Native American joblessness is slow genocide


In early May, an op-ed column in The New York Times by two prominent economists, Dean Baker and Ken Hassett, entitled "The Human Disaster of Unemployment," characterized long-term joblessness as "nothing short of a national emergency." Well, long-term unemployment has been a human disaster for Native Americans for decades , but this has been ignored by just about all of the rest of America and definitely by both major political parties. This has been an ongoing emergency for generations for Native Americans.

Small wonder that U.S. Native peoples are beset with a blistering, hideous panoply of social and health ills hardly seen elsewhere in this world. This is quasi-genocide: unemployment kills!

The dire social and material statistics of Native America - on some reservations the suicide rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere (particularly among teenagers), and there are greatly elevated levels of alcoholism, drug use, diabetes, tuberculosis, and domestic violence - coincide with crushing joblessness.

The problems of Indian America cannot be effectively solved without a fundamental lowering of Native unemployment. It is no coincidence that Indian Country has the greatest social and health problems coupled with the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. This juxtaposition goes hand in hand. That these odious conditions have not collapsed Native societies is due to the tremendous strength, resilience and traditions that have enabled Indian people to survive in the face of seemingly horrific, insurmountable odds.

Unemployment generates a deterioration in all aspects of the life of a people. Just a cursory look at history abundantly illustrates this point.

Example, 1930s Germany: Masses of the unemployed were living on the streets and roads of the country. Sociological studies found that unemployment destroyed people's self-respect and collapsed their status and their role in a nation where esteem, recognition and even identity itself was based on the job they held.

Prolonged unemployment generated despondency and depression. The longer people were without a job the worse the gloom that enveloped their lives. This spread throughout entire families as children lost all hope of a better life. Young people stole to make a living, organized gangs fought each other and often clashed with police. German society was on the cusp of a descent into a quagmire of dejection and criminality.

Another example, 1930s United States: Unemployment as early as 1931 (just two years into the Great Depression) was destroying an entire way of life; it was having a tremendously destructive effect on the daily lives of the mainstream American population. Early on there was a dramatic spread of disease and malnutrition. Studies of schoolchildren found that one-fourth suffered from malnutrition, new patients in tuberculosis clinics nearly doubled and the families of jobless workers sustained 66% more illness than the families of the employed. Family ties weakened under the ravages of poverty, desertions and divorce rates rose, birth rates dropped, crime rose, drunkenness soared and the suicide rate spiraled. This was with just two years of massive unemployment.

To combat Native joblessness , the Obama administration in the February State of the Union Address proposed a program of "Building a Fair and Stable Economy for Indian Country." This economic blueprint included "infrastructure funds dedicated to Indian reservation roads, bridges and transit service," and included a 10% increase from 2012 funding levels for "tribal non-profit organizations that provide employment and training services ...." Mirroring his jobs bill for the overall U.S., Obama apparently felt that, mainly, job investment in reservation infrastructure was the magic bullet that would slay the dragon of unemployment.

But, quite frankly, for too long the Obama administration has acted too indifferently not just to Indian unemployment, but to U.S. joblessness as a whole. Obama has been content to simply wait on the economy to resurge on its own. This will not happen. In the meantime, millions suffer. The president was given terrible economic advice by his advisors, which he followed with great alacrity. He needs to make a correction.

The answer to begin to address the decades of social and economic genocide devastating Native America is a massive jobs program, going far beyond the hackneyed proposed infrastructure solutions. What is needed for Indian Country and the nation as a whole is a massive jobs program similar to the New Deal employment programs of the Great Depression era: a massive jobs program for all reservations, a massive jobs program for all urban Native Americans; a massive jobs agenda composed of good jobs. This will be a starting point to remedy the hundreds of years of loathsome injustice purposely and maliciously imposed to perpetuate genocide.

Photo: Forlorn entrance to the cemetery at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota symbolizes the dire conditions faced by Native Americans there and elsewhere in the U.S. Susan Webb/PW


Post your comment

Comments are moderated. See guidelines here.


  • This proud nation under God. I know one thing this country is going to get all of we have done to the native americans back. I dont know how or when, but we are going to get it real good and thats just the way it will be.

    Posted by gary david, 11/23/2013 8:31pm (2 years ago)

  • Please read about Philip Martin from the Mississippi Choctaws, the Chickasaw Tribe, the Harvard study by Kalt. Nation building should come from within a tribe not from more white intervention from the outside. Tribes need to focus on economic development from a Sovereignty standpoint, defending culture, educating with culture and creating stable governments which can sustain strong economic development. Tribal growth and economic development has been astounding in the last twenty years. But tribes are a marginalized people composed of 1% of the population. Slowly these tribes are beginning to develop and wean themselves from the government with their own economic success. The Citizen Pottawatomie tribe is an excellent example. The future is bright for tribes, despite the economic drawbacks of Reservation culture.

    Posted by Joy , 12/14/2012 2:22am (3 years ago)

  • You are dead on about the treatment of our Native Americans. Each of you should visit the reservations to understand what the Politicians have done to the Natives. There is no excuse for their conditions.
    We are past a New Deal and before we continue spending Billions upon Billions on the Military Industrial Complex and endless wars, the mismanagement of our natural and human resources it is time to face the squallor in America.
    There is no excuse as to why as a society we do not have a national plan to prepare our kids with the proper education and skill sets to move them from unproductive teens to productive adults.

    Posted by RiverRat, 07/26/2012 2:22pm (4 years ago)

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments