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Tribal Nations More Vulnerable to COVID-19 Impacts, Need Additional Fiscal Aid

As the President and Congress negotiate a new economic relief package, tribal governments need more federal aid to continue offering vital services and support the economic activities that generate their revenues and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans. Any such package needs to include robust aid for tribal governments and to supplement federal agency budgets that fund Native American programs.

The CARES Act’s $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund includes $8 billion for 574 tribal governments, marking a historic federal recognition of tribal governments that contrasts sharply with the 2009 Recovery Act, which excluded tribes from its major state fiscal relief. As the pandemic continues and the economic fallout grows, however, this $8 billion as well as the Act’s $2 billion increase for programs serving Native Americans (like the Indian Health Service) is clearly far from enough.

Tribal nations are especially vulnerable to COVID-19’s health risks and the effects of the current recession, due largely to the federal government’s failure to uphold its trust responsibilities and treaty obligations to tribes. And the pandemic has stretched tribal nations’ finances and health systems to the breaking point.

People living on reservations were more than four times likelier to have COVID-19 than the U.S. population as a whole, April data show. That disproportionate impact exacerbates longstanding health disparities. American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have above-average rates of heart disease, lung disease and asthma, cancer, diabetes, kidney and liver disease, and immune-compromising diseases — all of which put them at higher risk for COVID-19’s more dangerous effects. Some 34 percent of AI/AN adults are at elevated risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19, compared to just 21 percent of all American adults, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports.

The Navajo Nation, for example, has seen a spike in COVID infections and a staggeringly high death rate. In many states, tribal lands and communities are also seeing alarming spikes. In New Mexico, AI/AN people make up about 10 percent of the population but more than 55 percent of COVID cases. In Wyoming, AI/AN people are less than 3 percent of the population but 42 percent of deaths from COVID.

The pandemic has also crippled tribal revenues. Many tribal enterprises closed to help slow the virus’ spread; in April, no tribal casinos — a $97 billion industry with over 600,000 employees— were reportedly open. Although some casinos have since reopened, even temporary closures mean months of no revenue generation for tribes and no wages for employees. And other tribal enterprises, from hotels and conferences to golf courses, retail centers, and energy development, are also closed or severely limited in operation.

Tribal governments are also important economic engines, employing thousands of people to run programs from land management to finances. Without more aid, they may have to furlough or lay off workers, cut workers’ pension contributions and health insurance, and scale back services to tribes, including services to stem COVID-19’s health impacts.

Tribal leaders and advocacy organizations have called for $20 billion in additional fiscal aid to tribal communities, plus increases to federal agency budgets to address the chronic underfunding of Indian Country (i.e., tribal lands and governments). Federal policymakers should accompany the additional money with clearly defined distribution formulas; the Treasury Department’s flawed formulas for distributing CARES Act funds left some tribes underfunded and made it hard for others to get any funds. Tribes also need an extension on spending the CARES Act funds beyond the current December 30 deadline since Treasury’s delay in distributing the funds makes it difficult for tribes to meet the deadline. And tribes need to be able to use both the CARES Act funds and any new funds to make up for revenue losses, since that is a crucial part of why tribes need federal aid.

The House-passed Heroes Act includes $20 billion in flexible funding for tribes, but even that may not be enough: the hit to tribal economies could be well above $50 billion and tribes might require $40-50 billion in aid. As the virus continues spreading and local economies continue flailing, especially in Indian Country, it’s essential to stop tribes from losing ground, both health-wise and economically.