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Using OnTheMap to Understand Reservation Employment and Commuting Patterns

Use the Census Bureau’s dynamic OnTheMap tool to better understand Indian reservations’ employment and housing markets and infrastructure needs, including where American Indian reservation residents work, where reservation workers live, and the resulting commuting patterns to and from a reservation.

February 14, 2017


Richard M. Todd Former Vice President and Advisor to the CICD
Using OnTheMap to Understand Reservation Employment and Commuting Patterns

OnTheMap, as described by the U.S. Census Bureau, is “a web-based mapping and reporting application that shows where workers are employed and where they live.” It also includes a host of other information, such as workers’ age, earnings, industry, race, ethnicity, educational attainment, and sex.1 Here I use OnTheMap’s reports for the Crow Reservation to illustrate how this tool can identify important employment and commuting patterns.2

These data are easily accessible from OnTheMap’s homepage. Begin with the “Search All Names” menu, then:

  • Look for the “Tribal Lands” option;
  • Type “Crow” in the adjacent box and hit “Search”;
  • Click the resulting link for “Crow Reservation”;
  • Click the ensuing option to “Perform Analysis on Selection Area” to bring up a long menu of reports on the Crow Reservation.

I will focus on three reports from that menu that use the data on “Primary Jobs” for 2014.3

For an initial overview, select the “Inflow/Outflow” report and hit “Go” to see the results in Figure 1 and accompanying statistical details. This figure shows that in 2014, 1,920 workers held their primary job on the reservation. Only 607 of these reservation workers also lived on the reservation. The rest—1,313 workers who accounted for 68.4 percent of the primary jobs on the reservation—commuted to these reservation jobs from homes elsewhere. At the same time, 1,613 reservation residents commuted to primary jobs off the reservation, accounting for 72.7 percent of the 2,220 workers who lived on the reservation.

Figure 1: Inflow/Outflow Job Counts for the Crow Reservation (2014)

onthemap key

Note that the arrows in the figure are arranged from left to right solely for readability and do not show actual commuting routes. To learn more about actual commutes, you can choose the additional OnTheMap reports for “Destination” and “Distance/Direction.”4 These reports show, for example, that workers traveling to their primary jobs from homes on the Crow Reservation mostly commute toward the west or north and often travel more than 50 miles one way. Workers living elsewhere and commuting to primary jobs on the Crow Reservation also often commute more than 50 miles one way, primarily from the north and northwest. The flows in both directions most commonly begin or end in the off-reservation cities of Billings or Hardin or the on-reservation town of Crow Agency, but a long list of home areas and workplaces is represented.

To better understand commuting flows to and from the reservation, OnTheMap provides two versions of its “Area Profile” report. The “Work” option provides demographic and job information on workers with primary jobs on the reservation, no matter where they live. The “Home” option provides the same information on workers who live on the reservation, no matter where they work. With either option, you can elect to have OnTheMap generate a convenient “Detailed Report” as a PDF file.

The Detailed Report by place of work implies that a high percentage of the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) individuals with primary jobs on the reservation live elsewhere. It shows that most on-reservation primary-job workers (72.6 percent) identify racially as AIAN alone. With 1,920 primary jobs on the reservation, that would imply that almost 1,400 single-race AIAN persons have their primary job on the reservation. This is far larger than the 607 workers (of all races) who live and have their primary job on the reservation. In other words, on a typical day in 2014, almost 800 single-race AIAN workers commuted to primary jobs on the Crow Reservation from homes off the reservation. In addition, the total of 1,920 primary jobs on the reservation is low relative to the reservation’s population of nearly 7,000, which may help explain phenomena such as:

  • The relatively large number of commutes to off-reservation jobs;
  • The reservation’s high official unemployment rate (about 26 percent in 2010–2014, as shown here); and
  • The reservation’s relatively high reliance on self-employment income (as discussed here).

The large flow of AIAN workers commuting onto the reservation also suggests an economic development opportunity. If impediments to living on the reservation were reduced, some of these workers, as well as some non-AIAN workers, might choose to shorten their commutes by moving to the reservation. More workers living on the reservation would then expand the market for retail and other local consumer services, paving the way for business and employment growth on the reservation. Factors that currently discourage on-reservation living might include:

  • A limited market for rental and owner-occupied housing;
  • Limited access to mortgage credit on reservations (discussed here); or
  • Concerns about the availability or quality of other services, such as retail outlets, schools, or communications (Internet and phones).

Addressing the root causes of such impediments may not be easy, and shortcuts can cause more harm than good (e.g., requiring that reservation jobs be filled by reservation residents). Nonetheless, over time tribal leaders may find that removing the impediments to reservation residence will be an important component of an overall development strategy.

The Detailed Report also shows that primary jobs on the reservation are heavily concentrated in Public Administration (66.2 percent of the total) and Education (15.6 percent). Other major industries that account for at least 2 percent of these jobs are Agriculture/Forestry/Fishing/Hunting (5.1 percent), Retail Trade (4.4 percent), and Arts/Recreation/Entertainment (4.4 percent). Overall, primary jobs on the Crow Reservation are heavily concentrated in the public sector and under-represented in important sectors such as construction, manufacturing, transportation, health and social services, and food and accommodations.

By contrast, the Detailed Report for workers living on the Crow Reservation shows a more balanced pattern of jobs by industry. The Public Administration and Education sectors are still the largest two industries, accounting for 25.9 percent and 12.0 percent of jobs held by workers who live on the reservation, respectively. However, a wide range of industries employ at least 2 percent of these workers, led by jobs in Health Care and Social Assistance (9.1 percent), Retail Trade (8.2 percent), and Accommodation and Food Service (7.1 percent). This suggests that the reservation population includes workers with the skills needed to support a well-balanced (by industry) economy. In other words, OnTheMap also provides evidence that another development strategy is to adopt policies that encourage employers in a wide range of industries to locate where many of their workers already live: on the reservation.

The patterns I’ve highlighted for the Crow Reservation may or may not hold on other reservations or be typical of reservations generally. However, they illustrate that OnTheMap can provide useful employment and commuting data relevant to economic development and policymaking on reservations—and in other communities, too.


1 OnTheMap’s basic job and commuting counts are available annually starting from 2002. Some of the additional demographic data, such as on race and education of workers, are only available starting from 2009.

2 Preston Eagleheart’s presentation “Economic Development Assessment Study for Native Communities” at the 2016 Mid Year Conference of the National Congress of American Indians (Spokane, June 29) made me aware of OnTheMap’s data on reservations.

3 If a person holds multiple jobs, the job that accounts for the largest share of their income is their primary job. OnTheMap can also analyze all jobs, primary or not, and the results for the Crow Reservation are very similar to those shown here.

4 To choose a new report, click “Change Settings” to return to the report menu.