Thursday, March 8, 2007

Let Us Make Man, pt. 3 - In our post-welfare reform society, the notion of welfare being a "right" is quaint, almost to the point of being absurd. But such was the vision put forward by Richard Cloward, Frances Fox Piven and George Wiley, along with the activists of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). According to John McWhorter (who is discussed elsewhere), the NWRO "openly encouraged as many people as possible to be given [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] payments, hoping that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income." In fact, Cloward and Piven concede as much in a widely cited redux of their 1965 paper, published in the May 2, 1966 issue of The Nation, this time entitled "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty."

It is our purpose to advance a strategy which affords the basis for a convergence of civil rights organizations, militant anti-poverty groups and the poor. If this strategy were implemented, a political crisis would result that could lead to legislation for a guaranteed annual income and thus an end poverty.

This strategy is based on the fact that a vast discrepancy exists between the benefits to which people are entitled under public welfare programs and the sums which they actually receive…It is widely known...that nearly 8 million persons (half of them white) now subsist on welfare, but it is not generally known that for every person on the rolls at least one more probably meets existing criteria of eligibility but is not obtaining assistance.

The discrepancy is not an accident stemming from bureaucratic inefficiency; rather it is an integral feature of the welfare system which, if challenged, would precipitate a profound financial and political crisis. The force for that challenge, and the strategy we propose, is a massive drive to recruit the poor onto the welfare rolls.

A series of welfare drives in large cities would, we believe, impel action on a new federal program to distribute income, eliminating the present public welfare system and alleviating the abject poverty which it perpetuates.
By 1970, the NWRO claimed to have a budget of $500,000 and a membership of 100,000, most of them black and female. In implementing their strategy, the NWRO mobilized "cadres of aggressive organizers" to create a climate of fear and intimidation through increased militancy in urban areas. For example, the New York City NWRO affiliate organization, Concerned Parents for Adequate Welfare, staged daily protests at welfare offices throughout the city. Occasionally, their activities turned destructive, as the New York Times Magazine noted on September 27, 1970 in an article entitled, "Now It’s Welfare Lib."
There have been sit-ins in legislative chambers, including a United States Senate committee hearing, mass demonstrations of several thousand welfare recipients, school boycotts, picket lines, mounted police, tear gas, arrests – and on occasion, rock throwing, smashed glass, overturned desks, scattered papers and ripped out phones.

There was a takeover of the office of former [Health, Education and Welfare] Secretary Robert H. Finch, during which Mrs. Beulah Sanders, NWRO’s first vice chairman and chairman of New York’s Citywide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Groups, sat in Mr. Finch’s leather chair for seven hours of "liberation" with the title of "Acting HEW Secretary."
But as the article goes on to point out, as part of its multi-pronged strategy, the NWRO also worked with other organizations in order to establish "rights" for welfare recipients by means of the legal system.
The three-year old NWRO played a significant role in bringing about the new welfare era. But the lead actors who substantially established the legal concept of welfare as a right, according to Columbia University public-welfare experts Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, were the Office of Economic Opportunity lawyers, often working with NWRO who have toiled since the mid-sixties aiding low-income people and creating a new "poor law."

A number of welfare-rights cases have reached the Supreme Court. The lawyers have succeeded in knocking out state residence requirements, which forced those who moved from one state to another to do without benefits for as long as a year. They have eliminated harsh substitute-parent rules, which denied welfare to a mother who, for instance, was caught with a man in her home after being abandoned by her husband. And they ended the so-called "midnight raids," in which welfare investigators hunted after-hours for a man in the house.
More to come...

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