SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota leads the nation in the percentage of Native Americans living below the poverty line, and more than half of the Native Americans in the state's second largest city live in poverty, according to new U.S. Census data released Wednesday.
More than 48 percent of the state's 65,000 Native Americans live below the poverty threshold, according to the American Community Survey on poverty covering 2007 to 2011. In Rapid City, the poverty rate for Native Americans was 50.9 percent. This leads the nation among the 20 cities most populated by American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Under current federal guidelines, an individual earning less than $11,170 a year or a family of four with an annual income of less than $23,050 is considered to be living in poverty.
Aside from South Dakota, eight other states had poverty rates of about 30 percent or more for American Indians and Alaska Natives. They are Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota and Utah.
Mike McCurry, the state demographer for South Dakota, said he is not surprised by the numbers because the American Indians in South Dakota have never recovered from the financial collapse and the Dust Bowl in the early 1900s.
"Most of our concentrations of poverty are in the reservations, but they're also concentrated — Rapid City gets a lot of people leaving the reservation looking for jobs," he said. "The difference between being in poverty and not being in poverty to a lot of us is one paycheck."
He said Denver is another city that many Native Americans from South Dakota's nine Indian reservations move to in hopes of finding employment. Denver's poverty rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 29.1 percent, according to the census data.
"So when we're looking at nearly 30 percent of poverty in Denver, that's probably also reflecting some of the people that aren't in Rapid (City)," he said.
Wade Two Charge, 30, relocated to Denver and also tried moves to Phoenix, Florida and California with hopes of finding steady unemployment. He's since returned to his home and family on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota.
Two Charge, who has a degree in business administration from the tribal college, said he has been unemployed since getting back to the reservation, except for some short construction stints.
"There are only so many projects going on on the reservation at a time — so many buildings going down and going up," he said.
His most recent job, which involved construction of a new tribal jail and lasted about a year, ended last year. Another job he has coming up will only last about two months.
Two Charge, who lives in a trailer on a lot his family owns, doesn't have a car and relies on social gatherings and $200 in food stamps for food each month.
"There are avenues to help, but it's definitely a lot more difficult than other places," he said of his current surroundings. "In a city, you can just jump in a bus and go across town. The whole society is different and it's not the ghetto. Here, there are no buses. We rely a lot upon family members to help us out. I think that's where we're blessed to have an emphasis on respect for our elders."
He still thinks about leaving the reservation, but said he doesn't want to move away from his home and his people.
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