Mareesa Nicosia is a reporter from New York who journeyed to the tiny, Alaska village of Newtok late this summer to write about global warming because global warming is trending.
Newtok is in all ways about as far as one can get from New York, and it is said to be on the front lines of climate change. Situated on the wet, lake-pocked Yukon-Kuskokwim River delta of far Western Alaska about 500 miles northwest of Anchorage, Newtok has pretty much always been on the front lines of climate change.
There are good reasons the Yupik who took over this corner of Alaska a couple thousand years ago were still largely nomadic up until the 1940s when World War II became the first truly global conflict and sent waves of technological change around the planet that ripple to this day.
But that isn’t what Nicosia went to Newtok to write about. She went to Newtok to write about education and climate change, or climate change and education, because climate change is the story of the day and she works for a website called the The74Million.org which specializes in education. Its founding principle as stated on its website is “74 millions kids. 74 million reasons to talk education.”
And Nicosia wrote well about the importance of the school in Newtok, where as in many other villages of the north, it is the center of community life. The school is where village kids go to play basketball, now the favorite sport of rural Alaska. The school is where community events are held and movies screened.
In Newtok, Nicosia wrote, “the school is the only building in the village with flush toilets and showers (two for men, two for women). The homes here do not have indoor plumbing or running water, so young men are sent to haul five-gallon jugs of water from the school every day.
“When there’s a funeral, the gym is where residents gather to eat and mourn. And when other areas of the village flood — as they do almost every year now — the school, as Newtok’s highest point, is where residents go to shelter.”
Nicosia does a good job of underlining the importance of the school to the community, if not to education, before touching the usually untouchable.
Alaska’s biggest problems
Thirty one paragraphs into a long but very readable story, Nicosia throws this out there:
“More than a third of Newtok residents live below the federal poverty line, according to 2010 census data — although the number is likely higher now, officials said. Newtok is legally a dry town, but alcoholism and drug abuse are widespread. School officials say it’s not unusual for parents to leave their children to look after each other while they drink away their annual permanent fund dividend check — every Alaska resident received $2,072 in 2015 — in Bethel or Anchorage.”
Right here, it needs to be said that the drinking, drug abuse and bad parenting are not unique to Newtok. To greater or lesser degrees, these are problems in many Alaska villages and along the rural parts of the Alaska road system and in the state’s few real cities. Throw in the associated problem of sexual/physical abuse in all these areas, and you have the unholy triad of Alaska problems.
Nicosia’s observations seem almost a throwaway in a long story about how government needs to help Newtok move. Still, she is to be commended for at least noting the reality. Most reporters don’t. They parachute into rural Alaskan with a vision of a rural nirvana and somehow manage to leave with that vision intact.
Rural Alaska is, indeed, the best of Alaska, but it can also be the worst. It can be tough to live out there for many reasons, which is why people leave.
“The pursuit of economic and educational opportunities appears to be a predominant cause of migration,” researchers at the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) concluded in a 2008 study. “However, currently available survey data are not sufficient to definitively determine other reasons for migration, which could include concerns about public safety and/or alcohol abuse.”
The study was funded in large part to look at the mind-bogglingly high costs of fuel in rural Alaska and find out if that was driving out-migration. The study concluded it wasn’t.
“People move to improve their lives,” the study authors wrote.
There are those, many in the media, who would prefer people stay. Reporter after reporter after reporter has shipped off to Newtok, Kivalina or Shishmaref in recent years to write about the problems these communities face due to coastal erosion, and how they should be “saved” by government-paid relocations designed to cement them in place
Almost none of these reporters have mentioned the massive problems these and other villages already face due to poverty and lack of parenting. Nicosia at least touches on it before moving on to more climate change.
All across America, small communities have been dying with such regularity for decades that the rural-urban migration hardly even makes the news anymore. When “The Atlantic” did write about it this year, the story was “The Graying of Rural America: As young people increasingly move to cities, what happens to the people and places they leave behind?”
“Population decline in rural America is especially concentrated in the West,” wrote Alana Semuels. “There’s a lot of wide-open land there, but most people, and young people especially, live in the cities. Half the jobs in Oregon, for example, are now in three counties in and around Portland.”
It made Oregon sound a lot like Alaska where population and employment are focused in and around Anchorage and the nearby Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
“The young people have no chance whatsoever of making it here,” 61-year-old Mickey Dodd of rural Wheeler County, Ore., told Semuels. “That’s why the smart ones, when they finish high school, they leave.”
This has become an accepted way of life in most of rural America. It is not so accepted in Alaska. Here is Nicosia again:
“Many students don’t consider leaving the village (of Newtok) for college, often because they’re relied upon to help care for elderly relatives or siblings (most families have around seven children, the principal said).”
About half of the kids in Newtok don’t even bother to graduate high school. There’s no real point to it if you plan to spend the rest of your life in the village. And a lot of children are expected to stay because without them villages will die, and the idea that a village might die in Alaska is anathema.
You will not find an Alaska politician or political leader alive today willing to publicly discuss the idea that maybe some villages should be allowed to fade away. Some might say it privately, but to find a public suggestion you have to go back to the writings of self-proclaimed Bushrat Gov. Jay Hammond, himself a longtime resident of rural Alaska.
“Elsewhere, when ore bodies deplete, natural catastrophes strike, or bread baskets become dust bowls, often people depart leaving ghost towns in their wake. Not so in Alaska,” he wrote in “Diapering the Devil”.
The book is the last of Hammond’s three autobiographies. It was published in 2011 – six years after his death. The ex-governor spoke harsh words from the grave.
“We simply do not let villages die,” he said. “Of the over 200 villages in Alaska, few have viable economies. Private sector jobs are exceedingly scarce. As a consequence, unemployment in Alaska is perennially the nation’s highest. By contrast to many Alaskan villages, Appalachia is affluent. With their burgeoning growth, Alaskan communities find it increasingly difficult to subsist off adjacent lands or waters. Accordingly, many villages are heavily reliant on government spending.
“…To reduce crippling costs of attempting to provide services to hundreds of economically unviable communities—not connected by roads and lacking adequate housing, schooling, and basic services—I once proposed we determine which regional centers had the most viable economic potential and focus on providing them with top-notch schools and other services…encouraging those who aspired to these emoluments to move thereto. Others who wished to retain the ‘village lifestyle’ cherished by many rural folk would not be obliged to move, but would not be provided housing and service subsidies of a comparable nature,” Hammond wrote.
“Once again my proposal fell flat. Instead, at enormous per capita cost, we have attempted to provide similar services to each and every community regardless of size or potential. The result has in many instances been both inadequate and inequitable.”
Newtok test scores would indicate the school there today is inadequate and inequitable despite the best efforts of the teachers. And there is no reason to believe building a new school in a higher location will change anything.
Forget climate change
Climate change is a problem facing Alaska in the future. A struggling educational system, abuse and a lot of bad parenting are the problems here and now.
“While there’s no doubt that school is important,” Annie Murphy Paul wrote in TIME magazine in 2012, “a clutch of recent studies reminds us that parents are even more so. A study published earlier this month by researchers at North Carolina State University, Brigham Young University and the University of California-Irvine, for example, finds that parental involvement — checking homework, attending school meetings and events, discussing school activities at home — has a more powerful influence on students’ academic performance than anything about the school the students attend.”
As a reporter, I must disclose a bias here. In the 1960s, I grew up in a small Minnesota town in what was alleged to be the poorest county, or one of the poorest, in that state at that time. It’s strange to look back now in the context of Alaska because those childhood years don’t seem that long ago and yet they are a world away.
I was a first grader in Minnesota when people in the Nelson Island area of Western Alaska started coalescing around a new Bureau of Indian Affairs school to form what would become the village of Newtok, now 350 strong.
My parents did not disappear for days or weeks to party, but I had friends whose parents did or might as well have. One or two of those friends might still be in prison. I lost track of them. A former girlfriend committed suicide when I was still in high school. Another made it to college before she killed herself.
Nearly all of the imprisoned and dead had parents too preoccupied or too messed up to parent. Mine were different. I had no appreciation for it at the time. My friends were running wild, and I wanted to run wild, too.
It made for an interesting childhood. I left home more than once. I went back after going hungry living on the road. My parents managed the situation well enough that I made it into college, which was another way of running away, until I finally dropped out of university and took off for Alaska.
I was back in school, a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1974 because there weren’t any jobs to be found in Interior Alaska, when my father died of cancer. He was 46 years old, and I had yet to learn the value of parenting.
I never got thank him for what must have been a hellish task.
A different Alaska
Alaska was a different place in ’74. The population of the entire state was little more than the population of Anchorage today. The TransAlaska Pipeline System, which would bring the money that would transform the north forever, was just beginning.
The entire Bethel Census Area, which includes Newtok and more than 35 other communities, numbered only about 8,000 people. Modern-day, rural transportation in the form of reliable snowmachines and high-speed river boats had just started to arrive, and television was already in the major cities though it was not live. Tape had to be flown north from Seattle to be replayed.
A couple of villages were experimenting with limited satellite TV, however. And by 1978, the publicly funded Rural Alaska Television Network (RATNET) was up and running. It started as a single-channel, educational TV for rural Alaska, but quickly diversified into general programming.
It was the beginning of a huge and rapid technological change in Alaska. Rural Alaskans long isolated from what the rest of the world had to offer would quickly began to find out. The arrival of the internet in this century would only accelerate changes that have come so fast that many urban Americans, exposed to high-speed urban environments from youth, have found it hard to adapt.
It’s only been harder in rural Alaska where people went from appreciating every slight technological change that made their lives better 50 years ago to yearning for what they believe the rest of America possesses today.
It is easy to get depressed and off track in rural Alaska. Poverty has been linked to depression. Depression has been linked to substance abuse. Both are linked to bad parenting, which only compounds the handicap of poverty.
Yes, the handicap of poverty. The data would make it appear a reality, not some lefty, goody-goody nonsense.
After a quarter century of intimately tracking the lives of almost 800 Baltimore school children, John Hopkins University sociologist Karl Anderson came to this simple conclusion: “A family’s resources and the doors they open cast a long shadow over children’s life trajectories.”
Harder in Alaska
The Anderson study pointed out just how hard it is to get ahead in America if you have to start at the bottom of the heap.
“Only 33 children moved from birth families in the low-income bracket to the high-income bracket as young adults; if family had no bearing on children’s mobility prospects, almost 70 would be expected,” Jill Rosen wrote of Alexander’s study in her reporting at the HUB, a John Hopkins publication.
Only 4 percent from the low-income bracket had a college degree. Rosen’s story makes Baltimore sound a lot like rural Alaska.
The high school graduation rate in Newtok is about 50 percent, according to state date. Ninety percent of students score “far below proficient” in science. None meet the standards for English language arts.
This is not meant to pick on Newtok. It is no different from some other rural Alaska schools. You have to feel for the students. You have to empathize with the students. If there is no chance to get ahead by studying, why work your tail off at it?
But somebody has to ask a simple question: Where does this all end?
Doomed to poverty?
With more than a third of Newtok residents now living in poverty, what about the rest?
There is little economy in the region. Of the 7,000 jobs in the Bethel Census Area now, more than 3,000 or about 43 percent, are with government.
For comparison sake, the U.S. average is 14.6 percent. Sweden is near 29 percent. Canada is at 20 percent, the United Kingdom at 23.5
With the state facing a budget shortfall of more than $3.5 billion, one has to wonder whether this sort of government spending can last. The state has already lost about 2,500 federal jobs due to federal budget tightening since 2011.
There is no sign of new economic development that could replace jobs lost in rural Alaska.
The median age in Newtok is now 20. The population of 350 is up 10 percent from 2000, nearly double since 1990. The community is near, if it hasn’t already surpassed, the subsistence carrying capacity of the surrounding area.
Everything Hammond warned about before his death appears to be coming true.
So forget the problems of high water that might come next year or two years from now or a decade on. What about the Newtok students who graduate this year, or don’t?
What does the future hold for them? Where do they go? What do they do?
And the ones coming behind them? Will a new school on higher ground really solve the problems they face?
These are things Alaskans should be talking about, but nobody wants that discussion. The political consensus of the state seems to be that it is better to just let happen whatever happens because there are issues just too hard to talk about.
Newtok only needs about $130 million, approximately $370,000 per person, to relocate the entire village to higher ground. Since relocation efforts started 10 years ago, it has been able to raise $20 million, primarily in the form of federal funding.
The village now needs about $314,285 per person to finance the move. The odds on their getting the money are hard to calculate, but it is worth noting the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has capped disaster spending elsewhere at $33,0000 – about a tenth of the Newtok cost.