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Tribal Nations — Highly Vulnerable to COVID-19 — Need More Federal Relief

By providing $8 billion for 574 federally recognized tribes in its $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund for tribal, state, local, and territorial governments, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act marked a historic federal recognition of tribes — contrasting sharply with the 2009 Recovery Act, which excluded tribes from its major state fiscal relief. Still, policymakers will need to include more stimulus funding for tribes in future relief bills because they’re especially vulnerable to COVID-19’s health and economic effects.

American Indian and Alaska Native families are more vulnerable to the pandemic than U.S. residents overall due to the legacies of colonialism, racism, and the federal government’s failure to support these communities’ social and economic well-being. That has left tribal governments facing unique challenges in the current environment, including:

  • A higher risk of COVID-19 complications. Despite health disparities between American Indians and Alaska Natives and the overall population, the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) budget was meeting just half of tribal health needs even before COVID-19, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported. The pandemic will stretch those IHS funds to the breaking point. American Indians and Alaska Natives also have higher rates of underlying medical conditions — such as heart disease, lung disease and asthma, diabetes, kidney and liver disease, and immune-compromising diseases —putting them at higher risk for COVID-19’s more dangerous effects.
  • Housing and demographic challenges. Federal underfunding of tribal governments and communities has created a housing shortage on reservations that makes it hard for families to practice the social distancing needed to combat the virus. Sixteen percent of American Indian and Alaska Native households in tribal areas are overcrowded, compared to just 2 percent for all U.S. households. And while older people generally are among those more susceptible to the virus’ health effects, that’s especially true for American Indian and Alaska Natives: 10 percent of those aged 50 and older live in multigenerational households, versus 6.5 percent of their counterparts in the general population, partly given many tribal cultures’ emphasis on community and multigenerational living.
  • Historic economic challenges. The virus and the sharp economic downturn that’s gathering momentum are disproportionately affecting large and important sections of tribal economies: gaming, tourism, hotels and conferences, retail, and resource and energy development. And unlike federal, state, and local governments, many tribal nations lack a tax base. Instead, they use tribal enterprises and member-owned businesses to generate vital revenue for public health, education, child care, and public safety, as well as for general government operations. Tribes are often their region’s largest employers and among the state’s largest, employing both Native and non-Native workers.

All of that makes it incredibly hard for tribal governments to respond to COVID-19 and the coming recession. Moreover, the federal government has been slow to help tribes during this crisis. Only half of tribal governments surveyed say they’ve received COVID-19-related information from the federal or state governments, according to the National Indian Health Board, and fewer than a fifth have received money, technical assistance, or supplies. Most alarming: only 3 percent have diagnostic kits and some tribal communities have reported receiving five or fewer test kits.

Given tribal communities’ vulnerabilities, policymakers will need to do more in future aid packages to address their health, housing, and economic challenges.