I grew up in Billings and graduated from the University of Montana in 2006 with a degree in English. People don’t usually share their salaries, but for this story it’s important to know that I immediately accepted a job teaching at an arts-focused high school where I made about $36,000 (that’s $45,000 in today’s money). My benefits included retirement, sick leave, and a health insurance plan that cost me about $200/month. There happened to be a physical therapy clinic down the street that took my insurance and offered incredible rates so I was able to seek treatment from them for a spinal condition that has caused me chronic pain. I went 2-3 times a week during the two years I held this job. My co-pay each time was $5.
On this salary I was able to live not-luxuriously, but well. I had a modest apartment, heat, food, hot water, and I was able to save a little money. I could afford to take a vacation once a year. Public safety was a top priority of the city in which I lived; it was well-funded and the streets were so safe I often rode my bike alone at night. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering: so what? This is just a boring account of what a standard middle class job *should* look like in a regular city like Billings. You should be able to pay your bills, receive the medical care you need at an affordable rate, and maybe take a trip once in a while. I agree.
What is “Quality of Life”?
But here’s the thing: for me, none of this happened in Montana—or even America. My first teaching job was in Japan. I lived in a city roughly the size of Billings and this makes it easy to draw these few loose comparisons. I returned to the US a few years later to live near family and in many ways have spent the last decade searching—and failing—to find a city and job that would provide the same level of financial, social, and health security. By that I mean something very specific: I don’t mean that Japan is a perfect society, or that this is about money—this is about “quality of life.”
I have never again achieved the quality of life I had at the age of 22. I haven’t even come close. The reasons aren’t necessarily salary or health insurance, though the latter has nearly bankrupted us more than once in the US; it will always be a factor, especially as costs are tied to a city’s overall cost of living. But I’m talking about more overall “quality of life” issues, issues affecting not only me personally, but Billings as a whole.
Yellowstone County is aging. We are set to lose tens of thousands of workers in the next decade. Montana currently ranks among the top five WORST states in terms of attracting millennials to replace this work force. If Billings continues on its current trajectory, we are set to lose much of our current tax base and our “quality of life” will rapidly degrade over the next twenty years—this means less money to plow streets and take care of parks. It means even more vacant commercial properties. It means crime rates continue to get worse while our police force correspondingly dwindles. It means property values dip, people lose equity, and have to delay retirement. It means my own daughters will never be able to make a life here as adults.
What draws me to serving on City Council is the chance to address these quality of life issues before it’s too late. I want to find solutions for growing Billings so that more and more 22-year-olds like myself are able to step into decent-paying, stable jobs right here. I want to make sure residents are actually achieving a good quality of life in all sectors, and this includes proactively figuring out how to increase public safety dollars. We need more University of Montana and Montana State University grads to stay here, move here, start businesses and raise their families—so, how do we reduce barriers to make Billings an attractive, safe community for all residents? How do we make sure our economy thrives so that everyone can afford the healthcare they need? How do we keep our streets and trails repaired, plowed, and serviceable year-round?
This won’t happen by doing nothing. A huge part of the problem, I believe, is that the council does not reflect the demographics it serves, and its voting priorities reflect this. Women make up only 20% of the table; there are no members of color; the average councilperson’s age is well over fifty. I share these details not as indictments—we need voices from the whole range of society, certainly—but as deeply troubling facts. The priorities of women, millennials, and minorities cannot be represented if we are barely in—or entirely absent from—the room.
2019 is the year to change this. I’d love to spread this message and connect with anyone—especially young folks and women—thinking of running. The election will be later this year, but my campaign for Ward 1 (map attached) starts today. Tell your friends, tell your neighbors, tell your enemies—it’s go time, Billings!