Renewing Our Commitment to the Poor - Rural America

March 29, 2011

Ziebach County in South Dakota is America's poorest county. Over 60% of its residents live at or below the poverty line. Its population of 2,500 is mostly made up Sioux Indians, and they have been hit by the lagging economy like everyone else. Their already existing poverty, however, ensures that they will feel its effects for much longer than most. Jobs are scarce. Most land is used for cattle ranching, since the tribal territory lacks any other natural resource, but most residents don’t own land to ranch cattle. The nearest population centers are both upwards of 150 miles away. The largest town, Eagle Butte, has one grocery store, a few cafes, and one taco restaurant. It has no movie theater, no bowling alley, and no bookstore.

The residents of the county see their poverty as the result of generations of problems piled on top of each other. Forced to move to the area, the community was expected to succeed with almost nothing to support them. Residents are always willing to work; most try to find odd jobs around the community, but people rarely have the money to pay up-front for any work done. The local flower shop often doesn't sell a single flower for days. Its biggest boom comes when someone from the community dies.

Most people in the county expect things to stay the same. They have seen business come and go, but without a hearty cash flow, no enterprise can remain for long. The residents are all clear: the problems in Ziebach County took generations to produce, and will take longer than just two or three years to fix. They expect to be there if and when that happens.

Congress must renew its commitment to respond to the needs and concerns of Native American and rural communities across the nation, providing the resources these communities need make more progress on health care, justice, education, and economic security. It is critical that current budget decisions reflect the need to eliminate increasing disparities in income, economic security, health and health care, and quality of life.

We invite you to read, reflect, and respond to the concerns of the rural poor in Ziebach County, and Native Americans everywhere, with this Lenten Meditation.

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