Black Hills Knowledge Netowork

Statewide, Native Americans are working at a lower rate than other races.
Statewide, Native Americans are working at a lower rate than other races.
Black Hills Knowledge Network chart
March 3, 2015

Native Americans Offer Potential Workforce, Face Challenges

Income and employment disparities between the Native American and non-Native communities in Rapid City and western South Dakota are significant. Data also suggests that, given Rapid City’s very low unemployment and high workforce participation rates, American Indians might well offer employers the best available source for new workers. Tapping into this potential pool of talent will depend on a variety of factors, including education and training.

Income and Employment Disparities

More than half of the estimated 6,851 American Indians in Rapid City were living in poverty, according to estimates compiled by the U.S. Census in 2013. This rate contrasted sharply with the approximately one in seven (14.2 percent) poverty rate for the Rapid City metropolitan area as a whole.

Dashboard.raceseries.logo3The Census analysis also showed that American Indians are more likely to be living in poverty in Rapid City than in any other metropolitan area in the United States with large concentrations of American Indians. With an estimated Native poverty rate of 50.9 percent, Rapid City led Minneapolis (48.3 percent), Portland, Ore., (37.9 percent), Gallup, N.M., (31.8 percent), and Tucson, Ariz., (31.0 percent) — the next closest major cities.

Low wages contribute substantially to high poverty. The average annual pay for Native American workers in Rapid City was $23,221 in the fall of 2012 compared to more than $37,000 for whites and Asians, a difference of $14,000 a year, according to JobsEQ, a proprietary economic data reporting service. Meanwhile, the median household income for American Indian families in the Rapid City metropolitan area was approximately $15,773 in 2013, compared to $48,641 for the region as a whole.

Higher rates of part-time or unemployment among American Indians could also contribute to low incomes. In the Rapid City metropolitan area, approximately 2,824 American Indian adults were employed per year in the 2009-2013 period, out of a total population of 6,945 American Indians between the ages of 16 and 64. These jobs numbers, compiled by the U.S. Census, suggest that roughly 48 percent of the adult Native work force was able to find a job.

Among American Indians, the proportion of adults working is slightly higher than for the adults Native population as a whole in South Dakota, which averaged 44 percent between 2009 and 2013. In the Native community, the proportion of adults working, however, was well below the overall rate of 74.8 percent in the Rapid City metropolitan region.

Of those who did find work, the Census estimated that about 1,200 individuals worked full-time for the whole year, while 3,844 worked part-time. Those who worked full-time enjoyed greater income stability, but the majority made less than $25,000 a year.

Education and Training

Differences in educational attainment contribute substantially to lower incomes and employment rates in Rapid City and across the state. According to the Census, statewide, 11.2 percent of Native Americans have at least a bachelor's degree compared to rates of 27.3 percent for whites and 22.7 percent for all other people of color. Although the estimates are less reliable for Rapid City, the numbers reflect a slightly better situation for American Indians. For example, approximately 12.6 percent of American Indians over the age of 25 in the Rapid City metropolitan area have earned a bachelors degree or higher. (Women are four times more likely than men to have completed a degree.) Nearly one in four (23.4 percent), however, did not complete high school and another one in four (25.1 percent) has only a high school diploma. In the 2013-2014 school year, according to the South Dakota Department of Education, 57 percent of American Indian students at Central High School graduated, compared to 81 percent for the school as a whole. At Stevens High School, 86 percent of American Indian students graduated, compared to 87 percent of all students.

Educational attainment plays a key role in determining what jobs are available to job seekers. Workers without a high school diploma or some post-high school training are more likely to be employed in service jobs where annual wages fall below the poverty level. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, workers employed as janitors, maids, groundskeepers, retail and hotel desk cashiers and clerks, electrical and carpenter helpers, dry cleaning workers, packers and packagers, dishwashers and cooks had annual wages below the $23,834 poverty rate for a family of four in Rapid City in 2013.

Workforce of the Future

With unemployment rates hovering around 3.0 percent in the Rapid City metropolitan area, a shortage of workers might be an important factor inhibiting the growth of the regional economy (which languished close to 1.0 percent in 2012 and 2013). If workforce participation rates for the city’s large American Indian population rose to levels comparable to the community of all people of color in the state, employers in Rapid City would see a significant increase in the supply of new workers and the poverty rate in the American Indian community would decline.

Improving educational outcomes, increasing training opportunities, decreasing racial discrimination and enhancing cross-cultural understanding will be critical to the long-term effort to increase labor force participation within the Native community. 

About The Series

The Black Hills Knowledge Network's Native Data Series examines what the available data shows about Native Americans living in the Black Hills region of South Dakota. As the state's and region's largest racial minority, the data often shows distinct differences from the white majority in some categories, while in other categories the data shows close similarities. This series seeks to examine both situations so we all can better understand, respond to and plan for decisions that would affect Natives and non-Natives alike.


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