Native welfare shifts to council

Posted: Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Starting this summer, the Tlingit-Haida Central Council will take over the state welfare program for Southeast Alaska Native families.

That means the approximately 500 Native families currently receiving benefits in Southeast will go to Tlingit-Haida for financial help, instead of the state Division of Public Assistance.

The switch will take place in phases from July 1 to Oct. 1, said Jim Nordlund, director of the state Division of Public Assistance.

Initially, the Tlingit-Haida welfare program will be identical to that run by the state. But a bill that passed the Legislature this year will allow Tlingit-Haida and three other Native nonprofits in the state, including the Metlakatla Indian Community, to start running slightly different welfare programs on Jan. 1. Gov. Tony Knowles is scheduled to sign House Bill 98 Thursday during Celebration 2000, a regional Native cultural gathering at Centennial Hall.

Bob Starbard, coordinator of the new program for Tlingit-Haida, said he believes the organization will be able to provide a more effective program than the state.

``What works in Anchorage doesn't necessarily work in Angoon,'' he said.

The change is a result of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, which allowed tribes in the Lower 48 and regional Native nonprofit organizations in Alaska to directly receive federal welfare money to run programs for their members, instead of that money going to the state.

Native organizations in Alaska did not immediately take advantage of that change in law, however, because they would have received only the federal portion of welfare funding. The money welfare recipients receive now is about a 50-50 mix of federal and state funding.

A bill allowing the state portion of welfare money to also go to Native organizations failed to pass in 1998, Nordlund said. However, the state attorney general decided the state welfare money could go to Native organizations without a change in law, as long as they were running a program identical to the state's.

Tlingit-Haida has been working for several years to take over the state program for Natives in Southeast, Nordlund said.

The organization will begin a phased-in takeover of the program on July 1. At last count about 490 Native families in Southeast were receiving benefits, Nordlund said.

``It is the largest single program that Central Council will have,'' said Starbard of Tlingit-Haida.

Under the plan, he said, Tlingit-Haida will take over case management on July 1. Case management is the part of the welfare program that deals with getting people off welfare, including connecting them with employers.

The state has already been contracting with Tlingit-Haida to do that for Native clients in Juneau and some other Southeast communities. On July 1, the organization will begin performing that role for the rest of the region.

The other side of the welfare program has to do with getting people on welfare -- making eligibility determinations and getting checks out to people.

Starbard said Tlingit-Haida will start sending out checks to clients in Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Yakutat, Hoonah, Angoon and Kake on Aug. 1; then phase in Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island the next month; and then add Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell the following month.

Tlingit-Haida will run the program with about $2.3 million in federal funds and about $2.4 million in state funds, Nordlund said.

The federal law allowing Native groups to take over welfare administration deals only with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, just one of several financial assistance programs for the poor. TANF is the monthly cash assistance families receive.

To receive food stamps and Medicaid, Southeast Native families will still need to go through the state office.

The bill Knowles will sign Thursday authorizes Tlingit-Haida and the three other organizations covered to make some changes in the welfare program as long as they're providing a program that's basically comparable to the state's. That law takes effect Jan. 1.

Starbard said changes Tlingit-Haida may eventually make could include offering incentives to encourage parents' involvement in their children's education. For instance, clients might receive an additional $50 per check for attending parent-teacher conferences.

The organization could also require substance abuse counseling for families in which that is a problem, and those who choose not to participate might see a reduction in benefits. Starbard said such sanctions, however, would be implemented cautiously and not right away.

``What we'll most likely start off with in January is an incentive program. We're not in the business necessarily to beat up on someone because they have a problem.''

One change Tlingit-Haida does intend to make is hiring part-time work force development assistants in small communities. They will serve as ``our eyes, ears and feet on the ground,'' Starbard said.

They will help clients sign up for services and provide information on the local labor market to the full-time case management staff in the hub communities, he said.

The agency envisions hiring people on welfare as the assistants, he said.

The bill allowing Native organizations to run modified programs allows only a trial program, which will end in 2005 if the law isn't reauthorized. A report on the success of the program is to be prepared by October of 2004.

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