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Social Welfare Policies and Native Americans

Article Index

by Thomas D. Watts, University of Texas at Arlington and
Joseph P. Bohanon, Northeastern State University, Tahlequah

This article examines some of the social welfare policy challenges facing Native Americans in the years ahead:

1. War on Terrorism and Increasing Military Expenditures.

2. Growth in the Needs of an Expanding Aged Population, and Growing Health Policy Challenges.

3. Growth in the Size of Other Ethnic Populations, and the Relatively Small Size of Native American Populations in Comparison.

4. Questionable Commitment on the Part of the U.S. to Social Welfare.

5. Growing Inequality Among Native Americans, and in the Population as a Whole.

6. Urban Native Americans Continue to Grow in Number, yet the Bias of Policies Has Not Been Favorable to Them.

This article does not pretend to cover all the social welfare challenges facing Native Americans. Pressing topics such as substance abuse, suicide, health and mental health, child welfare, housing, and others are not covered in any depth, nor was there any intention to do so.

Rather, the focus here is on some of the challenges facing Native Americans in the years ahead, particularly in the socio-political arena, where competition for scarce social welfare dollars will be seen. Of this much we can be certain: diminishing budgets and increasing social welfare challenges in the years ahead will be an ever present reality for Native Americans.

Overlooked, unfortunately, will be the special status that Native Americans occupy, or should be occupying, in respect to their relationship with the federal government and in respect to their being the original inhabitants of the land.

By “social welfare policy” we mean the “regulation of the provision of benefits to people who require assistance in meeting their life needs, such as for employment, income, food, health care, and relationships” (Karger and Stoesz 2006, 498). There are a number of institutions affecting social welfare policies and Native Americans, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Indian Health Service (IHS), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and institutional policies of individual tribes. Many of the agencies involved with Native Americans are at the federal level, due to the unique relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans. The policies carried out by individual tribes are important in respect to social welfare policy because of the historical shift on the part of the federal government (in the 1970s in particular), “away from termination and toward self-determination” (Gross 1989, 12). The role of the private sector must also be part of the social welfare policy equation vis à vis Native Americans.

War on Terrorism and Increasing Military Expenditures

The war on terrorism in the U.S. took on a new face after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The U.S. increased its military and defense expenditures, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to security services in general. The share of the total budget consumed by the war on terror and military expenditures is significant.

A “guns or butter” debate develops here, with guns winning out. The costs of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have escalated steadily: $48 billion in 2003, $59 billion in 2004, $81 billion in 2005, and an anticipated $94 billion in 2006 (Weisman 2006).

Kendall (2001, 373) observes, “As collective violence, terrorism shares certain commonalities with war… Terrorism and war also extract a massive toll on individuals and societies...” Supporting military expenditures and social welfare expenditures at the same time represents a considerable challenge. Certainly Israel is a country that has had a lot of experience in this area.

Growth in the Needs of an Expanding Aged Population, and Growing Health Policy Challenges

The aged population has been expanding at a rapid rate. There were 31.2 million people in the U.S. over age 65 in 1990, and that increased to 35 million in 2000. The fastest growing segment of the aged population is among the oldest age groups, those 85 and older (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2001, 1-2). For 3 of the 5 disabilities measured by Census 2000, the “disability rate of the population 65 and over was at least 3 times the rate of the total population” (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2004, 11). The aged understandably consume more health care and social insurance dollars than the general population. Projections of federal spending for Medicare indicate an increase from $254 billion in 2002 to $421 billion in 2010. Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) is projected to increase from $452 billion in 2002 to $670 billion in 2010 (U.S. House of Representatives 2004, I-2 and I-8).

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 was enormously expensive, exceeding original cost estimates by a considerable amount. This legislation has been described by supporters as a help to seniors burdened by high prescription costs. It has been described by critics as being “more a windfall for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies than a program to protect seniors” (Van Wormer 2006, 376).

So large is the Medicare program (which has been estimated to be even a greater challenge than Social Security in the years ahead) that, after Social Security, it is now the largest social insurance program in the U.S., and the largest public payer of health care (about 1/5 of all health care spending in 2000) (Karger and Stoesz 2006, 304). Medicaid is another rapidly growing program, and an increasingly burdensome one both for the states and the federal government as well.