Guid Essay

Guid Essay

Native American Poverty in the United States

Part I. Introduction

 What is the poorest community in the United States: Is it the community that is widely discussed in mainstream media and politics? Or is it the community that is rarely mentioned and is excluded from many statistics regarding labor and poverty? The popular trend among the United States reverts to the notion of highly populated urban areas as the places that contain that vast majority of poverty. In some cases, this is true. However, at the aggregate level, the true statistics may be surprising to some.

Part II. Definition of Poverty and Native American Statistics

 What is poverty and how it is defined in the United States? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty line for a single person household is $12,140, with the income threshold increasing $4,320 per additional person/family member in the household. Looking in retrospect over the past 35 years, we can see significant differences by race and ethnicity in the risk of poverty. In figure 1 you can see over time that historically, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans living in higher rates of poverty. In contrary, Asians and Whites typically endure lower poverty rates. Although, Hispanics have historically endured lower poverty rates, during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the variance between the three higher poverty groups did tighten and variations between income levels became less prevalent. According to the Stanford Center of Poverty and Inequality, 27 percent of Native Americans and African-Americans live below the poverty, while only 20 percent of Hispanics are considered in poverty. On the other side, Asians and Whites are only enduring a poverty rate of 10 percent, with Whites being the largest population of those in poverty.

 Poverty rates are disbursed in various arrays across the United States. According to Stanford Center of Poverty and Inequality, urban areas contain the highest rate of poverty at a striking 18 percent, while rural areas generally have a slightly lower rate at 15 percent, and suburban regions having the lowest rates of poverty, coming in at 9 percent. If you dive deeper into the statistics and compare poverty rates by different regions of the country, the South has the highest rate of poverty at 14 percent which is slightly higher than the national average of 13 percent. Yet given its larger population, the South has a much higher proportional share of the country’s poverty stricken population at 41 percent of people living below the poverty line residing in the southern part of the United States. In comparison, the West has a poverty rate of 22 percent, the Midwest 20 percent, and the Northeast 17 percent of the country’s poverty stricken citizens. The 20 percent poverty rate in the South is noteworthy and should not be overlooked. Why is this rate so elevated in contrast to the other regions of the country? It is partly because black women in the rural southern region have a poverty rate of 37 percent. In fact, single mothers in the southern region have the highest rates of poverty among any other group.

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 At the aggregate level, Native Americans who live in poverty are typically centralized in the mid-west, and near the Canadian border. More than 25 percent of the Native American and Alaskan Native population are living in poverty, a rate that is more than double of the national poverty rate. However, for some tribal groups in certain regions, that poverty percent approaches 40%. (US Census Bureau) Furthermore, some heavily concentrated reservations, the poverty rates have been recorded at rates between 50 and 80 percent. Although many ethnic groups have progressed economically over the past decades, the Native American population, often-overlooked, has much more to accomplish. The extreme case of unemployment and poverty observed in Native American communities is related to much broader economic disadvantages which include: geographical isolation and the extreme high supply of low-wage employment, without the opportunity of advancement or development.

Part III. Native American Endeavors

 Native Americans face many barriers in life during their pursuit of breaking the common poverty cycle. They face many endeavors in life that set them back from any other race group. Discrepancies in education and employment opportunities are commonly found in Native American populations. Overall, within the Native American population there are fewer individuals who possess a high school diploma or GED at the rate of 71 percent compared to the national average of 80 percent. In higher education, only 11.5 percent of Native Americans have earned an undergraduate degree compared to the 24.4 percent national average. Such discrepancies in education appear early in life for Native Americans. Native American children’s reading and math skills fall progressively behind those of their white peers as early as Kindergarten up until 4th grade.

These educational struggles surpass the 4th grade which include higher dropout rates and higher rates of grade retention. Historically, educational institutions have not held a positive role in American Indian communities; they have widely participated in the removal of American Indian children from the families and communities while forbidding their Native American languages and culture; which contrasts their community strengths. The negative educational practices have been in part of larger societal efforts to cripple Native American ways of life and practices through forcing children into the larger society in hopes of achieving conformity. Therefore, it is not surprising that American Indian children have often performed lower in their primary and secondary educational institutions, along with high defection, elevated dropout rates, low achievement and parental involvement.

As rural communities decline economically, these rural regions have become home to the United States staggering prison population, which is steadily increasing. Moreover, these rural regions are a breeding ground for hazardous/toxic waste locations, landfills, slaughterhouses, and commercial and heavy industrial feedlots which pollute groundwater, streams and rivers. These such industries and firms cause an overall decline in property value and highly discourage business investment. These types of economic development often involve matters that are simply disregarded in mainstream media. Environmental justice and racial discrimination bring such development to these regions which integrate community interest into egregious conflicts. Worst of all, these communities have no political or economic influence to change or shift economic development.

Education is undoubtable an important factor in human and economic development.  In today’s times, Native American children, only 7 out of 10, estimated, will graduate from high school. In addition, many less will graduate from college with a respective degree. For example, Native American children will complete their high school education within four years at a rate of only 70 percent. In contrary to the national average, it largely trails behind the average of 82 percent. This graduation rate calculation does exclude the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, which are granted federal funds. The BIE institutions are often underfunded and produce the lowest levels of education attainment. BIE schools only serve around 8 percent of the Native American students, 48,000 students in 24 participating states. These American Indian educational institutions typically reside on protected Native American reservations. According to Stanford University, the national graduation rate of Native American high school students is 69.7 percent. On average, more than 60 percent of American students pursue a college degree following their high school graduation, while only 17 percent of American Indian students are able obtain a higher education/college degree after high school. Native Americans pursue college degrees at lower rate due to numerus challenges that most students do not encounter such as: quality of education, socioeconomic class, and economic mobility.

It is extremely difficult to track college participation rates for Native Americans because they are not tracked at all attainment levels. In line with their high poverty rates, Native American students are more likely to need and receive federally funded financial aid than white students. In 2011-2012, 85% of Native American students received some form of federal assistance, compared to 69 percent of whites receiving aid. Native American tribes that are federally recognized have some benefits through their tribal government, such as free college and housing assistance. However, obtaining federal recognition is extremely difficult and many Native American tribes continue to face this barrier, as the bureaucratic process it difficult to surpass. Furthermore, Native American students are more likely to take out students loans compared to any other ethnic group and typically are less prepared for college than their counterparts. Many schools that are in Native American concentrated regions have limited funds, alongside limited class choices. In comparable to the corridor of shame in South Carolina, many of these schools have issues attracted and retaining a quality supply of teachers. Moreover, with a lower quality of educators, these schools typically offer less advanced placement courses or college prep classes. According to the American Psychiatric Association, Native American students are less likely to discuss options with a counselor regarding high school classes and post-graduation paths.

Labor force participation is a large concern among Native American communities. On average, Native American communities have lower labor force participation rates than rates of the general population, where populations not participating in the labor force display rates from 14 to as high of 35 percent in some reservation communities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, classifies any Native American adult who does not hold a job, as unemployed. While the knowledge of the lack of employment opportunities exist may cause members to not be counted as a part of the labor force. Also, there is evidence suggesting that Native Americans are more likely to drop out of the labor force temporarily to meet obligations for their families or communities, and to pursue agricultural activities to supply food for their communities. 

American Indians suffer from problems that are similar to African Americans. They have lower levels of educational attainment as previously discussed, and continued racial discrimination in the labor market. Evidence suggests that higher levels of educational attainment for Native Americans could lead to high rates of employment and an influx of higher paying jobs. In 2017, the federal government provided Native American communities with almost $23 billion in federal funding to cover costs such as: food assistance, health services, education (Kleinfield). Pew Research Center states that there are 368 federally recognized Native American reservations in 2017 and 567 federally recognized tribes, whom of which are culturally diverse and contain more than 200 different languages. Of those identified tribes, only one-third of the American Indian population reside on a reservation or tribal lands. Additionally, tribes experience a continuation of economic hardship from a lack of available resources. When resources are not available in tribal communities or on reservations, it forces consumers to spend money elsewhere. Consumer spending/consumption is arguably the largest proponent of steady economic development. When consumers have the inability to spend, the money flees elsewhere. Every dollar that someone could earn in income from producing services such as haircuts, gasoline, and even groceries, encourages economic growth in these regions. However, when such resources are not readily available, the economy becomes less sustainable and cannot supply jobs without some exogenous force.

Education and economic opportunity are major issues for the Native American community, however, Native Americans, as a group, are more likely to have mental illnesses, commit suicide, and become addicted to substances.  According to the American Psychiatric Association, approximately 21 percent of those who identify as American Indian lack health care insurance in 2016 compared to the US population at 9.4 percent. As of 2017, the life expectancy for newly born American Indian children is around at 73.7 years, 4.4 years lower than the national average at 78.1 years. Native Americans experience higher rates of PTSD and bipolar disorder, due to genetics and overall lower socio-economic statuses. Research suggests that American Indian populations have disproportionately higher rate of mental health deficiencies than the rest of the US population. These increase rates of substance use disorders (SUD’s), PTSD, suicide, and attachment disorders in many indigenous communities have been positively correlated between intergenerational historical trauma explicitly forced upon them. Removal of their sacred land, forcing children into government operated boarding schools, parental separation from children, removal of spiritual practices, and the attempt to dismantle their culture have all contributed to these higher rates of mental illnesses (Kleinfield).

 In 2014, American Indians age 18 and older reported rates of 21 percent having a mental illness, compared to the US population average of 17.9 percent. Furthermore, in 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Native Americans between the ages of 10 and 34 as the suicide rates in American Indian females rose to about four times higher than their white counterparts. Alongside mental illness, Native Americans have higher rates of alcohol abuse and are genetically more prone to alcoholism. Native Americans may not consume as much as other ethnic groups on percentage of population, but do show higher rates of substance abuse. This sacred ethnic group endure numerous barriers when seeking health insurance and quality health care. Economic barriers such as: cost and lack of availability, lack of awareness (education) about health care, social perception of mental illnesses, mistrust of healthcare providers and services, are all common obstacles faced by natives who seek health care.

Part IV. Government Intervention

 As previously mentioned, the US federal government funded the Native American communities with nearly $23 billion in 2017, and expected to increase in the coming years. One may ask why the Native American communities remain highly impoverished with the presence of multiple federal programs and protection agencies. Native reservations have be a vital part of Native American existence for over two hundred years. Some may resemble and compare Native American reservations to Euro-American colonies, which were prominent until the official creation of the United States. Also, some may argue that native reservations are the last final stronghold and preservation attempts to retain American culture and traditions, or a source that insure the perpetual existence of Native American continuation. Across the United States, the number of Native Americans living on reservations and trust lands differ.

 The 2000 US census reported only ten reservations containing more than 7000 residents. (US Census Bureau) Despite years of progress in healthcare, economic and social development, Native American reservations remain a contradiction across the United States. As Native American tribes have struggled and continue to struggle in efforts to gain jurisdiction and self-reliance they have to compete with numerous issues, that are government imposed. Many reservations struggled with separated land due to allotment and growing hostile attitude from non-native residents living near the reservations, that desire greater economic development.

 A few assumptions could be made about the availability of capital and investment for these protected groups. One could suggest that the increased government protection might allow for higher rates of investment or lower costs of borrowing. However, imagine if the government were looking after your best interests; this removes the ability of autonomy. All of your assets must be managed and maintained by the bureaucrats on your behalf, without your decision, and a special bureau is established to oversee all operations. Every paramount economic decision requires approval and approvals come with a mountain of regulations. The federal government is tasked with the responsibility of managing Indian affairs in efforts to benefit Native American communities. However, from all aspects, this government control has failed the Native American community. As a result, Native American communities continue to remain as the most impoverished ethnic group in the United States. In 1831, Chief Justice John Marshall characterized the relationship between American Indians and the federal government as a “ward to his guardian.” With those words, Chief Justice Marshall established the federal Trust Doctrine, which assigns the federal government as the trustee of all Indian affairs. This doctrine has a goal of ensuring prosperity and economic opportunity for Native American communities that stem from Indian’s sovereignty.

The Trust Doctrine remains active in 2018, however, history proves the doctrine inefficient and prevents Indian prosperity. Therefore, this doctrine does not allow for Native Americans to own or manage their own property, which strips away their property rights. This doctrine completely nullifies the goal of the constitution and the idea of freedom and autonomy, in which the United States was founded upon. As we have seen in countries in the past such as Venezuela, the Soviet Union, and currently in the Middle East, property rights are vital to economic development. Under this trust doctrine, the federal government has exclusive property rights over these protected lands, and has control over all commerce and economic development. Since Native Americans are unable to own their own property, that cannot mortgage their assets for loans like many other Americans can. Since all commerce is controlled by the federal government, business investment is lacking which makes it incredibly difficult for these Indians to pursue their entrepreneurial spirit. Although some tribes have valuable resources such as: oil, natural gas, and gold, these resources remain stagnated in poverty. These resources are commonly known as “dead capital” and are unable to generate growth in such regions. Under this doctrine, all development projects must be reviewed and approved by the government, a process that is well-known for being time consuming and oppressive.

According to Pew Research, private firms must pass through four federal agencies and 49 total steps to acquire permit for energy development. This troublesome process causes these regions to suffer from “dead capital” and prevents them from capitalizing on their valuable resources. It is common for many years to pass before necessary approvals to be made on protected lands, which equates to several months on private lands. These lengthy, time-consuming processes cause major delays and do not account for future economic cycles. This complete bureaucratic control could equate to high levels of corruption and embezzlement with these large amounts of federal funds. How much of the $23 billion was used to provide economic/educational opportunity? Although the opportunity cost is lower to operate and invest in these regions, lack of productivity, instability, and extreme government regulation pose huge barriers for outside/private investment.

Part V. Conclusion and Policy Recommendations

In most cases, Americans agree that our Native American population should be preserved and should be provided the same opportunity for economic prosperity as other parts of the country. However, at what extent should the federal government intervene to ensure prosperity in these regions? Is extreme regulation the answer? Native Americans possess many barriers outside of government regulations such as: educational attainment, mental illness, suicide, substance abuse, and extreme poverty. As long as tribes are not give the right to control their own property and resources, they will remain locked into high poverty and government dependence. The federal government should remove heavy regulations to encourage investment and energy development. Instead of providing assistance in food, or healthcare, the government should provide subsidies or tax incentives to attract business investment and entrepreneurs in these regions to spark economic growth. If tribes are given the dignity, respect that they deserve, they will have the opportunity to enter an era of insurmountable economic development among their communities.

Works Cited

  • Burton, Linda, et al. Poverty: The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017,
  • “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1 Oct. 2006,
  • Kleinfeld, Judith, and John Kruse. “Native Americans in the Labor Force: Huntingforanaccuratemeasure.” Research Summaries, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13 Mar. 2017.
  • Macartney, Suzanne, et al. “Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007–2011 .” American Community Survey Briefs, 2017,
  • Sarche, Michelle, and Paul Spicer. “Poverty and Health Disparities for American Indian and Alaska Native Children.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Wiley/Blackwell (10.1111), 25 July 2008,
  • US Census Bureau. “Library.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, 12 Sept. 2018,


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