Meet the Activists Still Fighting the Anti-Woman Legacy of Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform

Why welfare activists are throwing their weight behind the RISE Out of Poverty Act.

Sarah Jaffe July 3, 2017

Former President Bill Clinton speaking with supporters at a campaign rally for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at Central High School in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Wel­fare reform briefly became a hot top­ic on the cam­paign trail last year when Hillary Clin­ton was crit­i­cized for sup­port­ing the 1996 Per­son­al Respon­si­bil­i­ty and Work Oppor­tu­ni­ty Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Act, signed into law with great fan­fare by her hus­band, Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, who famous­ly declared that the law would end wel­fare as we know it.” The law did pre­cise­ly that, turn­ing the Aid to Fam­i­lies with Depen­dent Chil­dren pro­gram into the Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies (TANF) block grant, which came along with strin­gent require­ments for the peo­ple, most of them women, who received it. Since that time, extreme pover­ty has spiked in the Unit­ed States, and the share of sin­gle moth­ers with no income or ben­e­fits has soared. But wel­fare rights activists nev­er stopped fight­ing for their rights, and many are back­ing a bill being rein­tro­duced by Con­gress­woman Gwen Moore of Wis­con­sin, the RISE Out of Pover­ty Act. I spoke with sev­er­al sup­port­ers of the Act at the Peo­ple’s Sum­mit in Chicago. 

It is a very, very devastating system and it needs to be ended. It has gone on for way too long.

I spoke with Annie Cham­bers, co-founder of the Nation­al Wel­fare Rights Organization.

Annie Cham­bers: We are real­ly try­ing to get [the RISE Out of Pover­ty Act] passed, and we are also try­ing to make peo­ple aware of it. In the last 15 years, or more, nobody has real­ly addressed the plight of the poor. They change around fan­cy words for poor peo­ple, they say low-income.”

The Fight for $15 is a small [step] I would con­sid­er for some­one to have mon­ey so at least they can pay their rent and have some­where to live and eat. We are fight­ing [so] that these things get passed, but also to bring forth the plight of the poor. We have more poor peo­ple right here in Amer­i­ca than ever. I work with whole fam­i­lies — moth­ers, fathers, and chil­dren — that live under the bridge. I work with a prison sys­tem that turns peo­ple out on the street with nowhere to go and gives them a tent to live in. You hook up your tent, they take it away, throw it out. It is ter­ri­ble now. We have to come forth as the poor and say, We will not take it anymore.”

Sarah Jaffe: This elec­tion, there was actu­al­ly some atten­tion to what wel­fare reform did to poor women and chil­dren because of Hillary Clin­ton, but it kind of slipped off.

Annie: Wel­fare reform did noth­ing for poor women. But it did a lot of things to poor peo­ple. That is why we have more fam­i­lies out on the street. It is because of wel­fare reform. I will just come out and say it: We didn’t for­get that. So, we didn’t vote for Hillary. We did sup­port Bernie Sanders, but we did not vote for Hillary and we weren’t going to vote for Hillary. I was say­ing to peo­ple, No vote is def­i­nite­ly a vote for Don­ald Trump.” But peo­ple just couldn’t see them­selves vot­ing for Hillary, because we had suf­fered and wel­fare reform has real­ly made it hard­er for us.

Sarah: I was talk­ing to some peo­ple recent­ly about the his­to­ry of the Wel­fare Rights move­ment and how that gets lost, but how it is a his­to­ry we real­ly need to remem­ber right now.

Annie: Yes, I am one of the eight women who start­ed the Nation­al Wel­fare Rights Orga­ni­za­tion, along with George Wiley who was our direc­tor and pres­i­dent. These are the things that we are fight­ing for: health­care for peo­ple and a home. If you don’t have any­where to live, you don’t have a home that is a sta­ble place, you can’t get edu­ca­tion, you can’t look for a job, you can’t raise your chil­dren. And they are snatch­ing the chil­dren because the par­ents lose their jobs or lose their house, and instead of try­ing to assist, they put them in the sys­tem. That is what is hap­pen­ing all over this coun­try. We have to fight. These are the sort of things we are fight­ing against.

I also spoke with Rachel West of the U.S. Pros­ti­tutes Col­lec­tive, who is also orga­niz­ing around the RISE out of Pover­ty Act.

Rachel West: We are sup­port­ing this ini­tia­tive because, when wel­fare reform was brought in, mil­lions of women were lit­er­al­ly thrown into the street with no income, noth­ing. How were women sup­posed to sup­port their kids when that hap­pened? Well, it is even doc­u­ment­ed now that women went into pros­ti­tu­tion. A lot of women had to feed their kids. Women went into shoplift­ing, sell­ing drugs. They did what­ev­er they could to sur­vive. Into so-called crimes of pover­ty.” Then, what hap­pened was a lot of women end­ed up going to prison. There is a direct con­nec­tion between wel­fare reform and women going to prison for crimes of poverty.

It was all tied up with the war on drugs, too. When you came out of prison, if you had a drug felony, then because of wel­fare reform, you were banned from get­ting any wel­fare. When you most need­ed it, com­ing out of prison try­ing to get your life togeth­er and get your kids, you [were denied] access to hous­ing or wel­fare thanks to Clinton’s wel­fare reform.

It was just puni­tive sanc­tions against women. If you didn’t have child­care, you got sanc­tioned. It was a very puni­tive sys­tem and this [act] is going to address the worst parts of that very bad wel­fare sys­tem that we have now.

I was talk­ing to a cou­ple of wel­fare moth­ers recent­ly. It is such a bru­tal sys­tem they have now. It is just real­ly hor­ren­dous. They have to go to work to these real­ly ter­ri­ble jobs that nobody wants. They put the wel­fare moth­ers there all day. They have to leave their kids in child­care or, if they don’t have any child­care, leave their kids. Then, after a bru­tal work­ing day in the worst jobs, even if they get a job they want to stay in, they are not allowed to, because [offi­cials] decide what kind of jobs you are going to be in. Then, you have to go home and get your kids. And then you have to do extra free work on the computer.

This bill is like a break­through. It is a real break­through to have such legislation.

I also spoke with Pat Gowens, an orga­niz­er with the Wel­fare War­riors in Mil­wau­kee, Wisconsin. 

Pat Gowens: There are always a lot of threats against the poor. Last year, we had a huge reduc­tion in food stamps because sin­gle peo­ple could no longer get food stamps except three months out of every three years. So, poor sin­gle peo­ple only get to eat three months out of every three years. [Laughs] Then, you have to work off the food stamps, oth­er­wise. You have to do twen­ty hours of work a week of any work. Class­es, job search, what­ev­er. Even if you are only get­ting $30 in food stamps, you still have to do 20 hours of these manda­to­ry activities.

Peo­ple believe that the TANF bill, when it was passed in 1996, actu­al­ly forced women to get a job to get their check. They always imply that you are get­ting a paid job — like you go to McDonald’s and you still get a check. It doesn’t work that way. If you get a job at McDonald’s, they ter­mi­nate your mon­ey. If you can’t, they make you work 30 hours for no pay — usu­al­ly 20 hours in the unwaged work­force and 10 hours in job search. Think of how back­wards that is. If you are look­ing for a job, do you want to look only ten hours a week or per­haps thir­ty hours a week?

It is a very, very dev­as­tat­ing sys­tem and it needs to be end­ed. It has gone on for way too long.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission.

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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