The federal law that gave us "welfare reform" expires in September 2002. Inevitably, Republicans and Democrats will compete to claim it a success, pointing to the fact that the number of people on public assistance rolls has plummeted to half its peak level of 1994. A closer look, however, suggests a disaster in the making. The numbers are down partly because the new law freed the states to simply slash families from the rolls, pushing poor women into any kind of work--or no work at all. At the same time, states were allowed to set up all sorts of barriers so that getting on welfare has become a herculean feat. Even in a booming economy, the poverty rate has changed little from the last peak in the business cycle, and the poorest single-mother households have actually lost ground. What will happen when the economy slows?
The new restrictiveness is spilling over into other programs associated with welfare; millions of poor families are also losing Medicaid and food stamps, sometimes in clear violation of federal law. Meanwhile, the states are sitting on surplus federal funds that accumulate as caseloads decline. At least six states are using these funds to pay for tax cuts or general fund programs. Hardly any of the surplus is finding its way into childcare, training or education, or into transportation subsidies that might make low-wage work more manageable for poor families.
The big question is, Why the silence? Where is the protest? Where are the advocates? And where are the poor themselves?
In fact, it's not as quiet as it seems. Below the radar screen of press and politicians, scores of grassroots groups are waging fights at the local and state level to expose the realities of welfare reform and the low-wage labor market. There was much less resistance when what some call "welfare deform" was legislated in 1996, perhaps because the cutbacks had been threatened for so long and the results had not yet hit home. But as the new policies began to bite, local protests emerged--over the irrationality of yanking poor women out of college to sweep the streets in abusive workfare programs or of cutting paltry cash grants to punish families for breaking any of the new and mindless rules that welfare departments are generating.
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Grassroots organizations are not just waging a low-intensity war of resistance. They are also promoting model policies that might lay the groundwork for a new national legislative agenda, including expanded health insurance, childcare subsidies, public jobs programs and living-wage ordinances. In New York City, Community Voices Heard and other low-income groups pushed through a public jobs bill over Mayor Giuliani's veto, and in California, ACORN is close to winning a public jobs commitment from Los Angeles County. The Maine Association of Independent Neighborhoods and its partners won the Parents as Scholars program, which allows college attendance to count as work while "stopping the clock" for women in school. Such initiatives have also succeeded elsewhere, and Washington State's Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition is fighting for similar reforms. In Rhode Island, Ocean State Action Fund had a breakthrough victory in 1998 with the first expansion of the Medicaid program, giving a greater number of poor parents eligibility for health insurance; since then, nearly a dozen states have followed suit. And organizations affiliated with the Gamaliel Foundation grassroots network have won model transportation policies throughout the Midwest, increasing mobility, income and opportunity for low-income families.
There are signs that these local efforts are coalescing into a national movement, prodded by the prospect of a renewed Congressional debate over welfare reform. Thanks in part to the Internet, local groups have been communicating with one another from the start of this new fight, and now organizations from sixty-five cities and thirty-five states have joined the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition led by low-income women and men (to join: www.nationalcampaign.org).
The campaign is advancing a first-things-first agenda, calling for restoration of the federal income-security system (including benefits for immigrants) and better wages and supports for low-wage workers, including guaranteed healthcare and childcare. A founding convention in Chicago on May 6 is bringing together more than 1,000 delegates to announce the coalition in meetings and on the streets--and to plan a series of campaigns to change the national debate. The idea is to expand and publicize the local and state work that has already been going on, drawing in more grassroots groups and developing alliances with other progressives.
Now may be the right time for poor people to re-enter national politics. A multifaceted movement seems to be emerging to challenge the corporate-reactionary alliance that has dominated the United States for the past two decades. The poor pay the heaviest price for that domination. They should be in the lead of the movement that dislodges it.