Activists Go "Hungry for Justice" in Welfare Fight

Clinton & Congress Shred 61-year-old Federal Safety Net for the Poor

by Loretta A. Kane

"With a stroke of his pen, Bill Clinton dismantled the New Deal and replaced it with a Raw Deal for poor women and children," NOW President Patricia Ireland said Aug. 22, the day President Clinton signed the new welfare bill into law.

"Millions more will swell the ranks of the poor and hungry as a result of this bill," she said. "It is a repeal of welfare -- not a reform."

Ireland joined hundreds of activists who rallied in front of the White House to protest the president's action on the bill. NOW and its allies vowed to continue the "Hungry for Justice" campaign to force President Clinton and Congress to eliminate the most harmful requirements from the bill and restore some of the safety net for the poor.

On July 31, when President Clinton announced he would sign the welfare repeal bill, NOW launched the "Hungry for Justice" campaign with a huge demonstration in front of the White House. Ireland, along with the other officers and many NOW staff members and activists, began a fast to protest Clinton's action and "to enhance our understanding and commitment to ending poverty," Ireland said.

In an emergency meeting following the president's announcement, the national NOW/PAC voted to withdraw support from congressional candidates who voted for the original welfare repeal bill and to intensify its work to support those who voted against it. "We must make the president and Congress understand that it is unacceptable to play politics with the lives of poor women and their families," Ireland said.

President Clinton's final action on the bill came as no surprise.

NOW Action Vice President Rosemary Dempsey had joined representatives of several women's rights organizations at a hastily called meeting with White House officials three days earlier. Presidential adviser Alexis Herman and Betsy Meyers, head of the White House Office on Women, clearly were troubled to have to confirm that Clinton would sign the bill.

"Our reaction was outrage over the fact President Clinton chose to totally disregard all of the data on the damage this bill will cause, and all of the advice his cabinet members gave him," Dempsey said.

"We were asked to work with the White House to `fix' the bill and soften the blow it would have. We told them that if he signed the bill, we couldn't guarantee any kind of backing for Clinton's re-election, not after this betrayal of both the people and ideals that got him elected four years ago."

Safety Net in Tatters

The welfare repeal bill decimates the national safety net for poor women and children instituted as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" 61 years ago. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal welfare program, will be eliminated and replaced by block grants to the states. Federal funds will be slashed an estimated $55 billion over five years, and states will be allowed to cut funding by an additional 20 percent. When a state runs out of money, poor women and their families will be left with no means of support.

The new law also severely restricts aid to legal immigrants. "An immigrant can come into this country legally, work and pay taxes for nine years, then be excluded from public assistance if she falls on hard times," Ireland said. Under the new welfare law, legal immigrants do not qualify for benefits unless they have been in the country for 10 years.

In addition, state welfare programs must stipulate a lifetime limit of five years for recipients. While the bill requires recipients to work for pay after two years, it does not provide adequate support for them to do so. "Without health care, childcare, education, training and jobs that pay liveable wages, what are poor women supposed to do to care for their families?" Ireland asked.

Battered Women At Increased Risk

While both the House and Senate originally included a requirement for states to adapt their programs to meet the needs of recipients who face domestic violence, that minimal protection was inexplicably removed by the conference committee, which reconciled the two versions of the bill.

NOW and our allies had successfully pressured to get those provisions past the House and Senate. Feminists held a press conference announcing a new report that documents the role violence plays in pushing women into poverty and keeping them there. The report detailed the dire need for welfare assistance for survivors of domestic violence and specifically cited the damage time constraints could inflict on these women who already are under extreme duress.

Campaign Continues to Grow

During the Hungry for Justice Campaign, NOW activists maintained a 21-day vigil across from the White House in Lafayette Park to encourage the president to veto the bill. Activists held lunchtime speak-outs to talk about why they were fasting and to express their opinions of the welfare repeal bill. Each night ended with a candlelight vigil to shed light on the fact that, with the welfare repeal bill signed into law, millions of people will go to bed hungry.

With each passing day, crowds at the speak-outs and candlelight vigils grew. On Aug. 4, during the candlelight vigil, activist Dick Gregory joined the fast. Simultaneously, welfare repeal protests were held by NOW chapters and supporting organizations across the country.

"The public is beginning to understand that the welfare repeal bill will push an estimated 2.6 million people, including 1.1 million children, into poverty," Ireland said. "It's not too late for the President to use the power of his office to correct some of the problems with the bill. And we're not going to back down until poor people are supported and not scapegoated."

On Aug. 18, NOW chapters put a damper on Clinton's 50th birthday celebrations across the nation. While the president celebrated his birthday with a fundraiser in New York City, the gala was televised on big screens in 100 cities. NOW activists used the Democratic National Committee fundraisers, which aimed to raise $50 million, as opportunities to express disappointment in the president's action on the welfare bill. Whether at home in the White House or at his 50th birthday party, the president was unable to avoid angry protestors who called for justice for the poor.

In addition to joining in protests, activists can contact President Clinton and encourage him to take action immediately to lessen the impact of this punitive welfare bill. Call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111.

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