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The Landscape of Opportunity in Indian Country: A Discussion of Data from the Opportunity Atlas

Blog by Patrice H. Kunesh on new research by Center for Indian Country Development research economist Donna Feir.

April 30, 2019


Patrice H. Kunesh Assistant Vice President, Director, Center for Indian Country Development (former)
The Landscape of Opportunity in Indian Country: A Discussion of Data from the Opportunity Atlas

Parents generally want their children's lives to be better than their own. While parents may differ about what "better" looks like, it often includes this hope: that their children become financially better off than they are. In economic terms, this is referred to as "intergenerational mobility."

What does economic mobility look like for Native children across Indian Country? And where opportunity is lacking, what can we do to improve opportunity in these areas?

To answer these questions, CICD research economist Donna Feir recently examined the publicly available data collected by Raj Chetty, John Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones, and Sonya Porter in the Opportunity Atlas.1  This research provides diverse data sorting tools to massive economic, geographic, and demographic data sets. According to Chetty and his team, intergenerational mobility heavily depends both on race and geography.

The patterns Feir discovers in the Opportunity Atlas for Native people are striking: the relative landscape of opportunity for Native peoples in the United States looks fundamentally different than that for whites.2  In "The Landscape of Opportunity in Indian Country: A Discussion of Data from the Opportunity Atlas," Feir highlights three of the most notable findings.


First, Native American children have the lowest rates of upward economic mobility and, even if they come from high income families, they are still more likely to end up in the bottom of the income distribution in adulthood. Second, Native women seem to experience the largest disparities in intergenerational mobility. Third, Native children raised in Census tracts that significantly overlap with American Indian reservation lands show greater upward mobility, a finding that undercuts a commonly-held belief that American Indian reservations are predictors of negative economic outcomes for Native children.

The data are not perfect and more analysis is required. Indeed, Feir cautions that "the data are problematic in the same way virtually all government data on Native peoples are – being a Native person in the United States is not well approximated by single race classifications." Given these complications with the racial classifications in the Atlas, Feir counsels against making generalizations to all Native peoples and tribes.
The underlying factors that generate a "slippery staircase" in income mobility for Native people need to be better understood. Many factors differentially affect Native communities and Native people, some of which have been discussed in other CICD articles.3

What will it take to truly disrupt the low intergenerational mobility cycle or the slippery staircase conundrum? Many organizations and researchers are trying to tackle specific facets of inequality—in education, healthcare, or economic mobility—but few have sought to address the larger issue of the transfer of poverty from one generation to the next.

I take some measure of optimism from Feir's finding about the possibility of greater opportunity outcomes on tribe-affiliated census tracts. These tracts represent communities where tribal citizens and family members are interconnected and bound together through place, culture, and history. Thus strategies to optimize intergenerational economic and educational success in Indian Country must comprehend and coordinate these interrelated facets.

I often hear the argument that Native people need to leave the reservation to find opportunity. My own mother, whose dour perspectives of reservation life stem from the rampant poverty on the Standing Rock Reservation in the early 1900s and the trauma of the boarding school era, has lamented the reservation as a place to raise children. Yet from the sample of communities in this data, Feir's analysis makes me think that the landscape for opportunity for Native peoples is tribal land itself. We are eager to unlock the potential of those lands for the prosperity and well-being of Native peoples everywhere.

Read "The Landscape of Opportunity in Indian Country: A Discussion of Data from the Opportunity Atlas," Research Brief by Dr. Donna Feir.



1 The Opportunity Atlas is derived from the work of economists Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hendren, Maggie R. Jones, and Sonya Porter reported in The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility (Sept. 2018) and in Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective (March 2018).

2 Randall Akee et. al (2017), the first to use the underlying the linked data in the Opportunity Atlas, also show intergenerational income mobility and inequality depend on race.

3 See, e.g., Welton, Jessie, "Ending Violence Against Native Women: Moving to Action, CICD Research Article (Mar. 22, 2019); and Richard Todd, "High Death Rates on the High Plains-A Call for Better Data on American Indian Communities," CICD Blog (Nov. 5, 2015).