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170 Todd C. Shaw 170 Welfare Rights in a Post-Welfare Era? By the time President Bill Clinton left office in January 2001, he had made good on his campaign pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” even though few critics and supporters actually thought he would dismantle the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. What had been a New Deal entitlement for poor women and children became a Republican-inspired “block grant” that devolved much of the old program’s federal discretion to the states. Underlying this overhaul of the American welfare system and this drastic shift away from a federal guarantee to the poor was a view long in development: welfare and thus the welfare state violated the American work ethic. It sapped low-income citizens, especially African American women, of their capacity to be independent and productive.1 “Workfare”—the assertion that recipients had an obligation to work in order to retain their benefits—assumed a new respectability among moderates. In collusion with right-wing Democrats and conservatives, Clinton agreed to sweep away a standard plank of the Democratic platform. Reflecting the new consensus that welfare was no longer an entitlement, the new program was Nine Todd C. Shaw “We Refused to Lay Down Our Spears” The Persistence of Welfare Rights Activism, 1966–1996 Maybe the [newspapers] do not write about us anymore and the country is not concerned about what is happening to poor people, especially poor women and their children, but we are still organized and fighting for our rights. —Johnnie Tillmon “We Refused to Lay Down Our Spears” 171 called “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families,” or TANF. Among its other restrictions TANF imposed on every recipient a five-year, lifetime cap of benefits if they were paid for by federal funds. In some states this meant only provisions for two years if a recipient failed to meet work requirements. Signed into law on August 22, 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRA) brought into fruition one of the ten “Contract with America” pledges made by the Republican majority in Congress.2 From the perspective of antipoverty advocates, the law was draconian. The groundwork for the previous AFDC program, which became the most contested plank of the American welfare state, was established under the 1935 Social Security Act. AFDC provided cash grants to children whose parents were unemployed, were unable to provide them with support, or who had other unmet needs. Among other changes the TANF program eliminated even these moderate entitlements by giving states the additional authority to deny benefits to children born to welfare recipients or unwed parents under age eighteen . A lion’s share of the projected savings of these reforms (75 percent of fifty-five billion dollars between 1996 and 2002) was derived from greatly tightened restrictions on food stamp allotments and benefits to legal immigrants.3 Civil Rights advocates voiced their vehement opposition to what they saw as shortsighted and punitive measures. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a Democrat , pleaded upon the House floor, “Where is the compassion? . . . Where is the sense of decency? Where is the heart of this Congress? This bill is mean. It is base. It is downright low.” Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, not only labeled the bill as a “moment of shame” but also hinted at disavowing her organization’s relationship with the Clinton White House. Likewise, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Urban League (NUL), and their local affiliates railed against the passage of the bill in Washington.4 They joined a chorus of longtime, antipoverty and welfare rights activists who wanted to convince state capitols neither to lead a “race to the bottom” in engineering their own welfare restrictions nor to comply with the most austere features of the 1996 act. Marian Kramer, president of the National Welfare Rights Union, warned Republican Gov. John Engler and the Michigan legislature not to approve legislation in compliance with the federal restrictions, “We’re here to defend the victims of poverty. . . . We want the [Michigan] House to have some backbone today and defend poor people.”5 With current reforms as a backdrop, this chapter outlines the history of the welfare rights movement from 1966 to 1996. My methodology is a narrative analysis of primary and secondary sources. Unfortunately, the Welfare 172 Todd C. Shaw Rights Movement is a neglected strain in the literature on Black economic justice activism during...


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