Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nouveau riche in North Dakota

This story in the New York Times a few days ago was chock full of rural themes: Lack of anonymity, attachment to place, and rural economies--including their association with extraction industries and farming. A.G. Sulzberger's story is headlined "A Great Divide over Oil Riches" and it tells of those who have gotten rich--and those who haven't--in the state's oil boom. In some ways, the story is the same one we're hearing more and more these days in the United States--the story of a burgeoning income and wealth gap. The difference with this one is that it presents income inequality in the microcosm of a nonmetropolitan area where, even more than than in the U.S. generally, the existence of class stratification is often vehemently denied.

The dateline is Stanley, North Dakota, population 1,301, and the story features a number of members of the community, including some long-time farmers. Some of those farmers got rich thanks to the mineral rights on their land--and some got even richer because they happened to own the mineral rights on others' land. (North Dakota happens to be a state where mineral rights can be separated from the underlying property). Here's an excerpt that provides an overview of the story and what has happened in Mountrail County, population 7673.
Sure enough, money is flowing by the barrelful into Mountrail County, transforming a tiny community once proudly situated in the middle of nowhere into an unexpected oasis of prosperity at the heart of the nation's biggest oil play.
The number of households earning more than $100,000/year spiked last year to 21%, from 6% a decade earlier. The median income rose more than 50% in the last decade, the fifth-highest rise in the nation. Deposits are one Stanley bank are now at $135 million, up from $43 million at the start of the boom.

Sulzberger's story highlights how the lack of anonymity that characterizes rural places can aggravate the awkwardness of the newfound and increasing income and wealth gap:
As with any major boom--from real estate to tech stocks to natural resources--the sudden split between the winners and the witnesses has been painful. But this is happening in a small town, where proximity and familiarity make a sudden re-ordering all the more difficult.

"It's not all good," said Leslie Anderson, who is among the lucky locals who sometimes make more from a single month of oil payments than he used to earn in a year of farming. "There are a lot of families fighting that got along before."
Sulzberger also provides a vignette of rural frugality, writing of a newfound oil millionaire living in a trailer home. Lenin Dibble farmed his whole life, but now receives as much as $80,000 a month in oil royalties. He's not spending it, though. He says he can live comfortably off his Social Security and payments he receives from leasing his farm. He's saving his oil wealth for his adult children. Dibble does complain about some of the changes the oil boom has brought:
What he and others in town notice more than the newfound money are the problems: locking the door to his house, taking the keys out of his car and seeing a quiet community where everyone knew everyone overrun by the bustle of strangers.

"I wish it had never happened," Dibble said.
Other residents may not be talking about their oil wealth, but hints of it are found in the fact that they are driving their first new car--and perhaps taking their first-ever vacation, to boot.

The trend of population loss of the high plains has also been reversed as a consequence of the boom. Mountrail County's population up nearly 16% over the past decade. And this relates to another rural phenomenon-- the attachment to place that the county's young residents can now indulge themselves, given the plentiful jobs.

The rest of Sulzberger's story is worth a read for its many rich quotes from Mountrail County locals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The men talked about in that NY Times article were wealthy men before this oil boom hit. Goes to show you what a 20 minute "indepth interview" will produce.