Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Determining and Assembling Resources for Planning and Startup


Even with help from the federal and some state governments, most of the tribes and tribal consortia in this study found funding the development of a sound TANF plan to be a challenge. It was especially difficult for the tribal grantees to estimate the resources needed to implement and operate the TANF program. While states and DHHS provided valuable technical assistance to help tribes and consortia develop their TANF plans, the Act does not provide funding for planning prior to the approval of a tribal plan by DHHS and the subsequent grant award. Grantees in the study developed TANF plans using funding from a variety of other sources.

Many grantees in the study worked with state staff in developing their TANF plan. State staff provided information and guidance about staffing levels, facilities, and equipment needed to operate the program, as well as policy and procedure manuals and other documentation. DTS staff carefully reviewed each tribe's TANF plan and provided feedback. When necessary, it required the tribe to revise aspects of the plan that were impractical, incomplete, or not in compliance with the Act or DHHS regulations.

A common difficulty for tribes was the development, operation, and maintenance of information systems to support TANF operations. Such systems (including hardware and software) support enrollment of program participants and help tribes track and report services provided and participant activities. Extensive staff recruitment and training are needed, because few tribal members have experience in TANF programs. Unlike states, tribes did not receive funding to develop welfare information systems.(8) Compounding the lack of experience and resources is the fact that the scale of many tribes and their TANF population is too small to justify developing expensive information systems and the associated staff training needed to develop, maintain, and operate them.

The Act does not provide federal funds for development of TANF plans, but the grantees in the study got some in-kind support from related federal programs and drew for their core planning efforts on a variety of tribal and state resources. Some grantees reported obtaining useful information, data, and insights from staff working in related federally funded programs such as WtW, Native Employment Works (NEW), and the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). Some states (Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin) provided funds, in addition to technical assistance, to help tribes plan their TANF programs. Each of the 10 tribal grantees in the study reported that in their TANF planning they expended some of their own general funds, generated by tribal enterprises and taxation. Tribal officials said that using their general funds for TANF planning represented a difficult choice, since they face many competing pressures to fund efforts pertaining to tribal employment, economic development, and other programs.

Once past the planning stage, tribal grantees can also face difficult choices and tradeoffs in deciding how to fund start-up and administrative costs. In this case, federal funds can be used. Federal regulations permit tribal grantees a higher ceiling on administrative costs than is set for state programs. In recognition of the resources needed by many tribes for implementing and operating TANF, tribal grantees can allocate up to 35 percent of TANF funds to administrative overhead costs, compared to a maximum of 12 percent for states (45 CFR 286.50).(9) However, the closer a tribe comes to using funds for administrative costs up to this ceiling, the more it reduces the total amount available in the grant for TANF benefits. This trade-off is especially difficult when the number of persons eligible for TANF in the grantee's service area exceeds the number of tribal members who received AFDC in 1994, and resources for benefit payments are constrained from the start.


1.  When the data in this study were collected, the Division of Tribal Services (DTS), Office of Community Services, in the DHHS Administration for Children and Families oversaw the approval process. DTS was responsible for working with tribal governments and, where appropriate, with state and federal agencies on PRWORA and related legislation. As of November 2002, the tribal TANF program has been administered by the Division of Tribal TANF Management, Office of Family Assistance, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in DHHS.

2.  Initially, the minimum work participation rate was 25 percent (for fiscal year 1997). The rate increased each year, reaching 50 percent in fiscal year 2002. Work activities include unsubsidized employment, subsidized private- or public-sector employment, work experience, on-the-job training, community service programs, vocational training, job skills training directly related to employment, study to obtain a GED, and child care for a person participating in a public-service program.

3.  There is an important exception (applicable to tribal and state TANF programs) to the 60-month lifetime limit for receipt of cash benefits under TANF. The months of assistance received by an adult while residing in Indian country (including Alaska Native villages) are not counted towards the 60-month limit when the not-employed rate exceeds 50 percent, in accordance with 42 U.S.C. 608(7)(D).

4.  State TANF weekly work requirements as of October 1999 were 29 hours a week in New Mexico, 32 hours in California, 35 in Arizona, and up to 40 in Washington and Utah (requirements vary) (Center for Law and Social Policy State Policy Documentation Project [www.spdp.org]).

5.  Although states had an incentive to estimate the number of 1994 tribal AFDC participants conservatively, some state officials acknowledged that it was in the state's interest, once a tribal TANF program was established, to be thorough in their transfer of American Indian and Alaska Native recipients on reservations to tribal TANF programs, because such recipients are among the most difficult to move from welfare to work. By transferring tribal TANF recipients to tribal programs, the state would be better able to meet the goals, objectives, and timetables in its own TANF plan.

6.  To receive a TANF block grant, each state must meet an MOE requirement  a specified minimum of its own funds. A state must sustain 75 to 80 percent of its fiscal-year 1994 level of spending on AFDC.

7.  The Tlingit and Haida reported little assistance, and a sense of opposition, from Alaska, with respect to the consortium's effort to take over the TANF program. However, when it became apparent that the tribal program would fail (and be retroceded to the state) without state MOE funds, the state appropriated 50 percent of the MOE funds to the tribe.

8.  The federal government reimbursed states (but not tribes) up to 90 percent of the costs of planning, implementing, and operating information systems to support welfare programs. Between 1984 and 1992, the federal government provided states more than $500 million annually for automated AFDC systems (GAO/HEHS-00-48, 2000).

9.  The maximum allowable overhead for tribal grantees decreases to 30 percent the second grant year, and 25 percent the third and succeeding years.

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