Revisiting the National Welfare Rights Organization

By Mark Toney Nov 29, 2000

From 1966 until 1975, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) made history by organizing tens of thousands of welfare recipients to demand income, clothing, food, and justice for their families. For the first time, U.S. welfare recipients rejected the welfare stigma and organized along class, race, and gender lines to challenge the system that kept them at the bottom of the economic ladder. At its peak in 1969, NWRO membership was estimated at 22,000 families nationwide, mostly black, with local chapters in nearly every state and major city.

NWRO was founded by George Wiley, a nationally recognized chemist and only the second African American on the faculty of Syracuse University. In the early 1960s, he immersed himself in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in Syracuse and, in 1964, made the agonizing decision to abandon academia and his scientific career, and devote himself to the civil rights movement. The next year, striving to link civil rights with the burgeoning anti-poverty movement, he founded the Poverty/Rights Action Center, which evolved into NWRO.

NWRO galvanized its thousands of members to leverage tangible improvements in the welfare system and, in the process, changed the attitudes of thousands of women who joined the organization. Largely as a result of NWRO "minimum standards" campaigns for furniture and clothing, welfare payments in New York City alone increased over 30-fold from $1.2 million in 1963 to $40 million in 1968, an income transfer that went directly into the pockets of the poor. By 1968, militant action taken by welfare recipients across the country had resulted in a changed atmosphere inside welfare offices, as these agencies established community relations departments, provided access to state welfare manuals, and began to treat recipients as clients rather than supplicants. For the first time, organized recipients negotiated with agency directors as peers.

NWRO’s impact extended far beyond money and legal rights. By asserting that the right to welfare is akin to a civil right, and that women and poor people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, NWRO was the first movement to create a distinct political identity among poor black women, who comprised 90 percent of the organization’s membership. It infused thousands with the sense that welfare was an entitlement, not a favor. Its leadership training programs taught women to claim their dignity and respect by insisting that society has a responsibility to care for children, and that women raising children on welfare had the right to determine how to spend their benefit checks on their children’s behalf.

When the feminist movement in the U.S. was barely in its infancy, NWRO articulated strong gender politics. NWRO President Johnnie Tillmon’s famous essay, "Welfare Is a Woman’s Issue," which was published in Ms. magazine and elsewhere, emphasized women’s right to adequate income, regardless of whether they work in a factory or at home raising children. She explained that being on welfare was a necessity created by the economic system, not the fault of individual women–and that surviving on welfare was a badge of honor, not a symbol of shame.

The NWRO made historic contributions to the social justice movement in the U.S. It shook loose increased welfare benefits, developed legal and procedural rights, and created a movement of poor black women. NWRO also changed the course of community organizing by introducing the first organizing model that was consciously designed to be replicable anywhere in the country. The many community organizations today that use a standard model when they start a chapter in a new community have NWRO to thank for the concept.

Mark Toney is the executive director of the Center for Third World Organizing and a member of the editorial board of ColorLines.