In his extensive research, Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens shows how “racial stereotypes have played a central role in generating opposition” to economic security programs in the United States. As Gilens notes, “In particular, the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy remains credible for large numbers of white Americans.” Gilens concludes “racial distortions in the media’s coverage of poverty are largely responsible for public misperceptions of the poor.”
Gilens’ book was published in 1999. In our view, media coverage of poverty has improved since then. This is probably due to increased diversity in the new media and as well as a better understanding—as a result of the work of Gilens, Shanto Iyengar, and others—of how distorted media representations can negatively affect public perception of policy issues.
But an article in this week’s The Economist is a reminder that we haven’t put the bad old days of racially distorted coverage of poverty beyond us. The article claims “cash from casinos makes Native Americans poorer.” According to the author, a particular problem is that tribes distribute part of the revenues directly to members—typically known as “per capita payments”—which encourages “sloth.” The article is accompanied by a photograph of an American Indian man in front of a slot machine, a grin on his face and his arm pumped in the air.
Given research like Gilens’ and the long history of stereotyping American Indians as lazy, The Economist should have been particularly careful to ensure that it had solid evidence to back up its claim. In lieu of such evidence, The Economist relied on a few anecdotes and a single article by a private attorney published in a student-run law review.
We took a closer look at the law review article that The Economist relied on and were not impressed. It purportedly shows that poverty was more likely to increase in certain Pacific Northwest tribes that distributed part of their gambling revenues to members than in those that did not. But there were only seven tribes (out of a total of 17 that the article focused on) that did not distribute gaming revenues directly to members. The total reported decline in poverty among these seven tribes amounted to only 364 people. The study contained no controls for any of the many factors that affect poverty rates, nor did it take into account size differences in the tribes, differences in the size and structure of the per capita payments, or other relevant factors. In short, the study is absolutely useless in terms of providing meaningful evidence to support The Economist’s claim.
Even worse, The Economist failed to mention the existence of rigorous, peer-reviewed research contradicting the article’s thesis. Unlike the single paper cited in the article, this research uses methodologies designed to isolate the causal effects of per capita payments and generally finds that they have positive effects on poverty and other indicators of children’s well-being. For example, research by William Copeland and Elizabeth Costello, both professors at Duke University, uses longitudinal data that tracks both American Indian and non-American Indian children in western North Carolina. After the introduction of a per capita payment for American Indian families, they documented “an overall improvement in the outcomes of the American Indian children while those of the non-[American] Indian children … remained mostly stable.” Strikingly, educational outcomes for American Indian children “converged to that of the non-[American] Indians,” and the arrest rate of American Indian children fell below that of non-American Indians.
Similarly, in research using the same data set published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Costello and her colleagues found that poverty declined among American Indian families after the introduction of per capita payments and also led to improvements in children’s behavioral health.
In addition to research that examines per capita payments, there is a larger body of rigorous research looking at the overall effect of gaming on poverty, employment, and other indicators of well-being. On balance, this research finds positive effects. For example, University of Maryland economists William Evans and Julie Topoleski compared outcomes in tribes that opened casinos with those that did not. Among tribes that opened casinos, Evans and Topoleski found increases in population and employment, declines in poverty, and some improvements in health. Similarly, Barbara Wolfe and her colleagues found that being a member of a gaming tribe “leads to higher income, fewer risky health behaviors, better physical health, and perhaps increased access to healthy care.”
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This isn’t to say that Tribal members and their governing bodies shouldn’t continue to have thoughtful debates about the design of per capita payments or the best balance to strike between direct payments and investments in their social and economic infrastructures. As sovereign governments, they’re already doing that with the benefit of research and the wisdom of their members. Moreover, although you won’t learn it from The Economist, there is a structure in place, under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, that requires tribes to submit plans to Department of Interior before adopting per capita payments.
There is little question that American Indians—both those affiliated with gaming tribes and those who are not—face some of the most severe income, health, and education disparities in our country. If The Economist had wanted to take a serious look at how public policy impacts poverty rates on reservations they would have examined far more pressing topics like the potential benefit of Medicaid expansion for the Indian Health Service, proposals to strengthen the tribal education system, or efforts to address the disproportionately high suicide rate among Native youth. Instead, this story plays into discriminatory stereotypes about American Indians.
We urge The Economist to meet their own journalistic standards and to set the record straight by providing a historically informed discussion of the real issues faced by American Indians today.