The Senate Appropriations Committee has allocated $2.8 billion for Indian tribes in the stimulus bill -- far less than the Indian Affairs Committee proposed. Will tribes do better than Wall Streeters at overcoming a "me-first" mentality?
As I observe the bumpy journey of the proposed economic stimulus bill and its potential impact on Indian country, I am reminded of a number of conversations with Indian elders from my past. I recall my mom, who grew up on the reservation during the Depression, telling me, “It was hard to tell when the Depression began or ended on the reservation. We never had much anyway.”
In many ways not much has changed in Indian country. As noted during the January Oversight Hearing on Proposals to Create Jobs and Stimulate Indian Country Economies by the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, basic needs are over the top overdue in Indian country. Committee vice chairman Lisa Murkowski, R- Alaska, noted that while the current national unemployment rate is 7.2%, unemployment in reservation communities is 50-80%. The latter is not a new statistic; reservation communities have always experienced the highest unemployment in the country. Per-capita income among Indians living on the reservation is less than half the US average. The poorest counties in the US are in Indian communities. These communities have always had the greatest needs for basic infrastructure building and maintenance, including roads, schools, health care facilities, law enforcement and detention facilities.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has included $2.8 billion for Indian tribes in its part of the stimulus legislation, almost $1 billion less than the $3.6 billion proposed by the Indian Affairs Committee.
Here is an outline of Indian Affairs Committee’s recommendations — funding aimed at creating jobs and boosting economic activity:
INDIAN HEALTH CARE
• Indian Health Facilities – $410 million• Indian Health Services – $135 million
• New construction – $135 million
• Maintenance and repairs – $155 million
• Sanitation Facilities – $100 million
• Medical Equipment – $20 million
• Contract health care – $50 million
• Health Information Technology activities – $85 million
PUBLIC SAFETY AND JUSTICE
• Department of Justice Grants (DOJ) – $300 million
• Indian jails construction – $250 million
• Tribal courts program – $25 million
• Indian Alcohol Recovery program – $25 million
• BIA Indian jails repair (Interior) – $25 million
INDIAN SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION
• Tribal and BIA new schools construction – $132 million
• Tribal and BIA schools repair and improvement – $35 million
• BIA School Modernization (Dept. of Education) – $160 million
TRIBAL ROADS AND BRIDGES
• BIA roads improvement – $150 million
• Indian reservation roads (DOT) – $320 million
• Tribal transit set-aside (DOT) – $16.8 million
INDIAN WATER PROJECTS
• Bureau of Reclamation Tribal Water Projects – $274 million (approximate)
• BIA irrigation construction and repair – $40 million
• BIA dams improvement – $25 million
• Safe Drinking and Clean Water Revolving Funds – $120 million (the language “permits” the Secretary to fund the tribal set-aside under these revolving funds)
• Indian Housing block grants (HUD) – $510 million
• BIA Housing Improvement Program – $20 million
• Indian Reservation Food Distribution (USDA) – $5 million
• BIA major facilities improvement and repair – $115 million
• BIA workforce training – $20 million
• Tribal Community Development Financial Institutions (Treasury) – $20 million
• Indian Loan Guarantee Program (Interior) – $10 million
Surely this would be a shot in the arm for reservation communities, however, when I consider the needs and the deeply entrenched poverty on most reservations, the package looks like just enough to keep us in trouble. I recall an Indian leader who spoke to my college class of eager young Indian students about creating real change in our communities. He spoke directly to the elephants in the room, corruption and nepotism on the reservation. He noted that these human frailties were hardly surprising in resource poor reservation communities.
“When the federal government opens up its hand, you go and grab what you can because you don’t know how long it will be until it opens up that hand again. You take care of you and yours first. “
As I surf the blogosphere, reading reaction to the proposed plan, I see quite a bit of scoffing from both non-Indians and Indians. The negative reactions bemoan the corrupt reservation atmosphere and even imply that Indians may lack the moral fiber to better their lives.
If this is true, we are not alone in our tendency to focus first on our immediate needs and ourselves. The New York Times reported that in 2008, despite disastrous losses for Wall Street, many in that world took home an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses for the year. All of this as bankers’ employers lost billions.
A truly effective economic stimulus plan for Indian country needs to be big enough and durable enough to build sustainable infrastructure and overturn the desperate me-first survival mentality that is so typical of human beings. So typical that it even affects those who already possess the most.