Heidi Heitkamp: Tackling poverty on North Dakota reservations

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) is a new member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

A day doesn’t go by without someone asking me about North Dakota’s economic success. Because of the energy boom and the hard work of folks across the state, our unemployment rate is the lowest in the nation and our tax revenue is hitting record highs. I

am proud of our state’s success and will continue working tirelessly to support North Dakota’s growth. However, it is important to remember that, despite our fortunes, there are many North Dakotans living in extreme poverty.

This is especially true for those living in North Dakota’s Indian Country, a population that has continued to increase over the years. This week, folks around the world who do not live in poverty are taking the Global Poverty Project challenge to spend just $1.50 a day on food. While the U.S. has a lower rate of extreme poverty than many other countries, it is my hope that individuals will consider the economic plight of our Native American brothers and sisters when discussing this important issue this week.

Anyone who has spent time on one of North Dakota’s reservations knows we all need to do more to give them the same opportunities people in other parts of the state receive. There is not enough housing; quality health care options are extremely limited; and reservation schools do not have the same resources as schools around the rest of our state. These problems and others result in limited economic development for Native American communities.

There are truly staggering Native American poverty statistics that need to be brought to light. More than 42,000 American Indians now live in North Dakota, which is an increase from the 35,000 that lived in the state just a decade ago. Statewide, more than 40 percent of Native Americans live below the poverty line, which is about a $23,000 annual income for a family of four. On the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, the unemployment rate has recently been close to 80 percent, and the average income in Sioux County, North Dakota was around just $8,000. Nationwide, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest poverty rate of any race.

For far too long, the extreme poverty on our reservations has been ignored. In the Senate, I am going to ensure our Native American brothers and sisters are not forgotten. We will not begin to solve Indian Country problems unless folks are aware of the extreme poverty. As a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, I will play a major role in educating my colleagues and the public on our reservations’ economic conditions.

Simultaneously, I will be working on policies that improve all facets of life in Indian Country, including housing, energy, education, health care and economic development. Please join me in this discussion. Together, we can improve the lives of those in Indian Country.

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