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American Indian Unemployment – From Bad to Worse in Recession

New America Media, News Report, Annette Fuentes Posted: Dec 10, 2009

Already grappling with historically high rates of unemployment, American Indians, on and off reservations, are seeing even higher rates due to the country’s two-year long economic downturn, according to a new survey.

In the last half of 2007, just before the economy began its downward spiral, unemployment averaged 7.8 percent for Native Americans. In the first half of 2009, it had climbed to 13.6 percent, an average that masks even sharper differences in various regions of the country.

“A big deal was made a couple of months ago when the unemployment rate reached double digits. But Native Americans reached double digits last year,” said Algernon Austin, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

The report Austin authored, “American Indians and the Great Recession: Economic Disparities Growing Larger,” is the first of its kind because it is based on the Current Population Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most data on Native unemployment derives from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but that is collected every two years and only counts those living on or near reservations.

“Our numbers are quite different from the BIA,” he said. “We’re looking at a much larger population, including multiracial people.”

Unemployment rates are assessed by region in the report and give a more nuanced look at the widespread problem among American Indians, for whom joblessness is deeply entrenched. The southern plains region, which includes Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, had the lowest unemployment rate for Native Americans at 8.9 percent in the first half of 2009. That reflected just a 2.4 percent rise during the recession.

The southeast region--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia--had the second lowest rate at 10.9 percent, a 3.5 percent rise.

But the western region, encompassing Hawaii, California, Oregon and Washington, went from lowest to highest unemployment among American Indians, soaring from 6.4 percent to 18.7 percent in the same time period.

Meanwhile, Alaska, with proportionally the largest population of Native Americans, has seen little change in its unemployment rate, which was already the highest of any region at 14.8 percent. It was 15 percent in the first half of this year.

That isn’t news to Alaskan Native organizations.

“The story with Alaska in the recession is that we are lagging the rest of the United States,” said Kristin English, chief operating officer of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which provides social services and job training programs. “Our overall unemployment spike-up was about a year after the lower 48 spike, so it’s fair to say we don’t know the impact yet. Our economy is a little bit isolated, so we’re really expecting that number to go up.”

English said that the recession is stressing an already stressed population of Natives, especially in remote villages where fuel prices are going up and the heat is on all the time. “It’s a hardship that sends people to Anchorage looking for a cheaper cost of living,” she said. “We’re finding a lot of people underestimate what it takes to get the first and last month rent.”

While the report is a grim accounting of endemic joblessness among American Indians, it also provides critical data just as the Obama administration is preparing new strategies for creating jobs. Having regional profiles of American Indians’ employment status will help direct federal funding to those areas most in need, says Jackie Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group.

Pata’s group encouraged the Economic Policy Institute to undertake its survey of unemployment among American Indians to make sure they are included in emerging federal jobs policies.

“This report is a valuable contribution on a very timely issue for Native communities,” Pata said. “It is a first step in addressing the lack of reliable unemployment data to guide tribal and federal policymaking. By shining a light on the urgent need for jobs in Indian country, this data demonstrates the need for significant investments in tribal governments as a part of the jobs bill.”

In California, part of the region with highest Native unemployment, the Sustainable Nations Development Project is undaunted by the current downturn. It sees possibilities in federally funded job creation in its work with the Yurok and Pomo tribes in the northern part of the state. The Yurok tribe recently invested in a sustainable fishing project and cannery and is evaluating new renewable energy projects, said PennElys GoodShield, director of the organization, located in Trinidad, Humboldt County.

“We’ve had unemployment for a long time,” said GoodShield. “This is a great opportunity with stimulus funding coming down. It’s an opportunity for tribes to do development in line with their traditions.”

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