New Data on Minnesota American Indian Families

January 1, 2011

Data Show Promising Investments in Early Childhood Education but a Need for More Economic and Educational Opportunities in American Indian Communities


Last week the American Community Survey (ACS) released 5-year estimates (2005-2009) giving Minnesota a more detailed look at small communities since the 2000 Census. This information is critical for rural areas that have population sizes too small for 1- or 3-year Census estimates. While Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota always collects data on children and families across Minnesota, the 5-year ACS estimates provide information specifically on American Indian Reservations to gain a better understanding of how these children and families are faring.

The new data show that in rural Minnesota high unemployment and poverty are widespread at the county-level and in American Indian communities. For children, poverty on American Indian Reservations varied greatly across the state. Grand Portage, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Prairie Island, and Red Lake Reservations all had child poverty rates above 30 percent. Bois Forte Reservation had a child poverty rate (10%) lower than the state child poverty rate (12.4%), while the Shakopee and Lower Sioux Reservations had child poverty rates similar to that of the state. Overall child poverty ranged from 10 percent to 55.2 percent on American Indian Reservations.

Young Children Off to A Good Start

Research indicates that early childhood education is one of the best ways to combat child poverty and provide children with opportunities for future learning and successful outcomes.  White Earth, Leech Lake, Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Lower Sioux, and Shakopee Reservations all had school enrollment rates for 3- and 4-year olds greater than the state’s pre-kindergarten school enrollment rate. Four Reservations had more than half of 3- and 4-year olds participating in early childhood education.

Conversely, college enrollment among 18 to 24 year olds was much lower than the state average across all Reservations ranging from 2.8 percent on the Red Lake Reservation to 22.2 percent on the Prairie Island Reservation. Educational attainment and income are related because low-wage jobs many times equal low-skilled jobs. Providing opportunities for young people to obtain postsecondary education is one way to provide a pathway out of poverty. The data suggest that more investment is needed in postsecondary education options for young American Indian adults.

Work Must Pay

Not surprisingly, people cannot escape poverty and provide for their families if they cannot find employment. Red Lake and Leech Lake Reservations had the highest unemployment rates for those below the poverty level- two times the state unemployment rate. With the exception of Bois Forte and Grand Portage, people living below the poverty line on Reservations across Minnesota had unemployment rates higher than the state. For the entire population, Red Lake reservation had an unemployment rate five times higher than the state overall. Unemployment ranged from 3.4 percent to 50.4 percent across American Indian Reservations.

Despite high poverty and unemployment, workforce participation is also high across American Indian Reservations, especially for married-couple families and female-headed households. Almost all families have at least one or two workers in the workforce on American Indian Reservations. Overall, families are working at high rates and still facing poverty. This may seem contradicting, but the data support a vast body of research suggesting that wages have been eroding over time for low-wage workers, and as a result, work does not pay enough to cover a family’s basic needs each month.

Because educational attainment is strongly related to income, people below the poverty line are more likely to not have a high school diploma no matter where they live. People in poverty on American Indian Reservations are also more likely to have attained less than a high school diploma. However, it is disconcerting to see a high percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees living in poverty on Red Lake (10.5%), Grand Portage (21.7%), and Leech Lake (9.2%) Reservations compared to the state (2.8%). This would indicate there are fewer economic opportunities available despite educational attainment or that the employment opportunities that exist do not lift these families out of poverty regardless of their educational levels.