Montana American Indian children are more likely to live in poverty, have less access to health care and fall behind in school than the rest of the state’s population, according to a new report.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report released Tuesday shows that Montana stands as the second worst state for American Indian children’s access to opportunity in the West, narrowly ranking above South Dakota. The report, Race for Results, looks at education, health and economic milestones to measure children’s progress.

Jennifer Calder with Montana KIDS COUNT said in an ideal world, every state would get a score of 1,000.

“When we look at that number, children in our state are not there,” Calder said, adding that Montana ranked 31st in the nation for its overall score. “And there’s a huge opportunity gap … We’re asking American Indian children to run farther, faster to catch up.”

White Montana children scored 671. In comparison, American Indian Montana children hit 267. The information that led to that score was pulled from 2015 data, Calder said.

According to the foundation, 70 percent of American Indian children live in high-poverty areas compared to 18 percent of white children.

While access to health care grew with Montana’s Medicaid expansion, 16 percent of American Indian children remain uninsured, compared to 3 percent of white kids.

In terms of education, 16 percent of American Indian children read at their grade level compared to 41 percent of white children.

Professor Walter Fleming, head of Montana State University’s Native American Studies program, said more children are entering a system that’s failing them.

American Indians represent roughly 6.6 percent of Montana’s population. Simultaneously, of the more than 224,000 of Montanans younger than 18, roughly 10 percent are American Indians.

“You’ve got this growing young population so it’s increasingly more important to resolve these issues now,” Fleming said.

Many Montana American Indians live on rural reservations that are historic areas of poverty. It’s hard for those communities to attract and retain professionals in health and education, which Fleming said adds to a generational recurrence of people falling through gaps.

He said reservations and states have looked toward incentives like student loan payback programs and higher-than-average pay to attract skilled workers, “but still, those recruited don’t often stay.”

“People are recognizing that the answers are within the community by encouraging local students to come back with those teaching degrees and nursing certificates — people who have an investment in their community,” Fleming said.

Fleming said he’s seen that grow throughout his 38 years at MSU. He said there are 712 American Indian students at MSU and “the vast majority” say they plan to eventually return home.

In response to the recent report, the Casey Foundation Montana KIDS COUNT called on Montana lawmakers to support and expand policies that address systemic challenges across education and economic opportunity.

The group listed supporting the state’s Indian Education for All effort, earned income tax credit and paid family leave to improve outcomes for Montana’s kids.

Calder said whatever happens, “It will have to be policies done with tribes, not to tribes.”

She said overall, Montana falls behind in early education opportunities and its number of young adults who graduate with an associate’s degree. She said targeted policies should aim at helping tribal nations build the infrastructure for economic development, education and health care.

Tribal governments will be key to help change Montana’s statistics, Fleming said. Small changes, like creating more local entrepreneurial programs, could lead to big percentage changes, he said.

He added that each tribal nation’s response needs to go beyond solving single issues — like poor reading levels — but “look at the whole.”

“Like kids going into engineering to improve infrastructure or going into natural resource development to bring back the environment as well as the community,” Fleming said. “It’s all tied together. That [thought] is ancient but it’s coming back these days.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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