Study of tribal casinos raises controversial issues

The news reports that a study of tribal casinos shows a checkered pattern of benefits and drawbacks for Indians who live on reservations.

William Evans and Wooyoung Kim found that when casinos open, local wages and employment rates improve, but that drop-out rates increase and rates of college enrollment tend to decline.

Evans, an economist at Notre Dame University, presented their paper “The Impact of Local Labor Market Conditions on the Demand for Education” in May at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Examining long-form responses to the 1990 and 2000 census, Evans and Kim looked at data from 265 Native American tribes. Evans and Kim described the sudden boom in Indian casinos as “an economic shock” that transformed the labor market on many reservations, and they analyzed consequential changes in employment, in wages — and in the demand for education.

Looking at 25-40 year olds, 1990 and 2000, the scholars found no significant change in employment rates on reservations without casinos. But on Indian lands with casinos, among people in this same age group, they found a 2.3% percentage increase in employment generally, a 6% increase in full-time workers, and “a 3.3 percent increase in real wages.”

Evans and Kim noted that more job openings and higher pay for low-skilled work “may increase the opportunity cost of attending schools, thereby enticing young adults out of school and into the labor market.” And comparing the educational status of young people on reservations with and without casinos, they found just this result.

Between 1990 and 2000, young adult Indians living on reservations with casinos “had large declines in high school graduation rates,” the scholars found. They conclude, “This is clear evidence that favorable labor market conditions lead Indians to drop out of high school.”

Research about the impact of casinos on Indian people and communities is politically charged, and many people in Indian Country take issue with the these findings. Ernie Stevens, Oneida tribe, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, reports that most tribal casinos require employees to earn their GED’s within six months of employment and support ongoing training and education for employees. Some casinos require employees to earn associate degrees, according to Stevens.

Kate Spilde of San Diego State University, a former research associate for the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, has also worked as a researcher for the National Indian Gaming Association. Her study for the Center for California Native Nations, based on the same census data Evans and Kim used, reached a different conclusion. .

Evans and Kim acknowledge that their measures of schooling leave out those tribal members who may have left the reservation for higher education elsewhere.

The scholars compared their findings with a recent study of the employment and educational effects of boom/bust cycles in coal mining regions of Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

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