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May 31, 2006

Op Ed:10 Years Later, A Look at the Effects of Welfare Reform for Alaska Natives

Public Service Scholars who completed honors theses in different departments were asked to also write op eds on the research they had done. The idea is to make a connection between research and social action. As I've said, Op Eds are tough things to write -- and these pieces are good evidence for that. After several of them are followed by commentaries by the author on the difficulties of writing an Op Ed.

This first one is called 10 Years Later, A Look at the Effects of Welfare Reform for Alaska Natives, and it's by Neepa Acharya.

A Look at the Effects of Welfare Reform for Alaska Natives

by Neepa Acharya

As we near the tenth anniversary of Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act, known as Welfare Reform, we look over that last decade of programming meant to “increase the flexibility of states” in operating a program to remove people from poverty to work. Within the state of Alaska, individuals in need confront a complex process of meetings with government contracted case managers, social workers, means-test and fee agents, and job councilors that serve the holistic needs of the individual in order to get them into the working world. The quality of life in the Native villages is impoverished, with some village homes lacking in electricity, running water, sewage, and heating. Though the system for receiving aid seems an attempt to best serve the needs of Natives, residents living in these homes qualify for aid but still do not take on the programs. Within Alaska, though almost 80 percent of Alaska Natives qualify for public assistance aid, only 18 percent actually participate in any federal or state assistance programs. 10 years after the creation of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) it is time to examine how effectively public assistance and welfare programs support qualified Alaska Natives to determine if government initiatives on Alaska Native part government initiatives can help create a system that more adequately serves the indigenous communities across the nation.

In 1996, the welfare reform act aimed to radically restructure the system of welfare at the state level. The law expands the role of non-cash incentive programs such a Food stamps and Energy assistance. TANF replaced the existing system for aid to families as a state-specific block grant program where participants have a 60-month benefit limit. The mission of this program has been to give individuals their own network of state-contracted case managers and work counselors to help them find jobs as fast as possible. Through all of these programs, TANF becomes a holistic program supplemented with aid for childcare, food, housing, and social services—eliminating as many barriers as possible for impoverished families to improve their socioeconomic state of life.

In 2000, through the construction of Tribal TANF, Alaska Native families now face an even more seemingly-idyllic case management system designed and managed by local non-profits that fall under one of twelve regional Native corporations—creating Native run programs for Natives. Programs case managed by Native non-profits have allowed for Native clients to receive help in applying for federal Welfare-to-Work and TANF, state Alaska Temporary Assistance Programs (ATAP), General Relief Assistance, non-cash incentive programs such as Food stamps and Energy Assistance, in addition to local and tribally-sponsored aid initiatives. Still, while a system has been etched out to help the Native community, no one is taking on the programs, and a closer examination of the basic philosophy of welfare reform and the way in which program have been re-organized reveals a bit about why the takeup rates are so low.

In my investigations of the reasons for low take-up rates around Alaska, I have pinpointed four main reasons why the participation in both rural and urban areas is so low. The reasons range from cultural, psychological and physical barriers to participation, to institutional design problems where a mess of agencies that are supposed to work hand in had create such a bureaucracy that no one receives aid. The Alaska Native community has been plagued by alcoholism—a problem that has led to almost 96 percent of all cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Furthermore, 68 percent of children are most likely to be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other complications due to alcohol consumption. These physical problems create a large handicap for people who are expected to receive aid through holding down a 40-hour per week job. Furthermore, in rural communities, Natives still subsist off of traditional hunting and gathering practices and culturally focus on their devotion to the community rather than acquiring individual wealth. Asking these individuals to work for themselves to receive aid goes against their own values and system of worth. For those seeking to better themselves, there are very few jobs in a community. A given village of 600 families may have 1-2 jobs at the supermarket and post office. If these positions are even open, welfare participants with problems of alcoholism that are known within the community will not be taken seriously and will not get a job.

In these same villages, there exist a city, village, regional corporation, and tribal government office to administer services to the community. When I asked where I could get energy assistance, I was promptly told that Suzy in the tribal office. Suzy referred me to the city office, who then referred me to a woman named Nette that used to work in the village office but now manages the grocery store. Of course, Nette told me that she used to take care of it, but pointed me right back to the tribal government office. In this shuffle of government offices, the disbursement of aid applications gets lost in the process. Furthermore, the aid is disbursed, not from most regional corporations, but from the state government, so Natives taking on the programs from a rural village will have case managers in their city, and will then have to contact agents from their non-profit agency as well as state level eligibility technicians and vocational counselors located in Anchorage or Fairbanks. For a person who may have family problems and no prospect of jobs, trying to weave through an incredibly complex system of aid disbursement makes the process impossible. Finally, there are economic disincentives for many of these Natives to participate in these programs. While the 1996 reforms created a scaled benefits payout whereby people still had an incentive to get jobs, these scales do not take into account that people receiving welfare take on 4-5 different programs. When the total income increases across programs, aid taxed by 100 percent and there is no incentive to leave the system. Each of these issues ultimately demonstrates that the current system of welfare reform, while even tailored to fit the needs of the State of Alaska, does not suit a community with a differing set of cultural practices that live in a harsh climate with no employment. We could then ask if the government should really be responsible for those individuals that do not want aid and willingly choose not to relocate to cities where the jobs are. But at the same time, there is an entire subpopulation of individuals living without heating and proper sewage in the year 2006, and the children don’t have much say into their lives in these situations.

While visiting the island of St. Paul, I met a man named Jacob Merculief who went out of his way to bring me a portion of his catch of halibut. I had met Jacob exactly once, and I heard that he was unemployed and slept with electric blankets and heated stones because he could not afford heating—yet he went out of his way to give me a bag of fish. It was at this point that I realized that life in a village like St. Paul was not based upon the individuals trying to gain the most wealth possible and it important to create a program that promotes the Native way of life rather than imposing an assistance program that is meant to push individuals into a competetive labor market to survive on their own.

While there has been a lot of research by social policy institutes on the issue of welfare reform, there are very few studies that have been able to understand the effects of these assistance programs on the Alaska Native community and this study functions to raise awareness on this issue and hopefully promote greater collaboration between the think tanks, research institutes, and Native agencies, in the hopes that they can create programs that will better serve the Alaska Native community. Through collaboration, it is possible to someday create systemic changes so that individuals like Jacob can share their fish, but when they sleep at night, the heating will be on.


This op-ed will, like any piece of writing, continue to be a work-in-progress. The target audience for this piece is the general public in the lower 48 states who may not be familiar with the current systems of welfare and public assistance, in addition to comprehending the very different lives of Natives in Alaska. As a result, a unique challenge in this op-ed has been trying to understand how much depth and detail I should try to give about the system in Alaska for individuals to understand the level of injustice occurring, while trying to implement several anecdotes that will help clarify the Alaska Native experience and give the reader something to relate to…and all of this has to be completed in the smallest number of words possible! The purpose of this essay was to familiarize the reader with the fact that in the 10th anniversary of Welfare Reform, maybe the new system is not working as well as we had envisioned by examining a specific subset of the population that is often overlooked and ignored. As I continue my project relating to Alaska Natives and public assistance takeup rates, I will hopefully have a stronger set of solutions to offer that could help remedy the problem. Thus, the op-ed will take several forms and I plan to reshape it to fit specific audiences in the Native community, in Alaska, as well as in newspapers throughout the country.

Posted by hilton at May 31, 2006 11:37 AM


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