Written by Devon Boen
An individual living below the poverty line in America earns $11,490 a year, before taxes, at the upper limit. That amount shifts upward with the number of family members in a household, but offers a similar quality of life. Nearly half of the people on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation live within these economic bounds and a smaller percentage live in extreme poverty.
However, the local problem isn't really local. Indian reservations are home to some of America's 1 percent. Not the ultra-rich, ultra-visible 1 percent who have been the focal point of the Occupy Wall Street Movement the past two years, but the group sitting in the most desolate spot on the economic spectrum, the poorest 1 percent of Americans.
The Fort Peck Indian Reservation isn't immune to that economic reality and the struggle is palpable. Whether it presents itself as a person begging for change outside local businesses or a family living in dilapidated housing, it is an everyday occurrence that contributes to the identity of the area. It’s visible to the average eye without even knowing the true reality of the poverty level.
Statistics can fill in the blind spots. According to the 2008 American Indian Health Profile, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation had an overall poverty rate of 45 percent and a startling rate of 50 percent for people younger than 18. Montana’s rate was 13 percent overall and 17 percent for the under 18 crowd.
The margin of difference was equally large regarding unemployment. According to a 2008 study by the Montana Research and Analysis Bureau, the Fort Peck Reservation had an unemployment rate of 55 percent. Montana’s most recent unemployment rate was 5.7 percent. The median household income for the reservation was $18,500, less than half of Montana’s $40,627 average. Roosevelt County, which encompasses a large portion of the reservation, is one of the 100 poorest counties in the United States with a per-capita income of $11,347.
A few months ago, the Wolf Point City Council was chastised by some community members for a proposal to remove the picnic tables from Triangle Park along U.S. Hwy. 2. Some said it denied upstanding citizens a park while others said it glossed over the issue. But what issue? The council said the problem was the vagrancy, begging and public intoxication being ever-present in the Triangle Park area, but the park is really just a stage for the root of the problem. A part of that root is undoubtedly poverty.
Whether or not removing the tables would have made a positive impact is an unanswerable question, but, if nothing else, the controversy spurred some conversation over the larger communal problems, which is the starting point for any real type of reform.
It easy to read a few numbers off a census, but it is another to understand the ramifications of debilitating poverty not only in the local area, but in any location. The effects are often universal and repetitive. Poverty has been linked to poor health, criminal activity, mental illness and addiction.
Ed Plentz, the co-founder for the Love Has No Color program, which has worked consistently with the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for seven years to develop a chiropractic clinic in the area, said a cycle of despair contributed to the poverty on the reservation.
He stated when he first started delivering Christmas gifts to children on Fort Peck seven years ago, high school students were uninterested and nearly indignant about accepting the program’s gifts. When he handed out gifts this year to the now-high school students who were only eight when the project began, he noticed a marked difference. The high school students had built a relationship with him and his team and a mutual trust had developed. Plentz said throwing money at a problem like poverty won’t fix it, but rather cited compassion, consistency and love.
Of course, those elements won’t fix the problem alone. It won’t happen by one person’s hand or overnight. Like most sicknesses in society, it will either be treated slowly over the course of generations or fester into something worse.
A representative from Great Northern Development Corporation said the high poverty rate allows the organization to secure more grant money and fund projects that could help the economy down the line. But she admitted the prospect of progress was daunting to some members of the community.
Two separate housing projects proposed in the past year have had both positive and negative responses. One, proposed by Crystal River Construction, was eventually shot down last July and the more recent project, through John Reed and Associates, was approved by the city council in December. Critics were openly angry and those aching for progress were relieved to see some traction.
A lack of development and a poor economy contribute to and perpetuate poverty, but what exactly causes poverty in the area? The answer is nearly as convoluted and as broad as the question. In the article, Why Are Indian Reservations So Poor? published in Forbes Magazine in 2011, John Koppisch argued that a lack of property rights on reservations contributed to the high poverty rates. It is also a common argument that the isolated locations of reservations lack lucrative economic opportunities.
Others would say the answer is more complex. Others would say it is caused by a culmination of deep-seated economic issues combined with social and cultural issues which prove to be a disastrous combination.
When asked what could help rectify the poverty problem, Fort Peck Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure noted two key elements.
“The two factors that can change things for the better are diverse job opportunities and improved access to healthcare. We are working on both of these as well as quality housing and law enforcement to help everyone living in our community,” Azure said.
Poverty is a complex phenomenon that influences all the appendages of a community and requires reform on all levels. Check out the Herald News next week to see how poverty is related to the high level of crime in the area.