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David Crockett Williams
Mon, 12 Jun 2000 08:54:10 -0700
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CONTACT INFO for Kensington Welfare Rights Union apppears at the end of
FWD The Boston Phoenix / June 1 - 8, 2000
WELFARE OUTRAGE GOES GLOBAL
A grassroots campaign to restore welfare benefits to
America's poor takes its case to the international
court of public opinion
by Kristen Lombardi
Over the next year, hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients will
forever lose their cash benefits under the federal welfare-reform act of
1996. And like countless recipients before them who have been similarly cut
off, many will suffer hunger, malnutrition, and even homelessness. The
plight of former welfare recipients cut from the rolls -- and of some
who've left voluntarily -- is something that welfare-rights activists have
been pushing to expose since 1996's draconian law was put into place.
Despite activists' best efforts, however, the US Congress is expected to
reauthorize the law next year. Now, activists have heightened their crusade
by turning to the court of international public opinion.
Invoking human-rights standards laid out by the United Nations' Universal
Declaration of Human Rights -- specifically, the so-called economic rights
(livable wages, food, housing, health care, and education) guaranteed by
Articles 23, 25, and 26 -- activists across the nation have launched an
aggressive grassroots drive to end poverty in America: the Poor People's
Economic Human Rights Campaign (PPEHRC). Forty or so groups, from
public-housing residents facing demolition in Chicago to welfare recipients
cut off from assistance in Philadelphia to workfare workers organizing in
San Francisco, are participating in the campaign. They're united behind one
idea: as Diane Dujon, a veteran welfare-rights activist in Boston, puts it,
"In the richest country in the year 2000, no one should be living hungry,
homeless, and under stress of not knowing how to feed their children and
still pay their rent."
Last year, the PPEHRC filed a petition with the Organization of American
States (OAS), a regional body similar to the UN. Formed in 1948, the OAS
includes the United States and Canada, as well as every country in Central
and South America. Unlike several other countries, the US government hasn't
signed the treaties that give the OAS enforcement authority, so regardless
of what the OAS thinks of the petition, it will be unable to force the US
to change. But although the OAS has no legal authority over the United
States, it is a moral authority -- and, as such, it has the power to
embarrass the US internationally. By submitting the petition, PPEHRC is
using a tactic that's been employed by other activist groups fighting
against capital punishment, for civil rights, and for more-humane prison
The 1996 reform legislation, signed by President Bill Clinton during his
re-election campaign, puts a five-year lifetime limit on welfare cash
assistance, although recipients are still eligible for food stamps. Once
recipients use up their allotted five years, they can never get cash
assistance again -- regardless of their life circumstances. (The
Massachusetts reform law, passed in 1995, allows those who are able-bodied
and have children over the age of two to receive cash assistance for no
more than two years during any five-year period.)
The need to reform welfare reform became apparent soon after the federal
legislation was enacted. Though studies show that as many as 75 percent of
former recipients are now employed, they also reveal that the majority
suffer significant hardship. In a national survey of people who left the
welfare rolls voluntarily, the Urban Institute, a think tank based in
Washington, DC, found that full-time median earnings were only $1150 per
month before taxes, that between one-third and one-half of those surveyed
had trouble providing food for their families, and that seven percent had
moved in with relatives as a way to ease living expenses.
Many former recipients, in short, are one step away from needing welfare
again. But given the legislation's restriction on benefits, some of these
people are now facing life on the streets. This is confirmed by
human-service providers, most of whom link the skyrocketing demand for
homeless shelters and food pantries to welfare reform. (In Western
Massachusetts alone, the need for shelter space has soared 200 percent in
the past few years.)
PPEHRC was organized just one year after the reform law passed. In 1997,
the Philadelphia-based Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), under the
PPEHRC banner, set off on a 10-day march from the Liberty Bell to the UN
headquarters in New York. Activists, many of them current and former
welfare recipients, visited urban housing projects and destitute rural
regions in an attempt to recruit members, as well as to gather stories
illustrating how welfare reform violates people's economic human rights.
Since then, PPEHRC, spearheaded by the Philadelphia activists, has launched
a 1998 bus tour of 35 cities, including Boston and Springfield, to document
story after story of people who've run out of food, lost utilities, and
been evicted because they lacked sufficient income. This past April,
members journeyed to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the UN
Commission on Human Rights. They declared that US welfare reform, as one
member explains, "has effectively repealed the safety net" that had been in
place in the US since 1935.
And finally, last October, PPEHRC filed the OAS petition, which seeks to
hold the federal government accountable for economic human-rights abuses
that, it alleges, "are caused by poverty and welfare reform." The petition
charges that American policy has steadily eroded poor people's economic
rights -- food, housing, and an adequate standard of living, among others
-- despite the booming economy and staggering wealth this country has seen
in recent years. The 1996 legislation is viewed as especially offensive
because it both institutes what activists call an "arbitrary" five-year
limit on cash assistance and threatens food and health-care benefits.
"We're saying the reform law isn't just denying people their economic
rights, but is taking those rights away," says Cecilia Perry, a PPEHRC
attorney who specializes in welfare legislation.
"We're not saying this [the petition] isn't a challenge," she continues,
"but we think the evidence is so clear, the commission will morally
sanction the US." The thousands of cases that PPEHRC has collected bolster
its argument. The evidence of economic human-rights violations includes
stories such as one relayed by Pam (not her real name), of the Project Hope
shelter and food pantry in Dorchester. Pam's close friend, a single mother
of three, was forced off welfare in December 1998. After months of
fruitless job searching, the friend received the final blow: an eviction
notice. Distraught and broke, she handed over her children to the
Department of Social Services. "She was feeling like she couldn't go on,"
Pam recalls, "and she just gave up."
Mary Sutherland, a Springfield resident who is the PPEHRC coordinator for
Western Massachusetts, cannot forget the "painfully sad" time when one
Greenfield woman had to relinquish custody of her two-year-old son because
she couldn't pay for the child care she needed in order to work the
required 20 hours per week. Rather than lose her cash benefits, the woman
gave her son to
Another woman, from the small town of Munsen, Massachusetts, sought a job
to satisfy her work requirements -- but the five Main Street businesses
weren't hiring. Because she couldn't find employment, the state punished
her -- and her two kids -- by cutting $90 from her $560 monthly check.
When one New Hampshire woman quit her full-time post at a homeless shelter
to care for her 17-year-old son, who suffers from "severe neurological
problems," she was denied cash assistance. The woman came close to needing
shelter services herself.
And then there was the time a New York City medical van happened upon two
children buckled over with severe hunger pains. Their mother, who had lost
her welfare benefits, had been feeding them the only things she could
afford: potato chips and Coca-Cola.
By framing these tragic results as violations of basic economic rights,
PPEHRC aims to heighten awareness -- both abroad and at home -- of the
problems facing low-income people. "It is an attempt to expose hypocrisy in
the United States," Sutherland explains, "and to show how our policies hurt
The PPEHRC petition is a drastic, perhaps even desperate, measure. The
campaign grew out of years of frustration among welfare-rights activists,
who have had to watch politicians chip away at the government's safety net
-- at cash assistance, food stamps, and housing subsidies -- while their
own lobbying efforts founder.
Several years ago, on Thanksgiving day in Boston, activists staged a
demonstration before the State House, setting up a table for demonstrators
representing the rich and the poor. The rich, dressed in furs, indulged in
all the fixings, while the poor, dressed in rags, fingered bread on paper
Not one legislator, though, showed up at the demonstration.
Activists have used drama in more-extreme ways as well. They have worn
chains, constructed cardboard barricades, and urged legislators to "break
the walls of poverty." Some have even gotten themselves arrested by
squatting at the State House to protest welfare reform. But to no avail.
"We have done all kinds of guerrilla theater to get [legislators']
attention," says Dottie Stevens, a highly vocal activist who heads the
Massachusetts Welfare Rights Union. "We have done everything you are
supposed to, but we haven't been heard."
This type of political brush-off hasn't happened only in Massachusetts. In
1996, for example, KWRU organized a demonstration in support of 60
Philadelphia families who had been cut from the welfare rolls and
subsequently lost their housing. Activists pitched tents on an abandoned
lot and camped for days -- until the city's mayor, Ed Rendell, had two
portable toilets delivered.
Unfazed by the rebuff, activists then marched 10 days to Harrisburg, where
they hunkered down before Governor Tom Ridge's mansion. Not only did Ridge
refuse to send out a spokesperson to address the crowd, but four weeks
later, he ordered state police to strip activists of their blankets on a
bitterly cold October morning.
That was the moment Philadelphia activists realized, as KWRU president
Cheri Honkala recalls, that "we had to go outside of Pennsylvania - and do
They might as well not have bothered with their next step, however. Right
after the US Congress passed the 1996 law, KWRU members joined thousands of
activists from up and down the East Coast in converging before the White
House to appeal to Clinton -- and at least two were arrested for disorderly
"There has never been a response [from US politicians]," says Willie
Baptist, a KWRU activist who heads the PPEHRC outreach effort. "We
exhausted every level, so we were forced to go to a higher world power."
The way that poor Americans are organizing around welfare is nothing short
of historic. Low-income people have always taken part in this country's
social movements, but this time they are the movement's innovators,
building a campaign based on sheer necessity. "Poor people are hurting,"
Baptist explains, "and claiming the right to act on their own."
Yet PPEHRC has remained virtually unknown to the general US population.
This stems, in part, from the fact that poor people tend to be people in
crisis -- battling evictions, lacking food, seeking child care -- who often
don't have the luxury of focusing on global issues, let alone resources
enabling them to do so. The movement is still small and has a hard time
spreading the word about its activities. But PPEHRC's obscurity also stems
from an indifferent, if not hostile, cultural climate. These days,
politicians and the public often regard poverty as a matter of personal
Yet PPEHRC is pressing ahead despite such obstacles. The OAS petition marks
the first time anyone has officially charged the US with economic-rights
abuses -- a fact that Richard Wilson, who directs the international-law
clinic at American University, describes as "terrific" and "exciting." "The
petition," he says, "shows that what we call welfare reform is hardly
reform; it's abolition."
The reason no one has challenged the US on economic rights before, Wilson
notes, has to do with the "the rhetorical war over which rights are
fundamental in this country." There are, in fact, two groups of basic human
rights outlined in both the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
its OAS counterpart: political and civil rights (such as voting, free
speech, and privacy), and economic and social rights. Though UN and OAS
members are supposed to ensure all rights, governments have emphasized
different ones in practice. The United States, for example, has long
championed political and civil liberties, going so far as to guarantee them
in the Constitution. Simultaneously, though, it's resisted signing
international treaties that recognize and protect economic rights.
(Incidentally, the countries placing economic and social rights first tend
to have socialist and communist forms of government.)
In America, in other words, all citizens are entitled to stand on a street
corner and proselytize -- even as they wither from hunger.
Just what impact the petition will have remains to be seen. The United
States government has, in the past, disregarded the findings of the
Washington, DC-based OAS commission. Individual lawsuits, many of them in
death-penalty cases, have been heard by the commission before. But as
Wilson, who has worked on some of these cases, explains, "The US has this
persistent pattern of ignoring the OAS." And, of course, OAS findings
aren't legally binding in this country.
None of this bodes well for the petition. Even if PPEHRC manages to
convince the OAS that the US must uphold international human-rights
standards -- an argument based on the fact that the US signed the OAS
charter covering all human rights -- PPEHRC anticipates a string of delays
and procedural hurdles on the way to a petition hearing. It's tough, after
all, going up against the world's wealthiest, most dominant power.
The looming obstacles, though, don't take away from the petition's value as
a political organizing tool in this country, where general attitudes toward
reforming welfare reform are far from favorable. While US politicians at
every level routinely trumpet the successes of welfare reform -- the
dramatic drop in caseloads, the high numbers of former recipients employed
-- the public, lulled by a prosperous economy, has practically divorced
itself from the debate around such vital social issues as poverty.
"The climate has made domestic activism ineffective," says Catherine
Albisa, a PPEHRC attorney who heads the International Women's Human Rights
Law Clinic at the City University of New York. "This [the petition] is
meant to support domestic activism, but also give it a boost."
If the OAS finds that the petition has merit, that could tarnish the United
States' world image, and welfare-rights activists would be armed with a
potent weapon to publicize their cause.
It might seem naive to envision a nation without poverty, or, for that
matter, one that doesn't consider some population segment -- in this case,
welfare recipients -- to be expendable. But then, welfare-rights activists
are quick to point out that, after years and years of struggle, social
movements such as abolition, feminism, and the civil-rights campaign
forever altered aspects of this country that seemed inalterable.
Until their time arrives, welfare-rights activists may find promise in the
latest auspicious signs -- the four boxes of mail delivered to PPEHRC every
day, the 100,000 daily hits received by its official Web site
<http://www.libertynet.org/kwru>, and the thousands of people expected to
turn out for a march in Philadelphia when the Republican National
Convention meets in July. Massachusetts activists can also take comfort in
recent strides made at the legislative level, including a 10 percent
increase in welfare benefits that was written into the House and Senate
budgets and a provision that allows 10 hours of education to count toward
the 20-hour work requirement.
Even if it seems that the PPEHRC effort may ultimately be futile, activists
remain committed to what they regard as a "moral" fight that centers on the
notion of taking care of society's most vulnerable members.
And if they can succeed in mobilizing the country's low-income population,
they could even win. As Dottie Stevens, the local activist, says: "There
are a lot more of us poor than the rich."
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
KWRU CONTACT INFO:
Kensington Welfare Rights Union
NUHHCE, ASFCME, AFL-CIO
PO Box 50678
Philadelphia, PA 19132-9720
Economic Human Rights Campaign updates are distributed via the
"kwru-announce" email list. To subscribe, E-mail to:
<firstname.lastname@example.org>. To unsubscribe, E-mail to:
8000+ articles by or via homeless & ex-homeless people
INFO & to join/leave list - Tom Boland <email@example.com>
Nothing About Us Without Us - Democratize Public Policy