Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, who has reintroduced the RISE Out of Poverty Act. / AFL-CIO

The Poor Under Attack

A conversation on the RISE Out of Poverty Act

Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, who has reintroduced the RISE Out of Poverty Act. / AFL-CIO
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Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. Since election night 2016, the streets of the United States have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talking with experienced organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fighting for a long time. They’ll be sharing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed, and what is still the same.

Welfare reform briefly became a hot topic on the campaign trail last year when Hillary Clinton was criticized for supporting the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed into law with great fanfare by her husband, President Bill Clinton, who famously declared that the law would “end welfare as we know it.” The law did precisely that, turning the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program into the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, which came along with stringent requirements for the people, most of them women, who received it. Since that time, extreme poverty has spiked in the country, and the share of single mothers with no income or benefits has gone from 12 to 20 percent. But welfare rights activists never stopped fighting for their rights, and many are backing a bill being reintroduced by Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, the RISE Out of Poverty Act. I spoke with several supporters of the Act at the People’s Summit in Chicago recently.

Sarah Jaffe with welfare rights activists Annie Chambers, Rachel West, and Pat Gowens:

Annie Chambers: I am Reverend Annie Chambers and I am from Baltimore, Maryland.

Sarah Jaffe: You are here talking about the RISE Out of Poverty Act. Give us some history on that.

AC: RISE Out of Poverty, it has been said a lot of times, now we are really trying to get it passed and we also are trying to make people aware of it, because in the last fifteen years, or more, nobody really addresses the plight of the poor. They change around fancy words for poor people, they say “low income” low this and that. You go looking for housing and when they say “low income,” It is not for us. We can’t afford it.

The Fight for $15 is a small thing I would consider for someone to have money so at least they can pay their rent and have somewhere to live and eat. We are fighting that these things get passed, but also bring forth the plight of the poor. We have more poor people right here in America than ever. I work with families, whole families—mothers, fathers, and children—that live under the bridge. I work with a prison system that turns people out on the street with nowhere to go and gives them a tent to live in. You hook up your tent, they take it away, throw it out. It is terrible now. We have to come forth as the poor and say, “We will not take it anymore.”

SJ: This election, there was actually some attention to what welfare reform, in particular, did to particularly, again, poor women and children because of Hillary Clinton, but it kind of slipped off.

AC: Welfare reform did nothing for poor women. But it did a lot of things to poor people. That is why we have more families out on the street. It is because of welfare reform. I will just come out and say it: We didn’t forget that. So, we didn’t vote for Hillary. We did support Bernie, but we did not vote for Hillary and we weren’t going to vote for Hillary. I was saying to people “No vote is definitely a vote for Donald Trump” but people just couldn’t see themselves voting for Hillary because we had suffered and welfare reform has really made it harder for us.

SJ: I was talking to some people recently about the history of the Welfare Rights movement and how that gets lost, but how it is a history we really need right now to remember.

AC: Yes, I am one of the eight women that started the National Welfare Rights Organization along with George Wiley who was our director and president who led us, helped us get it together, because we were all just a group of women trying to survive. It has gotten lost. A lot of things have changed. I am seventy-six years old now and all of the women that started Welfare Rights are gone or in my age bracket. We had some men. We had at least three or four men that came along with us, because they were raising their children.

These are the things that we are fighting for: health care for people, health care and a home.

But now, the system has changed, it’s so bad for people that we have got to get back to that. That is what we are talking about now. Even training the younger people–the younger men and women now, because a lot of men are raising their children–to come back to the drawing board. They really need to know how to organize, how to go into the districts, how to work with district managers and social workers and fight for what they need. Even to go to the governor, the White House. I have been locked up in every state in the United States because we got out there and fought.

We are saying to people now, “That is a right. Health care should be a right. Nobody’s child should have to die.” I don’t care how old you are. Now I live in a state where you can be old and you don’t get good health care. We are fighting even for that. Not just good health care, you don’t get health care. The doctor will give you an aspirin and tell you to go home.

These are the things that we are fighting for: health care for people, health care and a home. If you don’t have anywhere to live, you don’t have a home that is a stable place, you can’t get education, you can’t look for a job, you can’t raise your children. And then fact that they are snatching the children because the parents lose their job or lose their house and instead of trying to assist, they put them in the system. That is what is happening all over this country. We have to fight. These are the sort of things we are fighting against.

SJ: The RISE Out of Poverty Act has been introduced in Congress before. Rep. Gwen Moore is reintroducing it again. Tell us what it would do.

AC: The RISE Out of Poverty Act will certainly put poor people in a better position. It would help us. Poor people would be able to get some of the services and some of the benefits. If we at least get RISE Out of Poverty Act passed, we would be able to move up and move forward to better places. I was a woman on welfare but, it helped me when they placed us, they helped me get an education along with my church. I got a master’s degree in social work. They helped me so that I could get a job and be supported.

RISE Out of Poverty would do things like that. Thank god I am blessed that I don’t have any of my children that get any kind of assistance. They are all working and some of them own their own homes. Some of them have good careers. But imagine a poor mother trying to scramble every day to survive for her children, to just have food. You can’t go to the school system and deal with your child’s school problems because you are trying to talk about survival or you wake up in the morning, you are talking about “How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to pay for my children’s clothes, buy them food?” It is a survival thing and RISE Out of Poverty would put us in a better position. At least you would know you have a house, at least you would know that you have an income that can help you get up and out of poverty. That is what we need.

SJ: How can people get involved in organizing around it?

AC: We have a petition.

Phoebe Jones: Yes, they can get in touch with us. The best way is to go on the Every Mother Network website: www.everymothernetwork.net.

One thing to add on what RISE is, RISE is very much taking each of the aspects of TANF, welfare reform, and changing it. It is pages of changes this so it is less punitive. It takes out the worst.

Rachel West of the U.S. Prostitutes Collective is also part of the organizing around the RISE out of Poverty Act.

Rachel West: I’m Rachel West, U.S. Prostitutes Collective. We are supporting this initiative because when welfare reform was brought in millions of women were literally thrown into the street, no income, nothing. How were women supposed to support their kids when that happened? Well, it is even documented now that women went into prostitution. A lot of women had to feed their kids. Into shoplifting, selling drugs, whatever women could do to survive. Into so-called “crimes of poverty.” Then, what happened was a lot of women ended up going to prison. There is a direct connection between welfare reform and women going to prison for crimes of poverty. We know the fastest growing prison population now is women, mostly women of color and 70 percent are mothers.[*] 

That is the major reason why we are supporting this, because we don’t think women should be forced into prostitution through poverty and lack of any means to be able to survive. It was all tied up with the war on drugs, too, because when you came out of prison if you had a drug felony, then because of welfare reform, you were banned from getting any welfare. When you most needed it, coming out of prison trying to get your life together and get your kids and you can’t get access to housing or welfare thanks to Clinton’s welfare reform.

It was just punitive sanctions against women. You didn’t have childcare, you got sanctioned. It was a very punitive system and this is going to address the worst parts of that very bad welfare system that we have now. I was talking to a couple of welfare mothers recently. It is such a brutal system they have now. It is just really horrendous. They have to go to work to these really terrible jobs that nobody wants. They put the welfare mothers there all day. They have to leave their kids in childcare or if they don’t have any childcare, leave their kids and then they have their kids taken away. Then, after a brutal working day in the worst jobs, even if they get a job they want to stay in, they are not allowed to, because [officials] decide what kind of jobs you are going to be in. Then, you have to go home and get your kids. And then you have to do extra free work on the computer, I don’t know, three or four hours at home after working all day, for free, to qualify for the $500 a month. They make it practically impossible. This bill is like a breakthrough. It is a real breakthrough to have such legislation.

Seventy-five percent of people in the United States who are impoverished are women and children.

SJ: I wonder if you could talk about why it is important for sex workers to be leading their own organizing on this front.

RW: The whole trafficking agenda which was really pushed forward by George W. Bush is just really a way to criminalize sex workers more, under the guise of rescuing children that have experienced trafficking. The whole thing is a complete hype and it has meant more immigrant women are being deported because they get arrested and an arrest for prostitution is enough to get deported because it is listed as one of the moral turpitude crimes. That is what we are up against: well-funded, hugely funded anti-trafficking groups, government agencies. Police get a lot of money through trafficking. It is just a whole big scam.

There are some victims of trafficking, but they don’t even get help. All the money goes to the non-profits and law enforcement to do these enormous raids where they arrest hundreds of people and they say they rescue victims of child trafficking, but in fact, when you look at the statistics, it is men who get arrested now, clients or men who happen to be there.

We are really challenging this whole anti-trafficking agenda. We were winning decriminalization and the public was on our side and thought prostitution should be decriminalized and they brought in this anti-trafficking agenda and now that is what people are focused on. The public thinks that trafficking is prostitution and it is two completely different things. Prostitution is consenting sex for money. Trafficking is forced coercion and fraud and holding someone against their will.

Anyway, I think this bill is really going to be key in addressing poverty of women and children, 75 percent of people in the United States who are impoverished are women and children.

Pat Gowens also spoke with me about the RISE out of Poverty Act.

Pat Gowens: I am Pat Gowens and I am with the Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

SJ: Tell us about Welfare Warriors.

PG: Welfare Warriors is a thirty-one year old group of moms in poverty and other supporters. We started up to be journalists. We have a magazine called The Mother Warrior’s Voice that goes around the world. It is thirty-one years old and it is fifty-six pages of only news of resistance. We primarily focus on resistance in any country of the world, especially resistance in any of the wars on the poor. Our goal is, of course, to end the wars on the poor, especially on poor mothers and children.

SJ: And, of course, the war on the poor is getting a little more attention right now because we have a Republican president, but you are from Scott Walker and Paul Ryan country, so none of this is any surprise to you.

PG: And Tommy Thompson before that. Yes, the poor have really been under attack, viciously, since the 1990s. The war on the poor has been very intense with the Democrats, with the Republicans, and every politician uses the poor as a scapegoat and there are more attacks every year. I don’t know right now, how much more they are attacking the poor. They are just spreading it out now to attack the working class, too, instead of only the poor.

SJ: We are looking at things like cuts to Medicaid, cuts to food stamps, more cuts to food stamps, and all of this coming down all at once from Washington rather than being spread out from state to state.

Once they take your kid, you are at the mercy of the system. You do what they tell you or you lose your child.

PG: There are always a lot of threats against the poor, too. Last year we had a huge reduction in food stamps because single people could no longer get food stamps except three months out of every three years. So, poor single people only get to eat three months out of every three years. [Laughs] Then, you have to work off the food stamps, otherwise. You have to do twenty hours of work a week of any work. Classes, job search, whatever. Even if you are only getting $30 in food stamps, you still have to do twenty hours of these mandatory activities.

On welfare, ever since 1996 when the Clintons did the welfare reform bill, the moms have to work for no pay for thirty hours a week and the average check is $390. For instance in Milwaukee, our Head Start program was using ninety-six women at twenty hours a week for no pay. No pay, no Social Security credits, no unemployment credit, no protection from sexual harassment, because there is no money. And you have to do that to get a $390 check. In some states it is $450-550, but you have to do that and if you don’t you get sanctioned. The welfare bill, the TANF bill, allowed time limits to be as low as eighteen months to two years. . . . After that, you can’t get any benefits. So, if you have no job, you are in the street with no money, no benefits.

That is one of the reasons that we are supporting Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s RISE bill. She would be removing these lifetime time limits. If women have tried to get work and haven’t gotten it, the families shouldn’t be thrown into the street. Women prior to this, prior to 1996, women were going to two year colleges and four year colleges, at least a quarter of the women. Well, now that is not allowed. You have to do this unwaged work.

So, imagine if ninety-six women are working twenty hours a week at their Head Start headquarters, why would they ever hire anyone? There is absolutely no incentive to hire anyone and then it cheapens the workforce, because you have a million surplus moms who will take any job for any pay and no benefits to avoid no pay. Or you go take a twenty hour job at McDonald’s or Walmart. Fortunately, now the war on the poor workers is continuing, but our movement is very powerful in the United States, the Fight for $15 movement has won additional income for over 12 million Americans. OUR Walmart movement also.

SJ: Yes, Walmart raised its wage, finally.

PG: A teeny little bit, but it is really making a difference, because all of these wars on the poor mix together. Whether it is that you are a sub-poverty wage worker and all the largest growing jobs in the United States are all sub-poverty wage jobs and no benefits. This has been going on for a long time.

SJ: Tell me more about the RISE Out of Poverty Act. What would it do? What is in it?

PG: The RISE Out of Poverty Act would say that instead of only allowing mothers to do this unwaged work, that women could do their mandatory hours on job search, number one, and they could also do it going to college. They could get a two-year degree, a four-year degree, and that would count as employment. In the states right now, they can require the mother to leave their babies at two months, three months, whatever, one year. In Wisconsin it is two months. At that point, the children have no one on one care anymore from their mom and the mom has to, again, go into that unwaged workforce or, if they can find a job, the paid workforce.

This would say the states couldn’t do that. They would have to at least let the mothers be home—right now it isn’t clear whether it is going to be one year or whether it is going to be more. It’s up for grabs, because the bill is being revised.

Then, there is a third thing. The states wouldn’t be able to only say they cut the rolls. The law would have to be changed to say the states have to reduce poverty and increase employment, not just say, “Well, we cut a million women off this year” and they are all in the streets with zero income, or they are working for . . . probably ninety-six people are working for no pay at their Head Start. The states would have to prove that they are reducing poverty.

Another thing that has been really important is TANF has been a block grant, meaning the states can use that money however they want. And surprise, surprise, they are using a lot of the money, instead of using it to help women get jobs or even just to give them income while they are looking for those jobs, they are using it for the Child Protective Service system to take more children away. They say, “Well, you are homeless because we cut you off. We are taking your children away,” and claiming, unlawfully, unjustfully, claiming it is abuse and neglect when it is not abuse and neglect by state law. Because once they take your kid, you are at the mercy of the system. You do what they tell you or you lose your child.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore put a provision in there that they can’t use the TANF money simply to take children away because of poverty and that poverty in no state is actually a legal reason to take children away anyhow, so they shouldn’t be taking the children away for poverty. It addresses these things, how the money is supposed to be qualified to be spent as opposed to just using it on your roads or using it on taking the children away from their moms. Those are the main things: college, the right to stay home with your children a little more when they need you, the right to get education.

Remember, people who are on welfare are mothers who are single. No second breadwinner. No child support from the absent dad, usually. So, these are women who really need more time because there is only one adult with the children and they need more money and they need more education, especially. Those are the things the bill would address.

The states would have to prove that they are reducing poverty.

SJ: Anything else people should know?

Congresswoman Gwen Moore is the congresswoman introducing this RISE bill. I just want to make sure that is clear. She is the representative for Wisconsin. And not only was Congresswoman Gwen Moore on welfare when she was a young mother going to college, she also had her children in foster care. She completely understands.

Right now the Child Protective Services system has been privatized. You know when anything is privatized, it gets much more dangerous because you combine not just prejudice against the poor, but no greed and prejudice. It is privatized. That is another reason so many layers of professionals make money. But she really truly has experienced the different levels of oppression that single mothers go through when they have to deal with getting their child support from the government, and that is all it is. It is a child support check. Then, they have to work it off for no pay.

People believe that the TANF bill, when it was passed in 1996, that it actually forced women to get a job and it forced women to work to get their check. They always imply that you are getting a paid job. Like you go to McDonalds and you still get a check. It doesn’t work that way. If you get a job at McDonalds, they terminate your money. If you can’t, they make you work thirty hours for no pay. Usually twenty hours in the unwaged workforce and ten hours in job search. Think of how backwards that is. If you are looking for a job, do you want to look only ten hours a week or perhaps thirty hours a week? It is a very, very devastating system and it needs to be ended. It has gone on for way too long.

Well, the Welfare Warriors, it would be great for people to contact us if they want more information or to get involved. We have a website: www.WelfareWarriors.org and a Facebook, Welfare Warriors. Our email is [email protected].

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

[*]  Correction: This article has been revised . . . Kennedy pressured the paper in advance.

 A 2016 report from the Vera Institute of Justice reveals an even higher estimate: “Nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, but unlike incarcerated men, they are, by and large, single parents, solely responsible for their young children.”

Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Nation Institute. Her book, Necessary Trouble, is out from Nation Books.

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