Legal and Political Questions Surround Interior’s Decision Not to Release Tribal Jobs Survey

A long-awaited survey by the U.S. Department of the Interior on tribal jobs will not be released this year, even though federal law requires regular reporting on such matters.

A long-awaited survey by the U.S. Department of the Interior on tribal jobs will not be released this year, even though federal law requires regular reporting on such matters.

Tribal leaders learned on July 2 that Interior is withholding a major “Labor Force Report” due to what the agency calls “methodology inconsistencies.” The problem was partially explained in a letter from Acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Donald Laverdure to tribal leaders. It says federally recognized tribes were asked in 2010 to participate in a web-based survey on population and employment statistics in order to provide the Department the information it needed to issue a report on tribal job and labor statistics. It does not indicate if every tribe participated.

The survey, which has roots going back to 1982, is important because it is supposed to depict the labor and employment landscape across a wide range of tribes facing a multitude of economic situations. Ideally, those tribes that are most poverty-stricken are identified so that they can receive help, while others with strong economies can offer insights on possible remedies and best practices. Tribes could use the data to make strong arguments to the U.S. Congress and Obama administration for targeted assistance that could make the most impact.

The report would also track the impact of the more than $3 billion the Obama administration provided to tribes under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 in an attempt to bolster tribal economies. That the administration hasn’t rushed to quantify this—especially in an election year—is a warning sign to some tribal observers that perhaps the money didn’t help the tribes that were struggling most.

The official explanation to tribal leaders for the missing report doesn’t touch on this troubling possibility. “Regrettably, the decision not to release the Labor Force Report is rooted in the survey methodology,” Laverdure wrote. “The collected data from those 2010 methods did not adequately meet the standards of quality and reliability that are requested of Federal agencies in reporting official statistics…. Upon review of the data provided by tribes, the Department did not provide clear direction to obtain the specific information requested in the survey,” according to the letter, which laid the blame on “historically driven” difficulties in gathering population and employment statistics on American Indians and Alaska Natives. Indeed, it has often been difficult for researchers at higher education institutions and Census keepers to access and assess data on tribes, but the federal government, particularly Interior, has had a unique relationship with tribes for two centuries, so its inability to quantify the labor situation of the reservations it has a trust responsibility for overseeing is confounding to some observers.

The letter stated that the Interior Department will devote “more expertise in these areas,” so that a problem like this does not arise again; however, there is reason for skepticism regarding this promise. A September 2008 notice published by Interior in the Federal Register says that a similar problem was discovered in reference to data collected by the Department for an Indian jobs report that was supposed to be published in 2009, but never materialized: “The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] believes that many of the reporting issues may be the result of misunderstanding of how to fill out this data submission form,” according to the notice provided by Interior that time around.

The 2008 Federal Register notice added that the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development had “examined the data collection process and is hoping to address a truer depiction of tribal enrollment and BIA service population in Indian country.” Apparently, officials didn’t properly address those issues and the problem persists.

Why it has been so difficult for the data to be collected for the last two reports is a question that the current Interior Department has yet to fully answer.

In his letter, Laverdure said the latest survey findings based on the flawed methodology “will not be released,” but that the data “collected are extremely valuable as information that will lead toward the development of a better survey and report.” He also indicated that a new survey is being developed to meet the standards of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but he did not offer a timeframe for when a new report will be issued. His mention of OMB is interesting because if the survey was spiked by Interior due to internal agency concerns on methodology, as the letter states, why is the Interior Department now seeking OMB’s approval? Interior has not offered comment on that issue to date.

Laverdure did mention a future report. “The next survey will be designed through extensive consultation with tribal leaders, other offices in the Department, the Bureau of the Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other Federal agencies,” he wrote. “The survey’s new design will provide background explanations of the questions to allow for a more comprehensive understating of tribal populations and employment data.”

His letter said Interior started seeking comments on a “preliminary revision of the survey questions” in the Federal Register on May 29, 2012. It asked for comments on the survey to be directed to Steven Payson, an economist with the department, at Steven.Payson@bia.gov. When Payson came to the department about a year ago, his addition was heralded by officials there as a beacon for improved tribal research and analysis.

Timing is important here because the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 requires the Secretary of the Interior “to develop, maintain and publish, not less than biennially, a report on the population by gender, income level, age, and availability for work.”

The last such report available on Interior’s website is dated 2005 and was released in 2007, which means a new report from the Interior Department is five years overdue. In fact, the Obama administration has not issued a single Indian jobs report, despite spending billions of dollars in Indian country on projects that were supposed to create more jobs there. Previous presidential administrations going back to Reagan all issued multiple Indian labor reports.

Interior Department spokesperson Nedra Darling confirmed on July 3 that the last such report was released in 2007, adding, “We are working very hard to get the next issue of the American Indian Population and Labor Force Report out in 2013.” Despite being asked twice about the lack of compliance with the law, she did not comment on that issue.

After reviewing Laverdure’s letter and the law, Dante Desiderio, executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association, said that “severe unemployment” in many parts of Indian country “makes it pressing that the Department of Interior do everything it can to comply with the act and provide accurate data. At the very least, the Department of Interior should ensure tribal governments are not harmed by the lack of data available.”

Tribal leaders and officials are peeved that the Interior Department gave them an (apparently) flawed survey, and then took over two years to notice—which led to yet another delay on a report that is eagerly anticipated in Indian country, and has bearing on an important topic that has many ramifications in the upcoming elections.

Joseph Valandra, a tribal economic consultant and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission, says it is quite disappointing to not have the report at a time when population and labor statistics are playing a major role in U.S. legislative funding determinations. “Tribal leaders need as much information as possible to make the case and defend funding levels in this time of decreasing resources,” he said.

Valandra also said that it is important to know if the unreleased report would have been consistent with previous reports that have shown high tribal unemployment levels, and if even the flawed data would be helpful for tribal leaders. “Perhaps it could be published with a note indicating the concerns indicated in the letter,” he said, adding that if there is going to be a change to methodology and process going forward, it would be useful to fully explain those changes so that previous reports remain useful. “A new baseline without [points of comparison] is not helpful to tribal leaders,” he said.

“The impact seems to be that problems in Indian country are misunderstood and, as a result, the task of dealing with them gets shelved,” added Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker and chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission. “When the government compiles reports detailing unemployment and workforce statistics for urban, suburban, and rural areas, those areas tend to get federal and state resources. A misunderstanding of what and where the problems and successes are in Indian country almost always results in wildly inaccurate assessments along the lines of ‘all Indians are poor’ or ‘all Indians are rich because of casinos.’

“There is a truth out there, and the sooner we know what it is, the more quickly tribal, federal, and state leaders will be able to bring better tools, policies, and resources to bear on solving the problems in Indian country,” Stearns added.