Okay, I know that this is a history blog, and it's now been running so long as research for a book, that it's becoming historical in and of itself, but we do a lot of commentary. Oh well.
Here's one, however, that has a real history to it, and which touches on an aspect of history.
Wyoming, for my entire adult life, has been worried about the young leaving the state. But so often, the analysis isn't really quite on or perhaps it's not too deep. Perhaps that is in part why we're still talking about it in 2015, as we have been for the past 30 years or more. The Oil City News recently noted the following:
The outmigration isn’t as bad today as it was in the 1990s. Back then Wyoming’s sluggish economy spurred an exodus of young people that one reporter referred to as a “brain drain.” Census data from 2014 shows Wyoming’s population of young people age 25-34 has grown over the past decade, but mostly in the larger counties with active energy development.
Even so, young people continue to leave the state in droves — among 18-year-old workers in the year 2000, only four out of 10 were still in Wyoming a decade later, according to state data.
Who are they, and who are "we"?
Okay, first of all, what is the general topic. Well, it's long been noted that around 50% of Wyoming youth leave the state after high school graduation, and this is conceived of as a problem. "We're" losing out young, is the thesis. And let's start with the thesis.
No doubt the figure is correct, but who is that "we"? Almost never noted in that analysis is the fact that about 50% of Wyoming's residents at any one time are from somewhere else, and we have a high transient population. Given that, the "our young" we identify with to a certain extent aren't really "ours", but rather are people who likely already identify with some place else or don't identify with any place. New residents from Colorado, New York, or Chihuahua. If they pick up and leave, they aren't doing anything that unnatural and, frankly, perhaps we ought not to worry about it.
In any one high school class there's a fair number of students whose connection with Wyoming is pretty thin. Many are very recent arrivals. It isn't really realistic to think of them having a close connection with the state, and at least a few of those people no doubt retain a strong connection with where they were from to start with, or they have no real connection with any place at all. Indeed, I once overheard an oilfield too salesman talking to another one, who was new to the job, in an airplane reflect that the city was basically two cities, one made up of people passing through, and another made up of people from here who knew they were going to stay.
This is even truer of college and university populations, I"d note, as Wyoming attracts a lot of out of state students, often from neighboring states. Yes, these people graduate and move on, but they moved on when they entered school as well.
The transient economic model.
Indeed, if we are to worry about the young leaving their homes and families, perhaps we should worry about it nationally. The entire nation is transient to some extent, and missed in this analysis is that society in general, and quite frankly rural society in particular, has bought off on the idea that "success" means a transient job. We tend not to think of it that way, but that's how we actually behave.
Success, in the modern economy, means getting a job that takes you to that in place, and moving up the ladder to that next place, and so on. When Wyoming, including the governor's office, worries about that, it's actually arguing against the prevailing economic model, including the one that's basically taught to high achievers in school. Do "well" and you can get a "good job". That good job is going to be in Denver, or Chicago, until it takes you to Houston, or so on. Interestingly, here in the state, while we promote that, we also argue against it, and interestingly sort of pitch a distributist economic model of "we can have good jobs locally". We can, but we need to be what those are, and we tend not to.
“Any given year, we have about 50 percent of youth leaving the state,” Gov. Matt Mead (R) said at a recent press conference. “We have great career opportunities and they are leaving the state
The governor's statement here is the typical one. So what are those "great career opportunities"? Well, perhaps not that great really.
I'll start here by noting that Governor Mead was born into a well connected political and ranching family. That isn't saying anything against him, but things are different for people like him than they are for somebody whose father was a laborer. Mead has a landed connection to the state and political ones as well. Most people would like to have the landed connection (more on that later), but really don't, other than maybe their parents' home. So they get an education, and they have to apply it.
Mead's concept on good jobs was spelled out in his statement on the topic in which the Oil City News noted:
In response, Mead recently rolled out a Department of Workforce Services website called Wyoming Grown. The program touts a high quality of life in hopes of enticing Wyomingites living out of state to move back home, no matter what age. Mead said the program is aimed at recruiting workers for in-demand positions like computer programmers, doctors, welders, engineers and others.
So, great, right. Ever young person can just get a job like that?
Well, quite a few can actually, and quite a few actually have. My father had a professional degree as did one of my local uncles, which allowed both of them to stay here. I have one as well, and likewise I've been able to stay here. Yesterday I was at an event where four out of the six lawyers on the location were all from the state and a fifth one had grown up here, but wasn't born here. Only one had moved in as an adult. And were in fact plenty of opportunities like that. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, mechanics; there really are a lot of local opportunities.
Wait, did you just say were up there somewhere?
Yes I did, were. As this is changing and we best be aware of it.
I don't want to exaggerate this too much, as that would suggest something that isn't true, but something that should be kept in mind is that at the same time the state makes pronouncements like this it actively operates to hurt some local professions. For example, there's the UBE.
Governor Mead, in addition to being from a ranching family, is a lawyer. But when he practiced law we didn't have the UBE. Now we do, and the effect of the UBE has been to cause a swell of admissions to the state bar of lawyers who live in Denver. This is only one example, of course, but its not insignificant. The profession of lawyer in a rural state has always attracted a different type of person that it does elsewhere. Lawyers in Wyoming have tended to be from the state, rarely does somebody move into Wyoming to practice law, although it does happen. Now, however, people can practice without moving here at all. This is happening to a notable extent, and over time, and it won't take much time, this will impact the nature and even the ability to practice law in the state, to the detriment of Wyomingites.
As another example, a profession that at one time attracted a lot of locals, that of Game Warden, is now being filled by out of staters. The field has always been very competitive, but in some ways it was a natural Wyoming profession for a lot of people here. So much so that its probable that most people who pursued a degree in wildlife management weren't able to obtain a job. At any rate, for a long time the way it worked is a person applied to take a test administered by the agency, and if they passed that qualified them to be hired. The test was administered annually in Cheyenne. It was possible for an out of state resident to take it, but it wasn't really easy.
Now it is. The test has even been given out of state recently and a person can apply for the position on line, making it easy to do so. The new hires that the Game and Fish announce, I've noted, are almost 100% out of state residents. Now, I have nothing against these bright happy new faces, but when we tell our own residents that opportunities are available here, and for something a lot of them would like to do, and they help cut them out, we're not thinking things through. In comparison Alaska requires a game warden applicant to be a resident of Alaska.
We could easily do things just like that. A game warden applicant could be required to be a resident of Wyoming. A lawyer could be required to take a real state bar and have a real office in the state, and so on. But instead, while we decry the loss of our young, we set out making it difficult for them to stay with policies that tend to operate against them.
State v. Region
And just where are they leaving anyway?
That may sound like a strange question, and I'll start expanding on it with this. I love Wyoming, and very strongly identify with it. My love of Wyoming is like the Dr. Zhivago like love of Russia in the movie. When Laura turns to Komarovski and says "he'll never leave Russia", that's pretty much how I feel.
But even at that, I have to note that Wyoming is an American state, and most American states have sort of arbitrary borders. Not all. Some actually have natural boundaries, but most do not. Wyoming, like Colorado, or North Dakota, is a big rectangle, and that's not a natural boundary.
This isn't to say that there isn't actually a distinctiveness to Wyoming, or Colorado, or North Dakota, but we need to be aware that there are actually regional boundaries naturally formed in the United States, and they play into this in a huge way. While people may be leaving the state, quite frankly, a lot are not moving out of the region, and for that matter, there's a lot of movement within the region into Wyoming.
Of my four really good high school friends, two are still right here in town. So, out of the four of us, three have statistically beat the odds. Of the other two, one lives in Colorado. Indeed, he lives in norther Colorado, just 50 miles away from where we attended university and where his Wyomingite wife grew up. He didn't really move far, but he isn't in the state. The other friend has been more of a traveler, having worked in California for quite awhile. But he also moved back here in town and worked for a very long time, before just taking a job in Utah. Again, he's left the state, for the second work life time, but he's not really far outside the state. Of the five of us, four were from Wyoming, indeed this town, but the fifth was from Bartlesville Oklahoma.
In my own family, my grandmother was from Leadville Colorado, but spent quite a few of her formative years in Denver. My family has strong connections with the Scotsbluff Nebraska area. Of my cousins, one set of cousins has moved all over the country, but another set has basically moved north of this city, with most of them now living in Buffalo, a really neat Wyoming town, but one of them having gone as far north as Montana, with that all being, however, on one long highway drive. One of my late partners also had strong connections with Nebraska, even though he'd been born here in the early 1920s. Of my son's friends, yet another has very strong connections with Nebraska, where he's from. One of the local Federal judges is from western Nebraska and his father is a practicing lawyer in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. Here in the office, one of my partners is from North Dakota. We had a paralegal at one time that was from North Dakota and has returned there. Another paralegal was married to a man from North Dakota.
We see a lot of Colorado law firms practicing in the state (and at least one Montana one). I've noted that before, and complained about it, but I should further note that of the Colorado lawyers I work with, two are actually from Wyoming originally. We at one time had a lawyer who was from Colorado who worked here, before returning to Colorado.
So, what's all this have to do with anything? Well, one thing that is rarely noted is that young people may be moving out of the state, but they tend not to be moving out of the region. The region may actually be a more "natural" entity than the state. Perhaps, put another way, the state is a natural and political entity within a larger natural region. That changes things quite a bit, and the fact is that its well demonstrated that most of the young people who move out move to a neighboring state, usually Colorado.
Part of what makes this all the more interesting is that the nature of the region in contemporary terms has rarely been explored. We will hear of the "Rocky Mountain Region", but I"d submit that while there is such a thing, it isn't accurate in this context. The cultural region is larger, and it somewhat omits at least one of the states in the Rocky Mountain region, that being Idaho. We find some Wyomingites moving to Idaho, and vice versa, but not many. Idaho is really part of the Pacific Northwest.
If we look at cultural and demographic ties, the region that Wyoming is in would include, really, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, and even to some extent New Mexico and Oklahoma. It also includes Alberta and Saskatchewan. People in these areas share a lot of mutual identity and tend to recognize a lot in each other, and in their localities. They also travel to each others states and provinces like there is no tomorrow. It's nothing for a Casperite to travel to Billings Montana or Sidney Nebraska for sporting goods. Wyomingites travel up to Alberta to hunt waterfowl, where the hunting is better for ducks and geese, just as they also go to Nebraska for the same. Quite a few people from neighboring states will hunt antelope here. Residents of rural Saskatchewan tend to occupy the same professions and have the same hobbies as residents of rural Wyoming. Rodeo, the regional sport, stretches south to the Mexican border and north to the Arctic circle.
As regions are natural, whereas political boundaries are not always natural, that may be more significant than we think, and we ought to take that into consideration. If we consider the area mentioned a vast region, what we would tend to observe is a different pattern. Young people might move out of the state, but they don't tend to move out of the region as much. Moreover, much of the movement pattern reflects a big type of movement that's been going on since the advent of the Industrial Revolution.
What we tend to see in Wyoming is what we've seen everywhere since industry converted our economy from an agrarian one to an industrial one. People have been moving from the fields to the towns, and from the towns to the cities. We see that a lot in a Wyoming context. It's not unusual to find people from Thermopolis or Greybull living in Casper. They grew up in those smaller towns, graduated high school, went to university, and then pretty much had to relocate in one of the larger cities in the state. Just the other day I was working with a lawyer who was from Buffalo but whom had spent his entire working life in Cheyenne, which isn't even remotely similar in location or character. A lawyer he's related to is from Sundance, a small Wyoming town, but has practiced his entire life in Sheridan, which isn't large, but which is the largest town in north central Wyoming. We had a lawyer who was from Laramie (but whom moved back there) and we have another who is from Greybull. And I know two lawyers from very small Wyoming towns who work in Denver.
This is the classic American, indeed Western World, situation. If a person grows up in a very small town their economic options are very limited. If they obtain an education, ironically the options shrink. If a person gets a law degree, for example, and comes from a town like Medicine Bow, he can't go back there. It's impossible. His choices are to look for a job in one of the larger towns or cities, or to go to a big city, which quite a few do, but with the typical option being Denver.
Expanding this out, and looked at regionally, what we'd see is that in this region there are a lot of little towns, but most of them have very limited economies. Economies that are, in fact, much more limited now than they were 50 years ago, in spite of the recent oil boom which has impacted some of them in the other direction. Every 200 miles or so, there's a sizable city. In Wyoming there's Casper and Cheyenne that are fairly sizable cities. North of the state border there's Billings, which is also a fairly sizable city, and is a city which in fact residents of northern Wyoming look up on as the "big city". For southwest Wyoming there's Salt Lake City. For northeast Wyoming, there's Rapid City. For the "Wyobraksa" region, there's Scottsbluff.
All of the region, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, etc., look to Denver as the true big city, and for anyone doing business, they're going to do business in Denver to at least some extent. Salt Lake City stands in as distant second in those regards, but it does stand in. For people associated with the oil and gas industry in any sense, Tulsa Oklahoma and Houston Texas are also "must go to" cities.
The point of all of this is that a pattern naturally exists, with the economy we ave, which will draw a large segment of our population in this state, as well as that of Montana and Colorado, to Denver. It just will. The same is true of Salt Lake. There's absolutely nothing that can be done about that. The young from really small towns sometimes go to larger towns or local cities, but those we send into certain industries or whom we send through with university degrees stand a really good chance, indeed an in creasing chance, of being "from Wyoming", but living in Denver or Salt Lake City.
So, what can Wyoming do?
So what of that? Considering the last item first, but approaching the overall topic as well, what does that leave us with. Should we just abandon the whole topic?
I'd say no, but at the same time we need to realize that failure in this area is not only a possibility, but perhaps a high likelihood. Or maybe not. But in order to really address things, the typical solutions of funding local starts ups and the like is a waste of time, in my view.
Some fixes are pretty easy, if we'd only do them. Part of the problem in doing them, however, is that Wyoming has a massive inferiority complex. For some reason, we feel that bringing in outsiders is always the solution to any problem, and as already noted, we actually gear some industries that way. We should stop that.
A good way to stop that would be to stop actually exporting jobs. Can the UBE, require lawyers to have real offices here. Require that game warden applicants, and law enforcement applicants, actually live here. This won't create a massive number of jobs for locals, but it will create some, and not an insignificant some.
Next, however, perhaps its time to look towards what we have, rather than look at other towns and cities elsewhere and wish we had what they do. Not that swiping good ideas isn't a good idea.
What we do have, is what we've always had. We have a lot of agriculture. While we've been wringing out hands on this topic and the demise of the most recent oil boom, agriculture just keeps on keeping on, not that it doesn't have problems. The big problem it has, like everything else, is that while at the same time agriculture is boosting the economies of the Mid West massively, we're exporting it here. That is, we're exporting the ownership of our ag lands.
We should stop that, and realize that agriculture is actually the one economic constant we've always had. If we took some steps to require, as Iowa has, that land be held be held by local corporations, we could work towards supporting local ownership, and that supports local farmers and ranchers. It also supports local jobs, albeit typically low paying, for those who work for them.
And we might also consider that we are exporting nearly 100% of the agriculture products we produce. As late as the 1970s, there was a large packing plant here in Natrona County (my family owned it in the 1940s). Now there isn't a large one in the entire state. Indeed, I can't think of there being any facility in the state that actually produces any locally grown or raised agricultural product on a large scale, other than sugar (and one of the sugar processing plants just closed). We grow wheat, but we don't refine it. We raise cattle, but we don't pack them. We raise sheep, but we don't process wool. We grow barley, but we don't brew beer on a large scale. We timber, but we have few timber processing plants. In short, we just export everything.
Now, some would say that the day of local processing of these items is over. But it doesn't really seem to be on a regional scale. Colorado has a large meat processing facility in Greeley and three substantial breweries, in addition to a fairly large commercial canning facility. We just don't do this.
Now, at this point, doing something along these lines would require some thinking out of the box, and that would require state assistance. That usually makes Wyomingites cringe, but the state already provides seed money to other industries (there's some, for example, being provided to our local airport for a large new hanger). Doing something to get a local packing plant going, or to get Budweiser or Coors up here brewing beer, etc., would be a good idea, even if we have to take the approach that North Dakota, which has a state owned flour mill, did. I.e., if we can fund a lot of peculiar business propositions as start ups, we can look towards some of the ancient ones that actually have a direct and strong connection with the state.
Not that this is the only thing we can do. Wyoming has a law school (and the UBE), but it has no medical school, no dental school, and no veterinary school. We import a lot of doctors from all over, when we could simply educate our own. Those who go off to study in these areas do in fact often come back, but not always. Indeed, life is what it is, and if you are in medical school and meet an attractive opposite, whose from Wichita and who wants to go back there, chances are good that that's where you are going to go. Accepting life as it is and having that medical school in Laramie makes more sense.
And it would be better for the state as well. I've long been baffled by why Wyoming thinks it needs a law school in this day and age, when there are so many, and while its seeking to export the practice of law elsewhere anyhow, but it doesn't have any sort of medical, dental, or veterinary school. Everyone gets sick, and most people own cats and dogs. Making it easier for Wyomingites to enter these fields would be a good idea.
And maybe boosting the non Laramie campuses of the University of Wyoming would be as well. That's already been a huge success, and something that's changed things enormously since I was 18, and encouraging the further expansion of the University of Wyoming outside of Laramie would appear to be a win win proposition. One of the really attractive things about UW, truth be told, is that for Wyomingites its not only an excellent education, but it's cheap. If you can attend where you already live, it's cheaper yet. And if you attend where you have a connection, you're more likely to stay there. Indeed, while its a bit counter-intuitive based on he supposed statistics, quite a few people who graduate in Laramie never get any further than that. Indeed, just yesterday I was working with a lawyer from Casper who grew up here, but met his spouse who was from Laramie. When he graduated, they both found jobs there. One good friend of mine, while he didn't stay in Laramie, stayed in nearby Fort Collins, only fifty miles away, which is another sort of example.
Anyhow, those are my thoughts on these thorny issues. This is another one of those areas where we seem to repeat the old ideas to our detriment. Maybe its time to look around at what we have, and what we don't, and do something with it.