By Erick Garcia Luna

Since January 2020, employers across the United States have filled the job hole created by the pandemic, plus another 5 million jobs. That ability to hire suggests there is an expanding labor pool. The growing foreign-born1 population is a contributing factor.

In the Minneapolis Fed’s Ninth District, foreign-born growth rates have been robust, and the share of the labor force comprised of foreign-born workers has increased. Still, compared with the national average, the concentration of foreign-born workers remains relatively low in district states. (Foreign born means they were not born in the US, and pertains to both citizens and non-citizens.)

After declining early in the pandemic, the U.S. foreign-born population bounced back strongly. According to the Current Population Survey, from 2010 to 2023, the foreign-born population grew by 30 percent, more than three times faster than the native-born population.

There are other differences among groups. Foreign-born men tend to participate in the labor force at higher rates than native-born men and women, regardless of nativity. Among women, rates tend to be slightly higher among native-born workers.

But the gap seems to be closing, and quickly in some cases. In Minnesota, labor force participation among foreign-born women has been higher than that of native-born women since 2021.

The foreign-born labor force is also relatively younger. Across the country, about 70 percent were between the ages of 25 and 54—what economists call the “prime” labor force—compared with 62 percent of the native-born labor force. That younger share is even higher in some Ninth District states, like North Dakota, at 82 percent.

Fast growth among the foreign-born workers means their slice of the labor force is also growing.

Nationwide, 18.6 percent of the total labor force in 2023 was foreign-born, up from 15.8 percent in 2010. Despite high growth rates among district states, their labor force shares still lag far behind that national average. At the top, Minnesota’s labor force share of foreign-born workers was 10 percent in 2023. At the bottom, Montana’s share is just 3 percent despite having seen 55 percent growth in foreign-born workers since 2010.

In North Dakota, a much higher growth rate among the foreign-born population has pushed its labor force share from about 3 percent in 2010 to almost 7 percent in 2023.

Over the years, North Dakota has worked particularly hard to integrate people from around the world into the labor force.

“We want new arrivals to have the same opportunities as everyone else,” said Janna Pastir, deputy director of the North Dakota Department of Commerce Workforce Development Division. “Coordinated language, adult education, and digital skills programming help integrate immigrants to meet the needs of our economy.”

Joining the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Governor Greg Gianforte highlighted recent investments to improve Montana’s business climate at the Big Sky, Bright Futures Economic Summit in Bozeman.

“With record business creation and more Montanans working now than ever before, it’s clear Montana’s economy is on the move,” Gov. Gianforte said. “Thanks to our pro-business, pro-jobs policies we’re welcoming investment across all industries. We’ll continue to cut red tape and make Montana an even better place to do business and create new opportunities for Montanans.”

Talking with Montana Chamber President and CEO Todd O’Hair, the governor outlined his priorities to continue lowering taxes, reducing red tape, attracting new businesses, building the workforce, and addressing Montana’s housing shortage.

Last spring, the governor was proud to deliver the largest tax cut in state history, providing income tax cuts for Montanans at every level, as well as immediate and long-term property tax relief.

Since taking office, Gov. Gianforte has prioritized investments to develop a highly-skilled, highly-qualified workforce. In 2023, the governor nearly doubled the Montana Trades Education Credit, offering employers credit for employee education and training and expanded work-based learning opportunities for Montana students.

In addition, the governor has reformed the state’s tax code to promote business investment and job creation, attracting businesses from around the world to Montana.

And to meet the growing demand for housing, the governor last October reconvened his Housing Task Force following a historic legislative session for pro-housing reforms that some have dubbed the “Montana Miracle.”

“This is a pivotal moment for business in Montana,” said O’Hair. “Companies are increasingly drawn to the unique opportunities Montana offers, making our state a prime destination for growth. To sustain this momentum, we must address key challenges like housing and childcare.”

Gov. Gianforte talking with BHE Montana President Nancy Murray at the Big Sky, Bright Futures Economic Summit in Bozeman

Wrapping up the afternoon, the governor also highlighted his focus on Montana’s all-of-the-above energy policy in a fireside chat with BHE Montana President Nancy Murray.

As a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy, BHE Montana earlier in the day announced their latest investment in two new renewable energy projects in Montana.

The first, a 100-megawatt solar project on 1,000 acres of land in north central Montana. The installation of 200,000 solar panels is expected to add 100 megawatts to the grid by 2026. And the other, a 75-megawatt battery in Ethridge to store energy from BHE Montana’s wind and solar generation assets by 2025.

“We are incredibly excited to build upon the significant investments we’ve already made to further develop energy resources in Montana,” Murray said. “These new projects reflect our commitment to grow our business in Montana and support the growth of local businesses and communities that rely on a clean and resilient energy grid.”

Gov. Gianforte added, “Montana continues to be on the cutting edge of innovation, including in our energy sector. We will continue to embrace our all-of-the-above policy to address energy affordability and grid reliability and gladly welcome this investment from BHE Montana.”

Creating the best environment for business and more opportunities for Montanans is a top priority of the Gianforte administration.

By Steve Wilson,The Center Square

A federal judge has issued an injunction that put a temporary hold on new Title IX rules issued by the Biden administration.

U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty issued the order in a lawsuit brought by the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana and Idaho. The injunction keeps the final rules from going into effect pending a review by the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Louisiana. 

The new rules finalized by the Department of Education and which are supposed to go into effect Aug. 1 expand the definition of sex discrimination to include gender identity and pregnancy, but the agency didn’t issue any rules relating to transgender athletes. Among the changes include a prohibition on single-sex bathroom and locker rooms and requirements that a school use pronouns based on a student’s preferred gender identity.

Doughty said in the order that the new rule violated the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment along with the spending clause and “is arbitrary and capricious.”

The judge also said in his ruling that for one of these injunctions to be issued, the plaintiffs must show a substantial chance of success on the merits of their case, a threat of irreparable harm that must outweigh any that would result if the injunction weren’t issued and it must be in the public interest. Doughty said the plaintiffs did so successfully. 

Doughty also said that the plaintiffs were able to prove that the harassment standard created by the rule is contrary to Title IX and he said they “made compelling arguments for how it can violate the free speech right of the First Amendment.”

Louisiana Attorney General Liz Murrill, who brought the Title IX lawsuit, praised the ruling. 

“This a victory for women and girls,” Murrill said in a statement. “When Joe Biden forced his illegal and radical gender ideology on America, Louisiana said NO! Along with Idaho, Mississippi, and Montana, states are fighting back in defense of the law, the safety and prosperity of women and girls, and basic American values.”

Title IX prohibits educational institutions that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex in both educational programs and activities.

Federal courts have already acted against the Biden administration’s rules. 

U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor granted the state’s motion for summary judgement in a case over a mandate issued by two federal agencies before the administration amended Title IX to redefine biological sex to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” 

He also denied the Biden administration’s request to dismiss and vacated the guidance nationwide and issued a permanent injunction against its enforcement in Texas.

By Amanda Eggert, Montana Free Press

Project developers, policymakers and think tanks working in the capital-intensive arena of energy development say a new Montana-North Dakota high-voltage transmission line could be a game changer for an area of the American West that’s seen limited expansion to its power grid in four decades. The North Plains Connector Line would be the region’s first major grid expansion since the construction of a 500-kilovolt line that carries power from the Colstrip coal-fired power plant to population centers in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980s.

Late last year, Minnesota-based energy company ALLETE and Grid United, a Houston-based transmission developer, announced their partnership on a proposal to build a $3.2 billion transmission line from Colstrip to central North Dakota. The companies are billing the roughly 400-mile line as a “long-term energy infrastructure asset” that will help utilities access new regional energy markets, meet rising electricity demand and become more resilient to grid-straining cold snaps and heat waves. 

Stakeholders like Kyle Unruh, with renewable energy advocacy organization Renewable Northwest, also describe the North Plains Connector Line as an opportunity for Montana to reap some of the economic benefits accompanying an “explosion” of demand for new power generation — renewable generation in particular. It would do that by allowing a significant amount of electricity to flow between national energy markets. 

If built, the North Plains Connector Line will be the first high-capacity transmission line to link the Western Interconnect with the Eastern Interconnect.  

Currently, the western grid is transmission-constrained, challenging utilities that struggle to accommodate rising electricity use and throttling investment in utility-scale energy projects. The North Plains Connector would allow about 3,000 megawatts of additional generation onto the grid.

Grid United plans to submit an environmental impact statement — which will allow the public to review and comment on details of the project proposal — to the U.S. Department of Energy this fall. Brant Johnson, the project’s lead developer for Grid United, said he’s hopeful the review process will conclude within two years. If all goes according to Grid United’s plan, the line could be operational by 2030. 

Unruh recently told Montana Free Press there are multiple reasons he’s optimistic the project will be built, even given the notorious difficulties associated with transmission planning and permitting. In his assessment of the project’s prospects, he noted the federal government’s recent move to streamline transmission review and Grid United’s reputation as an “extremely capable” transmission developer with a proactive approach to engaging local communities. 

Last month’s announcement that Portland General Electric has inked a deal with Grid United and ALLETE for 20% of the line’s capacity, bringing the line’s total subscribed capacity to 55%, further improves the project’s prospects by reducing some of the financial risk associated with building it. (ALLETE, which owns two utilities in the upper midwest and a handful of other energy companies, is expected to account for 35% of the capacity on the line and oversee its operation.)

During a May 22 presentation before the Montana Legislature’s interim Energy and Telecommunications Committee, Unruh, who formerly worked as a transmission market analyst for NorthWestern Energy, discussed the economic implications of expanding the grid. 

Increasing transmission capacity can help Montana capitalize on its “preeminent wind resource,” entice electricity-intensive businesses to set up shop in (or remain in) Montana, and alleviate the rising power and property tax bills many Montanans are facing, he argued.

In the two decades since Montana’s first utility-scale wind farm came online, more than 20 additional projects have come online, with more in the works. Credit: DEQ

On the flip side, Unruh says, Montana’s economy is currently “starting to reap the consequences” of lagging grid expansion as energy developers pursue projects in regions where transmission is currently available or planned.

“Transmission should be at the heart of every economic development discussion we have in the state and every energy discussion we have in the state,” Unruh said. 

Tyler Farrell, a transmission researcher with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on decarbonizing the energy sector, said there is a chicken-or-egg dynamic at play in the relationship between electricity generation and transmission.

The North Plains Connector’s proposed route through eastern Montana and western North Dakota. Credit: Portland General Electric

This story was originally published by Montana Free Press at montanafreepress.org.

By Bethany Blankley, The Center Square

Attorneys general from multiple states for years have been petitioning courts and suing to block federal agency rules from going into effect, arguing the agencies promulgating them are exceeding their statutory authority. The latest petition makes a similar argument about a final rule issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Office (OSMRE) related to state regulatory oversight of coal mining.

Fourteen attorneys general filed a petition for judicial review with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking it to vacate the rule they argue seeks to strip states of regulatory authority delegated to them by Congress and the U.S. Constitution.

The petition was filed by the attorneys general of Indiana, West Virginia, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Several state agencies are also petitioners.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, two OSMRE directors, and both federal agencies were named as respondents.

The petition argues the rule, which went into effect May 9, exceeds Haaland’s statutory authority, is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and inconsistent with law. The AGs asked the court to declare the rule unlawful, vacate it and grant temporary relief pending the outcome of litigation.

The OSMRE Final Rule amends the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), which gives states exclusive jurisdiction over regulating surface coal mining and reclamation operations with few exceptions. It also gives states the sole authority to issue permits and bonds; states also inspect mining sites and enforce regulatory requirements. The SMCRA only applies to non-federal and non-Indian land.

The law limits the Interior secretary’s mining regulatory authority with two exceptions: the secretary is authorized to issue a “Ten-Day Notice” to state regulatory authorities if there is “reason to believe” a regulatory violation exists and to take over a state regulatory program if the state fails to enforce it.

The OSMRE explains that it amended the law in its rule change to limit the sources of information to determine if a possible violation exists. It also changed its definition of “reason to believe,” which it says “is supported by its legislative history.” The OSMRE also said it made the changes because it “observed instances in which requesting and considering information from” state regulatory agencies resulted in delays.

It made the claim after the Interior secretary and OSMRE officials previously acknowledged that delays occurred at times because state regulatory agencies needed weeks or months to perform complex investigations, including because of inclement weather, the lawsuit notes.

But the real reason OSMRE officials changed the definitions of the exceptions was to limit states’ rights, the AGs argue. The final rule “is dismissive of consequences for federalism,” the complaint states.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita, leading the coalition, said, “Simply put, this new rule is unlawful.” It intrudes on the states’ “rightful authority under the American system of federalism. We’re suing to uphold the proper balance of power between the individual states and the federal government and to prevent another unjustified assault by the Biden administration on coal.”

The rule “proposes to overthrow the Act’s deference to States” by issuing ten-day notices, the complaint states. It also subjects “state decisions over which the Act affords States exclusive jurisdiction, such as permitting decisions, to federal oversight through ten-day notices.”

OSMRE also “seeks to make the federal government the regulator of first resort,” stripping states of their regulatory authority, the complaint states.

The rule eliminates a key requirement that citizens must first contact state regulators with concerns before they can contact the federal government. It also imposes “inflexible, arbitrary timelines on states to complete complex investigations without regard for facts on the ground, setting up federal regulators to swoop in,” the complaint states.

The AGs represent state regulatory agencies that oversee surface coal mining operations and are responsible for enforcing the SMCRA within their states. They also pointed out that these agencies received positive reviews from OSMRE officials.

Last year, OSMRE officials said Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources “administers its program in a way that effectively protects citizens and the environment from adverse impacts resulting from surface coal mining activities,” Rokita said.

OSMRE officials also said Montana’s program “had no regulatory problems” and Montana “takes citizen complaints seriously,” Montana AG Austin Knudsen said. OSMRE found “Montana DEQ appropriately responded to complainants in a timely manner consistent with applicable rules.”

 By William Haupt III, The Center Square

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead.”

                                                  – Thomas Paine

In 1980, when Ronald Regean accepted his party’s nomination for president, he reminisced about our nation’s past and its “shared values.” He mentioned how far America had drifted from the ethos of our founding of national unity, individual responsibility, with a patriotic and a limited government. He called for a return to the spirit of principles and ideas of Thomas Paine’s, “Common Sense.”

Of all our great founders whose ideas he wanted for America, Ronald Reagan quoted the one who was not honored as a founder, Thomas Paine. Although he inspired and unified the colonies with enlightenment teachings, Paine was considered too radical to attend the Convention of 1787. And his insight into our socio-political future was never reflected in the writing of our Constitution.

In 1774, Ben Franklin told Thomas Paine he was needed in the New World. Within months Paine was editor of the Philadelphia Magazine, where he penned the ideals that unified the colonies and brought them to revolt. Paine wrote, “America was in a crisis.” Until they had undivided unity, they’d never become a nation.

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

                                –Thomas Paine

When Paine arrived in America, the colonies were unhappy as servants to the crown. But they were content with what America gave them and tolerated British abuse. When Paine wrote his pamphlet, “Common Sense” aka “The American Crisis,” he wanted to alert the colonies: until they worked for the collective good of a nation united under one flag, they’d always be in a state of constant crisis.

In contrast, to many founders who were educated with money and status, Paine was philistine and appealed to commoners. “Common Sense” is considered the crucial tool used to bring the idea of sovereignty to middle class colonials and challenged them to revolt.

“Without the pen of the author of ‘Common Sense,’ the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.”

                                                – John Adams

During the Revolution when Washington’s army was on the verge of defeat, he asked Paine if he would read passages of “American Crisis” to troops at Valley Forge. The genesis of Paine’s work was a copious enlightenment theme of axioms that formulated the caliber of the American Dream. Paine believed that unity and respect for the rights of man were the only way society could survive.

If Paine had been at the Convention, our country would be different today. They denied him entry since his wish-list to end slavery, grant universal suffrage, and to establish a parliament that could be replaced when they did not act in the people’s best interests were judged too radical at the time.

“Let them call me a rebel, and I welcome it. I feel no concern within my soul.”

                                                – Thomas Paine

Reflecting back, Paine’s clairvoyance was uncanny. It took decades for women to get the right to vote. Our republican democracy, without the ability to issue a no-confidence vote for incompetent lawmakers, has come back to haunt us since the first Congress met in 1789. It took a bloody Civil War to end slavery, which resulted in a new crisis that took another 100 years to bring to an end.

Confederate John Wilkes Booth planned to kidnap President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and take him to the Confederate capital, Richmond, but his plot failed. So when he learned Lincoln would be at Ford Theater on the eve of April 14, he shot him in the head and exclaimed, “The South is now avenged.” Lincoln’s murder put pro-slavery Democrat Vice President Andrew Johnson in charge of Reconstruction, which resulted in chaos and social unrest that would haunt America for centuries!

Lincoln’s Republican Congress approved a Reconstruction program that guaranteed political and civil rights for Southern blacks. But when Johnson took office, he convinced the Democrats to block black suffrage and civil rights programs. Johnson vetoed bills providing provisions for the displaced slaves and military trials for those accused of violating the rights of all black Americans. He vetoed the Republican Civil Rights Act of 1866 and refused to sign the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.

Andrew Johnson continued to lobby Democrats to block all Reconstruction programs. Instead of helping to assimilate former slaves into society, he rebuilt the southern segregationist wing of the post war Democratic Party. He allowed Democrats to manage their own Reconstruction programs, which opened the door for them to replace the institution of slavery with the institution of segregation.

“To deny a man the right to vote is to deny him the right to protect his every right.”

                            – Thomas Paine

When Johnson urged Southern Democrats to boycott constitutional conventions, Congress passed legislation empowering the military to initiate conventions and override Democratic boycotts. Under the auspices of Northern Republicans, by 1868 Congress readmitted seven Southern states, North and South Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, back into the Union.

On Feb. 24, 1868, the House inevitably impeached Andrew Johnson and filed 11 charges against him for violating the Tenure of Office Act and the Command of the Army Acts and bringing disgrace to his office. But the Senate failed to convict him by one vote and he avoided conviction. If our nation had a parliamentary system, as Thomas Paine had proposed, a prime minister who lost the support of the legislature could have been simply removed from office by a no confidence vote.

The racism of Andrew Johnson and his refusal to enforce legislation to acclimate former slaves into American society enabled southern Democrats to deny the rights of black Americans and chattel them into second class citizenship. It took 100 years of blood, sweat and tears to finish the tenants of Republican Reconstruction that Lincoln had already approved. If Thomas Paine had been invited to the Convention, we could have abolished slavery in 1787 and changed the course of our history.

Thomas Paine told us, “Character is much easier kept than recovered.” Paine is considered one of our greatest Enlightenment thinkers. Since he came from the working class he knew their problems and how to remedy them. He was a self educated brilliant writer and thinker who foresaw the future and passionately alerted others of the necessity to correct socio-political problems expeditiously, or face the consequences in the future.

“He who dares not offend cannot be honest.”

                                                – Thomas Paine

Why does history repeat itself: Because we don’t profit from our mistakes. We’ve spent years trying to correct the sins of our past. But without education and civic leaders demanding teachers instruct our youth “true American history,” students will grow up unaware who created their problems and who has always tried to remedy them. As a result, we’ll always have people who continue to blame the wrong people for their failures and admire those who caused them. Until they know their history and take responsibility for their actions, they will always be a liability and never an asset to society; because:

“Reason obeys itself and ignorance submits to whatever is dictated to it.”

                                                – Thomas Paine

$15.8 Million in Grants to Increase Community-Based Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Care

As recommended by the Behavioral Health System for Future Generations (BHSFG) Commission the State of Montana is issuing a total of $15.8 million in one-time grants to increase bed capacity for community-based residential providers offering behavioral health care or developmental disability services.

The grants represent the next allocation of $300 million in funding from the state to reform and improve Montana’s behavioral health and developmental disabilities services systems.

“Timely access to more residential services at the local level is critical and plays a major role in preventing the need for more intensive services down the road,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said. “I thank the commission for advancing another recommendation that will help to transform the delivery of behavioral health care in Montana.”

Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) Director Charlie Brereton said the goal of the grant program is to stabilize or increase residential services across Montana and to build sustainable capacity, while also ensuring more Montanans can be served in clinically appropriate settings closer to home.

“This funding represents yet another key milestone to ensuring providers at the local level have the resources they need to serve Montanans appropriately,” Dir. Brereton said. “We know the current lack of residential services capacity in our state leads to inefficient treatment, challenges for patients discharging from inpatient settings, and missed opportunities to keep Montanans closer to home. We are eager to help solve this longstanding issue and will continue to advance projects like these with the needs of future generations in mind.”

Possible uses of the grant funds include helping purchase or construct new facilities, upgrading and maintaining existing facilities, and hiring and training staff to increase bed capacity.

In the coming weeks, DPHHS will work toward finalizing contracts with eligible providers who applied for the funding and received an award. DPHHS will publicly announce award recipients once all contracts are effectuated.

Eleven communities across Montana are receiving $19,600 for Reimagine What is Possible Grants to support community development projects. Reimagining Rural is a program spearheaded by MSU Extension in conjunction with the Montana Community Foundation and other partners. The program provides small towns with opportunities and resources to shape their future.

Tara Mastel, the program lead of MSU Extension’s community vitality program, describes Reimagining Rural as an initiative aimed at boosting volunteer involvement in rural areas. “As we mark 4 years since its inception, we witness remarkable collaboration between local organizations, residents and the rise of leadership within these communities, as they actively shape their collective future. It’s impactful and inspiring work.”

Grants are provided through the support of the Montana Community Foundation. Since Reimaging Rural’s inception in 2020, $115,160 has been reinvested in small towns across the state through grants from the Montana Community Foundation and 53 communities have been through the program. This year’s grantees include:

* Big Timber – $2,000 to Sweet Grass Community Foundation to draw visitors downtown through better signage.

* Boulder – $2,000 to Boulder Chamber of Commerce to purchase and install banners on Main Street. 

* Choteau – $2,000 to MSU Extension – Teton County to create an online community wide calendar for residents.

* Cut Bank – $2,000 for the Cut Bank Chamber of Commerce to create wayfinding signage in and around Cut Bank.

* Ekalaka – $2,000 to the Carter County Geological Society to enhance Veteran’s Park with a community garden and convertible benches for visitors.

* Forsyth – $2,000 for MSU Extension – Rosebud and Treasure County Office to create a disc golf course at Riverside Park in Forsyth.

* Lima – $2,000 to the Town of Lima to create a community foundation, install a kiosk, and host a community event.

* Miles City – $2,000 to the Miles City Public Library for building revitalization in the form of a community mural.

* West Yellowstone – $1,600 to the West Yellowstone Foundation for town beautification initiatives and clean up challenges.

* Winnett – $2,000 to Winnett ACES, Inc to draw visitors downtown through better signage and the installation of banners on Main Street.

Six Montana businesses and agriculture producers are receiving federal funding to support “clean energy projects” planned for their businesses. Montana division of the USDA Rural development agency is making the grants through the Rural Energy America Program (REAP), which is aimed at helping agricultural producers and rural small business owners expand their use of wind, solar, geothermal and small hydropower energy and make energy efficiency improvements.

The awardees are as follows:

* Heberle Ford in Forsyth will use a $10,125 grant to make energy efficiency upgrades to the business. This project is expected to save this rural car dealership $1,743 in annual energy costs.

* Soundcolor Studios Inc. in Livingston will use a $17,200 grant to install a roof-mounted 6-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system with a 30-kilowatt hours battery. This film, music, and art studio operation is expecting to save $1,155 per year in annual energy costs and replace 100 percent of its annual energy consumption.

* West Paw Properties LLC in Bozeman will use a $37,237 grant to make energy efficiency improvements. The business, which manufactures dog toys and other products, expects to save $2,559 in annual energy costs.

* Highmark Properties LLC in Choteau is receiving $85,854 in grants to install a 74.205-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system at the Twin Peaks Assisted Living Facility. It’s expected this project will save $5,607 in annual energy costs and replace 82,427 kilowatts in energy use.

* Terri Kollman, a rural agricultural producer outside Joliet will use a $20,000 grant to buy and install a 9.84-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. The project should save this producer $2,030 in energy costs and replace 14,877 kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

* Bart R. Bilden of Lavina will use a $49,797 grant to purchase and install a 29.1-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. It’s expected this project will save $6,343 in annual energy costs and produce enough energy to replace 100 percent of the energy used per year to support their farm and ranch operations

A recent article published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, which serves several states including Montana, highlighted three points about the ability of Americans to deal with a “rainy day”:

* Fifty-four percent of U.S. households have emergency savings to cover three months of expenses

* Americans have exhausted accumulated pandemic savings, and the saving rate is lower than before COVID

* After-inflation earnings appear on-track with longer-term trends, but spending has settled significantly higher

By Jeff Horwich

Senior Economics Writer

The “rainy day fund” is a mainstay of personal finance columnists: Set aside enough to cover a few months of household expenses in an emergency. It is hard advice to follow. Economists have long recognized that many households at all income levels live hand-to-mouth, with most income going toward consuming goods and services and paying off debt. Even when people own considerable assets, many are locked in illiquid forms like housing and retirement accounts.

The COVID pandemic was a shock to our spending and saving. A surge of government financial support coincided with the sudden loss of many ways we typically part with our money—restaurants, concert tickets, leisure travel. For a while, more households looked ready for that rainy day.

New data confirm Americans are sliding back from our pandemic savings peak. The Fed’s latest Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) finds that 54 percent of U.S. adults have enough savings to cover three months of expenses if they lost their primary source of income.

These results, gathered in October 2023, are down slightly from a year before and more than 5 percentage points off from the high-water mark in 2021. The downward trend is similar across education levels, racial groups, and other categories the SHED explored. There is some good news here: The proportion of rainy day–ready households seems to have stabilized. And we are still in better shape than the late 2010s, when the Fed began asking the question.

A complementary view comes from the personal finance website Bankrate, which recently found 2 in 3 Americans would be worried about covering even one month of living expenses if they lost their job. Per their survey in January, 51 percent of Americans would have to cut spending or borrow to pay a sudden $1,000 expense.

Seen through certain lenses, the current U.S. economy is remarkedly resilient. Consumer spending, corporate profits, and job growth have been sustained despite higher interest rates. Emergency savings and other pocketbook indicators tracked by the SHED provide another critical vantage for policymakers to understand financial well-being and resilience at the household level.

Economists at the San Fransisco Fed have tracked the rise and fall of “excess savings” accumulated during the pandemic—that is, savings above what we might have expected based on the pre-pandemic trend. These excess savings reached a peak of $2.1 trillion in August 2021—more than $8,000 per U.S. adult.2 According to the San Francisco Fed calculations, households finally exhausted them in March of this year. As of this writing, Americans’ cumulative savings are now slightly below where we would expect them to be if the pandemic had never happened.

The official personal saving rate published by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis also shows how American savings returned to earth after government stimulus payments in 2020 and 2021. As the economy reopened, so did wallets. Since early 2022, Americans are saving less than 5 percent of disposable income.

We are resuming a long-term story. Historically, the personal saving rate fell from the teens in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s to less than 2 percent in the mid-2000s. In the 2010s, the saving rate rose a bit and settled around 5 percent. So far, since the pandemic, we are saving less than we did before it.

Saving for a rainy day is some combination of personal decisions and economic pressures—not least, the 18 percent increase in the overall price level in the four years since the start of the pandemic. To peer through the effects of inflation, it is valuable to look at real (after-inflation) patterns for a clearer view of what, if anything, has changed.

Let’s start with earnings. The real hourly compensation index from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows how the surge in real earnings early in the pandemic petered out through 2021 and 2022. While some American workers experienced big raises during this period, price inflation was faster.

After a wild, three-year ride of labor shortages, job quitting, and inflation, the average American worker has neither gained nor lost ground. Real compensation is back where the pre-pandemic trend would have projected.

However, this return-to-trend is out of alignment with the spending side of the household ledger. True, life has gotten more expensive because of inflation; in raw dollar terms, we would expect consumer spending to increase. Yet even after factoring in higher prices, spending by U.S. consumers remains more than 4 percent above the pre-pandemic trend.

In today’s dollars, Americans are spending about $2,300 more than what the pre-pandemic trend would project. Why we are consuming significantly more—even after inflation—is a fascinating question with no obvious answer.

In the meantime, the observation that real spending has settled at a higher level over the past three years seems a likely factor in the lower share of Americans with emergency savings.

At the same moment, Americans are feeling a steep rise in interest payments (which are not included in the spending data). As interest rates have increased on credit cards, car notes, and other personal loans, real per capita interest payments are almost double their pre-pandemic level.

U.S. credit card balances in early 2024 are 13 percent higher than one year prior. Credit card delinquencies are at the highest level since 2012.

These sticky increases in spending and borrowing—while compensation has fallen back to its long-term trend—help explain why emergency savings might be hard to build. Setting aside a rainy day fund is also harder for some than for others.

Notably, Black adults and people aged 45 to 59 were the only groups to show slight upticks in rainy day readiness in 2023. Younger adults and people without a college degree are substantially less ready to ride out a disruption in income. Black and Hispanic Americans, people in rural areas, and parents with children at home—many of whom are facing rising child care costs—are also less likely to have emergency savings set aside.