Numbers just released by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) suggest that poverty and unemployment among California Indian tribes remain largely unchanged years after the state legalized Indian gaming. However, many say these numbers don’t reflect tribal wealth that has been shared via infrastructure improvements, job training, scholarships, after-school programs and other services.
The BIA released the new data with an interesting caveat: They’re looking for help in improving their own numbers. The BIA says reporting from some tribes across the country has been spotty — an opinion echoed by some who work with tribes — and they are creating a training program to help make sure that tribes report accurate data.
The BIA has issued the American Indian Population & Labor Force Report for every odd-numbered year since 1985. These data are the most comprehensive look at the population and financial health of tribal members available.
Their 2005 numbers, the latest available, came out on Sept. 16. They appear to show a California Indian population whose circumstances haven’t changed much in recent years. For 2005, the BIA lists 106 federally recognized tribes in California. The figures show about 38,000 adults “available” to work, but an unemployment rate of 47 percent. Of those people who are working, 29 percent were still under the federal poverty line.
Comparisons show little change since 1999, the last survey year before the advent of full-scale tribal casino gaming in 2000. That year showed a lower unemployment rate—42 percent—and a 31 percent working poverty rate.
By any measure, the unemployment numbers among California tribes are extremely high. The 2005 rate is six times higher than California’s current 7.7 unemployment rate, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But a more direct comparison would be California’s 5.4 percent average unemployment rate in 2005, a year when the economy was far healthier, which would mean unemployment among Indians was nine times higher than the general population.
However, these numbers paint only a partial picture, according to some.
Allison Harvey, executive director of the California Tribal Business Alliance, says the figures don’t reflect the shared programs the many tribes are putting into place. Even some people who are technically living in poverty have full health, dental and vision coverage, with full scholarships available if they want to go to college; after-school programs for their kids, and a whole list of other programs not available to other members of the general population living in similar economic circumstances.
“What they’re showing may not be a reflection of well-being,” Harvey said. She added, “It’s pretty stunning what’s available to our members.”
Such programs have led to a greater feeling of financial security in many tribes, Harvey said, and have led to a baby boom in at least some tribes. While tribes with casinos have been able to offer the most, many other tribes have been able to increase services to members via the $1.1 million in revenue sharing that non-gaming tribes in California currently receive.
These thoughts were echoed by Susan Jensen, spokeswoman for the California Nations Indian Gaming Association (CNIGA), who indentified many of the same programs among CNIGA’s 40 member tribes, about 80 percent of whom are involved in gaming. Many tribes also offer private school scholarships for K-12 students, major infrastructure improvements, and even native language programs. For instance, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians is now teaching children the native Luiseno language. But she also noted major differences between gaming and non-gaming tribes.
“In a government budget, $1.1 million is nothing if you need to provide roads and infrastructure,” Jensen said. “$1.1 million barely buys you a quarter mile of road.”
Harvey also noted that the BIA survey list is confined to enrolled members of federally recognized tribes probably encompasses less than half of the people in California who consider themselves Indians. There are tens of thousands of people who are members of non-recognized tribes or have Indian heritage but are not currently enrolled in recognized tribes.
In fact, the BIA acknowledges that they are not completely confident in their statistics, which mainly rely on self-reporting from the tribes themselves. The agency has made this year’s report available for public comment until Nov. 17. They have also said they will begin a program to work with tribal governments to improve data collection, including training at least one person in each tribe on the best ways to collect and report data.
“I think this is a real problem in general,” said Dr. Terri Sexton, co-chair of the Economics Department at California State University at Sacramento, who studies economics among tribes. “The reporting requirements are so minimal in terms of what’s going on at Indian reservations. To a large part, this works to their disadvantage.”
Sexton said that in addition to federal efforts, the state of Washington has started a program to get more accurate financial and membership data from tribes. Part of the goal is to convince tribes they’ll benefit, in the form of more targeted government services. But CNIGA’s Jensen said governments are working against decades of understandable mistrust.
“The relationship between tribes and the BIA historically has not been a good one,” Jensen said. “Whenever the tribes have something of value, the government has tried to come in and take it away. Even if it is for programs that will help them, it’s always ‘How will you turn this against us?’”
The BIA report data also breaks down the data by individual tribes. Some tribes with successful casinos, such as the Morongo and Pala, have reported quickly falling poverty rates. Yet some of these same tribes also report very high unemployment rates, perhaps reflecting tribes that hand out checks to members that are large enough they no long have to work. For instance, the Rumsey Indian Rancheria reports 78 percent unemployment in 2005. Viejas showed 68 percent unemployment, which the Pala Band came in at 62 percent. Pechanga reported a 91 percent unemployment rate.
Some of the reported membership figures are also likely to change in coming reports due to the trend of tribal disenrollments. The Picayune Rancheria Chukchansi Indians reported having 1,234 members in 2003 but only 1,173 two years later. At a June tribal meeting last year, the tribe reported having only 691 members. Many others have been disenrolled—told they are not eligible to be members of the tribe. The Pechanga Band reported having 1,372 members in every report in both 1999 to 2005, yet has disenrolled dozens of members since then. Many tribes say they have disenrolled members who did not have legitimate claims to be members, but many of the disenrolled say they were kicked out so the casino profits would be cut into fewer slices.
The BIA did not return several calls seeking comment on the report.