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Indian youth face enormous economic and health obstacles






Youth from the Choctaw Nation wait to hear from President Barack Obama during his visit to Durant, Oklahoma, on July 15, 2015. Photo from Facebook

American Indian children suffer from the second highest-rate of poverty in the United States, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In 2013, 37 percent of Indian children lived below the poverty level, the Kids Count Data Book stated. That was nearly as high as the 39 percent of American American children in poverty and far higher than the national average of 22 percent.

The situation arises due to a lack of steady employment on and near reservations. According to the report, 50 percent of Indian children had no parent with full-time, year-round employment in 2013, the highest rate in the nation.

The limited economic opportunities end up affecting the well-being of Indian youth. Indian children were twice as likely to lack health insurance coverage than any other racial or ethnic group, the report stated.

Educational attainment also suffers. According to the report, 59 percent of Indian children didn't attend pre-school from 2011 through 2013, the second-highest rate.

Achievement benchmarks for fourth- and eight-grade Indian students were among the worst in the nation, the report stated. Further down the line, 32 percent of Indian students failed to graduate from high school on time, the highest rate.

"On nearly all of the measures that we track, African-American, American Indian and Latino children continued to experience negative outcomes at rates that were higher than the national average," the foundation stated.


First Lady Michelle Obama greets Elizabeth Ferguson, 21, of Kotzebue, Alaska, following her remarks at the Tribal Youth Gathering in support of the Generation Indigenous and Reach Higher initiatives in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2015. Photo by Lawrence Jackson / White House

The report comes as federal officials pay more attention to an often-neglected segment of Indian Country. First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed nearly 1,000 young people to the first-ever White House Tribal Youth Gathering in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

Obama said she recognized the struggles and challenges facing Native youth. But she hoped that her husband's Generation Indigenous initiative would help spur change and inspire them to improve their lives.

"Like many young people your age, I know that you may have moments in your lives when you’re filled with doubts, or you feel weighed down by history or stifled by your circumstances, or think that no one really understands what you’re going through," the First Lady said in her remarks on July 9. "But when you start to feel that way, I want you all to remember one simple but powerful truth -– that every single one of your lives is precious and sacred, and each of you was put on this earth for a reason."

President Barack Obama also highlighted Native youth during his visit to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma last week. He said he feels a "special obligation" towards young tribal members.


Tyler Campbell leads the Choctaw Nation in the Pledge of Allegiance during President Barack Obama's visit to Durant, Oklahoma, on July 15, 2015. Photo from Facebook

"You spend time with these young people from all across the country and they will blow you away," Obama said in July 15. "They are smart, and they’re passionate, and they are ready to seize the future."

Members of Congress are paying attention too. The Native American Children's Safety Act (H.R.1168 | S.184) offers more safeguards to Native children in foster care and is close to becoming law after clearing the the House and the Senate last month.

Also last month, Senate passed S.246, the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Act, to improve programs and services for Native youth at the tribal, federal and state level. The House version, H.R.2751, was introduced on June 12.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing last week on juvenile justice, an issue that hasn't received much attention until recently. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) hopes that will be changing.

"Indian communities are strong and thriving, but face many challenges and issues," Barrasso, who serves as chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks. "I have heard from many tribal leaders and parents from these communities. None of the issues are more important to them than those affecting their children."

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