Montana's Native American Children Face Greater Inequities That Hamper Their Well Being

Oct 30, 2017

Montana’s Native American children face greater barriers to opportunity than their peers in other states according to the 2017 Race for Results study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Race for Results index graded states on a scale from zero to 1000.

In Montana, white children scored 671. By contrast the state’s Native American children scored 267, placing them the second lowest in the nation for any racial or ethnic group except for Native American children in South Dakota.

Jennifer Calder of Montana Kids Count says the isolation of reservation communities combined with poverty are factors in the state’s low scores.

"Living at the poverty level is incredibly stressful and profoundly stressful for children and creates a lot of instability in both in housing and food and a lot of transition for those children," she says.

One measuring stick was to look at how many families live at least at 200% of the poverty level. Calder says that income level, $48,500 for a family of 4 in 2015, affords limited economic stability.

The report notes that Montana being a rural state, combined with low-incomes, further perpetuates the cycle of inter-generational poverty for Native American families.

"When we have a blanket statement that says it’s isolation then that doesn’t cut it for me. Poverty and isolation, says State Representative Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency on the Crow Indian Reservation.  "There’s more barriers and more obstacles and situations that tell a bigger story."

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency
Credit Montana Legislative Services

Stewart-Peregoy is talking about cultural differences and the fact that for many American Indian children English is a second language. While she recognizes data on reading at grade level or high school graduation rates are important, she says there are factors other that go into the well-being of a Native American child.

"When you have these measures, these European measures, upon Native children, upon Latino children, upon African-American children you’re looking at it from a different litmus test," Stewart-Peregoy says. "And it’s also for lack of a better word a white, middle-class perspective. It’s not the reality of the children of poverty and it’s not the reality of the children of color within their communities."

Stewart-Peregoy teaches Crow Studies at Little Big Horn College. She says while Montana has policies like Indian Education for All, there also needs to be frank public discussion about racism and bias.

"That’s the conversation we need to have because those experiences can make or break a student at any level whether they are in preschool or all the way into college," she says.

True, says Jennifer Calder of Montana Kid’s Count. The report does note that. Still, she says, the goal of this report to acknowledge the gap is real between Indian and non-Indian children.

"And this report is trying to talk about it in a way that is not inflammatory, that’s not blaming," says Calder.  "It’s just describing the reality of the experience. That there are huge percentages of American Indian children that grow up in high poverty neighborhoods and that automatically creates fewer opportunities for them. So what are we going to do about that?"

Calder points to programs like high quality preschool or Medicaid can help close the gap.

The 2017 Race for Results report comes at a time when Governor Steve Bullock is considering additional cuts to state programs – including to education and health care - because of the current state budget crisis. Tax collections are coming in lower than projections. The Bullock Administration projects the state will be $227 million dollars in the red. Montana's Constitution requires a balanced budget.