Anyone who has bought into the widely reported idea that the problems of rural Alaska are rooted in a lack of law enforcement needs to take a look at a new study by RAND Corporation researchers who found that more than half of the unemployed men in their 30s in the United States have a criminal arrest record and that the consequences ripple through society in many ways.
There are no state-by-state breakdowns on how exactly this plays out across the country but long before ProPublica and the Anchorage Daily News won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for -claiming to have discovered crime problems in rural Alaska – the land of the unemployed – the crime problems there were well documented.
“Today, Alaska Natives face extraordinarily high rates of domestic violence, sexual
assault, child abuse, juvenile suicide, and alcohol and substance abuse,” the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tribal Consultation on Public Safety in Alaska Native Villages reported in 2017. “Earlier this year, the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice released a study showing that more than four in five Alaska Native women – and more than one in three Alaska Native men – have experienced violence in their lifetimes.
“In 2013, the Indian Law and Order Commission concluded that Alaska Natives are disproportionately affected by crime and that public-safety problems in tribal communities are systematically more severe in Alaska than in the rest of the United States.
“In 2012, the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission reported
that, while Alaska Natives represent about 19 percent of the State’s total population, they are twice as likely to be represented in the State’s juvenile-justice and adult correctional systems, and more than three times as likely to be represented in the State’s child-protection system.”
The situation didn’t improve in the years that followed any of those reports, and the new Rand study points to some of the key reasons why.
“There are strong links between social isolation, persistent unemployment, crime, and involvement with the criminal justice system,” the authors of that study write.
Isolation largely defines rural Alaska, and the unemployment rate is so high many there – especially men – have simply stopped looking for work. As the Alaska Department of Labor has noted, most of the employment in rural villages is tied to jobs working for local, state and federal governments, and most of those jobs are in the areas of health and education where government funding is at its highest.
Women everywhere dominate that segment of the economy, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics which reports that in 2019 women held 74.8 percent of the jobs in education and health services.
Times have changed
Once things were much different in rural Alaska than they are today. Once the subsistence lifestyle served to counteract both of those modern constructs of isolation and unemployment.
True subsistence required that people work constantly in order to survive. It wasn’t that long ago that almost everyone in rural Alaska was heating their home with wood, sawing the wood by hand, and cutting and hauling chunks of ice to melt for water.
Not to mention maintaining dog teams for transportation that drove up the need to not only hunt and fish to feed one’s self and one’s family, but to feed the dogs as well. People then were too busy trying to survive to spend much time thinking about unemployment or isolation.
It is somewhat hard to believe that film was produced only a couple of years before I was born and only a little more than a couple of decades before I arrived in Alaska. By then life in the north was already considerably easier than in 1950, but in rural areas it still remained hard and very isolated.
Alaska still lacked for live TV in the early 1970s, and the internet hadn’t even been imagined. Snowmachines were still an unreliable alternative to a dog team. The state’s Interior rivers were traveled in Grumman freighter canoes with low-powered kickers, not in high-power, high-speed jetboats.
And nobody who got in trouble in the wild pushed a button on a satellite-linked personal communicator to summon a rescue if they got in trouble. You saved yourself, got lucky and were saved by someone else, or died.
People had to be tough, hard-working and adaptable to survive. Technology has changed so much since then.
Over time, snowmachines, all-terrain vehicles, high-speed powerboats, chainsaws and other “conveniences”, for lack of a better word, radically reduced the amount of time that need be spent on subsistence activities, and various forms of government assistance arrived to aid those not up to managing any sort of subsistence life.
Along with these changes, there came television and then the internet as well. The two worked together to provide those in rural Alaska a vivid view of how much easier life is for those living in the urban world of the 21st century, and to ponder why they can’t have that lifestyle.
Years ago, I remember sitting down with a resident of the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island far out in the Bering Sea. He told me he’d once written a story for a California newspaper about what he wanted out of life.
Curious, I asked him if I could read it. He went and dug out an old and yellowing clip that described a desire for a job and a suburban home atop a two-car garage. There are no suburbs in rural Alaska, few jobs and even fewer homes above two-car garages.
As of December, the national unemployment rate in the U.S. stood at 3.7 percent with the overall Alaska rate at 5.4 percent, according to the Alaska Department of Labor. But the rate in rural Alaska was nearly double the state rate and approaching triple the federal rate at near 11 percent in the state’s Bethel Census Area and the Bristol Bay Borough in far Western Alaska.
In the Kusilvak Census Area north of Bethel, a regional hub for the West, the rate was at 16.2 percent. In the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area in the northcentral part of the state, it was at 10.1 percent.
The unemployment rate in the Kusilvak region is now greater than that of the U.S. during the Dust Bowl years that accompanied the second year of The Great Depression. And the unemployment rate only counts those looking for work. It doesn’t register the people who have simply given up, something that really wasn’t an option during the Depression.
There were little in the way of local, state or federal assistance programs at the start of that long, dark period in American history. Much has changed since, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program alone reports it now “provides federal assistance resources throughout rural Alaska and has invested $2.16 billion dollars in 236 rural communities in the last eight years.”
That averages out to an investment of about $270 million per year. The funds help keep villages functioning. Meanwhile, the state of Alaska administers a wide variety of programs designed to keep people alive:
- Adult Public Assistance with monthly cash payments and medical assistance for the elderly, blind and disabled.
- Alaska Temporary Assistance Program with monthly cash payments for families with children.
- General Relief Assistance for individuals and families with emergency rent and utility needs.
- Heating Assistance Program to help defray winter home heating costs by providing annual grant fuel vendor if this function is performed by tribal providers.
- Interim Assistance payments to people waiting to find out if they qualify for Adult Public Assistance.
- Senior Benefits with monthly cash payments to eligible low-income seniors
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNP benefits, formerly known as food stamps) to help people buy food.
- And the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) assistance in the form of education and cash for women with young children.
Collectively, these programs have become vital to physical survival in parts of rural Alaska, but they don’t do much for anyone’s emotional survival. Work, if nothing else, provides some structure in the lives of most people, and without that structure, too many are inclined to slide into criminal activities.
The RAND study concluded that men “who were unemployed between the ages of 30 and 38 had substantial levels of involvement with the criminal justice system. The majority had been arrested at least once, almost 40 percent had been convicted at least once, and more than 20 percent had been incarcerated at least once. The results were very similar when we included recently discouraged workers and those who were working fewer hours than they wanted.”
The numbers are troubling, and the problems are not easily resolved by just adding more police in areas with crime problems. There is a limit to how much deterrence law enforcement can provide.
As Livia Gershon summarized the situation at JSTOR, a digital library for scholars and researchers, “one meta-analysis by John Eck and Edward Maguire found that only nine of the 41 studies they looked at (on this subject) were rigorous enough to take seriously. Reviewing those nine papers, they found no evidence that the police had a real effect on the 1990s drop in crime.
“Advocates for beefing up police forces often point to New York City’s huge reduction in crime after instituting intensive “broken windows” style policing. Looking at 12 major U.S. cities, Paternoster acknowledges that New York added the most police and saw the biggest decline in violent crime. But the pattern doesn’t hold up in the other cities. For example, Seattle’s violent crime rate dropped by about 44 percent while it reduced its police force by 9 percent, and Baltimore added 20 percent more cops without any resulting change in the crime rate. Meanwhile, Canada experienced a drop in many types of crime similar to the United States’ in the ’90s despite reducing its police force by 10 percent.”
The value of work
Poverty doesn’t always breed crime. There are poor societies that function with low levels of crime, but in the U.S. crime and poverty are clearly linked.
Researchers Adam Looney and Nicholas Turner at Brookings, a U.S. think tank, in 2018 used Internal Revenue Service data to study the backgrounds of then more than 2.2 million people in American prisons and found that in the three years prior to incarceration, only 49 percent of prime-age men were employed and, when employed, their median earnings were only $6,250.
The duo went on to observe that the road to prison for most of these people started long before the three-year window detailed in their data.
They found “that boys who grew up in families in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution – families earning less than about $14,000 – are 20 times more likely to be in prison on a given day in their early 30s than children born to the wealthiest families – those earning more than $143,000,” Brookings reported. “The authors estimate that almost one in ten boys born to lowest-income families are incarcerated at age 30 and make up about 27 percent of prisoners at that age.”
Poverty isn’t destiny. There are people in the U.S. who still pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps, but those born into poverty are undeniably pushed toward criminality.
And a U.S Department of Agriculture report in Rural Poverty & Well-being released just days ago puts the childhood poverty rate in most of rural Alaska at between 23 and 33 percent.
Those kids couldn’t ask for a much worse start to life.
“Research has shown that the poor living in areas where poverty is prevalent face impediments beyond those of their individual circumstances,” the report adds. “Concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, and employment dislocations. As a result, economic conditions in very poor areas can create limited opportunities for poor residents that become self-perpetuating.”
Self-perpetuating problems are the story of rural Alaska today, and it is foolish to think that just adding more cops in the “Bush,” as everyone used to call it, will change much.
Police are in the business of investigating crimes and apprehending the people who committed them not solving the problems that lead to crime in the first place. And though societal pressures can, in some cases, help to reduce the crime rate among those struggling with poverty, consider this study from economic well off Norway where janteloven is said to prevail.
“Janteloven (the law of Jante) at its simplest describes the way that all Norwegians (and in fact, other Scandinavians too) behave: putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments, and not being jealous of others,” according to the website Life in Norway.
This might help to make life better in rural Norway than in rural Alaska, but its power to control crime is clearly limited if researchers from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the country’s Stavanger and Oslo universities, and the Waterhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve in the U.S. are to be believed.
They in 2019 reported on a study of 361,385 men aged 18 to 40 who were laid off from work because of manufacturing plant closures or business downsizing from 1992 to 2008 using what they described as “Norwegian register data that include a rich array of socioeconomic and demographic variables for the entire resident population, as well as all criminal charges brought against any resident….”
One in five of those 360,000 men subsequently ended up in trouble with the law.
The researchers also noted a link not only between unemployment and crime, but between lower education levels and greater odds of criminality. Rural Alaska has this problem, too.
A 2019 report on rural schools prepared for the national School Superintendents Association found that rural Alaska “had the lowest graduation rate among rural districts of any state in the U.S. at 72.3 percent” despite the 49th state spending a nation-leading average of $14,380 per pupil on education.
Thirty-three of the 50 U.S. states spend less than half of what Alaska does, according to the report, and all of them have better graduation rates. Idaho spent less than a third of what Alaska spends and graduated more than 85 percent of rural students. No states other than Alaska fell under a 75 percent graduation rate.
And then there is this from Norway:
“Our findings do highlight a specific target for policy intervention on the basis of the relatively large effects of displacement on drug/alcohol crimes. Given this finding, programs designed to discourage alcohol/drug abuse targeted to displaced young men, could yield sizable welfare improvement for the men, while also reducing crimes stemming from that abuse, which includes violence.”
The rural Alaska problem with drugs and alcohol is legendary. The Anchorage Daily News in 1989 won a Pulitizer for its “People in Peril” study documenting the problems of rural Alaska Natives. The series basically suggested that if people in rural Alaska would just stop drinking so much the problems plaguing the region would end.
Efforts to create dry villages where alcohol was banned followed, and the state has spent tens of millions of dollars on enforcement to try to keep booze and drugs out of villages. When the ADN with the help of ProPublica revisited rural Alaska 30 years later, the problems were still there, and the answer this time was to add more law enforcement.
It’s not the answer, but finding people work to help them lift themselves out of poverty might help. Alaska is unlikely to ever match Norway’s poverty rate of 0.5 percent, but it ought to be a statewide embarrassment to have a rural poverty rate 25 times Norway.
If the RAND researchers and others are right, putting people to work to help fix this problem might solve a lot of other problems as well. The Nation Master website ranks the overall crime level in Norway at about half that of the U.S. And Alaska has a crime rate about twice that of the U.S., according to World Population Review, which reports the 49th state trails only the District of Columbia and New Mexico in that order as national leaders.
The researchers studying jobs in Norway more or less offered a warning that the situation like that in Alaska is a recipe for disaster observing that the result of their study “pertain to a specific context (Norway), where employment rates and income levels are relatively high, rates of serious crime and incarceration are relatively low, and a generous social safety net exists which reduces the material hardship resulting from displacement.
“In countries where the financial implications of job loss are more severe, such as the U.S. we might anticipate a larger crime response operating through both the earnings replacement and mental distress/self-control mechanisms.”
In the U.S., rural Alaska appears to be the poster child for that “larger crime response operating through both the earnings replacement (by turning to crime) and the mental distress/self-control mechanisms.”
Or, as the RAND researchers recently put it, the community disintegration linked to “social isolation, persistent unemployment, crime, and involvement with the criminal justice system.”