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Fight the Welfare Time Limits!

by Linden Gawboy |
April 2, 2002
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Saint Paul, MN - "Tell the monsters to come out. They want to tell those monsters how angry they are," said Ya Vang, Hmong interpreter for the Welfare Rights Committee (WRC). "They won't come out, they're afraid of us. They know we're out here," responded Birgid Maschenik of WRC. The "monsters" that the Welfare Rights Committee members were talking about were the Republican members of the MN House of Representatives.

The angry crowd was gathered outside the House Chambers on April 4 to let Minnesota politicians know that there were only 89 days left until the day thousands of children would start hitting the 5-year limit on welfare in Minnesota. WRC members set up a large "doomsday clock" in front of the chamber doors, and everyone (even the small children) carried signs against the time limit. Later, they all crowded into the office of the democrat Senate majority leader to demand that he keep the moratorium front and center while he was in secret budget negotiations with the House.

The April 4 action was the latest in a series to demand that politicians put a moratorium on the 5-year limit on welfare in Minnesota. The Minnesota Welfare Rights Coalition (MNWRC) organized hundreds of people to come to the capitol and demand that welfare cut-offs not be allowed to happen.

Moratorium Bill

In late December, the Welfare Rights Committee convinced two Senators to take a stand and sponsor legislation for a three-year moratorium. "A moratorium is just a delay of the imposition of the time limit," explained Deb Konechne, of the Welfare Rights Committee, "We say there should be no time limit at all. A moratorium is absolutely necessary for now, and it buys us time to fight the whole sick idea of time limits." From the beginning, House Republicans declared it "dead on arrival," but a two-year moratorium bill passed through the full Senate in late March.

Opening Day Protest

On Jan. 29, hundreds gathered in the cold and snow on the front steps of the capitol. Besides low income people, representatives from some of the 170 organizations that signed on to the moratorium campaign spoke.

Bernie Hess, of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 73, read a statement of support from the leadership of the Saint Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, "We support the effort to pass a moratorium. It isn't easy to make it in the best of times. Today in these tough economic times it's even harder. So tell the politicians that, instead of attacking the only support that many Minnesota families have, they should be passing the moratorium on the time limit and aggressively fighting for what families need: livable wage jobs, affordable housing, childcare, health and education."

Budget Crisis

Minnesota, like many other states, finds itself in a recession and a state budget crisis. WRC member Trishalla Bell declared at one of the hearings on the state budget, "Governor Ventura and House Republicans are now set to solve the state's budget crisis on the backs of poor Minnesotans! They say, 'Everyone is going to have to sacrifice.' Well, there is a huge difference between the rich 'sacrificing' a portion of their past tax breaks and a poor family 'sacrificing' basic survival. We have already suffered too much!"

Coming Together to Fight

People packed every hearing on the moratorium bill. According to Roger Banks, of the Council on Black Minnesotans, "We know that we need a moratorium for families in order to survive. The Council is here to work with you. We have to be persistent and keep coming back - to every hearing, every meeting, in order to pass the moratorium."

The Welfare Rights Committee and a constant core of supporters had to fight on different fronts for the moratorium. Work was done to unite everyone possible, while taking advantage of splits among the enemies. First, they had to convince liberal democrats to sponsor the bill. After that, there was campaign to get other groups around it, other politicians around the bill, and push vacillating politicians and allies to keep up the fight. But the main blow of people's anger was aimed at the House Republicans.

A Homeless Village, and a Hunger Strike

"Republicanville, Homeless Village of the Future - Grand Opening July 1, 2002" read the banner above a collection of cardboard boxes, blankets and tarps set up outside the House chamber. There were street signs showing that Bradley Boulevard intersected with Starvation Lane, and Goodno Avenue crossed with Misery Place (Representatives Goodno and Bradley are anti-welfare Republicans). One Representative stomped around screaming and sputtering when he saw the set-up, and yelled to the cops to tear it down.

In a show of solidarity for the people who would be affected by the moratorium, 15 House democrats went on a 24-hour hunger strike. According to Rep. Carlos Mariani, who headed up the effort, "We don't want to see more Minnesota children hungry, homeless or split apart because the benefits they need are no longer available. For many women with children, these benefits are the only means they have to survive on their own, and for many, losing the benefits would mean returning to an abusive relationship. In the clearest possible terms, this could mean the choice between life and death."

The hunger strike got massive media attention and drove their Republican colleagues nuts. "I'm glad they did it," said Dede Francis of the Welfare Rights Committee, "the media and politicians don't care when we starve, so it's good that these 15 legislators took a stand."

The Future

As Fight Back! goes to press, the issue of the time limit has not been decided by the Minnesota legislature. However it turns out, MNWRC is determined to keep up the fight. According to Rita Stevenson, WRC member, "Minnesota legislators should put a time limit on poverty, instead of a time limit on welfare! The last five years could have been spent tackling the problems that force our families into poverty and keep us there. Politicians could have worked for livable wages. Politicians could have tackled the health care crisis! Politicians could have worked to end the housing crisis! Instead they chose to blame poverty on the poor, and to terrorize our families with laws that attack our very survival!"