2014-Competition Winner-D

Boomtown and the Culture of American Inequality

by Philip Kao and Megan Foreman (Anthropology Department, University of Pittsburgh)



Our project investigates American inequality through the lens of the recent oil boom in Williston, North Dakota.  Told primarily from the perspective of the shale field’s “roughnecks”, or manual laborers, we consider the way inequality is produced in and magnified by this energy boom.  To do so, we trace the story of workers as they travel from their homes around the US to find the American dream in Williston. We also attend to the struggles and shifting terrain of inequality for long-term residents living in and near Williston.  By examining the obstacles that people on the ground actually face, we show how competing notions of economic prosperity and success in the US is both contextualized and put into conflicting practice.  We argue that economic inequality is not just about income inequality, but more perniciously an inequality in the ways people imagine (and fail to secure) ‘jobs and justice’, and what that means for envisioning a better life.

Chapter 1: The Oil Boom and Williston

Williston, Boom Town America, sits unassuming in the northwest corner of North Dakota. With its man camps, RVs and cars turned into makeshift homes, Williston reveals a gritty underside to the latest trends in domestic economic migration. Homesteaders in the early 20th century built shacks and raised crops, eking out a dusty livelihood amid the prairie’s grasshoppers, gophers, and roaming buffalo.   Today, over 55,000 residents live in Williston, but jobseekers and boom-chasers continue to move in everyday for the action. Thanks to the oil rush and the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the two-lane highways coming in and out of boomtown seldom rest. Railroad and truck traffic snake along twenty-four hours a day, bringing water, drilling and construction materials in and out of Williston.  Americans from all walks of life have come to eke out a new livelihood not from the soil but from the oil resources trapped in the Bakken formation, which spans 180,000 square miles underground. 

Beginning in early 2008, Williston’s reincarnated oil boom guaranteed employment and high wages for service workers and oil field workers alike.  Even without training and certification, persons who could pass a drug test often received $100,000 a year for driving a truck or performing manual labor on a rig. For fear of losing service workers to the oil industry, employers have regularly paid service workers well above the nationally mandated minimum wage. The has led to a mass migration into North Dakota over the past six years, leading the northern prairie state to be touted as a model of economic success at a time of recession across the US.

While the economic growth that North Dakota has experienced over recent years is certainly impressive, the praise and excitement overlooks the way that such growth is informed by and promotes continued systemic inequalities in the US.  Namely, it ignores the fact that this economic growth is sustained by two competing visions of success in the US.  Although oil executives, roughnecks, and service workers all see the North Dakota boom as an opportunity to grow their piece of the economic pie and to further their American dream, their understanding of the ways that this can be done and the limits of their success are increasingly divergent.  Whereas roughnecks risk their bodies and employ particular social relations as they aspire to the middle class, for example, oil executives employ technical knowledge and legal frameworks in their attempts to depart permanently from this middle class.

This book investigates how these competing visions of success play a role in facilitating economic inequality.  Tracing the lives of oil workers across various domains, this book paints a portrait of how they understand the contingent nature of employment and success.  As it does so, it juxtaposes their reflections with the goals espoused by Williston residents and oil executives who seek to limit the possibility of the boom going bust.  In this way, it seeks to offer insight not only into the inequalities experienced in any boomtown, but also into the institutional structures that perpetuate them.

Chapter 2: Living in the Field

Against the backdrop of 20-foot flares, and the smell of burning hydrocarbons and natural gas, some Americans have come to boomtown not to strike it rich, but to save their homes and payoff their loans in a landscape that is as much main street America as it is part of the awe-inspiring and sun baked Badlands.  This chapter ultimately explores the harsh living conditions in one town as it addresses its reality from the perspective of an American microcosm. We follow people, to see not only how they negotiate their lives and commitments in Williston, but also how they square their own narratives of success and failure with their notions of the middle class.

Take for example, Jeffrey, a twenty-seven year old Floridian and cook determined to pay off his loans.  Jeffery enjoys being paid more than $25 an hour, but work leaves him little time for anything else. He is recently engaged and hopes to start a family back in Florida. For now, he is part of the crew in one of the man camps that houses and provides food for hundreds of hungry and fatigued oil workers.

On the other side of the serving station is Mark, an oil worker from Michigan who recently fled his state’s economic recession. He jokes about how much things cost in the land of overnight inflation but admits that he is making more money now than he had ever imagined.  After rubbing his grimy hands together with a squirt of hand sanitizer, Mark takes off his fluorescent jacket and Carhartt hooded sweatshirt. He takes a sip of warm coffee and laments how he is trying to ‘grind it out’; he is still living in his car.  Rents in Williston have gone to near-Manhattan levels, and he has yet to find a compatible roommate. For the time being, Mark insulates his ‘home’ with six Wal-Mart bought sleeping bags, and drives to the community center for their daily $3 shower deals.

For Bridgette, being a woman in search for a truck driver job puts her in an extreme minority.   She does odd jobs, cooking and offering laundry services for busy oil workers.  Her flyers can be seen posted outside of gas stations and in restaurant bulletin boards.  Being a single mother, Bridgette hopes to save enough money to prevent her home in Ohio from being foreclosed.  With her child at her mother’s, she is able to live in an RV. Bridgette says that life is not supposed to be easy, but also in her current solitude she knows tacitly that life isn’t supposed to be this hard either. The money and her drive to make it, gets her through the hopes and fears of the day and night.

There are plenty of service and part-time jobs in Williston, but one thing the town is short on is housing.  Bridgette was lucky to lease her RV; it was given to her through one of her laundry clients.  For most people, jobs are plenty, but there are very few homes.  Studio apartments exceed $2000 a month, and the people who live in RVs, bring them to Williston from other places.

Chapter 3: Catching Up to the Boom

This chapter examines how the long-term residents of Williston have experienced the explosive growth of the oil boom, and how city officials have attempted to manage it.  To do so, this chapter is divided into thematic sections that highlight the national, state, and local tensions about how best to manage the boom.   Through a consideration of the Quadrennial Energy Review (QER), this chapter traces how federal officials view North Dakota and other rural centers of the shale energy boom as temporary sites of economic prosperity. It also investigates how North Dakota’s state officials attempt to subvert this peripheral position through their economic development plans.  It then investigates how these national conversations inform the way city planners and local residents experience and attempt to manage the boom more locally.   By shedding light on the competing ideologies, our analysis reveals the divergent notions of risk, reward, and economic interdependency.

The first section begins with an account of the Quadrennial Energy Review in Bismarck, North Dakota.  A series of national meetings to be held annually from 2014 to 2018 and hosted by the US Department of Energy, the QER is tasked with investigating the impacts of the shale energy boom and with developing federal policies that maximize the boom’s benefits.   The idea of maximizing the boom’s benefits, however, raises serious questions about whom the boom is intended to help and how its resources should be treated.  This section traces the tensions between national officials on the one hand and North Dakota state officials on the other.  Federal officials see maximization as a temporary utilitarian solution (to limit the possibility of rising energy costs), whereas state officials understand this as an opportunity to develop their role in the energy section and their long-term economic prospects.  In highlighting these tensions, this section demonstrates how boomtowns are assumed to be places of short-term benefits rather than spaces of long-term, sustainable prosperity.

The second section of this chapter addresses how Williston city officials and residents simultaneously abide by and resist the milieu and imaginaries created by the ideologies surrounding national economic development and energy security. It begins with a reflection of the development narratives espoused by city planners in Williston.  It demonstrates how these narratives employ the boom not as an end-point, a temporary solution to the nation’s energy woes, but rather as a point of departure.  Ultimately, the reader will come away with a real appreciation of how competing interests on the ground link directly to Williston’s ventures towards keeping the boom going and remaining a serious contender as a central player in the national and international energy industry.

Chapter 4: Manufacturing Inequality and Other Aspirations

While the mass media’s sensationalist accounts of boomtown continue, Williston remains a growing haven for corporate interests, sprawling roughnecks, and America’s jobless.  Along with long-time residents, people jostle and hunker down for their piece of the American dream. This chapter then explores how competing visions of that dream play out in boomtown. By analyzing the discourses and subsequent practices that frame how (and how not) to behave in Williston, we demonstrate that the moral economy and imaginaries about what it is to be an American, a citizen of good character, and a hard worker actually manufacture inequality.

 This chapter builds upon the previous two chapters by investigating the ways in which the stress and lives of roughnecks and long-time Williston residents engender and exacerbate class inequality.  More specifically, it focuses on the ways in which people’s aspirations toward achieving the middle class lifestyle are continuously suspended by their roles as a “temporary” and therefore “deviant” work force.  To do this, the chapter is divided into two smaller sections.

The first section returns to the stories of the oil workers, and investigates their reasons for coming to Williston.  It illustrate how the roughnecks frame their work on the Bakken formation as a temporary solution to chronic underemployment/unemployment and as a strategy to develop various kinds of capital necessary to enter the American middle class.  For most workers, survival is not an aspiration but a coping mechanism. It then consider the roughnecks’ ambitions in light of the discourses about—and the actions taken in response to— their arrival in Williston.

Building upon the first section, the second section further considers the desire for a middle class lifestyle, asking how this lifestyle is imagined and considering its accessibility for those coming to Williston.  More specifically, this section seeks to understand why oil workers in the field are imagined as an itinerant and economically unstable workforce and how this imagination speaks to their ability to penetrate the middle class.  It begins by thinking about how the physically demanding nature of the lowest rig positions (i.e., roustabouts and roughnecks) translates into an extremely high-turnover and injury prone workforce.  It then investigates how this information is taken-up in knowledge about those who seek out entry-level field positions in the oil and gas industry.  From those in the industry to those who encounter these workers in places like workers compensation courts, it demonstrates how these workers are stereotyped as being both nomadic economically reckless.  While the section troubles this stereotype by considering it in light of general economic trends in the US, it also explores how such stereotypes speak to competing notions of the middle class.  Namely, it show how such stereotypes position those who seek work on the fields as marginal, almost permanently located outside of the middle class.

Chapter 5: Coming Full Circle

Williston is certainly not the Promised Land or America’s ‘Best Little City’.  Because of its shortage in housing, not many job seekers can stay.  One of the immediate paradoxes to wrestle with is the simultaneous rise in the number of jobs and the skyrocketing number of homeless. Workers looking for jobs in the oil industry require some basic education and training.  Although there are many part-time openings in places like bars, diners, and fast-chain restaurants, many of these positions do not offer enough money or networks to secure affordable and sustainable housing. Those who cannot make it, often fall by the wayside, waiting for charity organizations to support and help them raise money to return home.

This chapter investigates what happens when the last resort doesn’t work out. In other words, what happens when people, who have put all their eggs into one basket, have to leave Williston in search of something else—if not a new beginning? The work of the roughnecks is long and arduous. Some live in their cars; others are constantly congested from the chemical and exhaust fumes.  There is no glory except money from the black gold.  Nonetheless, people do fail to make ends meet and to secure a viable short-term job or long-term career. This is not due to the gritty life associated with the oil boom but rather to the limited pathways for ‘success’.

Conclusion: The American Dream Revisited 

This chapter draws together the various perspectives from the workers, residents and town council officials. What emerges is a field of relations, stakeholders, and a network of double binds that allow economic inequality to compound in Williston.  For those who fail to gain decent employment, and cannot make it back home, Williston becomes a living hell. Some are stuck here, trapped, working just enough to be able to stay. For others with families, life takes on an eerie dimension, especially when a pregnant woman lives with her husband in a car, while their dog is tied outside as security.

To deal with the increased joblessness as a result of the oil rush, churches and other charities have begun sprawling up as well. Organized food banks and shelters to house the increasing homeless are new institutions in Williston. Crime, prostitution and wealth bring its own set of crises and social challenges. In fact, Williston has become known tongue-in-cheek as mini-Vegas. What is ‘booming’, however, is not speculative wealth, or just the number of jobs, but social conflict.  An involution of the local political economy as a result of fracking has led to more, not less inequality and poverty.