The State of Native America: Very Unemployed and Mostly Ignored

Rose Arrieta

Homes north of Round Rock on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona.

As the new year begins, it’s as good a time as any to look at a topic almost completely ignored by mainstream media: how Native American people are faring in the U.S. labor market. The economy and its paucity of jobs dominated U.S. headlines throughout 2010, but news media overlooked the particularly difficult experiences of native peoples.

In late November, the nonpartisan think tank Economic Policy Institute released a report looking at unemployment figures among American Indians. According to Algernon Austin of EPI, unemployment in Indian Country is bleak. 

For instance, the national unemployment rate among Native people spiked from 7.7 percent in the first half of 2007 to 15.2 percent in the first half of 2010. Whites experienced a 4.1 percent and 9.1 percent unemployment rate respectively, in the same time period. In his brief Different Race, Different Recession: American Indian Unemployment in 2010,” Austin writes that:

We find some of the largest disparities in employment between American Indians and whites in Alaska, the Northern Plains, and the Southwest.

These are also the regions of the country where the ratio of the Native to non-Native population is among the highest.

The unemployment numbers are different from those released by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Labor Force Report, whose sample and methodology is different than that used by EPI. The BIA bases its numbers on the American Indian and Alaska Native population that lives on or near the reservation and are eligible for BIA-funded services.

This population, however, according to Austin, is only about one-third of the total American Indian and Alaska Native population.

Austin’s report, based on statistics from Current Population Survey (CPS) data, uses the total American Indian and Alaska Native population, including biracial individuals. Here are his research’s key findings:

  • By the first half of 2010, the unemployment rate for Alaska Natives jumped 6.3 percentage points to 21.3% — the highest regional unemployment rate for American Indians.
  • Since the start of the recession, American Indians in the Midwest experienced the greatest increase in unemployment, growing by 10.3 percentage points to 19.3%.
  • By the first half of this year, slightly more than half — 51.5% — of American Indians nationally were working, down from 58.3% in the first half of 2007.
  • In the first half of this year, only 44% of American Indians in the Northern Plains were working, the worst employment rate for Native Americans regionally.
  • The employment situation is the worst for American Indians in some of the same regions where it is best for whites: Alaska and the Northern Plains.

This year, President Obama made efforts to work toward building a better relationship with native people, ordering his administration to seek the advice of native people on the best ways that federal programs and policies could serve them.

In 2010, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration’s Indian and Native American Program awarded $53 million to 178 grantees to provide employment and training services geared toward unemployed, under-employed and low-income Native American adults.

And it awarded an additional $13.8 million in grants to 78 tribes, tribal consortiums, and tribal nonprofit organizations to offer summer employment and training activities for native youth to offer basic and occupational skills training and job placement assistance.

As outlined in the 2010 White House Tribal Nations Conference Progress Report, Obama requested $55 million in his 2011 fiscal year budget for the Indian and Native American Program, which grants funding to tribes and Native American nonprofits to provide employment and training services to unemployed and low-income Native people.

That’s a 4-percent increase over fiscal year 2010. Whether it will be approved or not is another matter, of course.

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Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented — including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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