Native Americans left out of economic recovery, as always

Up until the past few weeks, there had been a lot of hoopla about a blossoming economic recovery. Job creation for the early part of the year had been averaging 200,000 a month. (Keep in mind, though, that responsible economists maintain that 345,000 jobs per month are needed for at least two years to get back to even five percent unemployment – and the latest numbers for May show only 69,000 jobs created.)

Indian America, looking at the historical record, would have found little reason to rejoice at the so-called “good economic news.” Why? Because historically, economic recovery, as a national news pundit recently said, “is growth for white America, but there will still be three times the unemployment rate for blacks and Hispanics.”

But that statistic can look good, considering that the Native American unemployment rate would be 10x greater than the white jobless rate. Indeed, as is well known in Native circles, on reservations across the nation the unemployment for Native Americans routinely ranges from 80-90 percent – and this has been the economic situation for generations. For urban Native Americans, the jobless rate averages around 48 percent. In general, Indian Country is in a permanent depression even when the national economy is on the upswing.

But once again it seems the economy was just having another false start, as in the last couple of years, and now appears at the edge of falling off the economic cliff. I cannot but take wry satisfaction in a failing recovery, a recovery that bypasses Native American misery.

The above quoted statistics of Native unemployment are years old because reservations in particular and urban Native Americans in general, incredibly, have been purposely excluded from government employment data since 2005. To cite a not atypical example, South Dakota has nine reservations, with unemployment ranging from a “low” of 12 percent on one smaller reservation to 89 percent on the largest reservation. These figures were last compiled in 2005. South Dakota’s overall unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, exclusive of reservations.

Native American joblessness is so high, it is off the charts. It is so staggering and is not compiled because to do so would be an additional stunning moral indictment of U.S. government treatment of Native Americans. The last absurd excuse given by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for not collecting American Indian employment data was that there was no money in the government budget for such compilation.

This government attitude is highlighted by the fact that as far back as 1990, in statistical tables from the U.S. Bureau of Census that contained information on American Indians, African Americans, Asian Americans and others, the category “American Indian unemployed” contained, instead of numbers, the letters MD=Missing Data. No other population had such a classification. Again, this was a shocking, clumsy attempt to hide astronomical unemployment.

The position of the Obama administration to combat joblessness in American Indian communities and others of color is that an economic recovery will uplift all the jobless; a strong, robust economy will translate into jobs for all. This simply will not work due to the institutional racism endemic in American society. The very disturbing question is who always gets the lion’s share of the jobs even when the economy is on the upswing? Whites have always received a disproportionate share of jobs.

To cite an example of who does not get the jobs: In early March, the mainstream media was touting apparent job gains, but noted that Latinos were being bypassed. The national jobless rate dropped to about 8.1 percent, but the Latino unemployment rate remained at 10.6 percent. The white jobless rate dropped to 7.9 percent. Incredibly, the media posed the question: Why the disparity? – and remarked that economists and labor experts also weren’t sure.

More absurdity: the ‘experts’ subsequently stated they simply didn’t know. Whites have always gotten the lion’s share of employment. Without massive employment programs for communities of color, this will continue. After all, white Americans have for over 200 years had their own special “jobs programs” – racism. Communities of color, in particular those of Native Americans, need affirmative action jobs programs; otherwise, “economic recovery” will do little to remedy Native American joblessness.

Photo: A Native American asks President Obama a question during the White House Tribal Nations Conference. Job-wise, Native Americans often suffer the most.   Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.