For the first time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released monthly data on American Indian and Alaska Native unemployment. Although this data has previously been available in the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, it had not been separately reported. This made it difficult for nonexperts to discern the well-being of Native people in the labor market, and contributed to their further erasure in mainstream U.S. society. The new data is a significant step forward for improving the visibility of their economic condition.
These new numbers show a labor market that is leaving Native people behind. While the nation’s topline unadjusted unemployment rate was 4.4 percent in January, the unemployment rate among Native workers was an extraordinarily high 11.1 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. Nearly two years into the pandemic recovery and Native workers are contending with a labor market that would be considered catastrophic if it was reflective of the full economy.
The Brookings report shows that, prior to the pandemic, American Indians and Alaska Natives had a higher unemployment rate than other racial groups, with a 7.5 percent unemployment rate in February 2020. As the pandemic took hold, the Native unemployment rate jumped to 28.6 percent — “a level comparable to national unemployment during the Great Depression.”
While national unemployment numbers have recovered since the start of the pandemic, American Indians and Alaska Natives continue to experience substantial labor market challenges. For comparison, the January 2022 unemployment rate for Native workers was higher than the unemployment rate for white workers in June 2020, just two months after the unemployment peak — a period widely considered a national crisis.
Persistently high levels of unemployment for American Indians and Alaska Natives may be related to the structural racism that permeates the U.S. economy, affecting educational access and attainment as well as employment opportunities. There is some evidence that American Indians and Alaska Natives have higher unemployment rates than white workers even when controlling for a host of other factors. The new monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data on Native unemployment can help facilitate further research on this topic going forward.
However, this dataset only reports data on people who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native alone. That’s problematic because over 61 percent of Native people (and 56 percent of Native Hawaiians) identify as two or more races. By reporting Native labor market data using workers who only identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the BLS is excluding more than three out of every five Native workers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’ Center for Indian Country Development, however, is providing common labor market metrics for Native workers of all racial combinations in their Native American Labor Market Dashboard, and has plans to expand these efforts.
Prioritizing better data collection for Native nations in the U.S., and putting data collection in the hands of Native nations themselves, has been a consistent demand of tribal governments across the U.S. With this, there is a growing Native data-sovereignty movement that policymakers should embed in their work with Native nations.
At the National Indian Council on Aging, we help elders find work, develop new skills and talents, and build their financial security by taking advantage of the Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP). SCSEP is an on-the-job training and employment program designed to help those age 55 and older update their jobs skills, build work experience and confidence, and continue to have economic security and well-being. Click here to learn more or to fill out an application.