A lack of high-quality data stands in the way of Native Americans’ economic progress and tribes’ ability to implement effective public policy in Indian Country.
Nonetheless, we do know some facts about the array of challenges communities across Indian Country are confronting. According to government data, Native Americans consistently have among the lowest educational attainments, per capita incomes (for those living on tribal lands), and life expectancies, and some of the highest unemployment rates and rates of chronic distress. Tribal communities suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic offset substantial economic and health gains from the last 30 years, meaning that significant efforts are needed to improve Indian Country conditions in the long term.
Effective public policy decisions are needed to address such stark realities. Those decisions will be as complex and diverse as Indian Country itself. That’s why comprehensive, geographically specific, and reliable data matter. They can help tribal leaders and policymakers make the thoughtful and forward-moving decisions needed to fuel economic prosperity for Native Americans.
Barriers to high-quality Indian Country data
There are at least three challenges when it comes to supplying the data that are needed in Indian Country: inadequate sample sizes, mismatched geographies, and unique data characteristics.
Comprehensive, geographically specific, and reliable data ... can help tribal leaders and policymakers make the thoughtful and forward-moving decisions needed to fuel economic prosperity for Native Americans.
First, sample sizes for Native Americans are often very small. In the 2020 Census, out of a total U.S. population of over 330 million, only 3.7 million people reported American Indian and Alaska Native identity alone, and 9.7 million reported American Indian and Alaska Native identity alone or in combination with other identities. Many surveys and other data-collection efforts are insufficient to precisely assess conditions in Indian Country. In some cases, survey data permit identification of some racial and ethnic groups but not American Indians and Alaska Natives or Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders.
Second, mismatched geographies in statistical products are a challenge. The geographic units used in many surveys do not line up precisely with Indian Country maps, making it difficult to determine which parts of the data truly correspond to tribal areas. This matters because conditions can vary dramatically between locations just inside and just outside tribal-area borders.
Third, Indian Country has unique characteristics that imply unique data needs. For example, many tribal governments own and operate enterprises that simultaneously shape regional economic activity and provide much of tribal governments’ fiscal resources. Another unique feature of Indian Country is the importance of tribal affiliation and enrollment—two designations that are often not indicated in existing surveys. And tribal communities may care about measures that reflect Indigenous understandings of well-being and economic success but are typically not recorded in data, like proficiency in a Native language or tribal definitions of Indigenous wealth.
Do researchers, policymakers, and stakeholders have all the information we need? Are there gaps in our knowledge for certain populations?1 How does the size of a population—often small in the case of Native Americans—affect the quality of available data?2 What are the data deficiencies in Indian Country—at the individual, family, business, and government levels—and how can we address them?
What data are missing in Indian Country?
Individuals, workers, and families
Information about individuals and families is essential for understanding the economic and social challenges and opportunities different groups and communities face throughout the United States. When it comes to Native Americans, there are glaring gaps in the availability of this information related to the three challenges discussed above.
Inadequate sample sizes are a key issue. Unless sampled by the data-collecting agency in numbers high enough to achieve statistical precision, publicly available data will typically not contain information on American Indian and Alaska Native individuals. For example, our understanding of the finances of Native American families—including their savings, debt, and total wealth—is much more limited than that of non-Native families. The Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is the gold standard for assessing, understanding, and documenting changes in the wealth and asset holdings for racial and ethnic groups in the United States. But while the SCF currently provides separate estimates for Black, Latino/a, and White respondents, it does not allow for any calculations specific to American Indians and Alaska Natives or Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders.3
In other cases, data are available, but sample sizes may not be large enough for the full range of potential analyses. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics employment report provides monthly estimates of meaningful labor market variables such as unemployment and labor force participation, breaking those estimates out for Asian, Black, Latino/a, and White (non-Latino/a) workers. Starting in January 2022, this report includes estimates for American Indian and Alaska Native workers—a welcome development. However, the small sample size—only 895 American Indian and Alaska Native labor force members were included in January 2022—makes it difficult to estimate monthly values of outcomes like unemployment.4
Data coverage for American Indians and Alaska Natives does sometimes benefit from “oversampling” smaller populations, as is the case with the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). That survey, which annually provides updated snapshots of communities across the country, oversamples residents of less-populated reservations and other small communities. Still, it is often necessary for data users to pool five years of data, trading timeliness for additional sample size.5
Even when a data product aspires to universal coverage of the entire population, Indian Country has not been fully included. In 2010 and 2020, the decennial census undercounted American Indian and Alaska Native residents by substantial margins.
Beyond concerns about inadequate sample sizes, surveys of individuals and families can miss unique considerations relevant to Indian Country. For example, Native Americans have unique political standing as citizens of sovereign tribal nations. But census data do not allow for a sharp distinction between self-reported Native American status and tribal citizenship. This differentiation matters because tribes often use citizenship as a determinant of eligibility for the services they provide. Tribes serve tribal citizens living on and off tribal lands (and, in some cases, may serve citizens of other tribal nations). Better information on tribes’ citizenry may be helpful for tribal governments and other government units as they deliver public goods in their tribal communities.6
Despite these limitations, the decennial census and ACS remain crucial tools for understanding issues Native Americans face. However, the Census Bureau has indicated its intention to reduce the accuracy of publicly available decennial census and ACS data—especially at the most geographically granular levels. The Census Bureau has grown concerned that improvements in computing technology may now make it possible to identify individual survey respondents by using other, third-party datasets. The proposed changes to the decennial census and ACS could have a negative effect on data users’ understanding of American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
It is also essential to have information about business activity, including data that allow for demographic identification of business ownership. For instance, without such data, we cannot understand whether Native-owned and tribal enterprises can access sufficient financing and participate fully in government programs.7
Some of our most valuable data on businesses are available to researchers on a confidential, restricted-access basis. The Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Business Database, for example, is an excellent source of information about how U.S. businesses (including those on- and off-reservation) are faring.
But there are substantial gaps in Indian Country business data, whether those data are publicly available or confidential. Most important, there exist no comprehensive data on tribally owned enterprises. While enterprises owned by a government play a marginal role in non-Native economies, they are central to Indian Country economies. Tribal enterprises provide considerable revenue to their governments and employment for tribal citizens. Moreover, tribal enterprises function differently from privately owned businesses and are often called upon to achieve public objectives.
Data on businesses owned by individual Native Americans, as opposed to businesses owned by tribal governments, do exist. The Census Bureau’s Annual Business Survey (ABS) is an essential resource for counting businesses—including Native-owned businesses—and understanding the characteristics of their owners. The ABS provides data on owners’ ages, educational attainment, ownership tenure, and business receipts and employment.
However, the ABS doesn’t distinguish between privately owned businesses and tribal enterprises. Very little comprehensive data exist for tribal enterprises—including the social functions of these enterprises, such as remitting revenues to tribal governments and prioritizing stable employment of tribal and community members. In many cases, this lack of publicly available data may be due to understandable concerns about protecting the data sovereignty of tribes and the proprietary business information they hold.8 However, it’s possible to conduct research using these data—providing valuable insights for tribes and tribal stakeholders—without compromising confidentiality.
Data on governments—including their revenues, expenditures, debt, and assets—are essential for analyzing public policy. The Annual Survey of Government Finances and the Census of Governments offer such data for federal, state, and local governments. But there’s no comparable public data available for tribal governments.
This is especially consequential for analytical purposes, because tribal governments, by contrast to other governments, generate a much smaller share of revenues from taxation and a much greater share from businesses they own. This makes their fiscal situation quite different from that of state or local governments. That lack of publicly available data is understandable; some tribal governments have data-capacity constraints, and tribal governments may be hesitant to share information due to prior instances of inappropriate use of tribal data.
However, better information would permit a fuller understanding of tribes’ fiscal capacity and economic contributions, their resilience in the face of economic shocks, and their existing commitments to providing public services and infrastructure for Native and non-Native community members.
A call for collaboration
More and better data in Indian Country can be provided, but solutions will require substantial investments and trust. Tribes have sovereign rights over their data and must be equal partners in developing and using data tools.
Each of the 574 federally recognized tribes exercises its inherent sovereignty as a distinct political body within the United States. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility to tribes to uphold tribal treaty rights and carry out other federal laws that affect Native Americans and tribes. In this context, high-quality data are a critical resource.
Making progress must be a joint effort that includes tribes and the federal government. Collaboration with federal agencies, the research community, and data users will be vital for generating high-quality data.9 Those data are needed to guide decision-making in Indian Country, and they’re needed to strengthen tribal economic self-determination and well-being. They’re needed, too, to reap benefits for Native and non-Native peoples and communities across the United States.