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Welfare reform in Indian country under scrutiny

WASHINGTON ? Without jobs, welfare reform on Indian reservations cannot succeed, a panel of experts told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee during recent hearings on reauthorizing and expanding the nation's welfare system.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, commonly called the Welfare Reform Act, is under scrutiny by Congress and the Bush Administration as they consider amendments to the act which be must be reauthorized when its statutory authorization expires on Sept. 30.

Two panels of experts, including several tribal leaders, told the committee that while job training and skills building are important factors in getting people to work, Indian country faces other obstacles, including the acute lack of jobs and public transportation on remote reservations where many welfare recipients don't own cars.

"We can train people for employment, but they soon realize that they still cannot find a job because of the economic depression on most Indian reservations," said Dallas Massey, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, whose reservation has an unemployment rate of nearly 60 percent. "The new bill must provide funding for economic development if we are ever going to achieve real success."

Massey said welfare reform legislation needs to be tailored to the unique needs of Indian country because it currently fails to address underlying causes that create the need for welfare assistance: a lack of jobs, child care, educational opportunities and low-cost transportation.

On many reservations, welfare participants must travel long distances to seek health care and food stamps, to attend school or to look for jobs. In most cases, there is no public transportation and often there are only a few employers where people can search for jobs.

So while many states are reporting significant decreases in the number of residents on welfare, the number of tribal recipients is growing in many regions because of social and economic conditions on reservations, said Stephen Cornell, director of the Udall Center for Public Policy at the University of Arizona.

In gauging how well welfare reform is working in Indian country, the findings of one study underway on three Arizona reservations is not encouraging, he said.

Nearly one-fourth of Indian people who had moved from welfare to work under the new legislation stopped working within three months and half were not working after one year, he said. Only a small number were working full-time.

"There was evidence of widespread hardship," Cornell testified. "Forty-five percent of respondents in the study said they were unable to afford enough food for their families and 21 percent reported that gas or electricity had been turned off because of their inability to pay their bills. It appears that 40 percent of those (surveyed) who had left the welfare rolls did so without any employment at all."

Cornell, who co-directed with Dr. Eddie Brown of Washington University a 2001 study on the impact of welfare reform in Indian country, said they found six reasons why welfare reform was doing relatively poorly in Indian country. These were inadequate funding, job scarcity, transportation, childcare, distinctive populations of welfare recipients, and inadequate skills and job training.

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When Congress authorized PRWORA in 1996, it provided flexibility to tribes to administer their own programs instead of depending on state governments to pass on federal funds. It also replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program.

Under TANF, tribes can negotiate directly with the Department of Health and Human Services to design and administer their own tribal programs. So far, 174 tribes have elected to operate TANF programs and are able to offer more responsive and culturally appropriate services to their members who are trying to transition off welfare and into the workforce.

Some tribes have developed innovative programs designed to fit the needs and lifestyles of their people, and are seeing real success in changing people's lives.

Virginia Hill, director of the Torres Martinez Tribal TANF program in Southern California, provided positive testimony on how nine tribes there formed a consortium to provide services tailored for Indian clients on their reservations and in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

California is the only state that provides 100 percent matching funds for federal TANF block grants, a provision that has allowed her program to create an array of services for thousands of Indian people who formerly were served by counties.

"We provide cash assistance for needy families, clothing assistance to school children, computer training, long-distance learning centers, small business training, teen pregnancy prevention, youth leadership development, culture and language programs, a marriage promotion program, substance abuse prevention and a cash-for-good-grades program for students," she testified.

"We also changed the county definitions to allow for traditional views of marriage," she said, allowing them to build on the strengths of Indian families.

Hill, who negotiated with counties to take their Indian caseloads, said they are ready to take over county-run food stamp programs and Medicaid in order to provide "one-stop" services for their clients.

Hill recommended that in addition to current federal funding, states be offered financial incentives to provide matching funds for tribes who create their own TANF programs. Currently, some states provide up to an 80 percent match while others provide no funding, which often causes funding shortfalls.

She said states should be offered credits of two dollars for every dollar contributed to a tribal TANF program. This provision would offset penalties currently imposed on states for non-compliance with federal requirements to meet "maintenance of effort" requirements under TANF block grants.

If approved, the reauthorization of PRWORA will create a tribal TANF improvement fund of $500 million over five years to promote and sustain tribes' administrative capacity to catch up with state governments which have benefited from decades of federal investment in state administrative infrastructure such as information management systems.