updated 1/5/2005 8:29:58 PM ET 2005-01-06T01:29:58

American Indians made significant economic gains during the 1990s, with per capita income rising about 30 percent for gaming and non-gaming tribes alike, but still struggled compared with the overall population, according to a Harvard University study released Wednesday.

Although tribes with gambling operations had generally higher incomes and lower unemployment, gaming did not play as significant a factor in economic gains as researchers had expected when comparing census data from 1990 and 2000.

“It’s turning out gaming isn’t such a huge advantage,” said Joseph Kalt, a co-author of the study, which was conducted by The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

According to the analysis released Wednesday, American Indians remained well behind the overall population by numerous economic measures. Per capita income rose about one-third for both gaming and non-gaming tribes, but remained below $9,000 for both groups, compared with $21,587 in the overall population.

Even at 1990s growth rates, per capita income of Indians on reservations will not match the overall U.S. population for five decades, according to the study.

“There’s a big gap to close, but that has been there for decades,” Kalt said. “Now, you’re starting to turn a corner.”

The report measured 15 socioeconomic indicators, from unemployment to households receiving public assistance.

The 1990s saw the rise of tribal-run gambling around the country, and Kalt was surprised to find little difference in the income increases between tribes involved in gaming, compared with non-gaming tribes.

Non-gaming reservations saw an increase of 30 percent in real per capita income, from $5,678 to $7,365. Gaming area incomes rose 36 percent, from $6,242 to $8,466.

The unemployment rate dropped from 25 percent to 22 percent in non-gaming areas, and from 19 percent to 15 percent in gaming areas. Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped from 5.6 percent in 1990 to 4 percent in 2000.

Kalt said urban tribes with gaming operations have seen increases, but their rural counterparts have undergone little change.

“When you’re on a ... highway and you’ve got five truck drivers going through per day, you don’t have much of a market,” he said.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said only a small number of tribes count gambling as a major source of revenue.

She and Kalt both said the improvements are best explained by increased tribal self-government, which has expanded since the 1970s as tribes have become better equipped to provide local services, such as police, education and forestry, that used to be run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The change shifted accountability from a large federal bureaucracy to local leadership, and led to improved living conditions, Johnson said.

But she added that the income numbers are “discouraging, no matter what.”

“We’re still learning in a lot of areas and our communities are starting to turn around,” she said.

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