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Evaluation of the Tribal Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Initial Implementation Findings

Publication Date
Jan 28, 2005


The Welfare-to-Work (WtW) grants program supplements other program resources that American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages can draw on to address the employment needs of their members. One percent of the overall $3 billion that Congress appropriated for the WtW grants program in the Balanced Budget Act (BBA) of 1997 was set aside for a tribal WtW program. Thus, a total of $30 million was awarded to tribal grantees in fiscal years (FY) 1998 and 1999. These resources, along with funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Native Employment Works (NEW), and other programs, are available to tribes to help the most disadvantaged welfare recipients make the transition from welfare to work.

Congress also mandated an evaluation of the tribal WtW program. The evaluation is being conducted, under contract to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. and its two subcontractors, the Urban Institute and Support Services International, Inc. This report, based on site visits to a diverse sample of 10 tribal WtW grantees in fall 1999 and spring 2000, describes how the tribal WtW program has been implemented in Indian country, problems encountered, and promising approaches developed.(1) The report takes a broad view of tribal program implementation, describing the policy context for WtW, the special circumstances of tribes, the program framework for WtW implementation, the nature of the program services, and, finally, lessons learned for the future.

Policy Context

Over the past 20 years, the federal government has increasingly supported tribal self-governance and self-determination. Indian tribes and tribal consortia have been explicitly included in federal welfare reform initiatives such as TANF, the Child Care Development Fund, WtW, and NEW. Congress and federal agencies administering these programs have supported Indian self-determination and tribal consultation in formulating legislative provisions and in developing policies and regulations. Legislation and regulations permit tribes to operate programs and, in recognition of their special circumstances, allow some degree of flexibility in program operation.

Special provisions of the tribal TANF, WtW, and other employment and training programs affect implementation of tribal WtW programs. Such provisions relate to:

  • Operation of TANF Programs. Tribes can choose to provide TANF services themselves or to obtain services from the state(s) or another tribe.
  • Allocation and Use of Funds. Tribal WtW grantees are allowed to spend up to 20 percent of their grant funds on administrative costs (instead of being held to the 15 percent limit that applies to nontribal WtW grantees).
  • TANF Time Limits. State and tribal TANF programs are required to disregard from the 60-month limit on TANF benefits any month during which an adult lives in Indian country where at least 50 percent of the adults are not employed.
  • Services and Service Population. Tribal WtW, TANF, and NEW programs have flexibility in defining the program service area, service population, and work activities, and the supportive services to be provided.
  • Use of Employment and Training Funds. The Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Demonstration Act of 1992 (Public Law 102-477) allows tribes to combine the formula funds they receive for a variety of employment, training, education, and related services from federal agencies, including the Department of Labor (DOL), DHHS, Department of Education, and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).


Socioeconomic Circumstances of Tribes

The challenge of ending welfare is nowhere more daunting in the United States than on Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages. While the circumstances of each tribe are unique, most tribes face economic, education, housing, health, and other problems at levels of severity rarely seen in most other American communities. These problems have beset generations of American Indians and Alaska Natives and reflect unique historical and cultural factors. As compared to the U.S. population overall, socioeconomic circumstances in Indian country are characterized by high unemployment, low education levels, high poverty rates, poor health status and substandard housing.

In addition to these factors that affect individual lives, economic success is hampered by the absence or underdevelopment in Indian country of the basic infrastructure needed to promote and support business development and associated job creation. Few private sector employers have been attracted to Indian country, and few tribally owned or sponsored enterprises have generated enough jobs to dramatically reduce unemployment on reservations. Barriers to economic development and job creation include remote location and inaccessibility,high crime rates, and a lack of banks and capital.

Despite obstacles, innovative development efforts have produced sorely needed tribal revenue, most notably from gaming and related tourism. These initiatives have improved economic prospects and created jobs on some reservations. Nevertheless, the current pace of job creation, compared to the number of jobs needed, suggests that, for years to come, a lack of jobs will prevent many TANF recipients and others from securing unsubsidized employment.


WtW Program Framework and Implementation

At the time of the study site visits, all of the tribal WtW programs were fully operational, but in general, the WtW programs represented a modest complement to other existing programs. Three specific findings illustrate this overall point:

  • The WtW grants are small compared to the TANF program and to the number of unemployed tribal members. In FY 1999, tribal WtW grants ranged from under $10,000 to over $2.5 million. The amounts of the grants for the 10 grantees participating in this study ranged from $41,000 (Kickapoo Tribe) to over $2.5 million (Navajo Nation). Grantees proposed to serve as few as six participants (Kickapoo Tribe) and as many as 425 (California Indian Manpower Consortium).
  • Tribal WtW funds in the 10 sites are used to enhance and expand existing employment-related programs. For small tribes, such as Kickapoo, Nez Perce, and Klamath, WtW funding was sufficient to pay the wages of one staff member or a portion of the wages of several. None of the grantees operated its WtW program independently of other employment and training programs.
  • Recruitment was a challenge. As was true with for nontribal grantees, most of the tribal grantees in the study experienced some difficulty in identifying and recruiting eligible individuals, or in getting people to enroll and stay involved in program services.


Program Services

Tribal WtW grantees offer many of the same services as nontribal grantees. All of the grantees in the study provide some preemployment job readiness preparation  usually workshops or individualized counseling to help participants overcome self-doubts about working and address other serious barriers to employment. The tribal grantees commonly make available, either directly or through referral, a variety of supportive services: transportation assistance, child care, substance abuse treatment/counseling, uniforms or other clothing, work tools and equipment, and help in securing a driver's license and other forms of identification.

In several respects, however, tribal grantees work differently from nontribal grantees:

  • Tribal grantees must develop agreements with state agencies to promote referral from TANF offices. Typically, a memorandum of understanding is developed between the tribal WtW program and local TANF agency. In some cases, agreements with multiple counties (and even with multiple states) are needed.
  • Difficulties identifying TANF recipients who are tribal members can complicate WtW recruitment. While states and counties may record the race/ethnicity of TANF recipients, they seldom record the particular tribe to which American Indian participants belong. As a result, they may not know whether they are suitable for referral to particular tribal WtW programs.
  • Despite the work-first philosophy and other WtW guidelines, some tribal grantees emphasize preemployment education and training, as well as supported-work opportunities. Tribal TANF recipients often lack basic and job-specific skills, and thus have limited prospects for immediate job placement. In light of the limited job openings on or near most reservations, and the multiple employment barriers confronting many tribal TANF recipients, some programs have implemented a longer-term approach that focuses on preparing for better-paying jobs with career development potential.


Lessons Learned and Useful Strategies for the Future

The experiences of the 10 tribal grantees included in this study highlight the challenges commonly faced in Indian country and suggest the following lessons.

Improving Coordination with Other Programs, Especially TANF, Is Critical to Successful Program Implementation

WtW funding is small and time-limited in relation to the size and need of the target population. Well-established linkages with other programs and agencies  especially TANF  are critical for recruitment, for referral of WtW participants to needed services, and for addressing longer-term education and employment needs.

States Can Be an Important Source of Support and Technical Assistance

By devolving responsibility for TANF to states, the federal government has changed the relationship between tribes and states. No longer can tribes look solely to the federal government for guidance concerning welfare rules and benefits for tribal members. Moreover, tribes must now negotiate with states for the data they need to plan and administer their own TANF programs.

Cooperation on welfare reform may represent one of the best examples of tribal-state collaboration and serve as a model for cooperation in other areas. For example, state governments have worked with tribes in the study sites to plan for and carry out the transfer of the TANF program from the state to the tribe or tribal consortium. The states provided training and technical assistance to tribal staff and shared their approaches to TANF data collection, management, and reporting. Most of the states examined in this study have provided the tribal TANF programs with some or all of the matching funds the states would be required to provide in a state-run program.

Cooperation with States Can Strengthen Child Support Enforcement and Fatherhood Initiatives

PRWORA and other welfare reform legislation promote child support and responsible fatherhood, but progress on these fronts has been slow at most of the study sites. However, some WtW programs have made strong efforts to find and serve noncustodial parents by coordinating with state child support enforcement programs. For example, one tribe has negotiated agreements with state agencies under which it locates noncustodial parents, obtains default and other judgments, and collects support in ways that are in keeping with decisions of tribal courts. The state provides funding and technical support and helps the tribe recover support from noncustodial parents living away from the reservation.

Forming a Consortium or Establishing a 477 Program Can Help Tribes Implement Welfare Reform and WtW Programs

Small tribes face unique challenges in implementing welfare reform that can be mitigated if they form a consortium to provide employment, training, and other programs. A consortium enables small tribes to share program staff and operating costs. Tribes may also want to consider establishing a 477 program, which can in some ways make it easier for them to merge funding from WtW, NEW, and other sources for employment and training activities.

In Indian Country, It May Be Necessary to Supplement "Work First" with Education, Training, and Supported Work

The work first approach that is the hallmark of most state TANF and WtW programs assumes that, with the right incentives and supports, and limited job-readiness or skills preparation, most TANF recipients will find work. Such an approach may be impractical on Indian reservations, where prospects for finding work are often poor and there is little new job creation. Tribal programs would do well to consider how they can supplement work first approaches with other program services to upgrade basic skills, provide educational credentials, and offer subsidized work opportunities.

WtW Programs Can Help Expand Child Care Availability, but There Are Obstacles

Several WtW grantees included in this study have trained TANF recipients to become licensed child care providers. However, one obstacle, especially for home-based care, is that a child care trainee's housing might be substandard and require extensive, time-consuming, and expensive renovations to comply with federal, state, or tribal standards. In addition, a home-based child care provider might not be able to generate enough income to achieve long-term self-sufficiency.

WtW Programs Can Help Expand Successful Approaches to the Transportation Problem in Indian Country

Several WtW grantees in this study addressed the transportation problems tribal WtW participants face. For example, grantees developed van service to shuttle workers from home to work, leased or otherwise provided refurbished automobiles to people successfully placed in jobs, and reimbursed participants for travel costs.

WtW Programs Can Help Support the Economic Development Efforts of Tribes

To support economic development efforts, tribal WtW administrators and staff can carefully document the available pool of TANF/WtW participants, their existing skill levels, and how such individuals' skills could be upgraded to meet new employers' needs. Such documentation of available labor, and having a plan for upgrading skills, could help bring new employers to the reservation or nearby towns.



1.  The study site grantees are the California Indian Manpower Consortium, the Eastern Band of Cherokee (North Carolina), the Kickapoo Tribe (Kansas), the Klamath Tribes (Oregon), the Navajo Nation (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah), the Nez Perce Tribe (Idaho), the Red Lake Band of Chippewa (Minnesota), the Tanana Chiefs Conference (Alaska), Three Affiliated Tribes (North Dakota), and the White Earth Reservation Tribal Council (Minnesota).

Low-Income Populations
Location- & Geography-Based Data
Tribal Communities
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)