Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Defining a Program Tailored to Tribal Needs


Tribes decide to operate their own TANF program primarily because they believe they can do a better job of serving their members. The TANF plan provides an opportunity for each tribe to articulate the mission and goals of its TANF program and to design the program accordingly. For example, the Navajo Nation stressed that it created its own TANF plans and policies, instead of adopting those of the state. Site visit respondents indicated that the tribe wanted its TANF program to meet the unique needs and circumstances of the Navajo Nation and people. Similarly, the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe defined the mission of its TANF program  to protect children  and developed rules to support it.

A review of the key TANF plan provisions of the three tribes visited for this study (Table III.1) illustrates how tribes, within the limits allowed by law, tailored their programs to tribal circumstances and cultural values. All three tribes adopted less stringent weekly work participation requirements  in two cases 20 hours, and in one case 24 hours.(4)Each tribe exempted people who provide care for a disabled child or elder, and caregivers older than age 60 (Torres Martinez exempted persons over 55 who provide child care or elder care). Each tribe specified cultural reasons for these provisions, particularly the common practice of several generations of a family living together, with family members caring for each other, as well as the deep respect accorded to tribal elders. Respondents at Torres Martinez reported selecting age 55 for the work exemption because of the low life expectancy of tribal members (average of 62 years). In keeping with its mission, the Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe established participation exemptions for women in their last trimester of pregnancy, for women through 90 days postpartum, and for families who lack child care.

Table III.1
Aspects of Three Tribal TANF Plans for Programs Visited
Port Gamble S'Klallam Navajo Nation Torres Martinez Consortium
Participation Requirement (Hours per Week) 20 20 24
Exemptions from Participation Requirement Pregnancy: Last trimester of pregnancy; 90 days post-partum

Elderly: Older than age 60

Disability: Temporary disability; care for disabled child or elder

Special Circumstances: Death in the family; court action; lack of child care

Teenage Parents: (Age 18 or younger) who maintain satisfactory school attendance

Elderly: Older than age 60 and a caretaker

Disability: Unemployable

Elderly: Older than age 55 and caretaker

Disability: Learning disabled; care for elder or disabled family member

Special Circumstances: Single parents with 4 or more children

Acceptable Work Activities in Addition to Unsubsidized Employment Studies toward GED;

traditional self-employment and subsistence activities; teaching cultural activities; substance abuse treatment

Studies toward GED; self-employment; chapter house projects; child care services; cultural activities Studies toward GED; self-employment; small business training; domestic violence and substance abuse treatment; cultural activities
Sanction Policy 1st time 30 days to correct;

if not corrected, adult share of grant suspended for 30 days;

if still not in compliance, 60 days of full family sanction

1st time 30 days to correct;

if not corrected, adult share of grant reduced by 25%; 2nd time, adult share reduced by 50%, after 90 days, benefits terminate for 12 months

Voucher system continues to pay for food, utilities, and shelter only
Time Limit (Number of Months) 24 consecutive, 60 lifetime 60 lifetime 60 lifetime
Monthly Cash Benefit (Dollars) Approximately $300 $300 $405-569; based on age of children
Other Key Services or Program Features Child welfare notified if full family sanction is implemented;

school attendance requirement

Checks issued 2 times per month

To improve access, set up satellite offices and allow caseworkers to leave office to meet clients

Required 2-day workshop includes Navajo traditions and western philosophy

Diversion program for clients who are educated and job-ready; provides one month of transition assistance

$1,500 bonus for wedding

$2,000 after legally married

Cash incentives for students in TANF clients whose children get good grades

Tribal programs place more emphasis on removing the barriers to employment than do state TANF programs with a work-first emphasis. The barriers most often targeted include low levels of educational attainment, limited work experience, and abuse of alcohol and other drugs. All the tribal programs counted work toward a high school equivalency degree as a work activity.

Most tribes in the study also recognized the role of traditional tribal activities. They accepted traditional self-employment activities, such as fishing, hunting, gathering, and traditional crafts as legitimate work participation. The Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe counts all traditional activities (for example, harvesting cedar bark, collecting cattails for baskets, and shellfishing) as participation if they are paid, or if the case manager identifies and approves them. The Navajo Nation includes Chapter House projects and cultural activities as acceptable work activities. The tribal programs have adopted this approach largely because employment opportunities are limited. A work-first approach cannot succeed when the number of TANF participants far exceeds the number of available jobs. Respondents noted that many TANF participants have no work experience and that participation in traditional tribal activities can promote a sense of responsibility and develop employment skills.

Because of differences among consortium members, tribal consortia may confront special challenges in designing TANF programs that meet the needs of TANF participants. To the extent that there is variation in the economies and circumstances among tribes in the consortium, the TANF program may require additional flexibility. The Torres Martinez Consortium faces special circumstances in that members of any federally recognized tribe residing in its service area may receive TANF services from the consortium. Furthermore, the consortium's service areas include urban, suburban, and rural areas in Los Angeles and Riverside counties. Study respondents said that on the one hand, it is easier to place TANF recipients in unsubsidized employment in the parts of the Torres Martinez service area where employment opportunities are far greater than in much of Indian country. On the other hand, many TANF recipients who have moved from tribal communities to urban or suburban areas experience "culture shock," finding it difficult to maintain cultural traditions, live apart from friends and family, and adjust to life in an urban or suburban setting. Torres Martinez staff said that TANF recipients who experience culture shock tend to need more post-employment and other types of support to secure and maintain employment. In addition, because its service areas is so large (Los Angeles and Riverside counties), and because its heterogeneous service population (all American Indian and Alaska Natives residing in those counties) is dispersed throughout its service area, recruiting and enrolling TANF participants was especially challenging for the Torres Martinez consortium.

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