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End the attacks on public assistance, demand our class gets what it deserves

Commentary by Linden Gawboy |
August 1, 2015
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Minneapolis, MN - This past spring, Missouri imposed a 45-month limit on how long poor families can receive federally funded welfare benefits, down from 60 months.

States setting time limits like this, and imposing other discriminatory hurdles for families to jump, was not allowed 20 years ago - but then President Bill Clinton gutted the welfare system. On Aug. 22, 1996, President Clinton signed federal welfare reform into law. This was not much of a surprise. When Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination, one of his platform planks on welfare was “two years and off.”

The main blow President Clinton dealt to the welfare system for poor families, or AFDC as it was known then, was to get rid of the entitlement status. The entitlement was based on income - if a family with children’s income fell below a certain level, that family was entitled to financial assistance, by federal law. Clinton’s welfare reform got rid of the entitlement, leaving help for poor families at the ‘discrimination’ of each state. He also put in a maximum time limit of 60 months (five years) over a life time that a family could get welfare, leaving it again, to the states discrimination if they wanted to have a shorter time limit, as Missouri recently chose to do.

We do not use the word ‘discrimination’ randomly. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and countless other politicians blatantly and sneeringly use welfare as a codeword for Blacks, Latinos and other oppressed nationalities - boasting about cutting welfare is a wink to the ugly racist nature of U.S. politics. There are endless proposals to make welfare more humiliating - many of them could be called silly, if it weren’t for the racism implied in each one.

The U.S. has a brutal history in regard to oppressed nationalities and national minorities - African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans. Systematic state violence, theft and repression have resulted in generations that had no chance to build up wealth that families can use to buffer the hard times. The criminal injustice system rips families apart, which furthers the economic abuse heaped on our communities.

Welfare was put into place in the U.S. because the working class fought for it. Before welfare, people literally starved to death. Welfare also provides a floor below which wages cannot fall. The system we live under now is set up so there will always be people who cannot get jobs. The left and progressive forces who led the fight for welfare in the 1930s were well aware of how the system was set up to always keep a pool of workers with nothing – a reserve army of the unemployed. That is why they fought for welfare and other entitlement programs, like Social Security.

Who needs to take up the fight now? Low income people have to. If we are not on welfare, we are the ones who are expected to take care of our families and the children when there is no welfare for them. Many of us are a paycheck away from needing help. Many of us, even though we have nothing, can’t get any help at all. This has to change. And we have to lead the battle.

We absolutely cannot rely on agencies that claim to “serve the poor” to fight for our families. It is not in their interest to see dollars go directly to the families in need. It is in these agencies’ interest to get dollars for themselves and whatever whacky program they think will “fix us.” But the quickest address poverty is to get money into the hands of poor families.

A persistent fight back can have results. This July, many families in the state of Minnesota will get a $110 per month increase in the cash welfare grant, thanks to the battle waged by Welfare Rights Committee. This is only a fraction of what low-income families in the Welfare Rights Committee (WRC) fought for, but it represents a turn of the tide. Two years ago, the WRC demanded that the grants be doubled, across the board for every family. The politicians only gave the $110 increase, delayed until this July. However, in the 2015 legislative session, many legislators and the governor openly supported giving more. Not a doubling of the grants, as the WRC is still demanding, but a substantial across the board increase.

People are homeless and suffering. This is not a time to ask for help. This is a time to demand our class gets what it deserves.

Linden Gawboy is a member of the Twin Cites-based Welfare Rights Committee