Native American Poverty



At the time of colonization, First Nations tribes were forced onto remote reservations lacking in natural resources or fertile soil. Additionally, hundreds of years of government policies have left reservations with limited economic opportunities. As a result, First People have the highest poverty rate (one-in-four) and among the lowest labor force rate (61.1%) of any major racial group in the United States. Of the top 100 poorest counties in the United States, four of the top five and ten of the top 20 are on reservations. Most tribal members cope with food insecurity and its associated health problems, unemployment rates as high as 85%, and major housing shortages.


The majority of Native communities today struggle with systemic problems related to lack of access to healthy food. One-in-four Native Americans experience food insecurity due to scarce access to food and employment, compared to just one-in-eight in the general American population. Grocery stores are few and far between, leaving tribes to largely depend on outside sources for food. Additionally, poverty rates are so high that few families can afford healthy food options and therefore turn to low price, low nutrition alternatives. This results in many health issues, including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and related conditions.


Typically, reservations are geographically isolated — located miles away from major metropolitan areas — with limited access to resources and capital. Since there are very few employment opportunities on tribal lands (mostly tribal and federal government jobs), heads of household are forced to leave the reservation to seek work. In the poorest Native counties, only about one out of three men have full-time, year-round employment.

For those who do have jobs, earnings can be well below poverty wages — the average household income for working Native Americans is $35,000, compared to $50,000 of the general population. As a result, many households depend on federal funding to make ends meet — welfare, disability, social security and additional government services.


Tribal economies require affordable housing and infrastructure. However, First People face some of the worst substandard and overcrowded housing conditions in the United States. Forty percent of housing on reservations is considered substandard compared to only 6% throughout the rest of the country. Thirty percent of native housing is overcrowded. Less than 50% of native homes are connected to a public sewer system and of those, 16% lack indoor plumbing. Additionally, 23% of Native households pay 30% or more of their household income to housing alone.

At the core of this housing issue, the current reservation real estate market barely exists. Centuries of treaties and federal policies established reservations as lands held in trust for Native people by the federal government. Until the 1990s, mortgages weren’t effective on reservations. Many still can’t get a mortgage due to bad credit or lack of funds for a down payment. In that regard, the housing market is similar to the food or employment markets — it barely exists.


The level of need in the Indigenous world is overwhelming. The Red Road aims to raise our people up and give them the tools needed to help themselves.