Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia. Tailoring Operations to Unique Tribal Circumstances


The tribal grantees in this study sought to improve services to tribal members by adapting the services to fit the circumstances of the tribe. The grantees tried to improve access to services, adjust services and work requirements to the particular needs of tribal TANF clients, and reinforce tribal values of personal and family responsibility despite limited opportunities for unsubsidized employment. All the tribal grantees in the study opened at least one program office on the reservation, and three grantees opened several offices. The Navajo Nation has opened eight TANF offices (one central and seven satellite offices) and will open eight more satellites. The Mille Lacs tribe operates two offices. The Torres Martinez consortium, because it serves American Indians and Alaska Natives residing in Los Angeles and Riverside counties, has established offices throughout these counties. Most of the tribal grantees said that they conduct home visits and provide services outside their offices at libraries, schools, and other places easily accessible to program participants. Each of the tribal TANF offices in the study is staffed by tribal members and others who live on the reservation; are familiar with the social, economic, and cultural conditions on the reservation; and, when needed, speak the tribal language. The Navajo Nation uses laptop computers to conduct TANF intake in many locations, and the data are then uploaded to a central server.

Tribes have also used the discretion that comes with operating their own TANF program to define benefit levels and issuance procedures that serve program goals. Two of the grantees (Navajo Nation and Torres Martinez) pay higher benefits than the state TANF program. The Torres Martinez consortium differentiates benefit levels for its urban and rural clients, paying the former $100 more than the county TANF program and the latter $75 more. The consortium also makes higher payments than counties for foster care TANF cases. The consortium encourages adults to serve as foster parents to related children to minimize placement of Indian children in non-Indian families. One tribe (Red Cliff) pays lower benefits than the state because the families can get no-cost tribal housing and because of some concern that the tribe's TANF funds are insufficient to serve all tribal members eligible for TANF. Port Gamble S'Klallam issues benefit checks twice a month, because this is more convenient for clients and it mirrors the pay schedule of many employers. State officials interviewed for the study were generally supportive of the goals and policies of tribal TANF programs, indicating that they recognized that tribes generally understand the circumstances and needs of their members better than county, state, or federal agencies. Despite this general support, some state officials interviewed said that tribes sometimes do not fully appreciate the efforts of state programs, and that tribal policies and procedures, when they diverge from those of the state, are likely to evolve closer to those of the state as tribal programs gain experience.

The broader range of acceptable work activity and other participation requirements in tribal TANF programs is reflected in tribal procedures for approving and monitoring client compliance. The case manager is generally responsible for determining whether an activity meets the tribe's requirements. The Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe requires biweekly time sheets to report participation (at the time of the site visit, the tribe was planning to move to weekly time sheets). To monitor Port Gamble's school attendance requirement for children age 16 and under, schools submit attendance information monthly on a form the TANF office provides by fax.

Tribal values and circumstances are also reflected in decisions to create incentives for positive behavior and sanctions to discourage negative behavior. For example, the Torres Martinez consortium gives cash grants to TANF participants to defray some of the cost of getting married. Although the cash grant does not require a traditional marriage ceremony, the tribe encourages one. The consortium gives a cash bonus to families when their children earn good grades in school. When clients are sanctioned, the consortium issues vouchers for food, utilities, and shelter instead of cash benefits. Port Gamble's sanction policy starts with a warning, then loss of the adult grant. If the client is still not compliant after 60 days, a full family sanction is implemented. Since the program's stated goal is to protect children, clients know that, when a full family sanction occurs, they will be referred to the Indian child welfare program and will have to show that they can still provide for their child. Sometimes the community gets involved. For example, tribal elders have supported the agency and have encouraged noncooperative family members to comply with agency requirements.

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