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Frustration Surrounds New Tribal Labor Force Report

Is the 2013 Indian Population and Labor Force Report making anyone happy?

Tribal leaders and citizens have yet to say whether they are gaining anything useful from the report, which was issued in January after a long delay by the Obama Administration over apparent data collection problems.

The 151-page Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) document includes a lot of data. It generally says that there is a lot of poverty on many reservations, many Indians work for tribal, state or federal governments, and Native youth are especially having trouble finding jobs.

RELATED: Finally! Indian Country Gets Its Labor Force Report

It says precious little about what is working for some tribes, and how other tribes can copy the success stories. And it provides no data on how federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) investments in tribal reservations in 2009 and beyond actually impacted Native employment, and whether there were lasting economic impacts that would call for greater federal investment in certain areas. Congressional leaders who lambasted the lateness of the report in summer 2012 had hoped that when it was eventually released that it would at least provide a little insight on how ARRA worked—or didn’t work—for struggling tribes.

RELATED: Legal and Political Questions Surround Interior's Decision Not to Release Tribal Jobs Survey

With roots going back to 1982, the report is supposed to be a tool for both tribes and Congress, depicting the labor and employment landscape across a wide range of tribes facing a multitude of economic situations.

Congressional supporters of the rationale for the report say that tribes could ideally use the data, which is supposed to be issued every two years, to make fact-based quantitative arguments for improved federal and other assistance.

But that ideal situation is not happening, says Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), chair of the Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, and he does not think it is likely to happen given the new data in the current report.

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“The 2013 Indian Population and Labor Force Report recently released by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is far from a helpful document,” Young tells Indian Country Today Media Network. “In reality, this document has more potential to cause harm than good. What was published is essentially a reprint of unhelpful and outdated U.S. Census Bureau data, all of which was publically available prior to the release of the report.”? ?Young notes the failings of Census Bureau data collection, including the miscounting and undercounting of thousands of Alaska Natives and American Indians, are already well known.

“From what I’ve seen, the report contains huge gaps in data for many parts of Indian country and relies heavily on making estimates about tribes’ economic circumstances,” Young adds. “Additionally, the report’s labor and employment statistics are not accurate metrics for providing a realistic picture of the actual circumstances in Native communities.”? ?Young believes that Alaska Native and American Indian communities will actually suffer if agencies use this report for making policy decisions or determining how best to allocate federal resources meant to support programs in Indian country.

Young’s view is representative of other Congress members focused on Indian affairs who want the report to be doing more than the current one. Retired Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) echoed Young’s concerns in July 2012 when the report was gaining attention for being long overdue. “It is crucial to have an accurate record of employment statistics in order to best assess need and to appropriate financial resources to tribes,” Akaka then said. “Understanding the current economic outlook will better help us to put forth legislation that will increase economic development and job creation in Indian country.”

RELATED: Congress Investigating Interior on Missing Tribal Job Reports That Broke Law

One of the reasons the BIA cited for the long delay surrounding the current report – the last of which highlighted 2005 tribal data—is that they wanted it to be better than previous ones. “When we are able to release something, I am confident that it will be far more accurate than any report we’ve ever released before on this issue,” Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn told ICTMN in August 2013 when asked why the report still had not been released.
The new report may be more accurate, but it is still a source of frustration, BIA leadership concedes.

“Our economist did the best he could with imperfect data,” Washburn says. “We are neither the U.S. Census Bureau, nor the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those agencies both exist and we do not believe Indian country wants us to become them. We are not a statistical agency. Our primary mission is to provide services to tribes.”

Washburn, hearing the critiques of Young, says it was a tough situation. “We hired [the economist] to help Indian Affairs make more accurate (and therefore hopefully more compelling) budget submissions to Congress,” he says. “However, the economist was hijacked from this equally important task and reassigned to help with the labor force and population report in hopes of making it more accurate than in the past.”

On why the ARRA tribal outlook was not covered in the report, Washburn cites the limited resources of his agency. “The fact is that we had only one economist working on this, and I believe that it would have taken a battery of economists to produce an analysis of all the effects of ARRA,”’ he says. “It was hard enough simply trying to gather the labor and population data for 566 tribes in twelve BIA regions. Moreover, the requirement for the report was enacted with the 477 law, many years before ARRA. The data was not intended to show anything about ARRA. The report simply has no relation to ARRA.” 

Washburn also suggests that Congress should re-evaluate whether it is wise to have the BIA and, in turn, tribes shoulder the costs of this biannual report. “A tribal administrator with the Citizen Band of Potawatomi told me in a public meeting that it would cost her tribe $500,000 to do everything the tribe needs to do to accurately report labor and employment data for this report,” he says. “That is one out of 566 tribes. I do not feel that the 477 law was intended to impose such costs on tribes.”

Washburn also says he doubts that Congress intended the BIA to bear such costs, but he adds that his agency plans to issue the next report on time, in accordance with the law.