The Tarascan homeland is characterized by local and regional specialization in the production, extraction, and control of both natural and social resources. Tarascan towns and barrios are identified by their distinctive pottery, woodworking, weaving of cloth and straw, and embroidery. Although the region is dominated by small-scale agricultural activities, there are also some communities of fishers with exclusive commercial rights to Lake Pátzcuaro. Other communities specialize in certain forest-based activities (ranging from the extraction of turpentine to the splitting of shingles), and still others have developed unions of tour guides, rental services (boats and horses), and souvenir shops to accommodate tourists.
The regional economy is marked by central wholesale-retail markets in large mestizo towns, as well as by special markets that operate during religious festivals in individual Tarascan towns. Money is the basic medium of exchange, although bartering is still common and, on certain days in certain markets, the expected practice.
In general, the Tarascan economy has a peasant substrate that combines food production (maize, beans, squashes, fruit, hogs, chickens, turkeys) and collection for consumption with cash cropping, share cropping, day labor, and handicrafting. Legally, land in Tarascan townships is collectively held. In those areas of the Tarascan homeland once controlled by large agricultural estates (haciendas), collective land rights were established through federal appropriation of the former estate's lands to create ejidos. In other areas, the collective landholding unit is the Indian community, recognized by law as a communal property-holding body. Often, both forms of collective land tenure overlap in a single town. By law, each individual's right to land is established either by membership in the collective unit or by kinship with a legitimate landholding member. The cultivator is referred to as a comunero when the holding is through family membership in the Indian community or as an ejidatario if family membership is in the ejido assembly. In practice, these collective lands were, for the most part, divided into de facto private holdings, with varying degrees of collective constraint over the right to purchase individual titles, especially as regards persons not recognized as community members. A 1992 constitutional reform allows commercial title to the land—that is, permits each individual holder to sell his or her land freely. Local Tarascan political groups, however, produced and cosigned a declaration rejecting this reform and forbidding the individual alienation of any collective land in the Tarascan homeland. This declaration was reaffirmed by cosigners and additional Tarascan groups in February 1994.
The Tarascan population is characterized by a clear sexual division of labor. Women prepare food, wash clothes, care for infants and toddlers with the help of older children, cultivate the solar in the household compound, and, when necessary, help men prepare, plant, and harvest field crops or orchards. Carpentry, construction, net fishing, and lumber work are exclusively men's activities. Certain phases of ceramic work and straw weaving are organized by sex. For example, women typically paint designs on clay objects, but men fire the pottery. Both men and women enter into commercial activities. It is common for women to control the commerce in products of exclusively feminine activities such as embroidery and hand weaving shawls and blankets.
Since World War II, the Tarascans have left their homeland to find jobs in other parts of Mexico and in the United States and have been the recipients of government programs of formal schooling. Since the late 1960s, professionalization through formal education, new strategies of economic accumulation, and new consumption practices associated with migration have combined to bring significant changes to the traditional peasant substrate of the Tarascan economy.