The welfare rights movement today
Across the country, groups like the Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are continuing in the path of the NWRO and are explicitly interested in fighting economic oppression.
Lillian Hanson lives in San Diego, California and considers herself part of the Milwaukee-based Welfare Warriors in her activist work for low-income families over the past fifteen years, during which she was also a single mother later diagnosed with breast cancer. During those years, Lillian and her partner have both organized and spoken publicly against welfare reform efforts, both at the federal level and in their county, one of the most stringent in the state. However, Lillian's frustration surfaces most visibly when I asked her about the current mainstream discourse on motherhood and economic rights. "As long as I have been activisting," she says, "I have had a challenge with getting middle-class mothers to understand the plight of the poor; typically, they're the ones who feel put upon, with the mantra of 'If we didn't have to pay so many taxes, etc., we wouldn't be scraping by,' which translates to 'You welfare mothers are bleeding us dry'." She tried to work with more middle-class groups for years, she says, but had a lot of trouble convincing the women that they shared the same concerns. "Interesting there's so much emphasis now on how hard life has been getting for the middle-class -- if they had joined us years ago, maybe we could have gained more ground in our issues?"
While that may seem bitter-sounding to women who are only recently radicalized, Hanson has a very germane point -- poor women have been decrying the penalties of working full-time as a mother for years, and have been agitating for recognition of caregiving work, but their arguments have been framed as "welfare reform," and even when treated as a feminist issue, have not been connected to greater feminist thought on work and family issues.
Pat Gowen is the editor of Mother Warriors Voice, the international magazine published by Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the past twenty years. Wisconsin has led the vanguard of states drastically cutting welfare rolls in the name of "reform," while at the same time underfunding childcare, just as the most recent federal reauthorization of TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) did by billions of dollars. The Wisconsin strategy has recently been exported to Israel, a model of privatizing workforce training while cutting cash payments to impoverished families and severely reducing childcare funding. Mother Warriors Voice included information like this in its most recent issue, alongside reports from Argentina, where homemakers will now receive Social Security payments even if they never paid into the program, and Venezuela, where homemakers will now receive guaranteed income while they are caring for their children.
Gowen expressed her dissatisfaction this year in an open letter to MoveOn.org after the publication of Motherhood Manifesto, saying, "As you point out, the work place rarely provides enough for a mom to support a family alone. Yet we have millions of single moms in the U.S. What's more, only a rare mom can work continuously for 18 years without ever needing time off for children's needs or her own health needs." However, Gowen goes on to say, "In your list of goals to achieve justice for mothers you omitted the most basic, often the most important need: guaranteed cash support for dependent minors." Whether you call it a mother's pension, guaranteed child support, or a family allowance, most middle-class mothers' groups have neglected to address the idea of income for caregiving mothers and others in impoverished families.
Notes on future movement-building
There are so many lessons to be learned from stories like these: the need for collective action, for creative strategies, for coalitions between existing groups and new clusters still forming. One of the contributing factors to the NWRO's downfall was a troubled financial situation and racial and class divisions among the leadership, echoing Lillian Hanson's feelings about current mainstream group and serving as crucial warnings for any group to keep in mind when trying to build a national movement. On the conceptual level, the importance of involving community members in designing and administering social service programs is incredibly potent -- activists in the mothers' movement should begin thinking about what kinds of programs would best serve the gaps they see, and how best actual mothers could be integrated into these programs, instead of leaving them to be run solely by the government. Perhaps Pat Gowen's frustrations could have been avoided, if groups like Welfare Warriors had been included in the coalition of mothers' groups consulted by Joan Blades and Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner.
Most importantly, we need to avoid one of the persistent problems plaguing the feminist movement -- allowing ourselves to be divided when we should be united, seeing each other as adversaries when we should be allies.
Mmo : September 2006