Implications of Welfare Reform for Community Development: A Case Study Comparing Tribal and County Food Assistance Programs Serving the Northern Cheyenne Nation

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Several questions are addressed in this article. How have welfare changes related to food assistance affected a specific reservation community, the Northern Cheyenne Nation, and what are the implications of these changes for community development? Using descriptive statistics and ethnographic data, we document the experiences of reservation clients, and assess how welfare reforms affect rural reservation residents located in cultural settings very different from those of urban areas. Evidence presented shows how two different food assistance programs respond to the challenges to clients presented by welfare reform. Findings demonstrate that the tribal program is better equipped to engage in meaningful community development.

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The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was designed not only to provide temporary financial assistance to families and prepare adults for jobs, but may also be seen as an important resource or catalyst for community development. While efforts to measure the effects of the Act have focused largely on clients in urban areas, attention is also needed regarding the impact of welfare changes on clients residing in rural areas, including a small but persistently poor population living on American Indian reservations.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this article is to answer the following questions: How have welfare changes related to food assistance programs affected a specific reservation community, the Northern Cheyenne Nation, and in particular, what are the implications of these changes for community development? For example, what challenges have welfare changes presented to food assistance programs and their clients, and how have food assistance programs responded to the challenges? Finally, how does welfare reform affect the potential for community development within the particular context of the Northern Cheyenne Nation?

The answers to these questions emphasize the need to document the experiences of reservation clients systematically, and also the need to assess how welfare reforms affect rural reservation residents located in cultural settings very different from those of urban areas. In addressing these issues, this paper responds to two recent calls for research. First, in an analysis of poverty and welfare policy on the Pine Ridge reservation, Pickering (2000, p. 164) concluded that, "Welfare and development policies such as [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] need to reflect the real populations and economies of these rural American Indian reservations...." Therefore, research on this issue must address economic realities as well as identify the cultural resources that shape reservation community residents' survival strategies. This article helps to fill a gap in our understanding of how welfare reforms affect Indian reservation residents as well as community development efforts in this new policy era.

A second call for this type of community research identified the need to clarify patterns of community roles and actions, "... in an effort to understand the manner in which communities act" (Luloff, 1990, p. 226). Luloff asserted that the interactional perspective is useful for obtaining important insights into the patterns of individuals and organizations in association which influence the effectiveness of policies or programs. In sum, he raised "... the issue of our need for extensive research, both quantitative and qualitative, of activist communities so that we can discern the patterns necessary for local activity" (1990, p. 226).

The Northern Cheyenne Nation provides a particularly useful situation for investigating the effects of recent welfare reforms on rural community development because of the relevance to welfare reform to a large proportion of its population. Additionally, the Northern Cheyenne's activist community development track record provides a relevant setting for comparing the tribal organizations' efforts to meet the food assistance needs of poor reservation residents with those of the county public assistance programs. …