Analysis: Welfare status quo likely until next year
WASHINGTON - Tribal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families appears to be in place on its current terms until at least next year, when the second session of the 108th Congress may take it up again. But for the time being, a consensus has emerged among congressional leadership that there is not time enough this year to pass a full welfare reauthorization act.
At a tribal TANF training conference Sept. 9 - 10 in Washington, advocates expressed a slate of concerns over reauthorization proposals now circulating in Congress. Chief among these are extended work requirements and cutbacks in child day care funding, according to Barbara Beller, legislative consultant for the Owens Valley Career Development Center of the Paiute-Shoshone Indians in Sacramento, Calif. A proposal to extend the work requirements for welfare recipients to 40 hours a week from the current 20 would be a burden on working mothers who receive TANF benefits, Beller said - doubly so without an increased commitment to day care funding.
On Sept. 9, the Senate Finance Committee approved an "authorization of appropriation" for an additional $500 million over five years in the national welfare reauthorization bill (the one that is on hold until next year.) The modification would direct the funds to the Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson would have the discretion in making the grants and in how they are made (that is, competitively or not, etc.) but tribes would have substantial flexibility in deploying them.
The guiding purposes of the proposed funding would be:
* Technical assistance to tribes that are considering whether or not to operate their own TANF programs, with an emphasis on helping programs become effective in moving assisted families toward self-sufficiency.
* Tribal economic development activities.
* Programs and activities that would help tribes to achieve the purposes of TANF ("welfare to work" is the shorthand phrase for these purposes).
* Research and development that would provide practical knowledge, useful for improving TANF effectiveness, on the subjects(s) of tribal TANF program challenges.
As of mid-September, legislative staff on the Republican side of the aisle said there was no telling whether the Senate Finance Committee's proposed modification of the national bill will make it into the continuing resolution that is expected to keep TANF programs going if Congress runs out of time to deal with full-blown welfare reauthorization. But it seems unlikely that this committee "mark up" (in congressional jargon) would be forgotten when lawmakers do get around to welfare reauthorization.
A $500 million appropriation over five years would fulfill one major goal of tribes as enshrined in the American Indian Welfare Reform Act, introduced in April by Democratic senators Max Baucus of Montana, Tom Daschle (Senate Minority Leader) and Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, as well as Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado for the Republicans. Senate bill 751 has been developed with input from tribes and tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and tribes of the newly-formed National Tribal TANF Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
S. 751's other pro-tribal TANF provisions include a method for translating maintenance of effort funding overages from the federal government to state TANF programs to tribal TANF uses; federal reimbursement to tribes for operating foster care programs as set forth in S. 331, a separate Senate bill; consolidation of tribal jobs training programs into a single employment services operation that would train low-income parents; access for TANF tribes to the same TANF funding sources as states; an increase in the funding "set asides" for tribal child care programs; stricter definition of the "equitable access" state TANF programs must provide for Indians; in addition to greater flexibility under the law for states in defining "work activities" on reservations; and an exemption from time limits on the TANF eligibility of individuals in areas, such as some reservations and Alaska Native villages, where few jobs exist.
A. Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, has assumed a leading role in favor of tribal TANF programs. In speeches at the tribal TANF training conference and the near-simultaneous National Indian Business Association annual conference, also in Washington, Wallace described tribal TANF as a powerful development tool. By tasking tribal TANF recipients with traditional measures of entry into society, Wallace maintains, tribes can begin to break the cycle of welfare dependency, "retooling a whole generation of our children" and "repatriating a culture of service."
The approach is working for the Washoe, he added. After long effort within the tribe, "success is really kind of coming out of the woodwork" for the program, he said.
That success is perhaps also reflected in the Washoe's Northwest region, where tribes are implementing tribal TANF in a major way. Programs have been established for a while now at Quinault, Port Gamble, Lower Elwha, Quileute and Colville. Spokane got started in March for the specific purpose of serving urban Indians. The Muckleshoots have already submitted their tribal TANF documents to Washington. The Nooksaks and the South Puget Intertribal Planning Agency are also looking closely at starting their own tribal TANF programs.
Some of the reasons for the accelerated pace of tribal TANF activity nationwide:
o States are sometimes perceived as being uncommitted to tribal needs. In Washington, TANF caseloads of up to 75 per caseworker are not uncommon, and tribal clients must travel to state offices, according to Judy Flett, who began the Spokane tribal TANF program and spoke at the tribal TANF training conference.
o The TANF five-year "eligibility for benefits" clock continues to tick against tribal members who are receiving welfare.
o A window of opportunity remains open under the continuing resolution on TANF, which assigns TANF funding by 1994 caseloads - these caseloads have shrunken greatly since then of course, meaning that any initiative to fund TANF according to current caseloads would shrink TANF dollars accordingly.