When my sister Marta was growing up, she had a very good friend
(Gaylene) who lived right across the street from us. Gaylene’s family was
considerably wealthier than ours, and she always had the most impressive
Christmas and birthday presents money could by. She also had a tendency
to want to show off all the wonderful things her parents gave her.
Naturally enough, Marta was sometimes a bit jealous, and, had this normal childish jealousy been allowed to grow, their friendship would have come to a rapid end.
My mom, however, handled the situation wisely. She pointed out that every new toy Gaylene got meant extra fun playing at Gaylene’s house. She also reminded Marta of all the nice clothes (practically unworn) that Gaylene passed on to her. And whenever Gaylene came over to show off her latest outfit, my mom would admire it enthusiastically, “Oh, that will look so cute on Marta!”
Mom’s advice not only preserved a friendship, it taught Marta an important life lesson: the prosperity of our neighbors is more than likely a very good thing for us as well.
And it’s not just individuals who can profit from this principle. Europe became phenomenally wealthy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in large part because the nations of Europe finally abandoned the Mercantilist “psychology of limited wealth,” the idea that one nation could become rich only at the expense of its neighbors.
Likewise, American prosperity in the 1980’s and 1990’s was built in part on supply-side economics, the realization that the success of wealthy entrepreneurs often means prosperity also for the rest of us.
Supply-side economics is often derided as “trickle-down economics,” but it’s a great mistake to let jealousy and covetousness blind us to the very real benefits that accrue to the economy as a whole when investors become wealthy.
It may be an even bigger mistake for us to ignore “trickle-up” economics. Pockets of poverty and economic stagnation can put a drag on the economy, and it is to our great benefit to do whatever we can to eliminate them.
Suppose, for instance, that Shannon County, South Dakota, was the wealthiest county in America instead of the poorest, that Bennett County was growing like Silicon Valley, and that Corson county was as prosperous as Beverly Hills. In short order, all of South Dakota would benefit. Wages would go up. Small towns would spring to life again. Four-lane highway would connect Aberdeen, not only with Webster, but with Pierre and Mobridge.
Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to promote economic growth on the reservation counties themselves. What we can do, however, is to make it as easy as possible for those Native Americans who seek economic opportunity off the reservations.
And right now, it often isn’t easy.
I was recently talking to one of my Native American students about his employment experience in Aberdeen. This student is a polite, kind, considerate young man, as amiable a co-worker as one could want. And yet every day he was harassed at work. He put up with the destruction of his personal property and with being called “prairie nigger.” He had to endure unprintable insults about his mother, insults that only increased in the days following her death.
It seems to me possible that attitudes like this hinder economic growth in South Dakota more than we realize, and that they are a major cause of persistent economic stagnation in South Dakota.
It’s well to remember that economic growth in the South coincided with increased opportunities for Black southerners.
In South Dakota, too, it may be that increasing the opportunities available to our own minority populations is the key to becoming rich quick—or at least eventually.