Way out west in Alaska, in the mighty Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, there’s a plethora of wetland, tundra, and treeless plain…and hardly a lick of work.
In 70,000 square miles, about 25,000 people eek out a living. They fish, they hunt, they go the Post Office and pick up checks. The town of Bethel, with 6,000 people, is the Y-K Delta’s version of a metropolis, the commercial and service hub for about 50 small villages and settlements not much larger than an extended family.
We know this as a subsistence life, but in truth, it is a mixture of living off the land and living off the government. There is no viable economy. Half of the jobs are government jobs; in the Wade Hampton Census Area, that number jumps to 69 percent, the highest in Alaska and some of the highest in the nation.
We’re talking about an area the size of Oregon with the population the size of the student body of the University of Oregon. Half of the people in the Y-K Delta are under the age of 18. Nearly half of those children live in a single-parent household.
The largest employer in the region is the prosperous Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation, headquartered in bustling Anchorage.
Funded mainly by government grants, the health corporation has newly built, and enviable facilities across the delta. This is far from the bare-bones health care that one might expect for such a sparsely populated area.
NO JOBS FOR YOU: Last week the health corporation’s board of directors, by a vote of 19-0, declared that mining jobs that could be provided by the proposed Donlin Mine would be bad for the communities.
Bad, because people who are working for a living could choose to move away.
Bad, because work gives people dignity and choice in the manner they live out their lives. And [clutching pearls] choice in rural Alaska might lead to a drop in the population.
87 percent of the people who live in the Y-K are Alaska Native. In the past, they lived a migratory life, following the patterns of roaming herds of caribou and seasonal arrival of salmon.
The in-migration of the rest of the world changed all that. Priests established settlements and governments brought a semblance of order, but no industrial or agricultural basis for an economy.
The Y-K Delta is in trouble. Suicide is epidemic. At times, the area has the world’s highest rate of suicide. In 2010, nine young people took their lives — one right after the other. Drug abuse and alcohol have a tight grip, destroying lives more slowly. Kids are huffing gasoline and solvents to get high. In recent years, some villages have had a high school dropout rate of 100%.
And yet, the government-grant funded folks running the Y-K Health Corp. believe that jobs could harm the people of the Y-K.
Without a shred of evidence, they submitted their comments for the environmental impact statement. And because they are considered individuals with special expertise, their opinions carry added weight, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers weighs the pros and cons of the gold mine.
Those who have been through the Pebble Mine wars are already predicting what is next for Donlin.
Donlin could provide hundreds of living-wage jobs. As the Red Dog Mine some 90 miles north of Kotzebue has shown, it could be the very medicine the doctor ordered for the desperately poor communities in the Y-K Delta.
But if the paternalistic health corporation has its way, poverty and despair will be the intergenerational norm in the Y-K Delta. And that will be a form of job-protection for the rapidly expanding health care provider, because poor people will come to depend on them for more and more care.