The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (“the Act” or “ARPA”) has resulted in the single largest infusion of federal funding for Native America in U.S. history. The core of this funding is $20 billion for the more than 570 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments. As required by the Act, the Department of the Treasury (“Treasury” or “the Department”) devised and has now implemented a formula for allocating these monies. In this report, the authors find that the allocations that have been made are grossly inequitable and contrary to the policy objectives of Congress, the Biden Administration, and the Treasury Department itself.
This study uses publicly available information to estimate enrollment and employment counts for tribes. These figures are only estimates created for the express purpose of analyzing the appropriateness of the US Department of the Treasury’s American Rescue Plan Act allocations. Our estimates have not and cannot be verified against actual enrollment or employment data submitted to the Department of Treasury by each tribe. We believe the estimates are as accurate as possible and reliable for the purpose of assessing the relative positions of tribes under Treasury’s ARPA allocations, but should not be extracted and used as accurate for any individual tribe or for any purpose other than how they are used here.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides the largest infusion of federal funding for Indian Country in the history of the United States. More than $32 billion dollars is directed toward assisting American Indian nations and communities as they work to end and recover from the devastating COVID19 pandemic – which was made worse in Indian Country precisely because such funding is long overdue.
In this policy brief, we set out recommendations which we hope will promote the wise and productive allocation of ARPA funds to the nation’s 574 federally recognized American Indian tribes. We see ARPA as a potential “Marshall Plan” for the revitalization of Indian nations. The Act holds the promise of materially remedying at least some of the gross, documented, and long-standing underfunding of federal obligations and responsibilities in Indian Country. Yet, fulfilling that promise requires that the federal government expeditiously and wisely allocate ARPA funds to tribes, and that tribes efficiently and effectively deploy those funds to maximize their positive impacts on tribal communities.
The COVID‐19 pandemic has wrought havoc in Indian Country. While the American people as a whole have borne extreme pain and suffering, and the transition back to “normal” will be drawn out and difficult, the First Peoples of America arguably have suffered the most severe and most negative consequences of all. The highest rates of positive COVID‐19 cases have been found among American Indian tribes, but that is only part of the story.
Even before the pandemic, the average household income for Native Americans living on Indian reservations was barely half the U.S. average. Then the pandemic effectively shut down the economies of many tribal nations. In the process, tribal governments’ primary sources of the funding – which are needed to fight the pandemic and to meet citizens’ needs – have been decimated.
As with the rest of the U.S., emergency and interim support from the CARES Act and other federal measures have helped to dampen the social and economic harm of the COVID‐19 crisis in Indian Country. Yet this assistance has come to the country’s 574 federally recognized Indian tribes with litigation‐driven delay and counterproductive strings attached, and against a pre‐ pandemic background characterized by federal government underfunding and neglect – especially as compared to the funding provided and attention paid to state and local governments.
The federal response to the COVID‐19 pandemic has played out in varied ways over the past several months. For Native nations, the CARES Act (i.e., the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) has been the most prominent component of this response to date. Title V of the Act earmarked $8 billion for tribes and was allocated in two rounds, with many disbursements taking place in May and June of this year.
This federal response has been critical for many tribes because of the lower socio‐economic starting points for their community members as compared to non‐Indians. Even before the pandemic, the average income of a reservation‐resident Native American household was barely half that of the average U.S. household. Low average incomes, chronically high unemployment rates, and dilapidated or non‐existent infrastructure are persistent challenges for tribal communities and tribal leaders. Layering extremely high coronavirus incidence rates (and the effective closure of many tribal nations’ entire economies2) on top of these already challenging circumstances presented tribal governments with a host of new concerns. In other words, at the same time tribal governments’ primary resources were decimated (i.e., the earnings of tribal governmental gaming and non‐gaming enterprises dried up), the demands on tribes increased. They needed these resources to fight the pandemic and to continue to meet the needs of tribal citizens.
This study dissects the US Department of the Treasury’s formula for distributing first-round CARES Act funds to Indian Country. The Department has indicated that its formula is intended to allocate relief funds based on tribes’ populations, but the research team behind this report finds that Treasury has employed a population data series that produces arbitrary and capricious “over-” and “under-representations” of tribes’ enrolled citizens.
The COVID-19 crisis poses an immediate threat to three decades of improvement in economic conditions across Indian Country. Federal policies of tribal self-determination through self government have gradually, if unevenly, allowed economic development to take hold in Indian County. Nevertheless, the poverty gap for American Indians is large and hard to close. American Indian/Alaska Native household incomes remain barely half that of the typical household in the US. Tribes now routinely undertake and self-fund the full array of basic governmental services – from law enforcement and public safety to social services and educational support – that we expect any state or local government to provide.
Tribes lack the traditional tax bases enjoyed by state and local governments. Tribal enterprise revenues – both gaming and non-gaming – are tribes’ effective tax bases. Prior to the total shutdown of their casinos, tribes’ gaming enterprises alone were channeling more than $12.5 billion per year into tribal government programs and services . No tribal casinos are operating at this time. The same applies to many non-gaming enterprises and many tribal government programs. The COVID-19 crisis is devastating tribes’ abilities to fund their provision of basic governmental services and forcing tribes to make painful decisions to lay off employees, drop workers’ insurance coverage, deplete assets, and/or take on more debt.