A look at South Dakota lives balanced on the minimum wage

  • Participants in the Black Hills Powwow enter the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota during the opening dancing. Native Americans are among most economically disadvantaged populations in the state of South Dakota.
  • A spectator and a participant in the Black Hills Powwow wait at an entrance of the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota. Native Americans are among most economically disadvantaged populations in the state of South Dakota.
  • Torrian Stonum (second from right) who earns $7.50 per hour working at a concession stand, serves two men wearing traditional Native American dress at the Black Hills Powwow at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center in Rapid City, South Dakota.
  • Elton Yellow Boy Sr. leads a Sunday morning church service at the North Rapid Community Church in Rapid City, South Dakota. Yellow Boy Sr., says his congregation is primarily low-income, unemployed, and Native American and are among those who would benefit most from a raise in the minimum wage.
  • Members of the North Rapid Community Church attend a Sunday morning church service in Rapid City, South Dakota. The church pastor, Elton Yellow Boy Sr., says his congregation is primarily low-income, unemployed, and Native American and are among those who would benefit most from a raise in the minimum wage.
  • Maggie Waters holds her one-week-old son as other children try on winter boots at a cold weather clothing drive at the head office for the Lakota Community Homes housing development in Rapid City, South Dakota.
  • A table is stacked with warm scarves for sale at low prices during a winter weather clothing drive at the main office of the Lakota Community Homes housing development in Rapid City, South Dakota.
  • Chad Kitzman leans against his pickup truck in the town of Pringle along a highway leading to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Kitzman is a car mechanic whose partner works as a cook for $10 an hour, but even that’s not enough to support them and his two stepkids, he says. “It ain’t jackshit - it should be a lot more.” He anticipates having to go on food stamps when the restaurant in Pringle where his wife works closes for the winter. He agrees the state should hike minimum wage because “every little would help.” But he’s not planning to vote—he’s never voted in his life.
  • An old Cadillac is parked in front of a house with an American flag painted on the roof in Rapid City, South Dakota.
  • A skinned raccoon hangs on a shed in the town of Pringle along a highway leading to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
  • A boy rides his bicycle through the parking lot of a motel where low-income families live long-term on a street in Rapid City, South Dakota lined with mostly dilapidated motels housing many struggling to get by.
  • Motorists pump gas at a filling station on a street in Rapid City, South Dakota lined. The area, of mostly dilapidated motels house many low-income families struggling to get by.
  • The small town of Pringle, South Dakota stands along the highway leading to Custer and Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills.
  • A sculpture of abandoned and stacked bicycles stands in the town of Pringle along a highway leading to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Residents of the small town built the roadside attraction hoping to entice motorists and tourists headed to Mount Rushmore to stop and bring business to the area.
  • Tourists stop their vehicles along the road in front of Mount Rushmore to photograph two sheep in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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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.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography 

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