Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Improvement of TANF Services and Outcomes


Improvement of services for tribal members is the most often cited justification for tribal operation of the TANF program. According to one tribal TANF program director, a tribe that did not believe that it could provide better TANF services than the state, and that had decided to operate TANF for other reasons, was unlikely to have a successful TANF program. Officials at every tribe/consortium in the study sample believed they understood their tribal members' barriers to employment and needs better than did state TANF staff. Tribal officials generally felt that state TANF programs had good intentions but did not fully understand the culture, circumstances, and conditions of tribal TANF recipients.

At each study site, tribal officials said that lack of access to TANF services and benefits that state programs provided was a problem for tribal members. Often, county or state TANF offices are more than 20 miles from a reservation. Of the 10 states in which the 10 study sites are located, only Arizona had established a TANF office on tribal land. Most reservations do not have public transportation systems, and most tribal members who are eligible for TANF do not have access to reliable transportation, so many tribal members have difficulty applying for and obtaining TANF services from states or counties.

Tribal officials described a lack of sensitivity at some state programs. Some tribal members felt unwelcome because few state or county staff spoke their tribal language, or because staff sometimes behaved disrespectfully and failed to fully appreciate the reservation's special circumstances, such as lack of job opportunities, child care, and support services. Other tribal officials said that, because of high unemployment rates on the reservation, state TANF programs sometimes denied tribal members services through "benign neglect"--by making little effort to enforce program work requirements, engage tribal members in work activities, or place them in jobs.

Although tribal programs focus on employment and on issuing TANF benefits, they also take a longer view beyond the immediate circumstances their members face. Even when employment opportunities are scarce, the tribal TANF programs work to increase the employability of participants by improving their work experience, educational attainment, job preparation, and job-seeking skills. In conjunction with other programs, such as Native Employment Works (NEW) and Welfare to Work (WtW), tribal TANF programs seek to decrease employment barriers, such as the lack of available child care, transportation, and untreated substance abuse.

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