A Community Responsibility for Welfare Reform

Nov 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 9-3: Responsible Welfare Reform, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

COMMUNITY GRAPHICTribally controlled community colleges understand as well as anyone the destructive nature of dependency. When the faculty and administrators walk out their colleges’ doors every day, many see evidence of the despair that accompanies unemployment, despair that threatens to destroy tribal cultures and people. Depending upon welfare checks erodes self-esteem, leaving people who cannot imagine themselves earning a living.

Nevertheless, most tribal college leaders object to the approach taken by Congress and the administration in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996. The law’s proponents describe it as a way to create a work ethic in individuals and to create jobs; they believe that welfare reform will make clients productive and responsible for their own welfare (food and shelter). By its punitive nature, however, the law attacks the symptoms of poverty instead of the root causes. In the law, education is an afterthought. The colleges, however, believe and are demonstrating that education should be the cornerstone of meaningful, long-term welfare reform.

To decrease dependency, tribal colleges have been reforming welfare for the past 30 years from another perspective: community responsibility. Instead of focusing exclusively upon “personal responsibility,” they promote their communities’ capacity to help students reach their full potential. Using their traditional values as a foundation, they have created models that should be studied by anyone interested in reducing dependency and despair in this country.

Instead of pointing fingers, the programs described in this issue concentrate upon problem solving. The colleges are attacking the causes of poverty: the shortages of job skills, business role models, and self-esteem. They are re-tooling the minds of people accustomed to welfare. The colleges work on both personal development and community development, recognizing that most of their students will want to stay on the reservations and contribute to their communities.

The tribal college models are at the vanguard in the fields of entrepreneurism and family-based education. The tribal colleges’ progressive models rest upon an ancient belief system that emphasizes sharing, generosity, sustainability, and reciprocity. The question is whether the welfare reform law signed by Congress will undermine their efforts.

Third World conditions

The full impact of the welfare reform law will not be clear for some time. Although regulations under the new reform vary from state to state, many tribal college students have been advised by welfare workers to drop out of college or lose their benefits. Colleges do not keep statistics on how many of their students are welfare recipients. However, the unemployment levels on many reservations result in large proportions of the reservation residents being on welfare rolls. The colleges do know that many of their students are first generation college students, and when they graduate, some become the first generation to earn salaries.

Welfare reformists designed their legislation primarily for urban areas, not for rural areas and certainly not for reservations. There is very little understanding of the unique economic conditions and governmental status of reservations. The 500 tribes in this country vary dramatically. The law’s title (Personal Responsibility and “Work Opportunity”) implies that work is available for those willing to work. However, the Navajo Nation estimates it would have to create 2,500 new jobs to meet the first year work participation requirements of the welfare reform law. While the national unemployment rate is about 4 percent–the lowest since 1973–many tribal colleges’ reservations have unemployment rates over 50 percent. In contrast, the unemployment rate on the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan is only 3 percent.

Tribal casinos have reduced unemployment and built health clinics and schools in a few places, but collectively, Indians remain at the bottom of most economic statistics. According to the 1990 census, 31 percent of American Indians were living below the poverty level. Tribal colleges are tackling economic conditions on many reservations that have been compared with Third World countries.

When outsiders see the economic conditions on poor reservations, it is easy for them to assume that culture is somehow to blame for poverty. Few look to the reservations for models of different but viable economic models. In our constant search for easy answers, we assume that the poverty results from unwillingness to leave reservations for work, that Indians have to choose between their cultural values and economic success.

Tribal colleges do not make these assumptions. Based in reservation communities, they cannot afford the luxury of easy answers. Therefore, they take a holistic approach, developing both students and the community within a cultural context to make the reservations more viable places to live. The articles in this issue describe several models for lifting people out of poverty and out of the welfare mind set.

In this issue

Entrepreneurism: When the tribal colleges first began, many people asked why they should train people when there were no jobs, according to Turtle Mountain Community College President Gerald “Carty” Monette. The colleges discovered, however, that as they train people, jobs are created. On the Turtle Mountain Reservation in northern North Dakota, for example, the unemployment rate is 50 percent. Nevertheless, 87 percent of the tribal college’s graduates are employed, he says.

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