NOW Calls for End to War on Poor Women

by Faith Evans, and NOW Interns Jeanine Renfrew and Alison Sutton

"Stop the war on poor women," said NOW President Patricia Ireland as she was led away to jail for protesting in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

Ireland, National Welfare Rights Union President Marian Kramer, Kensington Welfare Rights Union President Cheryl Mucerino, Katy Engle of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, and Harriet Trudell of the Feminist Majority Foundation participated in this act of non-violent civil disobedience March 23 to protest the so-called "Personal Responsibility Act."

Over the last several months the National Organization for Women, the National Welfare Rights Union, the National Union for the Homeless, and the National Anti-Hunger Coalition have worked tirelessly as part of the Up and Out of Poverty NOW Coalition to end this right-wing economic war on women and their children.

The Personal Responsibility Act is part of the Republican Contract ON America and would radically change the country's welfare system in a punitive direction. The language of HR 1214, the "Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Block Grant," was substituted back into HR 4 and the "new" Personal Responsibility Act then passed the House of Representatives March 24 by a vote of 234-199. If passed by the Senate, the new HR 4 would reduce spending for poor women and children by an estimated $60 billion over five years.

Under this legislation, poor families who meet the poverty requirement would no longer be entitled to receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), that is, assistance to poor families would no longer be guaranteed if they meet eligibility criteria. AFDC is the only federal program that provides cash assistance to help single-parent families meet their basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. The bill would also eliminate the Jobs Program, child care guarantees and the Transitional Child Care Program for women leaving AFDC after finding employment.

HR 4 would eliminate these programs -- along with food stamps, child nutrition, pre-natal and infant nutrition, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, child support enforcement, child welfare and child protection services -- and incorporate them into block grants to the states. Each state would then be able to use the money as it wished to aid children in whatever way it chose. The Personal Responsibility Act would mean that the federal government would no longer have any way to guarantee that these funds are used to meet the basic needs of poor children and their families.

The Personal Responsibility Act calls for capping federal dollars at the 1994 level of funding for the next five years, effectively freezing the program. This provision means that there would be no expansion of benefits or increases unless each state is willing to meet those costs without federal help, and if the cost of living increases there would be a reduction in "real dollars" for needy families.

The bill also bars large numbers of children from receiving any aid at all, by setting up specific exclusions and time limits. The combined effect of all these provisions would be to eliminate aid to 6.1 million children and their families.

"The aim of the present leadership of the House is apparent when one looks at legislation such as HR 4," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "The authors of the bill are conservative white males who believe they can somehow engineer social policy to send women back to our "place" -- dependence on men for our very existence."

The bill now moves to the Senate where NOW and the Up and Out of Poverty NOW Coalition will apply even more pressure from the grassroots level. This struggle is ideological, political and one that women cannot afford to lose. The programs at stake are the only safety net available to millions of women and children, both those currently living in poverty and those who may fall into poverty as a result of ill-health, job loss or a myriad of other factors beyond their control.

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