Other views: We North Dakotans hold the future in our hands

Last November, voters turned down the Youth Investment Initiative. While the policy proposal failed, I am grateful that it encouraged so much discussion about out-migration and North Dakota's future.

Last November, voters turned down the Youth Investment Initiative. While the policy proposal failed, I am grateful that it encouraged so much discussion about out-migration and North Dakota's future.

North Dakota is wasting away as thousands of young people leave after they graduate from high school or college. Our future is in their hands. Once they put down roots in Minneapolis or Chicago or Denver, they are unlikely to return. In some ways, our future is still in our hands, too. We are more aware of the problem than ever before. Thanks, in part, to The Forum's reporting in its series, "Saving North Dakota," we know much more about the current situation and future trends. We know many rural counties may suffer population losses of 30 percent or more during the next 20 years unless things change.

Lose ground

Projections show North Dakota's population roughly holding its own over the next 10 years. In simple terms, we won't enjoy growth. In more complex terms, we will lose ground. The average age of our state's population will continue to increase. Unless we act now to change our future, we will watch the number of retiring North Dakotans magnify, while the number of students enrolling in elementary school dwindles.

Fargo and other major cities enjoy population gain at the expense of rural areas. This is a statewide problem that will, in the long term, negatively impact residents of Fargo just as deeply as residents of Finley or Fessenden. Rural communities can't compete with Fargo in job creation efforts, yet rural communities are just as important. This state and its residents will thrive only if all areas, east and west, are economically healthy and viable.



Overall, efforts to combat out-migration of young people are centered on economic development. Statewide, our track record isn't the best. In some cases, it is difficult to measure how many good paying jobs have been created, and how much each job "costs" relative to the economic development incentives and tax abatements awarded. This is changing. People are asking for accountability in our job creation efforts. This can only make such efforts more focused and more effective. It may build more public support for economic development.

Frankly, some jobs we attract do not benefit our state. Too often our job creation efforts result in little more than a handful of minimum wage jobs with no benefits. These jobs are easily moved about as companies pit communities against each other. Too many North Dakotans have to work two or three jobs just to get by. The "any job at any cost" philosophy won't build our future.

Agriculture is key

I believe that the cornerstone of North Dakota's economy is agriculture. Any discussion of our future and the policies we enact to create new opportunities for young people ought to keep in mind the value of agriculture. It comes as no surprise that when agriculture is healthy, North Dakota's economic fortunes respond in kind. Value-added processing plants are creating good jobs across the state. Every business from supply cooperatives and shopping malls to railroads can tell from their bottom lines the relative economic prosperity of farm and ranch families.

Homestead Act

Our nation's economic freedom grew partly from our entrepreneurial spirit and our natural resources. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged development of the Midwest, from Texas to North Dakota. It worked well, securing our nation's food security and building an infrastructure that links (and supplies) the East and West Coast economies. The out-migration of young people is a common problem for many of these same Midwestern states. In response, North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan and Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are proposing a new Homestead Opportunity Act. Their bipartisan effort, through the New Homestead Act, would provide incentives to encourage individuals to live and work in rural areas suffering from out-migration; encourage businesses to locate and invest in these same areas; and create a capital venture fund to promote business development.

The Homestead Act has merit and is worthy of our attention. Getting Congress to act on it won't be easy. The national policy spotlight is focused on the war on terrorism and the Bush Administration's proposed tax cuts.


Door opened

Closer to home, our legislature will debate economic development policies, such as Rural Renaissance Zones which will allow certain tax concessions to encourage investment in smaller communities. Similar zones are already in use in the state's largest cities.

The Youth Investment Initiative opened the door to discussion about how to provide opportunities for future generations. North Dakota was largely left behind during the nation's economic prosperity of the 1990s. As we begin to take our own steps to build our future, we must remember to include rural communities and agriculture in our plans and policies.

Carlson, who farms near Glenburn, N.D., north of Minot, is president of the North Dakota Farmers Union. He can be reached at

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