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OUR OPINION: Inspect, repair N.D. social fabric's seams

The North Dakota Legislature's meeting in 2013 is sure to be a pivotal session. Throughout the state, residents are wrestling with issues related to water, education, growth, crime and dramatic social and demographic change, among other issues th...

The North Dakota Legislature's meeting in 2013 is sure to be a pivotal session. Throughout the state, residents are wrestling with issues related to water, education, growth, crime and dramatic social and demographic change, among other issues that are ripe for state overview.

That means the session's work really should be getting started now, in legislative interim meetings and studies.

The issues' complexities demand extended rather than abbreviated looks. Case in point: the sharp rise in the cost of living in western North Dakota, and what that's doing to the social fabric there.

Teri Finneman of Forum Communications got the ball rolling in a recent story. "The dark side of the boom," the Herald's headline read, and Finneman's story documented the tough times that people on fixed incomes and others are having in one of the fastest-growing regions in America.

As Finneman put it, "those who don't make oilfield wages face the boom's negative side effects, including the increasing cost of rent, services and goods." And while poverty rates have fallen, the high cost of living means people can be "poor" even though they've got higher incomes than the guidelines allow.

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No wonder food banks and other charitable services report doing brisk business. Add to this the higher crime rates being reported in Minot and some other communities, and you've got a tension that's being talked about in coffee shops and around kitchen tables throughout the western half of the state.

Can the state government help?

Possibly. But here's something it can do with certainty: Take a close look at the issues and plan an effective response.

Western North Dakota is fast becoming a much different place than it was a few years ago. Even the landscape is changing as oil rigs spike the horizon and "man camps" and other new developments appear.

The Legislature's most recent session paid close attention to and authorized repairs and upgrades for the region's roads. Now, how about the law enforcement and social-services infrastructure? By all accounts, they're stressed and also could use relief.

No region can undergo the kinds of changes transforming western North Dakota without some of those changes being for the worse. This is not to say the oil boom is a bad thing. On the contrary, the boom is a good thing, even a great thing in the history of the state.

It's just that the changes are chaotic in areas where most people prefer more control. Government action can smooth some of those rough edges and make the transitions easier on all concerned -- at least, if the actions are well-thought-out.

That means identifying the problems and finding "best practices" solutions, a process that takes time. Lawmakers and the legislative staff should start now.

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-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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