Where U.S. Unemployment Is Still Sky-High: Indian Reservations

(Bloomberg) -- While U.S. unemployment is the lowest since 2000, it’s a different story in American Indian areas, where jobless rates still echo recession-era levels in the rest of the country.

Of 27 counties with a majority American Indian or Alaska Native population, about two-thirds had unemployment rates last year above the national level, with nine at 10 percent or higher. That compares with the national jobless rate of 4.1 percent in February.

Many of the counties are in the Dakotas and Alaska. Unemployment rates varied, ranging from 3.5 percent to 21 percent, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of county data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics along with 2016 U.S. Census data.

Where U.S. Unemployment Is Still Sky-High: Indian Reservations

Many of the counties are geographically isolated, hundreds of miles away from metropolitan areas, with limited access to resources and capital. Nick Tilsen, head of an economic development corporation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, said national trends don’t affect such areas.

“They have basically no impact on what we’re doing here because we have been ignored by the investment community,” said Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, whose namesake county in the state averaged 11 percent unemployment in 2017, according to BLS data. “You don’t have businesses investing into tribal communities, so you have these extensive layers of generational poverty that exist here.”

Where U.S. Unemployment Is Still Sky-High: Indian Reservations

The total U.S. jobless rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 8.9 percent in 2016, compared with 4.9 percent for the U.S. as a whole, according to a separate BLS report.

While casinos have helped some tribes, not all have benefited, and housing shortages are also a chronic issue, according to David Carradini, former policy adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s center for faith-based and community partnerships in Washington. A typical 1,500 square-foot home for a family of four in America’s heartland might house 16 to 20 people on a reservation, according to Carradini.

“There’s no money to build with,” he said.

Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp., sees the housing problem as part of broader economic issues and is working on an affordable-housing project that’s so far created more than 150 construction jobs. The project is funded mainly with grant and loan funding from HUD and the Department of Agriculture. People who work in the schools and hospitals on the reservation commute in every day for work because there are no homes for sale or rent on site, he said.

“You have to create housing for the existing workforce because you are having your existing earners leave the region, so they aren’t spending any money here,” Tilsen said. “Jobs without housing doesn’t equate with economic vitality for the region.”

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