Snapshots

Pine Ridge Reservation is the poster child for poverty – NYTimes.com

This sprawling Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a Connecticut-sized zone of prairie and poverty, where the have-nots are defined less by the money they lack than by suffocating hopelessness. In the national number line of inequality, people here represent the “other 1 percent,” the bottom of the national heap.

Pine Ridge is a poster child of American poverty and of the failures of the reservation system for American Indians in the West. The latest Census Bureau data show that Shannon County here had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010. Not far behind in that Census Bureau list of poorest counties are several found largely inside other Sioux reservations in South Dakota: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.

Poverty in the United States, including in the reservations, is so entrenched because it is often part of a toxic brew of alcohol or drug dependencies, dysfunctional families and educational failures. It self-replicates generation after generation.

“What’s a man or woman to do?” asked Ben, a young man here who said he started drinking at age 12. “I felt helpless. I felt worthless, and I wanted a drink to get rid of my pain. But then you get more pain.”

Ben says he financed his alcohol and drug habits by turning to crime and violence. He’s now on probation and didn’t want his family name used for fear of getting in more trouble.

“I did a lot of things to get money to drink,” he added regretfully. These included beating people up as a debt collector for beer stores just outside the reservation and driving girls to those stores where they exchanged sex for alcohol, he said.

Ben, now in his 30s, says that he quit alcohol several years ago. But he is overweight and in poor health, surviving on disability payments and seeing no chance of getting a job.

Unemployment on Pine Ridge is estimated at around 70 percent, and virtually the only jobs are those working for the government or for the Oglala Sioux tribe itself.

There are, of course, some reservations around the country that have struck it rich with gambling or other ventures. But here in the prairies, those riches are only rumors.

Half the population over 40 on Pine Ridge has diabetes, and tuberculosis runs at eight times the national rate. As many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics, one-quarter of children are born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and the life expectancy is somewhere around the high 40s — shorter than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. Less than 10 percent of children graduate from high school.

One reason businesses don’t invest in reservations is that even though unemployment is so high, companies find it difficult to recruit dependable workers, according to Robert Brave Heart, who runs the Red Cloud Indian School.

“People here still have to develop good work habits, even getting to work on time,” Brave Heart said. “And people here have constant family crises that cause them to miss work.”

FULL ARTICLE:  Poverty’s Poster Child – NYTimes.com.

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