“I went down to Tommy Thompson’s house,” the crowd sang. “I took back what he stole from me /I took back my dignity /I took back my humanity /And now he’s under my feet!” At that last line demonstrators stomped their feet vigorously, then began the next verse: “I went down to Congress…” The singers were nearly 2,000 welfare recipients and supporters gathered in the nation’s capital on Tuesday, for a rally sponsored by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, a coalition of low-income community groups urging Congress to pass legislation that will “reduce poverty, not caseloads.”
The entire day was an exciting show of power by an increasingly organized grassroots welfare-rights movement. Clinton’s 1996 welfare “reform” bill is up for reauthorization this year, and low-income advocates are ready to fight hostile proposals from both the Democratic Leadership Council and the Bush Administration. The week before the rally, the Administration unveiled a welfare reauthorization plan proposing many more workfare jobs, no new money for income support, childcare, transportation or job training, and plenty of new money for “marriage promotion.” The Bush plan also forces parents to work even if they have infants, and makes it more difficult than ever for welfare recipients to get an education, the surest (though by no means guaranteed) route to a living-wage job. And contrary to earlier Administration promises, it provides no Medicaid or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits for legal immigrants. The plan originally repealed minimum wage protections for workfare workers, but the day after the rally, after a Washington Post story exposed that provision, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) head Tommy Thompson called it a “misunderstanding.”
Activists at the event–who came from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Montana–emphasized the coalition’s opposition to the Bush agenda. There are some progressive alternatives emerging. Bills sponsored by Hawaii Democrat Patsy Mink in the House and Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone in the Senate restore benefits for legal immigrants, emphasize training and access to high-wage jobs, improve childcare provisions and allow education to satisfy work requirements. (Wellstone’s bill goes further than Mink’s, providing flexibility on time limits.) No one expects either bill to pass, says Deepak Bhargava, director of the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support. “But they provide a vision to point to.” According to Bhargava, the House is almost certain to pass a conservative bill; “the real debate will be in the Senate,” where there are signs that moderate Republicans and liberal Democrats may support some improvements.
Low-income activists said they would like to get out of poverty but can’t do it without access to childcare, transportation, job training or education–and cash grants when needed. Like many of her fellow demonstrators, Wanda Davis of Moms on the Move (MOM), a Philadelphia welfare-rights group, said she needs to go to college in order to get a living-wage job: “I want my associates’ degree,” she said. “I’m hungry for it.” Contrary to the rhetoric of the Clinton/Bush-era welfare reformers, the lack of job and income supports in the system seems designed to maintain a permanent underclass. “It’s almost like they want you to stay in the system,” said Davis, interviewed in front of the Health and Human Services building. “Enough of the revolving door. I want to get out.”
After the rally, activists marched to HHS for a lively protest targeting Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor and architect of a welfare “reform” policy which resulted in a 37 percent spike in the black infant-mortality rate in that state.
But the dramatic highlight of the day was a surprise visit to the Heritage Foundation, whose senior research fellow Robert Rector has authored many of the screeds that inform the Bush welfare agenda, including The Good News About Welfare Reform and Using Welfare Reform to Strengthen Marriage.
Nearly a thousand welfare recipients and supporters stormed through Heritage’s staid lobby, which has no apparent security, while others rallied outside. For about three minutes, the surprise delegation quietly made its way, unhindered, through the foundation’s first-floor conference room and hallways, looking for Rector. Just as someone was wondering aloud where his office might be, Rector coincidentally–and unsuspectingly–appeared.
An elevator let him off right in the middle of the crowd, and the activists presented him with their demands. Because he writes policy that affects poor people’s lives, they explained, “we ask you to walk in our shoes.” The delegation asked him to spend two days living the life of a low-income American: one day in rural poverty, another in an urban ghetto. The coalition asked him to do this within thirty days and to meet with low-income community leaders beforehand to determine the specifics.
“I’d be happy to do that,” said a nervous, somewhat ashen Rector. He also agreed to invite HHS chief Tommy Thompson to join him. The crowd cheered, and the activists filed out, mostly peaceably, under the motto that adorns the foundation’s main exit: BUILDING AN AMERICA WHERE FREEDOM, OPPORTUNITY, PROSPERITY AND CIVIL SOCIETY FLOURISH.
Afterward, Barbara Cox, a New York City welfare recipient and Community Voices Heard (CVH) activist, laughingly recounted a silent exchange with Rector that occurred during the meeting. Someone offered him a pair of old sneakers, and, “He gave them back! They were all beat-up, nothing fancy, but didn’t he say he would walk in our shoes?” Her friend Steven Bradley said skeptically, “Let’s see if he keeps his word to the people.”
Meanwhile, a smaller group–around 400–stormed the offices of the Democratic Leadership Council, demanding to see the organization’s president, Bruce Reed. At first they were told he wasn’t there, but eventually he emerged, and a group of low-income women demanded that he hold a meeting with welfare recipients and key DLC senators. Reed kept pointing out that the DLC’s welfare plan was better than the Bush plan, but finding the women unmollified, he agreed to set up the meeting. As they were leaving, Reed said petulantly, “I hope you’re not just protesting here. You really should be at the Heritage Foundation.”
“Oh yeah,” replied one of the women, “we sent 1,000 people there, and only 400 here. They’re more powerful, and have bigger offices.”