Can poverty protect the last, best place?

  • Book cover of "Montana: People and the Economy"

  • Montana cowboys reduced to hats and boots

    Will Brewster photo

All who care about the non-metropolitan West should be grateful to Montanans. Within the generous confines of that 145,000 square-mile state, they are asking, in the closing days of the 20th century, whether the good life can be disconnected from the economy. They are testing whether a place that in 50 years has plunged from one of the nation's top 10 states in per capita income to an also-ran today with Mississippi and Guam can provide a full and satisfying existence for its 900,000 people.

Thanks to the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, we can get a sense of how the experiment is going. In Montana: People and the Economy, an elegant, oversized and restrained 20-page report on the state - its second in five years - the foundation lays out the state's situation.

Economically, it is more plight than prospect. In 1976, the average wage in Montana was $26,300. Today, in dollars adjusted for inflation, it is $20,700. Meanwhile, the average wage nationally has remained flat at $30,000.

It has been an egalitarian decline. Montanans who lack a high school degree make what their counterparts make elsewhere, thanks to the minimum wage. But those with more education and skills make less than their out-of-state peers. Professionals, especially, take a very heavy economic hit by choosing to stay in Montana.

Montana is famous today for growth, but that growth is very localized. Because of the beauty of western Montana and the area around Yellowstone, 18 out of 56 counties in the state have captured all of the growth. The other 80 percent or so of Montana is in the grip of a seemingly irreversible demographic decline.

In the west, Missoula County has grown from 76,000 in 1980 to 89,000 in 1997; Flathead County from 52,000 to 71,000; and Ravalli County, in the Bitterroot Valley, from 22,000 to 35,000.

To the east, Prairie County in the same 17 years has gone from 1,836 to 1,335 residents; Petroleum County from 655 to 518; Treasure County from 981 to 839; and Valley County from 10,000 to 8,000.

But whether we are talking eastern or western Montana, people are hurting. In the east, in the aptly named Petroleum and Mineral and Wheatland counties, land-based economies are suffering from rock-bottom commodities prices. In the hot towns to the West, there are always more job seekers than jobs, and wages are low.

The report explains the low wages not in terms of declining mining and logging jobs versus increasing service jobs, but macro-economically, purely as a matter of size. Montana wages have fallen, the report says, because Montana lacks a Denver or Phoenix, or even a Boise or Tucson. That matters because people in metropolitan areas earn, on average, $9,000 per year more than people in small towns.

But there is more to life than cash income. On balance, according to the report, Montanans have a good life. There is a strong sense of community and great loyalty to place. The harsh economic facts are balanced by what economists call externalities: natural beauty and social serenity that don't get onto a conventional balance sheet.

The study is fatalistic about the possibility of change. Forget high-wage job creation, it says. Montana's landscapes and attractive communities make it an attractive nuisance, and as more jobs are created, more people flood in to take those jobs, hammering down wages. If a Montanan is self employed, as soon as his or her small business finds a profitable niche, competitors spring up to split the market.

The evidence for this is strong. From 1976 to 1996, while wages were plummeting, Montana was gaining 165,000 jobs. From 1990 to 1996, total Montana employment grew by more than double the national rate. Most of those jobs were filled by people moving in from out of state, but they weren't necessarily non-Montanans. A Great Falls retiree quotes her son, a civil engineer in California, as saying: "Mom, we'll come home if we starve to death."

This report is respectful, almost deferential, toward its Montana audience, but it has an agenda. It tries to refute three Montana prejudices: that service jobs are necessarily low-paying, that a declining natural-resource economy is the main economic problem, and that newcomers are somehow different from those already in the state. The report also tells Montanans that they are doing well, given their non-metropolitan status. They should stop kicking themselves, and stop thrashing about in search of some magic economic bullet.

Although the report is about Montana, it is also about the rest of the non-metropolitan West. Montana is "the last, best place," but "last, best places" exist everywhere in the interior West, characterized by stunning landscapes, small populations, and a strong sense of community. They are also filled with rural people and urban newcomers who are just scraping by amid the rich landscapes and the relatively few well-to-do.

At bottom, the report argues that this is as sustainable a society as we are likely to get in the late 20th century, and that it is a pretty good deal. The report may or may not be right about its assumption. But even a casual visitor to Montana is struck by one sign of a failing economy: the endemic gambling that makes the state's downtowns look trashy. And behind the trashiness lies the fact that a state that celebrates neighborliness and community has chosen or been forced to finance local government on the backs of the bottom of its society.

The report also argues that nothing can be done, in terms of public policy, about this state of affairs. It says the state cannot change its economy because new jobs simply attract new workers.

That assertion is open to argument. Montana and the entire West at the turn of the last century were squeezed in a similar vise; as quickly as a new mine opened, miners appeared to compete for the jobs. That vise was broken by union organizing that eventually led to changes in public policy. And it is the unions, as much as the state's natural resources, that pushed Montanans' wages up so high 50 years ago.

Unions are an old Western tradition, and especially a Montana tradition. A resurgence of union activity would fit right into the Big Sky state, just like neighborliness and fishing at mountain streams. Are unions a beggar-thy-neighbor approach? Would union members end up taking money from those who are not organized? Not in the tourist industry. But let's say unions did raise living costs to Montanans. Is it worse to have organized workers competing to raise wages than to have unorganized workers competing to take low-wage jobs handed out by the market?

But unions, like the huge tax breaks to a few big businesses that the Montana Legislature just handed out, are a strategy, and not a vision. A union movement or $200 million in tax breaks mostly to big businesses, does not say where the people want to go. What's missing in this report, and maybe in Montana itself, is a social vision to compete with the idea that residents are willing to put up with a weak economy in exchange for the present lifestyle.

Nowhere is it asked if Montana wishes to become a middle-class place. Do Montanans wish to educate their children to as high a level as they can achieve? Do Montanans wish to be travelers rather than hosts? Do they want well-stocked libraries? Do they want to finance their election campaigns from within the state, or do they want their elections determined by out-of-state money?

The report's flaw, I think, is the unspoken assumption that a weak economy will protect Montana's environment. But it won't. An impoverished state can't protect the land and wildlife within its borders.

Somehow, the economy and the environment must come together. A laissez-faire philosophy won't get us a better natural or social world. Such an approach will achieve Wallace Stegner's "society to match the scenery," but only because both will be ugly.

Copies of the report are available from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, Tranquillity Ranch, 5893 Lindbergh Lake Road, Seeley Lake, MT 59868.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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