The Insidious Tradition of Unemployment

Steve Russell

The New York Times has published an interactive map of male unemployment in the United States, with dark shading indicating more unemployment for men aged 25-54.

It was hard not to notice the pools of dark around Indian country. If that were not enough, clicking on the dark spots often yielded county names that are tribal in origin: Navajo, Pima, Apache, Flathead, Modoc, Mohave, Sioux, Choctaw, Osage, Cherokee, Delaware, Pushmataha, Pocahontas, Cayuga, Seneca, Osceola. Counties from one end of the nation to the other have names born in indigenous languages. It’s not just Oklahoma where they took our land and kept our names on it.

The ubiquity of Indian place names means the names alone prove nothing, but there are other telltales. Some of the lightest, highest employment areas on the map are the Dakotas, where the fracking boom is coining money over the Bakken Shale under North Dakota and Montana and throughout the Williston Basin, which extends into South Dakota.

Those light areas in the Dakotas have some dark spots. Those are reservations. There is also a big dark spot extending into all four states at the Four Corners, but farther south from the Four Corners than north. That would be the Navajo Reservation, but there are no boom times happening in the vicinity of the Navajo Reservation.

Keeping in mind that the Times map plots only males aged 25-54 and, for the last generation at least, women have been in the statistical work force out of necessity, the situation around the rezes still seems dire.

Unemployment in North Dakota generally is reportedly under five percent. The North Dakota county data (limited by gender and age) appears to show unemployment at Standing Rock at 54 percent, Turtle Mountain 33 percent, and Spirit Lake 30 percent.

Things may be better for the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara) of the Ft. Berthold Reservation. It depends on whether you want to look at a glass half full or half empty, because the counties of Ft. Berthold range between 10 percent and 17 percent. The Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate do not stand out in North Dakota, but following the reservation borders down to South Dakota yields rates between 15 and 18 percent that are higher than neighboring counties. There and around Ft. Berthold the unemployment rate is high enough to show a shaded area on the Times map, but nowhere near as bad as the other rezes.

Of course, we know none of those dark spots involve any discrimination in hiring, because discrimination is illegal. (“Irony: the expression of one's meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.”)

There is the education problem to consider. Indians remain the least successful ethnicity at all levels of education, and even in the depths of the recession out of which the U.S. is crawling; unemployment was negatively correlated with years of education. We know that if the statistics gathered for that map kicked in at 18 rather than 25, Indian country numbers would be worse, much worse, because most of our kids of college age are not in college.

Among urban areas, Washington, D.C. does better than most not just because of federal jobs, but because 47 percent of the population over age 25 has a college degree. While this generation’s failure to fund higher education like previous generations have will result in some “student loan poverty,” education is and will certainly continue to be the great divider of economic status. More education means not only more people working, but also higher pay.

Things less obvious than lack of education are going on, and there’s a clue in the parts of the country not populated by ethnic minorities. There are black patches you can identify by the death of an industry. Coal country hits you in the face, West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, where it’s not hard to click on counties that show unemployment rates over 50 percent.

Unemployment is still pretty dire in Wayne County, Michigan, where General Motors used to make a lot more cars in Detroit and Ford used to make a lot more cars in Dearborn. Most people could look at their states and identify areas not defined by county borders where the loss of a big employer or the decline of an industry sent unemployment statistics soaring.

However, there are counties that are just dark spots in seas of lighter colors that you can’t explain by this factory or that industrial trend. There live the people behind the statistics that tell us unemployment is intergenerational.

Humans may be born knowing how to work, and the working poor I come from are some of the hardest working people on the planet. But humans are not born knowing how to work in an organized manner, to organize life around a job. The ability to work hard does not necessarily come packaged with the skills of apportioning time or of practicing the politics of getting along in a workplace.

My first inkling of this was when I was judging in a criminal court and ordering people to get a job as a condition of probation. Looking closely at my revocation docket told me that too many people I put on probation had no clue how to get a job, and when I put together some formal instruction on how it’s done, my revocation numbers fell.

Some people, no kidding, have to be told that you don’t go to a job interview wearing a gimme cap backwards. That you keep your language G-rated when talking to a potential boss, particularly if the job involves public contact. That you dress for the job you are seeking and do some research about the business before showing up expecting to get hired.

People who have intimate knowledge of the world of work learned it from watching their adult caregivers, but not because anybody sat them down and told them. To have a long term job is to organize your life around it. Children soak up the methods of organization that enable long term employment from watching…or they don’t.

Entrepreneurship works the same way. The grit and drive and focus necessary to start a business from scratch are not the same thing as intelligence. Intelligence is necessary but not sufficient.  The rest are learned traits you get from the adults around you…or you don’t.

Those learned traits are why Cuban and Vietnamese refugees could show up in the U.S. broke and on the wrong side of a language barrier to boot and have every child in the family in college or in the family business within a generation. The lack of that learning is why other waves of immigration have taken longer to catch the dream.

Meanwhile, those of us who did not arrive by common carrier watch the waves of immigration. Most of us did get uprooted from our homelands, with lucky exceptions, and all of us had ancestors who struggled with the English language even if we did not.

Some of us do not catch the dream because we don’t dream it. Labor for wages holds about as much attraction as farming did to the Plains Indians, which is to say none. Those who really feel that way and are not put off by a life of dependency have no problem with double-digit unemployment.

Those who don’t care to be dependent, though, have to be concerned about those dark spots on the map. Not just for this generation, but for those to come. We need to face the stark fact that unemployment is intergenerational and work on teaching the skills that die for lack of practice.

Like all crises, if we call chronic unemployment in Indian country a crisis, this one contains both opportunity and danger. The opportunity is obvious; the danger is aggravating the brain drain away from the homelands. Remember the awful results of “termination and relocation.”

Many people squeezed or lured off the rez traded rural poverty for urban poverty, a terrible trade. Others got prosperous enough to believe they could not live as well at home and so never returned. Lack of opportunity on the rez chases away the tribal citizens most likely to create opportunity if they stay. The brain drain is a serious challenge for tribal governments, and those that are not meeting it should study the methods of those that are.

Non-Natives came from the Texas and Oklahoma oil patches, where work had been scarce, chasing jobs in the Dakotas that did not require all that much education or skill. Either most Indians did not travel much shorter distances to claim the same jobs, or employment discrimination against Indians is so rampant that class action lawsuits would be in order.

Employment discrimination is a real problem, but it seems to me more likely in the business establishment of border towns and less likely when the employer is desperate to hire. Virtually all of the oil exploration companies came from outside the area and found themselves desperate to hire. If they turned away Indians in the face of that, it’s time for lawsuits and picket lines. After all, the unemployed have plenty of time to picket.

If they didn’t turn away Indian applicants, the question becomes why. Before rushing to blame the Indians who did not drive or hitch a hundred miles to apply for a hard job with an out of state company, it would be good to ask why we would think somebody in the second or third generation of unemployment would know how to do that?

Back during the War on Poverty, which poor people were winning by the numbers until the government retreated, we used to speak of a “cycle of poverty.” Unemployment might just be another name for poverty and unemployment, too, becomes a cycle within a family from the time the first child grows up never seeing an adult dealing with the mechanics and the politics of going to work every day. On a small scale, it’s become a tradition.

Not all traditions are worth keeping.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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MarinDemSolstice's picture
Important in-depth uncovering of a major problem well presented with the beginning of some discussion on how to address the social issues and start to move forward. However, to ignore the role that alcoholism plays in exacerbating the problem of unemployment and centering a life around work is to ignore a major contributing factor that must be addressed before ever getting people ready for work.
Sammy7's picture
The Indian whose traditional foundational beliefs rest on the pillars of cooperation and reciprocity will find no success in an American society based upon competition and greed. Rather than attempt to conform to an American society often described as a death culture, it is better to retain our traditional beliefs in Spirit and respect for all life, our relatives. Our hearts must be awakened and our spirits rekindled. Our Elders, once marginalized by Americanization via domestic arts and agriculture, must now lead our Peoples once again in our Traditional lifeways and transform us through healing to balance and harmony. Everything we need can be found in our own culture. Bring the words and teachings of our Traditional Grandmothers and Grandfathers to our readers and to our communities. We are living in a cycle of spiritual poverty and only we can correct that.
swrussel's picture
Sammy7, I have no philosophical problem with anything you say, but I do see some practical problems. The most obvious is that you posit two cultures in competition while one of them forswears competition. That can have only one outcome. I am skeptical that what worked in the 18th century will work in the 21st but I don't object to anyone making the effort and I don't see any organized opposition to making the effort. I am skeptical that "everything you need" is there for the sharing, but I don't object to people running their business that way and I doubt that anybody with power in the dominant culture cares one way or the other. Of course, I reject dependence but I know others don't agree with that. I haven't asked anyone to agree, but I've made a suggestion that kids aren't born knowing how to be independent. I'm only talking to those who reject dependence, not trying to convince anyone the rejection is correct.