Grassroots Forces Gather for Impending Welfare Battle

Rinku Sen looks into the internal workings of two promising coalitions.

By Rinku Sen Nov 29, 2000

The upcoming congressional debate on welfare reauthorization has provided the impetus for the gathering of several formations of grassroots political forces. Blindsided by the speed of adoption of draconian measures in the 1996 welfare "reform" legislation, social justice organizations are determined to develop political intervention strategies prior the 2001 TANF reauthorization debates.

Among the major efforts to reshape public opinion and represent the interests of low-income families in the welfare debate, two are actively engaging the participation of grassroots neighborhood-based organizations and their close allies. The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support and Grass Roots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL) represent complimentary, though distinct approaches to consolidating a political voice for disenfranchised people in the welfare debate.

Launched in May 2000, the Campaign is the first national effort that combines the participation of major organizing networks who seldom work together such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), ACORN, Gamaliel Foundation, the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (NWFCO), and the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO).

Deepak Bhargava, director of public policy at the Center for Community Change (CCC), who initiated the Campaign, saw an opportunity both to influence an important debate and to get major organizing networks to work together and share organizing practices and strategies. "Getting people to the table who have very different organizing models and don’t work together too often was not an easy task. The urgency of reauthorization made it possible," says Bhargava.

Internal Debate

The Campaign has expanded considerably from its original configuration of major organizing networks and D.C.-based policy organizations to include an array of immigrant, women, and grassroots organizations. Similarly, the platform of the Campaign has broadened its original narrow emphasis on jobs to incorporate support for cash assistance and income support to people who are not in the traditional labor market. The expansion of the Campaign’s membership and platform are the result of a series of internal debates and tensions, some resolved, and some that are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The debate between those who emphasize work-based approaches to welfare reform and those who insist upon an income-based strategy has been the key recurring internal political challenge faced by the Campaign.

Many of the groups that started the Campaign have been working on workfare or jobs issues for many years. However, early meetings involved no organizations that explicitly focused on welfare rights, and their absence was reflected in important policy conflicts. Initially, Campaign participants were reluctant to support cash benefits outside of workfare or job readiness programs.

While most of the organizations had been fighting to make the welfare-to-work transition more fair, they had differing levels of willingness to fight for policies related to maintaining cash benefits, ending mandatory time limits, and forced work. Income security was added to the platform and campaign name only after considerable discussion and debate.

The political climate of growing hostility directed at poor people lay at the root of the Campaign’s reluctance to take a strong stand for income support. Bhargava explains, "While there’s a compelling need to develop strategies, campaigns, and policy proposals that highlight the income support agenda, there’s also fear that a progressive income support strategy won’t get traction in this political environment."

Francis Calpotura, former co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing and an original Campaign participant, identifies the debate around mandatory work requirements, or "forced work," in exchange for public benefits as a pivotal struggle in the Campaign’s first several months.

"The debate over forced work really gets at fundamental beliefs about the point and value of work. Many folks believe in working for work’s sake," Calpotura said. "So workfare is OK as long as you pay a living wage. This avoids a discussion of why people, mainly women, are being pushed into these kinds of jobs." LeeAnn Hall, executive director of NWFCO adds that "the leadership of women welfare recipients was needed to really get the Campaign to see the ways in which gender discrimination forced women into low-wage jobs and discounted their caregiving as work."

Formation of GROWL

In order to tip the balance of forces decisively in favor of income support Calpotura, Hall, and others organized a consensus among the initial Campaign members for inclusion of recipient-based groups. With their support, CTWO and the Applied Research Center co-hosted a three-day strategy session in October 1999 of recipient-based groups in Oakland, with a follow up strategy session in February 2000. GROWL was birthed at these meetings.

The platform emerging from the two recipient group meetings explicitly addressed the value of women’s work and race discrimination in the welfare system and economy. CTWO has taken the leadership in coordinating communications and activities for 30 welfare-focused organizations that make up GROWL, including LIFETIME, the Georgia Citizens Hunger Coalition, Community Voices Heard, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, and We Make the Road by Walking. By the end of 1999, several GROWL affiliates had joined the National Campaign, motivated in large part by the platform expansion to oppose mandatory work requirements, support cash benefits for single parents with children, eliminate gender and race barriers for public benefits, and fair treatment for immigrants.

While the Campaign has adopted a "big tent" strategy of bringing a wide range of organizations under the common banner of jobs and income support, GROWL has focused on consolidating a base of recipient-based welfare rights groups to elevate the voices and concerns expressed by low-income women.

Central to the GROWL platform is the elimination of poverty through the advancement of gender and racial justice and the redefinition of work to include non-waged labor. Jean Colman, executive director of Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, explains, "We need to help people see that childraising is legitimate work and that women ought to be compensated for working at home."

LeeAnn Hall emphasizes the importance of documenting how racist and discriminatory welfare offices are–to challenge the myth that it’s easy for people, especially women of color, to collect welfare. "If we can get people to understand how racist welfare departments really are, then we have some cards to throw on the table. Caseworkers are acting in discriminatory ways to prevent people from accessing benefits they have every right to."

Dan HoSang, CTWO’s organizing director, explains that GROWL intends "to get a different message out by advertising civil rights violations emerging from welfare reform and fighting for anti-discrimination measures within departments."

After a great deal of debate and soul searching the Campaign decided to have it both ways: to carry a broad message and also talk about the role of race and gender in contributing to poverty under the current economic system. The Campaign’s revised platform communicates a commitment to living wage jobs with benefits like health and unemployment insurance, but also says that "race and gender equity shall be a central goal of all policies, programs, and practices adopted to eliminate poverty."

Bhargava is convinced that the participation of GROWL groups has made a difference to the larger campaign. He says GROWL "has made an important contribution to the public debate by highlighting issues of race, gender, and poverty." Bhargava, Hall, and Calpotura all agree that debates within the Campaign are natural, and all are hopeful about its future. Hall says "it’s a good sign that we were able to move and didn’t get stuck. We’ll see if this big tent is able to move fast and wide enough to make a difference in 2001," when the next round of welfare legislation will begin. 

Rinku Sen is former co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.