Oil and gas production is nothing new to the Williston Basin of Montana and North Dakota. Although the current wave of drilling began in 2001, the first horizontal well drilling in the Bakken dates back to the late 1980’s. History has proven that many oil booms are followed by equally significant “busts”, casting a socially acceptable shadow of doubt over the long term needs of communities and residents feeling the effects of the rapid growth. Town hall meetings and political discussions sway in the direction of focusing on the necessity to create infrastructure. Mention of plans for new roads, sewage systems and power lines are ubiquitous sound bytes from conversations overheard everywhere from neighborhood coffee shops to national news broadcasts. What isn’t being widely reported is the insufficient regard given to the underlying changes in social structure and cultural systems being shaped by the boom. Beyond the dollar signs, and the bustling economy a shift has taken place, families and children are bearing the brunt of the rapid development.
Following years of relative obscurity, areas of Montana and North Dakota have been thrust into the national spotlight by virtue of the prospect of gainful employment after the national economic crisis, the unprecedented housing crunch in Williston and hundreds of miles beyond, and the allure of millions upon millions of dollars in revenue being carefully extracted from the depths of the basin. This perfect storm has created a media frenzy focusing on a rapidly changing situation, where opinion tends to swing dramatically from euphoria over the economic progress to growing concerns over the housing crunch and increasing rates of criminal activity. Somewhere along the arch of that pendulum swing, is the question of the socio-economic impact of the boom on in-migrant families and long time residents near the basin and the bucolic lifestyle beyond. Unfortunately many of the impacts experienced by individuals and families in these areas include substandard living conditions, increased strain on relationships within the family and extreme feelings of isolation. These factors have become the perfect ingredients for the recipe of a family in crisis. These circumstances point directly to the importance of the density of acquaintanceship, which can be loosely defined as “the proportion of a person’s fellow community members that are known to the person”. It has been found that this equation has a profound effect on the sense of security experienced by a person in their surroundings. Several scientific studies have shown just how important this equation is to how a family copes with extraordinary pressure. When a person’s density of acquaintanceship is low, meaning they have very few systems of support, communities can experience the estrangement of long term residents, and instability due to a lack of social connections. This begs the questions “How well do you know your neighbors? And does it matter?”
History has shown that increases in numbers of violent crime have been experienced by many communities in the midst of an energy boom, but the most unfortunate casualties of these cases are the children. Children are often among the first victims of social change because of their vulnerability. They rely solely on parents for support and nurturing and do not have the capability to cope with change the way that adults do. Social workers and other human services professionals practicing in “boomtowns” report dramatic increases in the number of cases of child maltreatment. Only a few academic social studies have been performed in response to the rapid development of “boomtowns”, but the findings show “immediate, substantial effects of energy development” on the social structure of affected communities. Experts credit a lack of density of acquaintanceship-or not knowing many people where they live as a contributing factor to the difficulties experienced by families. With a significant rise in population, both native and non-native families feel less of a sense of community, leading to poor relations and feelings of isolation and desperation. This lack of systems of support can have an incredible impact on all residents in the area. Studies have shown that in cases of “boomtowns” social isolation is the “weak link responsible for cases of abuse and neglect”. Isolation from reliable support systems can place previously strong families in jeopardy, and can send those families already in crisis over the edge. The migration of families to urban settings in proximity to an oil boom can have a profound impact on each and every community sitting along that commuting path. Social Service agencies in Yellowstone County, Montana which have been immediately affected by the population influx created by the Bakken had no way to predict or prepare for the increased need for services that the boom would require. Agencies working with at-risk families, like Family Support Network in Billings, have made every effort to take these significant changes in stride. Although the agency has had no increase in funding, their caseload has gone up by 59% in the last two years. The overworked staff has accepted larger caseloads and has worked harder to meet the increase in demand for services.
While mostly everyone can agree that the cost of doing business in these areas must include funding for new roads, sewage systems, bolstered police presence and improving systems of education, it seems that meeting the need for social services can be harder to qualify. Fortunately agencies like Family Support Network somehow manage to continue serving more families with inadequate funding. But at some point, human service agencies have no choice but to turn people away. The children of these families who don’t receive services are the ones suffering in the name of progress, or more accurately suffering in the name of profit. The children and families caught in the wake of the boom, must be considered equally if not more so than new roads and sewage systems. Direct adverse effects to the social structure of a community cannot be mediated by the provision of more infrastructure.
A shift in the attitudes of policy makers and corporate juggernauts must take place for change to occur. Simply maintaining the “status quo” hasn’t proven successful in years past; the boom itself may be fleeting, but the issues being faced by “families of the boom” will not be alleviated by the bust, whenever it comes. Generational repercussions will be felt by families and children whose needs have been neglected in a social culture that has been malformed by a lack of community investment and corporate responsibility. The cost for the provision of adequate funding for social services should be recognized as a part of the cost of doing business, just as the development of policies to maximize the benefits of the boom can then be used to provide much needed intervention services for affected families and children. With the help of lawmakers and key players in the oil industry, service agencies can have the ability to prepare for these circumstances in advance. Closely monitoring the rate and direction of growth experienced by communities along with some clear-headed planning may provide an opportunity to prevent the dissolution felt by residents. The need to create unbiased balance within industry standards and governmental legislation for long term social justice is a monumental task, but not an impossible one. Research suggests that for every dollar spent on social service prevention programs we save between $4 and $7 used for interventions down the road. Investing in prevention services translates to fewer dollars spent on foster care, welfare, juvenile justice and a range of other programs. The windfall of the boom could, in part, be utilized to protect families, children and the cherished way of life that has always been a hallmark of this region.