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Indian children left behind

WASHINGTON - While President Bush is urging Americans to support spending $87 billion for the war and reconstruction efforts in Iraq, Chairman Tex Hall said that some of that money is needed at home for rural and impoverished Indian communities.

"We need that kind of support to rebuild Indian country where poverty is increasing and there are no jobs. We hear the rhetoric about 'no child left behind,' but conditions on our reservations tell the true story," said Hall, a former school superintendent. "Indian children are being left behind. We're the 'poorest of the poor' and our kids are the 'have-nots.'

"When you have a high number of people raised in poverty, you also have high rates of substance abuse, dropouts, alcoholism, depression, and violence. The only way we can end the cycle of welfare dependency is by creating jobs and building tribal economies."

Speaking at the National Indian Business Association (NIBA) conference on Sept. 10 to a luncheon crowd that included tribal staff who operate welfare programs, Hall said tribes need help from members of Congress to ensure reservation needs are not ignored.

That morning, the Senate Finance Committee was marking up legislation for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the federal program that provides the bulk of financial assistance and training programs to low-income families trying to leave the welfare rolls.

Tribes were hopeful that several no-cost key Indian provisions would be included that would give them authority to operate food stamp and Medicaid programs, allow existing funds to be used for construction of child care facilities, and provide an option for states to contribute matching funds, among other things.

More than 170 tribes now operate their own welfare programs, taking funding and regulatory authority away from states and funneling it directly to tribal programs that have proven to be more effective in offering culturally relevant services to a greater number of Indian families.

But adequate federal funding is always in short supply, especially for economic development initiatives that would spur job creation on reservations. Yet without new jobs and training, it is impossible for low-income families to transition off welfare.

Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota and president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the relationship between NIBA and TANF is directly related to job creation. Both entities are working to help Indian people obtain and keep jobs that, in turn, will help build and strengthen tribal economies.

Washoe Tribal Chairman Brian Wallace, widely credited for championing tribal TANF issues, told conference attendees that more than 60 percent of Indian children live in poverty and that families "are desperately looking for a way out."

Wallace, who is also chairman of the National Tribal TANF Association, described TANF as a "development tool that can help capitalize the human potential of Indian people. When you think about history and all of the hardships and uncertainty we've gone through, the most powerful tool to deal with change is an Indian. We've been doing it for hundreds of years."

Wallace said tribes have to select appropriate tools to make positive social change within their communities.

"The Indian Reorganization Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act - these are all tools. As Indian people, we have to choose the right ones to help restore our people's well being. TANF is a powerful initiative that can be used to retool Indian people for the future, to help us recover our ability to be strong, healthy and productive societies."

The welfare funding debate has been controversial from the start with Republicans pushing for an increase in the number of hours welfare recipients must work in order to receive assistance.

President Bush's plan would require recipients to work 40 hours per week but does not provide any new funding for child care and freezes funding for welfare to work programs with no adjustment for inflation. The House passed a revised bill with slight improvements early this year.

The revised version of H.R. 4, which provides an extension of welfare funding, was approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Sept. 10 with only Republicans supporting the bill. Democrats argued for increased funding, but their amendments were rejected on party-line votes.

The lone provision added for tribes was the inclusion of $100 million per year for five years for tribal capacity building, targeted economic development grants, technical assistance and research. The bill now goes to the full Senate for debate and many tribes will strive to add more beneficial amendments when it is considered.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities predicts reductions in job training, child care and many other services to help working poor families. More than half of states have been forced to cut existing TANF-funded child care and welfare to work programs because of state fiscal crisis and limited resources.

With a weak economy and more than 3 million jobs lost in the last two years, many who have left the welfare rolls cannot find jobs and are facing extreme hardships.

In Indian country, many are worried about the impact on reservation communities where unemployment is already between 50 and 80 percent in the most economically depressed areas.