Bigger isn’t Always Better: Better is Better

I was just reading through a few proposed bills aimed at important issues in Indian Country, when I came across some interesting language. Several bills that proposed grant programs advocated for preferences to proposals that help the most people (e.g., the number of people directly benefiting from the services). This sort of wording for grant programs and services is not rare and, in fact, is considered quite laudable.

Shouldn’t we assure the taxpayer that their resources will be deployed to maximize their effects?

But, then I went back to my home reservation in South Dakota. The Lower Brule Sioux reservation is one of many smaller reservations in the United States. We have many of the same problems that larger reservations have (and some considerable advantages as well: If you have ever played 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, we can do that with most Tribal members in just 3 degrees!). If we use the above criteria, smaller Tribes like mine would be less competitive for grants because we have less people. This practice could (and already does) lead to neglect and essentially the starving out of smaller reservations in favor of those with larger populations. Consolidating resources like this has obvious and formidable draw-backs.

I have written before about how unfortunate it is that Native communities of high need are pitted against each other in a competitive grant system. Larger Tribes already have an advantage simply due to numbers: With a bigger pool of Tribal members to chose from, the likelihood of having qualified Tribal members with which to fill essential niches increases…including grant writers. Do we really want to deprive smaller communities of essential resources simply due to their relative population number? Should smaller Tribes be left behind as we allocate already scarce resources in favor of high numbers? Or, should we focus on preserving diversity and, at the same time, impact? Maybe someday I will write about how dangerous and wrongheaded this perspective can be. But, for now, I am hoping the reader can imagine what would happen if we starve out smaller Tribes in this fashion.

Still, we have to assure that resources are targeted to have significant impact, and if a Darwinian process like this only looks at one criteria, a single number, we will continue to neglect some of the more vibrant and potentially innovative Native communities.

Luckily, there is a very simple and rational decision. Ratios. Rather than simply looking at the number of people served, let’s look at the PERCENTAGE of people served relative to the total number possible. In other words, let’s pay attention to base rates.

Consider this: We can fund a program that helps 100 people in Tribe A, or one that helps 1000 in Tribe B. Sounds like a no-brainer. But, it would be erroneous to consider the Tribe B treatment a better treatment until we know the total population. What if Tribe A has 300 people in it and Tribe B has 10,000 eligible members? That would mean that the treatment for Tribe A helped 33% or so of the eligible members, while the treatment for Tribe B helped only 1%. Now which is the no-brainer?!

As we develop programs and policies, I would urge authors and advocates to consider the value of identifying the percentage of a population that could be effected rather than simply the raw number. It is a more mature, responsible, and sensitive number. And, by sensitive, I mean both the fact that it allows us a better metric to evaluate potential effects, as well as a more humane criterion to preserve the diversity of our native cultures. Think about it.



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