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Economic Slump Hits Residents of ‘The Last Best Place’

November 12, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, guest essayist Scott McMillion of the Montana Quarterly considers life in his home state.

SCOTT MCMILLION, Montana Quarterly: “The Last Best Place.” Twenty years ago, when that title graced the collection of Montana literature, it sang to us, even if the tune was a little sad. It told us that we Montanans had something the rest of the country lacked or had lost.

It didn’t take long for businesses to co-opt the phrase. Suddenly, we had the last best coffee, steaks, landscaping. One cemetery even applied a funny twist.

Then, a couple of years ago, some guy from Las Vegas tried to trademark the phrase, wanting to use it to sell everything from beef to underpants, and he wanted to keep everybody else from using it. That got people excited; even Congress got involved.

But the fuss also raises a question: Is Montana still the last best place? And if so, for whom?

If you’ve got money and time — you don’t really need an awful lot — and you like to go outside, you can live very well here. Crowds are rare, traffic is thin, and you almost never have to stand in line.

And in most of Montana, $10 bucks worth of gas will still take you away from almost everybody and to some truly glorious scenery. But not everybody has $10 bucks to spare.

Elaine Kimbler runs a little one-person non-profit, Friends of the Community, in Livingston, Montana. She buys the working poor food and gasoline. She gives them shoes and school supplies and helps them keep a roof over their head, people like Travis Cato.

After two tours in the Iraq war, he brought his family here last spring, where he found himself living in a tent, eating in a soup kitchen, and nursing a head injury. With Kimbler’s help, he and his wife are working now and living in a house, but life remains a struggle, the future uncertain.

For people who have to choose between prescriptions and plumbing repairs, something as simple as going fishing can be out of reach. Without money, you don’t have mobility. In a state as big as this one, without mobility, you don’t have a lot of options.

For too many people here, life is, literally, intolerable. Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation. I can’t think of a better way to measure unhappiness.

Over the past 20 years, our state’s economy has taken a giant shift from a blue-collar focus on cattle and lumber and mining to one based on tourism and real estate. It’s attracted bundles of rich people from all over America, many of whom see Montana as some kind of Shangri La just across the mountains, which feeds the misconception that life is easy here, uncomplicated.

But at one school in Bozeman, our richest town, 46 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. The rich new arrivals might not notice those poor kids, but I guarantee you those poor kids and their parents notice the wealthy newcomers, especially when housing is so expensive and wages are so low.

And when the economy goes soft, like it’s doing now, poor people lose their jobs first. When you’re broke, the scenery doesn’t matter as much.

For most people here, I think Montana remains a great place to live. But there are threats around us: low wages, locked gates, and plenty of resentment.

Like everybody, we need to be careful. If we’re not, the last best place might become just another place, and that wouldn’t benefit anybody.

I’m Scott McMillion.