Posted by: bkivey | 29 November 2010

A Social Experiment

The cover story of the 17 November edition of Willamette Week (The Longest Odds) featured a look at the impact casino money has had on First Nation tribes in the state. The regulatory framework for First Nations gaming facilities was established with the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. In Oregon casino gaming is the exclusive province of the various tribes, and is generally viewed as the primary way for them to better their circumstances.

While I have no interest in gambling, I don’t have any problem with people spending their money however they like, and having seen some of the God-forsaken places throughout the American West various tribes were forced onto, I’m all for any legitimate way they have to generate income. In Oregon and Washington this usually means the sale of ‘sin’ items like cigarettes, fireworks, and gambling. Many tribes have also invested in other industries, with mixed success.

The WW article focuses on the Grande Ronde tribe and whether the $833 million in profits they’ve collected from their Spirit Mountain Casino over the last fifteen years has materially improved the lives of the tribes 5,228 members. Even while generating a level of profit that most companies would find extremely attractive, the answer would appear to be: no.

After subtracting the state-mandated 6% for Oregon non-profit organizations, the casino’s profit comes to about $150,000 per person for the fifteen years the business has been open. If you’re a Grande Ronde member, you can expect:

  • Paid tuition to any post-secondary institution anywhere in the country through grad school.
  • Comprehensive  health coverage regardless of age or residence location at no cost.
  • Tribe-supplied housing (as in an actual house) on the reservation.
  • An annual check of about $4,000.
  • Hiring preference at the casino.

Wow, that sounds like the socialist ideal, embodying the primary social agenda of the progressive left and as practiced in worker’s paradises like Cuba and the country formerly known as the Soviet Union. One might expect that tribe members have seen a marked improvement in their quality of life, but the tribe’s own data suggests that’s not the case. Ten years ago the proportion of members earning less than 30% of the Oregon household median income ($48,457 in 2009) was 15%; today it’s 17%. The proportion earning 80% of the median has remained at 55% since the casino opened.

The figures quoted in the article are somewhat misleading in that they are all for household earnings, and don’t take into account the value of services supplied by the tribe. Health care is paid for, a service capitated at about $4,400 based on this years budget. Then there’s the annual casino check, so a person at 30% of the median would still be receiving nearly $23,000 in income and services, more if they’re going to school. Housing is pegged to income, and one may imagine at that income level it wouldn’t be much. And if you happen to earn your living on tribal land, like at the casino, you pay no Oregon income tax. It wouldn’t be a luxurious life, but you do have access to health care, housing, an education, and possibly a livelihood.

The fact remains that by many measures of social progress tribe members often rank near the bottom on positive indicators like income level and educational attainment and near the top in negative indicators like alchohol-related deaths. To the author’s credit, they do try to find out why this is so. $833 million is a lot of money, and the Grande Ronde have thrown about as much if it as they could at their social problems. If members aren’t doing better than they are, it’s not for lack of resources.

The article points out that:

Native advocates point to factors that make Indian poverty especially difficult to address. Tribes face a pernicious mix of rural and urban economic decay. Add widespread drug and alcohol abuse—and a culture still suffering from deep-seated fear and mistrust—and it becomes clear why American Indians remain stuck at the bottom.

 I don’t live on a reservation nor am I an expert on First Nations communities, so I’ll take it on faith that the problems cited are real. Even so, we’re not talking about acts of God here. While there isn’t much to be proud of in the European settlers treatment of the aboriginal population, including the federal government’s disbanding of the Grande Ronde in the 1950’s, to liken their treatment to the Holocaust, as one tribal council member does, is a bit extreme and disingenuous.

The Jewish people have been persecuted in pretty much every society in which they’ve lived, including the genocide of the Holocaust over 12 years in Europe that resulted in upwards of 6 million deaths. Yet people of Jewish ancestry tend to be among the most successful members of their societies. They have a strong cultural identity, they go to school, and then they go to work. They aren’t known for sitting around feeling sorry for themselves and blaming others for their problems.

The problems cited by aboriginal advocates are ones I’ve seen first-hand. While working as an HVAC tech I spent a winter retrofitting air conditioning in a government housing project. The complex wasn’t exactly run-down, but there were a number of unresolved minor maintenance issues, and the non-immigrant population viewed us with suspicion and in some cases barely concealed hostility. On several occasions I was asked why there weren’t people of color on the installation team (because we employed whoever walked in the door who could do the job; we didn’t go out beating the bushes looking for a politically-correct hire); less often a resident would lament the fact that none of the idle young people in the project had the initiative to grab a few tools and start a business taking care of the maintenance issues.

Social programs are generally implemented with the best of intentions, but it is the way of the natural world to live with the least amount of effort, and humans are no exception. It’s very easy, and almost inevitable, for a hand up to  become a hand-out, and the more given, the more expected. The experience of the First Nations tribes with casino money and that of social programs in general suggests that it be may more fruitful to encourage people to take ownership of their lives and their community.

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