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Contraction Policy Will Cost Indian Country Thousands of Good Paying Jobs

Mark Trahant
3/7/11

Finally the economy seems to be creating jobs again. Last week a federal jobs survey showed an increase in 222,000 private sector jobs, a full year of growth that added 1.5 million jobs at companies and small businesses.

As Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers put it in his White House blog:

“The overall trajectory of the economy has improved dramatically over the past two years, but there will surely be bumps in the road ahead. The monthly employment and unemployment numbers are volatile and employment estimates are subject to substantial revision. Therefore, as the administration always stresses, it is important not to read too much into any one monthly report.”

Nonetheless there is a lot of cheering going on. A glimmer of hope. A long simmering stew about to boil. Perhaps.

But I don’t buy it and you shouldn’t either. Here is why: We are entering the Federal World of Less. The government’s policy is one of contraction, not expansion. Government spending at all levels—federal, state, city and tribal—will be less in the coming years, not more. And with that the sorry prospect that hundreds of thousands of government workers—again at all levels—will soon lose their jobs.

That process is already underway. The February jobs report shows a loss of 30,000 government sector workers. That’s the biggest number in a year, and in a trend that’s just beginning. Remember at all levels of government, none of the really draconian budget cuts have yet to hit. We are still arguing over how big the cuts in government will be.

More important: The federal government does not even have a budget at this point—so any cuts will be magnified by the short number of weeks left between now and October 1. Most of government is people, in one form or another, so that’s where most of the impact will be.

I recently saw a government grant that put this in perspective. It made the award, congratulated the recipient, then added, the money was contingent on this year’s appropriations from Congress. Yeah, right.

Of course the federal policy of contraction will have even more impact on Indian country. The Minneapolis Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank reported a few years ago (the lack of data about Indian country economics is another, huge frustration) that “over a third of jobs” from that region’s Indian reservations were government jobs, compared to about 15 percent of the country as a whole. The on-reservation private sector jobs were 44 percent, compared to nearly 80 percent for the nation as a whole.

Even the private sector in Indian country will be impacted by this policy of contraction because new construction contracts for federal jobs will likely pay workers less (at least that’s what many in the Republican leadership propose).

A contracting government sector will have far more immediate and serious consequences for those living in Indian country. This is what, a year or two from now, some smart government economist will call an “unintended consequence.” Well here is notice: This will not be an unintended consequence; it will have real impact on thousands of families across the country who work for federal or tribal governments. These are the folks (in larger society who would be called the middle-class) who pay taxes, buy houses and cars, and generally offer financial stability in communities where that’s too often in short supply.

There ought to be a strategy developed both by tribal leaders and from those in Congress so eager to cut every federal dollar about how to cushion the impact of these job losses. What about creating a special jobs mitigation fund? Or some other vehicle to help build an alternative? It’s true that Indian country has needed more jobs for a long time. But undermining the one sector where jobs are steady will lead to an even worse economic disaster.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. Trahant’s recent book, The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars,” is the story of Sen. Henry Jackson and Forrest Gerard.

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