Last week, the New York Times editorial board took a firm stance on behalf of Indian country: "The federal government cannot use its budget nihilism to avoid its moral and legal obligations."
These "moral and legal obligations" include a range of essential public services, namely Indian Health Services (which provides health care to nearly 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives) and schools on tribal lands.
Unlike other federal safety-net programs — Social Security, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income, and veterans’ compensation and health benefits — Indian Health Services and tribal schools are not exempt from sequestration. The Times calls this egregious double standard a "moral abdication."
Currently, IHS operates 320 health centers, 45 hospitals, 115 health stations, and 4 school health centers across the United States. The $220 million cut to IHS funding translates into 3,000 fewer inpatient admissions and 804,000 fewer outpatient visits annually.
Public schools on tribal lands are also feeling the impact — a "triple whammy," according to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Unlike most public schools, which can collect local property tax revenue, reservation schools must rely on federal Impact Aid to provide as much as half of their operating budgets. On the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, where unemployment tops 50% and 3 out of 4 children live in poverty, schools serve as a critical support to children and communities, providing hot meals, offering adequate shelter, and fulfilling basic needs (washing machines and hot showers).
In Arizona, Superintendent Deborah Jackson-Dennison began the 2012-13 school year with 179 teachers, but can afford only 127 next fall. 80% of her laid-off workers are Navajo who will have few job prospects on their isolated reservation. Jackson-Dennison worries about the community impact of these lay-offs, as well as the closure or consolidation of three of her seven schools, which she calls "the only solid structure that [the community] can rely on."
Explains Fort Peck superintendent James Rickley, "This money is not 'aid.' It’s not 'discretionary,' It’s what is owed to these people."
Unfortunately, the harsh conditions in Montana and Arizona reservations are not exceptions in Indian country, where substance abuse, hunger, depression, and violence serve as haunting reminders of the systematic destruction of American Indian communities.
"The ones who are supposed to help us the most, hurt us the most," laments Floyd Azure, the 56-year-old Fort Peck tribal chairman. Azure’s comment is warranted. The sequester represents some of the most draconian spending cuts in reservation history, impacting tribal members, both young (Head Start) and old (IHS).