Census Funding is not Free

By Bradley Gernand

An often-repeated truism in life is “money does not grow on trees.” Federal funding provides the Choctaw Nation with roughly one-quarter of its operating budget. But nothing about it is free, and a great deal of work goes into obtaining it.

Federal and state governments provide money to tribal and local governments to accomplish specific objectives. The Choctaw Nation has built a very effective Grants Department and its mission is to research and apply for this money.

Crucial to obtaining grants is writing an effective application. Each application must set forth a good business case, describing the activities to be funded, the means of measuring success, and the anticipated outcome. The key is proving to the government that taxpayer-provided funds are being deployed effectively and as planned.

With 226,000 members, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma uses grants to fund and accomplish many objectives. These range widely and are applied to perform a variety of missions. Infrastructure, such as roads and highways, education, social services, and justice initiatives are often funded by grant monies obtained from federal agencies.

During his State of the Nation address at Labor Day, Chief Gary Batton noted with pride that the tribe earns fully three-quarters of its $1.2 billion dollar budget. He also noted that the tribe receives a quarter of its budget from the state and federal governments via grants and gets bang for every buck.

Ethan Shuth, water resources manager for the Choctaw Nation, is the recipient of a recent grant designed to impact all of southeastern Oklahoma by helping local communities stabilize and strengthen their public water treatment plants. “Quite a few communities are falling outside of environmental regulations and are cited frequently as violators,” Shuth says. The Choctaw Nation believes the issue may worsen before it gets better, possibly causing the region to be viewed less favorably as a destination for business or pleasure.

A particularly successful, grant-funded program is that of the Choctaw Nation’s Reintegration Program, which assists adult tribal members who have been convicted of felonies to become productive citizens. It offers treatment planning, case management, mental health, occupational consultation, and referrals. Only 2.1% of program participants reoffend within one year after release from incarceration. Nationally, 45% of ex-offenders do. While certain aspects of this success pertain to Choctaw culture and tradition, some of the “lessons learned” may apply to programs across the United States.

While the Choctaw Nation has become increasingly adept at applying for and administering the grants it receives, it finds itself operating under artificial constraints dating from 2010, the date of the most recent United States Census. In 2010 many Choctaw tribal members were not counted, artificially lowering the tribal count reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We had approximately 199,000 tribal members at the time of the last U.S. Census in 2010,” says Dr. Delene Rawls, Director of Grants for the Choctaw Nation. “Unfortunately, only 24,000 of those tribal members indicated they are members of the Choctaw Nation, and so 24,000 is the figure most government agencies use.”

Although almost 160,000 additional tribal members wrote in the word, “Choctaw,” the Census Bureau did not consider this specific enough, Rawls notes. “There are three federally recognized Choctaw Indian tribes,” she says. “And using the word, ‘Choctaw,’ could apply to members of the Jena Band of Choctaws, or the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, or to members of the Choctaw Nation.” The Jena Band is headquartered in Louisiana. The Mississippi Band resides in Mississippi.

Rawls serves on what the U.S. Census Bureau calls a Complete Count Committee, formed by Choctaw Chief Gary Batton to formulate and guide the tribe’s response to the issue. “We’re making real headway,” Rawls reports. “We’ve identified the problem arising from the 2010 U.S. Census and know what we need to do to keep it from happening again.” The 2020 Census is now underway. For tips on how to fill it out appropriately, consult the Choctaw Nation’s website at www.choctawnation.com/2020Census.

Rawls notes that the issue applies whether the grants are awarded competitively or not. Many grants, she explained, are formula grants—awards based on a predetermined formula. These grants sometimes support state- or tribally-administered programs. Regardless, she says, “The severe undercount of our tribal members by the 2010 U.S. Census has formed a cloud under which we’ve worked for the past ten years.”

In May, the Choctaw Nation received money from the federal government as part of its emergency economic stimulus program. The money was welcome and provided an important stopgap in tribal operations, but Choctaw Nation officials realized the amount received would have been larger had the 2010 Census count been more accurate. As a result, the tribe is expanding its advertising and marketing campaign, airing more Census-related ads on TV and radio and placing more billboards across the 10.5 counties.

Chief Batton believes a successful 2020 U.S. Census is “mission critical” for the tribe, because of the additional federal aid it will enable. Most of this will be received via the grants process, although—as in the case of the recent federal emergency stimulus package disbursed as a result of the pandemic—it will be received directly.

Despite the interruptions caused by the pandemic, Dr. Rawls said her department continues working from home to keep the grants process flowing. To some degree, she says, it’s actually easier to do certain things from home. Grant preparation requires a good deal of thought and planning. “You have to be a good communicator and a logical thinker,” Dr. Rawls says. Organizing thoughts is sometimes easier at home than at the office, she noted. “But we’ll be happy to get back to the office,” she said. “We work so well together as a team.”

The Grants staff currently numbers six researchers. Most have academic degrees in various aspects of research. “It’s never too late to consider this as a career field,” she said. “We go home every night knowing what we did will impact lives. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”