More than two-thirds of American Indians are now living off reservation in urban areas. During World War II, many Indians migrated to urban areas to contribute to manufacturing during the war effort. During the subsequent Cold War period and U.S. economic expansion, Indians were attracted to urban areas, and supported by Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation programs.
Most reservation Indians migrate to urban areas because they need employment to support themselves and their families. Some research indicates that many Indian migrants would remain at their home reservations, if there were enough jobs.
Like most urban migrants, many Indians do not plan to stay in urban places and often maintain ties to their reservation communities. Many return to the reservation to visit during the summers, and many often return for ceremonies. Moving to an urban area does not necessarily mean that tribal members have forgotten their communities and tribal nations.
How well are urban Indians doing? There is no systematic national data about the economic well-being of urban Indians. For the last couple of decades researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and Indian community members within Los Angeles urban Indian organizations have carried on analysis of Indian employment based on U.S. Census data for Los Angeles County. Census data is one of the few places where systematic information about urban Indian employment can be found. In the last Census count of 2010, the data suggest that urban Indians in Los Angeles are among the working poor. The participation of Indians in the Los Angeles County labor force is about 60 percent, and similar to other ethnic groups.
However, American Indians show higher rates of unemployment and have average salaries that are less than half the salaries of non-Hispanic white workers. Los Angeles County urban Indian workers have significantly less job security and are significantly less rewarded for their efforts. Indian workers are willing to work, but often are last hired and first fired, and on average make about $22,000 annual salary. The low level of financial remuneration makes life difficult for many Los Angeles urban Indians because the cost of living in Los Angeles is high.
In contrast to the stereotype of lazy Indian workers, Los Angeles Indian workers are willing to work, but face problems getting and maintaining employment, and find that the economic rewards for working are relatively minimal. Poverty rates for Indians in Los Angeles County are about 22 percent, which are similar to other traditional urban ethnic minorities such as blacks and Latinos.
However, the lower the poverty rates on reservations, which are often above 30 percent, and significantly higher than in urban areas. Urban Indians may be doing better economically on average than reservation Indians, but the economic circumstances for urban Indians, based on the Los Angeles data, suggest urban Indians are struggling economically. While there is a significant urban Indian business community in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area, and an emergent middle class, it sometimes takes generations before Indians move up the economic ladder.
The urban area continues to hold a relative economic attraction for reservation Indians. In economic terms, life in urban areas may be better than on reservation, and reservation Indians continue to look for employment in urban areas. The significant employment difficulties for Indians in the urban economic environment suggests why many Indians would prefer to remain on their home reservations, if there was sufficient employment. Tribal communities offer social, cultural and political support, but often offer few stable or enduring economic opportunities. Indian workers are pushed to relatively difficult economic lives in urban areas. The future of tribal nations will depend on culture, community, and political sovereignty, but jobs and economic opportunity for tribal members will play a major role in keeping Indian workers and talent at home and in the service of tribal nations.