Elections 2012: Employing Indian Country

Elections 2012: Employing Indian Country

Mark Trahant
9/10/12

Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney would like this election to be about one topic: jobs.

Romney’s been blasting away on this topic. Before the Democratic National Convention he decried President Barack Obama’s record on job creation. Then, hours after the Democratic National Convention ended, there was more of the same bolstered by a new jobs report that showed 12.5 million Americans unemployed and only 96,000 new net jobs were added during August.

But what do these numbers mean to Indian country and has President Obama been a factor either way?

The first question is tough to answer. Impossible, actually.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep track of the Native American Labor Force. We’re less than one percent and merit little more than an “other” category. The problem is that gathering the information because the population cohort is so small would be quite costly.

For many years the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) used its own reporting system. But as Indian Country Today Media Network’s Rob Capriccioso pointed out, the BIA hasn’t done that since 2005. The BIA’s last report said unemployment was at 49 percent nationally (showing South Dakota with the highest unemployment rate at 83 percent of the adult workforce). However the BIA’s methodology is different from any other employment report. Its numbers are based on reports from tribes only using the enrolled membership that lives on or near a reservation and is eligible for BIA services. This population total is about one-third of that reported by the Census Bureau.

Another difference is the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey only counts people who are actively looking for work, a restriction that was not a part of the BIA screening of the data.

We do know from Census and other data that Indian country has the highest unemployment level of any group. A 2010 study by the Economic Policy Institute pegged that rate at above 15 percent and in the Dakotas region just under 20 percent.

But that was two years ago. We have no data driven answer to the question, “is it better or worse under Obama?”

But what about Romney? He’s promising 12 million jobs in his first term. That sounds huge – and some of those jobs would have to turn up in Indian country, right?

Well, no. As The Washington Post’s fact-checker points out a real recovery would result in 12 million jobs over the next four years, no matter who wins.

Any job creation in Indian country in a Romney-Ryan administration would be off-set by the reduction in government funding and direct jobs as part of the drive to balance the budget.

One aspect of the Romney plan would be increased production of oil and gas. Last month Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in New Town, North Dakota, was quoted in the Minot Daily News as saying the tribes’ unemployment rate had dropped from a high of 70 percent. “These days our unemployment is at an all-time low of 6 or 7 percent. In much of Indian country unemployment levels that low are unheard of,” Hall was quoted saying. He said many of the jobs being created were because tribal members started 900 new enterprises to serve the oil and gas industry. Hall said each of those jobs added between four and 24 jobs, a total topping 10,000 jobs. But as Harold Monteau wrote in Indian Country Today Media Network while the boom is creating jobs and wealth, it’s also the seed of a humanitarian crisis.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

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