Bill Aims to Ease Economic Disparities for Native Americans

Congressional Democrats are taking steps to tackle the wealth disparities among Native Americans, who have largely been ignored by the federal government. The Indian Community and Economic Enhancement Act of 2019 was proposed by Representatives Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as a means of reducing “persistent poverty and unemployment that plague Indian County.”

“Across the country, Native American entrepreneurs are ready to start new businesses, create jobs, and lift up their communities,” Torres said in a press release. “For too long, lack of access to credit and community development have hampered tribes’ entrepreneurial spirit. This bill is a first step to change that.”

Native Americans, particularly those living on tribal lands, have dealt with rampant systemic poverty. A staggering number of Native Americans and Alaska Natives were living at or below the poverty line, according to a 2014 report by the Pew Research Center.The United States Census Bureau found that the median household income for American Indians is $39,719 — well below the national average of $56,617.

In 2017, one in three Native American children lived in poverty — a number unchanged since 2015, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That report indicated that Native Americans were the “only ethnic or racial group where child poverty did not go down this year,” even as poverty rates in African Americans and Hispanic Americans fell.

Part of the reason poverty is so high is because Native American lands often lack the infrastructure to provide well-paying jobs. Unemployment rates can reach as high as 85 percent in some areas, according to Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to serving American Indians on and off tribal lands. They continued:

Existing jobs are found mainly within the tribal government, Bureau of Indian Affairs, state social services, the school systems, and the Indian Health Service (IHS) Hospital. Additionally, years of failed government policies have left reservation economies with limited economic opportunity. The government placed reservations in areas away from fertile land, population centers, water supplies, and other vital resources, compounding economic challenges with geographic isolation.

“We all know that economic development is key to self-determination, but often times the system doesn’t work for Native communities. So, we’re introducing a bill to create more paths to success to jump-start economic development in Indian Country,” Haaland said.

There are numerous areas in which development in Native American lands could benefit from investment. Running Strong notes that Native Americans have the lowest employment rate; in some areas, only one in three Native Americans have year-round, full-time employment. And it starts with education; less than half of Native Americans in some areas graduate from high school, and Native Americans have not seen improvements in reading and math scores.

Native Americans are unable to build wealth in the ways that others are. As Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote in the Institute for Family Studies, “reservation land is held in trust by the federal government, which means that Indians cannot buy homes, take out loans, start businesses, sell property or do a variety of other things the way most Americans can. They need a bureaucrat’s permission to perform the simplest economic transactions.”

Native Americans living on tribal lands also lack physical protections and suffer from violence. A disproportionate amount of that violence is perpetrated by non-Native Americans who have, until recently, been seemingly insulated from prosecution for many crimes committed on tribal lands due to legal challenges.

The Native American population is an important part of the United States. The Native American population is more than 100,000 in 21 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, according to the Census Bureau. In total, there are more than 841,000 Native American families in the United States, belonging to 567 tribes and living on 326 federally recognized tribal lands.

About the Author

Jeremy Binckes is an experienced writer and editor who has reported on news, politics, culture and sports. He was most recently a news editor at Salon, and he has written articles for a number of publications.