Published May 8, 2021
When the White House signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law earlier this year, the legislation — which was intended in part to help state, local, and tribal governments across the country reeling from the fiscal pain caused by the pandemic — represented the largest single act of federal budget support for Indian Country in American history. To better understand the legislation’s potential transformative impact on Indian Country, we sat down with Megan Minoka Hill, Program Director for the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at the Ash Center.
Ash: What makes this tranche of funding different than last year’s Cares Act monies?
Minoka Hill: The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides the largest single infusion of federal funding into 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 COVID-19 pandemic – which was made worse in Indian Country precisely because such funding has been so long overdue.
While the $8 billion of CARES Act funding to Indian Country passed by Congress in 2020 was critically needed to address tribes’ immediate needs related to the pandemic, ARPA presents an unprecedented opportunity for the 574 federal recognized tribal nations to use their rights of sovereignty and self-government to strengthen their communities.
How are tribes intending to spend the funds?
A once-in-many-generations opportunity, the ARPA funding has the potential to be a “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. With this funding, major investments will be made to build and update infrastructure from roadways to broadband to water systems to healthcare facilities.
Multiple bipartisan studies over the last two decades have documented the chronic, nationally embarrassing underfunding of promised programs and services for Indigenous citizens of the US—the original sovereigns in the territory now known as the United States. For centuries, the federal government has ignored and violated treaties, repeatedly excluded tribal communities from infrastructure and educational programs that are the foundations of community and economic development in mainstream America. The results are the discouraging social and economic living conditions that, over the course of the last year, have put tribes at a significant disadvantage in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compared to state and local governments (which were receiving approximately $750 billion in direct support from the federal government even prior to the pandemic), tribes have been far less able to build and maintain the fire and police stations, administrative offices, courthouses, roads, communications networks, health clinics, school facilities, water and sanitation systems, public utilities, recreational amenities, and myriad other programs and installations that undergird economic development in the rest of the country. Unless addressed by federal policies, the legacy of underfunded physical and tribal administrative infrastructure on many reservations is a virtual guarantee that many tribal communities will have no reasonable chance of ever closing the poverty gap. First World economic and social conditions cannot be built on dilapidated Third World foundations.
What should tribal governments be thinking about when they go to allocate these new funds?
While increasing numbers of tribes are able to engage in progressively effective development efforts, the legacies of poverty and disempowerment have left many others with severe deficits of basic management and administrative capacity. Yet, to maximize the contributions that ARPA funding can make to their communities, tribal governments will need to establish and use the tools of effective strategic planning, organizational development and restructuring, project selection, and project management. And they will need to do so quickly.
Key steps in the identification of projects and programs that need and warrant ARPA funding include setting priorities, assessing feasibility, appraising feasibility and costs against priorities, and then determining which projects and programs to pursue. For infrastructure projects, in particular, key steps in project management will include establishing budgets and engineering-informed project timetables, hiring contractors and consultants (architects, construction firms, specialized legal assistance, etc.), monitoring progress, adjusting plans and budgets as needed, conducting mid-stream and final inspections of completed projects against established standards, and planning for and funding long-term maintenance and upkeep.
In addition, as many tribes have learned, the components of sound spending and management systems (whether for infrastructure or service programs) often can require tribes to take major organizational steps. These can range from shifting the management of responsibilities over education, human resources, natural resource management, economic development, etc., out of tribal council subcommittees and into full-blown departments, to even changing a tribe’s constitution.