Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Determining Tribal AFDC Counts


The number of tribal members participating in AFDC in 1994 determines the level of federal funding for the tribal TANF grant. The Act requires that the "federal share" of TANF funds for tribal members be transferred from the state(s) to a tribe with an approved TANF plan. For both states and tribes, if the number of TANF participants is greater than the number of AFDC recipients in 1994, the TANF program probably will not have enough funds to provide the needed services. Conversely, if there are fewer TANF participants than the number of 1994 AFDC recipients, the TANF program probably will have more-than-adequate funds. While states have accurate data on their total 1994 AFDC caseloads, few states or tribes have accurate data on the number of 1994 AFDC recipients who were tribal members. The difficulty in arriving at accurate estimates is a significant issue as tribes develop a TANF plan and try to ensure that they will have enough resources to operate the TANF program.

This difficulty stems from the fact that overall state counts of 1994 AFDC recipients may be accurate, but information about their characteristics is often incomplete. For example, identification of an AFDC recipient's race/ethnicity tends to be unreliable because state program staff often made these determinations based on informal observation. New Mexico was the only state in the study sample that maintained records of AFDC recipients by tribal affiliation. The other states had only rough estimates of the number of tribal members receiving AFDC in 1994.

Most states, lacking complete data, developed estimates for tribal AFDC counts. These estimates were based on such factors as the zip code of the AFDC recipient and census data on the racial/ethnic percentages in a zip code or in a larger area that contained the zip code. Some states, such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, could match AFDC recipients with membership lists the tribes provided. Staff in the Welfare-to-Work division of the California Department of Social Services' Office of Tribal Government Affairs developed a methodology for estimating the number of Native American AFDC recipients in 1994 based on census data, poverty rates, and AFDC take-up rates.

Many tribes developed their own estimates because they felt state estimates were low. Four of the 10 tribes in this study considered state or county AFDC estimates but adopted their own instead. Two of the 10 initially disputed the state estimates, but eventually accepted them. Only one tribe in the study indicated it agreed with the state estimates from the start. Tribal estimates of their members' 1994 participation in AFDC usually exceeded the states' estimates. The tribes that offered counterestimates based their numbers on tribal records of members who participated in low-income programs such as Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women and Infant Children (WIC), BIA cash assistance, other social service programs and, in some cases, interviews of tribal members who participated in such programs. Tribal leaders suggested the following explanations for the perceived underestimates developed by states:

  • State staff frequently misidentified the race/ethnicity of AFDC recipients, judging American Indians and Alaska Natives to be white, Asian, or Hispanic.
  • States had an incentive to generate conservative or low estimates of tribal AFDC participants. Each tribal member counted as receiving AFDC in 1994 represents one case or unit of federal TANF funding to be transferred from the state to the tribe. If one tribe has a large population, or if more than one tribe is in the state, a significant amount of federal TANF funds may be transferred to the tribe(s).(5)

Conversely, some tribal and state staff interviewed in the study observed that tribes have an incentive to maximize the count/estimate of tribal members receiving AFDC in 1994. Several tribal informants said that a tribal TANF program cannot succeed if the number of members eligible for and requesting TANF services exceeds the number receiving AFDC in 1994 and the associated funding. These informants said that while most states have far fewer TANF recipients than 1994 AFDC recipients, many tribes have not shared this experience. Most reservation economies did not share in the significant economic growth many states experienced during the 1990s. The informants concluded that tribes should be aggressive in negotiating the 1994 estimates with states.

When they had different estimates, the tribe and state usually negotiated to reach agreement on a figure. For one tribe (Red Cliff), this involved comparing the tribe's enrollment list with the state's list of people who received AFDC in 1994. The Port Gamble tribe asked its social services agencies to compile a list of tribal members who may have been receiving AFDC in 1994 and asked the state to check the tribe's list against the state's records. In negotiation, the tribe argued that government programs have typically undercounted Native Americans, urging an upward adjustment. DHHS provided informal mediation and assistance in some tribal-state negotiations. For example, DHHS staff met with Arizona officials and with the White Mountain Apache tribal TANF program and the tribal council. Tribal officials credited DHHS with helping the tribe and state reach a mutually satisfactory agreement. Tribal officials said that, without the transfer of additional federal funding from the state as a result of negotiations, the tribe would have been forced to retrocede the operation of the TANF program back to Arizona.

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