“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 The plan originally repealed minimum wage protections for workfare workers, but the day after the rally, after a Washington Post story exposed that provision, Department of Health and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.”