A special agent overlooks the Shiprock land formation on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. The reservation, the largest in the country, is one of about 200 federally recognized Indian reservations where the FBI has investigative responsibilities.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty and Crime in Indian Country

Duane Champagne

Poverty is a root cause of crime, and without solving the poverty issue it may not be possible to solve the violent crime issues plaguing Indian reservations. Where there are high rates of poverty, so there are high rates of crime. The official poverty rate for individual Indians in the United States on reservations is 29.4 percent, compared to the U.S. national average of 15.3 percent. The reservation poverty rate for Indian families on reservations is 36 percent, compared to the national average of 9.2 percent. Urban Indians have a poverty rate of 22 percent, which is better than reservation poverty rates. Some of the worst poverty rates are on reservations in the states of Washington, California, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico, where poverty rates often are higher than 60 percent.

Poverty is associated with low income, high unemployment, poor health, substandard housing, lack of market opportunities, and low educational achievement. Cycles of poverty are extremely difficult to break and tend to last over generations.

Poverty is closely related to social distress. Impoverished persons are more likely to be engaged in underground economy, use drugs and alcohol, which, in turn are highly associatied with violent crimes, domestic violence, and high crime rates.

In 2009, rapes in Indian country outpaced the total in Detroit, which is one of the most violent cities in the United States. Violent crime in Indian country increased during the 2000 to 2010 decade. Over the same decade, national violent crime rates fell, while Indian country violent crime rose by 29 percent.

Murder rates in Indian country increased 41 percent between 2000 and 2009. Nevertheless, federal funding for police and courts serving Indian country declined during the same period. While the decline in federal funding of public safety in Indian country may account for the rise in violent crimes, the funding decline does not account for the persistence of high rates of violent crime. More police, courts and jails will only partially address the fundamental issues of violence associated with poverty and social distress.

A recent study on high violent crime rates in U.S. cities points to the relations between poverty and violent crime. The 10 cities with the highest violent crime rates all had poverty rates over 20 percent, while the cities with the worst violent crime rates had poverty rates from 30 to 41 percent. On a per capita basis, cities provide more funds to police, courts, and jails than Indian reservations.

U.S. cities and counties also pride themselves on having better trained police, courts, and incarceration facilities. The two worse cities for violent crimes were Flint, Michigan, and Detroit, Michigan. Flint has a poverty rate of 40.3 percent and Detroit’s poverty rate is 40.9 percent. These statistics suggest that much of the violent crime on Indian reservations is highly associated with poverty, and increase funding of public safety, by itself, may not significantly curtail violent crime and improve public safety.

Indian reservations with poverty rates above 30 percent are particularly at risk. High rates of violent crime on reservations can be expected on reservations like Pine Ridge and San Carlos, which both have poverty rates over 50 percent. High rates of poverty combined with justice discrimination and cultural marginalization may account for higher rates of violent crime on Indian reservations than the rest of the nation. More investment in police, courts and public safety are necessary, but not sufficient for reducing crime and restoring healthy tribal communities.

More police and courts may help contain violent crimes, but do not address the root causes of crime. Solving the poverty issues in Indian country is only a partial solution. Federal Indian policies, and tribal governments need to meet the challenges of providing college education for tribal youth, achieve market sustainability, provide jobs to tribal members, restore individual health, improve housing, support cultural renewal, and reestablish the exercise the inherent powers of tribal governments. High crime rates are symptoms of deeper social and cultural distress, and there will be no solution to high rates of crime without solving the causes of distress.



Audrey's picture
Submitted by Audrey on

I agree with this article, but how can we start breacking the vicious circle? How can we create employment in Réservations, according to you?

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Reservations need an economic based which allows people on the reservation to stay there and live and not just survive. A way to live without believing they have to leave those they love or their land in order to have a way to exists in this life. The national denial of the ongoing genocide is wrong.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Reservations need an economic based which allows people on the reservation to stay there and live and not just survive. A way to live without believing they have to leave those they love or their land in order to have a way to exists in this life. The national denial of the ongoing genocide is wrong.

g.christopher's picture
Submitted by g.christopher on

The problem is elected council,herititary leaders would not do that to there people.no child or elder would be left out.how many millions upon million of dollars go to these management and administrations.no one likes to discuss that. i'm sure people would like to know that.

Bernadine Martin's picture
Bernadine Martin
Submitted by Bernadine Martin on

The 2010 Census says there are over 178,000 Navajos living on the Navajo Nation; the great majority of these residents are law-abiding. I agree that poverty is the root cause of crime--this has been shown in all jurisdictions. What can we do immediately to bring the crime rate down sooner than later? Your suggested remedies are long-term and Native America has little influence in national politics. You aren't tell us rez folks anything we don't already know.

Michael Christy's picture
Michael Christy
Submitted by Michael Christy on

"More investment in police, courts and public safety are necessary, but not sufficient for reducing crime and restoring healthy tribal communities." Building more jails is only a bandaid type of approach. However, I agree with the public safety aspect, as more needs to be done. I think tribal governments need to be held accountable. There is a lot of waste. Tribes hire Casino Managers and pay them millions while their people are starving. For what is paid to top managers, tribes could pay the way for almost every tribal member who wanted to attend college.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

How could the government and private enterprise help in a way to increase employment, health, etc. while allowing the people to keep their tribal identity and customs?

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on

The problem is not poverty. It is a decay in morality. With a decay in morals you find a certain percentage of a population gets involved in drugs, drinking & wild living. It ALL starts in the home & spreads out in any type of community for better or for worse.

Laying the blame on poverty is just ignoring the primary problem: Morality. That has to start in the home at an early age. Too many parents don't want to be the parents they need to be who set the example of what is good, decent, right & wrong, set boundries & assign strong consequences to the offenders who break those rules.

It was not like this in the times of the ancestors. If those children were disrespectful or acted up they got their rears tore up, if young adults became shameful they were whipped by the community as they had to take that walk of shame out of the village. The community used to handle everything. We had no need for outside interference. Our peoples need to get back to those ways & stop trying to behave as the washichu & impose those ways on our people.

The waschichu government is evil folks! Don't be trying to act like them. Our ancestors ways are the best so why should our leaders settle for anything less? They shouldn't be!

If our First Nations peoples are going to see improvements in our communities we MUST see a return to the ancestors rules, ways & our cultures. Stop trying to please, act like, watch & listen to the things of the Invaders. It is NOT our ways or our beliefs. It is just a way to become as they are! Don't be sell-outs who are defeated!

Where you have no set group of acceptable behaviors & consequences for breaking those rules THIS is what you are going to see happen: far more crime, indecency, personal property damage, disrespectful children, young people, assaults of various kinds & all sorts of shameful behaviors that should not even be allowed to be going on in a community.

There are mankind's rules & then there are those of the Creator for ALL His creation. I think we should ALL be worried about what the Creator thinks & be trying to please Him. When people are pleasing the Creator they are going to find things are going to be much better for them.

Stand up & be counted as someone who is returning to the ways of our ancestors & be the proud people they were: Good, decent, respectful & respectable, honorable, men, women & children of integrity who bring pride to the Great Spirit from living in a good way! Hoa!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Tim, First, payment to tribes is not a handout, unless you consider honoring financial agreements to be handouts. Second, are you ready for what will actually need to happen for there to be strong tribal economies -- true freedom for Indian tribes to take full control over their natural resources, the ability to capitalize their lands, to enforce their laws on non-Indians, &c?

Ernie Crey's picture
Ernie Crey
Submitted by Ernie Crey on

Many, many communities need infrastructure to attract investors and access to roads, rail and highways.

Joannie's picture
Submitted by Joannie on

The courage to hope and claim the future must rise again along with the traditional values of the elders to cherish life--and we can't forget the need for an economic as well as spiritual rebirth--each life is precious--How do we make a difference? Where do we start? Right where we are. Don't give away our power. We define ourselves on our terms. Don't let anyone "rent space in our head", define us and have us buy Their definition of us-not any more---those days are over! We can make a difference--one step at a time. Dare to dream once again, big bold dreams.