Native Americans could see political clout, financial boom on horizon

November 2, 2021
US President Joe Biden promotes the American Rescue Plan during an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC, July 15, 2021.

Native Americans saw their jobless rate soar during the pandemic, but a growing population, increasing entrepreneurship and more federal resources could give the community an economic boost, according to a new report from Wells Fargo. 

The jobless rate among Native Americans living outside metro areas rose to nearly 20% during the pandemic as many service jobs disappeared and casinos in tribal communities were shuttered to slow the spread of COVID-19, according to the Wells Fargo commentary, which provided a financial snapshot of Indigenous Americans at the start of Native American Heritage Month.

But the number of Americans identifying as indigenous increased by over 27%  to 3.7 million during the last decade compared to a 7.4% uptick in the overall population, according to U.S. Census data. Another roughly 6 million Americans said they had some American Indian or Alaska native ancestry.

With a median age of 32 compared to 38 for the broader population and rapidly rising numbers, the indigenous community may gain political clout that can lead to more funding for education and other areas, fostering improved financial stability, says Jay Bryson, chief economist for Wells Fargo and co-author of the commentary.

“More people appear to be embracing their Native American ancestry,” Bryson says, “and over time that could translate into political power…and potentially direct more resources to the community.’’ 

Lower household income

Native Americans have tended to experience higher unemployment than many other communities. Last year, the not seasonally adjusted average jobless rate for Native Americans and Alaska natives was 11.7%, as compared to 11.4% for Black Americans, 10.04% for Hispanics, and 7.3% for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

Additionally, the median household income among Native Americans was about $45,000 in 2019 compared to the overall median national income of roughly $66,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community survey.

The income gap may be due in part to Native Americans often living outside of metro areas, winnowing the number of available jobs, says Bryson. And roughly 28% of Native Americans who were employed in 2019 worked in management or professional jobs vs. the 40% of the overall workforce that filled those higher-paying positions, he said, citing census data. 

Meanwhile about 24% of employed Native Americans worked in service jobs, as compared to roughly 18% of the overall labor force.  

With only about 10% of Native American adults 25 years and older having a college degree as compared to a third of the overall population, more funding for education could help boost income, Bryson says.

“There’s a correlation here between lower education attainment…and the relatively low median income among indigenous households,” Bryson says.

The American Rescue Plan, passed in March to help jolt the economy in the wake of the pandemic, carved out $31.2 billion for indigenous communities. And the pending federal infrastructure bill also could direct about $11 billion to Native American tribes, according to the Wells Fargo report, citing the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The number of tribal-owned businesses beyond casinos has also been rising, with 99 opening last year, according to a review of Small Business Administration data by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. 

“The gaming industry has been an important source of job creation for indigenous individuals over the past few decades,” the Wells Fargo report said, “but there seems to be a recognition that the employment base of the Native American community needs to be broadened.”

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