NYT Article on North Dakota’s “Man Camps” of Working Fathers

North Dakota is filling with men who’ve had to choose between providing for their families, and seeing their families.

Ain’t this a hell of a thing. The New York Times has one of those good old-fashioned in-depth articles that journalists used to do back when there were journalists, all about the North Dakota oil boom and the odd culture that’s grown up around it, as workers, mostly men, flock to the one state in the union with 3% unemployment.

Many newcomers are, like Mr. Ripka, middle-age family men angling for a fresh financial start. Builders cannot throw up homes fast enough to house them; an estimated 1,200 housing units are expected to be completed in Williston in the next few months, and one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,700 or more a month, if they are available. With an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 job openings in the area, many men live where they can — in their cars, or in illegally parked campers — and send their earnings to their families while they hunt for housing.

There’s something about the whole thing that smacks of the Great Depression, migrant men riding trains to wherever there’s work, half-assed little company towns springing up to dig in the earth… part of my brain expects the photos on the article to be in black and white.

It’s retrograde in another way, too, as an absolute manifestation of man-as-breadwinner. The men in the article all tell the same story, that they have families to support, children to look after, and they’ve had to choose between looking after them in person and being a full-time parent, and looking after them economically in the form of checks that arrive from far away. They might go months without seeing their kids, living in cars and working whatever shifts they can get, providing their families with income while depriving them of husbands and fathers.

I guess in hard times, people sometimes relapse into old narratives.

Are these men heroes? What can we do to change this situation, so that men aren’t forced into such terrible choices?


Photo— lindsey gee/Flickr

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. “There’s something about the whole thing that smacks of the Great Depression, migrant men riding trains to wherever there’s work, half-assed little company towns springing up to dig in the earth… part of my brain expects the photos on the article to be in black and white.”

    I’ve become an infrequent visitor to GMP, having concluded a sabbatical and having to get back to The Real World with a reduction in the luxury of hyperbolic speculation, What ifs and ill considered comment.
    (Big wave to anyone about who has been wondering at me ironic absence.) P^)

    I would like to make an observation. Ellis island was not created as a Tourist Attraction!

    That may shock some, but it is reality. If some still find that reality unbelievable, Google may help! P^)

    Ellis island was created as part of a global phenomenon known as Economic Migration – and that even pre-dates Ellis Island opening for business in 1892. It even pre-dates 1774 and may even have had an influence on the opportunity for a July day having importance to some! It’s clear that eduction just aint what it used to be! P^)

    The records from Ellis Island (Linked to my own family) show just how many men arrived alone – lived in inhospitable conditions and sent pay-checks across the globe to keep others alive, long before the 1930’s! … Two generations before!

    I have been bemused by the Incredulity that seeps from each word in this Op-Ed. But then again, as a cultural mongrel who’s family history is a global scatter-gram of Economic Migration in the face of necessity and grinding poverty, I get the impression that some have just failed History 101, or not even studied the real world reality of Marco Economics on a family scale. They have not even considered where they themselves come from and have the “privilege” of being who they are due to the actions of others in past generations!

    It’s not just The English Speaking World either. Just have a look at the present day World Cruise Industry and wider Maritime industry – the crews of Oil Tankers made up of men and occasional women who spend weeks, months and years away from family – “making a crust” – to keep other’s alive with pay checks that cover housing, food, medical expenses and even pay for eduction. The presumption that Education is free globally is a fallacy that so many fall into. (… and some complain of the cost at the Pump for a full tank!?)

    Ever seen a container ship – bringing goodies from afar? Ever seen the crew and even considered the wage scales they have and the length of time away from family? Ever considered why the crew is invariably from certain countries … and ships registered under the flags of some interesting countries of convenience?

    Of course – if those economic migrants are below decks and not seen as they beaver away to make a crust and send it back to India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Various South Seas Tropical islands and other global venues of Poverty …. what would that matter, and why would it impinge upon a nice Cruise Vacation as a get away from the daily grind of 1st world affluence… with fresh laundry daily in a well appointed cabin?

    Ever wondered at the wage scales of the folks in that Ship’s laundry… and the last time they saw home, family and friends?

    Many fail to grasp how economic migration can and does occur in the production of their own Foot Wear – and how in some countries it is the Women ( particularly the young and unmarried as young as 12 – and younger ) migrate to places where employment in factories, where they can sit hunched over a sewing machine, allowing(?) them to also loose opportunity for access to family and friends as they too send pay-checks back to keep others alive!

    Some do not need to move Hundreds and even thousands of miles to achieve migrant status, as lack of infrastructure such as roads and other basic transport links mean that as little as 50 miles is the equivalent of a Trans Continental trip …. and there is no in-flight entertainment or catering to while away the hours of travel.

    Some will contend that such work venues have been outlawed and no longer operate, but they fail to grasp the reality of the multiplicity of suppliers and back street operations that act as suppliers – and which so few even consider looking at! Ever wondered at just the cost of the laces in a pair of running shoes – and who supplied them … just who made them!

    The biggest drivers of Migration in all forms are personal security from Warfare and Survival “Economics”.

    Refugee is the term used for warfare where you risk death for just being in the way. Economic Migrant is the term for people who equally act to flee from the risks to life and limb that come from poverty – no access to medical support – eduction – and even such basics as food and potable water.

    There are globally more economic migrants/refugees than those affected by warfare or famine.

    On a global scale it is estimated that there are over 250,000,000 men, women and children who are active economic migrants send in excess of $1 Trillion back as pay-checks across the globe on an annual basis to meet the needs of over 1 Billion people for food, housing, medical attention and even allow access to schooling. …. oh and the opportunity to have drinking water that is not adulterated with faeces and urine!

    The maths is simple and works out $1000 per person, per year – or $2.70 per day for housing, food, water, eduction and medical expenses… and even saving to fund the next economic migrant to supposedly a better life!

    $2.70 per day! … and that comes from a working week that is often over 60 hours.

    When the most portable revenue and production unit is a male, who also stands the best opportunity of survival, and therefore the survival of others, this apparently shocking and bemusing pattern of men moving far from family – living in sub human conditions – working long hard hours – in inhospitable environments – and sending pay checks back to keep others alive …. well, it may just be a Global Pattern across all cultures and countries and Bugger All to do with any black and white photos taken by Dorothea Lange and the negatives in the National Archives.

    But then again – Poverty and Survival is and always has been Equal Opportunity with no bars for either sex – any gender – and even social status judged by diverse means has been no protection. Shangri-La is relative to your circumstances and has been since time immemorial.

    In my own diverse family history it has been interesting to see how gender played it’s part in enforced Economic Migration – males went first and alone – then young married couples without children – then those couples with few children – and then ultimately the Parents/Grand Parents and children too young to work. Of course Mortality meant that many died on route – or some only ever had the opportunity to depart for the after life, and not depart for pastures green on a foreign soil.

    In many families they pooled funds to allow even one person an opportunity of a better life. They never expected any return – and many saw none, as the person who migrated died on route or shortly after arrival. The investment in the future was lost, and poverty prevented any future investment. The unmarked graves of economic migrants in New York alone are a testament to the history of centuries of global reality.

    Visit any grave yard in Ireland and you can see which families managed to get the money together to send someone to the USA. You can tell – the grave stones are bigger, grander and even exist – and were paid for in dollars!

    Lone women rarely if ever migrated alone, unless they had secure work to Migrate to – and the ability to fund such migration to the work – most often paid by the employer – resulting in indentured servitude.

    The history of that in my own family, as recent as the 1950’s and in Europe is fully documented. 12 years of Indentured Servitude because costs paid by an employer could not be repaid – the money gained in employment was sent back to keep others alive. That was the life of a Nanny living in Monte Carlo in the 1950’s – so glamorous, Grace Kelly and in full colour … and well past the 1930’s!

    That ancient and supposedly so old hat pattern of indentured servitude continues today, and has in fact expanded monstrously, in service industries connected with hospitality, leisure and having fun – Just Check out any cruise ship and so many high brow holiday destinations with very large price tags! High cost to the client – low wage to the worker and so much of it sent back to keep so many alive. … and so many women as the one’s living away from children and family – sending pay checks back in the hope of a better future for others.

    The recent events in Libya with so many economic migrants trapped still has not woken some up to the global reality. There were only 1 Million Economic Migrants Trapped – Indians, Malaysians, Bangladeshi, Filipino, Chinese…. to mention just a few! … and as Muammar Gaddafi had outlawed sexual discrimination the trapped group also involved half a million women, imported for service industries along with the half million males in the Oil, Gas, Petrochemical and Construction industries.

    Those figures exclude Europeans or anyone from the North Americas. And some wonder at the exasperation of certain governments in their attempts to charter ships to assist evacuation… or the crisis at border crossings with so many trapped, international aide agencies mobilised and regional governments being asked to waive Visa Requires and allow people across lines in the sand! The joys of being an economic migrant, with a work visa for a war torn country, an international flight embargo ….. and no where to go!

    Of course, now there is the issue of young women being used as revenue units, especially in countries and locations on the high seas where protection from economic exploitation is poor – and wages for Manual Labour by women so low it allows Footwear, Clothing and consumer electronics to be produced, shipped globally and then purchased at prices that are artificially deflated and so hard to resist.

    I recently read an analysis of the cost of making a certain Fruity Gizmo using the economics of it’s largest consumer market as the cost base. What can presently be purchased for as little as $399.00 would cost in excess of $4000 if produced in the USA. The cost difference and consumer saving is of course due to Economic Migrants.

    You even have cultural factors to address, such as countries with a legal system based upon Moslem/Sharia Law placing female economic migrants in the position of being not only house keepers – but house prisoners. They are not allowed out in public as they have no male relative to act as chaperone. Pay goes to keep others alive, and so you have to work … and work… and work …. and eventually have enough money to maybe return home after say five years… if you are lucky!

    Just having to buy that latest Electronic Gizmo has an impact on so much more that a personal bank balance – and even drives economic migration on a global scale with women most impacted and at risk of exploitation.

    I have to say, some Bloggers who love to write on the plight of women have been unhappy with the cost implications of their latest mobile Gizmo being pointed out to them!

    The Freedom to blog and opine can often have hidden expenses …. with other people paying the price – out of sight and out of mind!

    “I guess in hard times, people sometimes relapse into old narratives.”??????????

    I guess that some have little grasp of reality – because there is “NO Old Narrative”!

    There is an ongoing narrative which even features in The Bible – Ancient Egyptian texts which predate The Bible – and has even been covered in more widely known and read modern classics from the ancient Greeks – the Romans …. and I believe features rather heavily in something called American History 101!

    Ever wondered – or even know – about the economic migration to Detroit in the 1920’s, it’s racial links and the advent of segregation – walls built (Eight Mile Road) – and the actions of so many to escape Jim Crow laws and a supposedly bright Economic Future? Hell where is the history and heroism of those men and their families who didn’t have the net and skype as a link to home…. never mind the lack of airlines and even rail services to get home for a visit!

    I believe that even that macro history around Detroit has been recently rehashed in connection with the awful modern jargon of “Sub Prime”!


    Those who fail to learn the lesson of History Doom others to be subject to repetition – and it also leads to ill informed and parochial views and comments that just look plain silly.

    “Are these men heroes? What can we do to change this situation, so that men aren’t forced into such terrible choices?”

    Are the men mentioned Hero’s? Maybe Yes – Maybe No!

    Terrible Choices? You do known that the root of the word terrible is “Terror” as in exciting awe, or great fear; dreadful; awful.

    This $4 coffee is “terrible” is not a valid comparator!

    To their families the men are no doubt Heroes – or will eventually be seen as such, but as with so many who make sacrifices for others the true nature and extent of such Heroism can take years, decades and even generations before it’s true nature is apparent.

    Would these men have time to even answer the question of heroism? Hey – they may just be too busy surviving and making sure others survive. Hey they say – whilst we freeze in this third hand Recreation Vehicle – illegally parked – lets debate the nature of heroism… and will someone turn the heating up. it’s minus 20 outside – I need warming up for the debate!

    There is also the risk of raising the spectres of 1930’s images will link the real sacrifice that some are making. Cultural Artefacts from the Dust Bowl and Wall Street Crash do tend to limit perceptions as they are in reality Ghosts of a Global Crisis and depression and not just part of the narrative of one country!

    I always wonder why so many of those black and white photos do suffer from poor colour balance! I do believe that the poverty was not subjected to any form of racial bar!

    The idea that only men are forced into such terrible choices is so wrong headed and ill informed it requires not a simple answer to but a whole new eduction to address it! Looking back at cultural references from only as far back as the 1930’s just misses so much and fails to grasp 21st century Global Reality – both micro and macro – and no economy of words is possible.

    Gizmos and Footwear also create heroes – but those heroes don’t have access to op-eds in the NY times – or the interest of Bloggistas – and they also lack a Dorothea Lange with a sharp eye for a good image black, white or full Technicolor with a correct colour balance. Cameras are not allowed into the places where those modern day herons slave away out of economic necessity to keep so many others alive – and with cheep footwear available for the supposed style conscious, urbane il·lit·e·ra·ti!

    Maybe some need to use a Few Cut Price Gizmos and Hulu to play catch up with “Who Do You Think You Are?”. I have noted that the producers of the program manage to get the colour balance right on camera.

    It’s fascinating to see the program as not just entertainment and an expose into the life of some celebrities ancestors – who ever they may be – Kings, Queens, bankers or Peasant. Economic Migration features heavily – and it’s the men who have always been in the forefront of that one that so many others have missed out looking at, even if they have and do derive personal benefit from it unto these supposed modern, informed and information rich times!

    It also shows how so many women have supported their men by staying home – looking after children – and the sacrifices made by BOTH Equally! I did note that even the NY Times addressed the double side of the issue.

    Such migration has impacted both men and women. Again – poverty does not care about sex, gender or even race and age. It will get ya!

    You just have to be human… and there is nothing heroic in either living with it, or escaping it….. but there is something ever so heroic in considering how you can allow others a better future and opportunities denied to yourself….. even if those people then fail to learn the lessons in life left by those who have gone before!

    I never thought I would ever type this – BUT – some people really do need to check their Privilege! P^)

    Right – Back to the real world!

    I may be some time! P^)

  2. Uh, guys? The whole point of this article is “DON’T YOU WANT TO SEE YOUR CHILDREN GROW UP? DON’T YOU WANT TO HAVE A HAND IN RAISING THEM?” You seem to have entirely missed the point that men and only men are missing out on their children in this situation. Even if your job isn’t right next to your Manhattan apt., you’d still see your kids more than these guys do.

  3. I don’t see it so much as a relapse into old narratives as much as it is making a conscious choice. One of the great things about progress is that it’s supposed to make these additional choices valid, but that doesn’t mean that we have to toss out all of the old ones, too. It’s great that a man can choose now to be a stay-at-home dad – that’s a real boon. But, just because a man may want instead to provide for his family financially doesn’t mean that he’s any less progressive or that he’s simply some troglodyte slipping into an old narrative. In fact, doing so now may even be more affirming of the self than it was before, on account of there being a choice in the first place.

    • It is very common for workers to have to be away from their families for extended periods of time in order to earn a living. The author paints it as retrograde and furthers the negative association with the living these men are earning for themselves and their families by associating it with the Great Depression. Whether it is picking vegetables, driving a big rig, making sales, mining, or being deployed, this has been the narrative for many men in the United States and around the world for a long time. Many of these jobs entail long hours, high rates of workplace injuries or death, mental/physical/emotional stress, and spartan living conditions.

      The economy is increasingly moving towards jobs requiring higher education. The type of physical labor the jobs in energy resources and construction the articles discusses are the kinds of jobs that evaporated with the recession. As men become increasingly less competitive with female counterparts due to lack of education and experience, men will have continue to make sacrifices in order earn a living.

      • It seems to me the ‘Cultured Elite’ have truely lost touch with how us in the ‘Other Half’ live. Not all of us can write articles and edit a web site from the comfort of an office room in our own homes. Having worked in heavy construction all my life, I’ve worked with pipeliners, dredgemen,and all sorts of ‘Boomers” (guys that go where the work is). You think that right now civilians are driving trucks, doing construction and other things in Iraq or Afganistan for the scenery? Even men like myself, lucky enough to live home while working, have to forgo activities with our families in order to make finicial ends meet. I guess that’s the ‘Male Privilage I always hear about from feminists!

        • @bobbt, those civilians driving trucks in the Middle East have got it made. It used to make my blood boil when I had to risk my own life to escort Halliburton convoys so that the vice president’s buddies could make a fat little profit off the war. I was out there in a machine gun turret at 60mph in 115 degree heat making 35k per year while these drivers that I was protecting with my life were making 100k tax free sitting in their air conditioned cabs eating bon bons. Don’t get me wrong I loved those guys and it’s not their fault for those jobs being the way they are. I learned how to shift an 18 speed transmission from one of them. But I have huge, huge issues with civilian contractors being allowed to work for the military at market rates while other men who have sworn to serve their country get paid so little it’s a joke.

          Is it retrograde? Yes, for a million reasons. It’s retrograde that a guy who worked on a printing press until his 50’s has to watch his house get foreclosed and wave goodbye to his family and go work on an oil field a thousand miles away while the bankers on Wall Street are fighting over their bonuses and seeing who can buy the biggest beach house in the Hamptons. These guys are the 99ers who conservatives in our country didn’t see fit to extend unemployment to because someone has this messed up notion that you should lose your house and give up seeing your kid if you want to find a job in this country. Why some people are proud of that, I never figured out. Those men working in the oil fields are making millions of dollars for shareholders… those jobs aren’t worth 100k, they’re worth 200k. And they’d be getting paid as much if not for the anti-male culture that says that if you want a bigger profit, just squeeze enough men so that it’s a choice between not seeing their kid but still calling it his kid or watching his woman take the kids and walk off with another man.

          You know what really gets me about this? Where are these mythical working women? For the first time we’ve got an economy where more women than men have jobs and in some places earn more than men do, yet these men are still being forced to travel a thousand miles just to feed their kids. A hundred years ago people had the right idea – the kids would go to whomever had the money – so if dad got a job on an oil well then at least he could take the kids with him and the wife had to follow and make do. There was no such thing as child support. Sure, it wasn’t fair to women who couldn’t work… but now that women are better educated and can get good jobs, I think it’s time to bring back the old rules.

  4. Noah,

    I’m not sure how this is a ‘terrible choice’. This has been a historical reality for a reason – it is impossible to perfectly match up locality with jobs and lifestyle choices. In a perfect world, I’d have a good job in Manhattan located right next to my cheap apartment in Manhattan. It’s just not going to happen like that though.

    I can’t think of any good ways to implement ‘good choices’ on a large scale. Policy wonks are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to create jobs, but that hasn’t (and never will) happen to such a point that men have all of these first-best choices available to them.

    The long-term large-scale solution is being played out by men en masse. Men are forgoing marriage and families and, thus, having to move away in order to earn bread.


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