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Two Poorest Counties Remote Homes to Minority Populations With AM-County-Least Poverty;

February 7, 1993

Two Poorest Counties Remote Homes to Minority Populations With AM-County-Least Poverty; AM-County-Poverty List

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) _ Henry Lodge wants a job, any job. Unfortunately, he lives on the Sioux reservation that encompasses the nation’s poorest county.

″I’ve been looking for some work, but there’s nothing around here. I wish there were,″ Lodge, 37, said as he walked around Pine Ridge, the largest village on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

For Lodge, it’s been a while since he’s worked - 16 years to be exact. He ekes out a living by collecting and selling aluminum cans. It brings in just enough to buy groceries and other necessities. Most of the time, he can be found walking around the village, talking to people.

Shannon County, a 50-mile square that makes up more than half of the reservation, has the highest percentage of poor people in the nation.

According to U.S. Census data released Sunday, 63.1 percent of its 9,693 residents lived below the poverty line in 1990. Starr County, on the Texas border about 50 miles northwest of Brownsville, was second poorest, with 60 percent below the poverty line.

Overall in the nation’s 3,141 counties and independent cities, 13.1 percent of the population was below the poverty line, defined as $12,675 in annual income for a family of four. One American in eight is poor, the census shows.

Wisconsin’s Ozaukee County outside Milwaukee had the least poverty of any sizable county, with just 2.2 percent below the povery line.

On the Pine Ridge reservation, scattered housing developments are mostly connected by gravel or dirt roads. The houses look the same except for different colors of faded paint. Old cars and pickups often are left to rust.

Most jobs on the reservation about 100 miles southeast of Rapid City are tied to programs run by the tribe and the federal government.

Oglala Sioux tribal Vice President Mel Lone Hill said construction projects will provide more jobs this spring.

″Economically, we’re starting to look up,″ Lone Hill said. ″I don’t know where these people get off telling us we’re poorest.″

The state Labor Department reported Shannon County’s unemployment at 5.5 percent in December, but that figure does not include people who have given up looking for work. Bureau of Indian Affairs officials have said the real unemployment rate could be 70 percent or higher.

Wilma Standing Bear, supervising social worker for the bureau in Pine Ridge, said a family of four gets $450 a month in welfare if they own their home. Even with food stamps, there’s not enough money to buy clothes and other necessities, she said.

Oglala Sioux leaders hope to attract industry and build a tourism industry based on the tribe’s culture.

John Yellow Bird Steele, tribal president, said federal economic development programs were poorly conceived and generally failed in the past. ″We have to do something ourselves.″

Steele said the tribe is negotiating to bring several industries to the area. The brightest prospect is a Hong Kong company that may put a clothing plant in Pine Ridge Village, creating 160 jobs to start. Steele said officials hope to complete negotiations and sign an agreement by March.

The tribe also is planning a casino, and it wants to draw tourists to the part of Badlands National Park owned by the tribe. Also, a monument is planned at Wounded Knee, where several hundred Sioux were massacred in 1890.

″We may be poor, but we’re rich in our culture,″ she said. ″And we have hope.″

In Texas, Starr County’s 24,150 mostly Hispanic residents have less reason to hope. Agriculture is the only industry and jobs are perpetually scarce.

″We’re a border area, which is Third World within a First-World country,″ said Sister Rosalia Fink, a planner for the Community Action Council of South Texas, a social service organization.

Rising population increase job competition and the area’s reputation as a drug shipment point makes the county undesirable for legitimate business, residents said.

In December, the county had a 23.5 percent unemployment rate, according to the Texas Employment Commission.

Thelma Longoria, director of Catholic Social Services, said she was surprised by how poor people were in Starr County.

″I couldn’t believe what people made,″ she said. ″I think we maybe had two to three families who made over a thousand dollars a month.″

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EDITORS NOTE - Ed Montes, the Associated Press’ correspondent in Harlingen, Texas, also contributed to this story.

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