Native American Inequality in the 21st Century


I am currently engaged in a systematic assessment of Native American inequality, a setting in which the forces of rent and closure are again substantial. This project responds to a regrettable lack of examination of Native socio-economic well-being.

This project provides the largest comprehensive examination in three decades of the social and economic standing of American Indians. Analyzing the Decennial Census, the American Community Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the General Social Survey, I theorize that key structural shifts during this time brought about fundamental change, with an as-yet-unknown effect on Native inequality. The purpose of this project, then, is to put forth and adjudicate among three competing accounts.

Upward mobility model. This model posits a shrinking gap between American Indians and whites, as the overall well-being of American Indians improves. The Bureau of Indian Affairs relegated some control to the tribes, allowing them to take a more active hand in their own tribal social and health services. Additionally, through the tribal recognition process, the Department of the Interior promoted formalized tribal structures. Of equal importance, the advent of tribal colleges increased access to higher education.

Rising inequality model. Gains experienced by American Indians may be concentrated principally among a small number of beneficiaries, as a result of new forms of closure and new opportunities for collecting rent. The advancement of sovereignty and self-determination allowed tribal governments greater control over resources, resulting in the advent of development initiatives, such as Indian gaming, energy, and diversified use of tribal land. Some tribes have been able to take advantage of these trends, while others remain mired in situations reminiscent of the Indian experience from half a century ago. If the model holds, results will show an increase of within-Indian inequality, particularly by tribal affiliation. The analyses decompose between- and within-tribe inequality.

Stasis model. This model suggests that tribal services and development initiatives may prove to be too narrow to overcome the entrenched institutional problems facing Native Americans. Many key indicators of economic well-being suggest that Natives still show signs of an economic disadvantage similar to that of African-Americans. Indian labor market participation is lower than it was in 1980, and wages have declined relative to whites. These continued inequalities may partially result from continued Indian residential segregation, which not only reduces contact between whites and Indians, but also increases the distance between Indians and the goods, services, and jobs that compose the larger economy.

With a broad but thorough understanding of the social and economic impact of internal and external forces, it can be determined which interventions are successfully improving tribal well-being and which are insufficient to overcome greater institutional forces.

The thread tying all of this together is the simple proposition that boundaries both create inequality by generating rent and alter the relationships within and between bounded groups. Just as licensing alters the very structure of an occupation, Native boundaries, including industry closure resulting from gaming and energy projects, alter the relationship between tribe and state, and the change is amplified by simple geographic isolation. In a simple supply-demand framework, we might hypothesize that such projects would increase tribal revenue because tribes hold a monopoly on the activities, but there is little evidence of the effectiveness of such monopolies. As with licensing, it is unclear that this form of closure provides a direct economic advantage, but it does demarcate barriers between tribe and state in a way that can completely restructure relations between the two. The study of both generic rent-generating processes like licensure and highly-specific and tailored closure forms such as those at work in the Native context reveals the startling truth – that these are not simple economic devices, but fundamental institutional forces.

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