It was not without warning that Congress voted to end welfare-as-we-knew-it in 1996, but still, it seemed to catch the progressive community off-guard. There was no mass protest, no flurry of outraged Op-Eds, no sustained and spirited engagement by women's, labor and religious leaders and their constituencies. Today, though, even amid war and recession, the organizing landscape is not so bleak: Important groups from all those sectors and more have committed themselves to a bold, collective campaign for real welfare reform.
National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support
, a Washington, DC-based coalition of 1,000 grassroots organizations spanning forty states (as well as organized labor, civil rights, religious, women's, immigrant and student groups), is leading the push to revamp Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and "Make TANF Work!" (www.makeTANFwork.org ). They are joined by the
NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund
(www.nowldef.org ), which is spearheading the drive to pass antipoverty bills in the House and Senate, sponsored by Patsy Mink and Paul Wellstone, respectively. NOWLDEF, along with the
National Partnership for Women and Families
(www.nationalpartnership.org ), has focused a spotlight on the women's issues at stake in the welfare debate: caregiving, domestic violence, workplace discrimination. And the
Women's Committee of One Hundred
(www.welfare2002.org ) brings together feminist activists and intellectuals working to improve the current system with the ultimate goal of ending women's poverty.
Call to Renewal
, a network of churches and faith-based organizations, has launched a national Campaign to Overcome Poverty (www.calltorenewal.com ), and the
National Council of Churches
(www.ncccusa.org ) has made TANF reauthorization a top priority. The civil rights community, meanwhile, is determined to roll back one of the most egregious provisions of the 1996 law, the cutoff of benefits to immigrants. The
National Council of La Raza
(www.nclr.org ) and the
National Immigration Law Center
(www.nilc.org ) are crucial players.
United States Students Association
, which became involved as women facing work requirements were booted out of college, is planning a student-led week of lobbying March 8-12 in Washington (www.usstudents.org ).
(www.resultsusa.org ) is an effective advocacy group for individuals who care about poverty. And galvanized by the chilly economic climate, organized labor--especially the low-wage unions like the Service Employees and the Hotel Workers, along with the AFL-CIO--won't be sitting on the sidelines as in 1996.
But the most compelling voices remain those of women who have been on welfare.
(www.ctwo.org/growl ), a project of the Oakland-based
Center for Third World Organizing
, is a coalition of low-income groups working on welfare reform; and the
Welfare Made a Difference Campaign
(www.wmadcampaign.org ) is a New York-based network of women who can attest to the positive role the safety net has played in their lives. On February 7-8, Welfare Made a Difference and NOWLDEF are staging events in Washington to promote the Mink and Wellstone bills. Then, on March 5, the National Campaign will bring a delegation of 1,000 current or recent welfare recipents to share their stories--and demands--with key Congressional decision-makers. Their words might fall on deaf ears, but then they'll yell a little louder--and this time, they won't be shouting alone.