Welfare Organizing at the Grassroots

By Nicole Davis Nov 29, 2000

By making good on his promise to "end the welfare system as we know it," President Clinton set off a resurgence of welfare rights organizing that this country has not seen since the 1960s. Most importantly, people on public assistance themselves formed new organizations in many cities and states. Blood was boiling, fists were raised, and voices that had been silenced for years are making themselves heard.

The new welfare system devolves the power to define and implement the federal level to the state and county levels. Because localities now define the system and disburse funds, local grassroots organizations are increasingly important in the fightback.

Here we profile five local membership organizations who are fighting to reinstate a governmental guarantee to assistance for poor people: Community Voices Heard in New York City, the Contact Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, the Georgia Citizens Hunger Coalition, and Oregon Action.

Community Voices Heard

"The situation here in New York City is uniquely horrible," says Elaine Kim, an organizer with Community Voices Heard (CVH). "There are 40,000 people doing workfare at any given time. They’re moving sites all the time and they work 35 hours a week for $128. It’s different than in any other place simply because of the number of people."

CVH is a citywide organization whose 300 members are mostly African American and Latina women with children. This is a striking change for the organization, which began in 1994 among mostly men who received general assistance. When Clinton’s welfare reform legislation passed in 1996 and women with children were forced into workfare, the face of the organization changed dramatically.

Currently CVH is working on a jobs campaign for people on welfare to create or find work that pays a decent wage and includes benefits such as child care, health care, sick time, and paid leave.

"Some organizations use moderate tactics. They want to make workfare better, improve conditions a little. For us that’s not the issue, it’s completely antithetical to what these folks need and want," says Kim. "The sweatshop needs to be abolished, not just changed."

CVH shows the harmful effects of welfare in a report that documents how workfare workers are replacing city workers throughout New York. The reduction in the number of city workers directly correlates to an increase in workfare workers who do exactly the same jobs for much less money and with none of the standard labor protections. "Workfare needs to be eliminated," says Kim. "It’s important to put out a message that strong."

Contact Center

Katy Heins is the director of Contact Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the coordinator of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition (OEC), a statewide coalition of organizations working on welfare issues. Contact Center is a local membership organization made up mostly of African American women who are or have been on welfare. The OEC is very diverse: Contact Center is joined by groups of mostly poor white people in the Appalachian region and middle-class activists in Cleveland. All of these organizations are working together with a specific goal in mind: to stop the welfare clock.

"Last year we were working to change the policies around sanctions in the state," says Heins. "We did a statewide survey and found that people were being sanctioned for minor infractions, like lost paper work, or forms not being turned in on time, not because they were refusing to work. Someone was sanctioned because she was in labor and didn’t call her case worker to cancel her appointment! Oftentimes the errors were made by the case worker, but the recipient was the one sanctioned. People were also being sanctioned for illegal reasons, like not coming to work because their child was sick."

Each of the 88 counties in Ohio has its own workfare program, making it difficult to address workfare issues as a statewide coalition. "Some counties are liberal about counting education towards the work requirement, others require 40 hours of workfare," says Heins.

The organizations are also dealing with the demonization of women on welfare. "People call us and want to get off the mailing list because they’re not on welfare anymore and they don’t want to be associated with it." Still, Heins is determined that "welfare mothers don’t get left out of the picture. The problem is that some people are left out because they don’t even have a voice in their own movement."

Kensington Welfare Rights and the Georgia Hunger Coalition

The Kensington Welfare Rights Union and the Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger are two of the groups across the country involved in the Economic Human Rights Campaign. The Campaign relies on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights as a basis to reverse public opinion and to fight to end poverty in the United States.

The Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger started in 1974, advocating to increase the number of people eligible for food stamp and WIC nutritional programs. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Coalition was responsible for increasing Georgia’s food stamp and WIC participation by more than 50 percent. The Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) was started in 1990 by six welfare moms who endured arrest and a six-week trial during a struggle to establish a new playground in Philadelphia’s Kensington district.

KWRU’s Executive Director Cheri Honkala says they are asking the United Nations to find the United States in violation of Articles 23, 25, and 26 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. "Although we have no great faith in the U.N. process, the Declaration has begun to shine a light on the fact that poverty really does exist in America. We can monitor human rights violations the same way people do in Latin America, or Africa, or China."

Article 23 guarantees the right to free choice of employment at a livable wage; 25 protects the right to a standard of living that benefits a person’s health and welfare; and 26 provides the right to a free education. Honkala acknowledges that the Human Rights Declaration is not the be all and end all of organizing, but believes it can help produce "a paradigm shift" in the public discussion of poverty and rights.

Loretta Ross of the Center for Human Rights Education was instrumental in promoting the use of the U.N. Declaration in organizing. Sandra Robertson, director of the Georgia Coalition, remembers that, "When Loretta came and introduced us all to the concept, it just caught us on fire. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about economic justice because it has so many facets to it. The human rights framework really allows you to tie it all together." During the famous cross-country March for Our Lives last Fall, Georgia was a major site of human rights tribunals that were organized at many stops along the march.

For the future, KWRU is planning a global poor peoples summit in New York this October.

Oregon Action

The U.S. Department of Agriculture points to Oregon as the state where the highest percentage of people experience hunger. Consequently, the state’s food stamp program is a prime target for Oregon Action, a statewide organization formed in 1997 as the successor to Oregon Fair Share. Executive director Jim Fleischmann says OA aims to mobilize a powerful grassroots constituency whose stories, faces, and organized voices can tip the political scales toward serious food stamp reform.

To document problems in the system, OA organized families in six different communities to apply for food stamps and then conducted a systematic debriefing of their experiences. Based on this, they wrote a report of their findings and recommendations for change called "Hunger Pangs: Oregon Food Stamp Program Fails to Deliver."

According to Fleischmann, "From the moment people walked in, their experience was horrendous." People were greeted with a complicated 16-page form, were turned down in one facility then accepted into the program at another, and had to stand in lines forever. Non-English speakers were forced to wait four times longer than English speakers just to obtain an application. In violation of federal guidelines, applicants were told they had to quit school and go to work to be eligible for food stamps.

OA is demanding that the governor implement all 25 of the recommendations contained in "Hunger Pangs," and Fleischmann is confident that OA will prevail on most of them. For the future, OA is gearing up with its allies to demand that the state increase enrollment in Oregon’s food stamp program by 25 percent.

Nicole Davis is development director at the Center for Third World Organizing and a member of the ColorLines editorial staff.