In 2006 nearly every county between Billings, MT and Bismarck, ND was in dire poverty. The area, known by locals as the MonDak, was in such a desperate state that the Northwest Area Foundation sent a team to the region to help individuals develop plans for economic self-sufficiency. At the same time in 2006, both the MonDak and Portland Metro had very high unemployment.
Fast forward to 2015, none of the counties in the MonDak are considered to be in dire poverty. Farms are still growing, businesses are succeeding, students are graduating from high school, incomes are up, bankruptcy is down, and population is growing. However, in the Pacific Northwest, long-term homelessness, bankruptcy, unemployment, and social ills are up. A 2014 Multnomah County poverty report noted that in “Multnomah County, hundreds of thousands of people are unable to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, and economic disparities are increasing.”
The disparity is caused by how energy and large corporations are treated in each region. In the Portland Metro area, for example, each proposed Walmart store is met with picket lines and protests. In Miles City, Montana, when the community welcomed the Walmart it became a center of living wage jobs and an anchor tenant for a new industrial district and the new shopping hub for the region.
2007 brought Bakken oil to the MonDak region. Residents eagerly welcomed workers who eat, sleep, and pay taxes in their community. New corporations funded infrastructure that included roads, child care centers, and non-profit concerns. People of MonDak want jobs and economic opportunity so they can work toward bettering their own life. As a result, unemployment in some of the most populous counties is now less than 1%. For those counties, very few social service programs exist. The MonDak mantra is that if a man does not work he does not eat. Their reality is that there are still plenty of farm jobs in the area needing workers.
The Portland Metro area has had numerous opportunities to counter their social issues. Over the years the City of Portland and Multnomah County have created numerous failed homeless and anti-poverty programs focused on government-sponsored housing, food, transportation, and utilities. At the same time, those impacted residents picketed against oil and coal shipped through the region even though the revenues could perhaps contribute to the reversal of mass poverty. The result? The Multnomah County report said “Poverty in Multnomah County is severe and it is growing. More than one-third of Multnomah County residents do not have enough income to be able to meet their basic needs.”
Efforts in the Portland Metro area clearly have not worked. Ongoing protest efforts by those receiving services in the Portland Metro area against MonDak oil, gas, and coal companies, doing business in the Portland Metro area, attempt to stop the very activity that has helped people out of poverty. These protests keep those in poverty, in the Portland Metro area, from finding the same success.
Written by Emilie Boyles
Monthly labor statistics, State of Montana, Department of Labor
Northwest Area Foundation staff
Miles City, Montana Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture
Minutes from Dawson County, Montana County Commissioner Meetings
Minutes from Richland County, Montana County Commissioner Meetings
Montana Coal Board
10 press release archive from Mitchell’s Energy, Basic Energy, OneOK, TransCanada, Exxon, PacifiCorp and BNSF, reflecting community donations.
Interviews with individuals in each area whose families each lived in their respective region for at least 2 generations.