A new Harvard-NPR poll finds 69% of Native Americans say inflation is keeping them from making ends meet. Rising food and gasoline prices are aggravating an already precarious situation.
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No other racial or ethnic group in the country is currently feeling as much financial pressure as Native Americans. That’s according to a national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. He found that inflation caused significant financial problems for 69% of Native Americans. Katia Riddle reports from the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon.
KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It’s a hot, foggy morning in Warm Springs, a few hours southeast of Portland. Jake Billy, a member of the tribe, leans on his car and tells this story. A long time ago, there was someone special in her life.
JAKE BILLY: Well, you see, I almost married that girl. It was very close. It was doubtful.
RIDDLE: In the end, they broke up. But Billy stayed in touch with his ex and his family.
BILLY: And that’s how I hope to live my life. I have connections that can stay with us longer than the moment.
RIDDLE: Recently, her ex’s sister passed away. He wanted to go to the funeral, but he couldn’t.
BILLY: I don’t have enough money or resources to go there.
RIDDLE: The funeral was three hours away. He just couldn’t afford gasoline.
BILLY: I said goodbye from here, I guess.
RIDDLE: The silent onslaught of inflation, Billy says, has led to heartbreaking choices like this. It deprived him of this small but sacred ritual.
BILLY: You know, I wanted to help the family and support the family, which is what native people do. We support each other whenever we can. It is our culture. And when that is somehow compromised, we are slightly diminished in that ability.
RIDDLE: More than 4,000 people live in Warm Springs. For them, it’s not just out-of-town funerals that are hard to afford. For some people here, the nearest grocery store is nearly 40 miles away.
DEMUS MARTINEZ: We are in a food desert.
RIDDLE: Demus Martinez is part of the Warm Springs Community Action Team. It’s a not-for-profit organization that helps people learn financial skills. Martinez says people here plan for as few races as possible. This includes his own family of five.
MARTINEZ: We only go twice a month now. You know, so we’re saving $160 on gas, you know what I mean, then?
RIDDLE: There is a way out of the reservation without paying for gas. Tribe member Shelia Thrasher waits at the bus stop that day. She goes to the grocery store. She lives with her two adult daughters and their families.
SHELIA THRASHER: Thirteen in this house, so…
Riddle: Wow. You feed 13 people.
THRASHER: I don’t feed them all, but we help each other. So when they need something, if I have something, we share. It’s the only way for families to get around here.
RIDDLE: Before inflation skyrocketed, Thrasher often went for walks with family members or neighbors. But since everyone is driving less now, she says those rides are harder to find. To get to the bus stop, she took her bicycle.
(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANKING)
RIDDLE: She loads it at the front of the bus before boarding. Twenty-five minutes later, she rolls her bike into the store.
THRASHER: I have a question. Can I park my bike while I shop here? I don’t have a lock for that.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It’s probably fine as long as you park it, you know…
RIDDLE: Thrasher can only fill one bag. That’s all she can take home with her bike. She has an hour before the bus returns and only $32 to spend. First stop – frozen foods.
Riddle: Have you looked at the price there?
THRASHER: Yes, 3.99. I want to have the biggest, but no, with everything I need, I have to have the smallest.
RIDDLE: How long will what you get today last you?
THRASHER: Oh, shoot. Well, just, you know, not long, you know – just a few days, probably, yeah.
RIDDLE: Back at the reservation, Thrasher removes his bike from the bus. Then she puts her arms through the handles of the shopping bag.
THRASHER: Do this little DIY and, you know, find ways to put it in your backpack.
RIDDLE: She says the 13 people in her household live on a food budget of about $500 a month in public assistance, plus whatever’s left over from paychecks after other bills. Money isn’t stretching as much lately, but they’re finding a way. She says no one will starve.
THRASHER: Things we have to do to get through this, but it’s all good.
Riddle: One thing his family did to deal with inflation – they told the kids, no more snacks, just meals. For NPR News, I’m Katia Riddle in Warm Springs, Ore.
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