Labor Day and Native American Employment Disparities

Yesterday, Americans celebrated Labor Day – a public holiday that honors American labor and the work of individuals that supports the economic development, prosperity and well-being of our country. This holiday also reminds us to consider how Native Americans fare in the U.S. labor market.

While the current employment rate in the U.S. is more than 60 percent, job and income disparities on Native American reservations have always existed, and not much has changed in recent years. The numbers speak for themselves. The unemployment and impoverishment levels on reservations can be traced to federal policies impacting socio-economic conditions.

Unemployment exceeds 40 percent on some Native American reservations. More specifically, two thirds of the 27 counties with a majority Native American population have higher unemployment rates than the national average. Many of these counties are in North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska. And in certain communities such as on the Pine Ridge Reservation, unemployment can exceed 80 percent.

Contrary to widespread belief, casinos do not employ all Native Americans, not all are as profitable as one might expect, and not all tribes operate casinos. Housing shortages also create additional problems. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has reported a lack of funding to build enough homes for Native Americans, despite U.S. treaties and agreements with tribes. As an example, a 1,500 square-foot home that may be suitable for a family of four in mainstream America often houses several generations on a reservation.

Unemployment also goes hand in hand with impoverishment. In fact, more than 30 percent of Americans who were unemployed in 2017 lived in poverty. Unfortunately, this is all too common in Indian Country and understandably so, considering the lack of jobs and access to other opportunities for economic independence. With the remote location of many reservation communities, transportation is also critical to finding work. A known contributing factor is the lack of access to capital or credit for on-reservation citizens. “Credit deserts” as they are called have resulted in rampant predatory lending companies preying on Native citizens.

These conditions set up a daunting, vicious cycle for Native Americans… because long-standing unemployment means poverty, which often means lack of access to education for the next generation, which typically leads to lower wages and fewer career opportunities, and therefore a higher likelihood of unemployment.

As more employers invest in diverse and inclusive workplaces, we hope they will consider contributing to the economic development and progress of Native Americans to foster a new generation of American labor and build a brighter future for all Americans.

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