'America First' should start with the plight of the country's abandoned Native population

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  • Native-Americans suffer from what is known as the Asterix problem: Their numbers are too small to have a major macroeconomic impact, and thus their plight as a minority is often ignored.
  • “This section of our population has been invisible – [seen as] too small or insignificant,” Patrice Kunesh, director of the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development, told Business Insider.
  • During 2011-2015, the share of American Indian men ages 16-64 who were without jobs was 49%, compared with 19% for non-Hispanic white men. For women it was 47% compared with 23%.

Most Americans have no idea what the term “Asterix Nation” means – but the idea is all too familiar to nearly 7 million Native Americans.

President Donald Trump often touts his agenda as putting “America First,” a disturbing choice of words since the expression can be traced back to the American Nazi and white supremacist movements of the 1920s. But what that language clearly neglects, apart from America’s history as a nation of immigrants and descendants of slaves, is that the first people to live on this continent’s soil did not come from Europe at all.

“It’s called the Asterix problem – this section of our population has been invisible – [seen as] too small or insignificant,” said Patrice Kunesh,assistant vice president at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, and director of the regional central bank’s Center for Indian Country Development.

“We’re trying to make it visible and make it matter because of as over 1.5% of the population we have 70 million acres of land,” Kunesh, who is of Standing Rock Lakota descent, told Business Insider. “They used to call it the Indian problem, they sort of foisted it on the Indian people. It’s not the Indian problem. There are many ways to advance and resolve these issues but we have to be part of the conversation first.”

It’s certainly an uphill battle. Just try doing a quick internet search for basic economic statistics relating to Native Americans – the data is scant and often outdated.

Here’s what we do know, thanks to the Minneapolis Fed’s own research – many of the numbers are truly unsettling:

  • During 2011-2015, the share of American Indian men ages 16-64 who were without jobs was 49%, compared with 19% for non-Hispanic white men. Meanwhile, the share of Native American women without jobs was 47% compared with 23% for non-Hispanic white women.
  • Many of the more than 5,000 Native children under the age of five in Minnesota are at risk of starting school behind, dropping out of school and adopting unhealthy lifestyles.
  • The teen pregnancy rate for Native Americans ages 15-19 in Minnesota is the highest compared with other races (41.3 per 1,000). In 2015, the rate was four times higher than non-Hispanic Whites.
  • The infant mortality rate for Native Americans (9.1 per 1,000 births in 2008-2012) is more than twice the rate for Whites (4.3 per 1,000 births). In 2012-2014, almost 40% of Native American mothers reported they smoked during the last three months of pregnancy compared with 12% of non-Hispanic Whites.
  • In 2012-2014, 33% of Native American pregnant women experienced food insecurity 12 months before their baby was born. Food insecurity is defined as getting emergency food from a church, a food pantry, or a food bank, or eating in a food kitchen.
  • In 2015, 7.2% of Native American births were considered low birthweight (under 5 lbs, 8 oz), increasing vulnerability to complications during infancy and later health problems. This trend is increasing – numbers are up from 5.1% in 2007. In comparison, 4.1% of non-Hispanic White births were low birthweight in 2015.
  • Many Native American children are vulnerable to food insecurity. 60% of Native American children under the age of 6 were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in 2016.

According to a Bloomberg analysis of Labour Department data, about two-thirds of the 27 US counties with a majority American Indian or Alaska Native population had unemployment rates last year above the national level, with nine at 10% or higher. That contrasts with a national unemployment rate that fell to 3.9% last month, the first reading below 4% since late 2000.

Many of the counties are in the Dakotas and Alaska, the Bloomberg report said. Unemployment rates varied, ranging from 3.5% to a stunning 21%. The overall jobless rate for American Indians and Alaska Natives was 8.9% in 2016, compared with 4.9% for the country as a whole.

Filling a void

For Kunesh, bringing attention to such disparities was the first order of business when she accepted the position to lead the Minneapolis Fed’s Center for Indian Country Development.

“We started the center in 2015. I was working Washington as undersecretary for rural development in the Agriculture Department,” she said. “I really did not know what that entailed but it sounded very exciting, very thrilling, to have the resources and the focus of the Fed” on Native American issues.

She quickly realised the Fed was just “the kind of brain-powerhouse that Indian Country needs. We have been invisible and most of the visibility is around these really atrocious mascots and other really negative things.

“I wanted to show the real story, the lived story, and I wanted to make Indian Country visible. We have to look at this from a historical trauma perspective,” she said.

Because of the tragic history of Native-American genocide and the confinement of the remaining population into reservations around the country, land issues are particularly important for Indian Country development.

That’s because all reservation land is federal land, which means borrowers have a harder time convincing lenders that they possess adequate collateral for loans.

“We started our work in the area of homeownership three years ago – because at rural development I saw the real power, the real influence that having a safe, secure house and home can provide a family and a community,” Kanesh said. “And in Indian Country we know that there’s such a dire need for housing. There’s terrible over-crowdedness, the quality of the homes is really very poor.” Businesses face similar obstacles and prejudices.

Kanesh says one role the Fed can play is to be a facilitator of connections between financial institutions and would-be borrowers in Indian Country, helping to overcome some of the misconceptions that she says tend to accompany the notion of doing business on reservation land.

“We’re trying to bring to life the real story that’s happening in Indian country, framed in the world of economic analysis, but also tie it to the economic drivers or detractors affecting it,” she said.

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