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Senate Committee Examines Impact of Welfare Reform on Native Americans

As Congress prepares to reauthorize the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193), the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a May 10 hearing to examine how Native Americans have fared under the current law. The committee heard testimony from government officials and representatives from the academic community and from Native American tribes.

Under current law, tribes have the same flexibility as states in operating the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program; however, only 37 out of 137 tribes have chosen to implement TANF. Witnesses testified that the unemployment and poverty rates are higher for Native Americans. In many tribes, the unemployment rate is as high as 50 percent, with 27 percent of the population living in poverty.

Cynthia Fagnoni of the Government Accounting Office told the committee that although TANF caseloads nationwide have fallen, the number of American Indians on welfare has stayed the same or increased. She cited the scarcity of jobs as one of the biggest barriers to moving recipients from welfare to work, as well as lack of transportation and adequate child care. She recommended that reauthorization efforts should maintain support for tribal sovereignty.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) recently introduced legislation (S. 2484) that would address the welfare reform needs of Native Americans. “Poverty has an Indian face,” he said, pointing out that 50 percent of all welfare recipients in Montana are Native Americans and 25 percent live in poverty. He said that the 1996 law, which focused on “work and job training, did not work well for Native Americans.” He indicated that he worked closely with local tribal communities on his legislation, which would focus more on economic development.

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