President Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it" is being transformed by Congressional Republicans into a brutal assault on the homeless, the unemployed, the working poor, the elderly and the disabled. Even the public opinions polls are starting to confirm that people think the new Newt Congress has gone too far.
Months before Clinton took office in April of 1992, Patricia Ireland of NOW and Marian Kramer of the National Welfare Rights Union came together with other NOW activists and leaders of poor people rights groups to form the coalition: Up and Out of Poverty NOW.
In scores of different forums, this coalition made it possible for women to tell the truth about their lives. "Criminally myopic" is how Karen Ray, President of Oklahoma NOW, described Republican plans for the poor. She was speaking to reporters one winter day as she joined 150 other feminist activists from nearly every state to protest President Clinton's meeting with governors on welfare reform. No representatives of organized poor women and children had been included in the gathering.
Gloria Steinem and Patricia Ireland challenged members of Congress, many of whom have stay-at-home spouses, to live on a welfare budget. At NOW's Mother's Day Action activists joined Odetta in a chorus of "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" as the Senate Finance Committee showed up for a session on welfare. Columnist Ellen Goodman wryly noted that times have changed when men with money and power favor forcing mothers of young children to go to work.
In a first-person essay in Essence magazine and in a U.S. House committee hearing, NOW's Karen Johnson says the real "cheat" is a system that condemns so many women and children to a life of dead-end poverty. Johnson grew up on welfare and is now a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel who serves as national NOW secretary and NOW PAC treasurer.
At NOW's April 1995 rally against all forms of violence against women, Cheri Honkala was one of several speakers driving home the connections. She said, "You all better stop talking about violence unless you start talking about economic violence, until you wake up and say our sisters are hungry here in the United States."
At the NOW National Conference in July, 10-year-old welfare rights activist Merari Ortiz, stood, hands on hips, and said, "Mr. Clinton, I bet Chelsea gets a real nice lunch at her private school. Are you going to let Congress take food away from other people's kids?" Ortiz was a recipient of NOW's Woman of Courage award.
Does anyone really think that poor women looked at Congress, felt the damage they were doing, shrugged and said, "Oh, well. Newt happens." Not a chance. "Newt happens" when we don't have the organizing or the votes we need. We got a wake up call in 1994 and in 1996 we're out of bed early.