To meet multifaceted needs in Indian Country, Sanders and Clinton should combine their proposals

April 5, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both recently done something rare for a presidential campaign: they have elevated Native American issues (they’re the only candidates to do so). With a rally at the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States, Sanders spoke about his plan to address profound economic and infrastructure inequities faced by many Native communities.

In a presidential campaign filled with abstract rhetoric about trade policy, counterterrorism, and 2,000-mile border walls, voters may be surprised at the depth of Indian Country’s challenges. Some are serious, but perhaps not shocking. For example, between 2006 and 2011, the tribal unemployment rate was 16 percent, twice the 8 percent rate among non-Natives in the United States. Tribal poverty rates were also high: 30 percent overall and nearly 40 percent for children.

But other inequities are truly eye-popping. Between 2006 and 2010, more than 1 in 20 tribal households lacked at least one of these basic household features: a flushing toilet, hot and cold running water, or a bathtub or shower. That is a rate 12 times higher than the overall rate. Native households living in tribal areas also have a housing overcrowding rate almost four times as high as the non-Native population overall. Perhaps worse, these disparities persist despite considerable gains in housing conditions since 2000.

Native American poverty rates

Would Sanders’s plan be sufficient to improve housing and economic conditions in Indian Country? Probably not, but interestingly, if his plan were combined with Hillary Clinton’s, together they might. To see why, consider what Sanders’s plan would do:

Senator Sanders’s plan is well suited to improve and expand the housing stock on tribal lands. He proposes fully funding the Indian Housing Block Grant, the primary funding stream for tribal housing, and launching a $1 trillion infrastructure improvement program targeting high unemployment areas in Indian Country and elsewhere.

Because his plan includes a broader set of infrastructure improvements than Clinton’s, including expanding electric networks, it would provide tribes with the infrastructure they need to improve quality of life and bring down housing development costs.

Support for housing and infrastructure are necessary, but Clinton’s proposal would provide other key economic development resources. It would promote youth employment and small-business entrepreneurship in underserved communities.

It would also increase funding for community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which have helped promote entrepreneurship in tribal areas since the 1990s. Native CDFIs have expanded capital and fostered sustainable small businesses in many tribal communities. The number and capacity of Native CDFIs has grown in the past 10 years, but tribal private-sector activity and Native CDFIs were hard hit by the recession. Additional supports for these critical institutions would help tribes regain momentum as they chart their own course for longer-term economic development and growth.

The needs in Indian Country are great, and they deserve multifaceted solutions. While both candidates get a lot right, including their mutual emphasis on improving tribal consultation and self-determination, whichever candidate ends up being the Democratic nominee should consider adopting the strengths of his or her opponent’s platform in order to support our Native communities. 

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