With support from NOW activists along the way, Kensington Welfare Rights Union activists and a 125-mile march at the United Nations. Their goal was to draw attention to the way U.S. welfare changes violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At right is Cheri Honkala, executive director of KWRU. Photo by Barbara DiTullio.
by Beth Corbin
Protesting the new federal and state welfare reform laws as violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU) activists defiantly marched from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to the United Nations building in New York.
"By bringing these life and death matters before the court of world opinion, we hope to continue to build a movement to end poverty, led by the poor and involving people from all walks of life who are concerned with economic justice," said KWRU Executive Director Cheri Honkala.
During the 10-day, 125-mile trek, more than 75 marchers survived a blistering heat wave with temperatures soaring into the 90s. Representing poor, homeless and working-class families, the marchers were joined by hundreds of supporters at rally sites along the route.
NOW President Patricia Ireland joined the protesters at a rally in front of the United Nations in New York. Many NOW activists organized support for the marchers as they trekked through three states.
The welfare repeal bill signed into law by President Clinton last year shredded the federal safety net that provided basic protections for more than 60 years. Under the new laws, individuals are no longer guaranteed the right to food, housing, medical care or the right to receive a fair wage for their work.
The Kensington Welfare Rights Union argues that Articles 23, 25 and 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) have been breached.
Article 23 provides: "Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment . . . Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable renumeration ensuring . . . an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection . . . Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions."
Under the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) welfare reform plan, all "able-bodied" welfare recipients must work at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving benefits, a requirement commonly called "workfare." For most recipients this means wages at or below minimum wage, with no benefits and without the basic safety, health and civil rights protections guaranteed to non-workfare employees. Some of these low-wage workers are being used to replace union workers, since workfare workers do not have the right to unionize.
Article 25 of the UDHR provides: "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself (sic) and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or otherlack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special protection."
The welfare rights group maintains that time limits, restrictions on food stamps and the prohibition of benefits to immigrants pose real threats to those struggling through uncertain economic times. Such restrictions mean that only those who were born in this country, or who can find work, are entitled to an adequate standard of living.
Article 26 says: "Everyone has the right to education . . ."
By forcing student recipients to find work rather than completing their educations, TANF dooms these individuals to a lifetime of low-paying, dead-end jobs, according to the group.
The Kensington Welfare Rights Union recently established a Poor People's Embassy that is attempting to document the harsh and inhumane effects of new welfare repeal policies on poor people across the country. The project's findings will be presented to representatives at the U.N. To help with the documentation project, request a copy of the Human Rights Documentation Manual by e-mail at email@example.com or write to Poor People s Embassy, P.O. Box 3866, Harrisburg, PA 17105.
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