By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO
We are living in distressing economic times. The unease over the weakening economy is felt even deeper by those living in rural Alaska. The economic crisis, and its aftermath, is forecasted to forever change the Alaska we know.
Living conditions in rural Alaska have never been easy. But recent economic changes make them much harder. Many families are suddenly being forced to choose between struggling to survive in their village homes or moving to build new lives in urban Alaska. At an increasing rate, many are choosing to migrate to urban centers, primarily to Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley. Rural-to-urban emigration causes deeply personal and cultural loss, as Native families are forced by means beyond their control to abandon their traditional rural lifestyles and village communities. An urban migration also impacts the receiving end. Uprooted families relocating to Southcentral Alaska impacts Alaska Native service providers such as Southcentral Foundation, Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Cook Inlet Housing Authority as these organizations must allocate scarce resources to fill needs.
Moving to the city helps some Alaskans overcome the challenges faced by those living off the road system. Urban Alaskans, for example, spend only four percent of their annual income on energy, compared to 40 percent in rural communities. And there are more schools, healthcare facilities and job opportunities on the road system than off. But urban life brings new challenges too. Students easily can be lost in schools that have more students than rural villages have residents. Safe, affordable urban housing can be expensive and difficult to find. And village culture and work skills do not always mesh with urban lifestyles and jobs.
Why is urban-to-rural migration accelerating? A steady stream of Alaskans moving from smaller to larger communities to get better access to services is historic and well documented. My own family, for example, moved from its home in the small Interior village of Takotna after our village school closed. My mother and father greatly valued education and decided they had no choice but to move to an area that was served by a school for my brother and sister and me.
Today, however, increasing energy prices and declining populations are combining to break rural economies, accelerating the outflow of rural Alaskans. Fuel oil prices have soared to as much as $11 per gallon in some remote villages. Rural school district enrollment numbers are dropping to 20- year lows, threatening the village schools which cannot support funding for dwindling classrooms. The cumulative effect of the many individuals and families now moving are being felt across the state.
CIRI’s non-profit affiliates are some of the very best sanctuaries and benefactors for those migrating from rural to urban Alaska. They serve not only CIRI shareholders, but all Alaska Natives and American Indians living in Southcentral Alaska. Recently, I met with the leaders of these organizations to assess this situation. Both CITC and SCF report that during the past 60 days they have received an unprecedented increase in requests for services. We are not alone in sounding the alarm. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Anchorage School District Superintendent Carol Comeau also see the impact on educational and service providers in Southcentral Alaska. Recently, they co-signed a letter calling upon Alaska’s governor to form an emergency task force regarding the impacts of inmigration on the region.
Active leadership at this time is crucial. Alaska’s public- and private-sector leaders must recognize that increasing rural-to-urban migration is not a demonstration of an increased desire to relocate from rural to urban areas, but is a symptom of statewide crises related to high energy costs, challenged schools, and substandard vocational education programs. We must address the crises created by the short term effects of inmigration, but not be so overwhelmed as to neglect longer term solutions to the underlying causes.
In my view, those longer term solutions lie with energy and education. Alaska must increase the diversity of its portfolio of energy developments, and assure that rural residents have the means to heat and power their homes and businesses economically. Alaska also must rework its education policies to give Alaska’s students and workers better access to high-quality education and training opportunities that will prepare them to get good jobs and live prosperous lives. The state could, for example, support the development of new regional, residential high schools that would significantly improve educational opportunities for rural students in urban locations, while maintaining and celebrating the cultural diversities students would bring with them from their home communities.
If achieved, these goals will help keep the economy strong in both rural and urban Alaska. In the immediate term, CIRI and its family of non-profit service providers together are facing a world where funding for critical services remains flat, and new funds are increasingly harder to secure, particularly at a time when competition for funds nationally is on the rise.
At the CIRI family, we are focused on doing what we can to implement short- and long-term relief to the economic, educational, and cultural crisis of increasing rural-to-urban migration. Through economies of scale, best practices, new legislative solutions and strengthening the infrastructure of our organizations, we can meet the unprecedented challenge before us.