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Data or Delusion?

Last week I was vigorously working to meet a deadline for a grant application (as many of us living in the nonprofit world spend a lot of our time doing), and I was completely baffled by some of the economic statistics I looked up for my community, the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation. The Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation, about the size of Connecticut, is composed of Ziebach and Dewey counties and is located in North Central South Dakota. For this grant application I was required to rely on economic data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in order to meet the Distressed Community criteria in the application. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ziebach County has a 5.5 percent unemployment rate—only 0.6 percent higher than the state average and well under the national average. Knowing that Ziebach County is the poorest county in America with a 62 percent poverty rate and Dewey County follows closely behind, how could this be? And just how was I going to show that we needed this grant to help our local economy using these statistics that contradict each other so extremely?

The reality is that locally, we have more than 2,000 people looking to improve their lives and build assets through the training, technical assistance, and lending programs offered by Four Bands Community Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that I am responsible for operating. Most of these clients are low income, low wage earners or the “chronically unemployed” who no longer register in anyone’s unemployment database, yet do make up part of that 62 percent poverty figure. That’s where Native CDFIs, like Four Bands, can help.

In the past decade, we have been working at developing our local economy and improving the quality of life for our community members through financial education, entrepreneur development, and implementing lending programs. We have made great progress by: (1) making 300 loans totaling more than $2.3 million; (2) providing business training to 302 entrepreneurs; (3) providing business technical assistance to 1,917 individuals; and (4) helping start or expanding 100 businesses. Through culturally appropriate approaches, we and 58 other Native CDFIs across the country help Indians to break the cycle of dependency and begin a life of self-sufficiency. The small steps we take every day for the last 10-plus years has led to progress on a larger scale.

For example, the U.S. Census indicates that Dewey County has experienced a 22 percent increase in median household income over the last decade and Ziebach County has seen a 15 percent increase. Shannon County, located within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Lakota Funds (another Native CDFI) operates, has seen a 7 percent increase.

Despite the uptick, we cannot yet say our problems of generational poverty, high unemployment, and poor living conditions are solved. Also, data generated at the federal level doesn’t correspond to what we know to be true. According to local data our unemployed residents collecting General Assistance through the Bureau of Indian Affairs are not included in our counties’s or state’s unemployment rate. In fact, our local data suggests a unemployment rate in the 80 percent range.

I have come to the conclusion that national data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics is skewed. Therefore, I rely on other factors that indicate progress. For example, Cheyenne River youth have won statewide business plan competitions for three consecutive years. This coincides with the launch of Making Waves, a program designed to integrate concepts of financial literacy and entrepreneurship into the K-12 classrooms of our five reservation schools since 2008.

I believe that it is more than coincidence that our young people are embracing these concepts and being recognized as leaders. And, despite median household income numbers that are still two to three times below national averages, Native CDFIs are excited about the recent upward trend and believe that it is more than a coincidence that our people have started bringing home more money since these programs have been available.

Even though we are seeing progress, changing decades of generational poverty is a slow process. I believe the work of Native CDFIs is reversing that trend. We are seeing a renewal of our traditional Native values of wise resource management and entrepreneurship. In this line of work I see individuals determined to build assets for themselves and their families. A younger generation is embracing entrepreneurial ideas and leading the way out of poverty into prosperity.

Tanya Fiddler, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal member, is the Executive Director of Four Bands Community Fund and the founding co-chair of the Native CDFI Network. She has been working in the Native community and economic development field for more than 15 years.