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by Michele A. Tingling-Clemmons, 
Founding Board Member, National Welfare Rights Union 
A single parent who is also a college senior carrying a 17-hour class load applies for welfare in a small Midwestern college town. Although she is income-eligible, she knows she will be denied because to get assistance she would have to drop out of school in the final semester, make 10 job contacts a week and take a class on how to fill out applications and make it to work on time. This she refuses to do because she believes what the statistics show - that education is the best permanent path out of poverty. She fills out the 10 pages of forms as a required step to extend medical coverage for her small child (one of the principal reasons families seek welfare) and awaits her appointment.
Another young woman enters the public assistance office, dripping from the pouring rain, holding a baby in one hand and a fistful of papers in the other. Despite her assertion that she does not know where to locate her child's father and that she has done all that she has been asked, she has been dropped from the welfare rolls for "noncompliance" with the state office in establishing paternity.  She is sent back into the rain to another office to argue her case again.
The New York Times reports that an epileptic mother of two in Idaho who lost her welfare benefits sometimes goes without food for days so her kids can eat. (Idaho's welfare caseload has dropped 76 percent in the past year, more than any other state.)
Each of these situations counts equally on the welfare reform success ledger as one less household on the welfare roll. Yet, the declining number of welfare recipients fails to reveal the desperate situation of families in a disposable society, a society that has deemed certain people - poor parents and their children, the disabled, new immigrants, unemployed adults without children - expendable.

Decline in Welfare Recipients Touted As Success

In a recent article, (Washington Post, "Welfare Reform's Unprecedented Success," Aug. 10, 1998), the Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee Bill Archer, R-Texas, trumpeted the falling welfare caseload, equating the fact that fewer families are receiving income support with proof that "welfare reform is working."  Archer cites as a guiding principle of the Welfare Reform Act "fight[ing] poverty by helping families escape the dead end of welfare dependency."
The Department of Health and Human Services reported earlier this year, however, that it could not determine how many clients were no longer on the welfare rolls due to actually finding work because the states are not keeping data on why people have moved off the rolls.
Not that work is any protection against poverty:  the U.S. minimum wage of $5.15 per hour is so low that earnings for 52 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 8 hours a day provide just $10,712-less than the poverty level of $13,330 for a family of three and just $100 above the poverty level of $10,613 for a family of two.

Playing Politics With Poverty

On August 22, 1996, President William Jefferson Clinton joined his conservative congressional cronies and ensured his place in history by signing into law the Personal Responsibility and Welfare Reform Act of 1996, the most brutal abdication of U.S. government responsibility for the poor in our nation's history. With one stroke of the pen, Clinton ripped the safety net of income support from our nation's poorest people, snatching assistance from poor single parents (mostly mothers) with children, Hmong veterans (who had been promised support in return for their war service in the Vietnam Conflict), legal immigrants, able-bodied adults without dependents and disabled children. 
The Welfare Reform Act was a politically expedient act, which blames the victims, offers them few tools and ensures that while some families may survive its brutality, many will not. The added bonus of the legislation's construction is that most of us will not even know the depths of despair to which it will subject many of our next generation, simply because they had the bad luck to be born poor. 
 The legislation's elements included an end to entitlement to cash welfare, work requirements for able-bodied adults, a lifetime limit of five years and severe penalties on clients "refusing to comply."  Administration of this vast human experiment was "devolved" to the states-hence the term devolution-ending federal standards and client protections, and giving wide latitude to state governments to set eligibility guidelines. 
The welfare reform legislation did not contain funding for jobs to employ the poorest of our nation's families; provisions for adequate levels of safe, affordable, quality child care to meet the needs of working families; nor even tools to evaluate the reform's success or failure.
The act was funded in large part by cuts to the Food Stamp Program (this nation's primary defense against domestic hunger) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (the greatest source of government support to child care).
Individual entitlement to cash assistance was eliminated under the pretext that the Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program (AFDC) fostered a culture of dependency instead of putting people to work. AFDC operated by providing families who needed more economic resources with monetary assistance that was nevertheless lower than the standard of need, or what the state determined was necessary to survive.
The Welfare Reform Act emphasizes punitive measures to foster work in the belief that clients receiving welfare need to be forced to work. Legislators included this component on a political rather than factual basis, relying on a racist media campaign to convince supporters and detractors that public assistance was primarily a vehicle for people of color (despite the fact that the majority of households participating in AFDC were white) to live well, "whether they deserved to or not"-the unspoken but ever-present inference. The act requires work for the poorest sector of our population regardless of the fact that a significant portion of workers' jobs already fail to raise them and their families out of poverty. To pay for the program, Congress decided to further undermine the availability of affordable quality child care, a necessary support for clients' returning to work.
In the absence of child care programs, the government has opted to put poor families between a rock and a hard place:  a parent loses the family's benefits if the parent does not go to work, or loses his or her children when child care arrangements (if any) are not deemed "suitable" by the state. The People's Tribune reported the story of a young woman in Georgia who was working two jobs to support her family. Unable to afford child care, she left her children ages 11 and 10 months in the care of her 14-year-old to go to her second job. Police and social workers came and took her children, refusing to call her at work even though her 14-year-old told police she was there. After spending 36 hours to find her children's whereabouts, but unable to get them back, she fell into depression, lost both jobs and her home and, at last report, still did not have her children back. This is our country's nightmare, and it is too real for many of us.

Welfare Rights Activists Speak Out

From June 1 through 29, 1998, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union spearheaded a New Freedom Bus Tour, part of the National Welfare Rights Union's (NWRU) Economic Human Rights Campaign. The bus toured the U.S., visiting urban, suburban and rural areas, testifying at forums organized by local activists about the economic human rights abuses they have incurred from U.S. government policies that drive our most vulnerable residents into homelessness, hunger, abuse and hopelessness in this, the world's wealthiest economy. The bus ride was timely in this year that marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of  Human Rights, and is also the first attempt to draw international attention to economic human rights violations. 
The NWRU has long recognized that welfare policy affects more than just the people who can negotiate their way onto the welfare rolls, even in the best of times.  NWRU has renewed the welfare rights activist call for a guaranteed adequate annual income for all, understanding that work alone is not a cure for poverty.  Even the Labor Party's campaign for a constitutional amendment for Jobs at a Living Wage, which the NWRU supports, falls short of addressing the needs of all workers. When the Labor Party adopted NWRU's call for a guaranteed income, it was in recognition of the fact that as long as any worker could be forced to work for less than was required to survive, it compromised the ability of all workers to obtain just wages and working conditions. 
The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 is not just a blot on the morality of the U.S.  It is an attack on all workers and on all families.  In one congressional session, our policy makers determined that families of individuals are not entitled to Food Stamps and thus must go hungry except for three months of every three years if they are not working; that many disabled children are no longer entitled to assistance; that it is more important to our society that a poor mother leave her children and care for another's than stay at home and care for her own - only then is she considered a "working" mother. 
At a time when more of our jobs are being relegated to automation [hear that voice-mail?] and the stock market is steadily dropping, reports of a vigorous economy ring hollow, especially when we know that they are based on the profits of large corporations that realize revenue increases when they lay-off employees (oops, did I mean downsize?)  This is happening at the same time that the federal government is withdrawing even its half-hearted commitment to affordable housing, phasing out Section Eight.
In this current state, we would do well to remember Pastor Martin Niemoller's chilling warning:  "In Nazi Germany, first they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did nothing.  Next they came for the labor leaders.... the Jews.... By the time they came for the Protestants, there was no one left to speak up."  Wake up, my sisters (and brothers)!  The time to speak up is now.  Tomorrow may be too late.
Please visit the NOW web site at to read about our work with the National Welfare Rights Union and other organizations on economic and welfare rights. If you would like a welfare rights activist to speak to your group, please e-mail or call 313-868-3660. 


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