Poverty: Our Native American Future at Risk

By Roy Cook

The U.S. Census Bureau data released today , September 2012, offers a detailed look at income and poverty levels in San Diego. The Center on Policy Initiatives, a community advocacy group, analyzed the earnings figures. Their report, "Poverty, Earnings and Income in San Diego County 2011," shows spending power was down in 2011.

Today’s release of local census numbers offers fresh evidence of the financial toll the prolonged economic slump and high rate of joblessness has had on the county's households. The grim figures mirror national and statewide trends of amplified poverty and shrinking household budgets.

In San Diego County, where unemployment has remained stubbornly high, the number of people living in poverty surged nearly 20 percent to 446,060. Similarly, the ranks of children under 18 who lived below the official poverty line rose steeply.

Many more San Diegans, though, faced similarly hard times last year, the data revealed. Recent history has documented: the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, 15% of San Diego County children are living in families with income below the federal poverty level (FPL). Poverty in itself is a risk factor for adverse child health and development, and children of color are disproportionately represented in this cohort. Among San Diego County population, 13% of white children live in poverty, compared to 23% of African-American children, 32% of American Indian children, 33% of Pacific Islander children, and 24% of Hispanic/Latino children. The effects of poverty on children have been widely studied and published. They include a greater exposure to and risk of: child abuse and neglect, parental substance abuse, family and community violence, environmental toxins, malnutrition and food insufficiency, chronic health conditions and disabilities, and poorer academic outcomes. Sustained poverty in childhood has a profound effect on early childhood development and the potential for school success.

Corinne Wilson, director of research and policy for the Center for Policy Initiatives in San Diego, told KPBS people in San Diego can buy less with their paychecks than last year.

"So while we're working, we can't buy the same like we did last year," she said.

Wilson said the industry that pays the least in wages, the tourism industry, has had stagnant wage growth for the past five years. Also the industry that employs the most people in San Diego, the health care and assistance industry also had stagnant earnings.

The official poverty rate on reservations is 28.4 percent, compared with 15.3 nationally. Thirty-six percent of families with children are below the poverty line on reservations, compared with 9.2 percent of families nationally.[4] These figures are absolute poverty rates as determined by the US Census. In 2010, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $22,113.[5] Some reservations in Washington, California, Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, and New Mexico fare worst, with more than 60 percent of residents living in poverty.[6]

Income levels on some reservations are extremely low. Five of the lowest per capita incomes in the country are found on reservations. Allen, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, has the lowest per capita income in the country, at $1,539 per year.[6] Overall, the per capita income of American Indians on Reservations is half that of all Americans.[3] The median income on reservations is $29,097, compared to $41,994 nationally.

Poverty Rates on the Ten Largest Reservations


Navajo Indian Reservation

Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation

Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation

Cheyenne River Indian Reservation

Standing Rock Indian Reservation

Crow Indian Reservation

Wind River Indian Reservation

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Fort Peck Indian Reservation

San Carlos Indian Reservation

National Average


Ariz. New Mex, Utah



South Dakota

South Dakota and North Dakota




South Dakota



Poverty Rate (Families w/ Children)













Poverty Rate (Individuals)













Figures from the 2000 census.

Extreme Poverty

The extreme poverty rate of a population is the percentage of families earning less than half of the poverty threshold. For a family of four in 2010, the extreme poverty threshold was approximately $11,000, or less than $3,000 per person. On large reservations, the extreme poverty rate is as much as six times the national rate. On average, the extreme poverty rate on the largest reservations is almost four times the national rate.

There is hope for our future; our tribal traditions will sustain us. The deep emotion and examples come from their love for those past lifetimes we wish to be part of. No matter how little money one has no one goes hungry in a tribal community. Generosity and hospitality are constant tribal values.

I also know when people relearn their language the first thing they wish to do is pray in it. I have been at the deathbed of several tribal languages, and know most are weak and fragile. On behalf of the tribal languages of this earth, I share this dream with you. The dream has a question in it, but I do not know the answer except the one I gave years ago. The answer is in your heart, and belongs to only you.

It goes like this: you are walking in a place you know and love, and come upon your grandparents sitting by the path. Do you pass them by and abandon them, or stop; embrace them, and carry them to your destination? It should be an easy choice, but it isn’t in this day and age.

Tribal languages are the grandparents in the dream, and only the uncaring, unknowing, and those too busy pass them by. If you stop and embrace them wealth, nourishment and a kinder world will be bestowed upon you. Tribal languages can be revitalized to sooth our children’s hearts again if people stop long enough to embrace them. Our tribal language can produce healthy kids with choices, and therefore parity.

To embrace our grandparents we ask each community to design a school for the children as our grandparent’s home. No government funds are necessary to build or operate it. It is the hope and process of our tribal ways through language.

It is a beautiful place, and I wish there were such places for every Indian child in this land. Maybe you will build one for your children. My language was a calling I heard years ago that I mistook for loneliness. I cherish every word learned, and my prayers are to be granted time to learn more. I learned a great deal through this calling. I utilize the formal Western education taught me in schools and universities, although it no longer dictates my definition of knowledge.

I can only tell you this: You do not need permission to study your language. Make your prayers to the Creator for strength, and trust in what is provided. Do not debate with people who question your journey. Make use of the process of self-discovery and follow your Indian heart. It is a difficult, but truly rewarding journey home.