a century. When the boom began, there was very little spare housing, and some housing had been vacant for years. This has led to a dramatic increase in rental prices, resulting in displacement of long-time residents. Furthermore, the authors noted that their focus group didn’t exhibit agreement on the nature of homelessness. For instance, if a person who may work in two or more different locations in a week’s time lives in a mobile home, is he considered homeless or just someone who’s well-adapted to the nomadic nature of his employment? What if he has school-age children? Housing, homelessness, and the strain on social services due to the sudden increase in population are all discussed in this article. They also mention the effects of the boom on Native American populations, how the legislature is responding to the boom, how the media are reluctant to discuss the challenges brought on by the boom, and other issues of interest. All of this has implications for social work practice in boom areas.

To quote from the article:

Lesson drawing from this study suggests that social workers and human service professionals might leverage their advocacy efforts with local and state officials by developing a laser-like focus on housing as both correlate and cause of many other social issues requiring greater attention and resources. In addition, advocates have the opportunity to help build community resiliency through the process of “naming and framing” housing-related problems in ways that could lead to better solutions for North Dakota’s more vulnerable groups, who have already been or are currently being displaced.

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