Opinion | Politics

Mark Trahant: Indian Country left behind as jobs evaporate

The Hamilton Project chart reveals that once the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) began to phase down – and state and local governments struggled to balance their budgets – government employment dropped precipitously and now stands at 9.0 percent. This is the lowest level of public-sector employment in over 30 years.

Wall Street celebrated last week’s jobs report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that unemployment fell to 7.5 percent and that 165,000 new jobs were added in April. The report also revised its numbers from the past couple of months, saying that the job creation was stronger than first glance.

But the same numbers are lousy in Indian Country. If you read the full report there’s a number (and a trend) that is concerning: Government sector employment continues to drop. In the technical language of the BLS, “Employment in ... government, showed little change over the month.” Little change was a minus 11,000 jobs. But if you pull back and look at the longer trend government employment continues to shrink.

A report by The Hamilton Project last year detailed this larger trend.

“Total government (i.e., the sum of state, local, and federal) employment has decreased by over 580,000 jobs since the end of the recession, the largest decrease in any sector since the recovery began in July 2009. State and local governments, faced with tough choices imposed by the confluence of balanced-budget requirements, falling tax revenues, and greater demand for public services, have been forced to lay off teachers, police officers, and other workers,” the report by Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney reported last August. This is the lowest public-sector employment in 30 years.

But go back even further and the trend is even more stark. Between 1950 and 1975 government jobs accounted for 1 in every 4 jobs created “contributing to widespread public belief that government, especially the Federal government, is too large,” said a 1981 BLS report.

There is no national data on the growth of tribal governments just after this time frame, but there should be.

The post-1975 growth of tribal government services is stunning, drive around any reservation and the visible evidence is overwhelming. Tribes created programs, took over the management of Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Service, built schools and colleges.

The California Indian Gaming Association reported in 2003, for example, that “tribal government economies have for three years lead the state in job growth, with employment more than doubling since January 2000, when there were 17,200 workers on tribal payrolls.”

And in Washington state, in a report last year, tribal employment increased 56 percent since 2004, employing more than 27,000 people, including 18,000 non-tribal member employees.

But the shrinking federal dollar will soon impact these tribal jobs, both directly and indirectly. Next year will be worse than this (even with the sequester) and the years after will be even more destructive. It’s important to remember that the Budget Control Act is a ten-year law. The sequester that’s in the news now is only the beginning of the process.

To undo that law there must be a consensus found with President Barack Obama, the Senate and the House. That’s not going to happen soon. In fact the Congress cannot even agree to appoint a conference committee to negotiate the Senate and House budgets, let alone move forward on some sort of longer term solution. More likely, as I have written before, will be another continuing resolution, an ad-hoc budget that falls short of what’s needed.

The argument in the larger economy is that the private sector will make up the difference in government hiring. (The evidence says otherwise ... but that’s another story.) But for Indian Country this is a false premise: There is clearly not enough of a private sector to hire enough people.

Wall Street may be celebrating a new era of job creation. But Indian Country is being left behind.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He lives in Fort Hall, Idaho, and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. A new Facebook page has been set up at: www.facebook.com/IndianCountryAusterity.

More from Mark Trahant:
Mark Trahant: Congress acts quickly to fix the wrong problem (4/29)
Mark Trahant: Termination and austerity born of same ideology (4/22)

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