As we barrel toward another potential government shut down, communities across the country are trying to assess its potential impact. For Tribal governments, it impacts just about every facet of life due to their nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government and the wide range of federal funding that supports everything from healthcare to education, and other basic needs. While some Americans only worry about getting into a national park, Tribal communities worry about everything from individual family income to vital services in their communities.  

Here are 5 things philanthropy needs to know about how government shutdowns affect Tribal communities: 

Shutdowns violate treaty obligations

In exchange for the lands ceded to the United States, Tribes were promised a wide range of basic services. These services include basic healthcare, education, food, and other vital resources. Many federal services that are deemed vital continue through the shutdown, such as law enforcement, Social Security and Medicare. In past shutdowns, tribal services are still threatened even when the Tribal communities rely on them. Fortunately, the FY 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act included $5.1 billion in FY 2024 forward funding of the Indian Health Service for the first time in history, meaning that vital health services won’t be affected this year. 

Vital resources are at risk

As a result of the shutdown, Tribal education could be adversely affected. According to the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), there are currently 183 federal and tribally run schools elementary and secondary schools located on 64 reservations in 23 states, serving approximately 46,000 tribal students. Students often rely on school nutrition programs for their daily meals and support services such as tutoring, counseling, and special education services may be understaffed or funded. HeadStart programming could also be halted, which is a vital programming service for young children in communities.  A shutdown would not only affect tribal students academically, but also socially and emotionally, compounding the effects of the COVID-19 epidemic. A government shutdown could also significantly affect food security by impacting food and nutrition programs that Tribal communities rely upon daily, including Tribal elders, children and families. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), under the Department of Agriculture, purchases and distributes foods to approximately 276 tribes. Further, access to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program which provides healthcare and nutrition, including formula, to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and children could be affected. According to the most recent data collected as part of WIC Participant and Program Characteristics Report over 700,000 AI/AN participants enrolled in the 2018 WIC program.

Many Tribal members rely on federal employment

American Indian/Alaska Native employees represent 1.6 percent (31,206) of the permanent Federal workforce as of September 2020 could be furloughed. This number does not include contractors to the federal government supporting vital programs and services who may not receive back pay. When the government shuts down, it directly threatens the income of Native people across the country. Tribes are already often severely under-resourced and Native people have some of the most challenging poverty rates in the country. American Indians and Alaska Natives are the most disproportionately overrepresented group in poverty, with the highest poverty rate of 24.3 percent.

Increased threats to public safety

In past shutdowns, already under-resourced BIA funded tribal police and other safety officials were furloughed without pay or forced to work without pay as essential employees. Many tribal public safety and court services are funded or directly operated by the federal government. A government shutdown would decrease public safety in Tribal communities by impacting emergency assistance response times, coordinated response efforts to natural disasters, and maintenance of roads and buildings to name just a few. Domestic violence and rape crisis centers funded by grant programs that support victims under the Department of Justice, such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) could also close from lack of funding and staff.

Tribal governments are left covering the shortfall

When federal funding stops, Tribes have to step in, and most are not in a position to do so. Tribes do not have tax bases and rely day-to-day on federal funding streams in most cases. Tribes are often left filling shortfalls with whatever reserves they have, but this can have lasting impacts on tribal finances the longer a shutdown continues.  

Around the country, food pantries and other nonprofit services are bracing for the potential impact of the federal workforce losing its paychecks, SNAP benefits disappearing, and more. Philanthropy should pay close attention to a potential shutdown and its implications in communities, and they should pay special attention to Tribal communities because of the unique—and deep—impacts shutdowns have in our communities.  

Many funders may be considering investments to support communities in these challenging times. As we saw with the pandemic, relationships matter the most. We encourage funders to reach out to and engage their local tribal nonprofits and programs operated by tribes that may be affected. Many tribal youth centers, education programs, and other community programs become the trusted resource that families go to for support. Funders can provide charitable contributions to tribal programs as 7871 organizations under the tax code. Many tribes also operate their own foundations. Tribes are also members of national and regional intertribal organizations, and they are a good resource to help direct funds to tribal programs.  

We also encourage funders to learn more about Tribal governments and the critical role they play in their communities. Tribes need more long-term, meaningful relationships with funders to help them build their capacity, manage crises like government shutdowns and pandemics, and fill gaps where federal funding falls short.  

Last week, eight national tribal organizations signed a joint statement calling on Congress to prevent a shutdown. We join our partners in the field to call on Congress to avert this crisis and instead focus on investments that will meet Tribal treaty obligations and ensure Tribes have the resources they need to educate their children, feed their families, and develop their communities.  

Meet The Authors: Erik Stegman
Erik serves as Chief Executive Officer of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a national organization advocating for stronger and more meaningful investments by the philanthropic sector in tribal communities. Previously, he served as the Executive Director for the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. He has held positions at the Center for American Progress on their Poverty to Prosperity team, as Majority Staff Counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and in the Obama administration as a Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. Erik began his career in Washington, D.C. at the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center. You can read more about him on his page.

Post by NAP Staff
September 27, 2023


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