The Evaluation of the Tribal Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Initial Implementation Findings. Self-Determination and Devolution


Tribal self-determination has brought welcome opportunities, but also challenges, to tribes, much as it has to states and the federal government. (6) Program responsibilities for social welfare programs have "devolved," or been shifted, from the federal government to both states and tribes. Both states and tribes have generally welcomed this devolution, because it gives them greater discretion over program eligibility, benefits, and rules, in TANF as well as in other programs. For tribes in particular, however, this devolution brings special challenges:

  • Tribes generally lack the information resources and infrastructure that states, counties, and the federal government have. For example, tribes wishing to operate their own TANF program must depend on states for information they need to construct their TANF plan and budget--for example, the number of tribal members (and other Indians living on or near the reservation) currently receiving TANF and receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in 1994. Many tribes also lack the information, telecommunication systems, and trained staff required to operate social welfare programs.
  • As program resources and responsibilities devolve to tribes, the tribes may lose national, cross-tribal advocates such as the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the BIA. These agencies have advocated on behalf of all tribes to Congress, to the Office of Management and Budget, in courts, and in other venues. As resources and programs devolve from the federal government to individual tribes, national attention to and advocacy on behalf of all tribes may diminish.
  • As tribes assume responsibility for and operate TANF and other welfare programs, they must negotiate and work with states and counties, and such negotiations are often difficult. Relations between tribes and states have often been strained, in part because of conflicts over sovereignty and jurisdiction, access to tribal lands by non-Indian state residents, tribal members' treaty-based rights to hunt, fish, and gather on "off-reservation" land, water rights, mineral rights, and other issues. Tribes have traditionally looked to the federal government to help resolve such issues. Cooperation between tribes and states on aspects of welfare reform such as child support enforcement and tribal administration of TANF programs must often overcome the historic tensions in state-tribal relations. (7)

Tribal self-determination and self-governance pose challenges and dilemmas for states and the federal government as well. States may not face a legal requirement to support tribal programs, but the progress of tribal self-governance and program operations does create new pressures on states to cooperate in new ways. For the federal government, devolution serves the goal of increasing tribal self-governance, but treaty-based trust responsibilities still require that the federal government fund health, education, and welfare programs or provide goods and services specified in treaties. (8) The federal position on its trust responsibilities inherent in treaties with tribes is complex and subject to changes by Congress. (9)