By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The Chippewa Cree Tribe is considering a move to administer a federal welfare program on its own instead of relying on the state and county as it does now.
Tribal officials say the shift would mean more effective social services for people at Rocky Boy, as well as extra jobs and federal dollars to administer the program, more access to federal economic development dollars and new training programs at Stone Child College.
The program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States use the money to implement their own welfare programs. Recipients are eligible to receive TANF benefits for five years.
TANF is essentially a cash benefit that took the place of Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1997.
In a planning meeting Wednesday afternoon, tribal council member Jonathan Windy Boy discussed the proposed switch with some key officials, including the head of Chippewa Cree Tribe Social Services and the president of Stone Child College.
The switch would affect about 200 Rocky Boy families receiving TANF, said Toni Plummer-Alvernaz, who was hired by the tribe last year to study the feasibility of the tribe taking over the program. She said it would be more convenient for enrolled tribal members who get help from the program if the tribe administered it. Now, people with families at Rocky Boy have to come to the Hill County Office of Public Assistance to receive the benefits.
The shift would mean more money for the tribe. Right now the state takes out 15 percent for administrative costs and then passes the money to Hill County, which then takes out 15 percent, said Plummer-Alvernaz.
The implications for economic development on the reservation go far beyond extra administrative jobs.
Proposed revisions to state regulations would no longer allow college courses to count toward the state's work requirement for TANF. Tribal colleges rely heavily on the students and dollars brought in by students attending classes to count toward the work requirement, said Plummer-Alvernaz.
Stone Child College president Steve Galbavy said as many as 25 percent of students there are using their courses to meet the TANF work requirement.
If the tribe takes over TANF, it would have to develop training programs to meet the requirements of the 1996 welfare reform law, but it also would have access to federal dollars set aside to help tribes develop those programs.
Windy Boy wants the tribe to work with Stone Child College to develop a new alternative energy curriculum - training students to build and repair solar energy panels, for example - that would help the tribe meet the work training requirements of TANF.
People on the reservation now get public assistance from a variety of sources, Plummer-Alvernaz said. About 280 individuals collect tribal general assistance, money that is received directly from the federal government and is distributed on the reservation to people without families.
The needy also can receive Medicaid and food stamps from the county Office of Public Assistance, and can also receive money for transportation - to help them get to Havre to interview for jobs - and day care from the District IV Human Resources Development Council in Havre.
Hill County has an office at Rocky Boy to meet with clients once a week, but the office gives referrals, not support services, said Jan Mitchell, director of tribal social services. To receive benefits, tribal members have to go to Havre.
If the reservation ran its own TANF program, all of those would be distributed through an office on the reservation except Medicaid and food stamps, which tribes cannot administer under federal law, Plummer-Alvernaz said.
Vic Miller, executive director of HRDC, said if Rocky Boy gets a TANF program, HRDC would not lose funding.
"There'll be some changes, but it's probably going to be for the good of the clients, and that's the bottom line," he said.
There could be more effects on the county Office of Public Assistance, said Miller, who was a Blaine County commissioner in the late 1990s when the Fort Belknap Indian Community became a TANF tribe. He said the county's Office of Public Assistance moved from Chinook to Fort Belknap because most of the people it served were from there, but that no jobs were lost.
Fort Belknap is one of two tribes in Montana that administer their own TANF program.
"The program (in Fort Belknap) is working, as near as I can tell, flawlessly," Miller said.
Shirley Briese, supervisor at the Hill County Office of Public Assistance, said about half of the county's TANF cases are on the reservation.
"We certainly support Rocky Boy in getting their own tribal TANF," Briese said, adding that the program has been successful in Fort Belknap.
Plummer-Alvernaz will report the results of her findings to the tribal council in two weeks, Windy Boy said.
She said she will recommend the tribe continues to move forward with the process.