Measuring Montana

It turns out pride in the place you live affects just about everything else

By Kellyn Brown

Several statistics measuring Montana were released last week, and the one getting the most press was the state’s jobless rate. Rightfully so, April’s number of 4 percent is the lowest since September 2007. It’s the 10th-best rate in the country, and two surrounding states (North Dakota and Idaho) also cracked the top 10. The regional economy appears healthy heading into summer.

Flathead County’s unemployment rate was a bit higher at 5.5 percent in April, but I’m guessing that number was lower in May, and will be lower still this month. “Help Wanted” signs are popping up across the valley.

Also released last week as part of Gallup’s annual Well-Being Index, and also garnering press, were obesity rates for every state, which nationwide have risen to 27.7 percent. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Montana is among the least obese in the country, ranking third. And drilling down into the Index shows Montanans are relatively healthy and happy.

Overall, among states, we ranked fifth in well-being. Gallup measures five elements to reach its conclusions: purpose, social, financial, community and physical. Montana ranked highest (second overall) in community, which is “liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community.” This isn’t surprising, given the number of locals who wear the outline of their state, or area code “406,” on their respective T-shirts.

In fact, the top five overall performers on the Well-Being Index all ranked in the top five for their view of community. It turns out pride in the place you live affects just about everything else.

Montana ranked in the top 10 for purpose (“liking what you do each day …”) and physical (“having good health …”) and financial (“managing your economic life to reduce stress …”). That last element is a bit of surprise.

In our state, and others like it, the workforce often “pays for the view.” That is, employees may settle for lower wages and pay more for housing in attractive environments than other states with similar economies. But the issue of affordable housing is actually widespread. Another report released last week by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) made this clear.

Rents for apartments across the country “have risen nationally for 23 straight quarters” as wages have failed to keep pace, the report states, and “there is no state in the U.S. where a minimum wage worker working full time can afford” an apartment at fair market value.

Montana’s minimum wage, $8.05, is 80 cents higher than the federal minimum, but for someone to rent a two-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30 percent of their income on that house, they need to make $13.92 per hour. Meanwhile, the average renter wage in the state is $10.91.

Flathead County is among the most expensive places to live in the state and, according to NLIHC, under this same scenario, a local resident must make $15.90 an hour for a two-bedroom apartment. On the bright side, that’s much lower than Hawaii, where you need to make $31.61 to get by.

Still, compared to other states, Montana is relatively affordable. This region also may be at a tipping point. Rents and home prices keep rising, but as the economy improves more workers can be more particular about the “Help Wanted” signs to which they respond. And employers, in turn, may have to raise wages a bit.

If that happens, Montana may rate a little higher on the one element it tanked in the Gallup index. For the social category, which measures “supportive relationships and love in your life,” our state ranked a relatively sad 33rd.

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