Navajo Welfare Effort Seen as Major Success

A redesign of the U.S. welfare system in 1996 made a special provision for Native Americans. As Daniel Kraker of Arizona Public Radio reports, Navajo tribal members in Arizona took control of their own program, with solid results.

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. When Congress redesigned the nation's welfare system 10 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 do so now, including the Navajo nation. As Arizona Public Radio's Daniel Kraker reports, the results have been encouraging.

DANIEL KRAKER: La Costa Johnson(ph) 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.

LA COSTA JOHNSON: Have you thought about getting a certificate for your mechanic?

ROGER IRVING: No.

COSTA JOHNSON: No? If you have a certificate, then you can get paid more. There's the proof. You have it in your hands. We'll work on that with you, but you've got to remember that the TANF program's only temporary.

KRAKER: 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 La Costa 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.

COSTA JOHNSON: I was pregnant my senior year, so I dropped out of school. And I stayed out of school for about two years.

KRAKER: Johnson grew up in Blue Gap, Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo nation. She eventually earned her high school diploma and began attending college. By this time she had three kids, then she divorced. That's when she turned to welfare.

COSTA JOHNSON: It was hard on me mentally and emotionally because I knew that I couldn't support my kids anymore, and that I needed the help of either, you know, the state or the Navajo nation TANF to assist me.

KRAKER: Navajo TANF now serves nearly 4,000 families, just under 10% of the tribe's population. 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%, Gorman says the number of Navajos on welfare is surprisingly low.

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

KRAKER: Since the tribe took over it's TANF program five years ago, it's welfare rolls have held steady. That may not seem like much of an improvement, but with the 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. 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.

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

KRAKER: Hillabrant says flexibility is the key to that success. The federal government gives tribes more leeway than states in spending their TANF block grants. They can decide for themselves what counts as work participation. The Navajo nation, for example, allows welfare recipients to count education, including study time. La Costa 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 Bachelors Degree in social work. Last month she got her final welfare check.

COSTA JOHNSON: It was a good feeling to call my senior caseworker and say, I got hired. I'm actually a senior caseworker too. And you know, that congratulations, I knew you could do it, was there. You know, it took me a long time and I sacrificed a lot, but I'm able to say that I did it.

KRAKER: 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 NPR News, I'm Daniel Kraker.

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