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Tribal Members Shouldn’t Be Forced Off Reservation to Access Welfare Benefits

The welfare program tailored to tribal governments—Tribal TANF—is a critical tool to address the disproportionate poverty in Indian Country. However convoluted federal rules limit the positive impacts of this program by forcing tribal governments to choose between economic development and critical services for their most vulnerable members. This needs to change.

Current law sets up a fundamental conflict in how tribes should run Tribal TANF programs. On one hand, the law requires the Secretary to promote Indian self-determination; the principle that tribal services should be administered by tribal governments, on tribal lands, whenever possible. On the other hand, the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the TANF program, also interprets the law in a way that precludes tribal governments from entering into leases for TANF facilities on tribal land at fair market rates.

This restriction may be an appropriate safeguard of federal taxpayer dollars in large jurisdictions with multiple landowners, such as states, where there are many options for office space. But it demonstrates a deep misunderstanding of tribal lands, where the government is often the only owner of commercial property.

As a result, Tribal Leaders are forced to accept one of two imperfect methods of administering tribal TANF programs: 1) lease TANF Facilities off tribally owned reservation land and force their neediest members to travel miles to receive job training and benefits; or 2) operate TANF programs on-reservation, but receive lease payments that are far below fair market rates, sacrificing other economic development opportunities.

We can do better.

That is why we worked together to craft legislation that would allow tribes to lease space for Tribal TANF programs and recoup the fair market value of their land. The Tribal TANF Fairness Act, H.R. 3026, has strong bi-partisan support and we are working to see the bill enacted. To continue the safeguard of federal funds, the legislation requires tribes to obtain an independent appraisal consistent with nationally accepted standards and principles to verify market value.

Unfortunately, the Department of Health and Human Services has failed to address this conflict in Tribal TANF law that both requires Indian self-determination and denies the ability for a tribe to lease the land necessary to administer the program on the reservation. Tribal governments want to provide their people with the training, skills, and supportive services essential to their own self-determination and they want to keep those programs accessible to those who need them most.

A statutory change is necessary to allow tribes to provide these critical services on the reservation for their members and we will continue to work diligently until the Tribal TANF Fairness Act is enacted.

Col. Paul Cook (Ret.) represents the 8th District of California in the United States Congress. Gerald Howard is the Chairman of the Bishop Paiute Tribe in Bishop, California