Tribal Government Innovation: An Unlikely Source of a Fair and Successful Recovery?

The hope for a successful and equitable recovery resides in an unlikely group of Americans whose women are “more likely to be in poverty than any other major racial or ethnic group.” That’s the way the Institute for Women’s Policy Research described Native women.

In many Native communities economic crisis is not an occasional disaster. It is a daily, and ongoing, reality. For generations our communities have faced conditions that are even worse than those of the current economic crisis: the scourge of high unemployment and poverty rates, health disparities, and substandard housing and infrastructure.

Back in 2000, when the national unemployment rate was less than 4 percent, the U.S. Census reported on-reservation Native unemployment at 22 percent. At that time, the Census also reported the per capita income for American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations at $7,942, well below the U.S. average for all races.

Facing staggering unemployment rates and multi-generational poverty, Native women earn about as little as their male counterparts — between 50 and 60 cents for every dollar earned by a non-Hispanic white male. Many tribal members live in communities where less than half of working-age adults have jobs. In some states, more than 70 percent of tribal members are out of work.

So, how can a group facing such astounding economic barriers really offer hope for a fair and equitable economic recovery for all Americans? The answer is fairly simple: self-determined tribal government innovation.

An analysis of socio-economic change between 1990 and 2000 showed that Indian Country economies grew at a faster pace than the economy as a whole. Inflation-adjusted, per-capita income of Indians on reservations grew by 83 percent compared to 64 percent for the U.S. population as a whole. In fact, this pattern was evident from the period since the federal government adopted the policy of supporting tribal self-determination in the 1970s.

However, the gaps between Native and non-Native citizens were so great, that closing the gap at the 1990s growth rate would take until 2055. And that’s where the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act comes in. The federal policy of supporting tribal self-determination is effective, but more investment is needed.

In the early days of the Obama administration, the federal government included important steps to meet Indian Country’s most pressing needs in the Recovery Act. The stimulus legislation included approximately $3 billion in direct tribal government funding to move more rapidly down the path of lifting Native communities out of poverty and substantially stimulating America’s economy.

While $3 billion is an unprecedented one-time investment in Indian Country, it is really just a drop in the bucket to addressing the economic needs of tribal communities. Many of the “shovel ready” projects in Indian Country have been that way for more than a decade.

For example, two health facilities will be constructed in Alaska and South Dakota using more than $200 million in recovery funding, providing much-needed health services to Native people there. However, those facilities have been on the Indian Health Service’s Healthcare Facilities Construction Priority List since the mid-1990s. Clearing the priority list alone is estimated to cost $2.6 billion.

This pattern holds true across the range of Native policy priorities – from public safety to education, and from economic development to the environment. Pre-Recovery Act appropriations paled in comparison to the documented funding gaps and sorely needed shovel ready projects that stood idle.

Tribes have shown themselves to be successful in meeting the needs of their communities when they are provided with sufficient resources to do so. Using Recovery Act funds, Indian Nations have delivered healthcare on the edge of the Arctic Circle, created jobs and stimulated demand for services provided by women-owned businesses through reconstruction efforts in diverse communities including the Colville and Navajo Nations, and expanded housing opportunities for elders of the Choctaw Nation. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

At his annual State of Indian Nations address earlier this year, National Congress of American Indians President, Jefferson Keel, put it best when he said: “Now is not the time to shrink back from investments that can transform our communities.” Ensuring the recovery is fair, equitable, and lasting, will require ongoing investments to support strong and healthy Native communities.

Tribal leaders have also underscored the need for timely and accurate socioeconomic data. We have stood side-by-side with the Obama administration as they have called for adequate data to measure the recovery. In that context, it is particularly egregious that the Bureau of Labor Statistics essentially excludes on-reservation unemployment rates (often at levels well beyond 50 percent) in their monthly unemployment reports. This means the unemployment rate for states with high Native populations is almost sure to be considerably understated.

The Census Bureau also identifies Native people as the population facing both the most pronounced socioeconomic disadvantage and the least accurate Census data, yet their annual report on poverty and health insurance in America does not include Native data owing to “insufficient sample size.”

So as we mark International Women’s Day on March 8, Native women – and all Native citizens – look back at where we’ve come from and look forward with hope. Not because the way ahead is easy but because we know self-determined innovation by tribal governments can truly ensure a fair and equitable economic future for all Americans. We can’t do it alone, but we know we can get it done.

Sarah Hicks is director of the Policy Research Center at the National Congress of American Indians.

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