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Minnesota poor vs. welfare 'reform'

Rally protests ten years of attacks on public assistance

by Kim DeFranco |
September 9, 2006
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Minneapolis, MN - “Welfare de-form is a failure and a disaster,” stated Angella Khan, Welfare Rights Committee member. “As we predicted ten years ago, we are seeing more of our families in deeper poverty” Organized by the Welfare Rights Committee (WRC) and MN Welfare Rights Coalition (MNWRC) about 100 low-income people, their families and supporters rallied in front of the Federal Building here, Aug. 22, on the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the welfare reform law.

On Aug. 22, 1996 President Clinton signed the welfare-attacking bill into law. This legislation, called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. Under the TANF law, states received fixed block grants and had broad flexibility to design their own rules for their cash assistance programs and broad authority to use the block grant resources for other programs outside of cash assistance to assist low-income families. Khan explained, “In one sweeping move, this law destroyed the social safety net that had existed for poor and working families for the previous 60 years. Since the passage of this law, states around the country have seen increasing poverty, hunger, homelessness, infant mortality rates and overall devastation for families.”

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since 1996, the proportion of families eligible for state TANF assistance that actually receive assistance has fallen dramatically. Most U.S. families in poverty are now denied any cash support for children. Despite great need, welfare rolls have been reduced from about 12 million to 4.5 million. The law put a lifetime limit on welfare of 60 months. Minnesota imposed a five-year lifetime limit, while other states have put in time limits as short as two years. In only three years - from 2002 to 2005 - over 7,000 Minnesota families have hit the 60-month time limit. The anti-welfare legislation also opened the door to privatization of public welfare programs and some states turned the entire welfare block grant over to private corporations.

“Ten years of welfare ‘deform’ has meant ten years of increasing poverty, ten years of attacking the poor, ten years of denying education and pushing poor women into poverty-level jobs, ten years of moving families from welfare poverty to working poor poverty,” said Kim Hosmer of the WRC. “Welfare ‘reform’ was never about ending poverty; it was about manipulating us as poor mothers into accepting the unacceptable low-wage, dead-end, no-benefit jobs at places like Wal-Mart!”

Tracy Furney of the WRC states. “Over 1 million poor single mothers with 2 million children are both not working and not receiving any welfare assistance. This means women and children are living in hell. These rich white men who are making these vicious decisions are condemning, endangering and abusing our poor mothers and children. And this is only the tip of the iceberg!”

Another dark side of this reform law is the workfare program. Virginia Weldon explained that in March of 2005 she had to work to receive her public assistance grant under the workfare rules. She stated her doctor told the Hennepin County Welfare Office three times that she was not able to work because of her multiple internal injuries but was still force to work for no pay. “I was told by my job counselor that I had to do volunteer work because I could not find paid employment.” By ‘working off’ her grant, she was only making $2.86 per hour. Weldon continued, “This is slave labor for any poor and working families on welfare. This is a clear example of how this brutal welfare reform is not about ending poverty it is about pushing poor women into free labor or low wage labor and trapping us into poverty for life.”

Polly Mann, of the Women’s Political Alliance, stated the fact that minimum wage has not risen for ten years. “We are talking minimum wage not a living wage here.” She added, “It’s good to have groups like Welfare Rights Committee to keep up the fight and to fight for economic justice.”

In 1996, seeing the danger on the horizon, the Welfare Rights Committee initiated and organized a national day of protests around the country to fight to stop this anti-poor law. Poor families and organizations in 26 states held protests. As the welfare reform law was headed to Clinton’s desk, members of the Welfare Rights Committee set up an encampment at the Federal Building in St. Paul and began a hunger strike lasting seven days.

Annabell LaClaire from Duluth, Minnesota and a member of Low Income People Organizing for Power said, “We are proud to have been a part of the fight back in 1996 and will keep on fighting. There are many families struggling and that isn’t right. Without employment and no stable housing, poor women have been forced to put themselves and their families at great risk to be able to feed their children. Women have been forced to stay in or go back to abusive relationships.”

Deb Howze, a WRC member since 1996 stated, “Massive funding for professional poverty pimps is taken from cash support for families and is creating a dependent class of professionals who enforce cruel poverty policies, punish, police, humiliate, endanger and ignore poor moms and kids.”

The WRC statement addressed the issue of attacks on poor immigrants: “When the federal law eliminated food stamps and SSI for non-citizens, the WRC fought and won at the Minnesota legislature to restore these rights to Minnesota immigrants. We fought to eliminate the five-year limit in this state, to put a moratorium on the time limit, to restore education and eliminate sanctions. We won extensions to the five-year limit, we won education rights, we stopped numerous cuts and sanctions, but our work has only just begun.”

Many groups continue the fight today to stop any attacks on welfare. Since the law went into effect, low-income families in Minnesota and around the country have continued to organize and fight to stop the devastating effects of this law. Deb Konechne, who participated in the 1996 hunger strike said, “As low income families across this state and country, we are organizing and continuing the fight for our basic human rights. Those who want to oppress us and attack us have been met with our fierce resistance. As poor families we refuse to see our families suffer and die in the streets. We will continue to fight until every last attack on the poor is stopped. We will continue to fight back until we get justice.”