The Myth of North Dakota History and the Truth About Federal Subsidies

Clay Jenkinson

Clay Jenkinson on Bald Hill.

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by Clay Jenkinson

Now that we are rich beyond the dreams of our grandparents, and North Dakota has become one of the most prosperous states in America, we are getting a little cocky in our denunciations of the federal government. Suspicion of outsiders trying to tell us who we are and what we should do has always been deeply woven into the North Dakota character. But until recently, we were so dependent on the national government that we generally toned down our criticism. Things have changed.

It might be useful for us to remember how much and how continuously North Dakota has been made possible by the national government. The national Homestead Act (1862) opened Dakota Territory for settlement. A total of 118,472 homestead claims were filed over the next four decades, encompassing 17,417,466 acres or 39% of the state. North Dakota ranks second only to Nebraska in percentage of acreage homesteaded under federal protocols.

America’s transcontinental railroads (including the Northern Pacific) were authorized and massively subsidized by the national government. A quarter of the state was handed over to the railroads (especially the Northern Pacific) to get them to lay track over so empty a landscape.

The national government propped North Dakota up during the Great Depression, through a wide range of programs: the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act, the Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and rural electrification.

The Rural Electrification Act (1935) brought electricity to some of the most remote corners of America. Probably no other piece of federal legislation had such an impact on the daily rhythms of rural North Dakota life. Rural electrification is a perfect example of why the federal government has been essential in North Dakota history. Depending as it does on profits, market capitalism is not well suited to bringing services to scattered populations, where the cost of running an electrical line may exceed the expected revenues. It took the federal government to get it done.

It was the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937 that stabilized the ranches along the Little Missouri, Sheyenne, and Grand Rivers during the Great Depression. The combination of sustained drought and severe national economic depression made it impossible for the great majority of badlands ranches to remain solvent. Under the generous terms of the federal Bankhead-Jones Act, these ranchers were enabled to keep their homesteads, cede the rest of their ranches to the United States government, and then lease the very lands they lost at advantageous rates. What could be more generous than that? Imagine what would have happened if FDR’s New Deal had just shrugged its shoulders and “let the market decide” in the grasslands of the American West?

North Dakota has always benefitted economically from the presence of the U.S. military on our soil. In the nineteenth century it was Forts Berthold, Buford, Abercrombie, Totten, Stevenson, and Lincoln. During the Cold War (and continuing to the present) we hosted two massive Strategic Arm Command bases in North Dakota, at Grand Forks and Minot. At the moment, more than 2,500 military personnel are assigned to Grand Forks AFB, and more than 5,500 to Minot AFB. In every round of national base closure initiatives, Grand Forks and Minot lobby Congress to keep these bases open. Why?

The capricious Missouri River was tamed by the federal government. All six mainstem dams on the Missouri were undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, using federal tax dollars. This includes the two massive dams that impound waters in North Dakota: Garrison Dam (1953) and Oahe Dam (1962).

Imagine the last seventy years in North Dakota without the support of the U.S. Farm Program.

This is merely the short and obvious list. In countless ways, from the moment Lewis and Clark (federally funded) passed into North Dakota on October 13, 1804, to the new federal highway bill that is making its way through the U.S. Congress as I write, North Dakota has been the beneficiary of U.S. government largess. We are one of the states that receive more federal tax dollars than we send in. In fact, we rank sixth in this regard, behind West Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska, Mississippi, and New Mexico. Even now that we are rich, we still receive $1.68 for every dollar we send to Washington, D.C.

Federal programs: the Women, Infants, and Children health delivery program (WIC). The Federal Transportation Administration (FTA). TSA. National School Lunch Program. Head Start. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA). Food Stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And on and on.

In short, the settlement of North Dakota was made possible by the federal government. We have been propped up by the federal government. We have been rescued in times of great stress by the federal government. We have been protected from real and perceived threats by the federal government. Our natural and human resources have been developed by way of federal subsidies. And we continue to be subsidized by the federal government in countless ways.

In spite of these unmistakable facts, we North Dakotans love to pretend that it is our gumption that has brought us to this great moment in our history, and we love to rail against federal intrusion into the sovereignty of North Dakota.

It would be interesting to create an interactive website or video that—one by one–stripped away federal programs from the “large rectangular blank spot” that has become today’s North Dakota. As each program or infrastructural benefit was lifted from the landscape, we could see the loss of dollars, jobs, rural stability, connectedness, comfort, and economic possibility that program has represented in North Dakota history. Would we have electrified ourselves? What would the great flood of 2011 have done to Bismarck and Mandan had there been no Fort Peck and Garrison Dams? Would we have built our own four lane highways in the state? Imagine if we had been passed over by Dwight Eisenhower’s federal Interstate Highway Act. What would have become of North Dakotans had there been no New Deal on the Great Plains? At one time during those nightmare years, 70% of North Dakota’s 630,000 people were on some form of federal assistance. Thirty thousand people left the state during the Grapes of Wrath period of our history. How many would have picked up and moved on without the rural stabilization of the New Deal? If you took away federal research dollars from our two largest universities, how much would they shrink?

In periods of sustained drought, when our rivers flood our towns and our fields, when tornadoes shatter a community, we turn instinctively to the federal government for help. Imagine the last twenty years of North Dakota life (including 1997) without FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency).

If you stripped away the cornucopia of the federal encouragements and benefits North Dakota has received since 1862, this would be a very dreary steppe. Surely we would have done some good things on our own. But sit down and do the math and the imagining some Sunday afternoon, and ask yourself just what North Dakota would look like if the federal government had said, “Welcome to statehood. By the way, you will be entirely on your own. Good luck with that. Oh, and start saving your pennies to tame the Missouri River.”

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