A look at South Dakota lives balanced on the minimum wage
South Dakota was spared many of the worst ravages of the recession. Its unemployment rate today is just 3.4%, compared to 5.9% nationally. Financial giants, manufacturers, and other industries have taken root in the state, drawn to its low taxes and disdain for regulations.
But the state’s gains haven’t lifted up all its residents: The state’s average wages are among the lowest in the country. Poverty has increased as well, and the state’s Native American community — 9% of the total population — has especially lagged behind.
In Rapid City, more than half of Native Americans live in poverty. Some of the luckier residents might find a home in the Lakota Community Homes, a low-income housing development in the northern part of the city; others are confined to cheap motels that charge by the week.
Job prospects are still better than they are an hour south on Pine Ridge Reservation, where the unemployment rate tops 80%. As the gateway to Mount Rushmore, Rapid City has plastered the icon’s name and image over every imaginable street, public plaza, and storefront for miles in every direction. A steady stream of tourists feeds the hotels, bars, casinos, Wild West dinner shows, and water slide parks surrounding the monument to patriotism.
But for many businesses, the crowds headed to Rushmore and the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally aren’t enough to keep the doors open year-round. Like farming, the work can be seasonal, though there’s no harvest to store for the winter. Whether it’s in tiny towns like Pringle or urban centers like Rapid City, tough times might mean a trip to the food bank.
That’s one reason why some in South Dakota are pushing to raise the state’s minimum wage. But even some who support the increase wonder if an $1.25 hourly hike would be enough to make a difference.
David Guttenfelder is an award-winning photographer and National Geographic Society Fellow.