Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Lessons Learned and Implications

08/01/2003

Pride of ownership was evident in the tribal TANF programsВ  it was expressed by program staff and participants, staff in other programs, and tribal officials. The TANF offices, shown with pride, were decorated with tribal cultural motifs and artwork expressing aspirations of personal responsibility and self-improvement for one's self, family, and tribe. Despite heavy workloads, staff welcomed the opportunity to show what they were accomplishing. These results are similar to those found in the first phase of the Welfare-to-Work evaluation (Hillabrant et al. 2001).

Consistent with tribal goals of self-sufficiency, tribal TANF officials strongly support moving tribal members from welfare to work. Tribes have adopted strategies that include making TANF participants ready for employment (when such employment becomes available), by improving their educational attainment, job skills, and work experience, and by eliminating barriers to employment, such as a lack of child care, transportation difficulties, and untreated alcohol/substance abuse. Significant challenges remain, however. No matter how well a tribal TANF program is run, it cannot place participants in unsubsidized employment that does not exist. The lack of unsubsidized employment on reservations is the greatest threat to the success of tribal TANF programs. One of the greatest concerns is that the 60-month lifetime limit on TANF benefits will pass before enough jobs become available in Indian country. If the needed economic development fails to take place, tribes will probably lack the resources to serve their most needy members.

While the grantees in the study had some disagreements or problems with the state concerning aspects of planning, implementation, and operation of the tribal TANF program, they also reported mutually satisfactory resolution of most of these disagreements, as well as positive contributions from the states. Furthermore, the tribal grantees in this study were able to tailor their programs to improve access to tribal members and address the unique economic and cultural circumstances in Indian country.

The experiences of the 10 tribal grantees in the study suggest lessons that other tribes and consortia, state and federal officials, and others interested in tribal TANF programs may be able to learn from. Based on the study findings, implications are offered for federal, state, and tribal consideration.

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