SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Energy costs drive rural Native Alaskans to cities
Anchorage Daily News


October 06, 2008

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- With growing evidence of an Alaska Native exodus from villages to the city, Anchorage officials want the state to organize and emergency task force to find ways to stem the migration.

Anchorage and the state "cannot stand by and tolerate the deterioration of rural Alaska," said the letter from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau.

The main evidence of the migration is enrollment in Anchorage schools, which have seen more than 400 new Native students since school started this year, said Doreen Brown, Indian Education supervisor for the district. It wasn't clear how many of those came directly from rural Alaska, but schools in communities across western Alaska report losing pupils, Comeau said.

The $1,200 energy bonus that came with annual state Permanent Fund checks this year was supposed to ease energy costs for rural residents, but many used the money to move to urban areas where food and fuel are cheaper, Comeau said. The district added 18 teachers, most of them at elementary schools, to accommodate increased enrollment, she said.

The transition from rural to urban schools can be hard, Comeau said.

"We're talking about high schools that are bigger than the communities most of the students are coming from," she said.

City and schools officials are concerned about how rural Native families manage once they arrive in the city. Some might need help with food or transportation, Comeau said. Many are restarting lives, in need of jobs and housing.

"We know a lot of them are already doubling- and tripling-up with their relatives in houses and we know that is not the best situation over time," she said.

The relatively high cost of living in the villages is bringing some rural residents to the city.

According to the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska, this year the poorest 20 percent of rural residents were paying 47 percent of their income in energy costs. In 2000, that same income group was spending about 16 percent of their income on energy. That group in Anchorage pays just under 9 percent of their income on energy. Middle-income people in rural Alaska, who make up about 60 percent of the population outside cities, are currently spending 12 percent of their money on energy, compared to that group in Anchorage, who are spending just over 3 percent.

Secondary teacher specialist Barb Dexter works with homeless middle and high school students.

"I've had three students in the last two days who have come in from rural communities, and they've come in without adults," said Dexter.

On Monday she talked to a high school senior who had just moved to Anchorage from Bethel, Alaska. "I can't afford to live there," he told her.

Michele Brown, president of the United Way of Anchorage, said she'd heard a lot of concern about a population influx from rural Alaska, but there isn't yet data from local nonprofits to document the trend.

"I think the bottom line from our planning perspective is given what's happening in the economy, we know that we're going to be seeing a lot of need," she said.

On the other side, rural schools are looking at a loss of state money and even closure because schools are funded based on head count, said Larry LeDoux, state commissioner of education. Schools with fewer than 10 students could close, he said.

"It's a trend that's been going on for quite some time. It seems to be accelerating this year," he said.

The sooner the state starts talking about the migration, the better, mayor Begich said. "Indicators are telling us we're seeing our homeless shelters reaching capacity already, and winter hasn't even set in yet."

The task force could include rural Alaskans, business leaders, educators and others, he said.

As for who would pay for the solutions, Begich said, "That's part of the discussion that needs to happen ... What are the costs, and who will be part of that equation?"

Begich, a Democrat, is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

In a June interview about rural migration, Stevens told the Daily News he considered fuel costs the single biggest factor driving migration.

"The villages are coming to these towns. And unless you have the economy that they have in Wasilla, it's going to increase the unemployment rates in Anchorage and Fairbanks and it's going to increase the problems ... that go along with the people unemployed and destitute," he said. "They need help."


Reach Julia O'Malley at
or e-mail Kyle Hopkins at khopkins(at)
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