The problem with these job statistics for Indians, however, is that they are averages for the nation. In states with the largest Indian populations—Arizona, Alaska, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Montana and Oklahoma—the unemployment rate for the whole population is lower than the national rate of 7.2 percent for all Americans, while the rate for tribally enrolled Indians is much higher than the overall rate for Indians.
But nobody knows just how much higher. That's because neither the Bureau of Indian Affairs nor the Bureau of Labor Statistics does a thorough job of regularly collecting employment statistics on the reservations. In fact, the BIA screwed up its last assessment in 2010, so the most recent official unemployment figures we have for reservations—such as Pine Ridge in South Dakota and Fort Berthold in North Dakota—date back to 2005.
At that time, the BIA put the overall unemployment rate of working-age American Indians in tribal service areas—which extend to Indians outside of but near reservation boundaries—at 49 percent. Of those who were employed, 29 percent earned income below the federal poverty line. Unofficial statistics now put the joblessness rate at Pine Ridge at 80 percent; at Fort Berthold, it is 26 percent.
And yet South Dakota's overall unemployment rate, as determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for August 2013—the latest figure available—was 3.8 percent, and North Dakota's was 3.0 percent. Those figures are so low in great part because of the oil boom associated with the Bakken formation. In fact, North Dakota led the nation for the fourth year in a row in the Gallup Organization's Job Creation Index. In the Bakken boom counties, joblessness at the beginning of 2013 was a stunning 1.7 percent. But few Indians are hired for those jobs. However, unlike Pine Ridge, the Three Affiliated Tribes at Fort Berthold are getting millions of dollars from oil leases, with all the attendant problems that boom areas suffer. So far that money hasn't even paid off the tribes' huge debt.
More analysis can be found below the fold.
While the jobless rate on the nation's reservations isn't well measured, the poverty rate is. And that tells the real story. Nationally, the poverty rate for tribally enrolled Indians is 27 percent. South Dakota has the highest Indian rate at 48.3 percent and North Dakota is at 41.6 percent. But those aren't the only states with overwhelmingly high Indian poverty rates: Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Arizona, and Utah are all above 31 percent.
It should never be forgotten that all those numbers represent people. The lack of jobs and poverty creates or worsens all the other problems people may have.
EPI's Austin poses a partial solution that the institute has pointed out would help other people of color:
Indian Country, like the United States generally, has large unfilled infrastructure needs. Robust infrastructure investments could put millions of Americans of all races back to work, and in particular, these investments would help stimulate a much-needed economic recovery for Native Americans.Such an infrastructure stimulus with its good jobs is, of course, something that many left-of-center activists have been seeking for a long time. Upgrading railroads, public transit and drinking and wastewater facilties, building rural wi-fi, ultra-high voltage transmission lines, green schools and low-cost housing, renovating the nation's 70,000 substandard bridges and dams, levees and hazardous waste facilities, and modernizing its ports and waterways would create more jobs, long-lasting jobs, than five more rounds of the Federal Reserve's quantitative easing.
Making sure the reservations' special infrastructure needs are met should be high on policymakers' priority list of such a stimulus. And the best way for that to happen is to actually do something few in positions of authority have been willing to do in the past: actually listen to Indians.
But, sadly, this is all pie in the sky.
Investing federal dollars in a program of rebuilding, upgrading and innovating infrastructure is something the current gridlock in Washington makes impossible. Which leaves millions of Americans of all colors out of work, or working at poorly paid jobs, whether they live on a reservation in a trailer or in an urban apartment. We can do better. But too few of our leaders seem to want to.