The Impact of Welfare Reform on Food Assistance Programs on American Indian Reservations: The Northern Cheyenne Case Study

Year: 1999

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

Investigator: Davis, Judith, and Carol Ward

Institution: Dull Knife Memorial College

Project Contact:
Judith Davis
Dull Knife Memorial College
P.O. Box 98
Lame Deer, MT 59043


The goal of this research project was to identify and evaluate the impacts of recent welfare reforms, particularly reforms related to food assistance programs, in the Northern Cheyenne Nation. The report documents the recent experiences of food assistance programs and participants, and clarifies how recent welfare reforms affect food assistance and other service needs of Northern Cheyenne residents. Davis et al. present historical, demographic, and cultural information about the Northern Cheyenne nation that is useful for understanding current conditions as well as the significance of food assistance programs. They report on the nature of the current programs, the views of the program directors, and client experiences with the food programs. The report concludes with an analysis of the authors’ findings and a discussion of policy implications.

The analyses reveal impacts of food assistance program changes on Northern Cheyenne cultural and social life as well as on the range of formal and informal services and resources—the local safety net—to which the economically vulnerable Cheyenne have access. Cultural impacts can be seen in the struggle of tribal members to uphold one of their central values— sharing resources with both family and nonfamily to ensure survival—which, like many other American Indian groups, the Northern Cheyenne place as a high priority. Prevalence of the value placed on sharing and caring for others is evident in the low to nonexistent level of homelessness on this reservation. It is also evident in the everyday actions of individuals who share food with those in need, regardless of how much or how little they have. However, as the numbers needing food assistance increase, the ability of families and the community to care for them is strained.

The authors show that, despite the significance of food assistance programs for increasing well-being, there are important obstacles for individuals attempting to access food assistance. Poor families living in remote reservation areas must make and get to appointments with program personnel in order to receive their benefits. Lack of transportation or of gas money for others to drive them, and a lack of telephones are the most frequently cited problems. The considerable paperwork required of food stamp and other program recipients, and the complexity of the system are often difficult to navigate for many individuals who are trying to establish and maintain eligibility for benefits. This is particularly the case for those who lack high school diplomas or whose first language is Cheyenne. Other common complaints include the lack of jobs and workplaces on or near the reservation where clients may complete required work hours, and inadequate childcare. The frequency of such problems indicates the declining ability of local programs to serve their clients’ needs adequately, despite the programs’ best efforts. A service gap leads to clients’ discouragement and loss of confidence when they fall through the safety net.

Interviews with program directors and clients show that both groups understand the problems and gaps in services. However, constrained by regulations and limited resources, programs are often unable to make the changes needed to solve these problems. Such constraints leave many clients feeling frustrated and perceiving that programs are insensitive to their needs.

Because the Cheyenne are relatively representative of tribal populations in the Plains and elsewhere, this study presents useful insights about the impact of welfare reform on food assistance programs and other elements of the social safety net operating in many reservation communities. The study’s findings indicate the importance of examining the intricacies of clients’ experiences with food assistance programs, the complexity of food programs, and the relationship of food programs to the whole range of formal and informal resources on which the Northern Cheyenne rely.