On June 17, Native American tribes, for the first the time in U.S. history, will be permitted to take charge of the administration of federal welfare payments to their members. Interviews with some Native American leaders indicate that the tribes intend to design less punitive regulations.

Rules regulating welfare on Native American reservations will become final on that date and are an outcome of the sweeping 1996 welfare reform law. It created the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, with an emphasis on the temporary. The law must be reauthorized after the federal elections this fall.

Now, Native American tribes–which, as sovereign nations, lobbied for the power–will have the freedom to design financial assistance programs for families that “take into consideration such factors as economic conditions, geography, tribal infrastructure, social and cultural characteristics.”

For example, one of the chief goals of the welfare law was to promote marriage and reduce births to unmarried mothers. The law provides bonuses to states for reducing out-of-wedlock births. However, many Native American tribes do not ascribe to the notion of illegitimate births and believe that every child born is part of the tribe and kinship network.

The federal agency’s new rules will also permit tribes to define controversial elements of the program, including time limits for families to receive assistance, eligibility criteria and allowable work activities. Currently, federal welfare law permits families to receive assistance for a maximum of two years, holds applicants to extremely stringent financial eligibility standards and does not permit an adult to spend more than one-year in job readiness training.

“We waited a long time before we got these regulations,” says Eddie F. Brown, director of the Center for American Indian Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “They make an attempt to try and address some critical issues . . . and help tribes by going a step further than what was done with states.”

So far, however, the pilot programs now becoming final have been something of a mixed blessing. For one, substantial resources are required to assist families to make the transition from welfare to work and only a relative handful of the nation’s 550-plus tribes receive substantial revenue from their business enterprises, such as gaming or oil and gas leases, to be used provide support services.

“Many of those tribes are welfare-independent anyway,” adds Brown.

Tribes have also been hampered because states rarely had accurate statistics on American Indian welfare recipients, says Sarah Hicks of the National Congress of American Indians.

“They’ve been absolutely undercounted for years,” she says. “In most cases, states just didn’t keep data separately for Indians.” As a result, tribes had little idea of how much funding they were due from the federal government and had to negotiate with states to get accurate counts.

And while the reforms provided more freedom, many tribes have complained of inequitable treatment, says Hicks.

Tribes, unlike states, must go through a intense approval process with the federal agency once they submit their welfare plans.

Also, the federal government didn’t provide any extra money for start-up costs such as computer equipment and software; such administrative spending is deducted from the tribe’s welfare grant.

And unlike states, tribes are not eligible for performance bonuses for reducing the number of welfare recipients “no matter how good a job they do,” says Hicks. “Tribes are included in a state’s numbers, in terms of getting people off welfare rolls, but they don’t get anything in return.”

So far, only a relative handful of tribes have opted to take over programs from the state. Currently, 94 tribes in 12 states are running their own welfare programs, while another 78 are awaiting agency approval of their plans. Despite the drawbacks, the reforms show some glimmers of progress, experts say.

Because tribes can now determine their own eligibility criteria, they can opt not to count assets that might have made prospective recipients ineligible for assistance under state programs; for instance, by opting not to count a sheep herder’s new pickup truck and 500 head of sheep, Brown points out.

And with greater freedom to define ‘work,’ tribes can now include activities such as rug-weaving, jewelry making, caring for children, gardening, hunting, fishing and other traditional occupations.

“The government is finally recognizing the value of what people have been doing all along,” says Hicks.

Also, more tribes are focusing efforts on education. Current law limits to one-year the length of time welfare recipients can pursue schooling. The tribes may go beyond that limit and are forging relationships with tribal colleges to launch programs geared toward welfare recipients. Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation is one example. There, the EvenStart program offers young, single mothers on welfare instruction for high school equivalency exams, child care and classes on Assiniboine and Sioux tradition and culture. So far, close to a dozen of the women have received their high school degree and three have gone on to enroll in Fort Peck’s Tribal College.

“We’re trying to live up to the spirit of what welfare reform is about. Education is really the key,” says Joseph McGeshick, director of family services at the Fort Peck Tribal College. “On the federal and state level they really want people in jobs and off the welfare rolls. But many people still use other welfare-type services, like energy assistance and food stamps, even after they get off the rolls. We want to give people a foundation so they can be not just employable but also self-sufficient.”

States have the power to allow a certain percentage of their recipients to be enrolled in education programs, but most states still consider their main priority as job placement, says Eileen Sweeney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“They have the flexibility to count education if they want to . . . but a lot are not because they have a penalty if they don’t meet work-participation rates,” says Sweeney.