The Economic Reality of Native Americans and the Need for Immediate Repair

As we celebrate and recognize Native American Heritage Month this November, it is vital to acknowledge their growing population, socio-economic challenges and advancements in comparison to other ethnic groups. Ten years ago, the report, “Challenges to Native American Advancement: The Recession and Native America,” was released to shed light on the economic challenges of a population too often ignored. Ten years later, we see there is still too little written about the socio-economic reality of this land’s first peoples and how racial economic inequality affects Native Americans.  

There is a false perception that Native Americans are people of the past, with only remnants living on reservations. However, according to the World Population Review, the current total population of Native Americans in the United States is 6.97 million, which is drastically higher than the population of 500,000 in 1960. In regards to reservations, the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data indicated that only 20% of American Indians and Alaska Native alone-or-in combination lived on them. For instance, the largest Native American populations are found in urban centers such as New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oklahoma City and Anchorage. Alaska and New Mexico are the states with the highest percentage of Native Americans at about 14% and 9% of total population, while Oklahoma and Arizona are the states with the largest overall Native American populations of 276,650 and 266,680.  

It is also important to understand the socio-economic status of Native Americans and how this compares to other populations such as African Americans, Hispanics and Whites. In too many measures, Native Americans have the lowest socio-economic indicators. The 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported that the unemployment rate among Native Americans was 6.6%, aligning closely to the percentage of African Americans at 6.5%, but lagging far behind Hispanics at 4.7%, and Whites at 3.5%. Native Americans have a poverty rate of 25%, over 3 times the poverty rate of White Americans. Despite increases in educational attainment over the last 25 years, Native Americans have the lowest educational achievement rates in comparison to other national racial and ethnic groups, with only 14% of Native Americans having a bachelor’s degree or higher. To learn more about the socio-economic status of Native Americans, see NCRC’s Native American Racial Wealth Divide Snapshot. 

What is clear about the current socio-economic status of Native Americans is that their disenfranchisement is not only a part of U.S. history but a present-day reality that reminds us that as a nation we have not overcome our past and present sins. It is far past time that the United States take dramatic action to be inclusive of Native American people, whose lands served as the basis for what is today the wealthiest country in the world. 

The previously mentioned report, “Challenges to Native American Advancement: The Recession and Native America,” highlights five pathways to target Native American economic advancement. These pathways were:

  1. Improve Native Amerian census data collection, 
  2. Increase Native American federal aid, 
  3. Overhaul the Indian Health Service, 
  4. Channel federal and state funds through tribal government, 
  5. Target Native American job creation. 

These policies, along with the type of policy overhaul highlighted in “Ten Policy Solutions To Bridge the Racial Wealth Divide,” are what is required to truly honor the indigenous peoples of this country and address the wrongs perpetrated against them to this day.  

Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is the Chief of Race, Wealth, and Community at NCRC.  

Kathy Ramirez is a NCRC Race, Wealth and Community intern.

Photo by Sandro Cenni on Unsplash.

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