Saving the Safety Net
"The issue is simple: it's about poverty and creating a welfare system that addresses the needs of people," says Maureen Lane of the Welfare Rights Initiative shortly after a speakout sponsored by the Queer Economic Justice Network (QEJN) held last Thursday night. "It's very important that we begin to break welfare stereotypes, address the internalized shame, and 'come out' and talk about our experiences on welfare."
The speakout, hosted by the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center, was part of the New York City kickoff for the "Welfare Made a Difference (WMAD)" national campaign sponsored by a coalition of organizations seeking to document the experiences of welfare recipients and to promote policy changes to the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act.
"The federal welfare law should not be reauthorized in 2002. It needs so much fixing, and Congress needs to hear from people who are on public assistance," says Lane, who favors expanding educational and job-training opportunities for welfare recipients.
"Phil Gramm can't tell us. Rudolph Giuliani can't tell us. Al Gore and George Bush can't tell us. But the people you listened to tonight and during today's events can tell us exactly what to do," she says.
The campaign, organized less than a year ago by the Community Food Resource Center (CFRC), the Hunger Action Network of New York State, the Welfare Rights Initiative, and Church Women United, made its debut in 15 cities across the U.S. on Thursday.
Organizers have proposed that welfare benefits be provided on an as-needed basis and not within "arbitrary" time limits enforced under federal law. The campaign also advocates affordable health- and child-care coverage, and for public assistance to serve as an escape route for domestic-violence victims.
Liz Accles, a welfare advocate for the CFRC and coordinator of the campaign, talks about the national and local tiers of the campaign. "For the public-education piece of the campaign, we have meetings set up with members of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources and the Senate's Finance Committee. People are coming to D.C., and also people are working in their local areas to target Congress members and educate them about welfare reform. Because the debates around federal welfare reauthorization will be starting soon."
Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat from New York, has lent his support to the campaign and advises welfare advocates to "keep pushing" for changes in the federal welfare law. "There is a plethora of evidence about how welfare helps families and individuals move out of poverty and build successful futures."
Bich Ha Pham, of the Hunger Action Network and WMAD, describes battles that welfare rights advocates have been facing locally. "During their last legislative session, the City Council passed a transitional-employment bill to create 7500 jobs [over three years] for people in workfare to help them transition from nonpaid workfare assignments to actual temporary jobs, and the mayor vetoed it."
The mayor, who lost a power play with the Democratic-controlled City Council in March, when it overrode his veto of the transitional-jobs program, has described the program as unnecessary and financially burdensome. Some fear Giuliani won't supply the annual $3 million to fund the program despite the council's most recent vote.
Stephen DiBrienza, the bill's sponsor, says the program provides desperately needed job training and placement for workfare participants, and that similar transitional-job placement programs are working effectively in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
"We keep writing the mayor to get a timetable or a status update on the transitional-jobs program," DiBrienza says, "but so far we haven't gotten an answer. We gave the administration six to eight months to set up these jobs, so we might not know if the program has been set up until January 1. I believe welfare advocates, myself, and perhaps the council as a whole will go to court to force compliance with the law if the jobs haven't been set up by that time."
Since the passage of welfare reform and the $27 billion cut to the federal Food Stamp Program, advocates for the poor have documented an increase in hunger, a telling measure of the increased economic vulnerability of people living below the poverty line. A July 2000 report titled "Hunger Is No Accident" estimates that 400,000 people citywide suffer from hunger; the New York City Coalition Against Hunger has reported that 59 percent of the 74,000 people turned away from emergency food providers in January 1999 were children.
Joseph DeFilippis, of the QEJN, says, "We see very clearly that workfare is a dead-end thing and that it's real jobs that need to be created and not picking up syringes in a park or training people for jobs that don't exist. It's important that grassroots work continues to get done so that our elected officials, when they go to D.C. to debate welfare reform, know that the discussion is happening back at home."
"We have a big challenge ahead of us," says Accles. "There has been a conscious effort for roughly 20 years now to try to create this image of the 'welfare queen' and the idea that people on welfare are doing well and living comfortably. We have to challenge the idea that giving people and families assistance is a waste of money. In reality, it's a worthwhile investment in people and families over both the short and long term."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.