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Operating TANF: Opportunities and Challenges for Tribes and Tribal Consortia

Publication Date
Jul 31, 2003


Federal law permits American Indian tribes to operate the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program for their members. That option entails benefits and advantages, but also risks and costs for tribes. This report discusses the benefits of tribal TANF operation, the challenges and problems tribes have encountered, and lessons from tribal experience. The ultimate impact of tribal TANF programs remains a question, however, because this study was not designed to measure impacts on employment outcomes, and because the persistent lack of employment opportunity in Indian Country is an ongoing challenge to tribal TANF programs no matter how well they are run.

Recognizing the unique circumstances of American Indian tribes and Alaska Native villages, Congress designed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), Public Law 104-193, to give tribes and tribal consortia the chance to design and administer TANF, with considerable flexibility. PRWORA amended title IV-A of the Social Security Act (Public Law 74-271) which has been further amended.(1) The Social Security Act, as amended, (the "Act") is the legislative basis of tribal TANF programs. Many tribes have taken advantage of the option to administer TANF. As of July 1, 2001, 34 tribes and tribal consortia had submitted TANF plans and received approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Those 34 tribal programs serve more than 170 tribes, and many other tribes are considering operating the TANF program.

This report describes the experiences of 10 tribal grantees in planning, implementing, and operating TANF programs.(2) It was prepared for the use of tribal, federal, and state officials, and other stakeholders in welfare reform in Indian country.(3) The report is based on data collected between August 2001 and July 2002 through telephone interviews with all 10 tribal grantees, and subsequent in-depth site visits to three of them.

Though tribal TANF experience is still limited, it has yielded useful lessons. When this report was prepared, most tribal grantees had not yet implemented TANF or had operated TANF for less than two years. Nevertheless, the 10 study grantees (Hopi, Lac du Flambeau, Mille Lacs, Navajo, Port Gamble S'Klallam, Red Cliff, Tlingit and Haida, Torres Martinez, White Mountain Apache, and Winnebago) had identified and overcome challenges, and were operating the program enthusiastically, with high expectations.

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Making the Decision to Operate Tribal TANF

For many tribes, the decision to assume responsibility for TANF is a critical one. Operating TANF presents important opportunities, and the program affects many tribal members. It can increase employment on the reservation and participants' employability. It can bring an infusion of federal and state dollars under tribal control, enhance program coordination, and improve the tribe's reputation and image. On the other hand, operating TANF poses risks and opportunity costs for tribes and tribal consortia. A tribal TANF program can contend for resources with other tribal programs. Since funding levels are based on 1994 Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) caseloads, tribes reported they cannot be sure that they will be able to serve all eligible participants if unexpected events or circumstances arise, such as a natural disaster that reduces tribal members income or employment. Failure to operate the program successfully might harm the most vulnerable tribal members, set back other tribal self-determination initiatives, raise difficult personnel issues, and create or exacerbate problems with the state.

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Developing a Sound TANF Plan

The experiences of grantees in this study indicate that developing a sound TANF plan requires more than meeting statutory requirements and following DHHS rules. The tribes had to define their own objectives and rules, negotiate terms with the state, and assemble resources for planning and start-up. Tribes decide to operate their own TANF program primarily because they believe they can do better at serving their members. The TANF plan is an opportunity to articulate the mission and goals of the tribal TANF program and to design its program accordingly, including defining exemptions from participation, acceptable work activities, and sanction policies.

Tribal TANF plans are important in substance and symbolism. Developing the plan requires negotiations with the state (or states) about issues affecting the amount of federal and state funding, if any, the tribe will receive, and the extent of state support for program development, implementation, and operation.

All the grantees in the study worked with state staff in developing their TANF plans, and got federal guidance. State staff provided information and guidance about staffing levels, facilities, and equipment needed to operate TANF, as well as policy and procedures manuals and other documentation. DHHS staff reviewed each tribe's plan and provided feedback. When necessary, DHHS required revisions of aspects of the plan that were impractical, incomplete, or not in compliance with the Act or DHHS regulations.

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Ensuring Smooth Program Implementation and Operations

Despite challenges, the tribal grantees in this study developed successful strategies for the transition to tribal program operation. Most made a gradual transition, with continued state involvement in program operations for an interim period. Tribes generally maintained good working relationships with state and local TANF agencies and adjusted their policies and procedures as needed. Tribes used the flexibility provided under the Act to address challenges related to limitations in resources and infrastructure, and to tailor their operations to tribal needs and values. Some of these challenges, and their responses, are as follows:

  • Dealing with Unexpectedly Large TANF Caseloads. For 3 of the 10 tribal grantees, the number of TANF participants exceeded the number of tribal members that the state estimated had received AFDC in 1994. Unresolved, this situation would have left tribes with insufficient resources to implement their TANF plans. Fortunately, with the collaboration of the relevant states and DHHS, grantees revised their plans in ways that resulted in increased funding, either through changes in the specification of the population to be served, increasing the number of tribal members estimated to have received AFDC in 1994, and/or securing an increase in state maintenance of effort (MOE) funding.
  • Hiring and Retaining Qualified Staff. Tribes have recruitment and training challenges because there are typically few tribal members with experience working in TANF or comparable programs. Tribal programs addressed this problem in several ways. They hired staff with experience working for TANF programs regardless of their tribal membership, obtained training from state TANF staff, and provided ongoing staff development.
  • Coordinating with Tribal, State and Federal Programs. Taking over TANF can facilitate program coordination, but also may complicate it. Coordination can be enhanced between TANF and other tribal programs such as Welfare-to-Work, workforce development, and social services. Opportunities for integrating tribal programs are accentuated if the tribe participates in the Public Law 102-477 program, which allows unified management of funds from various federal sources and tribes can use a portion of "477" resources (including TANF if included in the 477 plan) on economic development. However, tribes noted that their expectations for program streamlining were somewhat frustrated by statutory reporting requirements that apply to all TANF programs, state and tribal, even when tribal TANF was included in a 477 program, and by the process and schedule under which delivery of TANF funds occurred. (DHHS staff reported that problems in providing TANF funds to 477 tribes through the Bureau of Indian Affairs were resolved in 2002, after data collection for this study was completed). Tribes also noted that taking over TANF can complicate coordination between TANF and programs administered by states (Food Stamps, Medicaid, and State Children's Health Insurance Program), although some found ways to bridge the new divide in program management.
  • Overcoming Barriers to Reporting Program Performance. Many of the tribal TANF grantees found it difficult to submit complete quarterly reports to DHHS as required. Grantees variously used information systems provided by DHHS or by states, developed new systems, or used systems developed by private-sector vendors. Most grantees reported difficulties in preparing the mandated reports regardless of the system they used.

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Lessons Learned and Implications

Pride of ownership in the tribal TANF programs was evident among program staff and participants, staff in other programs, and tribal officials. The TANF offices 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.

Tribal TANF officials support moving tribal members from welfare to work, largely because doing so is consistent with tribal goals of self-sufficiency.(4) Tribes have adopted strategies to prepare TANF participants for employment (when it is available), improve their educational attainment, job skills, and work experience, and eliminate barriers to employment, such as 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 when jobs do 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 be reached before enough jobs become available in Indian Country. If significant increases in economic development and job creation are not achieved, many tribes will probably lack the resources to serve their neediest members.

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 wish to consider.

  • Close scrutiny of 1994 AFDC data can be critical to tribal TANF success. The amount of federal funding of tribal TANF programs is based on the number of tribal members who received AFDC in 1994, as reported by the state. Lacking clear records of 1994 recipients' tribal membership, many states developed estimates. Some tribal grantees worked with states to develop revised counts or estimates, which were incorporated in tribal TANF plans and accepted by DHHS, resulting in improved funding for tribal programs.
  • Cooperation with the state can smooth the transition to a successful tribal TANF program. The experience of tribes in the study suggests that (1) state TANF programs can provide valuable training for tribal TANF staff, (2) subcontracting some TANF operations to the state during a transition period gives tribal grantees additional flexibility, (3) using the state TANF information system can reduce costs, (4) creating a contingency fund can help resolve unexpected problems, and (5) coordinating with state programs (as well as federal and other tribal programs and the private sector) can enhance TANF job development activities.
  • Federal policies and procedures could facilitate tribal TANF operations. Some federal policies, if refined, might better support tribal TANF operations, make it easier for tribal TANF participants to access other federal programs, and encourage more tribes to take over the operation of TANF. Consideration could be given to (1) facilitating the use of state TANF reporting systems by tribal grantees to make the required quarterly reports easier to compile; (2) using waivers or other means that might encourage greater tribal-state coordination and facilitate participation of tribal TANF participants in the state-run Food Stamps, Medicaid, and SCHIP programs; and (3) enhancing technical assistance to tribes for TANF planning and implementation.
  • State policies and procedures are critical to the success of tribal TANF programs. States can deliver training, provide TANF services for a transition period, share state information systems and equipment, and ensure that tribal TANF participants have access to other state services. Almost every state in the study provided essential training and technical assistance to tribes taking over the TANF program; new tribal TANF grantees will need similar help. As a tribe takes over the program, the state can continue to provide all, or a portion of, TANF services and activities during a transition period. State MOE funds also can be critical. The Act does not require it, but some states have transferred MOE funds to tribal TANF programs. Without state MOE funds, tribes have only part of the resources that supported their members' benefits in the state TANF or AFDC program. Finally, special efforts may be needed to ensure that tribal members using the state program have full access to state TANF services. Although serving tribal members in remote locations with few jobs is a challenge, it is important that states apply comparable expectations and offer comparable services to them.

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1.  Title IV-A has been amended since passage of PRWOA by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-33) and the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-169).

2.  This report is the third of four reports on the evaluation of tribal Welfare-to-Work (WtW) programs as mandated by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. The first report, prepared for tribal leaders and managers, described preliminary findings of tribal experiences in designing and implementing WtW programs (Hillabrant and Rhoades 2000). The second report, prepared for a wide audience, assessed the implementation and operation of tribal WtW programs, describing social, cultural, economic, programmatic, and other factors affecting their operation (Hillabrant et al. 2001). The current report focuses on the tribal TANF program, the Indian country welfare program with the most participants and the largest budget. The last report in the series will focus on innovative economic development efforts in Indian country and their role in moving tribal members from welfare to work.

3.  In this report, "Indian country" refers to American Indian reservations, rancherias, and pueblos; adjacent counties; and other areas where large numbers of American Indians or Alaska Natives reside (as in Alaska and Oklahoma).

4.  Similar findings were reported for a sample of tribal Welfare-to-Work grantees in the first phase of this evaluation (Hillabrant et al, 2001).


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