Members of the Native American community of Picuris Pueblo, N.M., including Vaughn Tootsie, right, screen vehicles as they enter and exit tribal property on Thursday, April 23, 2020.
( AP Photo/Morgan Lee
Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway I'm Tanzina Vega. When the $1.9 trillion American rescue plan was signed into law last month, one of the most notable pieces of funding included in the bill was the roughly $32 billion allocated to tribal governments and other services that support native populations. As a result of centuries of neglect by the United States government, native Americans have faced disproportionately high death rates from COVID-19 and the pandemic has also taken a heavy financial toll on native communities.
Now tribal leaders and advocates see the latest stimulus funding as a chance to finally make some progress when it comes to more robust federal support for Indian Country but there are also reasons to be skeptical about whether the Biden administration can efficiently distribute these funds after the CARES Act was signed into law by former President Trump last March. Many tribes waited months to receive the full aid included in that package. Eric Henson is a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Eric, welcome back to the show.
Eric Henson: Thank you so glad to be here.
Tanzina Vega: We mentioned right there, that the constraints that were put on the funds allocated to tribes in this latest, I'm wondering how these constraints put on funds allocated to tribes in this latest stimulus package compared to the ones that were put in place in the CARES Act under Donald Trump.
Eric Henson: Thank you. That's a good question. Our read of the ARPA, we call it the American Rescue Package Plan Act, is that there are less restrictions on tribes. There are four explicitly enunciated ways that the funds are supposed to be used responding to the pandemic and its negative economic impacts, providing premium pay to essential workers, replacing COVID-related lost revenues, and making necessary investments in water sewer and broadband infrastructure. Our read is that's a fairly broad list of acceptable uses and so tribes should feel a little bit less concerned about some of the worries they had last year about allowed uses of the funding.
Tanzina Vega: There are more than 570 tribes each that has its own specific needs. What are some of the ways that you expect to see these different tribal governments use the federal aid?
Eric Henson: Sure. One thing that the ARPA has done that was lacking in the CARES Act is ARPA gives the tribes a much longer period over which to use the money. Last year in the CARES Act, as you mentioned it was passed early in the year and had an explicit mandate that the money would be spent by the end of the calendar year. For many tribes, it was a relatively large amount of money and there was a very short deadline. There was very little ability to plan and engage in projects that might take a long time.
One of the four uses that are explicitly outlined here involves, and obviously, lots of infrastructure investment takes a long time to plan and have contracted and have it built out. We think that tribes are likely to have a better chance of investing in these kinds of building blocks that will support their tribal economies going forward, as opposed to feeling this pressure of immediately responding right away. "Oh my goodness. We just have to spend the money by the end of this year so just spend it on whatever comes to mind."
We think that's going to be quite helpful as tribes look at what they need to do to bring their tribal enterprises back online, to deal with the negative health impacts they've been experiencing and things of that nature.
Tanzina Vega: You and your colleagues released a policy brief last week about this funding and how it should be allocated. What other recommendations do you have related to how this aid is dispersed?
Eric Henson: Sure. We feel like it's important that the treasury should proactively set up some advisory panel, some sorts of technical expertise should engage in a process of advising tribes with what we call the advisory letters. We were thinking of the model that the IRS currently uses. If you are a taxpayer and you've got a particular question, you can ask the IRS for an opinion letter about, "If I do my taxes in the following way, do you think it will be okay if you audit me down the road?"
We see something like that, it was a very useful way of responding to tribes. We've got like a three-year window here for some of this money to be used and committed to different uses. There's some time for tribes to come up with good plans, thinking about how they want to best use the money and then go to treasury and say, "Hey, we want to just make sure this is a usable, workable plan and that you agree that it falls under the allowed uses of the funding. Before we go spend the money we don't want to have to Dicker with you down the road about whether we are supposed to pay you back because you don't think it was an allowed use." That's one of our big recommendations that treasury should consider.
Tanzina Vega: How do you ensure that the US government can continue to fund tribes, not just in times of crisis, but make this a permanent part of the federal budget?
Eric Henson: It's really a matter of priority. The US commission on civil rights put out two major reports, one in '03 and another one in 2018, that document the persistent and ongoing lack of adequate funding for tribal needs, even compared to just non-tribal US citizens, tribal citizens are US citizens and in every aspect of funding that the federal government interacts with the tribes, the tribes are short changed.
We were living in the most well-to-do nation that's ever existed on the history of the earth and it's really just a matter of federal priorities. It would take a long-term commitment to I call it "digging out of that hole". If you underfund certain priorities for many decades on end, it's hard to just snap your fingers and reset that that underfunding gap. If the federal government decides to commit, to bringing tribes up to where in terms of education, health care, policing, every aspect of civil society, the feds could do it.
Tanzina Vega: Eric Henson is a research affiliate with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, and also a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. Eric, thanks so much for joining us.
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