Is the Food Stamp Program an Adequate Safety Net for American Indian Reservations? The Northern Cheyenne Case

Year: 2000

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Davis, Judith, Rita Hiwalker, Carol Ward, Erin Feinauer, and Cheryl Youngstrom

Institution: Dull Knife Memorial College

Project Contact:
Judith Davis, Vice President for Academic Affairs;
Rita Hiwalker, Research Coordinator
Dull Knife Memorial College
P.O. Box 98
Lame Deer, MT 59043


In this second year of their small grant funding, the authors set out to:

  • Clarify the impact of recent food assistance changes, in particular food stamp eligibility requirements and duration of benefits, on the role of the Food Stamp Program in the social safety net serving the Northern Cheyenne reservation.
  • Clarify the role of food stamps in relation to the larger range of formal and informal services and resources available to economically vulnerable Cheyenne.
  • Identify, using both qualitative and quantitative data, how tribal, community, county, and State agencies contribute to the social safety net; determine how each of these resources relates to the larger social and cultural context in which clients are struggling to adapt to new food assistance program requirements.

The research team used several methods to collect and analyze data, including indepth, face-to-face interviews with program clients, food assistance program directors, and employers at sites where TANF recipients do required work hours. They also conducted participant observation of food stamp recipient experiences with this program and analyzed secondary data from food assistance programs.

The authors began their research with the premise that many expect the Food Stamp Program to play a major role in meeting the food assistance needs of reservation residents participating in FAIM, the Montana income assistance program. They found that a number of clients are grateful for the benefits they receive. Of particular value to these clients is the flexibility provided by the Food Stamp Program to purchase the kinds of foods that their families want. However, clients also identified major problems with their reliance on food stamps to feed their families. One of these problems is lack of transportation (access to a vehicle and money for gasoline) to shop off the reservation, where prices are lower. Another is making their food last through the month. Since many clients lacked these resources and skills, extra “work” is required— beyond meeting the work-hour requirements to participate in FAIM—to feed their families. This typically involves seeking out sources of emergency food through their local network of family, churches, and food banks. Thus, because the food stamp system relies on retail food markets to distribute food, and because these markets are often difficult for reservation residents to reach, using food stamps is an additional hardship for recipients. The data from Northern Cheyenne recipients indicate that their safety net has been stretched thin.

The authors found that high unemployment makes the FAIM incentives to leave welfare and join the labor force ineffective within this rural reservation population. Because of the lack of employment opportunities, most clients do not foresee that they will be able to obtain even minimum wage jobs. Even if they are able to find jobs, they see the resulting decline in benefits increasing the hardship on their families when transportation and childcare needs are not met.

Leaving the reservation to find work is equally problematic; most work opportunities in nearby cities are not much better than those on the reservation. In addition, many Cheyenne are concerned about encountering discrimination and about their lack of financial and social resources for coping with the demands they will face in an urban setting. The authors conclude that unless clients obtain local jobs, most will continue to participate in FAIM for as long as possible.

Because few private sector businesses offer work opportunities for FAIM participants, most work in public sector jobs, thus providing a source of subsidized labor for public agencies. Public sector agencies on the Northern Cheyenne reservation benefit from the FAIM program while helping FAIM participants to develop new job skills. In turn, the tribal government, local tribal resources, and the reservation community assume responsibility for Northern Cheyenne FAIM participants who cannot feed their families. This responsibility falls primarily on the Tribal Food Distribution program, which is better able than Federal and State programs to meet some of the most important food needs of reservation residents. The authors argue that the effect of Federal and State assistance programs is to place the responsibility for care of the poorest of the poor on the tribe. The tribe must then either directly care for those in need or push them off the reservation.

The data collected in this and the previous research project suggest several reasons for these outcomes. First, the expectation that reservation residents can meet program requirements, utilize FAIM program benefits, enhance their work skills, and obtain access to jobs that will move them out of poverty is, in fact, unrealistic. Even using food stamps to adequately feed their families is problematic where lack of transportation and childcare prevents clients from meeting program requirements and from reaching more reasonably priced food stores. Even more unrealistic, the authors argue, is the assumption that clients can use newly acquired work skills to access jobs in a labor market currently accommodating less than 50 percent of the adults who need jobs. Second, the program does not adequately address the needs of the poorest Cheyenne who want to remain in their community because it is their ancestral home, who want to support their families by working in locally relevant and productive jobs, and who want the freedom to follow Cheyenne cultural traditions and norms even while participating in FAIM. Local FAIM and other social service program directors are aware of the problems and needs of Northern Cheyenne clients. Nevertheless, under the current program requirements, they can do little to improve the ability of the FAIM program to meet the unique needs of this population. The authors conclude with recommendations for future research to measure the effect of current policy on the food security and nutritional status of low-income Cheyenne.