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Welfare reform reauthorization and Indian country

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In the fall of 1997, I wrote in the Tribal College Journal that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), welfare reform's official title, offered an unprecedented opportunity for tribal governments to reclaim and exercise tribal sovereignty. I stated my belief that welfare reform provided an opportunity for tribal governments to be equal partners with state and local governments, and that tribal leaders have been seeking this type of autonomy for decades.

I concluded by stating my belief that welfare reform could help tribal members take back control of their lives and that welfare reform could help end the cycle of dependency that resulted under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. At the time I wrote the article, nine tribal governments had been approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to administer their own Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs.

As of Jan. 1, HHS has approved 36 tribal TANF programs, thus allowing 174 tribes and Alaska native villages to administer their own programs. Tribal TANF programs now serve almost 17,000 tribal families per month. These "TANF tribes" are taking advantage of the opportunities offered by PRWORA and the flexibility of the federal rules implementing it, to tailor their TANF programs to meet the unique needs of their clients and the social and economic realities of their reservations.

In a November 2001 report to the National Congress of American Indians, entitled "Impact of Welfare Reform on American Indians" and prepared by Dr. Eddie Brown of the Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies and Dr. Stephen Cornell of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, the authors noted that the flexibility and discretion in tribal TANF program design and implementation has offered significant advantages for tribes and tribal members. The Brown-Cornell report states that tribes operating their own TANF programs are able to avoid problems encountered in communication and coordination under state-administered TANF programs, especially problems with the quality and types of services provided.

This report also noted, "tribal TANF programs are able to offer programs that are culturally appropriate and more directly responsive to specific community circumstances and needs, and experience with such [tribal] programs suggest that tribal agencies can serve Indian people better than state (or federal) programs."

There can be no doubt that tribal TANF has been successful in meeting the needs of tribal members served by these programs, and that most tribal and state governments have found new and innovative ways of working in partnership with each other to serve the needs of Indian country's most vulnerable citizens. However, numerous and significant obstacles remain if the promise of welfare reform is to be realized in Indian country.

While the number of tribal TANF grantees is increasing, funding to date has been woefully inadequate to meet the unique needs of the tribal TANF programs. The Brown-Cornell report correctly points out that "tribal communities incur proportionately heavier financial burdens than do states in administering TANF programs" because of the higher costs of doing business in rural environments. Also, tribes are not eligible for the performance bonuses or credits offered to states for meeting work-participation rates or reducing out-of-wedlock births. These funding inequities mean less staff is available to work in the tribal TANF programs, less funding available for staff training and less funding available for other kinds of TANF support services.

PRWORA will expire in August of this year. Congress will have to reauthorize this legislation. In 1996 when Congress enacted PRWORA, tribal administration of TANF appeared to be an afterthought. This is evidenced by the less than four pages relating to tribal TANF, as compared to the hundreds of pages concerning state administration of TANF in the legislation. This time around, Congress must listen to tribal leaders and tribal TANF administrators to improve the successes of welfare reform in Indian country.

PRWORA is about putting people to work. In order to realize the promise of what welfare reform has to offer Indian country, Congress must address the issues of job creation and economic development. The lack of jobs on the reservations limits what tribal leaders and tribal TANF administrators can accomplish. The jobs that are needed will depend on growth in reservation economies. Without job creation that is tied to reservation economic development, the existing local tribal economies will not allow for tribal welfare clients to find jobs on the reservation.

I stated my belief in the Tribal College Journal article that welfare reform could help tribal members receiving public assistance take back control of their lives only if the tribes, the states and the federal governments believed it too. The past five and one-half years have demonstrated that most tribes and states believe that tribal welfare reform is better than what the status quo had to offer tribal members. Now it is time for Congress to demonstrate its belief too that welfare reform can be a vehicle for positive change on the reservations by re-authorizing PRWORA in ways that give tribal leaders and tribal TANF administrators the tools they need to maximize the promise of what welfare reform has to offer Indian country.

John Bushman is the former director of the Division of Tribal Services (DTS) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. DTS is the federal office responsible for implementing the tribal TANF provisions of PRWORA. Mr. Bushman is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa of North Dakota. He can be reached at