Twenty years after the passage of welfare reform, its legacy is still controversial. Critics of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have pointed to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which she championed as first lady, as a stain on her progressive bona fides. In April, Clinton acknowledged that policy makers should “take a hard look” at whether changes imposed by the law — including tying work requirements to cash assistance and cutting off all aid after five years — increased economic hardship.
Others have been more blunt: In February, author and legal scholar Michelle Alexander wrote in The Nation that welfare reform was never about “personal responsibility” or taxpayer dollars. Instead, it was a bid by Bill Clinton’s administration to win millions of white voters back to the Democratic Party by advancing “the right-wing narrative that black communities ought to be disciplined with harsh punishment rather than coddled with welfare.”
Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), has spent decades fighting this narrative. A staunch opponent of Clinton-era reforms, she stresses that the demonization of poor women of color has been baked into welfare programs since their inception. Even before the 1990s reforms, draconian eligibility requirements — such as one that denied assistance to families with an able-bodied man living in the house — kept many off the rolls. Beginning in the 1960s, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) — which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year — and its state chapters fought punitive policies and advanced a radical set of demands: a guaranteed annual income for all poor people and an end to the societal stigma that kept them from claiming it.
Taylor, born and raised on the East Side of Detroit, continues to organize for economic justice, most recently by opposing Detroit’s mass water shut-offs. In These Times spoke with her about the often forgotten history of the welfare rights movement, its connections to feminism and race, and what a good welfare reform bill would look like.
How did you get involved in welfare advocacy?
In the late 1970s I had lost my job and was about to be evicted. I went to the welfare office and they told me, “Get outta here! You can’t come in here with a list of the things you want! You have to wait till your lights are out! You have to wait till you’re evicted!”
So I found [NWRO chair] Marian Kramer. And she got all of the benefits I needed so I wouldn’t be put out in the streets. These people are afraid of her, and she’s not carrying a gun or anything like that. She’s no bigger than me! She’s got something and I need to know what it is. I joined welfare rights right at that time, and I been in it ever since.
What are some early memories?
My best recollection was how impressed I was with meeting some of these women. Black, white, Latino, middle-aged and older. These were the bravest women. I tear up just thinking about ’em. These were thoroughbred women. Thelma Eckles. May Payne. Caroline Dorty. Nita Donor. The veteran members would talk about policies that would hurt low-income people, particularly welfare mothers and their children. They all spoke English, but it was so difficult to understand the concepts they were talking about. Whatever you thought you knew about welfare, and living on welfare and people that were poor, it was all wrong.
I wanted to learn and I took it upon myself. I wanted to be the advocate that knew the most about welfare policy. And I learned. Yes, I did. There was a time that I could quote welfare policy, chapter, verse, page and paragraph.
You became chair of MWRO in 1993. What did you think of the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act?
We had been fighting similar kinds of legislation for quite some time. We knew this turning on welfare recipients was on the way. We already had experienced “workfare” in Michigan: If you didn’t go find a job, no matter how horrible the job was, you were gonna lose your benefits. That meant we couldn’t have a lot of our meetings, particularly with low-income women, because people were now forced to go to jobs in order to receive their cash assistance and food stamps.
Do you think racism played a role?
I think that the country is always primed to be told we’re having bad economic times because of those foolish, useless welfare mothers, particularly those fat and those dark-skinned ones who have four or five babies with eight or nine different men — the math doesn’t even work. Too many African Americans, too many Latinos, for sure too many Native Americans, and these trifling white women from Appalachia, they picking up bad habits, and we gotta make them get up off their dusty behinds, and stop sleeping around, and make them go to work. We don’t care whether unemployment in your neighborhood is 60 or 70 percent — too bad.
Racism is tied to the history of this country. I can never escape the shadow of the plantation. The history of this country is about the business of separating people on the basis of color, of religion if color didn’t work — separating people on the basis of whatever these corporate pirates can come up with. Welfare rights maintains that the hallway of society has a front door, and that door is race. But you gotta look past that, and go inside and down the hallway to the class door — that 1% versus the 99% door.
Are welfare rights a feminist issue?
It’s very difficult because low-income women are often the ones that are most critical of their own circumstances: I chose the wrong race, I chose the wrong sex, I chose the wrong husband, I chose the wrong life, I chose the wrong career goals, you know — it’s always my fault. Low-income women don’t often have the opportunity to express the feminist concepts, because they’re always about the business of surviving.
But low-income women are the most powerful asset you can find. They’re the ones that make communities work. They’re the ones that keep neighborhoods safe. They’re the ones that can make households survive and Christmases happen and Thanksgivings manifest themselves just on a couple of crayons and some chestnuts.
In an ideal world, what welfare policies would you like to see?
I wouldn’t call it welfare. I would call it “in-between employment opportunity.” In a neighborhood with high unemployment, you’d say to folks on welfare: “We need you to go either to trade schools or the post-secondary educational institutions. And you need a car — not a Cadillac, but a car — to get back and forth to school, so we’re going to get you a car. We’re going to provide childcare and all the support services you need, including your books, and there’s no pressure.
“And if the next year you get pregnant again, okay. But we encourage you to continue to go to school. And when you finish, we’ll help you get a good job.” That’s the way you do it. You don’t punish women and children and men that are between jobs by making food stamps — $3 or $4 a day. You can’t even buy a Hostess Twinkie. Just a loaf of bread and a can of tuna fish. Low-income folks are being starved.
Why not these CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps] camps where young people who don’t have jobs and don’t have skills can go and learn how to help build? The roads are falling apart all over the country. There are billions of dollars being spent on this obscene election process, but we can’t find money to help poor people who are in-between jobs? It’s obscene.
So, really, it’s a question of priorities?
That’s a way of putting it. I’d say at the end of the day, priorities are often measured by what corporate America says is important.
Tell us about your work now.
Something always happens that changes the trajectory of the battle. So now we’ve got this water fight going on in Detroit. After the press has exhausted all its interest in something like this, then it moves on to other issues, so a lot of people don’t know we’re still struggling. There are new rounds of water shut-offs.
How can people help?
Those people whose feet are on the road of social justice need to join a welfare rights organization in their community, their city or their state.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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