As with most any data effort involving simple rank ordering, certain
caveats accompany the final results.
On paper, for example, a handful of high-performing counties appear
better off than an on-the-ground view might suggest. For example, a
number of counties with Native American reservations saw significant
improvement in population and per capita income, suggesting that conditions
are improving on reservations and in their host counties. But conditions
in 1990 were so poor in some counties with reservations that modest
nominal change often translated into strong percentage gains for those
Shannon County, S.D., is a good example. Home to the Pine Ridge Reservation
and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Shannon ranked high among other rural counties
in both population and per capita income growth. Yet it is known as
one of the poorest places in the nationa fact then-President Bill
Clinton emphasized in a visit there several years ago to promote new
The county saw its population increase by 26 percent, second best among
all counties in South Dakota, and per capita income grew a robust 77
percent. But the data can be spun the other way as well. Per capita
income was still below $12,000.
A closer look at government data collection in counties with reservations
finds other problems as well. For example, "official" unemployment
stands at 10 percent. But such figures include only those who are not
employed but still looking for work.
Numerous calls for comment from Oglala Sioux tribal officials were not
returned. But one source with another South Dakota tribe pointed out
that "so many of our people have never worked," while other
tribal members last held a job several years ago and have exhausted
their unemployment benefits and are thus not counted as unemployed.
Some sources put the level of nonworking adults in Pine Ridge at 75
percent or more.
Even population gains might not be what they seem. In some cases, a
growing reservation population is the result of changes in federal welfare
programs, particularly the introduction of benefit time limits, the
tribal source said. Without dependable welfare assistance like food
stamps, many people returned to families on the reservation for support.
Census results also have a built-in time lag. The two years since the
2000 census have made a world of difference in the outlook for Stillwater
County, the only county in Montana that managed to rank among the top
30 percent of rural counties for growth in both population and per capita
income. During the 1990s, Stillwater saw its population jump 25 percent
and its per capita income leap 70 percent.
Stillwater's economy is dominated by the Stillwater Mining Co., which
has the only palladium-platinum mine in the country. In 1997, total
wages for mining in this county were about half of all wages earned
in Stillwater County in 1997. Average mining wages in the county that
year were $47,300better than twice the state average for all wages,
according to the Montana Department of Labor.
But Stillwater's shine started fading shortly after the 2000 census.
Palladium prices dropped down a mine shaft in 2001, falling about 70
percent in the span of eight months. In response, the company scaled
back planned expansions and laid off contract miners. Said one source
with the Stillwater chamber, "People you go to church with are
all of a sudden out of a job."
Webb Mandeville is the mayor of Columbus, population 1,748 and the seat
of Stillwater County. He was reluctant to say that the future of the
mine and county were duct-taped together, but acknowledged that "we
probably would not be doing as well as we are without the mine."
He added that the mine occupies better than 50 percent of the taxable
land in the city.
Just a few short years ago, the housing market was red-hot. Mandeville
estimated that one or two houses in Columbus might be on the market
at one time, "and they didn't stay on the market very long,"
despite the fact that prices were said to be about 25 percent higher
than other housing markets. Today, Mandeville estimated there are 30
houses on the market.
"There's a cloud, an aura of unrest," Mandeville said, but
he remained optimistic. "People are still going to work. ... We
were a town before the mine."