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Pledging to bring Montana more “good-paying jobs” is a time-honored cliche for politicians on the campaign trail. And for good reason: the isolation factor that defines the state’s rural economy means Montana workers often face low wages and limited career options.
But what exactly can elected officials like the governor do to expand economic opportunity for Montanans? And what concerns are Montanans weighing as they decide whether they can build the life they want here?
Shared State is hosted by The Write Question’s Sarah Aronson and is collaboratively reported and produced by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It airs Thursdays at 6 p.m. on Yellowstone Public Radio, Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. on Montana Public Radio, and is available online here or wherever you get your podcasts beginning Sept. 8.
Sarah Aronson Kristen Ingman has spent most of her life in Montana.
Kristen Ingman So I grew up in Helena and I am a fifth generation Montanan, a third generation Helenan.
Aronson She loves this place and really wants to build a future here.
Ingman We have access to the outdoors. Oftentimes, if you’re really lucky, out your back door. I think homeownership is still somewhat attainable in Montana. Having, like, a yard with a garden and being able to adopt a cat. Those are things that I look forward to being able to do.
Aronson Back in 2016 Kristen had graduated from Montana State University and was applying for jobs with nonprofits. She was hoping to find something that could keep her in the state. But as she sent out application after application, Montana employers just weren’t biting on her resume. The same thing was happening to her partner who had just finished a Masters in engineering.
Ingman It was kind of a rude awakening for us because you graduate, you finished school, you feel confident. You’ve had great experiences …
Aronson Turns out they had more luck reaching out to companies in Seattle. With the prospects looking better there they packed up their bags and found a place to rent on the West Coast.
Ingman It just sort of felt like maybe there was more opportunity in Seattle, at the time, at least.
Aronson Kristen is one of many Montanans who’ve grappled with one of rural America’s age old questions. The Clash put it pretty well in their hit from the 1980s.
[music] Should I stay or should I go?
Aronson Today, this is what a lot of folks across Montana are facing, especially young adults looking for the right place to put down roots.
[music] So you got to let me know.
Aronson Individually, our decisions about where to live and what to do for work shape our lives profoundly. The way Montanans answer those questions collectively, quite literally defines the future of our state. Montana has plenty of selling points. Whether you’re a fifth generation resident or a new arrival who’s lived here six months. But the limits of our rural economy, like lower wages and fewer jobs in specialized fields, are also downsides. This state of ours is a great place to live. But it can be a hard place to make a living. And of course, if you’re a politician looking for votes, that’s a natural thing to campaign on.
I’m Sarah Aaronson and this is Shared State, a podcast about what’s driving Montana’s 2020 elections and where the outcomes could lead us.
As the state’s chief executive, the governor is the closest thing we have to a captain at the helm of the Montana economy. And the candidates from both parties have plenty to say about how they boost opportunity, especially now as a lot of folks are hurting because of the coronavirus pandemic.
[Mike Cooney press conference] “As governor, I’ll make sure businesses have the tools and resources they need to bounce back stronger and more resilient than ever.”
Aronson That’s Mike Cooney, the Democratic nominee for governor. He’s running against Republican Greg Gianforte.
[Greg Gianforte rally] “We need to get our economy going again. We need to get Montana open for business and we need to get Montanans back to work in good paying jobs. All while protecting our Montana way of life …”
Aronson Both candidates pledge to deliver more good jobs. But that’s just part of giving Montanans ample opportunity to live a good life. One that’s worth staying here for.
So what are the other ingredients that shape how Montanans live? And what else could politicians be talking about?
[voice montage] We, the people of Montana. Grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity, and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish … do ordain and establish this constitution.
Aronson This is episode six, Desiring to Improve The Quality of Life.
Montana Free Press reporter Eric Dietrich has our story.
Eric Dietrich Montana is a big place. We’ve got farm towns, timber towns, resorts, tribal communities and a couple of cities with growing tech scenes. That’s not to mention all the different ways people can make a living building houses, running a coffee shop, teaching kindergartners their ABCs. All of that is part of the economy. So, it’s a complicated thing. Like really complicated. And in the grand scheme of the nation and world economy, Montana amounts to a pretty small part. So what can the governor actually do to steer things? A Missoula based economist I talked to, Bryce Ward, described the job as kind of like being the captain of a small ship in a big ocean.
Bryce Ward And storms are going to come, and they’re going to do what they can do. And basically, your job is to make sure you’ve got a good boat and you’re kind of charting the right course.
Dietrich Most of the business leaders and entrepreneurs and workers who are navigating the economy don’t work directly for state agencies. So maybe it’s better to think of the economy like a bunch of little rafts all tied together. The governor commands the state government boat, but is otherwise really in a support role, setting rules and shouting encouragement to everyone else riding the waves.
I talked to Bryce because I wanted to understand the big dynamics in the Montana economy going into this year’s election; essentially, what we have to understand about our current situation. One thing he mentioned was a national study from back in 2016, which tried to map out how strongly different parts of the U.S. are tied to each other economically.
Ward And it was somebodies attempt to create economic regions of the United States. And there was this weird little bubble that was carved out of the country where it was just blank. And that blank includes the entire state of Montana. Parts of Wyoming, parts of Idaho and parts of Nevada.
Dietrich Parts of the Dakotas were blank, too. With our region’s sparse population, we simply aren’t connected to the rest of the country like other places are. Bryce’s point is that isolation is a defining feature of Montanans economy. It’s just harder to get people and ideas and material goods moved in and out of here than most other places. And that often makes it harder to build businesses here. Plus, the main industries driving Montanans economy have changed a lot over the last 50 years. That means Montana workers have had to find new opportunities as old ones have faded. The state economy used to be driven by natural resources and agriculture. Raw goods that were mined or harvested here and shipped out.
[Dept. of Interior mining film from 1962] “The giant open pit mine provides an economical method of recovering low grade ore from large bodies closer to the surface. In the development of the pit, immense quantities of material must be removed ..”
Dietrich but especially in western Montana, things have shifted away from logging and mining toward a scenery economy based on tourism and recreation.
[Montana Office of Tourism ad] “For people around the world who’ve been putting off a real adventure for too long, it’s time for Montana.”
Dietrich Out on the eastern plains, there are a few places that had oil booms. There’s also still a lot of farming and ranching there, but there’s been a trend towards larger operations, which means fewer family farms to keep people in ag communities.
Another way to look at the economy is through the unemployment rate, which is tracked by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In February, before the pandemic hit, Montana had an unemployment rate of about four percent, which is low enough that businesses actually had a hard time finding workers in a lot of areas. But there was also quite a bit of variation region to region. Some parts of the state had even lower unemployment rates, and some, like the Libby area, were pushing 10 percent.
That’s all changed with the coronavirus. In April, the statewide unemployment rate spiked to almost 12 percent. As of August, it was back down just over five percent. But it could rise again, depending on how things go with the pandemic this fall and winter.
With this landscape in mind I wanted to drill down on what our candidates for governor had to say about the course they’d chart if elected. I interviewed both Cooney and Gianforte and took a close look at the formal economic policy plans their campaigns had published.
Cooney is a Democrat who’s currently our lieutenant governor. He’s essentially a stay-the-course candidate. He argues that Democrats have done a pretty good job steering the Montana economy over the last decade and a half. And points to data on wage growth.
[Cooney rally] “Still, I’m incredibly proud of the resilient economy that Governor Bullock and I have been able to build and sustain so that Montana is able … “
Dietrich His policy platform focuses a lot on government programs designed to support workers, some of which have already been priorities under the Bullock administration. Think support for labor unions, child-care programs and more funding for public education. Like a lot of Democrats, he’s more interested than Republicans are in using government programs to nurture the economy — and spending tax dollars to do it.
Mike Cooney Government doesn’t create jobs. It really doesn’t. Government can be a partner out there creating jobs. Government can be a partner by making sure we’re investing in public education and that we are, we are giving …
Dietrich On the other hand, we have Republican Gianforte. He was a successful technology entrepreneur before he got into politics. And he basically says we need to chart a new direction for the state. He says a change of leadership from Democrats to Republicans in the governor’s chair would put Montana on a better course. One of the things he talks a lot about on the campaign trail is how Montana’s wages are still pretty low by national standards.
[Gianforte speech] “We are all united in the idea that Montana has not been living up to its full potential. We’re united by the idea that we can do better. We’re united by the idea that we should be bringing the American dream into closer reach for more Montanans.”
Dietrich In his plan, Gianforte stakes out a lot of traditional Republican positions. He wants to cut back on government regulations, saying red tape makes it too hard for would-be entrepreneurs to get businesses started. That includes making it easier to get permits for logging and mining projects, which he sees as a way to bring jobs to rural communities.
Greg Gianforte You know, I’ve spent my life and in business and I’ve seen the impact of regulations, of high taxes, and how that inhibits the private sector from creating jobs, and although I say I’m running to create jobs …
Dietrich Both candidates are right about Montana’s wages, by the way. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the average wage in Montana was just shy of $22 an hour last year. That’s almost a third higher than the average wage a decade ago. And wages grew faster here than they did for the nation as a whole. But the typical American worker still earns nearly $4 an hour more than the typical Montanan. So that’s what the politicians have to say. Most economic plans give us some specific ideas about how the candidates would steer our little flotilla of rafts. But how do those ideas square with reality?
Because the economy is such a massive, complex thing, we often talk about it with general big-picture statistics; unemployment numbers, the price of a barrel of oil, how many people visited our national parks last year? But I wanted to understand what the economy means in human terms, particularly for younger Montanans in the early stages of their careers. I wanted to ask them whether they see enough opportunity where they’re at in the state to make Montana home. I did hear a lot about good jobs and jobs that are not quite good enough. Other factors came up as well. Angst over housing prices. Challenges facing public education. The pros and cons of Small-Town Living.
One of the people I talked to was Zach Koester. He lives in Bozeman, which has attracted a lot of people over the last couple of decades, and seen its cost of living balloon too. Zach actually faced that stay or leave question in a different state a few years back.
Zach Koester In 2012, I was in Alamosa, Colorado, of all places. A little tiny town, south central. Beautiful area. Making pizzas at the time for like eight bucks an hour. I didn’t really have much going on.
My brother was working for AT&T at the time and got transfer to the store here in town and we had never been here. I knew nothing about Montana, so just decided to come up here and check it out.
Dietrich Then he said those recreation options, hiking, climbing, skiing, sealed the deal. He found work in the food service industry again.
Koester It took me a bit to kind of figure out a job that would pay a little bit more money that I could grow in. You know, I don’t want to work at Little Caesars the rest my life. Most people don’t.
Dietrich These days, he paints houses for a living.
Koester I started painting with one of my friends and then I figured I could do it myself and just kind of took off my own business from there. Took a couple years to get things going, but once it did, it was great. And with all the growth in Bozeman, there’s no shortage of work if you’re a contractor and you know what you’re doing.
Dietrich The Bozeman area really has been Montana’s economic success story over the past decade. Between 2008 and 2018, federal data says Gallatin County added nearly 20,000 jobs and almost 23,000 people. But all that growth has its downsides. Bozeman has also seen its housing prices skyrocket. The local realtors association says the median price for a single family home in Gallatin County as of August was $575,000.
Zach is a single dad with a five year old son. He’s making a reasonably comfortable living and has been in Bozeman long enough now he says he can’t imagine going anywhere else. But I asked him, do you think you’ll be able to afford homeownership in the near future?
Koester You want to be optimistic and say yes, but realistically, right now, no. I’m trying to pay off the last bit of debt that I’ve accumulated last couple of years after going through a divorce and some other things. Once that’s taken care of, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. But you definitely couldn’t do it — there’s no way you can do it making minimum wage or even making, you know, 12, 15 dollars an hour. There’s no way. Unless you have a trust fund or a bunch of money or never made any mistakes financially the last 10 years, it’s going to be really hard for you to buy a home at some point, at least in Bozeman. You can always go to Butte or maybe Livingston, but even Livingston …
Dietrich Zach’s story isn’t unique to Bozeman. Growth there and in other parts of Montana, like Missoula and the Flathead, has created more opportunity for people like him to make good money. But it’s also created very real cost of living challenges, particularly around housing. Experts usually consider housing unaffordable if it costs people more than 30 percent of their income. According to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, about one third of Montanans who have mortgages are in that boat. Same with nearly half of renters.
So this isn’t a small problem, but our candidates for governor, they haven’t been talking about it very much. I asked economist Bryce Ward to look over the candidate’s economic plans. How little focus there was on cost of living was actually something that jumped out at him.
Ward There’s a lot about jobs, but the cost of living, and in particular, housing, it’s just not there.
I double checked this. Gianforte’s Montana Comeback Plan doesn’t mention housing affordability or cost of living at all. Neither does Cooney’s Keep Montana Working Plan, though he does list affordable housing as one of a dozen properties on his campaign website.
Of course, the population growth we’ve seen in Bozeman isn’t necessarily happening all across the state. For Montana’s truly rural counties population has typically been flat or in slow decline the last few decades. So I wanted to talk to people living in those places to hear how they’re thinking about whether to stay or go.
Jessie Big Knife is a lawyer who grew up on the Rocky Boy’s reservation in north-central Montana. Like a lot of Montana kids, he had a stay or go moment after high school when he decided to leave the state for college. After a while, though, he realized he missed a lot about where he came from.
Jessie Big Knife I love Montana. I love the vibe. I love the people here. You know, people are a little more genuine, people are little more sincere. I like the friendly hellos.
Dietrich Jessie is a member that Chippewa Cree Tribe. He grew up with his grandma.
Big Knife We used to do things like pick berries. We used to do things like harvest roots, you know, speaking the language, hearing her speak Cree. It’s weird because, like, in law school, you learn that our Tribe is a sovereign nation. But growning up as a kid in Rocky Boy … you don’t think like that. I just knew Rocky Boy was home.
Dietrich After finishing his law degree. He moved home and started working as an attorney for the Tribe. I asked him what the local economy is like.
Big Knife I would describe it as sparse and seasonal.
Dietrich Jessie said the community has a few jobs with tribal agencies, but a lot of the work in the area comes in the form of short-term construction or ranch hand gigs. Economic opportunity is often a particular challenge for tribal communities, who were forced onto reservations in the 1800s and had their way of life actively suppressed by the U.S. government for generations. It’s only over the last 50 years or so that tribes have begun to regain control over their own affairs. Many you still have complex legal relationships with the federal government that can make reservation communities like Rocky Boys uniquely hard places to, say, get a loan so you can start a small business.
For Jesseie, education has been a key ingredient in building the life he has now. But he said he often struggled with his college academics, and when he looks back at his graduating high school class of 18 or 20 students, he’s one of two who finished a bachelors degree.
Big Knife I don’t think the school prepared me to go to college. You know, there was no, you know, you need to focus on this. Here’s career choices of what you can be. You know, I felt like there was more Army or Marine recruiters than there were actually college scouts coming in.
Dietrich One of the challenges facing many small town school districts across Montana is that they struggle to recruit teachers. Many can’t afford to pay as well as urban districts, and rural Montana’s isolation can make it a hard sell for recruits who don’t have an existing connection to the area. Both candidates for governor say they see public education as part of the opportunity picture. They say it’s something that prepare students for success. And also ensures employers can find the skills they need to staff their businesses.
Here’s Democrat Mike Cooney again.
Cooney Four year college, two year college, apprenticeship, certificate programs, whatever. Those are really important. And that’s a role that government can play.
Dietrich Republican Greg Gianforte says he wants to cut taxes for the state overall, but also says he doesn’t want those cuts to fall on public education spending. He said he does worry about teacher pay being too low, but thinks it’s possible to fix that by cutting administrative costs. He’s also been a big supporter of private schools, saying they give parents more education options.
Here’s a representative of Gianforte’s reading a letter from him at a school choice rally held outside the Montana Capitol last year.
[rally speaker] “I want to make sure the future is bright for Montana kids and that they and their parents will continue to have the opportunity to choose the best way of learning.”
Dietrich Education isn’t just important for students. Schools are a big employer in much of Montana, too. One of the small town teachers who’s been pondering the should-I-stay question is Sam Shaw. He works in Sidney, a city of about 6,000 people near the North Dakota border. It had a lot of people move in with the Bakken oil boom before that peaked a few years back. Sam actually ended up in Sidney through an eight-month volunteer program. As a city kid from Boston he expected to be done and gone after his assignment wrapped up, but he found himself enjoying the Eastern Montana lifestyle.
Sam Shaw I just wasn’t ready to leave Sidney. It was, it was — it is — kind of a bizarre place, and I love it.
Dietrich Sam drove an 18-wheeler truck hauling sugar beets for a while, then was hired on as a teacher at the local high school. He’s now in his second year there teaching English and civics. I ask Sam what it is that has kept him in Eastern Montana. He responded by telling me a story about this community event that stands out in his memory.
Shaw So I saw a flier for donkey basketball ,and I thought, OK, this must be some kind of joke. But it just so happened to be on my birthday, and one thing led to another and I ended up being on the fire department’s donkey basketball team, which is exactly what it sounds like: A bunch of guys on the backs of donkeys playing basketball in the high school gym as a fundraiser for, I think, 4H. Just a completely absurd event. And it was a blast. And I just kept having experiences like that. And I just figured, I’m not done with Eastern Montana. I want to stick around for a little while.
Dietrich I hadn’t heard of donkey basketball before either, but I have heard a lot of stories like this talking to Montanans; people, trying to explain what’s magical about life in their corner of the state.
Shaw Growing up in a big city and then, you know, going to a competitive college. And, you know, what usually comes next is, you know, you get a city job and, you know, you get a you know, a big paycheck and you spend a lot of hours at work and your life becomes kind of atomized. You’re you’re a worker and you’re a consumer. And life’s just so much richer out here. You know, I’m really, I really feel like I’m a member of the community. You know, I’m on the fire department. I do a bunch of extra curricular stuff at the school. I’ve always got something going on. You know, I get invited to brandings. I get a sense that I’m a fuller person here than I would be back on the East Coast.
Dietrich Going back to our big question, that’s a heavy weight on the stay side of the scale. But Sam says he doesn’t expect put down roots in Eastern Montana right now.
Shaw You know, I’m kind of enjoying the whole frontier lifestyle, but there will come a time when I won’t. That’s for sure.
Dietrich Sam talked about the small town dating scene, which he said is a little rough. And he said Sidney is just a hard place to make a living as a teacher.
Shaw The money’s a big thing, for sure. Certainly the cost of living’s pretty high here, being close to the oilfield. But you know, when I think in places with high cost of living, I also think of places with a lot of amenities, you know, that kind of justify that cost of living. And this isn’t that place.
Dietrich Economist Bryce Ward talked a lot about amenities in Montana. These are the things that make living in a place enjoyable. Restaurants, national forests, music venues, ski hills, even being close to friends and family. All of those are amenities. Both candidates for governor say they’ll work to bring more opportunity to the rural parts of the state. Places like Rocky Boy and Sidney. But because so many amenities aren’t something the governor can create with the stroke of a pen, Bryce is a bit pessimistic about how successful those pledges will be.
Ward It’s unclear how much they can actually do to do it. Because this is, most of this is being shaped by forces that are much larger than Montana’s state government. It’s tough to tell people that they should go live someplace that they’re choosing not to live.
Dietrich What government can do, he said, is support community infrastructure, things like rural hospitals to provide the services a small town needs if it’s going to attract people and get them to stay. Add in schools, child care, reasonably affordable housing. Without those things in reach, it’s tough to decide to settle someplace, especially if you’re looking to raise a family. That’s true, even if that place has plenty of good jobs.
All these decisions about where to live and what that place has to offer, they have a storm cloud hanging over them right now: the COVID-19 pandemic. While the economy was trucking along pretty well before the virus hit in March, the disease and the public health measures we’ve adopted to fight it have thrown a wrench in the engine.
Here’s economist Bryce Ward again.
Ward The big economic issue for the next two years, at least, is going to be putting the economy back together as a result of the damage done by COVID.
Dietrich Remember earlier when Bryce said the governor is like the captain of a boat weathering storm after storm in a raging sea? Well, COVID has been a mega-storm. And unlike tornadoes or hurricanes that tear apart houses and flood streets …
Ward In pandemics we’re not damaging the physical infrastructure, we’re damaging the human and social infrastructure. What’s the plan to fix that and move us forward, particularly given that people’s preferences for what they want in their life, in terms of what they’re willing to spend, what they spend their money on, where they want to live, how they want to work. All of that might change. We don’t know. But there’s lots of speculation that it could change …
To understand how, let’s go back to Kristen, that fifth generation Montanan we heard from at the top of the episode.
Ingman I just returned to Montana. I’m now living in Missoula after spending four years in Seattle.
Dietrich There’s been plenty of hardship created by the pandemic. For Kristen, it’s also more complicated. All the upheaval is actually part of why she was able to come back home.
She finished a master’s degree earlier this year and was hired at a nonprofit in Missoula. Her partner, the environmental engineer, was able to come back with her because he was working remotely anyway. COVID actually gave Kristen more options.
Ingman I think COVID has kind of reimagined, or helped companies reimagine what’s possible.
Dietrich Of course, the impact of COVID is different. If you live paycheck to paycheck working a retail job, or if you’re a parent who’s now working from home while keeping your kids focused on their virtual school lessons.
When I think about Kristen and Zach, Jessie and Sam, their stories make me think that, yes, good jobs are essential when we’re talking about quality of life. There’s a reason that bringing more good paying jobs to Montana is one of our political cliches. But at the same time, good jobs alone aren’t enough. Those Montanans we heard from are all weighing so, so many other things, too, as they look for their own answers to that stay-or-go question. Community life. Housing costs. Their dating prospects. As people across the state try to build themselves decent lives, those decisions make for a tricky balancing act. And the politicians are right. If they can bring us more economic opportunity it will make things easier. But for whoever we elect as governor, steering Montana toward those brighter skies won’t be an easy job.
Ep. 7 — Equality of Opportunity
The battle for the voting rights this November
The Shared State podcast is created by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. It’s produced by Mara Silvers and edited by Nick Mott. Editorial assistance comes from Brad Tyer, Nicky Ouellet, Corin Cates-Carney and John Adams.