Media: 1999 — Plains are Dying. 2009 — Plains are Booming!

By August 14, 2009Economy, Energy, General

See what happens when your state develops its abundant amounts of oil and coal (lignite) and, to a lesser extent, wind and biofuels when the nation’s economy demands energy? You wind up having a front-page story in The Washington Post promoting the availability of jobs…

Road to Recovery — Woman’s Path to Work Ends in Rural, and Job-Rich, North Dakota

A couple of thoughts about the story, which is a pretty good summary of the state of economic affairs in North Dakota. First, the woman profiled — an immigrant from Ohio — commutes from Glenfield to Bismarck to work in a call center. That’s nuts. It’s at least 130 miles one way, and while it’s a beautiful drive most of the year, it’s also covered by drifting snow. Sure, she bought a house for $7,000 but still. If you’re working in a call center, rent an apartment five minutes from work. (How did the Post pick this woman?)

Call center work is indeed a common entry-level service job in the state, but it’s hardly the engine that’s driving the job demand in the state. That’s energy (and agriculture). Manufacturing has also been a major contributor to the economic growth, with some notable setbacks (Bobcat just announced layoffs).

Amusing as a journalistic phenomenon is the recent spate of “North Dakota has jobs” stories. (CNNMoney story, Time magazine, Business Week, for starts.)

Used to be the only story that the major media would do about North Dakota was the demographic one — the population is aging, young people are moving away, the Great Plains are returning to the prairie. Starting with the 1987 “Buffalo Commons” paper from the Rutgers pair, Frank and Deborah Popper, the media, social planners and some activists were enraptured with the story of the death of the Great Plains. The Chicago Tribune’s Robert Kaplan almost made a career out of the storyline (or at least a book). And now North Dakota is booming? (As is Saskatchewan.)

It’s almost as if the marketplace is smarter than the social engineers — a valuable lesson for Congress this year as it contemplates restructuring the entire U.S. economy.

Correction: Frank Popper responds in the comments section and corrects a mistake, for which I thank him. I was thinking of The Chicago Tribune’s Jon Margolis, not Kaplan.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Frank Popper says:

    This blog distorts both the facts on the ground in North Dakota (and the rest of the Plains) and the meaning of the Buffalo Commons. Some North Dakota and Plains cities are growing in part precisely because of continuing outmigration from rural areas. Most rural Plains places continue to decline, as they have for generations. A Census Bureau report that came out last month, “Population Dynamics of the Great Plains:1950-2007,” clearly documents the point, including for recent years when the energy boom supposedly repopulated the rural Plains. The missing repopulation is why the woman in the Washington Post story finds cheap housing in Glenfield, North Dakota. BTW, Robert Kaplan has never worked for the Chicago Tribune, and his book has nothing to do with the Buffalo Commons. North Dakota and the Plains have deep histories of short-lived energy and agricultural booms that resulted in long-term busts, and there is no reason to believe that anything is different this time around.

    Anyone wanting more accurate information about the Buffalo Commons should look at my Rutgers website, I and my wife Deborah Popper, a geographer at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York and Princeton University, originated the concept in 1987. Several national organizations are now trying to create it, mostly notably the Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council, Its president is Jarid Manos,, and I chair its board. Another relevant organization is the New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities, It does research and advocacy for the nation’s smallest and most isolated places, in the Great Plains and elsewhere. Its executive director is Carol Miller,, and Deborah and I are on its board.
    Frank Popper
    Rutgers and Princeton Universities,
    732-932-4009, X689

Leave a Reply