Neil Scharpe is a Project Director at the North Dakota Center for Persons with Disabilities at Minot State University. His article reminds us that the quality of life in North Dakota is what makes living here so good.
The economy in North Dakota is the envy of the rest of the country. We have heard this many times over the past few years. It is true that despite some natural disasters in the past 3-5 years, our economic numbers are looking great. Across the state, even with a late spring and cool summer, crops that did get planted are looking very good. The oil industry continues to set production records and our unemployment rate is very low. However, our overall economic success carries with it real quality of life issues that impact many people across the state.
As one would expect when there is large and unexpected population growth in an area, there are major infrastructure issues to follow. Miles of gravel roads are now used extensively by large truck traffic. This creates so much dust that it is impossible to keep windows open in homes and businesses, or have young children play outside. In addition to infrastructure, school systems, accessibility to child care, and strains on volunteers are affecting quality of life.
School systems that were struggling with decreasing enrollment are now experiencing double digit percentage increases. The new students are coming from areas that represent a diversified population--something that western North Dakota has not dealt with for many years. The parents of these students are working jobs that keep them moving, resulting in school administrators coping with issues of immunization records, academic records, and cultural differences, while at the same time trying to provide a quality educational experience. Also, accessibility of child care is an issue across the entire state, however, it is particularly difficult to address in the western region. During a time of low unemployment when space is renting at a premium price, and child care workers are traditionally paid a lower wage, workers are increasingly difficult to find.
Moreover, several strains are being placed on volunteer fire and ambulance personnel. To start off, volunteer fire and ambulance personnel are being extremely taxed, especially in small rural communities. Also, the number of calls have increased beyond their ability to answer, and the severity of the situations they find themselves coping with have increased dramatically. Hospital emergency rooms are struggling to deal with the results of these situations with a limited staff. Even routine medical care is a challenge. Community members that used to be able to see a doctor within a day or two are now being scheduled weeks or months in the future. While these topics continue to make the news regularly, they do not often address the resulting impact on quality of life in western North Dakota.
In all on this turmoil persons with disabilities may tend to be marginalized and overlooked. Think about how difficult it can be to move through your community on a daily basis and then think about how that would be if the population of your community increased by one-third in a very short time. Housing needs for people with physical disabilities have been limited, but are now even less. North Dakotans with mental health needs may find themselves waiting for long periods of time to receive services. Families of children with special health care needs are often frustrated by limited access to appropriate services.
Our newly generated resources are a good thing. They have led to better job availability and a reason for the next generation to make North Dakota their home. However, we must be proactive in addressing these very real problems, keeping in mind the quality of life issues of our residents. We need to spend as much time and resources on the quality of life in North Dakota as we do on the quantity that drives the system.
The Vision West ND project, which covers the 19 oil and gas producing counties in western North Dakota, is developing a regional strategic plan to address these concerns. In their efforts they are trying to address these immediate, short-term needs, while looking ahead to create long-term development of local and regional strategic plans. If you have not heard of the Vision West project please take time to visit their website www.visionwestnd.com.
Roads, water, and housing can and will be addressed over both the short and long term, but the quality of life that makes living in North Dakota such a treat must not take a back seat. We need to make sure that quality of life issues are kept on the front burner and that resources are allocated to find reasonable solutions. Energy production has changed our way of life in western North Dakota. By keeping the issues in mind, working together to find solutions and demanding that an adequate amount of resources that have resulted from our energy production be put into quality of life, my hope is that we will be able to say it has changed it for the better.