The Social Security Administration recently established an office for helping Native Americans. The agency, in its words, wants to elevate and centralize efforts devoted to tribal members and Alaska Natives. For details, the The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the director of the Office Native American Partnerships, Richard Litsey.
Tom Temin First of all, what is the relationship between Native tribes, Native American tribes, Alaska Natives and Social Security?
Richard Litsey The issue why I’m having to while we have this office set up is, because unfortunately, for a lot of different reasons, and I hope we can discuss that today, they don’t always take advantage of the benefits or they may not be aware of the benefits. The point of my job is to enhance that relationship with tribes and Social Security administration, and bring the information to them and listen to them as well. But education is a key to the job, it’s informing them that these benefits do exist and rightfully they can take advantage of it if they’re qualified.
Tom Temin Yeah, and I’d like to get into why they don’t take advantage, but how many people might be involved here?
Richard Litsey Indian Country is made up about 2.9% of the U.S. population, and there’s 574 federally recognized tribes in 35 states. So we’re small, but we’re spread out over the whole United States. And that’s what makes the job challenging.
Tom Temin Potentially, though, you’re still talking about millions of people.
Richard Litsey Yes, correct. Almost 3 million.
Tom Temin And what are the issues with Native Americans and Alaska Natives when it comes to knowledge of or simply taking advantage of privileges and rights that every other American has along with them?
Richard Litsey Well, for one thing, what we call Indian country, Indian Country is made up of folks all over the United States as a bench in 35 states, but also in cities and on reservations. A lot of these reservations are in very isolated remote areas. And getting the word out to them through our normal means of communication, for instance, broadband and Internet just doesn’t exist.
Tom Temin And also, there may not be Social Security walk in offices, which still exist in a lot of places, but may not be in these remote areas.
Richard Litsey That’s correct. I mean, in some cases, in fact, we have an office in New York. It takes some tribal members 8 hours to get there, round trip to get there. And in California, there’s a field office that it takes 4 hours one way and you have to go over mountains to get there. With weather and all the rest of it, that makes it quite difficult for them to do and sometimes actually take advantage of the benefits.
Tom Temin Talking about the services themselves, aside from the basic old age insurance, Social Security, that is kind of a universal thing. Social Security has many survivor benefits programs, disability programs and so forth. Is that basically what your issue is, their ability to access some of those programs that Social Security has that are quite large, but are outside of the standard old age insurance?
Richard Litsey Yes, that’s exactly right. We have many different types of benefits, some of them are kind of Native American centric. So we’re and unfortunately, not all tribes know about it. And that’s part of my job is to get out and deliver that service to them and let them become aware. Give you an example, I have a friend who’s a tribal member. He and I are good friends we keep in contact. He lives out of state. And one conversation he mentioned, he injured himself and he was in a wheelchair and all that. And I said, well, what are you doing? And he said, well, I applied for disability. I said, well, good. I said, how’s that going? And he says, well, I guess I’m not disabled. I said, what do you mean? He said, well, they turned me down. I said, OK. And what did you do next? He says, nothing.
Richard Litsey Now we’re talking about an educated man who worked in tribal councils and held responsible positions. And it says quite clearly on what’s called the initial determination for disability. So it’s quite clear that you have X number of days to appeal this decision. Well, now I’m on the phone talking to an employee of the Social Security Administration, and I haven’t really gone to work yet, but I’m back here again. But I told him, I said, hey, the next step is that notice of reconsideration level. And if they turn you down there, you may be able to get a hearing before an administrative law judge. And if you truly believe you’re disabled, you can’t do your normal work. You need to keep applying. You need to keep appealing. Well, he didn’t know that. He didn’t realize that. I said, listen, up till now, everything that you’ve been doing has been with Social Security ministration has been on paper. If you have to go to a hearing, you can be in front of an administrative law judge for the first time, someone’s going to see you face to face and see your medical record, see how much difficulty you have getting up and getting down from the table in the hearing office. You might be there in your wheelchair, there might be any number of things that can limit your ability to do your job that you used to have. He said, Well, I’m glad you told me that and I’ll look further into that. So there we are.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Richard Litsey. He is the director of the office of Native American Partnerships at the Social Security Administration. What is your strategy then, for getting the word out to the tribes and to the Alaska Natives?
Richard Litsey Number one is going to be outreach, increase the outreach to tribal communities here in Indian Country. I’ll be attending conferences, roundtable discussions, listening sessions, and trying to get the feedback from the tribal folks I speak with. We’ll also strengthen the tribal consultation, which are backed by executive orders from the Clinton administration, from the Biden administration that we have put together as a result of all of those executive orders. We put together tribal action plan, that kind of outlines what we’re going to do, like going out into Indian Country and improve service delivery and actually promote hiring through the tribal colleges and universities and get this office stood up and so we could establish support for tribal affairs.
Tom Temin And what about notifying people by old fashioned mail, because the Postal service still goes to those places, even if broadband does not.
Richard Litsey They do. There is a problem with that, though, in Indian Country. We’re talking about developing world type situations and a lot of times, not always. And there’s never an always here, but because of housing issues are also poor housing conditions on reservations, you might have multiple families living in one home and it’s difficult. We don’t even know where they are, so it’s difficult for us to even communicate with them through snail mail.
Tom Temin So this will be in large part a personal touch type of initiative?
Richard Litsey It is. But we have, the good thing is we do have all these offices all over the United States, Social Security offices. And I plan to utilize a lot of those offices, do the work that I can’t get down there on boots on the ground type thing. I will do as much as I can, and it was put to me when I accepted this job that a lot of travel was involved. And I will do that. And generally, there’ll be strategic travel in the sense that if there’s a large conference that I can reach many, many people or maybe even tribal officials there, then those are the types of places that I’ll go so I can get the word out.
Tom Temin It strikes me you could almost put a Social Security office in an Airstream or something and go from place to place that way.
Richard Litsey Well, I’ll tell you what. You supply it, I’ll go. I have to tell you, Tom, this is my passion. I have to tell you, I was five years into retirement when I heard about this job. I applied, I didn’t know if I get it or not. But I applied, because I thought I cannot let this job go and regret some years later that I never applied for it. Well, by some miracle, I was appointed. And I’m in the job now. It’s a passion to me, It’s something I enjoy doing. It’s work that I did when I wasn’t working on the Senate Finance Committee with Senator Baucus (D-Mont.). He was a senator from Montana and became our ambassador to China. We carved out a special niche for me on the Finance Committee, and I visit all the reservations in Montana with seven reservations in Montana. Not only that, but the word got out. Indian country small, but the word spreads quickly. And next thing I know, I’m speaking all over the United States to large groups of people. And that’s what I plan to do in this job. And I enjoyed it tremendously.
Tom Temin Yeah, you kind of beat me to the question there. But you do have a background in this and you also have tribal associations personally, correct?
Richard Litsey That’s correct. I’m a tribal citizen of the Muskogee nation of Oklahoma. I’m enrolled there. My father was full blooded American Indian, and he grew up there. And he was also in the military. And we traveled all over the United States, I was a Air Force Brat for 17 years. So I’ve been all over the country and Japan. And but my my tribal headquarters is in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.
Tom Temin And let me ask you this. Is there a issue with establishing trust with the tribes? Here I am from the federal government, that’s not such a great history in all cases.
Richard Litsey Exactly. The history between the United States government and American Indian tribes has been woefully bad, frankly. Even for me to go into representing Social Security Administration, I will have to prove myself. And I have a history with Indian Country, but I’ll have to prove myself that I’m trustworthy. And because there is a general lack of trust with American Indians and Alaska Natives, it’s unfortunate, but that’s given the history. As you said, no one is surprised by that. We’ve been promised much and given little.