Native Women's Unique Role in the US Economy

12/22/2009 - By Sarah Hicks

Will 2010 be the year of the woman? We asked prominent thinkers to discuss women’s changing roles in the economy. How has the crisis affected them? Are women the key to reform? What economic impact will they have going forward? We’ll explore all this and more in a special ND20 12-part series.

Sarah Hicks argues that despite high odds, native women are at the forefront of rebuilding the American economy.

The economic gap between white people and communities of color has its origins in centuries of racist and classist American policy.

The Homestead Act — a policy that is often seen as offering unprecedented opportunity — involved the confiscation of Native land and the offer of that land to a “diverse group” of white males! As our land was stolen, white women and African-Americans were excluded from opportunities to become members of America’s emerging middle class.

Today in many Native communities, economic crisis is not an occasional disaster — it is a daily reality. Native communities face the scourge of high unemployment and poverty rates, health disparities, and substandard housing and infrastructure. Back in 2000, when the national unemployment rate was less than half of today’s level, the U.S. Census reported on-reservation Native unemployment at 22 percent.

The socioeconomic profile of Native women is close to that of Native people as a whole. For every dollar earned by a non-Hispanic white male, Native women earn less than 60 cents. In some states with high Native populations the ratio is closer to 50 cents. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Native women are “more likely to be in poverty than any other major racial or ethnic group.” One in four Native women live in poverty, and in states like Montana and South Dakota, the figure is above 40%.

College attainment data for Native women are slightly better than for Native men, but only 13.7 percent of Native women possess a bachelors degree or higher — a rate more than half that of white women. Native women outpace their male counterparts by 10 percent in employment and managerial or professional positions, but they are much less likely than white women to hold those positions.

A profound problem for tribal policymakers is that timely and accurate socioeconomic data for American Indians and Alaska Natives is sorely lacking. The Bureau of Labor Statistics essentially excludes on-reservation unemployment rates (often at levels well beyond 50 percent) in their monthly unemployment reports. This means the unemployment rate for states with high Native populations is likely considerably understated. The Census Bureau also identifies Native people as the population facing both the most pronounced socioeconomic disadvantage and the least accurate Census data, yet their annual report on poverty and health insurance in America does not include Native data owing to “insufficient sample size.”

You may think that in light of these staggering statistics, it is hard for Native women (or men!) to hold out hope for a better future. But you’d be wrong. Tribes across the country are on the forefront of innovations to address our economy’s toughest problems. As one of the three types of government recognized in the U.S. Constitution (federal, tribal, and state governments), tribes offer unique innovations that make valuable contributions to the policy debate about the economic recovery. Investments in tribal governments support policy innovations that can be — and have been — replicated to deal with some of America’s most challenging economic struggles.

Native women are in the lead when it comes to rebuilding Indian Country. From Kimberly Teehee, President Obama’s Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs, to the many Native women who own 8(a) government contracting businesses; from Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the litigation that challenged the U.S. government mismanagement of Indian trust funds, to the many aspiring Native scholars we work with, women are on the frontlines of building a brighter future for Native communities.

In this time of economic crisis and uncertainty, Native women continue to face staggering odds, but we also see immense opportunity. Together with our non-Native partners in government and the private sector, we expect Native women to play a critical role as tribes make unique and significant contributions to America’s economic recovery.

Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Sarah Hicks (Alutiiq) is an enrolled member of the Native Village of Ouzinkie and the founding director of the Policy Research Center of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

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