The Dream of Martin Luther King Jr. & Jobs in Indian Country

Source: Indian Country Today Media Network

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a dream that many American Indians, along with other ethnic groups, continue to hope for.

It would be interesting to track American Indian unemployment since the March on Washington August 28, 1963, and compare it to the rates for African Americans and the country as a whole (national unemployment for 1963 was 5.7 percent). Unfortunately, it is not possible, as the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics seems not to have reported this stat on Native populations until 2003.

As King said in 1963, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned,” still holds true today.

Since 2003 (also the first year that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders weren’t lumped into the “Asian” category) American Indians have consistently tracked slightly behind African Americans for the dubious honor of the racial group with the most unemployment. (A BLS study reports white and African American unemployment back to 1972, Hispanics back to 1973, and Asians to 2000.)

For 2011, the latest year in the BLS study “Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity,” one in seven American Indians (14.6 percent) were unemployed, according to BLS. African Americans showed 15.8 percent unemployment, while Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (who include native populations on Guam and American Samoa) came in at 10.4 percent, higher than the national average of 8.9 percent.

The BLS measures national rates. Unemployment rates on individual Indian reservations can be much higher. In 2010, 47 percent of people on the Navajo reservation were unemployed, according to the tribe. At the Pine Ridge reservation of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, 80 percent are unemployed, according to the tribe.

The Indian employment situation since the recession ended in 2009 has been mixed. Indian unemployment for 2011 was down from 15.1 percent in 2010 but actually up from 2009, which was at 13.3 percent.

The BLS said American Indians and Alaska Natives made up about one percent of the labor force in 2011, and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders less than one percent. In terms of participation in the labor force, an interesting mix was recorded. Indians had the lowest participation in the work force in 2011, 59.2 percent, while Native Hawaiians had the highest, 69.4 percent—higher even than the white population, which registered 64.5 percent.

Indian participation in the workforce has decreased from 64.4 percent in 2003, while it has increased for Native Hawaiians during that same time period. It was 68.9 percent in 2003.

Indians also brought up the rear in the category of the percentage of the population employed, at 50.5 percent. Native Hawaiians were first in this category as well, at 62.2 percent (that’s also higher than the one for whites, which is 59.9 percent).

Breaking out unemployment by numbers, 1.2 million of a 2 million “civilian noninstitutional population” of Indians were in the labor force in 2011. Of that number, one million were employed (564,000 men and 464,000 women) and 172,000 were unemployed. BLS found 816,000 Indians were not in the labor force. Unemployment for Indian men in 2011 was 15.4 percent and 13.7 percent for Indian women.

For Native Hawaiians, 393,000 of a labor force of 439,000 (total population was 633,000) were employed in 2011, according to BLS. Men had a higher unemployment rate, at 11.4 percent. Native Hawaiian women had an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent.

The BLS report includes many other categories of analysis, but in many categories, Indians and Native Hawaiians are just skipped. These include earnings, education, occupation and industry, and families and mothers. One analysis which ignores Natives starts by saying “Among the major race and ethnicity groups,” indicating they are considered not a major group. Sometimes Natives get lumped into “other groups.”

Like Census Bureau counts of Indian populations, some dispute the accuracy of the BLS unemployment figures. According to the National Congress of American Indians, “The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] concept of unemployment is different than that used by BLS and Census. Persons are considered “unemployed” by BIA if they are available for work, but not employed. This approach is a more realistic one in view of the economic circumstances in reservation areas than is the definition of unemployment in the BLS and Census Bureau data which requires that a person be “actively seeking work” to be designated unemployed.”

NCAI says unemployment in Indian areas “often stands at above 50 percent.” The advocacy group says “tribal nations continue to experience unemployment rates well above the national average, and rates of unemployment are exacerbated by economic conditions, endemic poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and marginal education opportunities.”

NCAI points to two particular pieces of pending legislation—the American Jobs Act and the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act—as potentially being helpful to combat Indian unemployment if they are signed into law. And both could be a decent honor to the 50th anniversary of the job march on Washington D.C.