Ziebach County on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in northwest South Dakota retained its infamous title as the poorest county in America in 2009, according to a new Census Bureau report released this week.
Poverty rates for counties and school districts throughout the United States were part of the Census Bureau's Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates. In Ziebach County, 62 percent of its 2,552 residents live in poverty. The rate of children younger than 18 in the county was even higher -- 76.7 percent. In the Midwest region, the seven poorest counties are in South Dakota, and two others -- Bennett and Dewey counties -- also made the list of the 30 Midwest counties with the highest poverty rates.
"It's a pretty harsh thing to have to digest," Julie Garreau, director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte, said of Ziebach's dubious distinction. "I suppose you could let those figures get you down, but there's a difference between being impoverished and being poor. We're rich in so many ways. There are some beautiful things here -- the land, the family, kids -- and that's what we focus on."
About half of the population of the Cheyenne River reservation is younger than 18, so many of those underprivileged children come through her doors every day. "Statistics: For me, there's always a face attached to it, and I know that little face has a personality, and a heart and a great smile." Poverty has a personal focus for Garreau and her staff, so the approach to it is optimistic, she said. "We know the people involved. ... Some of the statistics are relatives -- our nieces, nephews, cousins and grandkids."
A Colorado county was the second poorest in the U.S., but Shannon County on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was third on the list, where more than 51 percent of all people live below the poverty level, along with 57 percent of children under 18. Other South Dakota counties with child poverty rates well above the national average of 18.2 percent were Todd County (57 percent); Jackson County (52 .7 percent); Mellette County (52.7 percent); Corson County (52.6 percent); and Buffalo County (51.5 percent).
Garrreau said it was unacceptable for the rest of South Dakota to dismiss the poverty rates of seven counties in western South Dakota as a "reservation" problem.
"South Dakota has to look at it and say, ‘These are our children -- they're American Indian children, yes, but they are (ital)our (end ital) children, too," she said. "We're South Dakota citizens. We live on a reservation, and we have our tribal government, but the reality is that those are South Dakota kids."
"What I suggest to people when they see those statistics is, before passing judgment, try to remember that there are good people who live here," she said.
By contrast, Lincoln County, south of Sioux Falls, had the second lowest poverty rate in the U.S. for children younger than 18, at 5.4 percent. Lincoln, rated ninth, was the only South Dakota county in the top 10 U.S. counties with the overall lowest levels of poverty.
In Pennington County, 14.1 percent of county residents live in poverty, and more than 20 percent of children younger than18 do. Median household income in Pennington County was $46,972 in 2009, compared to about $25,000 in Ziebach and almost $73,000 in Lincoln County.
The report showed that nationwide, 14.4 percent, or 453 of 3,142 counties in the U.S., experienced a significant increase in poverty from 2007 to 2009. Only 38 U.S. counties had a significant decrease in poverty in that time.
Poverty thresholds for 2009 vary according to the number and the relationship of people in a household, but typically are set at $11,161 per year for one person and $21,954 for a four-person household. Non-cash public benefits, including food supplements and housing subsidies, are not counted as income under poverty formulas.
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