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Welfare to Work a Special Challenge
for Twin Cities Native Americans
By John Biewen
October 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of the MPR Welfare to Work Series

Those trying to move American Indian welfare recipients into jobs say they face difficult barriers. That's especially true on Indian reservations where the average unemployment rate is 35 percent. But more than one-third of Minnesota's 57,000 Native Americans live in the Twin Cities, and social service workers say welfare-to-work efforts among "urban" Indians face rough going as well. In Hennepin County, the number of Native Americans on the welfare rolls dropped by just 4 percent last year, compared with 16 percent for whites.

AT FIRST GLANCE, FRANKLIN AVENUE IS THE ANTITHESIS of a remote Indian reservation. Instead of woods or windswept prairies, it features thick traffic. Downtown Minneapolis office towers stand in plain sight just across the interstate. But take a longer look. You'll notice the avenue has more than its share of boarded-up storefronts and social service agencies, including several with "American Indian" in their names. This is Phillips. It's Minneapolis's poorest neighborhood and for the last half century, one of the nation's largest centers of urban Indian life. Twenty-one thousand Indians live in the Twin Cities - about a fifth of them in the one-square-mile Phillips Neighborhood. Iris Sherer is a 48-year-old Chippewa.

Sherer: Grew up in this neighborhood. Went to school in this neighborhood. My mother died in this neighborhood, my aunt died in this neighborhood. I been here ... I been here a long time.
Sherer says that's a key qualification for her current job at one of those Franklin Avenue social-service agencies, American Indian OIC. It's one of 26 agencies that contract with Hennepin County to help move welfare recipients into jobs. The majority of OIC's 600 clients are American Indian.
Sherer (In class): This here is just some jobs that I got in today.
Sherer says she feels fortunate that she can list available jobs for her clients, unlike her counterparts on many reservations where jobs are scarce for miles around. In Minneapolis, the unemployment rate is below 2.5 percent.
Sherer: OK, Corporate Express Delivery Service is now hiring.
But that doesn't mean welfare-to-work efforts are going smoothly in Minneapolis. Sherer says many poor Indian women in cities are just as ill-equipped for the workforce as those on reservations and just as isolated from the mainstream. The 1990 census found 54 percent of Indians in Minneapolis lived in poverty. Many of Sherer's clients relied on AFDC for 15 or 20 years, then suddenly got a letter from the state saying that in order to keep getting a check they'd have to spend 30 hours a week working toward a job. Sherer tells her class the rules of the new game - the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP.
Sherer: AFDC is one thing, but you're not AFDC. You're something else. It's MFIP now. And there's requirements that you have to do, because if you don't do them, then you get sanctioned. The big "S." And if you get sanctioned, then your check gets cut. So now, the person that you have to really rely on is yourself, and that's gonna be scary.
Sherer and her colleagues say so far about half of their program's graduates got jobs and kept them, but the other half have failed or quit and had to try again. Sherer says some can't find jobs that pay enough to support their large families. For many others the problems are not economic, but personal.
Margaret: I've been through treatment before, and then I relapsed, and I'm going through it again.
We'll call this Chippewa woman Margaret. She asked me not to use her real name because she says she smoked crack regularly until just a few weeks ago. Margaret has been on welfare since she had her first son 15 years ago. She says she was raised in South Minneapolis by an alcoholic mother, then suffered through abusive relationships with the fathers of both of her children. She says not long ago, her 15-year-old son drank so much he had to have his stomach pumped to save his life. That jolted her into quitting her crack habit.
Margaret: It's been now 24 days. But my desire is so ... I gotta be in touch with people that don't use.
To stay away from drugs, Margaret is getting treatment and counseling. She's also keeping busy by interning at a welfare-to-work program at the Minneapolis American Indian Center.
Margaret (on phone): You'll take it from there, then. OK, yup. Bye.
Margaret says while it feels good to help people, the experience is giving her a new sense of sadness for her people, especially American Indian women.
Margaret: A lot of them are, like, in abusive relationships, or we all ... For me, it's like we're all alcohol-based children, it seems like. I mean, that's the only families I can see. Like my mom, and it goes way, way, way back. The Europeans gave us fire water and that's it. From that moment on we were done.
Those who work with the urban poor say many problems cross racial boundaries: teen pregnancy, low expectations, drug and alcohol abuse. But a recent study found more than 11 percent of American Indians in Hennepin County need treatment for alcohol or drugs - the highest of any racial or ethnic group and two-and-a-half times the rate for the overall population. Lyle Iron Moccasin runs the welfare-to-work program where Margaret is interning - the American Indian Community Partnership. He estimates 30 percent of his clients are chemically dependent and many others are mentally ill.
Iron Moccasin: There was a point where I was going into people's homes, and I stopped doing that, simply because it just was so sad and I couldn't take it. I literally couldn't take going into their homes any longer.
Iron Moccasin says most American Indians on welfare can be helped, but it would take a lot more money and staff than state programs currently provide. And he says many will need more than the four years remaining on their lifetime limit for welfare benefits.
Iron Moccasin: To set one time frame for every single individual in these circumstances is ludicrous at this point. Anybody who thinks that they can do that with individuals hasn't met or dealt with these individuals in any shape, way, or form. Simply because they're not able to grasp or function as quickly within the system as most of us are.
Iron Moccasin says he objects to the rigid requirements of the new welfare programs, but he supports their goal of moving able-bodied people into jobs. Employment trainer Iris Sherer agrees. She tells the women in her job-readiness class she sees good things happening in their lives.
Sherer: I don't know, it's like you have hope or a reason now. And some of you are even struttin' your stuff around here, it's like, "Oohhh." Especially when you get a job! I just had one call me and I took her shopping because she starts working on Wednesday and she's just smiling and she's ready to go. Her walk is different now, she's carrying herself different now.
But for Margaret, the recovering crack addict, that kind of success is still a long way off. She says she's not looking for work right now.
Margaret: As for my future plans, I don't have any. Just to stay sober and drug-free.
Thanks to a backlog of welfare-to-work cases, Hennepin County hasn't yet pressured her to find a job. She's spending most of her energies on her own rehabilitation.
Margaret: I know my kids are gonna go somewhere. This is the start of our cycle being broken.
Margaret is an enrolled member of a northern Minnesota tribe, but she says she doesn't want to leave the city for the reservation. She imagines some others will when their welfare time limits run out. Some tribal leaders say they're bracing for an in-migration of their most troubled urban members in a few years. They say many who fail to get jobs may return to tribal lands, hoping they can get more help there. If that happens, tribal leaders say it will make things worse for reservation governments already overwhelmed by poverty and unemployment.