WASHINGTON – Amid calls from the U.S. Congress for the U.S. Department of the Interior to explain why it broke the law in failing to release two tribal labor force reports since 2007, the agency has released a tribal economic snapshot that comes at a politically opportune time for the Obama administration, but that does not rely on actual data collected from tribes.
The information is included in the newly released report called The Department of the Interior’s Economic Contributions, which says that the agency in total contributed $385 billion to the American economy and supported over two million jobs in fiscal year 2011. The report contains a brief breakdown of tribal economic development that says the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), and the Office of Indian Energy and Economic Development (IEED) contributed “around $12 billion in economic output” and supported “nearly 126,000 jobs through activities on tribal lands (including oil, gas, coal, other minerals, timber, irrigation, and grazing).” It says that other support for tribal governments, through loan guarantees and other aid, contributed about $1.2 billion in economic output and supports around 9,500 additional jobs.
The release of the report on July 9 raised eyebrows in Indian country because just one week previously Interior sent a letter to tribal leaders indicating that it has failed to collect tribal labor force data for the second time since 2007, which violates the biennial reporting requirements of the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992.
Congressional members from both sides of the aisle are investigating Interior’s claim that “methodology inconsistencies” contributed to this most recent delay, as legal and political questions linger as to why the data has apparently been so difficult to collect, especially since the Obama administration doled out over $3 billion in Indian country as part of its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) spending in 2009 that was supposed to bolster tribal economies and create many new jobs.
Interior has not explained why it broke the law for two successive reports so far, nor has it fully explained why it has failed to properly collect Indian country jobs data. It has promised to release a report in 2013, but data collection is only in the early stages.
Nedra Darling, a spokeswoman for Interior, did comment on the new analysis, saying that the tribal jobs information in the Economic Contributions report does not actually come from tribes—leading to questions of reliability and motive on why Interior is releasing such incomplete data at this time.
“The analysis in the FY 2011 economic contribution report does not rely on American Indian and Alaska Native labor force information,” Darling said. “The report utilizes economic contribution analysis to track the economic contribution of Interior activities as those expenditures cycle through the economy.”
Darling added that the analysis relies on what she called a “widely used model known as IMPLAN for estimating the output (sales), employment (jobs) and income effects arising from the interdependencies and interactions of economic sectors and consumers…. IMPLAN draws upon data collected from multiple federal and state sources including the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the U.S. Census Bureau,” she said.
Darling added that the models “do not let one determine the extent to which the individual jobs supported are held by American Indian and Alaska Natives or others, or the specific location of the jobs”—all reasons why the tribal observers and congressional leaders have said the lack of the tribal labor force reports since 2007 is so damaging to tribes that want the information to help make the case for improved assistance from Congress and presidential administrations.
The release of the Economic Contributions tribal data amid the missing reports controversy is alarming to some tribal observers who feel Interior is trying to pull a political trick at a cost to tribes.
“They used a macro-economic model to estimate for what is essentially a political statement about what a great job the DOI [Interior] is doing for the economy,” said Joseph Valandra, a tribal economic consultant and former chief of staff of the National Indian Gaming Commission. “This, while tribes are falling farther behind in an economic and political environment clearly staked against tribal interests.”
Valandra said that it seems that this same model could at least take the money allocated to Indian projects and make some macro estimates. “I guess the political upside from such an analysis is not great enough,” he said, adding that it continues to be troubling that Interior has not made an effort to explain or justify the violation of the 1992 employment law and has not recognized the impact of withholding the tribal labor force reports.
“Perhaps this is the straw that will break the camel’s back when it comes to the attitudes, policies and bureaucratic inertia of the DOI toward tribes,” Valandra said.
In short, it’s tough to trust the data because Interior didn’t rely on tribes for this seemingly political report, and the numbers that are there lead to more questions. “I would think they are looking at all of the tribal government positions that are created from Interior-funded tribal programs, since tribes are the largest employer in many tribes,” said Dante Desiderio, executive director of the Native American Finance Officers Association. “But, it does not seem likely that they add up to 126,000.”
Desiderio has pushed Interior to release the tribal labor force data in compliance with the law, saying previously that “severe unemployment” in many parts of Indian country “makes it pressing that the Department of Interior do everything it can to comply with the act and provide accurate data.”
Chris Stearns, a Navajo lawyer with Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker and chairman of the Seattle Human Rights Commission, said the release of such data is “pretty standard fare in an election year,” adding that, “the employment data for Indian country is much harder to mine and far more individual in nature….
“My guess is that the figures are low, but that it wasn’t worth the time and effort to document incrementally smaller benefits,” Stearns said.