Almost 47% of Montana’s population is under the age of 35. Meanwhile, just 10 of 150 legislators in Helena are under 35. Our legislators may not represent the full breadth of Montana, yet the decisions they make have significant impacts on our lives. From the outside looking in, many representatives appear to be more concerned with crafting legislation based on an antiquated idea of an economy that no longer exists, rather than supporting the economy we have now and building a better one for the future.
In addition to attacking LGBTQ+ communities, reproductive health care, tenant rights, voting rights and climate justice, our Legislature has also overtly attempted to hamstring future economic prosperity in our state — something that will have harmful and long-lasting impacts on our generation for years to come.
These attempts have shown up in the form of tax cuts to the wealthy and underfunding education, health care, mental health support — the list goes on, all amid an economic downturn.
Not only are young people underrepresented in the Capitol, but according to Census Bureau data, over 45,000 Montanans ages 18-34 were living in poverty in 2018. That’s the size of Bozeman, and it is the largest number of any age group.
With $2.7 billion of federal aid flowing into our state, Montana has an enormous opportunity for economic recovery while setting ourselves up for stability in the future. We could give tax cuts to the wealthy costing the state nearly $100 million over the next biennium. Or, we could fund programs like higher education, mental health services and affordable housing. We could support low and middle-income individuals and families, and even restore budget cuts from previous years.
Think of every time we’ve heard an elected official say something to the tune of “this is a good program, but we don’t have the money.” That is no longer true. There are no more excuses for avoiding important investments that will set Montana up for both short and long term success. We have the funds and we should use them.
Imagine a Montana where young people have the financial means to stimulate the economy, where young Montanans aren’t forced to leave the state because we have decent wages and therefore can afford housing and pay off our student loans, where 18- to 34-year-olds don’t make up the largest age group living in poverty. Maybe we can even envision a Montana where nobody lives in poverty.
Young activists and organizers across Montana have been calling, emailing, texting and using social media at unprecedented levels to ensure the Legislature is hearing our concerns. And young people across the state will continue to hold the legislature accountable to act in the best interest of our generation.
As Montana’s largest youth-led civic engagement organization committed to engaging young people in all levels of democracy, Forward Montana believes laws being passed at the Capitol should reflect the needs and vision of constituents. We need to set Montana up for future prosperity both economically and socially, and we have an opportunity to do that right now. The federal government has given us 2.7 billion ways to think ahead; let us not waste it.
Amara Reese-Hansell is the program director at Forward Montana.