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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

A new report by the U.S. Congress explores “persistent structural barriers” that limit economic opportunity in Indigenous communities.

“Across metrics of economic well-being, Native Americans are disproportionately underserved, economically vulnerable and limited in their access pathways to building wealth,” according to a report by the Joint Economic Committee, a body that includes both members of the U.S. Senate and House.

“These long standing inequities have left Native communities much more vulnerable than their counterparts to the negative impact of economic shocks and public health crises.”

The report, “Native American Communities Continue to Face Barriers to Opportunity that Stifle Economic Mobility,” was released Friday morning.

The report “puts a lot of the socio-economic conditions of Native Americans, Alaska Natives, American Indians, in perspective,” said Randall Akee, one of the authors of the report and an associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles. Akee is Native Hawaiian. “And it really does a great job of summarizing a number of different outcomes, a number of different domains, and puts it into a language that's digestible and understandable for, you know, a broad swath of the population so that it's not … caught up in jargonistic-type terms.”

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The report looked at barriers in health, education, getting jobs, and other disparities in the labor market. The report found that Native American households and businesses also struggle to access credit and financing on equal terms with other Americans, hindering the growth of these enterprises and the creation of household wealth.

“Expanding economic well-being and mobility for Native Americans will require keeping up with trust and treaty obligations and a broad basket of proactive structural solutions,” the report said.

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The Democrats on the Joint Committee said in a news release that more needs to be done to improve economic conditions. Republicans, led by Vice Chairman Mike Lee, a Senator from Utah, are members of the Joint Economic Committee but did not comment on the content of the report.

The Joint Committee’s chairman, Rep. Don Byer, D-Virgina, said Congress must do more to promote an economy that works for all. “As this report underscores, there is much more to be done to remove structural barriers and ensure all Native American communities can contribute to — and benefit from — economic growth,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, D-Kansas, speaks with President Joe Biden at the White House for the signing of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization of 2022. (Photo courtesy of the office of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids)

“This report from the Joint Economic Committee shows how closely related issues of health, economic stability, housing, and education truly are,” said Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, a Democrat from Kansas who serves on the committee. “To address the pervasive wealth gap that Native American families face, we must think broadly about lowering barriers to homeownership, increasing educational opportunities, and improving access to health care.”

For example, the lack of health insurance and economic inequality has resulted in worse health outcomes.

“Combined with the chronic underfunding of tribal health care and restricted access to hospitals and grocery stores, this has led to disproportionately high rates of chronic health conditions among Native communities,” the report said. “Throughout the pandemic, Native Americans have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and death than their white counterparts.”

The Democrats on the committee said that the next steps involve several public policy tools, starting with President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which includes an investment of more than $31 billion into tribal communities, the largest federal investment in Indian Country ever.

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Akee said the report puts a lot of the data out there in a way that advocates can use to shape policy.

For example, both tribal governments and enterprises were hit hard during the pandemic.

“This caused a crucial revenue source for tribes to disappear, such that in the fall of 2020, over half of tribally owned enterprises reported revenue losses of more than 20%. As a result, enterprises have fewer revenues to allocate to tribal governments, which results in cuts to essential community services,” the Joint Economic Committee found. “In a survey of tribal governments, 75% responded that they had been forced to reduce services related to economic development because of falling revenue streams.”

Akee and other researchers are exploring the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Communities closed off, reservations as well as counties or cities, municipalities,” said Akee. “And the dramatic change that occurred in these communities … sort of going less to grocery stores and more to convenience stores, and what that might have meant in the short and, maybe even longer terms” when considering the impact from COVID.

We are still learning what happened. Casinos closed, revenues dropped, and at the same time there was a child tax credit and new federal dollars designated for tribal communities.

“I don't think we've gotten the data yet to do a real good assessment of the positive impacts that have come from these other sorts of these investments. And I think some of them still haven't come to fruition, some of this infrastructure stuff that's also cited here. I think we're going to see that, you know, in years to come.”

The committee also cited the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, including $11 billion for tribal entities, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act with some $3 billion in funding for the Tribal Transportation Program, $3.5 billion for the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program, and another $2 billion in spending for broadband connectivity.

Data released by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress on May 13, 2022, shows a wealth gap between Native and White Americans.

The creation of wealth is a huge topic in the report. It said that the typical White family has more than twice the wealth of a typical Native American family. “Because wealth serves as an enabler of economic opportunity, this disadvantage translates into other inequities in housing and beyond,” the report said. “Despite a strong preference for homeownership, a smaller share of Native households own homes today than in 2000.”

Native households are disproportionately harmed by lack of access to banking services, and they are more likely to be underbanked than any other minority group in the United States. Similarly, Native entrepreneurs are more likely to face barriers to obtaining credit, and report a greater reliance on informal banking financing, like credit cards, for business startup and growth.

One reason for the disparity in home ownership and wealth is the lack of access to credit. The Joint Committee said Native American households are more likely to be “unbanked” and suggested expanding access to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to help facilitate more access to credit.

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And, the report found, even when private capital reaches Native Americans, they are more likely to pay a high premium that limits their ability to accumulate equity and build wealth. The Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis finds that loans with Native Americans as the primary borrower have an average interest rate that is nearly 2 percentage points above the average loan for non-Native Americans.

That study found that growing up on Native tribal reservations with reduced access to banking is equivalent to a significantly lower likelihood of having a credit report, lower credit scores and a loss in annual earnings of $6,000.

The report identified other persistent conditions such as poverty and health disparities. It said federal efforts to provide health care, in exchange for tracts of land, has “fallen short.”

“The Indian Health Service (IHS) is consistently and chronically underfunded with the capacity to spend $3,333 per user on average compared to $9,404 for the Department of Veterans Affairs and $12,744 for Medicare,” the report said. “Unlike other federal health programs, IHS does not receive advance appropriations, making it difficult to plan long-term health infrastructure such as facility improvements and health professional recruitment and retention. This lack of funding coupled with the fact that tribal communities tend to be in rural, remote or isolated locations, has led to a devastating and dangerous lack of access to hospitals and adequate health care.”

Nearly half of those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone are not covered by either public or private health insurance, a rate higher than that of almost every other group, the report said.

Data released by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress on May 13, 2022, shows a employment gap between Native and White Americans.

Other key findings:

  • Approximately one in six Native American families lives below the poverty level.
  • In March 2022, just 59 percent of Native Americans aged 16 and older were participating in the labor force (employed or searching for work) compared to 62 percent of all individuals.
  • Native Americans are much less likely than their non-Native peers to graduate from high school or attend college.

“Economic success depends not only on whether an individual received an education but on whether they got a good enough education to lead to a well-paying career,” the report said. “In recent decades, the economic returns to education have increased substantially, and more education is becoming more frequently needed to achieve a basic level of financial success.”

The hunt for data

One building block that’s often missing from economic development in Indigenous communities is data. A report this week from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis says the lack of high quality data stands in the way of economic progress and tribes’ ability to implement effective public policy.

“Unfortunately, individuals, businesses, and policymakers in Indian Country don’t have the same quantity and quality of data that are available elsewhere,” the Federal Reserve said in the report, “An urgent priority: Accurate and timely Indian Country data.”

The report points out three data challenges: inadequate sample sizes, mismatched geographies, and unique data characteristics. The problem of sample size is often a reason for data erasure, resulting in an “asterisk” to mask the uncertainty from a small population base. Then there is the problem with geography, matching tribal nations and communities with economic activity that might be just outside those boundaries.

Perhaps the most important question might be the third challenge: What information does Indian Country need?

“For example, many tribal governments own and operate enterprises that simultaneously shape regional economic activity and provide much of tribal governments’ fiscal resources,” the Fed report said.

“Another unique feature of Indian Country is the importance of tribal affiliation and enrollment — two designations that are often not indicated in existing surveys. And tribal communities may care about measures that reflect Indigenous understandings of well-being and economic success but are typically not recorded in data, like proficiency in a Native language or tribal definitions of Indigenous wealth.”

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. Email: marktrahant@ictnews.org On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.


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