Tribes unify on welfare reform bill

SACRAMENTO, Calif. ? When Congress takes up the issue of welfare reform in its fall session, many tribes will be watching closely to see how Indian country fares under Republican-led initiatives to cut funding for programs desperately needed on reservations facing high unemployment and poverty.

At a three-day national meeting of administrators who operate tribal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, the talk focused on how tribes can protect funding and beneficial tribal provisions from cuts likely to occur as the Bush administration tries to pare down welfare programs.

"Tribes came together here in a unified position to let Congress know what our priorities are," said Virginia Hill, executive director of Torres Martinez Tribal TANF, who organized efforts to reach a pan-tribal consensus on pending Congressonal legislation.

"For too long, there was no national forum for tribes who run welfare programs or are considering taking on TANF," Hill said. "This conference gave us the opportunity to talk about what works best for Indian country and we came away with solid recommendations that we are asking Congress to consider in their compromise legislation."

Tribal TANF programs largely supported S. 2484, the American Indian Welfare Reform Bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., with some proposed changes, and recommended amendments to H.R. 4737, the House bill on welfare reform.

Those recommendations include allowing states to receive a $3 credit for each $1 they provide in matching funds to tribes who serve TANF clients in their states or rebates of up to 75 cents. They also ask a set-aside of funding between two and five percent for tribal childcare and deletion of a section opting to set up a tribal advisory committee on faith-based initiatives.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, commonly referred to as welfare reform, will expire on Sept. 30 and must be re-authorized.

TANF block grants were established under the 1996 law and are available to states and federally recognized tribes to help move people from welfare to the workforce. Under tribal programs, more Indian people are now participating in training for new job skills and furthering their education to find gainful employment.

Currently 36 TANF programs are in operation throughout Indian country, serving 174 tribes in 13 states. Tribes that have elected to operate TANF programs have taken over millions of dollars in funding and programs once administered only by states. And they have achieved greater success in serving Indian clients who receive welfare benefits because they have better access to their clients and know what their tribal members need.

In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill reauthorizing TANF that closely followed President Bush's agenda to toughen work requirements for those receiving welfare assistance.

The House version would increase the number of hours welfare recipients must work or be seeking work to 40 hours per week, 10 hours more than what is currently required.

But critics complain that the House bill did not provide adequate funding for childcare commensurate with the increase in work requirements. This could force welfare clients ? mostly mothers ? to be away from their children 40 hours a week with no additional funds to provide for safe childcare.

However, in July the Senate Finance Committee passed a bill that offered a more balanced approach to moving people from welfare to work by allowing the work requirement to remain at 30 hours a week and giving states more power to count education and job training as work. The Senate bill also calls for an increase of $5.5 billion in mandatory child-care funds, compared to $1 billion proposed by the House.

Earlier this month, President Bush hailed the success of the 1996 welfare reform act, saying it reduced welfare rolls by more than 50 percent, or 4.7 million Americans. (Much of the reduction, say others, was largely due to a booming economy in the late 90s.) He called on the Senate to "do the right thing" by passing tough legislation similar to that in the House.

"Congress has got to choose whether or not we're going to continue to reform," Bush said. "We've got to give people the tools necessary ? and free people from the clutches of our government. The Senate bill would hurt the very people we are trying to help."

But critics have argued that those who left the welfare rolls often have not fared well. Many who were forced off welfare by new restrictions must now work in more than one minimum-wage job to keep food on the table. Others have been forced into shelters and face long-term poverty with few opportunities for training.

For tribes, the ongoing struggle is pervasive unemployment that runs as high as 60 to 80 percent on many reservations. Many tribal leaders are hoping that Congress will include funds for economic development in Indian country in the new welfare reform legislation.

If Congress fails to reauthorize the bill before it adjourns in October, it will likely sign a continuing resolution that would provide funding at current levels for existing programs for up to one year. But that would prevent any new programs from coming on line at a time when tribes are gearing up to increase the number of TANF programs they operate nationally.

John Bushman, former director of the Division of Tribal Services under the Administration for Children and Families, praised the "dedicated tribal employees" who have taken on the task of running their own welfare programs.

"They understand the importance of tribal TANF programs to the well-being of our children and families, and the importance of this program to the overall health and well being of their tribes. What I observed during the Sacramento conference tells me that the future of tribal TANF families are in good hands."