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National NOW Times>>August 1995>>Article

NOW Continues to Fight the War on Poor Women and their Children

by Faith Evans and Anna Haas, NOW Intern

NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy and daughter Cady urged Congress to remember taht every mother deserves a happy Mother's Day, as Congress prepared to cut funding to poor women and children. Photo By Beth Corbin

NOW founder Betty Friedan, folk icon Odetta singing "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and a passionate nine-year-old girl were among the activists joining NOW's colorful street corner protests over punitive welfare proposals.

Friedan and Odetta were outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building as part of a Mother's Day protest that featured an eight by twelve foot Mother's Day card reading, "Every mother deserves a happy Mother's Day -- Stop the War on Poor Women."

"The national holiday honoring our mothers dramatically conflicts with the message being sent to women and their children by politicians," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "Instead of a heartfelt message of love and support, women are being handed an eviction notice."

NOW activists delivered their own message to members of the Senate Finance Committee, calling on them to preserve Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), and to provide parenting, education, job training and placement programs, childcare, health care and nutrition programs.

Also in May, NOW National Secretary Karen Johnson, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and other former and current welfare recipients testified in congressional hearings held by Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and the Media Campaign for Fairness on Welfare, which aims to highlight facts that are still excluded from the so-called debate on welfare.

"Welfare helps people survive difficult times in their lives and become productive adults," said Johnson, who went on to earn top honors as a nurse and officer in the U.S. Air Force.

In June, approximately 500 people came to Capitol Hill from Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York for a rally and lobby day on welfare issues. The rally speakers included NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey, NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund Policy Analyst Pat Reuss, and nine-year-old Merari Ortiz, an activist with Philadelphia-based United in Strength.

"Mr. Clinton, I bet Chelsea gets a real nice lunch at her private school," said Ortiz. "Are you going to let Congress take school lunches away from other people's kids?"

NOW's Postcard Campaign

The Senate was expected to bring the Finance Committee's welfare plan to the floor in early June. However, internal divisions within the Republican Party delayed consideration of the bill until July. The right wing and conservative members of Congress are strongly opposing the bill because they say it does not go far enough.

NOW and its allies have a major campaign underway to flood the White House with postcards. The cards ask President Clinton to veto any legislation which includes child exclusion provisions, eliminates the entitlements to assistance for all poor children, denies assistance to legal residents or sets time limits, without regard to individual circumstances.

"Stopping this legislation and insuring that the situation does not worsen will take a great deal of effort," said Ireland. "We must make it clear to every Senator and Representative in Washington that voters will not tolerate this blatant scapegoating and punishing of poor women. They must come up with real reform packages, not ones that obscure the issues and solve nothing."

Three major welfare proposals were under consideration in Congress as this issue went to press. None of those plans confront the real causes of poverty -- changes in the economy and in education coupled with pay inequity between men and women. Instead the bills feed on myths that welfare mothers are lazy, continue to have children in order to receive additional benefits, and that the women themselves are the primary causes of poverty.

Personal Responsibility Act

The House recently passed the Personal Responsibility Act, a punitive bill that replaces AFDC with block grants to the states. The act freezes federal funding for five years (regardless of changes in the economy), denies assistance to children of teen mothers or mothers currently on welfare, limits help for children whose paternity has not been established, and includes a strict five-year lifetime limit for assistance.

Merari Oritz, a 10-year-old NOW Woman of Courage Award Winner, inspired crowds in both Columbus, Ohio and Washington, D.C. Photo By Jill Kantor

The House-passed bill gives financial incentives to states for reducing the "illegitimacy ratio," a figure obtained by adding the number of out-of-wedlock births to the number of abortions and dividing by the number of total births. Reducing the illegitimacy ratio as defined in this bill, would give states further incentive to reduce the number of abortions by imposing added restrictions, thus threatening a woman's right to safe and legal abortion while not resolving the problem of unwanted pregnancies.

Family Self-Sufficiency Act

The Senate Finance Committee's bill -- the Family Self-Sufficiency Act of 1995 -- while less punitive than the House version, still leaves much to be desired. It also replaces AFDC with block grants, freezes federal funding at 1994 levels for five years, contains a five-year lifetime limit on benefits and implements a work requirement.

By the year 2001, states would be required to show 50 percent participation of welfare recipients in the work program or suffer a 25 percent reduction in their block grant. These stringent work requirements are destined to fail because there is no funding for the necessary training and child care.

The Congressional Budget Office testified that states would have to spend anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of their block grant on child care and training for welfare recipients to be able to meet the work requirements. The projection is that states will simply take the 25 percent penalty rather than comply with the work requirements.

Risks For Abused Women

Both the Senate and House bills include provisions that put abused women in jeopardy. For example, both mandate that women establish paternity in order to receive full benefits. This fails to consider that in cases of abuse, establishing paternity can put women at significant risk by revealing their whereabouts and renewing unwanted and perhaps dangerous connections with their abusers.

In addition, all immigrant women are denied benefits unless they are 75 or older and have lived in the United States for at least five years. This presents a grave danger to immigrant women with children who attempt to escape abusive relationships.

Work-First Bill

An alternative bill written by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., was introduced by the Democratic leadership in the Senate. President Clinton has endorsed this plan, which focuses on work but does not totally eliminate the safety net for children.

The Work-First program seeks to turn welfare offices into employment offices. It requires parents to engage in an intensive job search and to sign a Parent Empowerment Contract, an individualized plan to move the parent into the workplace. By 2000, states are required to have 50 percent of recipients employed.

The plan provides for child care and medical care, Medicaid, during the search, as well as an additional year of both services after obtaining employment. This will allow parents to make the transition to work more easily.

The Democratic leadership's alternative allocates grants to states for teen pregnancy prevention programs. Absent parents would be forced to support their children through such devices as uniform child support laws with strengthened interstate enforcement.

Democrats' Version Not Ideal

There are still significant problems with the bill. Women must identify paternity, and mothers under 18 must either live with their parents or in a supervised group home. There is still a five-year lifetime limit on assistance.

For parents delinquent on child support, the bill requires a payment plan with the state -- the alternative being a choice between community service and jail. Driver's and professional licenses could be suspended.

States have a great deal of flexibility under this plan. They can set benefit levels and decide eligibility. With so much state flexibility, welfare benefits could be radically different in every state.

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