NNI Forum: Asset Building for Indian Country
Native Nations Institute. "Asset Building for Indian Country" (roundtable forum). Native Nations Institute For Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. May 15, 2008. Interview.
Miriam Jorgensen (moderator): "Asset building refers to the process by which individuals and families build permanent economic independence. This is an area in which Indian Country is engaged in a more and more active conversation. So we're here today. My name is Miriam Jorgensen. I'm the Director of Research for the Harvard Project in American Indian Economic Development and the Associate Director for Research of its sister institution the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona. I'm here with a team of great people to talk about exactly this topic, asset building in Indian country. I want to introduce to you the team. First I'll turn to Elsie Meeks, who's the President and CEO of the First Nations Oweesta Corporation and one of the pioneers of asset building in Indian Country. Next we have Elena Chavez Quezada, who's a Policy Associate with the Aspen Institute which has long time engagement on asset building domestically in the United States and also internationally to bring us a more broad perspective from beyond Indian Country. Also Karen Edwards, who's a Policy Consultant and also an Associate with the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis. Again, a pioneering organization. Karen's also a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and has been engaged in asset building in Indian Country for a long time. And finally I want to introduce to you Peter Morris, who's the Director of Strategy and Partnerships for the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center, which is another organization -- like the Native Nations Institute and First Nations Oweesta Corporation and the Center for Social Development and the Aspen Institute -- which is engaged in asset-building efforts in Indian Country both on the research and policy outreach front. And so we've got this fantastic panel of folks today to talk about asset building in Indian country and we want to just start off the conversation, I've given a very brief definition of asset building and I'm wondering if any of you want to just jump in and expand on that definition and also talk about why this conversation is so critical in Indian Country today."
Elsie Meeks: "Well, I'm from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Oglala Lakota Nation, and Pine Ridge has been the poorest county in the nation, Shannon County, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, for decades, and yet I think because of my 20-plus years of working at Pine Ridge and across the country now, if we don't start thinking about the opportunities that lead to permanent wealth creation, permanent economic independence, then we're not going to change the way we are and it has to change, it really has to change. We have to come to a place where we aren't reliant on the federal government, that we aren't reliant on government at all and so the work that we've done at Pine Ridge and now nationally, we really, that's where we want to end up, that's our goal."
Peter Morris: "To me, probably more so than any other community in the United States and maybe in the world, Native Nations understand how important assets are and have been working on control of assets and being able to benefit from their assets as communities, and I think what asset building as a field outside of Indian Country has been talking about is kind of assets and the individual component of it and I think what the conversation in Indian Country has taken us to in the last five to ten years is a conversation that blends those two approaches and talks about the need for individuals to take responsibility for the economic self-sufficiency of themselves and their families, but to also do that within a community context. I think that's often not thought about as we look outside of Indian country both domestically and internationally."
Karen Edwards: "Well, I just think asset building historically has been the purview of people who already have accumulated some wealth or are wealthy people. For many, many years the only people who were asset builders were people who had inherited wealth or somehow had made a fortune on their own. But low income and poor people weren't really asset builders. They were cut out policy wise and there were many, many, many historical policy inequities. Most people build assets through the tax system so if you don't have a considerable tax liability you really don't have an advantage to build assets. The hope is that people who are poor or have low incomes won't be left out of this whole new system of asset building that we're seeing now. We're talking about individual accounts for social security, we're talking about individual accounts for college savings, individual accounts for retirement and what happens if people can't benefit from the policies that are there to establish these individual accounts."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Karen, you've started us down a path that I wanted to spend quite a bit of time today talking about which is if a Native community or a Native Nation is interested in asset building, how does it go about doing it? How does it go about creating policy and creating opportunities for individuals and families in the community to really begin to undertake asset building? What are the components? What are the pieces?"
Elsie Meeks: "Well, if I might jump in here, it's really...we have tribes that have considerable income, considerable resources, and some of them are actually dispersing per capitas to their tribal members, which doesn't always create assets. We have poor tribes like mine that we have to figure out how we're going to start down this road of developing assets. Or there are some tribes that have been really good at providing jobs. But even jobs don't necessarily end up as assets. So it's really about how do we get people to this point of creating wealth and that's been kind of a word that hasn't been used a lot in...Indian Country. So we have to start that conversation."
Elena Chavez Quezada: "I think what's really, to build on that, we need to shift the conversation from a conversation about income to a conversation about wealth and I think income is about today, wealth is about tomorrow, and we can't talk about wealth and assets without really talking about saving, and that's why I think the financial education component is so critical, just to kind of establish that mindset that I am saving and sacrificing today for some goal tomorrow."
Elsie Meeks: "I don't think the federal government ever meant for Native Americans to be economically independent and all the policies that they imposed on Indian Country were completely opposite of that, of us being independent. So it was really built on the more dependent we are the more the federal government controlled us. At this point, they don't want us to be dependent anymore, and so we have to figure out how we're going to reach that. In the past we always had resources that we managed and that we were self-sufficient, whether it was putting up food for the winter or just planning for the future. We always did that. I think that's where we have to get back to is that we really control our own destinies and taking a place at the table means that we have, we build our own assets and our own economic self-sufficiency. And the way that a lot of tribes have done this is through home ownership. In the greater society or the outside society, outside Indian Country, the main way people built assets were through, they built it through home ownership, they built it through business, through various ways, and through investments and we have to figure out how we're going to do that ourselves, how we translate that into Indian Country. There are many tribes that have done this and tribal members that have done this and been good at it. And so for the tribes that haven't quite got there, the tools are there and so it's through entrepreneurship, through savings programs, through home ownership, through education, all of these ways and the tools are there. And so I just think that we have to...it's more in the messaging that we have to start talking about as tribal members, part of tribal communities, that we become economically independent and healthy societies. And I guess that's really what the goal is."
Miriam Jorgensen: "So really a very important critical first step in moving there though is really changing the conversation so it's a conversation that's not about dependence, it's a conversation about economic self-sufficiency for individuals, families and ultimately for communities and nations as well."
Elsie Meeks: "And that's exactly right, and with the tribes that have considerable resources whether it's through being really good at business or gaming or natural resources, they have sort of a jump start in some ways although the message has to be the same is that this income that they're providing their tribal members has to create wealth. It can't be just spent. But for poor tribes like ours, it's the same conversation in some ways. It's like, where do you start and it's really...Elena commented on how financial education is really the key, and for us at Pine Ridge it's really...there's no resources available, hardly any jobs, but we still have to get people thinking about what's the first step you can take towards figuring out how you're going to become economically self-sufficiency and it's maybe saving $20. There's a program at Pine Ridge that has an IDA, individual development account, which will match their savings two to one. These are important programs cause not only are people saving money, but they're also learning the skills for money management and that's the first step."
Karen Edwards: "And I just think that's an important thing to create are incentives that are meaningful to people at different income levels. There are many, many incentives for people at high income levels when you consider that 20 percent of the population has 80% of the wealth. There's a lot of incentives up there for wealth building. There aren't many incentives on the bottom which is why IDAs are an important incentive. It does actually give you an institutional framework in which to save and it gives you an incentive of a match to your savings and we have to be more creative about these incentives. The financial education is so key but also to be able to use that financial education is key. So people have to have a meaningful framework to build wealth in."
Miriam Jorgensen: "So can you give us some examples of some tribes that are doing some of this work that are either putting in place some very effective financial education programming or who are doing the match savings account programming with the incentives for savings? Are there some examples out there of good programs on these fronts so we get some of this real flavor of it happening?"
Elsie Meeks: "There are actually quite a number of tribes, there are Native communities that are doing this and Four Bands Community Fund is one of them. Their first building block really is financial education, the individual asset building and entrepreneur capacity building, youth entrepreneurship. It's melding all of these things and actually that's where that video should come in."
Miriam Jorgensen: "So I think at this point we're going to pause and show a video of this very specific community application of financial education, matched savings account, and then also a wide variety of programs that are focused on asset building and really see how it works in the community and hear some statements from community members just to get more of this on-the-ground flavor of what we're talking about."
"Winds of Change" video (produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)
Narrator: "South Dakota hill country, a majestic tapestry of earth and sky. The people who live here, the people who understand the natural wealth of their surroundings, have wonderful traditions of celebrating what they have. But this regal setting on the Great Plains conceals a sad reality. These people are among the poorest in America. Four bands of the Lakota people, as they are also called, today live on a reservation near the Cheyenne River. Seventy-five percent of them live in poverty. One-fifth live in deep poverty, unable to afford even the barest of necessities. It's a place where the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been hard at work."
Veronica Valandra: "The greatest concern I see in the diocese is poverty because we have many Native people that don't have homes, they don't have any jobs, they need food for their families."
Narrator: "The unemployment rate for men hovers around 64%. Only one of every three has a full-time job."
Tanya Fiddler: "We have largely overcrowded households where 2-3 families [live] because of the lack of housing. The major employer on the reservation is the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe itself, but of those employed, 90% of them are still living below the poverty line."
Narrator: "Tanya Fiddler oversees the Four Bands Community Fund, set up to spur business ownership and entrepreneurship among the Lakota people."
Receptionist: "Four Bands Community Fund, this is Louise speaking. How may I help you?"
Tanya Fiddler: "We've made over 80 loans in the last four years. Our first year, the average loan size for a micro-loan was $1,000, and as the customer's capacity has grown, the capacity to borrow more has grown. Our average loan size now is $10,000."
Wynona Traversie: ""˜This is our loan application.' I love helping people, and seeing the look on their face when they come in and I tell them, "˜We've reviewed your loan application and you are eligible.'"
Narrator: "The Catholic Campaign for Human Development was on the ground floor with crucial start-up money, helping to establish a financial base for the community fund..."
Woman: "Savings needs to be a family effort."
Narrator: "...and providing resources for business education classes called C.R.E.A.T.E."
Wynona Traversie: "I'm just so happy for our entrepreneurs because they've struggled so hard."
Narrator: "The Four Bands Community Fund is less about dollars and cents than about names and faces. It helped Gerald Davidson build his plumbing and heating business. It helped Eva Gilbert set up a hair and nail salon. It helped Mike Ducheneaux turn a fascination of cars into a full-fledged auto repair business."
Blake Farley: "What kind of snow cone would you like?"
Narrator: "And even helped 11-year-old Blake Farley start his snow cone company. And it helped Cheryl Red Bear find economic vitality after suffering a series of strokes. Cheryl makes Native regalia and beautiful hand-sewn quilts. She took the Four Bands C.R.E.A.T.E. class, then turned her hobby into a livelihood."
Cheryl Red Bear: I learned how to run a small business, learned how to budget, finance. "˜Hi Carly, I got your cape all finished.' And it helped me out throughout the course. And it was great."
Tanya Fiddler: "Cheryl Red Bear is one of our best homegrown customers. She was able to complete C.R.E.A.T.E. and, at that point, was able to ask for a micro-loan and an equity award from Four Bands."
Narrator: "Sometimes, entrepreneurship requires thinking outside the box, or the house. In this case, the people of a remote reservation community called Bridger got together and came up with the idea of having tourists stay at a teepee bed and breakfast."
Tanya Fiddler: "So they have this wonderful bed and breakfast. They have overnight teepee stays. One of the resulting businesses from the teepee bed and breakfast were trail rides. So we have a loan to the trail ride company. And we assist them to do their marketing and promotions so that they can build a package as a community, attracting customers to come in."
Byron Buffalo: "It's helped make me realize that, not to let anybody else define your reality, and to follow your dreams and make your dreams come true."
Narrator: "But in today's harsh reality, supporting even one's immediate family, putting food on the table and a roof overhead, is nearly impossible for many of the Lakota people. Without work, there's no paycheck; and without businesses, there are no jobs. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development strongly supports efforts like the Four Bands Community Fund precisely because it addresses the need at its source. It sows the seeds of economic stability and self-sufficiency. It promotes financial education and encourages the kind of responsible risk taking that may one day reverse the cycle of poverty on the Cheyenne River Reservation in these majestic hills of South Dakota."
Elsie Meeks: "But there is really a number of tribes, and I think the conversation that tribes are starting to have around even if the tribal members get per capita payments from gaming or other natural resources how that really translates into permanent wealth and that's really what it's all about. Native people should have every right to have permanent wealth just like non-Native people should. But it's really up to us to start providing the path to doing that."
Miriam Jorgensen: "And you've just said providing the path and I know that a really critical piece that's of interest of a lot of this asset building work is focused on kids because people are saying, 'Look, if you don't know that much about asset building and wealth building, financial education and savings by the time you're older, a lot of it's because you didn't get that grounding and training when you were kids.' And Elena, you've done a lot of work through Aspen Institute in the U.S. broadly among largely non-Native populations and then some international work focused on kids' savings accounts, and I'm wondering if you and Peter together can talk a little bit about the children's savings programming and some of the results and ideas that seem...really how to get people on this path so that we don't get to a point, especially in some of the Native nations where we've got a lot of assets and a lot of potential opportunity for wealth building so that that isn't reaching a situation of that being wasted, that we're really getting people along that path toward it."
Elena Chavez Quezada: "This idea of children's accounts is actually one that started here in the U.S. with Michael Sherraden at the Center for Social Development, and the U.K. has implemented it, and so it's been up and running for about three years now and our proposal at the Aspen Institute is very much modeled off what's happening in the U.K. But in that proposal, every single child born in the country receives a certificate or a voucher for an investment account at birth. And so the parents go and redeem that voucher at a participating financial institution and it's endowed by the government. So the government has put in $500 for every single child born in that country and lower-income kids get an additional $500. These accounts are run through the private sector and the idea is they grow over 18 years and encourage families to contribute over time and at that point the child can or the young adult at that point can use those funds for whatever they feel is appropriate, whether that's education or to buy a home or to buy a car or continue saving, and you've 18 years to kind of instill the financial education in that savings mentality. And because it's universal, everybody's doing it, so this is a really big cultural shift and those principles of this is in the private sector and we match it for low-income kids -- which is part of our proposal -- and that there's unrestricted use at age 18 are really important."
Peter Morris: "The attractive element to me, and I was going to share this story as we were talking about what kind of concrete programs are going on and I think the Four Bands example is a good one, one story that I've shared with Elena and other colleagues at Aspen is the story of a young Navajo girl that I met and she had just completed an individual development account, matched savings account program, and I was sitting with the practitioner who ran that program and her over lunch and she was describing for me her life experience and how the process of saving just $500 over the process of two years to go to college, to go to Diné College, the community college there on the Navajo Nation. And the way she described it was that she was this quiet girl who wasn't super engaged in things in the community and now she was on the student council at Diné College and she was super engaged and wanted to go to Arizona State [University] -- I guess there's no accounting for taste -- to go to business school and she just had these grand visions for how she was going to start businesses on the reservation and she had this...she'd been given this vision and she said to me, and I'll never forget what she said, 'If it wasn't for this opportunity, then I'd be sitting on the couch watching TV with my cousins.' And the first thing that I see in child accounts is that opportunity and giving children -- no matter where they're from, black, white, Hispanic, Native, Asian, from whatever background they are -- giving them that opportunity. And I think in Indian Country specifically, there's two very key opportunities that we found compelling from the Aspen proposal and the first one is that it's unrestricted use. So one of the great things about America is we hate regulation except when it applies to poor people and then we want lots of it. And a lot of the other proposals around children's savings accounts talk about restrictions to uses that there are significant barriers to like home ownership in Indian country and going to college where you might need transportation that you don't otherwise have. So it's very important to me that we think about mechanisms that will really close the wealth gap between Native people and other people in the broader community and people of color broadly. So I think that's an important thing for us to think about. Unrestricted uses is important. The other thing, and I'm sure Elsie will talk about this more as the conversation goes on, is it provides an incentive for financial institutions to come to Indian Country. So the fact that every Native kid at birth -- whether they're in Gallup or on Pine Ridge or wherever it is --have a voucher that gets taken to a bank to open an account. When we have nine of ten of our Native communities lack a single financial institution within their borders, we need an incentive to get financial institutions to think about investing in Indian Country, and this isn't the only way to do that, but it's one way to do that, and I think this big idea at the national level to me really has a lot of legs as we think about how we can connect asset building in Indian Country with asset building beyond Indian Country."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Well, you've just hit to me what's a really important barrier to asset building is just this lack of financial institutions because when I think about my contacts growing up in a small town in South Dakota, there were four different banks that I could go to even in a town of just 7,000 people and yet if you're telling me that some huge percentage of folks in Indian Country don't even have that opportunity, how is it that asset building can occur and some of these programs can really get off the ground?"
Elsie Meeks: "My organization has been really involved with helping Native communities start community development financial institutions. And these institutions generally start up in areas where banks really have not been able to lend. And so for instance 20 years ago we started the Lakota Fund at Pine Ridge, which was one of the first community development financial institutions. And after a couple years of lending there, we did a sort of survey of our borrowers and 75 percent of them had never had a checking or savings account which was really because...and 85 percent had never had a loan. It was because there were no institutions there. So one of the tribes we're working with is the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota and the woman that's running the community development financial institution there, and they're doing financial education kind of across the reservation with the housing authority and also in the schools to reach the youth. And one of the programs they have is, they call it the day treatment program and it's youth that are really at risk of dropping out of high school and they want to at least give them some financial management skills. So they were working with these kids and she was telling the story about Nodem was his name and he...she got him to set some short-term goals, which was pretty difficult 'cause he was a kid and it was like easy come, easy go, but his short-term goal was to buy some new shoes 'cause he had pretty holey shoes. And then the second goal was to set up a bank account and start a savings program. And she thought she didn't have any effect on this at all and she said about three months after their program had ended she was in the bank and there was Nodem and he had new shoes and he had a job and he'd put some money in his savings account. So he'd actually opened a savings account at the bank. So it's really getting people pointed down those paths which those opportunities really haven't been available in Indian Country. So we were really rewarded by that one outcome."
Miriam Jorgensen: "That's a great story. And it makes me think that most people here have similar stories to tell and I've also heard, and I want to give credit where credit is due with this, in an earlier conversation with Mike Roberts, who's the President of the First Nations Development Institute and having a conversation with him about asset building in Indian Country and they'd been up to this again for 20 years at this point. And he said, 'One of our goals in all the work that we do is to look for these points of entry and to try to look for programs or opportunities where the individuals or the communities are ready to start some sort of asset building.' In the case that you have just told at Turtle Mountain, that opportunity sounds like it was to get financial education into this alternative school. In other cases, it's to get children's savings accounts going if the opportunity is there. Are there other critical intervention points or opportunities that are out there staring Native communities in the face, that tribal leaders, non-profits, communities can jump on to have these -- in a sense -- where the opportunities are and the folks are ready to move forward with them?"
Elsie Meeks: "Let me give one really good example -- and I hate to monopolize the conversation -- but at Pine Ridge, there is also...we started the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing and that was in 1998 and just prior to that there had been a study that showed that something like 70 percent of the people could have qualified for a mortgage of at least $65,000. But up to that point only four mortgages had ever been done on Pine Ridge. And then the partnership got started up and they had to deal with some of the security...securing the loans, perfecting mortgages because the land issues are very complex as you know and helping them with some down-payment assistance and this and that. But at this point in time, there's been 40 some mortgages now created, so that was a real point of time where we said this can happen."
Peter Morris: "And for me, what Elsie's just saying refers to two key principles in terms of thinking about, 'What are the entry points?' I think one is institutions and Elsie and the work that First Nations Oweesta Corporation does is a key part of that, is to build credible institutions that can facilitate asset building, facilitate access to opportunities. And I think it's really important for us to think about asset building as almost a rebuilding process so asset building prior to contact with Europeans coming over here and the federal government thinking that the IRA [Indian reorganization Act] was a good system of government and all these other kind of great policy innovations of the U.S. federal government but put tribes in a situation where they were behind and needing to revitalize and rebuild some of these institutions is one thing. And I think the other thing is removing barriers and so there are immense, and I referred to them, immense barriers in policy to acquiring assets. Where is the hardest place in the United States to own a home? It's in Indian Country, when the title status process can take as long as five, six years and so really what asset building in Indian Country is, it's an integrated strategy to open the way to opportunity through investing in institutions and I think removing barriers to those opportunities. And there are so many of them, so it's not obviously an easy strategy, but I think what I heard there was opportunity is there for housing and institutions need to support it and also there needs to be a removal of barriers that are still fairly significant."
Karen Edwards: "I think expectation has to be there also. I don't think poor people or low income people are expected to save money. For years they were actually penalized for saving money and still are in many cases. People who are disabled save money they lose. If they save for retirement or for college even, they lose their disability benefits. It's still the case. Those types of disincentives to saving have to be removed. Michael, in his book Assets and the Poor, said that income feeds people's stomachs but assets change their heads. And it's true, it's what I think is happening in low income communities. The minute the opportunity presents itself, the minute there's an institutional structure, the minute expectations and access and there's a secure way for them to save money, there was suspicion at first, especially with IDAs. It was considered a scam. They're just trying to get my money. Once they figured out, hey, there actually is a structure that I can do this and get a home and start a business and get an education, then people began to actually utilize it and I think that's going to continue to happen on a broader and broader scale but we do have to have policy structures in place and larger amounts of incentives to make that happen."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Well, it sounds like there are a number of things going on here. One is the attitude and just the belief that this can be different and we talked about this at the outset of just to have this notion of this is about wealth building and about economic independence not about economic dependence. There's the set of institutional things in terms of building institutions like community development financial institutions. How many of those are there now in Indian Country?"
Elsie Meeks: "There's 48 certified community development financial institutions."
Miriam Jorgensen: "And probably another 70 or 80 in the pipeline?"
Elsie Meeks: "Right, exactly."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Those sorts of institutions but also other points of institutional intervention and it really sounds like one of the ones that you have focused on is for instance housing authorities and housing programs as a point of intervention, maybe also small business development sorts of institutions in Indian Country, schools as an institution for intervention as well and other kinds of training sorts of programs. And then the third piece being the policy piece. You can add whatever you were going to add Peter, that's fine."
Peter Morris: "I was going to add -- and I think it's important -- often there's a disconnect, and I think we need to be really clear about the relationship between the tribal government as the facilitator of these kinds of policies being implemented and the kind of community infrastructure, whether it's a housing authority that's the tribally designated housing entity or it's a CDFI that's related to the tribal government and needs a good relationship with it but is separate. Or whether it's in situations like in Cherokee Nation. The oldest Native individual account program is run within a department of the tribal government, and so tribal governments are called up and sometimes it's an unrealistic expectation 'cause there are so many different challenges that they're facing as governments, but sometimes it's the tribe who can invest and at least in the case of CDFIs incubate it. The other point that I wanted to make -- and I think maybe Elsie you want to talk about this some more -- my sense is watching the CDFI field grow has been a remarkable thing and each time I hear you talk about CDFIs, I hear a different number because we're seeing more and more certified CDFIs. What's your sense of where the growth is going?"
Elsie Meeks: "I think tribes are really beginning to understand that by building the capacity of their individual tribal members because in the past it's really been the focus on economic development has been really building tribal enterprises, tribal businesses. And I think that they really understand now that the more we focus on building tribal community members, tribal citizens, then that's going to get us to this place of, that the tribal membership is really contributing to the economy instead of taking away from the economy, and that's really important. So I think they're really realizing that community development financial institutions are the vehicle to do that, that it's through home ownership that helps to build wealth, build assets, or through entrepreneurship, which not only supports the individual entrepreneur and their family but also provides employment, starts creating a tax base for that tribe and through savings programs. So it really gets people to this place of, that we have an interactive, vibrant economy. Let me just give you a really quick example of this is so we start a business community development institution, community development financial institution, so we're allowing people to get into business. So most people on a reservation haven't been in business before, maybe haven't even worked in one before. So they come in the door and they're never turned away, but they're sort of given an assessment about where are you at financially. They do a credit report, they find out their credit's really ba,d so they get them in this credit counseling so that they start to rebuild their credit. They get them into an individual savings account so that they're starting to save, to put away a little bit of money and in the process learning some things about money management. They're correcting their credit, they're starting to build their credit, then they start in an entrepreneurship program so that they learn that they maybe aren't quite at this point where they can be in business but what's the path to get them there. And then over time they say, 'Well, we really want to be in this business,' or maybe they say, 'I think I should go get a job for awhile.' But whatever it is, it leads them down this path towards some economic independence. This just hasn't been done in Indian Country, really. I grew up at Pine Ridge, and I know that this sort of thinking and now that I've had this wonderful opportunity to work nationally, this is a whole new realm and it's great. It's really where we have to head."
Peter Morris: "And to me, it's about pathways to choices, and so my sense is we talk about dependence negatively when people make negative choices because of dependence. But dependence in a broad sense is not bad, and in fact in society none of us is self-sufficient in the broad sense and each of us depend on policies that facilitate good choices that we make. So we think about college savings plans for our kids, we think about the home mortgage deduction that 70 some percent of Americans depend on to build assets, to build wealth, and we need to think about some of these policies and structures within Native communities that can encourage those positive decisions. So dependence in a kind of interdependent mutual responsibility kind of way is a very positive thing, and we don't really want people to be self-sufficient in the strictest definition of that word, we want them to have encouragement and structures that promote good choices and help them get there so that they have the skills and the information that they need to make good decisions."
Miriam Jorgensen: "One of the things that I'm really curious about is we've talked about all these opportunities is the role of various parties and Peter you began to touch on this a little bit ago that it doesn't all have to be tribal government, sometimes it can be. What are the various roles of various parties in the community? Whose job is it to help incentivize some of these programs and who can actually take up the challenge to do some of this work?"
Karen Edwards: "Iwas just going to say that I think what I've seen in tribal communities and some of the asset-building programs that have been created, it really does mirror what happened in the broader mainstream communities as assets began to...asset programs began to take hold in the '90s, in the early to mid-90s, and I think in Native communities it maybe started in the mid-90s and began to take hold. I think it really does mirror what happened in the mainstream community and that is that asset building ended up being kind of a grassroots effort. Because nothing was happening at the bigger policy level, I think that community-based organizations on the ground kind of took this idea and ran with it, and I think that's also happened in tribal communities. Many --either a tribal housing authority or a tribal non-profit -- kind of took this idea and said, 'We can do this in our community,' and I think one actual big entre point was the earned income tax credit. There's been a lot of movement in the private foundation world to help Indian Country get vita sites in the earned income tax credit campaign started in Native communities and they began to see that some wealth can actually be generated here. We could have some money to put in savings programs. We could have some money that people could build up to do home ownership. And that's very similar to what happened I think across the country. There has to be that...there has to be something, though. You can't really make something out of nothing. There has to be something there to start with."
Elsie Meeks: "Let me say though that the 48 community development financial institutions, CDFIs, that have started to date, I would say at least 90 percent of them were actually initiated by the tribal government, which is really important 'cause the tribal government actually started it, maybe provided some resources and in almost all cases have then spun them off to be separate from the tribal government, which is good because government shouldn't be making decisions about loans. But then once these CDFIs got started, then they really understood the need to implement these asset-building strategies. It wasn't just about making loans. It's really about building the capacity of the potential home owner or the potential business owner. So they had to start implementing these strategies so savings programs, financial education programs, even earned income tax credit outreach and doing vita sites, some way to reach out into the community and get people thinking about their future a little bit."
Miriam Jorgensen: "So in a sense, there's that convergence of the grassroots desire and pressuring for the program, plus the institutional creation and spinning off by the government to really make this thing go forward."
Elena Chavez Quezada: "Hey, can I just take that even outside Indian Country. The Aspen Institute -- as a think tank that kind of works at the federal level, I think there's a role for organizations like us as well to really highlight some of the great work being done in Indian Country. We are still struggling today to convince people that low-income people can save and that they want to save and that they will save given the right structures and incentives and opportunities. So I think there's a lot to be learned from some of the examples going on and I think there's really a role for us and for people working at the federal level to take a close look at what's being done and some of the successes that are already happening."
Miriam Jorgensen: "That leads me to one of the last things I wanted to ask each of you which is if you could just point to one or, if you can't choose one, two, some of the most exciting things about asset building that you've seen going on in Indian Country that you just want to highlight and make sure that people know about. We could just kind of...people could offer those around the table or whoever wants to volunteer to go first."
Peter Morris: "I'll offer two 'cause you didn't make me offer one. I think there are two things. I think the first one is this integration that we've just been talking about, the fact that because of the challenges in Indian Country, because of the fact that some of these institutions are non-existent, because some of these policies that facilitate asset building outside of Indian Country are predicated on assumptions that there'll be a non-profit on every corner and a bank on every corner, the fact that these institutions are called upon to do so many different things and to meet so many different needs means that there's a real integration and strategic approach to the communities that they're dealing with, citizens as whole individuals rather than kind of participants in single programs. And I think that's something that's been offered to Indian Country partially by the fact that some of the federal funding for asset building back in the '90s was structured in excluding tribal governments from applying for the money and so a lot of innovation took place there. I think the other one which other folks are willing to, are welcome to build on, is the fact that -- and I don't think we can talk about this enough -- there's a lot of negative press around per capita distributions to tribal members, particularly young people with this amazing revelation which is not really amazing at all or a revelation, that 18-year-olds with a lot of money and very little skills to manage that money aren't going to make the best choices. And I think what we have on the flip side of that is communities that are really investing in their citizens in a way that is very unique and jurisdictions that are the only jurisdictions in the nation and one of the few jurisdictions in the world that offer universal accounts to their kids with money that they can manage, money that's going to be there for their future, and these are the kind of policy innovations that are dreamed of at the national level, and yet I think because there's so much reticence to think about Indian Country and what Indian Country has to offer outside of Indian Country, we're not thinking enough about that at the national policy level. So I think those are the two most exciting things for me about asset building in Indian Country."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Karen, put you on the spot."
Karen Edwards: "Well, I think of as an example CSD partnered with the Buder Center for American Indian Studies to do a study on EITC [earned income tax credit] outreach and EITC efforts in Native communities and the first study was...it took place in ten different communities all across the country. And we had a meeting, we brought the leaders of these EITC programs together and we asked them what they would want to use this research for in their own community and the one that really struck me was a woman from a reservation in Montana who said, 'The main thing I want to do is begin to show our neighboring communities that, you know what, we actually do earn money, we actually do have some economic power and some of this money is going into their community and we're not just deadbeats. We actually do have an economy and potential for an economy.' And I think that's the way that Indian communities are embracing this kind of concept. It all belongs under that same kind of umbrella of, 'We can do this, we did it for centuries, we can do this again and we can even play by the economic rules that are out there today.'"
Miriam Jorgensen: Elena."
Elena Chavez Quezada: "Well, Peter kind of...but I will say it again anyway. I think the fact that there's already this existing platform for child trust funds is really unbelievable. So you have a bunch of converging things happening. You have this infrastructure that's kind of already there and a lesson for federal policy as well, but you also have some revenues that can be targeted and you have financial people interested and excited about financial education and I think being able to connect all of these dots and figure out a way to really empower kids and give them an opportunity fund, there's just enormous potential there."
Elsie Meeks: "Ihave to think about the way that federal policies have been and sort of the low-income housing that's been created through HUD on the reservations and how a lot of times you see these really dilapidated houses, and yet through the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing, which is really promoting home ownership and allowing people to get mortgages for their own homes and really the sort of stark difference. The homes that are home ownership, that people own and have built themselves in some cases, were well kept, the yards are well kept and it's really a very...it's a big difference and it shows the pride that people have in owning something themselves and working towards that themselves. And so I think back...I think to that. And then I also think to one of the first loans that we made at the Lakota Fund, and actually I have it on a picture of a presentation in our sort of logo at the bottom or phrase, it's 'Building Native Assets' and it really...I think it really depicts us as well as anything and it's this guy, it was the first loan. He had a $10,000 loan to buy a belly dump gravel truck 'cause he had gotten the semi somehow or other, the tractor, and now he's got a backhoe and a grater and all these things and you see him, these pictures of him in action and he has...he's 8A certified, he's bonded and he's providing lots of employment. And so that's really what...I see that and I think, yeah, that's really what building Native assets is about."
Miriam Jorgensen: "Those are fabulous overall summaries of the kinds of things that asset building can do for a community and wonderful success stories as well, and I really appreciate this notion and I think that we really need to remind Indian Country of it, that there are great experiments and models and examples going on there that the rest of the world can learn from as well. Just in summary, to look back at the conversation we've been having, this has been about building permanent economic independence for individuals and families, that's really what asset building means, and I think that as somebody who's been interested in and engaged in and following economic develop in Indian Country for over 20 years, the thing to me that's most exciting about this is that it's not just turning to tribal government and saying, 'Whose responsibility is it for economic development in Indian Country?' It's a way of saying, 'The responsibility is shared.' And by undertaking asset-building efforts, this is a way for citizens and families to really participate in the economic renaissance of Indian Country and there are just great examples of that happening and challenges ahead. And hopefully this roundtable discussion has provided leaders and students and community members with some more ideas about how to undertake asset building and inspire them to some of the kinds of changes that can take place in Indian Country as a result."