Features; Opinion

US: Per Caps, Basic Income, and Learning from Tribal Nations

By Jennifer Lawson

Per capita payments, or ‘per caps’, as they are known in Indian Country, function as a kind of basic income for tribal nations that have them. In this piece, I want to examine the distinct difference between the thinking about such a basic income in Indian Country and the United States in general.

The other day, I was talking to a small group of non-native Americans about basic income. One of them said to me, “Basic income seems like something like that would take a long time to gain ground.”

In the United States in general, the thinking about basic income is not as far along as it is in Indian Country, where per caps have been a staple for many tribes for several years.

One of the first questions, for tribes that gained discretionary income in the last decade, has been, “What do we do with this money?”

Many tribal nations have tribally owned businesses and, unlike the general thinking in the United States, no one worries that this may be a form of communism or socialism. It is simply, for many tribal nations, in keeping with their tribal values to have a collectively owned business.

The revenue from such businesses, as well as the revenue from natural resources and other ways tribes gain money, provide the discretionary income that tribal nations work with.

The answer to the question, “What do we do with this money?” is answered differently by different tribal nations. Some provide services to their citizens, such as childcare, early childhood education, hospitals, and so forth. Others provide per caps to their members.

I do not want anyone to come away thinking that tribal nations are flushed with cash or that Native people are, in general, rich from per caps. Rather, I want to look at the differences between the tribal way of thinking and the United States’ way of thinking

From the tribal point of view, when you have a collectively owned business, it makes sense that one option would be to divide the revenue up and disperse it among citizens of the tribe. In general, what to do with the money is voted upon and the decision about what to do with the money is decided that way.

For non-native people, we do not have collectively owned businesses to decide how to divide the revenue. A large portion of people in the United States would rebuke such a business as socialism or communism.

However, we do have other ways of gaining access to a basic income without having collectively owned businesses. Some have suggested taxing pollution, for example.

For tribal nations, some of the arguments that are familiar to people in basic income have been espoused, both for and against. One worry, for example, is that people will not attend college because the thinking What’s the use? is in effect. That is, if you don’t need to attend college for future employment, why go? This thinking saddens many tribal people, who have a pre-colonial history of being interested in education, contrary to stereotypes.

But the biggest issue for tribes, which has become a real problem, is that of disenrollment. Disenrollment is, in effect, making people ineligible to be tribal citizens. While many tribal nations are growing as of late, some tribal nations with per caps have closed and/or tightened up their citizenship requirements to make per caps go further, and to allow each individual to have as much money from per caps as possible. If a tribal nation is doing pretty well economically, it does even better when the tribe is small.

With the large population of the United States, as well as our open citizenship requirements, where people may become citizens after completing various acts and learning about our government and founding documents, what we can afford to give our citizens depends on how we collect that money.

Because the issue of having collectively owned businesses seems to be less compatible with the values of the United States than of tribal nations, we of the United States have to be creative in how we decide to fund a basic income.
No matter the problems that tribal nations have experienced due to per caps, what is clear is that tribes that have the ability, and vote accordingly, can provide a basic income for their citizens. This should make us wonder why the United States, which has more wealth, opportunity, and so forth, cannot.

Looking over the state of per caps in Indian Country has made me, at least, realize that it can be done, and that we should do it. After all, if we had a basic income, I might be able to be in Standing Rock right now, standing with my Native brothers and sisters against the Dakota Access Pipeline—or engaging in other activist or cultural activities.
There is much that Indian Country can teach us. The issue of basic income is one we should look into further.

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3 comments

  • Joseph Peterson

    I was conversing with a BIA administrator about UBI recently. The tribe she worked with had a Per Cap. It was her opinion that the money was doing more harm than good. She blamed an increase in alcohol abuse on the lack of the need to earn a living. As my experience with Indian affairs is limited to driving past the casino and wondering why so many people like to gamble I was unable to offer a solid counterargument. Based on the study of three Michigan tribes[1] it appears that there was a decrease in birth rates and educational achievement as well as an increase in the number of people who didn’t work at all. Unfortunately this study doesn’t tell me much due to the limited scope. Any additional information would be helpful.

    [1] http://www.macrothink.org/journal/index.php/ber/article/download/2401/2167

  • Joseph Peterson

    Reposted without the link. Moderator please delete the pending post.

    I was conversing with a BIA administrator about UBI recently. The tribe she worked with had a Per Cap. It was her opinion that the money was doing more harm than good. She blamed an increase in alcohol abuse on the lack of the need to earn a living. As my experience with Indian affairs is limited to driving past the casino and wondering why so many people like to gamble I was unable to offer a solid counterargument. Based on the study of three Michigan tribes[1] it appears that there was a decrease in birth rates and educational achievement as well as an increase in the number of people who didn’t work at all. Unfortunately this study doesn’t tell me much due to the limited scope. Any additional information would be helpful.

    [1] The Effects of Per Capita Tribal Payments on the Fertility, Education, and Labor Force Participation of Tribal Members
    James Richard Hill, Peter A. Groothuis
    Business and Economic Research ISSN 2162-4860 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

    • Nemo

      Hello,

      A few elements of answer to your question:

      1/ There seems to be very little serious research on the subject… and I am a little confused by your post, as paper you give the link to concludes almost the opposite of what you say it does:

      => You say:
      ” Based on the study of three Michigan tribes[1] it appears that there was a decrease in birth rates and educational achievement as well as an increase in the number of people who didn’t work at all.”

      => While the paper says that:
      – there has been a slight increase in birth rate
      – it is impossible to say the effects on educational achievement (not enough data)
      – there has been a decrease in labour market participation (but not necessarily people who “do not want to work at all”

      Quoting from the text:
      “ the data lends support to the basic labor theory conclusion that an increase in nonlabor income causes individuals to decrease their work efforts. (…) there is weak evidence that the payment of per capita payments from casino profits is increasing the fertility rate of Saginaw Chippewa tribal families. At best, however, this analysis is just a starting point for more detailed research. Better data is necessary to reach firm conclusions on the effect of per capita payments on the behavior of Native Americans. The data does not allow any conclusion on the second research question: Have per capita tribal payments caused a decline in educational attainment by recipients? “

      2/ The study you found showed people reduced their labour market participation, but not when they stoped work, and did not measure anything else. It also shows that a large part of the population were young people.

      The experiments in manitoba shown two groups reducing their labour market participation: young people and single mothers — the first studied longer, the second took more time for themselves and their children.

      The mental health effect were also very impressive in Manitoba, and this NYT article points to a study that seems to say studies of the mental health effects of per caps to native indians were impressive as well :

      https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/what-happens-when-the-poor-receive-a-stipend/?_r=0

      3/ Be carful about where the little information available online comes from: The notion that the cash would have corrupted the indians as it would corrupt the poors that is often very much implied in the statements you find online saying the cash did them more harm than good feels like it exactly the kind of stuff Albert Hirschman denounced in his “The Rhetoric of Reaction” (https://www.amazon.com/Rhetoric-Reaction-Perversity-Futility-Jeopardy/dp/067476868X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492609336&sr=8-1&keywords=the+rhetoric+of+reaction)

      — also, again, it is very difficult to say anything with great certainty on that point as there is very little data and even less serious study available. The definitive tone of those claiming the indians have turned lazy because of the cash should therefore be taken as an indication of their bias …

      Or, in the words of some other person found online:

      “Fiscal conservative theorists, in an attempt to keep the minimum wage low, have always argued against Universal Minimum Income by saying, “If you give poor folks money, they will become lazy and not work for anything of their own accord–becoming predisposed to drug use, domestic violence, et al.”

      This has largely been proven to be rhetoric used by people who have never had to worry about what happens when they can’t afford to pay their bills. It is incredibly insulting to insinuate that “Without the need to become a wage slave for me, you will become ____”. but that dialogue has been stalled due to great fallacies like The Trickle Down Effect.

      Unfortunately thrust into the middle of this unseemly game are Native Americans, because when white folks hear that they make money from the government they lose their shit. They don’t know how little it actually is. This is coupled with scenes of poverty, drug use, and violence in some not all rez areas. Therefore, the whole thing forms neatly into a little ball which fiscal conservative theorist can throw around, “If you give people money, they will end up like indians”. Its not true, of course, and overtly racist.”

      Hopes this helps a little, it ain’t much and a lot more work needs to be done, but the info we have seems to be in line with the effects of cash transfer to poor population everywhere: it does them good.

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