Hardship payments look unlikely this year
Despite best efforts by delegates Eugenia Charles-Newton and Vince James to get another round of American Rescue Plan Act hardship/recovery payments out to the people, the situation does not look optimistic right now.
This is because of the burdensome ARPA funding process and unverified enrollment data.
Even though thousands of Diné have been hoping ARPA assistance comparable to the CARES Hardship payments would soon be forthcoming, with 78 days left in the year, Charles-Newton told Navajo Times she believes that is not likely to happen in 2021.
“It’s really unfortunate,” she said.
Last year, with payments of $1,350 and $500 for adults and children, respectively, $369.5 million was set aside for CARES Hardship Assistance.
Charles-Newton lamented that right now the executive branch is working hard with some delegates to push projects while she’s getting pushback on hardship payments for the people.
“Some of the delegates are saying they support the president’s projects, but I don’t know what the projects are, because I don’t have the list,” she said.
An informal poll from this reporter to all Council delegates as to whether they support hardship payments to the people yielded only one “yes” from Eugene Tso.
“It’s just really unfortunate,” Charles-Newton said. “Realistically, I think it’s going to be a battle.”
However, when asked if he would support ARPA hardship/recovery assistance, President Jonathan Nez did respond on Tuesday with a conciliatory tone.
“Everything is on the table for consideration including hardship assistance,” Nez said. “The resolution for ARPA limits hardship assistance to 10% but we are looking at other options for the Council to consider….”
The resolution that lays out plans for ARPA funds states that financial assistance to enrolled Navajos will be limited to 10% of the total ARPA funds received by the Nation, which at this point would be about $200 million.
If approximately 400,000 enrolled Navajos applied, payments would be about $500 per person.
In June, Charles-Newton and James submitted a request for a bill proposing to use ARPA funds to give every enrolled Diné adult $2,000 and every child $1,000 in direct financial assistance.
But that bill was never written by Legislative Services because everyone was waiting for the ARPA funding application process to be created.
Now, the bureaucratic process set up to apply for ARPA funds, approved by the Budget and Finance Committee on Sept. 2, is adding delays.
A month ago, Charles-Newton learned that even delegates have to fill out the new ARPA application forms with a detailed budget in order to drop legislative proposals for ARPA funds.
“I had to go through that process that Budget and Finance passed,” Charles-Newton said.
And in order to complete the application, she said delegates are dependent on assistance from Acting Controller Elizabeth Begay and other executive branch directors.
“I can’t just drop legislation like I did with CARES,” she said. “I have to work with one of the executive divisions and the controller’s office.”
And without a completed ARPA application and legislation approved by a two-thirds vote of the Council and signed by Nez, no action can be taken to get payments out to the people.
Charles-Newton said she and James were pushing to get recovery funds out to the people by Dec. 1.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” she said.
Charles-Newton explained that in order to create the required budget for the application process and legislation, having enrollment data broken down by adults and children is required.
However, Begay and Vital Records Manager Ronald Duncan have not provided that yet, she said.
Charles-Newton explained that part of the issue is that Begay uncovered many instances of people who applied for CARES Hardship Assistance who tried to “play the system.”
For example, in certain cases separated parents both tried to claim their kids in applying for Hardship payments leading to double claims for certain children where custody issues had to be sorted out.
These situations are still being resolved, said Charles-Newton.
“A lot of stories that came out that still have to get straightened out,” she said.
There were also instances where families enrolled their children in two tribes and applied for monies from both, which is not allowed.
“Navajo has a law that you have to be one fourth Navajo or more and you cannot have dual citizenship in two tribes,” Charles-Newton said. “Some parents were trying to enroll the kids in dual enrollment and it complicated things.”
‘Back to the drawing table’
Because of all of these issues, evidently, the Nations’ enrollment data for children might include duplications, which would produce an incorrect total.
Since the closing deadline for CARES Hardship was Sept. 20, 2021, Begay told Charles-Newton it would take months to assess how many adults and children received the Hardship monies from CARES.
“In all honesty, it just sounded really discouraging because she basically said that they won’t have answers about how many adults and children they have until probably in January or February,” she said. “It just kind of sounded like we won’t get that information right away.”
However, this is all mysterious because all enrollment data is tracked through a computer system, which, ideally, would be able to spit out enrollment information instantaneously and eliminate duplication.
“It sounds like the options are to wait until next spring so that everyone can be counted,” Charles-Newton said. “I think the only way we can actually get funding out quickly is to only give to the adults. I think that may be the best and quickest way to go.”
The reason for that is that the Navajo enrollment database can easily produce a list of adults only, she said.
“Per the controller, all they have to do is punch in the dates and it generates all of the people eighteen and older,” she said. “I don’t have access to the database, so everything falls back on the executive branch. They control everything.”
A request from Navajo Times to Begay and Duncan for an updated number of Navajo tribal enrollees broken down by children and adults went unanswered.
“I think we’re going to go back to the drawing table,” Charles-Newton said. “We’re going to be scheduling another meeting. I think the only way we can get payments out right away is to just focus on the adults.”