As with any population group, it is difficult to identify the cause of issues that influence the well-being of individuals, families, and communities that are unique to that group. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) are no exception. Geography, economics, community infrastructure, social structure, and history are factors that influence the issues. The consequences of financial issues are not linearly connected to the causes of the issues. Therefore, implementation of a solution may not adequately address the issue and have a long-term positive impact.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have a reputation for having low-income or high unemployment rates. Unfortunately, data from the 2014 US Census Bureau confirms that reputation. The median income for single-race AIAN households was $37,227 compared to $53,657 per household nationally. The poverty rate for AIAN in 2014 was 28.3% compared to 15.5% nationally. The unemployment rate was 11% for AIAN and 6.2% nationally. American Indian and Alaska Natives’ rate was the highest for any race group. To dig a little deeper, we need to understand why reservation communities have limited income flowing between employers, families, and communities that creates or results in the low-income and high unemployment rates.

High unemployment rates could be the consequence of limited economic development in tribal communities. If businesses and government agencies do not have a supply of jobs, then  workforce opportunities are limited. If there are jobs available, but education and training needs cannot be met, then individuals are not able to pursue the job opportunities. On the other side of the issue are the economic development opportunities. Are opportunities limited because individuals and families do not have money to spend at local businesses? Alternatively, are there other factors influencing economic development in reservation communities?

Another issue on Indian reservations is access to adequate housing. The National Congress of American Indians reports that 40% of housing on a reservation is considered substandard. Almost 1/3 of the homes are overcrowded and less than half are connected to public sewer systems with 16% lacking indoor plumbing. In many cases, individuals who are employed on the reservation choose to live off the reservation because of limited access to adequate housing. Income earned is then spent in the community where the employees live. Therefore, businesses on the reservation may lose potential revenue.

Many tribal communities are classified as food deserts, which is defined as limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Access to food is limited due to the low number of food retailers. Additionally, when the demand for food is high and the supply is low, affordability becomes an issue. A population that has a limited income is not able to afford food. As a result of income constraints, even if the food was lower priced, it still may not be affordable. In addition to not enough food retailers on the reservation, non-commodity crops grown on the reservation are transported off the reservation because of limit market access. Food dollars then flow out of the community instead of circulating within.

Limited access to credit is a critical component of economic development and impacts personal financial management. Howevfer, there have been improvements in access to credit on reservations through Native community development financial institutions (CDFI). Individuals and families are able to build, maintain, or repair credit.

Nutrition-related health problems also contribute to financial issues. Limited access to healthy foods contributes to diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and childhood obesity. Even with adequate access to health care and insurance, there is an increased financial burden for individuals and families who are dealing with chronic illnesses.

Other population groups could claim the same issues. What makes these financial issues unique to the AIAN population? A possible explanation is the long history of forced removal, land theft, dependence on government resources, and marginalization of indigenous and tribal communities. As financial professionals, we know that the amount of our annual income, the value of our home, and net worth does not determine our success and happiness. However, being able to contribute to the well-being of a community and to provide financial security for our families does affect our success and happiness. Tribal communities have constraints that hold individuals and families back from creating a financially secure life. There are many opportunities for research and collaboration with organizations who are making progress addressing the financial issues in Indian country.

Lorna Saboe-Wounded Head, Ph.D., AFC®, CFCS is the Family Resource Management Field Specialist for South Dakota State University Extension. Her program and research interests are on financial literacy for disadvantaged populations. You can reach Lorna at

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