More than half the federal and state funding since 2002 for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria has gone to its tribal program that provides services to low-income people.
The Tribal TANF program is a personalized version of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families welfare plan that tribes, by law, have the latitude to design to suit their needs.
For the Graton Rancheria, 2008 was a banner year. After six years of trying, it launched its own TANF program. substantially augmenting its housing and related social services. It has since received about $16.5 million, or roughly $3 million a year, in combined federal and state funds for the program.
As of March, 146 people — 52 adults and 94 children — were enrolled, qualifying for monthly cash grants or employment assistance such as counseling and job training, according to the state Department of Social Services, which contributes about half the yearly TANF funding.
The recipients make up 61 families. Of those, 53 get cash assistance while the other eight get only other forms of aid, said Michael Weston, the department spokesman, who said the tribe reported those client numbers.
It was unclear how many families are served during a full year. The tribe has declined to discuss details of its assistance programs.
At a glance, those numbers suggest a membership with fewer low-income people than are described in tribal surveys.
According to federal reports of the Graton Rancheria housing program, the most recent tribal survey, in 2007, concluded that 71 percent of respondents in its eight-county service area were low-income.
But the numbers of TANF recipients provided by the state may not completely measure the number of tribal members who need aid.
That's because funds the Graton Rancheria gets for its TANF program are based on a 1994 Census of American Indians in the service area, a much lower number. The tribe gets considerably less than it would under a current census, limiting its TANF program's reach.
Also, the tribe early on made a decision to use its TANF monies to assist other Indians in the area who are not tribal members. It now manages the Tribal TANF program for both Sonoma and Marin counties, serving at least three other local tribes, though not the 1,100-member Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, which owns River Rock Casino.
Tribal chairman Greg Sarris would not provide a breakdown of how many TANF recipients are tribal members and how many are not. Weston, of the state social services department, said the number of TANF clients included those served by both the federal and state funding streams for the program.
In an interview, Sarris said that monthly cash advances from the tribe's Las Vegas-partner, Station Casinos, were used to help fill the need created by the growing membership.
Starting in 2003, Station Casinos advanced the tribe $100,000 a month to use as it saw fit. Since 2009, that amount has been $90,000 a month.
"We've all along been subsisting with money from Station," Sarris said.
"We have a system prioritizing the neediest of the needy and that's an ugly situation," he said. "But it's the situation we're in until we can start to supplement it with casino income."
Quarterly financial reports give a sense of the tribe's priorities.