Activists take on welfare reform: Two views

Activists take on welfare reform: Two views – related article: TANF Reauthorization: A Quick Guide

Mary Bricker-Jenkins

The passage of welfare reform in 1996 was a moment of despair for anyone who cares about poverty and inequality in the United States. Here was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, led by a Democratic president, enjoying a long economic boom and a falling federal budget deficit. Under these circumstances, the nation could have put policies into place to relaunch a war on poverty. Instead, Bill Clinton and the Congress enacted a law that ended a 60-year entitlement to government assistance and punished the poor even more than the existing welfare system had.

But welfare and anti-poverty activists around the country have shaken themselves off and re-entered the fray. The welfare reform law is currently up for reauthorization. Many activists are putting their energies into the legislative battle, trying to ensure that any reauthorization bill at least does not make the system worse and perhaps even fixes some of the stingier and more punitive elements of the ’96 law. Others have concluded that there is little to be gained in the legislative arena and are placing their efforts elsewhere: in community organizing, in global networking, in direct action.

This pair of articles offers a view into these two directions for anti-poverty organizing. Beth Brockland of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support explains how and why activists around the country have their sights set on Congress and the Bush administration. Willie Baptist of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia and Mary Bricker-Jenkins from Temple University, in an excerpt from the recent South End Press anthology Lost Ground, discuss their view that, as they put it, the passage of welfare reform “signaled the end of welfare rights organizing as we knew it.” In spite of their differences, it’s worth highlighting a key consensus among these activists: the critical importance of mobilizing people in large numbers for the fight against poverty.

Opposite: Keishla at a tent city built by a group of homeless families working with the KWRU in Philadelphia, 1995

A new era in the struggle against poverty



The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 was said to signal “the end of welfare as we know it”: for us, it signaled the end of welfare rights organizing as we knew it. For decades, most antipoverty efforts in the United States had pursued a civil rights strategy designed to wrest concessions from the welfare state. But we saw the PRWORA as another indication that we had moved into a new period of human history, one in which ending poverty is both necessary and eminently possible. Thus, shifting our organizing focus from civil rights to economic human rights, we are pursuing the goal of ending poverty to secure for all the rights to life, liberty, and happiness. Nothing less.

The lessons of history gave us hope: as was the case during the growth of the abolition movement, this period in history offers a vision that can be embraced by people who unite with the poor out of common analysis and shared interest. We see the period of welfare reform as a period of mounting contradiction and crisis–one that portends heightened suffering to be sure, but one that provides a new opportunity to build a successful movement to end poverty.


In the case of welfare reform, the poor–both employed and unemployed, able to work and not, men and women, white and people of color alike–had been experiencing for decades an ever-increasing erosion of viable work opportunities, social services, and income supports. Indeed, prior to the enactment of PRWORA, the so-called middle class had lost ground in living standards, the ability of women to choose [whether to] work outside the home was constrained by the falling value of welfare grants and partner income, and poverty among whites was increasing at a faster rate than among people of color.

[T]echnology has made possible whole new ways of organizing production and distribution of goods and services around the globe. A technology-enabled globalization process is under way that fundamentally and permanently alters the value of labor the nature of work, and the composition of a new class that stands in a contingent and precarious relationship not only with the boss but with the boss’s electronic labor force as well.

The role of government in creating the conditions amenable to this transition is apparent: ensure the survival of internal production and distribution capacities and enhance the competitive position of U.S.-based supranational corporations by any means necessary. The premises of [the logic of global capital] include a flexible, contingent–and terrified–workforce and the substitution of mandatory work activity for real jobs.

This assessment has important strategic implications for those who organize to end poverty, for if we are correct that the economy has entered a new stage and the role of the nation-state has therefore changed, there are no large concessions to be won from the state. The liberal welfare state will be a thing of the past, buried (significantly) by a Democrat. If we are wrong, not everything will have been lost, because our organizing will have produced a populace that questions, that demands, that moves. In those circumstances, concessions might be possible. But we believe that this is a new period of history in which ending poverty is eminently possible. If we educate and organize around the realities and possibilities of this moment, the PRWORA could have the same galvanizing effect that the Dred Scott decision had in 1857. It is worth remembering that the abolition movement did eventually prevail. Poverty is no more inevitable or permanent than slavery.


Corporate class interests require a broad acceptance of a new social compact, one that involves a significant change in the function of government and the relationship between government and the people. This notion was marketed to the public as early as 1980: in a special issue of Business Week (June 1980), a team of scholars and business people appraised the preconditions for the recovery of the American economy in a multinational environment. One such condition was stated unequivocally: the notion of entitlements must go. To us, it is most significant that the focus was not on the poor but on all Americans, and particularly the worker.

The power of the media to produce a collective and uncritical consciousness is readily apparent. In Why Americans Hate Welfare, Martin Gilens (1999) examines the role of the media in the production of an ideology of shame and blame regarding poverty. His study also illuminates the ways that racism is folded into the mix as he directly connects economic conditions and racial images of poverty: when increases in poverty and unemployment occurred during economic slumps, media images of the poor were primarily of luckless and presumably blameless whites; during periods of economic boom, “lazy blacks” predominated in the images and explanations of poverty. The power of the media to affect the self-images of poor and homeless people has not been lost on the apologists of welfare reform–nor on us. Using media, arts, and culture to create countervailing images and messages is an integral part of our program of organizing and education.


In 1991, five “welfare mothers” began meeting in the basement of a church in the Kensington section of Philadelphia to share their experiences, define their needs, and use their study of history and social movements to figure out ways to meet their needs through unified, organized efforts. Today, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) is a membership organization of poor and homeless people with a program that encompasses neighborhood-based organizing to meet basic needs and national, even global, organizing to address the political and economic structures that produce those needs. Through direct-action campaigns, including the takeover of empty HUD (Department of Housing and Urban Development) housing by homeless families, we have housed more than 500 families, fed and obtained utility services for thousands, and educated on the streets for basic skills and the literacy of political survival. We have organized or hosted several national and international marches and meetings, including the fall 2000 Worl d Summit to End Poverty, attended by more than 400 poor people and their allies representing 135 organizations from the Untied States and 80 organizations from abroad.

[T]he need for a broad-based movement was clear and compelling by the mid-1990s. KWRU’s leadership, in response to our study of history and the looming enactment of welfare reform, constructed a strategic approach to building this movement, which would (1) shift the focus from civil rights to economic human rights, (2) incorporate all who are affected (the majority of the people) by the attacks on the poor (the visible target), and (3) be based on the unity, leadership, and organization of the poor.


On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which contained several articles commonly referenced as economic human rights. By December 10, 1997, we had begun a national campaign to document violations of these rights in the United States, focusing specifically on Article 23 (employment and income support), Article 25 (basic human needs), and Article 26 (education).

The following summer, we organized and led the month-long New Freedom bus tour of the United States, visiting poor people’s groups in more than 40 cities and towns, collecting documentation, and building a network of dissimilar groups with similar concerns about the effects on their communities of concurrent economic dislocations and the erosion of rights portended by the PRWORA, as well as social and economic take-backs in housing, labor rights, environmental protection, health care, and other areas. The tour, which had begun at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, culminated at a rally at the United Nations headquarters in New York City; in a nearby church, a people’s tribunal heard the evidence and declared the United States to be in violation of the economic provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

By [the fall of 1999], the network of groups that had come together through the initiative of the KWRU had adopted a name, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC). The notion of a campaign signified the commitment to a long-term struggle to translate the concepts of economic human rights into real programs for real people. The campaign did not–and has not–prescribed specific programs, opting instead to emphasize the imperative of organizing a mass base for change, to “win people’s hearts and minds” to the notion that economic justice is both necessary and possible. Each organizational member of the PPEHRC retained its own goals and programs but came together in a network to pursue two shared initiatives: organizing events that span the boundaries of their communities, and education facilitated through its community-based, Web-centered University of the Poor.

Excerpted from “A View from the Bottom: Poor People and Their Allies Respond to Welfare Reform” in Lost Ground: Welfare Reform, Poverty, and Beyond, edited by Randy Albelda and Ann Withorn (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2002). For more information, visit South End Press at www.

Willie Baptist is the education director of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union ( and co-lead organizer of the University of the Poor. Mary Bricker-Jenkins is a member of the Temple Depot of the Underground Railroad, a network of allies of KWRU, and teaches social work practice at the Temple University School of Social Administration.

Reforming Welfare Reform.


Catrina Weber never made enough at her fast-food jobs to be able to pay her rent and still have enough left over to provide a good life for her three-year-old son. Without a high-school diploma, however, she found it difficult to land higher-paying jobs. Like many parents who are trapped in the low-wage labor market, Catrina often relied on public assistance for extra help while she was in between jobs or when she was working but simply earning too little to make ends meet.

Enter President Clinton, who, along with a Republican Congress, passed a bill in 1996 “ending welfare as we know it.” In doing so, they replaced the decades-old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program with a new block grant to states called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. Unlike AFDC, which guaranteed a minima1 level of help to all poor families, TANF requires low-income parents like Catrina to meet strict work requirements and subjects them to a new maximum five-year lifetime limit on assistance.

Last fall, Catrina was earning $8.50 an hour at a temp job when her 3-year-old son fell seriously ill. Since she had no choice but to stay home and care for him, she was immediately fired and was forced to reapply for assistance. Hoping to escape the low-wage labor market once and for all, she asked her caseworker about GED classes; she was refused and told she would need a doctor’s statement proving she had “good cause” for not meeting the work requirement. A few months later, in August 2001, Catrina hit her lifetime limit and lost all her benefits.

Unfortunately, Catrina’s story is not unique. Six years after welfare reform, caseloads have declined by more than half, but poverty rates–particularly among people of color–remain high. Now, Congress is considering changes to the 1996 law, which expires this September. Much is at stake in the legislative scramble: different reauthorization bills, if passed, could either improve the prospects of low-income parents or sink them even deeper into poverty.

In this new round of welfare wars, low-income parents like Catrina are making their voices heard. What’s more, they are raising challenging questions about how our nation’s public policies can and should promote justice, equity and opportunity for all low-income Americans.


The conservative assault on federal entitlement programs climaxed in the mid-1990s when Republicans, led by then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, won back control of Congress and made overhauling the welfare system the bedrock of their Contract With America. The notion of welfare reform was, however, nothing new.

Ironically enough, at the height of the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s, “welfare reform” actually meant making the system more accessible to greater numbers of needy families. Grassroots groups, many of whom organized under the banner of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), helped tens of thousands of low-income parents to enroll in AFD C,. The low-income black women who comprised nearly 90% of the NWRO’s membership insisted that the need for welfare was the result of an unjust economic system, not personal failure. At its peak in 1969, NWRO had more than 22,000 members and chapters in nearly every major city.

But the 1970s ushered in a series of dislocating events–the costly ongoing war in Vietnam, a faltering economy–as well as an increasingly effective conservative political movement. Together, these political and economic forces converged to weaken the public consensus about the need to combat systemic poverty that bad flourished a decade earlier.

By the time President Reagan took office in 1980, public opinion about the poor had done a complete about-face. Now, welfare recipients themselves were the problem. Many Americans became convinced that the welfare system encouraged dependency on the federal government, and reform efforts were now aimed at changing poor women’s behavior instead of attacking the real roots of poverty–systemic racism, sexism, and inequality.


In this new era of welfare bashing, the debate centered on how to get welfare recipients off the rolls as quickly as possible. As a result, on August 22, 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), called welfare reform.

The law’s passage did indeed end welfare as we knew it. It eliminated the 60-year entitlement to some minimal level of assistance for our nation’s most vulnerable parents and children. The new system makes it extremely difficult to get help, even for people in desperate circumstances, and uses sanctions and time limits to push people off the rolls. The strategy is working. Since 1996, welfare caseloads have fallen by more than half. At the same time, poverty among single mothers–the population most affected by changes in welfare policy–has actually increased from 19.2% to 19.4% since the mid-1990s, in spite of the decade’s booming economy.

The block-grant structure of TANF gave broad new authority to states to implement their own welfare programs, subject to little federal oversight. This has led to rampant lawlessness in welfare offices; in one notorious case, the State of Oregon told applicants to go “dumpster diving” instead of seeking assistance. And, as has been the case throughout American history, “states rights” has resulted in discrimination against people of color in access to services and benefits.

The result is a patchwork of state policies that have done little to address the root causes of poverty in America. Volumes of data and anecdotal evidence gathered since 1996 paint a sobering portrait of joblessness, low wages, lack of support and increased hardship for parents who have left the welfare rolls. Approximately one-third of former welfare recipients do not leave welfare for work at all, and those who do often work low- or minimum-wage jobs without paid vacation, sick leave or health benefits. Many are single mothers caring for young, sick or disabled children, who are forced to make impossible choices between being with their children when they are most needed and doing what the welfare system demands in order to keep their meager income.

Now, as the economic boom of the 1990s sputters to a halt, the safety net for low-wage workers is in tatters. Unemployment Insurance, our nation’s first recourse for laid-off workers, reaches at most 40% of unemployed workers. Due to antiquated eligibility rules, low-wage and part-time workers are least likely to qualify when they become unemployed.

Moreover under welfare reform, legal immigrants can no longer qualify for most federal public-benefits programs if they arrived in the country after 1996. Yet immigrants comprise a growing portion of the low-wage workforce; currently, one in four poor children lives in an immigrant family. While some states have picked up the slack and created their own programs for immigrants, millions of hardworking, taxpaying immigrants still have no safety net to rely on.

Welfare reform 1996-style raised a lot of questions about work, family and immigration that it is simply not equipped to answer. Rather than advocating for a return to a system that provided a limited safety net but otherwise did little to address the problem of poverty in America, progressives are fighting for a new framework for our nation’s anti-poverty policy–one that promotes meaningful wages, job opportunities, and supports for all low-income Americans.


For decades, grassroots organizations of low-income people have been fighting for living wages, affordable housing, adequate health care and decent jobs in their communities. In the mid-1990s, as welfare reform spread out into the states, poor people had new battles to fight.

Many groups got actively involved in shaping the way welfare reform was implemented in their states. Groups like the Philadelphia Unemployment Project organized low-income workers and welfare recipients to press their states to create publicly-funded transitional jobs programs that provide welfare recipients with wages, training, and supports as they move from welfare to work. These programs have proven successful in giving low-income parents with little education or work experience the tools they need to get and keep good jobs.

Others have fought to break down some of the barriers at the state and local level that prevent millions of otherwise eligible families from accessing safety-net programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and child care. Employing a model pioneered by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, grassroots organizations around the country launched highly visible campaigns to simplify and improve the way these services are delivered. Victories include improved benefit levels, less burdensome application procedures, and greater accountability in local welfare offices.

Some focused on making welfare policies more responsive to parents with young children. Members of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a welfare-rights group in Montana, succeeded in pushing their state to create a model At-Home Infant Care program, which allows low-income mothers with infant children to receive child care grants to stay home and care for their children. This innovative program so impressed Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the chair of the committee that oversees welfare programs, that he is now pushing to create a similar program at the federal level.

In May 2000, hundreds of these organizations came together in Chicago to launch the first national grassroots movement of low-income people fighting for economic justice since the welfare-rights movement of the 1960s. Building on dozens of local and state victories, they are now working under the banner of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support to make federal policy more responsive to the needs of low-income communities.

Together, in 2001, the members of the National Campaign teamed up with other national organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund, RESULTS, and the National Council of La Raza to extract a partly refundable child tax credit out of President Bush’s otherwise disastrous tax cut. The tax credit, which will deliver approximately $8 billion a year directly to low-income families, represents the largest federal investment in poor families since the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit in the early 1990s.

Most recently, in the spring of 2002, grassroots activists worked with allies in the anti-hunger and immigrants’ rights communities to restore food-stamp benefits to all legal immigrants. This victory represented the first major crack in the architecture of the punitive 1996 welfare reform law, and set the stage for the battle over TANF reauthorization this summer.


The 1996 welfare reform law is set to expire this September, and a bitter debate over the next phase of welfare reform is underway. President Bush threw the first punch earlier this spring, when he introduced a welfare plan that would drastically increase work requirements for recipients, restrict access to education and training programs, provide no new money for child care or work supports, and do nothing to restore benefits to legal immigrants.

The Bush plan sparked outrage even among Republican governors and state welfare officials, who argue that it would force them to abandon successful job training and education programs in favor of costly “workfare” programs. These programs, which force welfare recipients to work off their benefits in unpaid jobs with no training or benefits, have never been proven to improve recipients’ long-term earnings or employment. Moreover, because workfare workers do not receive a wage for their labor, they cannot qualify for Unemployment Insurance benefits or the Earned Income Tax Credit and are not protected by worker and civil rights protection laws. In one instance, a federal court recently ruled that a participant in New York City’s Work Experience Program, the nation’s largest and most notorious workfare program, was not protected by federal sexual harassment laws because she was “not a real worker.”

In March, just one week after the President released his plan, the National Campaign convened 2,000 low-income parents in Washington, D.C. to push for a very different kind of welfare plan. There, grassroots activists from around the country rallied for education and training, benefits for legal immigrants, fair and flexible time limits for working families, racial equity and due process in welfare offices, and family-friendly policies that allow parents to balance the competing demands of work and family life. After rallying on the National Mall, the group marched to the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services to protest President Bush’s punitive proposals.

Minutes later, the group boarded dozens of buses and headed over to the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing social policy think tank, to pay a surprise visit to Robert Rector. They demanded that Rector, the nation’s leading conservative scholar on welfare and a primary architect of the Bush welfare plan, spend a day “walking in the shoes” of poor parents to see first-hand what it’s really like to live in poverty in America. He consented, and a month later joined National Campaign leaders in Little Rock, Arkansas, to learn about their struggles to balance work, school and their families without adequate support from the system.

Maybe coincidentally–or maybe not–the very next day after the D.C. rallies, the Bush administration publicly recanted an earlier proposal to allow states to pay workfare workers less than the minimum wage.

Low-income activists are nor just making waves in Washington. In more than 40 states, grassroots organizations are pressuring their senators and representatives to support a progressive anti-poverty agenda. By sharing the stories of their struggles–through lobbying, media work, coalition-building, and creative direct action–these leaders are changing the very way decision-makers and the public think about the problem of poverty in this country.


Clearly, a fierce debate is underway. In May, the House of Representatives passed a welfare bill that mirrors the President’s punitive plan. It increases work requirements for welfare recipients from 30 to 40 hours a week. It severely limits parents’ ability to build skills that will lead to better jobs, trimming the amount of time education and training activities can count as “work” to only three months–down from twelve months under current law. It does nothing to address the strict five-year lifetime limit on assistance, which has already caused more than 150,000 parents to lose needed benefits. It provides for only a $1 billion increase in funding for child care–compared to the additional $9.5 billion that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would be needed to meet the 40-hour work requirement without cutting services to families already receiving child care assistance.

Not surprisingly, the Republican-controlled House passed its bill on a highly partisan basis. Fortunately, moderates from both parties are leading :he debate in the Senate. Under the leadership of a “tri-partisan” group of Finance Committee members, including Senators Snowe (R-Maine), Hatch (R-Utah), Jeffords (Ind-Vt.), Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Breaux (D-La.), the committee voted out a welfare bill that is much closer to the principles for which grassroots leaders have been organizing.

The Finance Committee’s bill maintains the current 30-hour work requirement and significantly improves parents’ ability to get an education while on TANF. It adds $5.5 billion in new money for child care, restores TANE benefits to legal immigrants and Medicaid benefits to immigrant pregnant women and children, and provides much-needed flexibility for parents with disabled kids. It creates a new federal fund to support local transitional jobs programs and a pilot program that will allow parents with infant children to stay home and care for them.

The Finance Committee’s plan is an important step forward, but a number of important issues remain unresolved as the bill moves to the Senate floor in September. If they are serious about helping families move out of poverty, activists contend, senators must add still more money for child care, further expand opportunities for education and training, and address the persistent problem of strict time limits.


A significant challenge still lies ahead as the two sides come together to hammer out a compromise that the President is willing to sign before the current law expires this fall. This is no small task and a great deal is at stake; the 1996 law caused untold hardship for millions of low-income families, and the House bill, if it prevails, will only push many of them deeper into poverty. No one can predict what will happen if action on the bill is delayed until next year, as the two parties vie for control of Congress this November and as the fiscal environment–both federally and in the states-continues to deteriorate.

Whatever its outcome, the welfare reauthorization campaign has been a victory for thousands of low-income parents who have, for the first time, been able to speak out at the national level about the policies that affect their lives. It’s unlikely they will succeed in constructing an entirely new paradigm on poverty in 2002-largely because many Washington elites are stuck in the tired welfare-bashing debates of the 1990s-but a new platform of ideas and a new constituency have emerged for the long-term fight for economic justice.

Beth Brockland is a Communications & Research Associate at the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. She can be reached at


Worst-Case Scenario: The House Bill (H.R. 4737)

* Raises work requirement to 40 hours per week for all parents regardless of age of children

* Reduces length of time vocational education can count toward primary work requirement to only 3 or4 months

* Additional $1 billion for child care over 5 years

* No benefits for documented immigrants in their first five years in the U.S.

* Keeps 5-year lifetime limit on benefits

* Workfare participants not protected by labor laws

An Improvement: Senate Finance Committee Bill

* Keeps work requirement at 30 hours (20 hours for single parents with young children)

* Vocational education counts toward primary work requirement for 24 months

* Additional $5.5 billion for child care over 5 years

* State option to provide TANF benefits to all documented immigrants

* Keeps 5-year lifetime limit on benefits

* Workfare participants protected under Fair Labor Standards Act

Something Better: National Campaign for Jobs & Income Support Proposals

* Broaden education options to include basic education, ESL, and college

* Lift caps on number of families who can participate in education and for how long

* Increase additional child care funding substantially beyond $5.5 billion over 5 years

* Restore both TANF and Medicaid benefits to all documented immigrants

* Exempt working parents (who receive TANF as a “wage subsidy”) and parents of children with disabilities/chronic illness from time limits

* Include workfare participants under all worker protection laws

* Extend work supports–child care assistance, Medicaid, etc.–to all low-income families

Amy Gluckman

COPYRIGHT 2002 Economic Affairs Bureau

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group