American Indian Poverty and the Potential of Focusing on Education

The federal government needs to make improving Native education a serious priority. If it can provide a top-notch education to the children of our nation's military families, why can't the same be said for children in tribal communities?
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My great-grandfather grew up poor on a small Assiniboine Indian reservation in rural Saskatchewan, but eventually ended up as one of the first employed typesetters for the Chicago Sun Times when it opened its doors. Our family still has some of his original line type, with which he printed so many historic turn-of-the-century headlines. Although the newspaper gave him the opportunity to provide a good life for his family and many friends even during the Great Depression, his story was always one of escaping poverty -- a story that is still all too common for American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) today. Even after making it to Chicago from the rez, most of my great-grandfather's friends ended up in the very same hellish stockyards described by Upton Sinclair in The Jungle. If we asked him how a poor Native kid on the reservation could end up holding down a good job and finding economic security for his family today, I think his answer would be the same as it was then: education.

As of 2010, over a quarter of AIAN people in our country lived in poverty (28.4 percent). This compares to 15.3 percent nationally. Much has been written and documented about what poverty on a reservation looks like, but little attention has been paid to real solutions. "Poverty" may be a simple word, but there are many reasons that Americans end up trapped by it. For Native people, the solutions are sometimes even more complex because of the special legal obligations owed to them by the federal government as a result of long-standing treaties and federal Indian policy. Even though many levers exist with the potential to relieve poverty among the AIAN population, education is one area where the federal government itself has the immediate power to focus its resources and leverage change in these communities.

Our federal government runs two large school districts -- one of them is considered one of the best education agencies in the country, the other one of the worst. The Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) is a premiere education agency serving about 84,000 children of our armed forces around the world. In 2007, 47 percent of the students in DoDEA schools were minorities and half of them were living at the poverty line. This doesn't usually bode well for graduation statistics in our country, but the DoDEA system had a 97 percent high school graduation rate that same year with the majority of its graduates pursuing higher education.

And the worst: the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), part of the U.S. Department of Interior. The BIE serves about 41,000 AIAN children in 23 states. Most AIAN children are actually served by public schools, but BIE schools serve as the main source of education for many enrolled tribal members on reservations as part of the federal government's treaty obligation to tribal members. The statistics for this federal education system don't even come close to comparing to the defense system. In 2010, the high school graduation rate for BIE schools was 58 percent. Native kids in BIE schools can't even rely on a basic level of school safety. BIE school safety was such a problem that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held an oversight hearing about it in 2010 responding to a report finding that more than 60 percent of BIE administrators reported having at least one building that was inadequate to operate as a school. And, how can a bureau charged with educating 41,000 Native children do its job well when it's competing inside the same agency as the mining and geological services? It's time for a change.

As our country continues to recover from the Great Recession, improving education outcomes for Native kids on reservations would be a huge step forward in moving Native people from being one of the most impoverished groups in the country to being part of our nation's future shared prosperity. While 70 percent of adults (age 25 or older) with incomes below poverty threshold have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, adults without a high school diploma are much more likely than other adults to experience income poverty. If you're a student in a BIE school looking at a graduation rate that barely breaks half of your senior class enrollment, your chance of staying in poverty is much higher. This is why education is one of the key indicators that we track for Half in Ten, our campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years.

Poverty always kept my great grandfather from returning to his community on the rez. He performed ceremonies for his other Native friends in his basement in Chicago, a basement he could afford because of his education. Too many Native people today are still escaping poverty, and thus, escaping their communities and culture in search of economic opportunities. Although improving education certainly isn't the only path to poverty reduction for AIAN people, it is one where the federal government already has the control and models it needs to make tremendous strides. Even more important, providing quality education is both a legal and sacred obligation of the federal government to Indian tribes, rooted in treaties and the U.S. constitution.

The federal government needs to make improving Native education a serious priority. If it can provide a top-notch education to the children of our nation's military families, why can't the same be said for children in tribal communities? Whatever the path, the federal government can, and should, change its approach to Indian education. As our nation's executive in chief, federal Indian education is also an area where our President can really make a difference, whoever holds office next year. Like other minorities, AIAN people struggle most with poverty. But, as members of tribal governments, AIAN children also have unique opportunities to build their local economies, serve in tribal leadership, and help the rest of our nation's economy get back on track in the future.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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