Welfare Reform on the Rez

Window Rock, AZ – When Congress redesigned the country's welfare system ten years ago, it made a special provision for Native Americans. Indian tribes may now choose to receive money directly from the federal government and run their own public assistance programs. Dozens of tribes now do so, including the Hopi and White Mountain Apache Tribes, and the Navajo Nation. As Daniel Kraker reports from KNAU's Indian Country News Bureau, the results have been encouraging.

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LaCosta Johnson is a senior caseworker at the Navajo welfare office in Gallup, New Mexico. Her first appointment today is with Roger Irving, a quiet Navajo father. His two young boys perch on his knees, hiding their father's face. Roger's in between jobs as a mechanic.

AX1: Have you thought about getting a certificate for your mechanic? you can get paid more, there's the proof, you have it in your hands, so we'll work on that with you, but you've got to remember that the TANF program is only temporary (fade down Johnson talking under track )

TANF, the temporary assistance for needy families program, is the centerpiece of the government's revamped plan to move people from welfare to work. It sets a five-year time limit on getting cash welfare benefits. What Roger doesn't know is that just last month, LaCosta Johnson was a client of the Navajo TANF program. Her journey through the welfare system has an unusual ending, but it began with a familiar story.

AX2: I was pregnant my senior year, dropped out of school, stayed out of school about two years.

Johnson grew up in Blue Gap, Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation. Her home didn't have running water, electricity, or a telephone. After returning for her high school diploma, she worked as a secretary. Then she enrolled in college in Gallup, New Mexico, 100 miles away.

So that was about 3 hours round trip, I would go Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so it was hard, it was really hard, but I was determined to attend school, and I wanted to be something other than a secretary

By this time she was married and had three kids. They moved to Gallup to be closer to school. But her husband wanted to return to the rez. He began abusing her, and they divorced. That's when Johnson turned to welfare.

I lost my house, my car, everything, I had to start from scratch all over again. It was hard, on me mentally, and emotionally, because I knew I couldn't support my kids anymore, and I needed the help of the state or Navajo nation TANF to assist me.

Navajo TANF now serves nearly 4 thousand families, just under ten percent of the tribe's population.

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Roxanne Gorman, who directs the program, says there's a perception out there that all Navajos are on welfare. American Indians do receive unique benefits from the federal government, like free health care. And high percentages of Navajos receive food stamps and live in public housing. But considering unemployment on the reservation is around 50 percent Gorman says the number of Navajos on welfare is surprisingly low.

AX4: There is a sense of independence and pride in taking care of your own and yourself, there's extended families, there's our clanship, that causes us to be responsible to our children, the children of our sisters and brothers

Since the tribe took over its TANF program five years ago, its welfare rolls have held steady. That may not seem like much of an improvement. --- but with a poverty rate on the reservation six times the national average --- every time someone moves off welfare, there's always more customers to take their place.

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In fact, says policy analyst Walter Hillabrant, tribal TANF programs have been a spectacular success. He studied the programs for the federal government and says tribes like the Navajo have moved more clients from welfare to work than states ever did.

AX5: They hired staff that spoke the language, and who are aware of Navajo traditions and attitudes and expectations, in turn, because of that special knowledge, were able to be much more successful at placing tribal members into productive employment.

Hillabrant says flexibility is the key to that success. The federal government gives tribes more leeway than states in spending their TANF block grants. The Navajo Nation, for example, doesn't have to stick to the five year lifetime limit someone can receive cash benefits if a client is showing progress toward a career goal. The Navajo TANF program can also decide for itself what counts as work participation. Gorman says that's especially important now that education is limited under state programs.

That's an important piece for our program, we find when they first come to us, they're reading at a third grade level, they need to read to be successful, anywhere. So if you take away that activity, and you say just go find employment, and they can't read, or write, what's the benefit? I just don't see that as long term or sustainable, you're going to see that person struggling.

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LaCosta Johnson says that's what kept her in school after her husband left. After six years, she finally got her associates degree. She's now pursuing her bachelor's degree in social work. Last month, she got her final welfare check.

AX6: It was a good feeling to call my senior case worker and say I got hired, I'm actually a senior case worker too, and that congratulations, I knew you could do it, was there, it took me a long time, and I sacrificed a lot, but I'm able to say that I did it!

Now Johnson's job is to help others do it. To help her caseload more than 100 Navajos overcome the same long odds that she did.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker on the Navajo Nation