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Conference on Welfare Ignites Protests in DC
Mary Anderson had come all the way from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a fancy hotel in Washington DC. A single mother now working for less than minimum wage in exchange for welfare benefits in Wisconsin's notoriously harsh W-2 workfare program, neither Anderson nor any other welfare recipient had been invited to participate in the first major national gathering to address the state of welfare reform and its upcoming reauthorization. Nevertheless, Anderson had found her way to the conference and, standing up from the audience, she directed her remarks at the absent Tommy Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin and Bush's newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
“Tommy Thompson, shame on you for building a career on the backs of poor women. Shame on you for a 37 percent increase in infant mortality in Milwaukee. Shame on you that my neighbor has to stay with the man who broke her nose. Shame on you for lying about poor mothers and women.” Were it not for the presence of Anderson and about 100 other grassroots activists and welfare recipients, it would have been easy to envision the national dialogue about welfare reform as one of glowing agreement over the success of the 1996 measure that changed the nature of welfare as we knew it. Protesters at the welfare conference in Washington sought to inject a different dose of reality into what has otherwise been a one-sided debate on welfare. Organized by GROWL, a national coalition of 35 welfare rights organizations from 20 states, the activists targeted the conference because it was a key forum for policymakers and because it was emblematic of a tradition of exclusion that has long marred the beltway welfare debate. After being pushed to the margins during the battle over welfare reform in 1996, the people most affected by welfare policy are determined not to be shut out of the discussions surrounding welfare reauthorization in 2002.
The conference, which was organized by the University of Michigan School of Public Policy and billed as The New World of Welfare: an Agenda for Re-authorization and Beyond, featured some of the most influential figures in the welfare debate, but excluded many others. The list of invited speakers, which showcased such right wing extremists as Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, failed to include a single welfare recipient or grassroots advocate. Also largely shut out were women and people of color. Of 65 presenters, only 21 were women and only 9 were people of color. Missing as well were many of the more progressive academics to produce scholarship on welfare. Tracking the planning of the conference from a distance, GROWL realized early on that while advertising an open and balanced forum, conference planners were in reality gathering key policy makers together to listen to a narrow, conservative agenda. Handsomely funded and partially organized by the Charles Stewart Mott and Annie E. Casey foundations and held in the posh Marriott Hotel, the conference was poised to quietly set the tone for the reauthorization debate without causing much of a stir. The surprise arrival of 100 members of GROWL, however, complicated things.
The opening ceremony, which lauded the success of welfare reform and welcomed a “diversity” of panelists, fell flat against the specter of GROWL welfare mothers in the audience wearing gags to symbolize being silenced. As the conference rolled on, the dry graphs, sterile language, and dispassionate rhetoric used to describe poverty and those in it, rang increasingly hollow. The presence of GROWL forced attendees (academics, policymakers, and welfare administrators) to see the speakers in relationship to a left polarity that conference planners had worked hard to exclude.
Where the imbalance wasn't glaring enough, GROWL made it obvious, until it became impossible to continue to view the scheduled proceedings as fair and balanced. GROWL protests against Murray, New York City HRA Commissioner Jason Turner, and Tommy Thompson, encouraged the audience to think critically and see a broader picture. Whether or not they agreed with the message, audience members could not deny the protests had a powerful affect. Thompson, who was slated to speak on the last day of the conference in what would be his first public address on welfare since his appointment, heard news of the picketers and canceled.
By the end of day one, presenters appeared less like authorities and more like economically comfortable academics talking about something they really knew very little about. Despite the opening speaker's insistence that they were “getting as close to the ground as possible,” one conference attendee observed that presenters, “relate only to numbers, not people,” and remarked, “it is clear that many of their conclusions were reached by simply crunching data, without ever actually speaking to anyone on welfare.”
By the second panel, the GROWL presence had shifted the perspective of the conference, and speakers began alluding to the imbalance. In the face of nearly 100 welfare mothers, mostly women of color, the parade of white men became glaring enough to inspire embarrassed remarks from several panelists. Hugh Heclo of George Mason University, a white man, joked nervously to the audience that “there is a certain irony about a panel of middle aged white guys getting up here to talk to you about the world of welfare”—an added irony, of course, for those women in the audience who had experienced the impact of welfare policy. Even the self-proclaimed right winger Michael Laracy referred, though perhaps unintentionally, to the narrow nature of the debate. Before launching into a response to a “liberal” paper by scholar Rebecca Blank, he quipped, “Well, they didn't tell me before I got here that the format was going to be someone on the left and then someone who is ‘right,' but Becky has made my job more difficult by failing to say anything objectionable.”
Blank, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, who was also the primary organizer of the conference, said very little about the protests. When a reporter questioned her about the racial balance of the event, Blank was nonplussed, insisting she was happy with the “diversity of perspectives,” and added, “I would love to see far more people of color engaged in researching welfare but unfortunately, in the public policy arena, as in many academic disciplines, we struggle with the shortage of people of color producing research and writing.” Meanwhile, some of the most respected researchers of color working on welfare, including Susan Gooden of VA Tech, were at the conference but spent it listening from the audience. When asked in the question/answer period about the disparity of data on race in her own study, Blank admitted “our data on race is slim” but evidently felt qualified enough to state, “There is not a big difference between the black and white women who are on or are leaving welfare,” a statement that contradicts the few complete studies that do take race into consideration.
The protests drew an angry response from others. When recipients from New York confronted Jason Turner with, among other offenses, not providing translation services to non-English speakers (16 months after the federal government deemed New York City in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act) moderator Michael Laracy told them to “sit down and be quiet and you might learn something.” After the panel, which was comprised entirely of white men, Laracy approached demonstrators elsewhere in the hotel accusing them of “silencing us,” with their interruptions, before he became rattled and shouted at one woman, “I don't have to listen to you because you're dumb.”
The action against Murray drew a warmer response. Signs printed with some of Murray's most famous opinions, such as “black people are less intelligent than whites,” and “poor women shouldn't have babies,” drew sporadic applause from the audience. Murray made GROWL's job easier by doing most of the convincing himself, telling an alarmed audience that the children of single parents “rarely grow up able to function in a complex modern society,” that “illegitimacy is what generates all of society's problems and almost any risk taken in effort to remedy the problem is worth it,” and openly quoting from the notoriously racist 1965 Moynihan Report on “The State of the Black Family.” He recommended forcing traditional marriage through denying welfare benefits to single mothers and when pressed by the audience about the impacts such a policy would have on victims of domestic violence, he replied, “I think the way men behave depends entirely on the demands that women make of them. Women need to learn to ask more of men and we are saying to young women, if you're going to have a baby without a man, life is going to be real tough.”
Fred Grandy, House Republican and former president of Goodwill quoted Phil Graham, telling the audience, “It's time for people who have been given a free ride to get out and push,” and remarked, “Wisconsin is to welfare what Florence was to the Renaissance and Tommy Thompson is the latter day Lorenzo Benedetti.” But at the close of the conference, three GROWL mothers had the last word as conference coordinators, who had denied their request two weeks prior, finally agreed to let them speak on the closing panel. For the first time in two days, the din of economic jargon was interrupted and the audience listened to the human impact of all the numbers. Nora Calderón from POWER in San Francisco explained in Spanish while another organizer translated for the audience, “They sent me all the applications in English, then my children and I spent 30 days in a shelter before I received any benefits. This is happening to many families with children. Immigrants and families with kids should be treated with dignity and respect by the department of social services.” Helen Nichols of GRO in Mexico, Missouri, said simply, “They force us to work for below minimum wage and give us 60 months, in 60 months we could all have a degree that would give us a livable wage.” Iñez Zayaz of Community Voices Heard in New York City, told the audience, “I work 45 hours a week yet still don't have enough to feed my family. I refuse to work for less than minimum wage or end up with a job with no future for me or my children.”
While many conference speakers agreed on the same troubling goals and disagreed only on how best to achieve them, GROWL brought the underlying objectives into question. For example, Charles Murray insisted poor women should not have children, hailed the decline in low-income black women's birth rates as “authentically good news” and advocated cutting off all benefits to single mothers. Rebecca Maynard of Mathematica Policy Research accepted the goal of more marriage and less children for poor women as a useful and acceptable one. She supported using welfare as a social engineering device to control poor women's sexual and reproductive behavior, only suggesting “a softer approach” than Murray proposed. GROWL rejected the premise that welfare should be a tool for social engineering, asserted poor women's right to sexual and reproductive freedom, and pointed out that programs that privilege married women and penalize single motherhood force victims of domestic violence and their children to stay in abusive circumstances.
Among other policy recommendations, GROWL suggested: (1) measuring the success of reform by the decrease in poverty rather than the decline in rolls, (2) ensuring that education counts towards fulfillment of the work requirement and that it is accessible to all, (3) counting care giving and parenting as a work activity, providing ample job supports such as childcare and transportation, (4) simplifying the application process, (5) ending workfare, and (6) basing eligibility on economic need without regard to gender, race, family size, immigrant or marital status, sexual orientation, and physical and/or mental abilities.
In 1996, after signing welfare reform into law, Clinton delivered his now famous line, “We have ended welfare as we know it.” At the New World of Welfare conference, House Republican Fred Grandy played off of Clinton's words to sum up the question plaguing decision makers facing reauthorization, “If we have succeeded in ending welfare as we know it, what do we know now?” “Not much,” according to welfare mother and GROWL member Nora Caledron, who says, “unless that ‘we' begins to include welfare recipients, policy makers will continue to shoot in the dark. The noise GROWL made today is only the beginning.” Z
Vanessa Daniel is a freelance writer who has previously written for ColorLines magazine and Sojourner, the Women's Forum.