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A rising tide lifts all boats: Per cap doesn’t make anyone rich, but it can change your way of thinking

Every year, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians get around $6,000, give or tax a few hundred here or there. In 1995, it was $1,190. In 2010, it was just over $7,000. It’s their cut, 1/28,890 of the net revenues at Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino, where the profits are divided 50/50 between operations and tribal members.

In the grand scheme of life, $6,000 is not an extravagant amount of money. When words like billion and trillion flash daily across headlines — numbers so big that even to grasp their breadth seems nigh upon impossible — $6,000 is a raindrop in the Pacific.

But Freeman Owle knows that $6,000 is more than that, really. Six thousand dollars is a powerful thing. It can open new vistas of opportunity and raise self esteem and change the face of an entire culture. And maybe buy a decent used car or a semester of college.

Owle has seen the tribe and the reservation change with the money — known locally as per cap, short for per capita — and for the better in nearly every way.

“I can’t see it as anything but good,” said Owle. He grew up here, then spent 13 years teaching in the Cherokee School System before heading over to Western Carolina University to teach there. He knows Cherokee, knows the people, and the change he’s seen from just this little bit of money is demonstrable.

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“I’ve seen more difference made in the self concept realm,” said Owle. When he was a kid, he said, keeping your head down was the order of the day.

“Before, they were just unobtrusively observing everything around them,” said Owle. In this post-per-cap world, his students and the ones coming after them, they’re engaging with the world instead of just watching it.

It’s hardly difficult to see the advantageous benefits of the casino in Cherokee. Brand new schools, brand new skate park, brand new, well, lots of things. But the benefits on an individual level are a slightly more difficult to track and quantify.

It’s easy to say that 473,000 square feet of new school is beneficial. But how do you measure the benefits of self esteem, or financial assurance?


Behaving successfully

‘Medically’ might be one answer.

Two long-term studies, one published in 2003 and one just this year, have studied the effects of per cap payments on the Eastern Band and its people.

The first was a Duke study looking at behavioral patterns in children. It was purely coincidental — researchers were looking at kids with problems acting out in school, and then, right in the middle of the study, something seemingly unrelated happened: the casino opened. And per cap checks started flowing freely.

Researchers discovered that, because of the small stipend provided by casino returns, parents were spending more time keeping up with their kids. The kids, in turn, acted out less and had fewer behavior problems, both at home and at school. Even if it didn’t have any effect at all on the parents’ lifestyle — workplace hours didn’t decrease, wages didn’t go up, because really, a few thousand bucks isn’t exactly a life of leisure — that small extra measure of financial safety led to great changes for their kids.

“Exploratory analysis suggested that the quality of parental supervision was linked to parents’ sense of time pressure,” researchers reported in a university newsletter at the study’s release. “Although the casino income did not lead parents to cut down on their working hours, it did seem to help them feel less ‘pressured,’ which may have helped them to devote more attention to what their teenagers were doing. Moving out of poverty was associated with a decrease in frequency of psychiatric symptoms over the ensuing four years.”

The second study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last May, was a follow-up to the first. So things were better for kids when their parents had that little extra income security. Would that persist for those children as they transitioned into adults?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

“The most important aspect of this follow-up into adulthood is to demonstrate that an intervention occurring in adolescence can predict outcomes in adulthood,” said the study results, which is a scientific way to say that the benefits of per cap grow with time.

The kids who did the best, who were most positively affected in the long-term by the change in their family income, were the youngest. The longer they were exposed to the new, per-cap norm, the less likely they would slip back into substance abuse and all the adult problems that grow from childhood misbehavior.

Per cap, however, like every good story, is not a tale filled only with sweetness and light.

There is a downside, and it manifested itself brazenly for years before the tribe could develop a good response.

That shortcoming, of course, is obvious: you can’t make people do good things with their money. And for 18-year-old tribal members, getting the money that’s been saved and invested for them, often since birth, was an invitation into enticing irresponsibility.

“We have 13 years of 18-year-olds getting money and wasting it, and there’s been a lot of bad stories about young people not knowing what to do with their money,” said Keith Sneed. He is the one who, in the end, engineered a way to at least try to keep the newly enriched from moronic financial choices.

Sneed, like Freeman Owle, was a teacher in the Cherokee School System for years before per cap. And like Owle, he saw the lot of the tribe change dramatically in its wake. But, he thought, it could be so much better. Sure, kids now know that they have opportunities, he said, but if they only opportunity they see is a Porsche they really can’t afford, how is that better?

So he created a course called Manage Your Money that’s now a requirement — along with a high school diploma or GED — for anyone wanting to collect their cash at 18.


A better life

In a broader sense, said Principal Chief Michell Hicks, what per cap and its companion, the tribal operations cut, have done is increase the standard of living for the Cherokee people. They have better schools and health care and recreation because of tribal operations, and they have nicer homes and stronger businesses and more solid financial footing because of the extra six grand in their pockets.

“I think, you know, any time you can change the living standard, it changes to some degree their mental capacity and it gives them more confidence to do better,” said Hicks.

After 16 years, the tribe has gone a long way towards improving the basics of life, and now, said Hicks, they’re moving on to the next stage of growth with their wealth. The tribe can preserve its culture in language schools and museums and foundations because it can afford to. More Cherokee people can open new and nicer businesses in town because, thanks to per cap and tribal lending funds like the Sequoyah Fund, they can afford to.

And that’s where Hicks sees the tribe going in the future. Of late, there has been much talk of moving some of the eggs away from the Harrah’s basket. Casino revenues were down 8 percent this year and tribal population grew by 2 percent, so the amountof money in everyone’s pocket is shrinking.

But what about using the spoils of Harrah’s to decrease dependence on it, asks Hicks.

“I think that the next success is to really expand the economic base for Cherokee,” said Hicks, to get away from what have been called rubber tomahawk shops and get into the higher-end shops and restaurants. And to use per cap and tribal funds to do it.

Inez Sampson has been around since far before the payments started coming in. She, like many, believe that it helps.

“You can’t really buy a house or anything,” said Sampson, “but it helps. It helps you be able to do the things that you’d really want to do.”

And to realize that they’re there to be done.

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