Skip to main content

Islands of Labor: Reservation Labor Markets and American Indian Well-Being (WP-21-42)

Beth Redbird

It has been a generation since the last systematic examination of Native socio-economic well-being. Since then, several important developments have proliferated across Indian country, including Indian gaming, energy projects, expanded social and health services, new forms of tribal governance, and the advent of tribal colleges.

Traditionally, labor market research regarded American Indian populations as subject to the same market forces as other traditionally disadvantaged populations. The resulting assumption is that the theory and conclusions that apply to other minority populations must also apply to Indians. This may be true in some areas, but in others, distinct institutional and policy features of Native labor markets create unique challenges that impact Indian well-being. This project explores the interplay between reservation labor markets, tribal policy, and Native economic health.

Results suggest that Indian poverty is largely driven by employment and wages. Given this reliance on labor market factors, the second part of the report examines whether tribal job innovations, particularly Indian gaming and energy development, are creating jobs and alleviating poverty. Results suggest that, while both initiatives effectively create reservation jobs, both fail to create lasting jobs that pull workers out of poverty.

Beth Redbird, Assistant Professor of Sociology and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Download PDF