Reservation Poverty

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The quality of life on some reservations is comparable to that in many third world  countries, with issues of infant mortality, life expectancy, nutrition and poverty, and alcohol and drug abuse. For example, Shannon County, South Dakota, home of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is routinely described as one of the poorest counties in the nation.

Native americans, especially those who live on reservations, have the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and disease of any ethnic group in America.  Native Americans remain at the bottom in almost every measurable economic category:

  • Structural Poverty: This results from underlying conditions of the economy.
  • Incidental Poverty: this results from changing events in people’s lives, also known as situational poverty.
  • Generational Poverty: This is defined as being in poverty for two or more generations.
  • Poverty of Place: Decades of declining economy in reservations, which create a poverty of place.
  • Poverty related to people: Decades of persistent poverty see a steady increase in the number of social, medical, and economic problems-emerging new threats to the well-being of families.
  • Forced Relocation and Loss of Personal Assets: Forced relocation is extremely disruptive on both economic and emotional levels. Sudden loss of personal assets can have the effect of plunging families into poverty overnight.

Indians earn only a little more than half as much money as the average American. Less money per capita than whites, blacks, Asian Americans, and Hispanics. Nearly one-third of Native Americans live in poverty, which is more than twice the rate for Americans in general. American Indian couples earn on average $71 for every $100 earned by all United States married couples.

Job opportunities on reservations

Job opportunities have not increased to employ rising numbers of Indians with increasing levels of education. Agricultural productivity on Indian lands is 30 to 90% less than on similar private lands.

In 1998, among 18-54 year old Indians living on the Wind River reservation, 54% were unemployed. Of these, 94% wanted to work. Of the 46% of employed Indian adults living on Wind River, more than half were working for the government. On the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Rosebud Reservation, unemployment rates hover as high as 80%. Most other reservations do not fair any better than these three examples.

Many reservations are hundreds of miles from any major urban area. On many reservations, there is isn’t any train, bus, theatre, clothing store, drug store, barber shop, restaurant, place to get a car fixed or home delivery of mail. A car is the only way to get around, yet a fifth of all households don’t have one.

Housing and Services

The average homeless rate on indian reservations is 30%, compared to a 10% national average. Almost all indian reservations have housing shortages, with families often on waiting lists for years. Many existing homes do not have electricity, indoor plumbing, or kitchen appliances such as electric stoves and refridgerators. Many homes do not have a central heating source. Half of all reservation homes don’t have telephone service, let alone internet access, which is not available to the public at all on many reservations.

Public infrastructure such as sewer systems, waste removal, paved roads, emergency services such as fire departments, ambulances, and hospitals, and schools are under developed on non-existant on many reservations.

Social problems related to poverty

As their economies have withered, other social pathologies have taken root. Reservation populations are prone to crime, alcoholism, and suicide. About 60% of Indian children are born out of wedlock. Indian children are five times as likely as white ones to live in some form of foster care. Most reservation schools are sub-par when compared to public schools in the general population. High school students are often bussed long distances to off-reservation schools.

On some reservations, the high school graduation rate is as low as 23%, with only 17% of those graduating going on to college.

Hunger and Health on Reservations

A high percentage of Indians identify as “food insecure”. People who identify as food insecure are uncertain that they will be able to acquire enough food for all household or family members due to insufficient money or other resources Indians living on reservations don’t have enough money to buy nutritious foods, and food subsidy programs often don’t provide incentives to help people purchase healthy foods, which tend to be more expensive than, say, junk food. 

Indians are far more liable to succumb to diseases associated with the poor–four times as likely to die of alcoholism, three times as likely to die of tuberculosis, nearly twice as likely to die of diabetes. Nationwide figures show that American Indian teenagers commit suicide at three times the national rate in the lower 48 states and at six times the national rate in Alaska.

Native american youth are involved in alcohol-related arrests at twice the national average, and die in alcohol-related incidents at 17 times the national average.

On the reservation, as elsewhere, teenage parenthood and a lack of jobs combine to create a cycle of welfare dependency. Native Americans are third highest in teen pregnancies, behind Hispanics and Blacks.