Citizens of the Affluent Society?

The Battle for Welfare Rights: Politics and Poverty in America

by Felicia Kornbluh

Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007, 287 pp., $49.95, hardcover

Life after Welfare: Reform and the Persistence of Poverty

by Laura Lein and Deanna T. Schexnayder with Karen Nanges Douglas and Daniel G. Schroeder

Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007, 192 pp., $24.95, hardcover

By Annelise Orleck

During the summer of 1969, take-no-prisoners New York City welfare rights organizer Beulah Sanders testified before President Nixon’s Commission on Income Maintenance. She asked for an increase in the minimum wage and in monthly benefits to poor families receiving federal aid. Staring directly at the powerful Mississippi Senator James Eastland, who had opposed every attempt in Congress to increase aid to the poor, Sanders was crystal clear. The few thousand a year paid to poor mothers to support their kids was “peanuts,” she said, compared to the $289,000 he had received the previous year for not planting cotton. It is not poor mothers who “insist on getting a free ride on the taxpayers’ money,” Sanders told the Senate. The real welfare deadbeats, she said, are men like Eastland.

This past March, protesters stormed into the lobby of the Bear Stearns building in Manhattan carrying signs that made similar points. Why is there public money to provide welfare for the rich but not the poor? Why bail out wealthy investment bankers who’d engaged in predatory lending practices while, across the country, the working poor are losing their homes? The $35 billion dollar bailout of Bear Stearns came just a few months after President Bush vetoed a bill allocating $35 billion over the next five years to provide medical insurance for the nation’s poorest children. Now, as in 1969, advocates for the poor are asking why tens of billions can be spent annually on an unpopular war while the president cuts food and medical aid programs in this country.

Two new books on gender, poverty, and welfare—one set in the 1960s and early seventies, the other at the turn of the twenty-first century—highlight the differences as well as the similarities between the two eras. The most profound difference, illustrated powerfully by Felicia Kornbluh in her lucid and well-written account of the politics of the welfare rights movement, was that in the 1960s, there was a broad-based antipoverty coalition led by poor mothers, supported by social workers, attorneys, clergy, and community organizers, and financially aided by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Militant and sophisticated recipient-organizers such as Sanders and Jeanette Washington in New York, Johnnie Tillmon in Los Angeles, and Roxanne Jones in Philadelphia criticized what they saw as an ineffective and inhumane welfare system and asserted the right of poor mothers to full citizenship in the affluent society. That vision of citizenship, Kornbluh points out—and this is one of her most original and important contributions to a growing body of literature on poor mothers’ movements—was focused as much on the “right to the ‘good life’” as it was on the right to vote, testify before Congress, and hold seats on the policy making boards that decided key issues about housing, healthcare, and welfare. Political participation was very important to welfare rights activists, but so was the “right to a piece of the pie,” in the words of the Las Vegas mother-activist Ruby Duncan.

Kornbluh explains the consumer consciousness of the welfare rights movement this way: activist welfare mothers believed “that full citizenship in the postwar United States depended not only on having access to decent schooling for their children, but also on being able to feed and clothe their children decently, on having furniture in their homes, and on owning decent goods.” Jeanette Washington and Beulah Sanders headed New York’s City Wide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Groups, the nation’s biggest welfare rights organization, and Kornbluh argues convincingly that their focus on new school clothes and shoes, beds, dishes, and winter coats drove the organization’s rapid expansion. Bill Pastreich of the National Welfare Rights Organization and other middle-class organizers believed that welfare recipients cared more about goods than about broader notions of rights, but Kornbluh shows that material security was a central part of the recipient-activists’ larger political vision of a humane and equitable society.

To illustrate the complexity of that political vision and how it had begun to take root even in the years before wide-scale activism hit New York, Kornbluh quotes from a rich cache of letters written by poor mothers to New York City Mayor Robert Wagner in the early 1960s. Catherine Kerwin argued that warm coats, raincoats, and school supplies were “what all normal children should have,” and that no child should go “coatless and hungry.” Maria Ramos explained that she was one of Wagner’s Puerto Rican voters and as such expected his attention. Julia Harrison described her husband as a citizen and an honorably discharged veteran whose children deserved basic necessities. “For these women,” Kornbluh writes, “a public commitment to support parents who were trying to fulfill their responsibilities was the core of modern citizenship, the essence of the bargain between them and their government.”

These days, in the aftermath of the 1996 welfare reform legislation that repealed federal guarantees of aid to the poor, ending the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (AFDC) and replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), poor mothers have few rights left and fewer allies. Since 1996, the federal government has rewarded states not for helping families out of poverty but for pushing them off the “welfare” rolls as quickly as possible. Few states have done that more enthusiastically than Texas, the subject of Laura Lein and Deanna Schexnayder’s Life After Welfare, which is based on government data, social service casework files and, most movingly, on interviews with “recent TANF leavers.”

One “graduate” of public assistance whom the authors chronicle is Sarah, an African American certified nurse’s assistant and mother of four. (Lein and her co-authors use only first names because their informants feared retribution from the government agencies on whom they sometimes depended for vital assistance.) She lost her home after her husband left her, lost her TANF benefits because she was working, and lost her food stamps and Medicaid as soon as she became ineligible for TANF. While suffering from an untreated bladder infection and watching her children cope with untreated asthma and sinus infections, Sarah worked between 80 and 114 hours per week to earn between $500 and $600—not nearly enough to pay for rent, food, car repairs, gasoline, and medical care. When she applied for emergency Food Stamps and medical care she was denied, either because she was working or because she had no permanent address. Homeless, sick, hungry, and incredibly hard working, dependent on friends and relatives to put a roof over their heads, Sarah and her children are the hidden reality behind the much-heralded “success” of the 1996 welfare reform legislation.

Lein and Schexnayder perform an important service not only to policy makers—their intended audience—but also to the general public by tearing the veil off the newest political myth around welfare: that ending AFDC was actually good for poor families. For women like Sarah and the other families whose struggles are chronicled in Life After Welfare, there is no longer an effective social safety net. Instead, there’s an economy in which the jobs they can find are so low wage and insecure that, working way more than what most of us would consider full time, they still cannot lift themselves or their families out of poverty. When they seek assistance to supplement their meager earnings so that, like any responsible parents, they can pay rent, put food on the table, and care for their children’s medical needs, they encounter a capricious, confusing, and punitive social welfare system with constantly changing eligibility regulations.

One of the more shocking pieces of evidence in Life After Welfare is the assiduousness with which social service agencies hound former welfare recipients who were overpaid accidentally or paid in error after they were no longer eligible. Long after these families have left the public assistance rolls, sometimes years later, while they are struggling to make ends meet as home healthcare aides or fast-food servers, they continue to receive threatening letters demanding repayment. The government devotes far more attention and energy to such pursuits, the authors say, than it does to training poor mothers for good jobs.

The New York City antipoverty activists of the sixties envisioned a very different sort of welfare reform, Kornbluh explains. They believed that the Constitution and the Social Security Act guaranteed “income security” for all US citizens. This was a radical proposition economically as well as politically. But it was not made up out of whole cloth. Poor women and men, Kornbluh writes, “drew on and transformed Anglo-American legal and political traditions and the rights discourse of the post-war United States.” Born in the first third of the twentieth century, the leaders Kornbluh chronicles rooted their arguments in the promises of the New Deal as well as in the rights discourses of the civil rights and labor movements.

Twenty five years after the election of Ronald Reagan, and twelve years after Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich’s Congress ended welfare as we knew it, living in a state first governed by George W. Bush and then by the self-proclaimed “noncompassionate conservative” Rick Perry, poor families in Texas can no longer imagine building a movement on the demand that government fulfill its promises to the poor. In many ways, Lein and Schexnayder demonstrate, anti-big-government reformers have succeeded in turning the clock back to a pre-New Deal consciousness. Poor people who have families and communities to whom they can turn for help manage to eke out a bare subsistence. Young poor mothers know that they must turn first and foremost to those private, informal support networks. Those who do not have supportive families or communities must face food insecurity and economic uncertainty, illness, and homelessness without even a clear idea of how to apply for help from the government poverty programs that still exist. That confusion and the perception among poor mothers that the process of applying for aid will involve exhausting waits, humiliating interrogations, and the risk of running afoul of the law has been intentionally created. The data Lein and Schexnayder have gathered in this slim but potent volume reveal “a policy that moved people off welfare very effectively but did little to alleviate poverty.”

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Texas legislators capped monthly TANF benefits for a family of three at $208.00. In 2006, when reauthorizing TANF, Congress cut Medicaid and childcare funding while increasing work requirements for all recipient mothers. In Texas, those with children older than twelve months must join work programs. In New York City, such work programs look more than a bit like chain gangs, as lines of mothers in stenciled jumpsuits weed-whack, pick up trash, or shovel snow. Against such depressing present-day realities, it is inspiring to look back to the era Kornbluh chronicles so effectively, when a group of fiery welfare recipients organized the largest poor mothers’ movement in US history.

It’s a breath of fresh air, for example, to read the words of Roxanne Jones, a welfare mother and activist from Philadelphia who would later go on to win a seat in the Pennsylvania state senate. Addressing Senator Eugene McCarthy’s unofficial hearings on adequate income in 1970, Jones decried the devastating effect that Vietnam war expenditures had on domestic health and well being. Referring to President Richard Nixon’s 1969 proposal for a Family Assistance Plan, she said, “Who is it that had the audacity to sit down over scotch on the rocks… [and] even consider in this affluent and rich country, where we waste $80 billion a year in military …that a family of four should live on $1,600?” Nearly forty years later, Texas politicians are insisting that a family of three can live on just under $2,500, while annual expenditures for the war in Iraq are expected to reach $190 billion.

To my mind the greatest strength of both books is the authors’ placement of the words and experiences of poor women at the center. Lein and Schexnayder give us the voices of one mother who lost her baby in utero because she had been cut off Medicaid and could not get proper prenatal care, and another who struggled to keep her children and the neighbors’ children from playing in backed-up sewage—the city had delayed fixing the system for so long that hepatitis had broken out in her building. Throughout the book we hear from mothers who ask only for real job training so that they can lift their families out of poverty and, once and for all, move beyond the need for public assistance. Kornbluh weaves the voices of welfare rights activists such as Washington, Sanders and Jones into a narrative that highlights their pithy, colorful speaking styles as well as their radical politics. These women envisioned a country in which political leaders valued the work of parenting and provided a guarantee of income security to all US citizens, regardless of their employment status. Sadly, even in the 1960s, and certainly now, it’s nearly impossible to imagine actually achieving such a vision—and both of these books do an excellent job of outlining the complex politics of poverty, as well as race, class, and gender discrimination, that explain why. Still, as Kornbluh writes, “the case of welfare rights…offers an opportunity to see that astonishing things are possible, even in modern US politics.”

Annelise Orleck is the author of Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (2005) and Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working Class Politics in the US (1995).


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