The Evaluation of the Tribal Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Initial Implementation Findings. Socioeconomic Circumstances in Indian Country


The socioeconomic circumstances of tribes affect the nature of the workforce, and the lack of jobs on many reservations is a serious handicap to moving people from welfare to work. While the circumstances of each tribe are unique, most tribes have experienced economic, education, housing, health, and other problems at levels of severity rarely seen in most other American communities. These problems are long-standing--many generations of American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced them, and they reflect unique historical and cultural factors, as well as socioeconomic ones. Examples of the difficult socioeconomic circumstances in Indian country include:

  • Unemployment on many reservations ranges from 40 to 80 percent. (10)
  • Fewer than 9 percent of Indians earn a bachelor's degree or higher (compared with more than 20 percent for all races). (11)
  • Almost one-third (32 percent) of Indians had incomes below the poverty level (compared with 13 percent for all races). (12)
  • American Indian death rates from accidents, diabetes, liver disease, and tuberculosis are between three and five times that for all races, and the years of productive life lost are more than 1.5 times that of all races in the United States. (13)
  • Forty percent of reservation housing is considered substandard, compared with 5.9 percent of housing generally; 21 percent of reservation dwellings are overcrowded, and 16 percent lack adequate plumbing. (14) (15)

Tribes face the challenges of few jobs and a workforce with substantial personal barriers to employment. Among the study grantees, the percentage of unemployed people in the workforce ranges from 12 percent at Cherokee to 71 percent at Tanana Chiefs Conference, with six of the grantees having more than 50 percent unemployment (see Table 2.2). This is more than ten times the national rate of 4.2 percent. In 8 of the 10 study sites, the majority of the workforce has a high school diploma or equivalent, but the percentage of high school graduates in all sites is substantially lower than the national rate of 83 percent. No grantee in the study has a workforce with more than 9 percent having a bachelor's degree or higher, in contrast to the U.S. population, where 25 percent have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

Table 2.2
Grantee Labor Force, Employment, and Poverty Data


Labor Force Percent Unemployed Percent High School Graduate or Higher Percent Bachelor's Degree or Higher Per-Capita Incomea Number of TANF Recipients Percent Below Poverty


23,384 n.a. n.a. n.a. n.a. 160 n.a.


2,366 12.0 63 1 $6,382 87 n.a.


350 24.0 72 9 $4,831 10 n.a.

Klamath Tribes

735 42.0 63 3 $5,672 28 19.0

Navajo Nation

41,451 58.0 41 3 $11,835 27,000 33.0

Nez Perce

743 64.0 71 1 $6,102 109 n.a.

Red Lake

871 62.0 65 5 19,390 650 49.0


142 71.0 64 1 $6,927 174 43.0


1,059 61.0 70 1 $4,849 114 38.0

White Earth

765 55.0 61 1 $4,917 149 10.0

United Statesb

139.4 million 4.2 83 25 $24,314 5,780,543c 11.8
n.a. = not available.
Source: Grantees and Tiller (1996).
a Income listed for Navajo Nation and Red Lake Tribe is per household (per-capita data unavailable).
b U.S. Bureau of the Census. "USA Statistics in Brief, 1999." Accessed 4/24/01. Accessed 4/24/01.

The low level of educational attainment represents a major barrier to employment of tribal members in many jobs in the economy and bodes ill for future employment. The per-capita income at each of the grantees for which data are available was below the poverty rate of $8,590 ($10,730 in Alaska) in the year 2000 (the $11,835 reported for the Navajo Nation is per family, not per capita). The percentage of tribal members with incomes below the poverty level ranges from 10 percent (White Earth) to 49 percent (Red Lake), compared with 11.8 percent for the United States as a whole.

In addition to limiting the transition from welfare to work, the lack of jobs and low income levels have other pernicious effects. Unemployment breeds more than poverty--it contributes to a sense of futility and a cluster of social ills. School dropout rates among Indians are high. Abuse of alcohol and other drugs is widespread; the mortality rate for Indians associated with alcohol-induced chronic liver disease is more than twice that of all races in the United States. Depression is common, and the suicide rate for Indians is 2.8 times greater than that of all races in the United States. (16)